We arrived at the hospital shortly before they started limiting visitors for the night. Alice began to fidget with the book slightly after we were reminded that we were on a time limit, and I rested my hand on her back in the elevator.
“You’re going to do fine,” I told her. She gave me a weak smile but didn’t otherwise respond.
Once we were in the hospital room, I sat down as far from the bed as I could to limit how much I would interfere with the work. Mandy set up the book for Alice, who paced for a few moments, taking deep breaths and letting them out slowly. Finally, she pulled a small, metallic case from her purse, and opened it to reveal a pale green crystal.
“What’s that?” Mandy asked.
“A focus I got in England,” Alice answered. “It helps me see the metaphysical, has magic on it that lets me look beyond the Hedge without needing to cast a spell.”
“And it’s fine around him?” Mandy asked, pointing toward me. “You guys were sitting next to each other in the car.”
“I don’t know yet. The case is made from cold iron, so it’s supposed to shield the contents from the powers of magical beings.”
“I’m not fae,” I said.
“By what definition?”
I grumbled and crossed my arms.
Mandy laughed. “Can you do that? Play with semantics to make it just kinda work?”
“One thing I’ve learned is that magic is like 90% playing with semantics to make it work.” Alice closed her eyes, took one more deep breath, then held the crystal to her eyes with her left hand and opened them again. “Holy shit,” she muttered, “this is a mess. Are you seeing this?”
“Have been the whole time,” I answered.
“I’m not! I want to borrow that crystal some time,” Mandy said.
“Sure. But first, could you turn back a page?”
Mandy nodded and turned the book back a page, and Alice started switching her focus between the book and Jackie. She was whispering the whole time, reading incantations from the book as her right hand began tracing over the tangle of magic surrounding Jackie. Occasionally she would grab something, or sweep something aside, and the magic would untangle slightly. The process took about a half hour, as Alice carefully separated every aspect of the spell. I watched the process as patiently as I could muster, and when she had untangled it enough for me to safely work I stood.
“Mandy, please put the book away,” I said.
“Why?” she asked.
“So the doctors don’t ask weird questions.”
She nodded and put it away as I stepped closer.
“I knew you could do it, babe,” I said, smiling to Alice. She blushed. “Now, please hold everything still for a moment.” Mandy stepped in and held the crystal in place, and Alice used both hands to hold the various spells in place. I focused on them, dispelling the dangerous ones individually until it was safe, then clearing the lot at once. Jackie sat bolt upright, taking a deep gulp of air as the monitors she was attached to went wild. Mandy handed Alice the crystal, which was then returned to its case and slipped back into her purse. Two nurses burst in from the hallway, shooing us away as they ran to the bed to check on Jackie who was, by now, looking around the room wide-eyed and trying to catch her breath. The three of us gathered on the other side of the room, all of us holding hands and leaning close together as we watched the nurses work. In a matter of moments, they had calmed Jackie and fiddled with all the machines, and informed us all that she appeared to have made a sudden, unexpected recovery.
We were each given the chance to welcome Jackie back before being led out of the room for the night. I was informed that Jackie would need to stay overnight for observation, but they expected that if they could find nothing still wrong with her, a doctor would release her in the morning. We promised to show up first thing the next day, then made our way to the car. As soon as we were inside, Alice cracked and began to cry. Mandy held her, explaining to me that it was just stress, and gave me the keys so I could drive us back to my place. There, we all crashed as soon as we arrived.
19 June 2007
In order to carry out my investigation yesterday, I had to push some work at the agency off to today, which meant I absolutely had to be in the office. Alice had stayed over again, still in Jackie’s room, and we didn’t speak much this morning as we each rushed around getting ready for our own activities for the day. That silence got to me hard, and I spent too much of my day distracted. Still, I finished the paperwork I’d been given and made some headway on tracking down some guy for a hearing, and made a brief stop at home to clean up and check on a project before heading out to the hospital.
I did, in fact, know why I couldn’t just break the spell on Jackie. It wasn’t that I wasn’t able to—it was all to easy for me to do that, which was part of why I hadn’t been in the hospital room as much as Alice—but that it was too dangerous. It was the most complex spellwork I’d ever seen, Jeremiah had done his homework; and part of the weave of magic was a system of checks that were keeping Jackie alive through the process. I couldn’t dispel any part of it without dispelling all of it, my ability wasn’t really built for fine-tuned work like that, and dispelling all of it meant killing her. But I knew enough about him to know that he had a way to reverse it if I’d gone along with what he wanted. All I had to do was find the one safe thread to pull that would unravel the whole thing. And get someone else to do the pulling. Someone with a more precise use of magic open to them.
