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“She’s a witch.”
If she was, she didn’t look like one. Mrs. Fulton looked… well, like a mom. Middle-aged, a little frayed around the edges, her makeup perhaps caked on a little thick in the vain hopes of pushing time back a decade. She strode down the street, pushing her little red grocery cart in front of her, a pair of earbuds trailing down to a cell phone holster. Mrs. Fulton could have been any other suburbanite woman on her way back from the store.
Well, save for the braid of long auburn hair tied to the handlebar of her cart, anyways.
“That’s human hair,” Chris said from the driver’s seat, sounding not so much scared as amused. “My dad says it’s some kind of Wiccan thing, like a calling card to let the others know she’s a witch.”
“Serulian,” Becca corrected absently, eyes locked on Mrs. Fulton as she glanced over her shoulder and smiled. She couldn’t have overheard them. They were a quarter of a block away at a red light. But still…
After finishing a deep drink of her Dr. Pepper, Trish asked, “What, like the color?” Becca’s best friend was sharper than she usually let on, but didn’t bother hiding her book smarts with the two of them. Becca had been her best friend since grade school, and Trish had lived with Chris since they were three, after their parents had hooked up at a drunkfest of a Christmas party and decided to get hitched a week later in Vegas.
“No, with an S and an I.” Becca spelled it out for Trish, who wrinkled her nose. Behind them, a car honked and Chris shot forward guiltily. “They’re… I don’t know, hardcore witches, I guess you’d call them.” That wasn’t true, not by a long shot. The Sirulians worshipped something they called the Blight, but what that was she had no idea and it was easier just to explain away the details in a vague fashion.
Becca was fascinated by the splinter group, as she was with everything horror and occult related. When the news reports started leaking that last winter about a small town to the east of Rankin Flats just appearing out of nowhere, its citizens all apparently dying within a day or two, something had woken up in Becca. She’d always liked writers like John Saul and Dean Koontz, but that had been at a distance, and purely for entertainment. Something about that little town, Hamber, and the way the government tried to cover it up made her hungry to learn more. She gorged herself on every book, popular or obscure, that dealt in the history of ghost towns and the occult in the area. And with it being Rankin Flats, one of the most dangerous and storied cities in the world, there were plenty, enough to fill whole sections of libraries.
That rabbit hole led her to start reading up on magic practitioners, common or uncommon to the Flats. Serulians weren’t written about much, mostly because they kept to themselves. There weren’t covens or thinly disguised gab clubs devoted to the Serulian ways. The tenets had yet to be discovered by the hordes of liberal arts majors dabbling in witchcraft in head shops and the backs of libraries. All that was really known about them were generalities. Chris wasn’t wrong about the hair being a symbol of the craft, at least according to what she read. But Wiccan? No..
Becca turned in her seat to keep watching Mrs. Fulton. The woman turned to glance back at her, a smile flickering just for a moment across her face. She’d known Becca was there, looking. Creepy.
* * *
Darcy and Derek, known affectionately as the Double Ds, met them at a Brisktro not all that far from their school. The couple were practically twins, both dressed in flannel, jeans, and cowboy hats too big for their heads. Becca had grown used to not rolling her eyes when the pair were around. Derek, not all that long ago, had been a dyed-in the-wool geek who wore nothing but 90s referential t-shirts and cargo pants. Ever since he’d started dating the cowgirl at his side, he’d changed up his entire wardrobe for her, not to mention his lifestyle. Weekends and evenings spent obsessing over Overwatch and track turned into enthusiasm for rodeos, farm work, and country music. Becca wouldn’t mind so much if he didn’t try so damned hard at being this faux cowboy. It was douche and not a little slimy.
To her credit, at least Darcy wasn’t trying to force the changes on him, but she wasn’t exactly discouraging them either. In her tight jeans, it was easy to understand why Derek would lose himself over to a slavish devotion to his girlfriend. Darcy really wasn’t a bad person, though. She was the one friend Becca could call night or day and have a friendly ear to talk to, and she didn’t ever seem to share secrets, something even Trish couldn’t manage.
