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.”
12 May 2005
Tony was tuning his guitar and Courtney was adjusting her amp while Mandy was doing her warm ups and we brass were running scales. Tony had finished clearing out his garage and we could finally hold practices somewhere larger than my living room, which I'm confident my neighbors and roommate appreciate. With all the noise, I didn't hear Lori enter, and was startled when she wrapped her arms around me from behind. She had started coming to our practices about a month earlier, to be an encouragement and to hang out. It was weird at first, having someone there that wasn't really involved, but people seemed to have gotten used to it. The question was whether that was because they were fine with her being there or because we were practicing at my place.
"Lori!" Mandy yelled, setting down her sticks and running over. The rest of the brass set their instruments down and started talking among themselves about a new song we were working on. When she got close enough, Mandy stopped and rested her hands on her hips in a mock show of authority. "I heard this bum finally asked you out for real."
"That he did," Lori answered, laughing. She pinched my side and rested her head on my shoulder. "Took him long enough."
"I'm right here," I said, "and I thought you had plans with Mark and Beth today."
"Yes," Mandy replied, before pointing to the rest of the brass, "but instead of here, you should be over there working on 'Fly.'" Lori kissed me on the cheek and then let go of me, walking around toward Mandy. "Come on, I wanna hear all about it."
"They'll live without me. You have fun," Lori said, rubbing my arm. "I'll be right back." I smiled and watched them scamper off toward the drums, then picked up my trombone and went to join the others.
31 December 2004
Our band, The Mighty Morphin Power Brasstones, was one of six local punk and ska bands who went in on renting warehouse space to throw a massive New Year's Eve party and show. It was a bit of a gamble on whether or not we would make our money back, but I got a discount on food from work and we had people bring their own alcohol. The stated reason was that we were avoiding any liquor license issues, but the fact is no one had the money to shell out for that much booze on the vague hope they'd still manage to turn a profit. But the number of people who told us they were coming seemed promising, and the crowd of young folks in leather or checkerboard print milling around the neighborhood was taken as confirmation this was going to work out.
We were the third band in the line up, so we would have the 8:00-8:45 window, but there was a lot of work to do before we even opened the doors. Mandy was off talking to the other drummers about how best to ensure we can do set changes in 15 minutes, and I was pretty sure they had settled on some system of sharing drum set pieces where possible. Charles, Mitch, Karen, and I were with the other brass players that were all getting together at the end of the night to close out the show. Courtney and Tony were off tuning their bass and guitars, respectively, while answering questions from the sound guy. My phone rang in my pocket, and when I saw it was my dad, I excused myself and stepped outside to answer.
"How's your trip going?" I asked. I heard a weak laugh from the other end of the line.
"Oh, better now."
"Wait, what's going on?"
"This job was a bit more difficult than I expected," he said, before coughing, but distantly, as though he had pulled the phone away from his face first. "Sorry."
"What the hell happened? Are you okay?"
"I will be. They said they expect I'll be released in a day or two and then I can catch a flight home. I'll let you know when to pick me up from the airport. But look, son, I realized that I'm getting slower out here, and there are things we needed to talk about that I couldn't ever tell you if I die."
"Like why Mom left? You finally gonna tell me something about that?"
"Yes. And why I had to let her. And how that plays into all of this." I groaned and lowered by head, rubbing my forehead with my free hand. He was silent, as if waiting for me to respond.
"Why now? How bad was this job, Dad?"
"I said I'll be fine, dammit. You go enjoy your show. We'll talk when I get home." With that, he hung up, and I fought the urge to throw my phone. I stood and closed my eyes, turned my head to the sky, and screamed.
"Make sure you bring that energy to the stage," Mandy said from behind me. I opened my eyes and spun around.
"How long have you been there?"
"Not long enough, apparently. I just heard you were outside and assumed we were taking a smoke break."
"Well. I'm a bit tight at the moment, you know, so..." I sighed and pulled out my Newports, pulling one out for me and one for her. "Thanks! I almost thought I'd have to blow you for one again."
"Well," I said, switching the box for the lighter in my pocket, "let's see how many you bum before we settle anything." She laughed and slapped my arm.
"You ready to ring in a new year?"
"More than you know," I said, glancing at my phone before putting it away.
20 December 2004
I groaned as I reached over to the ringing phone, only barely turning my head from my pillow to be able to see the screen. It was Rick. I let out a low growl as I answered.