Someone like Alice.
Now, you can’t just ask a Brownie to do a certain task. They have to be let on to believe they’re doing whatever they like at all times. But you can, if you phrase it carefully, suggest that something needs done about an issue but oh look at the time, now I have to run and can’t get to that right now. Damn shame, that. I guess it’ll have to wait. And, sure enough, when I got home, I found the Brownie poring over books in the study. I didn’t mention it, and neither did he, but he kept right at it as I threw my shirt in the laundry and headed back upstairs to get ready to leave. And that is when I found Jeremiah waiting for me on the couch.
“You don’t take hints very well,” I said, grabbing a t-shirt I’d left on my chair.
“I thought it prudent to verify your message. Before I did anything rash.”
“What a gentleman. Did you intend to take me out for dinner to make your proposal?”
“This isn’t a joke, John.” He stood and held his hands out at his side. “Her life is in my hands, you know.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“And how do you figure that?”
“Because you’re in my house.” I slipped on the shirt. “See, that spell you put on her, it’ll sustain itself. You’re not maintaining it. Which means she doesn’t suffer from me cutting you off from it, which happened as soon as you broke into this house. You can’t do any magic to affect it right now. You also can’t cross over, since I know full well that this house has been largely cut off from my living here. Didn’t take much to close that door tight the moment I saw you. Which means if you want to do anything to her,” I cracked my knuckles, “you’re gonna have to get through me. And I’m just itching for you to fucking try.”
“Then test me, old man.”
He thrust his hand forward and I could see the strain on his face, but nothing happened. When that didn’t work, he straightened up and removed his tie. “Very well,” he growled, then lunged forward. I stepped aside and kicked his leg out from under him, and he smashed face-first into the stairway. He quickly recovered and spun around, hitting me hard enough that I slid backward and nearly fell over my chair. He wiped the blood from his nose and smiled. “You don’t have the same protection from me that Henry did. I can break you and not feel anything about it.”
“You can try,” I corrected, before stepping forward and catching him in the ribs with a punch. He hit back, but when he went to swing again I caught his arm and threw him across the room. I dove and he dodged, we traded blows all throughout the first floor, a couple of my dining room chairs got broken. I wasn’t thinking about the time, or how many hits either of us got in; it was just wild abandon, throwing ourselves into melee, until I heard Alice’s voice.
“John!” she called. Jeremiah had just gotten me pinned against the wall and was about to throw another punch when she did, and we both snapped our attention to her and, it turned out, Mandy beside her.
“Who are these two?” he hissed. “More little mortals you care about?”
“I’ll fucking kill you,” I replied. He laughed and threw me aside. I crashed into the table as he turned and bolted for them, and I reached out toward him. “No!” I screamed, and suddenly he froze in place. I closed my fist and jerked my hand back toward my body, and he vanished.
“What the fuck was that?!” Mandy yelled.
“My grandfather!” I answered, standing up and dusting myself off. Alice’s face went pale.
“Jeremiah?” she asked.
“That’s the one. We have to go! Now!” I started walking toward them. I wanted to run, but my leg very quickly informed me that I wasn’t going to be running for a couple days at least.
“Back to the hospital. We have to protect Jackie!”
“How?!” As soon as she asked it, one of the books from downstairs fell open at her feet.
“What was that?!?” Mandy yelled again.
“A Brownie. Alice, grab the book and save that page; Mandy, you’re driving. I’ve got some explaining to do on the way.”
17 June 2007
When I heard the footsteps on the stairs, I was in the basement reading through a book on the Deeper Realms which may or may not have been written by someone who’d actually been there.
“You were out late,” I said, flipping the page. “It’s almost noon, I was considering starting to worry.”
“Hey John,” Alice said. I set the book on my lap and snapped my attention to her. “Sorry if this is a bad time, I—”
“No, no, of course not!” I stood and placed the book on the table, then started to fiddle with my hands as I resisted the urge to go directly to where she was standing. “Come in, have a seat,” I said, waving toward an empty chair. She nodded and made her way over to the chair. We both stood silent for a moment, watching each other. “It’s good to see you. I didn’t know you were back. When did you get back?”
“About a week ago.”
