By Victor D. Infante
“So you were totally bluffing,” says Steph, as I recount the story on my return. “Because that’s not exactly how a hologram works.”
I nod, as I wash my face and redo my makeup, because if I’m going down gunslinger-style in a final shootout, I’ll be damned to do it looking like some loser on the wrong end of a WWE contract dispute. Even mom looked funny at me as I left, but thank whatever gods or goddesses that are out there that she didn’t say anything, even though the concern was written all over her face.
“It wasn’t exactly a bluff,” I say. “Sure, I explained it badly – sue me, I was bleeding to death – but the overall effect would have been the same. It would have been one big old mutually assured destruction party, with me a broken mess in my mom’s study, and her nibbled to death by any number of occultists with axes to grind.”
“And who says we didn’t learn anything in high school social studies?” says Steph, and I actually laugh. “So,” she continues. “What’s the plan?”
I check my makeup one more time, then snap my compact shut.
“The plan is I wait here for her to come after me and Sara, and you get as far away from here as possible.”
“No way!” she shouts. “No way in hell am I …”
“Steph,” I say, sternly. “I totally love you, and appreciate that you want …”
“No!” shouts Steph, completely ignoring my Willow Rosenberg resolve face. “I am not leaving you here to face some … some … undead witch queen!”
“Not a queen,” I say. “And not really undead. Just a witch who’s putting up a hell of a fight on the whole not dying thing.”
“Whatever,” says Steph. “Don’t care. I’m not …”
“I have to stay here and fight, Steph,” I say plainly. “and Sara has to stay here as bait.”
“I’m bait?” asks Sara, listening from the living room.
“You are totally bait,” I say, not taking my attention off Steph. “I can’t protect both of you when it starts.”
“No way,” she says, pointing a finger at my face. “No way are we playing out the cliché sending-the-sidekick-away scene. I’m sticking and that’s that.”
I look her straight in the eyes, searching for something to say. Steph has never been a part of this life. Not really. Steph is the person I turn to when I need to get away from this life. The one untouched by …
No. No she isn’t. I’ve been wrong about everything, and I know I’m right this time because of the noticeable lack of buzzing in my ear.
I turn on my heel and storm into the living room.
“Fine,” I shout. “If you two have to be here, then I’m putting you to work. Do exactly as I say, understand?”
Both Steph and Sara nod, but they really don’t. Not like I’m starting to.
“Good,” I say, meaning good enough, “because we only have until midnight.”
I laugh reflexively.
“The Witching Hour. Kind of perfect.”
“I thought your truce was until tomorrow,” says Sara, and when I glare at her, she begins to comprehend what I already know … that the witch will take that literally, not wait for dawn. That’s an old one.
The next couple hours are a buzz of activity, as Sara oversees tricking my apartment out like a college Wicca sorority house – candles, chalk-drawn pentagram on the floor, that hippie incense stuff that smells like the parking lot of a Phish concert … the works. And at the center of it all rests Abigail’s jeweled box, the one she never was able to open. Knew I’d find a use for it, eventually.
I spend the time studying. Abigail kept detailed notes, enchanted so only she or her successors could read them. I’ve read over them before, so it doesn’t take me too long to skim until I find the account of a chess game in the park – a duel against a witch named Harriet Nacht.
It’s rare that a witch goes power-mad and tries to start seizing territory, but it happens. They grow old and accomplish incredible things, and then feel the limits of their powers. They find something they can’t do, and slowly, the thought dawns on them that, maybe, all they really need is more power.
Harriet Nacht was ancient – more than a century old, far as Abigail could tell. The matriarch of a large family, with several daughters who could take her place when she eventually shoved off. But something happened – Abigail didn’t know what – and her family died.
“And then she tried to bring them back,” says Philomena, appearing before me, but not meeting my gaze. “She went mad, and tried to bring her children back, her grandchildren. It didn’t work.”
My eyes narrow as I regard Philomena’s face. I’ve never felt too comfortable looking deeply into those translucent eyes. Never wanted her to know how much our whole arrangement bugs me.
“So she started going after other witches,” I say, putting it all together. “Thinking if she could seize more power …”
“That she could make her spells work,” says Philomena, pulling her gaze away from mine. “That she could raise the dead.”