"Were you asleep, John?"
"It's two in the afternoon!" I grumbled and rolled onto my back.
"I had a long night," I said, pushing myself up to sit with my back against the headboard. "Were you calling for any specific reason?"
"We're on for the Devil's Church! Tony is getting some people together, they're going to meet us at the D'Onofrio's parking lot in about an hour. You coming?" Mandy groaned and rolled over, laying her arm across my waist.
"Uh, let me check. I may have to do something real quick first."
"But you'll be there? Charles and I need a ride, he's here at my place."
"Yeah. I'll come get you." I hung up and leaned my head back against the wall for a moment, before putting the phone down and grabbing my smokes and a lighter.
"Who was that?" she asked, her voice soft and still half asleep.
"Your cousin." I lit my cigarette and breathed deep, blowing the smoke toward the ceiling. "We're gonna go investigate the Devil's Church."
"Oooo, that cursed place up past Headliner's?"
"The same." She began to trace her finger around my belly button as she scooted up to lean her head on my side.
"Can I come?"
"I think we've established you can." She lightly slapped my stomach and sat up, placing herself on my lap and facing me.
"Are you in a hurry?"
"We have an hour to get dressed, pick up Rick and Charles, and be up to D'Onofrio's." She hummed, running her hands down my sides and sliding herself down to slowly ease the blanket off me.
"I think we can make that work."
When Rick and Charles came out the door on hearing my horn, they were bickering about who would ride shotgun. I had my window down in case I'd need to yell to them, and was lighting another Newport. Mandy leaned over.
"Chicks get shotgun in Alpha, you know that!" she yelled out my window. Rick jogged down and leaned against my door to peer in as Charles grumbled and moved around to climb in the seat behind her.
"Mandy! John picked you up on the way?"
"No," I said. She laughed and winked, then sat back up in her seat. He looked puzzled for a moment, then concern washed over his face. "Get in or we're gonna be late." With that, I began rolling up my window and turned my attention forward. Rick stood upright, paused, then got in the back behind me. He tried to bum a smoke off Mandy but she reminded him we were going to a store and he could get his own, and he was quiet the rest of the trip.
D'Onofrio's is a standalone grocery store on the northern edge of the business district in Hermitage, and the last real stop before 18 becomes a freeway the whole way to Greenville, or at least the last one we acknowledge. For those of us who grew up in Sharon, it was an unstated fact that our home region ended at the store, and everything north was country. When we arrived, Tony's car wasn't there. Rick and I went in to get drinks and smokes while we waited.
"John," he finally said, softly, once we were out of earshot of the car and the store, "did you fuck my cousin?"
"Yes." He clenched his fists and took a deep breath.
"It was her idea. I didn't induce her to anything."
"Fine. But, please, did you at least-"
"I'm not answering any questions about how I had sex with your cousin." We were silent the whole time we were inside, and when we returned Tony's car was parked next to Alpha and Olivia was talking to Mandy through their open windows. As we got closer we saw that he also brought Karen, Mitch, and Rob. Mitch suggested we stop by Headliner's while we were up that way, citing his belief that strippers are always more friendly to a group that includes other women. He was soundly voted down. Rick and Olivia switched cars. After Tony and I confirmed we both knew where we were going, we set out.
We joked and carried on the whole way, and judging by the way they were laughing as they got out of the car I suspected the rest of them did roughly the same. Even Rick seemed to be in a better mood. Karen went straight for Olivia and Mandy and they began talking among themselves near Alpha as the rest of us gathered next to a headstone with letters faded beyond recognition in the dying winter light.
"What's the deal with this place, anyway?" Tony asked.
"Wait, they didn't tell you?" I asked, looking to the group.
"I thought he knew," Rick said with a shrug.
"I thought everyone knew," Rob said.
"Yeah, it's haunted, right?" Mitch offered.
"More than that." Rick was nearly jumping when he cut back in. "It's called the Devil's Church because there's a real church in there, somewhere in the haunted woods! They went dark, started worshiping the Devil, hosting orgies, human sacrifices, the whole thing. They got so corrupt that the Earth opened up and swallowed them whole; and now, the souls of the people who died wander the woods, tempting and tormenting people that enter!"
"And...why are we entering?" Tony asked, his brow furrowing.
"Because! We're gonna find the church!"
"No one has ever found the church itself," Rob said. "Everyone who tries falls to the spirits, and those who die there join the ghostly army."