“Oh.” We continued to stand there for a little while. I think we were both waiting to see what the other did. She cracked first.
“Maybe this wasn’t a great idea.”
“No, sorry, here, please.” I sat down and held my hand out toward her seat. She sat down as well, bolt upright, as if she wasn’t sure she could relax in it yet. “You drove a long way, I’m sure. I’d like to know why.”
“Right. Well. I don’t know, exactly. I guess I thought, you know…maybe I should check in.”
“On me? I’m healing pretty well.”
“That’s good. But I think I meant, on us.”
“Are you checking in to find out if there still is an ‘us?’”
She hesitated. “Yeah,” she finally said, softly.
“Alice, look. I’m still here. I still want us. And we can talk through whatever you need to talk through, and I’ll do that, but it’s gonna be your call whether or not it does any good.”
“I just don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
“If I can be okay with all…this,” she said, sweeping her arm to indicate the collection of metaphysical books, “and I know you can’t really separate yourself from it.”
“I know it’s not your fault, John,” she said, reaching over and resting a hand on my knee, “and I’m not saying we’re done. I’m just telling you, this is scary, and it’s what I’m dealing with as I consider our future.”
“Okay. Yeah, that makes sense.”
“Can you promise I’ll be safe?”
I thought about that question for a moment. I know what I would have said a few months ago, but now… “No,” I finally answered her. “I can try, and I will try. I’ll do everything I can to protect you, but I can’t promise it will ultimately be enough.”
She pulled her hand to her lap and leaned back into the chair. “Thank you for being honest.”
“So what now?”
“Now, I guess, we—” She stopped as my phone began to ring. We both turned toward it, and when it appeared she wasn’t going to continue, I picked it up. It was Jackie’s phone.
“I’m sorry, I should take this. Jackie went out looking for Rick last night, and…” I started to explain, but she nodded, so I stopped and answered.
“Is this John Matteson?” a female voice asked. It wasn’t Jackie. I stood up.
“Yes. Who is this?” I listened as the nurse explained that Jackie had been found this morning in a bit of woods near the river, surrounded by a bunch of weird stuff, by a local man out on a morning jog. She was at Jameson, and they couldn’t wake her up and I was the emergency contact in her phone. I was pacing around the basement the whole time, and Alice was leaning forward in her seat watching me and waiting.
“What happened? Who was that?” she asked as I hung up and set the phone on the table.
“Jackie’s in the hospital. They’re admitting her. She isn’t awake and they don’t know why.”
“Oh my God!” She jumped to her feet.
“I gotta get down there.”
“Yeah, well, I’m coming with you.”
We climbed into Alpha and headed down to New Castle, where we were shown to Jackie’s room. I had to explain that she didn’t have any living family in the country, and they had to explain that I wasn’t legally authorized to make decisions for her, so the ultimate end of the conversation was that she would just get what services they could do for her and I would try to find a solution for any long-term care that may arise from whatever was keeping her unconscious. Alice and I started making phone calls to make sure everyone who needed to know about her situation did, and stayed there with her until they sent us home for the night. Alice decided to crash here for the night, since she didn’t have any pressing need to go home and wanted to be able to visit Jackie in the morning. She still had some clothes in my room, which she grabbed, but she went to sleep in Jackie’s bed. So now I’m in the basement, tracking where Jackie went and trying not to think too much about Alice.
1 May 2007
It was instinct that drove me to try and catch Rick, and I hadn’t even registered what that would do to the portal until it was too late. It exploded, and I jumped up onto the altar and reached out, hoping somehow, maybe, he was still there. But it was just empty air.
I stood silent for a while, trying to process what had just happened. I slowly turned to look at the rest of the clearing. Alice was laying on the ground crying. There were five people laying around the clearing, and it was hard to tell from where I was, but they didn’t look like they were breathing or moving at all. Any other cultists that were able to move had already disappeared into the trees. Jackie was approaching the altar, visibly trying to hold back tears.
“I need you to move,” she said. I nodded and stepped down, then ran over to Alice. I tried to comfort her, but there was nothing I could find to say. So I just sat next to her rubbing her back, and she cried into my lap.