“But Abigail wiped the floor with her,” I say. “She destroyed her.”
“No,” says Philomena. “She simply dissipated her. But her hate kept her alive. She was … something more than a phantom. More substantial than a ghost like me. It took her a long time, but she finally …”
“She finally was able to make herself real enough to get revenge. To kill my grandparents.”
Philomena nods, staring down at the floor like a chastened child.
“Where do you come into this,” I ask her, the question a fine dagger. When the ghost says nothing, I ask again. The growl is a tremor through the walls.
“There was …” starts Philomena, struggling for the right way to phrase her reply. I fold my arms and wait expectantly. “I was a suicide,” says Philomena, finally. “I took my own life, and as punishment, I walked the Earth looking for redemption. When Abigail found me, I was barely a whisper in the breeze. She plucked me from the wind and housed me in her locket. She promised me that, someday, I’d earn my freedom and my rest, but that day wouldn’t come until a generation after her death.”
I let the implications sink in, but the chill in my bones tells me that the ghost isn’t lying. Abigail knew her death was coming. She was making preparations.
“She cast a spell,” continues Philomena. “A long spell. A curse on her eventual murderer. She prevented her mantle from passing to her infant daughter, knowing that would simply make her a target. She was too young to protect herself, you see. And she knew what her brother’s influence would do to her.”
“She wanted mom safe,” I say, curtly. “So she kicked it down the bloodline to me.”
“Yes,” she says. “Upon her death, Abigail Sparks’ magic seeped into the fabric of the city, where Nacht couldn’t get to it. This was a land without a witch. No one could claim the power here. Until you were born. The power was drawn to you in bits and pieces, tutoring you slowly. Speaking to you in forms you could understand. And all the while I watched, invisible. When you befriended young Stephanie, I found the perfect place to hide, to maintain my vigil.”
“Until I spotted you,” I say, understanding. “Until I found Abigail’s locket and bound you to it again.”
Philomena is silent for a moment, but then nods.
“Yes,” she says. “And the circle was complete. Abigail was clear on that – you were to forge your own path, but once you discovered and bound me …”
“You were free to guide me along the Yellow Brick Road to Witchdom,” I say.
Philomena nods, but neither of us speak while I take it all in – the explanation for my powers, mom’s general Muggleness, Abigail’s long, patient plan. It makes sense. It all rings true. But now there’s only one question left.
“So,” I ask. “What am I supposed to do now?”
Philomena looks up at me, and there are several centuries of sadness welling in her eyes. I’ve noticed that sadness before, but never inquired about it. It’s a sadness that led her once to take her own life, once, but which instead brought her here, to an overpriced condominium, readying for war.
“You already have your plan,” says Philomena. “It’s a good one.”
“Please,” I say, flipping my bangs out of my eyes. “it’s a lousy plan. I can do a lot, but I need way better tricks than what’s in my hat. Abigail could do all sorts of cool things I can’t, yet.”
Philomena smiles, and frankly, it’s among the more disturbing things I’ve seen in a really disturbing day.
“You’re Abigail’s legacy, Whitney,” she says, a devil I’ve never heard before lacing her tongue. “Everything she knew, everything every witch in her line before her knew, all of it’s in your head. Even if you’re not aware of it, she prepared you for this. You can fulfill your destiny. Be Abigail Sparks’ vengeance.”
“Yeah,” I say, “Vengeance.”
The word feels unnatural on my lips. It’s never been something I’ve been overly concerned with. I’ve never needed it.
“I get it,” I say. “I’m a bomb.”
As midnight nears, I touch up my makeup, because this gunslinger’s not going into her final shootout looking anything less than her best. There are reputations at stake.
Sara is energized, less the emo waif stray. She’s curious, eager to help. She can’t.
“So,” she continues. “What do we do now?”
I take a second to stare at my reflection in the mirror. I don’t look as old as I feel. Which isn’t the conciliation I hoped it would be.
“Now I put you and Steph someplace safe and a crazed, half-dead witch tries to kill me.”
“No way!” she shouts. “No way in hell …”
She sees my grandmother’s knife and betrayal falls across her face.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “It won’t hurt much.”
Thankfully, the screaming ends quickly.