They ordered their favorites – Trish a chai tea, Derek and Darcy iced coffees (even if Derek used to hate coffee), Becca a hot tea, thinking about the lonely five-dollar bill in her handbag. She hoped this was the year she could finally pass for old enough to get a part-time job, but she looked years younger than she actually was. A blessing, some of her aunts called it, but to Becca, all it meant was that she couldn’t get away from home, couldn’t buy herself any of the day-to-day things her friends enjoyed, couldn’t get anything more serious than yardwork and babysitting jobs.
When Trish sweetly but naively told her she could have whatever she wanted because it was on her, Becca grew red as a beet and tried not to storm off. “Just tea,” she said through gritted teeth and a forced smile. Becca darted away from the group, trying not to let them see her balled fists. Pity. She hated that word more than any other in the English language. Well, except for “I’m sorry.”
At a table near the window, she dug out a tattered copy of Edgar Sawtelle, her latest favorite find from a Friends of the Library sale. Once upon a time she’d owned a Kindle, bought with money carefully saved from babysitting two little brats in her trailer park, but after only a few weeks, she’d come home to find it missing and her father Luke armed with a trio of new bottles fresh from the liquor store. Becca had cried and cried, and he’d even apologized in his fumbling way, but he’d never bought her a new one. Now she never bought anything he could sell.
Not even a sentence into the book, Chris dropped into the chair beside her. Her sense of smell always grew sharper just before her period, and she imagined she could sniff out every drop of delicious sweat coming from his pores, not to mention his sporty deodorant and the hint of aftershave. Just a year older than her, he was still the only boy she knew who wore the stuff and make it seem natural instead of like a boy playing at being a man. His easy-going smile did things to her stomach that no one else’s could. It wasn’t just a girl crush, either, but full on lust. If Chris told Becca to sneak away to the Brisktro’s men’s room, she’d have gladly followed him in there and let him do whatever he wanted for however long he could, preferably over and over again.
“She means well,” he said quietly, covering her free hand with his. She wondered if he could feel her heartbeat rev up like a NASCAR racer’s engine.
Drag me off, she pleaded internally. Make love to me for days. I’m yours. “Yeah,” Becca muttered.
“It’s not a pity thing. It’s just Trish trying to be sweet.”
Becca didn’t say anything to that, just buried her nose further in her book. He squeezed her hand, sending a delicious little jolt of electricity up and down her arm. Trish slid into the chair across from her and pointed a finger at her stepbrother. “You’re so not hitting on Becs, are you?”
“What if I am?” Chris said, and trailed his fingers up and down Becca’s arm. That caused her to drop her book in shock.
Approaching the table as Becca scooted her chair back to swipe up her book, hoping the rest of them didn’t see how red her face was, Derek snickered. “Smooth, Becca.”
“Shut up,” she said, finally coming up with Sawtelle in hand.
Behind her boyfriend, Darcy asked, “You okay, Becky?” She was the only one who called her that. Becca hated the nickname – she didn’t even care much for Becca, but it was what everyone called her and she went with it meekly.
“Yeah fine,” she said, fast enough that it became one word – yeahfine. “Just got startled, that’s all.”
“Must be my sexy lips,” Chris said, and made a kissy face in Becca’s direction. This time she was positive everyone could see her blush.
* * *
When Trish and Chris dropped Becca off back at her trailer, Chris hopped out and told his sister he’d be just a minute. She made some moaning sounds and giggled when Chris thumped the door to get her to shut up. Becca’s whole body quivered as she waited for Chris to talk.
“So. Um,” she finally said, kicking herself for her inability to say anything cooler.
“So,” he said, and scratched his head. She liked his clean-cut hairdo. Most of the boys in her class thought the shaggy dog look was still in, but Chris… Chris was classier than that. As young as he might be, he’d almost look right at home in a boardroom somewhere if he owned a suit and a tie. “I’m sorry about that.”
“It’s okay,” she mumbled. He could only mean one thing – the coffee shop incident wouldn’t leave her friends’ minds easily and they’d use it to fluster her whenever they wanted.
“No, it’s not. Let me make it up to you.”
“H-how?” She thought boys were the only ones who suffered from squeaking voices, but hers went as high as a mouse’s.
“Let me take you to dinner or something sometime. And maybe we’ll see a movie or something. We’ll-”
“Yes,” Becca said, practically shouting it.