Jackie was trying desperately to reverse-engineer the spell that opened the portal, but it wasn’t working. We stayed there a while watching her try over and over again, growing more and more angry the whole time, until finally she collapsed on the altar and wept. Alice had stopped by this point, so I helped her up and we both went over and gave Jackie a hand off the altar. I could barely move at that point, with the knife still in my side, so we all leaned on each other the whole way back to the cabin. We agreed on a story as we went; strangers in masks had invaded the cabin and kidnapped us, we fought back, Rick had a gun, we ultimately managed to escape somewhere in the woods but they disappeared with Rick. No mention of the portal.
We called 911 as soon as Jackie had reception, and there was an ambulance arriving at the cabin for me when we emerged from the forest. The police ran over to check on the girls and collect their stories, and I was rushed to the hospital. There, while confirming my identity, a nurse asked my birth date. I told her, and she looked at the time and date on the computer.
“Oh, honey,” she said, “I’m so sorry you have to spend it like this.”
“It’s not your fault,” I told her, before I was wheeled in for surgery to remove the knife and stitch up whatever damage it, and my continuing to move and fight with it in me, had done.
As soon as I saw that Rick and Alice were the sacrifice, any plans went out the window. I don’t even really remember starting to move. One moment I was talking to Jackie about how we were going to handle the scene, and the next I was on my feet and breaking the tree line. One cultist stepped slightly in my way, and I punched them directly in the face without slowing down. I barely even registered the sound of them hitting the ground behind me before I was gone again, making a bee line for the three robed figures holding Rick and Alice. I didn’t notice one of them had a gun until my left shoulder erupted in pain.
I’ve since read that people don’t fall when they’re shot because the shot actually knocks them down. It happens, sure, but that’s usually only the case when the shot kills them. Mostly people fall when shot because of a combination of shock and a cultural understanding that that’s what happens to people when a bullet hits them. I don’t know how much truth there is to that, but I wasn’t thinking about cultural expectations and certainly didn’t have time for shock. I kept going, and the shooter made the mistake of hesitating when they didn’t see me drop. They scrambled to make a second shot, but it was too late. I had the wrist of their shooting arm by the time they pulled the trigger again, and I felt their arm snap in my hands when I went to disarm them. They dropped the gun and fell backward, screaming and holding their arm, and I kicked the next cultist away. I grabbed the third and threw them at the second, and then turned my attention to untying Alice.
“Holy shit, dude,” Rick said, looking around. “I didn’t know you could do that!” A cultist was running at us with a knife, but was stopped when they ran into an invisible barrier about ten feet away. The others drew weapons and approached more slowly, continuing to chant. I got the ropes off Alice, and she started to run toward where I knew Jackie was waiting. I turned to Rick and focused on his hands, a bit less gently. As soon as his hands were free, he dove over and grabbed the gun.
“How many more shots you got?” I asked, catching my breath as the cultists drew closer. I counted about ten moving toward us, and then noticed the asshole with the burned face and snake eyes next to the altar.
“Six, I think.”
“I was under a spell for a while there, you know!”
“Fine. Six. You ready?” I asked, clenching my fists. He raised his gun.
“I’m good. You gonna be okay with that shoulder wound?”
“Let’s do this.” I ran forward at some cultists, and heard shots fired as I did. I dodged an attack from the first person and drove my knee into their gut before tossing them aside, and felt a knife stab into my side. I spun around and drove my elbow into the head of the cultist behind me, throwing them to the ground. When I looked up, the apparent leader was already gone. I grumbled and made for the next person in line as I saw a cultist to my right catch fire. The cultist ahead charged at me, and I let them get close before I stepped aside and kicked them in the ribs. I heard multiple cracks as they hit the ground and rolled away. I glanced over and saw that the portal was shrinking and growing more unstable. I smiled and charged the next robe I saw.
There was very little preparation we could do the next day. Alice can’t practice magic she can’t access, my ability to stifle magic seems more a matter of will than anything, Jackie could spend some time meditating but there was very little else available to her in the cabin, and Rick…well, it wouldn’t take Rick long to load his gun. So part of our plan involved spending today the way we were already planning. Alice and I drove down to the reservoir for the day.
She did the driving, and tolerated Alpha’s quirks for about two miles before she turned back and asked Rick if we could borrow his car instead. Then it was down to Kinzua Beach, where we spent some time swimming and hiking and had a picnic lunch. It was getting later in the afternoon, shortly before we were to head back, when she finally decided to say what I now suspect was on her mind the whole time.
“Is there an end to this?”
“To what?” I asked. “I mean, we’re only here for a few days.”
“No, I mean, the cult thing.”
“Benedict and Akshainie are actively hunting down ways to ensure there is.”
“But they’re here, John. The cult is here, and we don’t know what they want, and where are Benedict and Akshainie? Did we even reach out to them for help?”
“I did call, actually. Got his voicemail, didn’t even ring. I don’t know where they are, but the fact that he hasn’t called back suggests he doesn’t have reception. But it’s okay. We just have to find their ritual and stop it, and then we can tell them what we learned and let them deal with it. The Vatican’s footing the bill for that.”
“And what happens next time? Or the time after?”
“What makes you think there’s going to be a next time?”
“I’m getting the impression there’s always a next time. With the cult, with Hecate, with ghosts and spirits and ravens and God knows what else. Is there an end? Is there something you want out of all of this, is there something you’re trying to make happen?”
“I told you about this very early on, Alice. I don’t control it, I don’t go looking for it, it’s just part of my life.”
“But what are you doing with it? If it’s a part of your life, are you doing anything to shape what part it has? What your life will look like with it? Are you thinking about what your relationship with all this will look like in twenty years?”
I sat quiet for a long moment, thinking of the best way to answer. I finally realized I had only one real option. “I never thought about that.”
“I just…it’s always been unavoidable, I guess I just assumed there was nothing I could do about it. And dad did all that work preparing me to keep up his fight, and I just…I suppose I’ve just gotten used to rolling with it.”
“But you haven’t taken up his fight.”
“No, I guess I haven’t.”
“Why not? What is it you wanted that stopped you?”
I stared out over the water. “When you first decided you wanted to go into biology, into conservation, did you immediately believe you had that option?”
“That’s the thing. It isn’t an ‘of course.’ It makes sense to you because you come from a different world. Yeah, Pittsburgh lost the steel industry, too, but your family’s money isn’t in steel, is it?” I asked. She shook her head. “You grew up knowing that the world was available to you. That any hurdles you faced were of your own making. That if you just put in the effort and got the grades, you could go to school for whatever you wanted and graduate and find a job in your field and do what you love. And that’s great for you, I’m very happy you’ve been able to do that. But that’s you.” I sighed and got up and walked around a bit to keep my head clear. “I grew up with empty steel mills, surrounded by people whose lives were crushed by someone else’s greed. I come from a place where dreams rust and hopes all rely on finding some way out first. I live in a world where things happen to you because you just happen to be there and no one is coming to help, and no one will know what you’re going through, and people assume you chose it because they don’t know that even if you manage to sell your house you won’t make enough money to go anywhere else. I come from a world where there are no real options, no real solutions, just loss and decay and a life you see on tv but can’t ever imagine being real somewhere else. And on top of all of it, I live in a country that dismisses me for the color of my skin.”
“Tell me. Tell me where in that you think I was supposed to pick up the lesson that I get to decide my own fate, that I get to make this life be what I want it to be, that I can do anything about great powers that want to give me hassle, other than shut them down when they show up and hope it doesn’t bite me too hard in the ass later?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“You know what I would love? You know what would be great? A shut-off switch. The ability to just get a little peace and quiet from all of it sometimes. To have little pockets of my life that don’t have spirits or ghosts or whatever hanging around in it. But I can’t. I can’t turn it off. I can’t get away from it. Even on vacation, it finds me. You know there’s a water spirit in that reservoir right now that wants to fuck me because she can smell my connection to a powerful river spirit and thinks getting entangled with me will make her stronger?”
“Is that why you got out of the water so quickly earlier?”
“Yes! And she’s still right there at the edge of the water, watching me and occasionally calling for my attention. And when we go back to the cabin, there’s the cult to deal with.” I sat down again, and she reached over and rubbed my shoulder.
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.” She pulled her hand up to my chin and gently turned my face toward her. “But, barring that. If you never find a way to turn it off. What would you want to do?” She watched me intently, waiting for an answer, and I had to think for a little bit about what that answer would be.
“You know, I do enjoy the investigation work I’m doing. Maybe I could do that. Start up my own practice when I have enough experience to get a license, take cases from humans and spirits, deal with real issues.”
“And interact with the spiritual world on your own terms, deciding for yourself whether or not to take a case.”
“Okay. Maybe we could explore that.”
I gave her hand a squeeze, and she smiled. We kissed, then packed up and headed back to the cabin.