Chris grinned. “Cool. It’ll be fun to hang out as friends, just the two of us.”
Her heart, soaring so quickly just a moment before, crashed into her gut and burned. “As friends. Right.”
Chris pulled her to him for a quick hug. “See ya then.”
Becca watched them off down the street until the car was just a speck in the distance, then yanked at one of the hairs on her head. It was an unhealthy coping mechanism for her stress and she hadn’t done it in weeks, but now her fingers plucked away like a first chair violinist. Before she could storm inside, a neighboring trailer’s screen door popped open and fifteen pounds of panting furball bounced down the stairs and across the grass to her. Spotted with mud and burrs, Frisco was badly kept and half-starving, but he was a gleeful little thing and Becca’s heart lightened a little seeing him.
She knelt down to scratch at his ears as the dog’s owner Shea appeared at her screen door. The elderly woman had to come out of her trailer from time to time, Becca was sure of it, but damned if she could remember when. “Frisco!” she called sharply. “Get your ass back here!”
“it’s all right, Shea,” Becca called out. Frisco waggled his butt as if to say, yes, it’s quite all right, I’d like to stay here now, preferably forever so long as I get my butt rubbings.
Shea muttered something under her breath and called Frisco back. The dog reluctantly returned to the house, stopping only to lift its hind leg and spray down an old broken barbeque. Becca raised a hand to wave at the old woman, but she was already retreating inside the house and didn’t return the gesture.
“Fuck you too, then, you old bitch,” Becca muttered and felt a little better.
Becca hadn’t been expecting her father to be home. His old Cutlass hadn’t been parked out front and she’d thought she was safe for the evening to head into her room, shut the door, cry herself out, and then try to figure out just how the hell she was going to start earning some real cash. When she smelled the meat frying, every instinct in her body told her to turn around and run. Her father never cooked. Luke’s meals came from a can, or on very rare occasions, the microwave.
Meat meant something was out of the ordinary, and in the Pratchett family, out of the ordinary meant trouble. He was in the kitchen, his graying hair tied in a ponytail with a rubber band as he whistled something she vaguely remembered hearing on the radio, some old-timey honky-tonk rock song. Cooking and whistling. This wasn’t good. This wasn’t good at all.
When the screen door banged shut, Luke turned and grinned at her, giving her a little wave with his spatula. She hated her dad’s smile. That beguiling, charming twinkle to his eyes. The way his nose crinkled just a little bit. It was the smile of an addict in momentary denial and with it would come a tempest if she wasn’t careful. And Becca was in no mood to be careful.
“Cooking some ham and eggs!” he hollered at her cheerfully. “How do you want ‘em? Scrambled or over-easy?”
“Atta girl. Just like her poppa.”
Becca didn’t sit down. Didn’t move away from the door. She didn’t trust her dad when he was like this. Not one bit. Him standing over her bed. “You look so much like your mom,” he’d whispered. She shuddered involuntarily.
“Where’s the car, dad?”
Luke stiffened but kept right on cooking. “Got a new job today. The bank! Gonna be their janitor.” He stretched the word out – jan-it-tore. “Mop their floors, clean up after their shits, say yes sir, no sir, why lemme get that for you, yassir!”
Any other day, that might have been great news. Luke hated his job at the gas station down the street. Now she just waited for the other shoe to drop. “That’s good,” she said, her voice flat.
“Fuck, Becca, can’t you be a little happier than that?” The words might have been harsh, but his tone was still chipper. He turned, flipped a piece of ham in the air for her amusement, and caught it with the frying pan. It had been a trick she’d loved as a kid. Before her mom had died. Before it had all gone to shit. “You know what this means, baby girl? Money in our pockets.”
“Did you sell the car?”
He slammed a fist down on the counter. “Damn it, Becca-” There he was, she thought to herself. The beast come out to play.
“You pay the water bill? The electric? Anything? Or did you just buy a few groceries and, oh, hey, the liquor cabinet’s restocked again?”
The pan came flying at her a moment later, still searing hot. She ducked it easily but where it landed it sizzled the carpet. Burn, motherfucker, burn, she thought idly as she spun for the door. “Becca, wait, I’m sorry,” Luke shouted after her.
But she was already moving, already running out the door and down the steps.