28 April 2007
My birthday was coming up, and Alice had made arrangements for the two of us, along with Jackie and Rick, to spend a few days at a cabin her family owned or had a timeshare on or something, I don’t remember, up in the Allegheny State Forest. It sounded nice, and she was very excited about the idea, and I liked the thought of getting out and doing something, especially something away from town, so we’d secured the days off. Alice stayed at my place the night before we were supposed to leave so we could all go up together first thing in the morning, but Rick had some appointment in Ohio that he couldn’t break so it was just the three of us who left on time. Rick swore up and down he’d go straight to the cabin from the appointment, and Jackie called to remind him in the morning to have his luggage in the car before he left.
Alice and I took the master bedroom, and Jackie set off to pick one of the two other rooms for her and Rick. I asked Alice if it would be weird for us to have sex in the bed her parents usually used on their family camping trips, and she said “only if you fucking talk about it,” so I dropped the subject. There was a large living room, with a small balcony overlooking it that served as the place for the stairs and the upstairs hallway to meet. The rooms Jackie was looking at, and a bathroom, were up there. Honestly, the place was way larger than I expected, and I was convinced it was only considered a ‘cabin’ because it was made mostly of logs.
“I’m pretty sure this place is as big as my actual house,” I’d commented.
“Well, yeah, it’s meant to house a family,” Alice had answered.
“It’s meant to be a vacation home for a family. I feel like that’s different. Like it should be smaller.”
“Yeah. It is smaller than my family home.” I couldn’t really argue with that.
I cooked us some lunch on a grill on the back porch. Well, she called it a porch. It was a deck. I had friends in Sharon whose entire backyards were the size of this deck. But she’d corrected me when I called it the deck, and I decided I was not going to spend my birthday weekend fighting about rich people semantics with my amazing girlfriend who brought me to a beautiful spot in the woods, so apparently it’s a porch. And it was beautiful. The yard, which had been mowed by someone, sloped down away from the house which ensured that the trees at the end of it were low enough not to block the sight of the rolling hills off in the distance. There were some hiking trails in those woods, Alice said, and an outlook spot down one of them that gave an amazing view of a nearby river. We’d all agreed to check that out tomorrow.
True to his word, Rick showed up a couple hours later. By then we were all out on the porch drinking, and he jumped right in on that. He’d brought some weed, too, and was certain he had enough that we could enjoy a blunt right away and still smoke me up on my actual birthday. Well, we weren’t about to turn that down. So we spent a little while smoking and drinking and carrying on, and I cooked us some burgers on the grill, and we rolled into the cabin a little after dusk and disappeared into our respective rooms.
I was only half awake a few hours later, with Alice asleep and half laying on me, when I was startled by some noises in the woods. I listened for a minute, and thought they didn’t sound natural, so I jumped out of the bed and made my way to the window. I couldn’t see anything in the dark out there.
“Are you okay?” Alice asked, barely coherent.
“I thought I heard something.”
“There’s always noises. It’s a forest.”
“But this sounded different.”
“Everything sounds different in the forest. Come back to bed.”
I looked around again, but the sound had stopped and was definitely distant to begin with, and I had to admit that Alice spent a lot more time in the woods at night than I had. I slipped back into the bed and fell asleep.
I hesitated, put out my cigarette, and leaned forward.
“Lori is…she’s this girl I met, two years ago. We dated most of that year, but it turns out she was being controlled, so Jackie and I had to break her free from that and then she promptly skipped town.” I wrung my hands for a moment, thinking about what to say next, then looked over to Alice. “Jackie told me after her trip to Chicago that she saw Hecate was behind the whole thing, but it didn’t seem like a big deal, you know?”
“No, John, I absolutely do not know,” Alice said, crossing her arms. “Maybe you should enlighten me on why I shouldn’t be concerned about a goddess manipulating people around you in some elaborate power play that she hasn’t given up on.”
“I don’t know. Maybe you should be a bit concerned, but. Look, Jackie, she’s been under Hecate’s teaching for a long time. She thinks the world of her, and primarily sees her in the context of being a source of power and information. But that’s not that big a deal! I know how to deal with spirits, I know how to deal with magic. She only has as much power in my life as I give her.”
“But that isn’t true. Did you give her power to manipulate Lori?”
“Yes, dammit!” I pounded my fist on my knee and Alice jumped. We both sat silent for a moment as I rubbed my face. “I didn’t stop it. I didn’t see. I should have seen she was possessed, I know how to do that now, but I didn’t ever think to do it then. I left an opening in my knowledge and she used it.” I leaned back and lit a cigarette. “I failed her, Alice. I failed her, and I played along with what Alethea was doing to her, and I didn’t do anything to help her until it was already so bad. So much worse than it ever should have been.”
“Who’s Alethea?” she asked, softly. “What happened?”
“Alethea was a ghost. She died while she was pregnant and she was obsessive about bringing that baby to term. That was her goal with Lori, to use a body to produce a child. And when…” I hesitated again, took a few more drags, and felt a few tears on my cheeks. “When she lost the baby,” I said, quietly, “she snapped. Tried to kill me. Her grip on Lori weakened and that was when I learned she was there.”
“Oh my God.”
“I’m never letting it happen again. I promise, I learned from what happened. I learned how to never let it happen again. And now that I know Hecate was behind it…I don’t care what she wants from me, Alice.” I turned to face her. “I will never let her have it. I don’t care what she is, I don’t care what I have to do to stop her. No one does that and gets what they want from me out of it.”
“Is this why Jackie is so afraid of her trying to contact you?”
“It’s a lot harder for Jackie to stand against her than it is for me.”
Neither of us said anything for a long while, and then she got up and went downstairs. I waited, because I didn’t know what she was doing, for about a half hour.
18 March 2007
By the time Alice woke me, she was fully dressed and had breakfast from Dunkin sitting on my nightstand. She was sitting next to me, drinking her coffee, and poking me until I rolled over.
“What time is it?” I muttered. She looked over at the clock on my dresser.
“Almost noon,” she said. I groaned and pulled myself up to sit against the wall, and she handed me a chai and a bag. “Today is a workout day for you, right?”
“Uh, yeah, why?”
“I want to try something. Tell me, have you ever worked out with someone else? Like at a gym or something?”
“Jackie has hung out and chatted while I was lifting,” I answered, fishing out some hashbrowns from the bag.
“No, I mean, where they were also working out and you could tell how much weight they were lifting. Have you ever spotted someone?”
“Oh. No. Why, you want to get in on it?”
“No, I was just wondering if you had a frame of reference for what people your size and weight generally can lift.”
“I’ve never thought about it.”
“I have!” She hopped off the bed, set the coffee down, and rested her hands on her hips. “You know those tables you moved in the Hudson library normally take two men with some equipment to lift and move?” I shook my head. “I have a theory about this, but I need actual numbers.”
“And that means you need to monitor my workout routine?”
“Not just your workout routine. I need you to push yourself. I need your actual limits. You think you’re up for that today?”
“I’m not up for much of anything until I’ve eaten this sandwich.”
“You and I both know that’s not true,” she said with a wry smile. I chuckled.
“Okay, well. I’m not up for anything outside of this bed until I’ve had my breakfast.” She sat back down and grabbed a second bag, from which she produced another sandwich for herself.
“That’s fine. When you’re ready, we’ll head downstairs. I already have a clipboard with my notes on it waiting there.”
“How long have you been up?”
“Just eat your food.”
It was the weirdest workout I’ve ever had. Dad had, of course, been present when he was teaching me how to do it, and Alice herself sometimes hung around and occasionally her and Jackie would trade commentary, but this was the first time anyone actively checked every single thing I did and checked my heart rate between things and wrote stuff down and sometimes made thoughtful noises without telling me what the hell she was doing. Jackie found the whole thing fascinating, and made a point to hang around and occasionally look over Alice’s shoulder and whisper something to her, which sometimes elicited another thoughtful noise from Alice and more notes. It was, frankly, hard to concentrate with all that going on. I did what she asked, and pushed myself on certain exercises to see where my limit was, and when I was finally done she told me she needed to check and finalize her notes while I got a shower and we could talk afterward. So I went to do that, and when I was done she and Jackie were sitting in the living room waiting for me.
“So,” I said, sitting down and lighting a smoke, “what’s the verdict?”
“Okay, so first off, you lift way more than you should be able to,” Alice said. “I mean, okay, so this isn’t my specialty within biology, but I’ve been looking up numbers for comparison. And there are different classes of ability one can have in weightlifting, so I’m using the ‘advanced’ numbers for you since you’ve been at this for a while.”
“Uh huh. And?”
“And you’re generally lifting much higher weights than those numbers! Your normal routine is almost twice as heavy as the standard for an advanced weightlifter of your size, and your limits are similar.”
“This was all related to a theory, I thought you said.”
“Yes! Okay, so I don’t know if I can account for it physically. I’d have to do a whole battery of tests to be certain about that, but your muscles aren’t more defined and don’t seem more dense than someone with more standard numbers.”
“What are you basing that on?”
“I know what your body feels like, dear. But the point is, and I’d have to check some other factors to be certain, but I was talking to Jackie about the ontological gap, and I think what’s happening is that your spiritual aspect is so closely infused with your physical aspect that it grants you additional physical power. I’d like to compare these numbers to Benedict some time, since he should have more of his spiritual nature infused into his physical nature—”
“Well, no. I don’t know if Akshainie follows the same rules. She’s a naga, her physical form is generated by her own magic, so it wouldn’t necessarily follow the same biological structures, you know?”
“Okay well I don’t think her results would help me understand the matter more because she’s fundamentally not human, even when she looks human.”
“Well!” Jackie said, slapping her knees and then standing. “It’s about time for me to head to work. You two have fun! I’d love to hear more about this when you have more data!” And then she was gone, and Alice was putting her notes aside.
“So what now?”
“Oh, nothing,” Alice said. “I’ll have to determine my testing parameters and what specifically I need to do to see if my theory is correct, which I’m not going to do now.”
“Oh, alright. You wanna go out or something, then?”
“No.” She leaned back, crossed her legs, and rested her hands on her knee. “I want you to tell me about Lori and Hecate.”
17 March 2007
I finished my shower and spent a little time checking my hair at the mirror before wrapping the towel around myself and heading down the hall to my room. When I passed the top of the stairs, I could hear Jackie and Alice chatting downstairs. I didn’t know Alice was here already, and made a mental note to hurry up a bit instead of leaving her waiting. She’d been a bit tense ever since England, and I was looking forward to taking her out to the St. Pat’s celebrations downtown with some friends. Hopefully a night of not thinking would help put her at ease. I entered my room and closed the door to find the woman from the alley island, naked, sprawled out on my bed.
“Didn’t you try this already?” I asked, walking past her to open my closet and look for a suitably green shirt.
“I was curious if it was really that useless. Maybe if circumstances were different, if you would react differently.”
“Hecate, was it?” I asked, grabbing a shirt and tossing it beside her on the bed as I went to my dresser. “If that was your goal, you should have tried it when my girlfriend wasn’t sitting downstairs waiting for me.”
“You know full well I can give us all the time in the world,” she said, standing up as a robe materialized on her. “Which I have done, by the way.” I looked at her for a moment, then out the window, where I saw a bird frozen in mid-flight.
“You like recycling your tricks.”
“I like not being rushed by mortals who think their agendas are more important than the will of a god.”
“I guess I could see where you’d get that.” I dropped the towel and grabbed a pair of boxers from the dresser. Hecate straightened up and took a sharp breath. “Oh don’t play coy now,” I groaned, pulling on the underwear and kneeling down to grab some pants from the lowest drawer.
“Is my presence such little concern for you?”
“I am a mortal with an agenda, remember.”
“John Matteson, I would remind you that I am offering you incredible power—”
“Yeah, yeah, power to stand even against gods.” I put on an undershirt and tucked it in before securing my pants. “I decided to start with you.” I brushed past her to grab my shirt, and she grabbed my shoulder and squeezed. It stung, but I refused to show that to her.
“You do not want me as an enemy, Anchor. I can make your life very painful.”
“Why? You think you have some right to boss me around?”
“I have every right!” she screamed, spinning me to face her. I met her gaze and silently slipped my shirt on as she continued. “I am the goddess of liminal beings! You are under my purview, your very existence hinges on my favor, and you dare question what authority I have to command your use of my gifts?”
“If you can take my power away, then do it.” I stood with my arms out, waiting, as she glared at me. “No?” I finally asked. She growled. “I think this story’s a bit more complicated than you want me to believe. And I think you need me more than I need you. Now, as for tonight?” I brought my hands together in a loud clap, focusing all my energy on it, and heard it ripple through the house. Hecate’s robe blew as if in a wind, and the air crackled, and the bird outside my window resumed its flight. “I have somewhere to be.” I turned away from her and reached for the door.
“Mark my words. You will have me, John Matteson, or you will have no one.”
“Next time, you should try something new. I’d be curious what you have to offer besides sex and parlor tricks.” I opened the door and headed downstairs.
The blog of John Matteson.