"They're gonna try to kill us?!" Charles blurted out.
"Only if we don't join them willingly."
"That's not better!"
"They get people to do all kinds of things," Mandy said as the girls approached us. "They say groups who go in there can be best friends, but somewhere in the woods they start killing each other, or going mad. Sometimes eating each other!"
"Some stories include rape," Rob offered. I raised my brow.
"There...some very compelling reason you guys wanted to come along?" I asked the girls.
"Oh come on, you don't really believe the stories, do you?" Olivia asked.
"Besides," Mandy said, walking over to me. "If we were gonna start believing the stories, we should also believe you can just," she started fake punching the air in front of me, "break the curse and keep us safe, right?" The others laughed.
"John's our ringer, guys," Rick said. "We're gonna be the first ones to find that church cause nothing gets by him." I sighed and pointed my cigarette toward the trees.
"Fine. Lead the way."
"I will!" With that, Rick started walking toward the woods, and we all fell into groups following him. As we got closer and closer to the trees, Karen was growing visibly more hesitant. Finally, when Rick was just past the tree line, she stopped dead in her tracks and started to shake. We all stopped and turned to face her, as Rob and Olivia tried to calm her down. She started to protest going any further, and when Rob put his hands on her shoulders and told her it'd be okay she kicked him square in the balls. He stumbled backwards and she fell to her knees, crying. Olivia and Mandy swooped down to her. I looked around.
"You know, guys," I said, "it uh, it looks like no one brought a flashlight and it's getting dark. Maybe another time?"
"Yeah," Tony said, weakly, "Another time."
"Headliner's?" Mitch offered.
"How about Denny's." We all agreed to Tony's suggestion, and started heading back to the cars.
18 december 2004
The hollow on Hogback is distinct both because of the rickety wooden one-lane bridge at the bottom and the local story surrounding the name. The former is dangerous because, with the trees and curves on the way down into the hollow from either end, you can't really see the bridge or anyone else hoping to cross it until you're dangerously close. This depends somewhat on the speed you drive through it, of course, but it's almost a rite of passage for local kids to go tearing through it as fast as they dare, and an unrelated rite to stop in the dead center of the bridge and watch for the ghost.
Thankfully, both events very rarely happen at the same time.
The story is actually fairly unimaginative and more than a little misogynistic. Dude pays a hog as dowry to a farmer up the road, marries the farmer's daughter, wife turns out to be a bitch, dude kills his wife and carries her body to the farmer demanding his hog back, road gets named in honor of that guy for reasons no one seems to know. There are variants, but the ones I've heard largely follow that formula (except one in which she kills herself because he's a bitch, which seems almost sensible in light of the other one). It probably isn't true but the fact is no one is as interested in the story as they are in the rumor that the wife's ghost hangs around the bridge. This claim is, itself, something of a disappointment, both because no one even seems to believe she does anything interesting other than hang around, and because she isn't there. People keep dragging me into these damn woods to confirm the ghost is there, and I always have to decide whether it's better to play along or tell them the truth.
"So there's nothing here?" Rick asked, rolling a blunt.
"God I hope so," Charles offered. We had actually parked in the dirt beside the road and walked out to the middle of the bridge, and Charles was leaning on the side and looking down at the creek. The light was growing dim and we were all talking quietly enough to listen for an engine coming.
"I didn't say nothing," I answered, as Rick put the blunt to his lips and got it lit, "I said there's no ghost." Rick let out the smoke as he passed to his cousin, Mandy.
"How can you be sure?" Rick asked.
"I've been here a dozen times, and there's no sign of her. Just kind of an...echo." Mandy handed off to me and I took my turn.
"What's an echo?" I signed for him to wait as I passed to Charles and then exhaled.
"It's like...there seem to be things that only exist because people think they exist. And they're only as real as the amount of people making them real. I call them echoes."
"So there is a ghost, just not a, uh, real ghost?"
"More or less."
"Your friend is weird, Rick," Mandy muttered.
"Your cousin is rude, Rick." She sneered at me as Rick smoked. He coughed a little as he visibly tried not to laugh.
"I think that still counts as a ghost," Charles said, inching closer to the group. Rick passed.
"Yeah! Isn't that ghost enough, John?"
"Well, look. I can't talk to it, it can't possess anyone, and near as I can tell it just stands over there," I gestured toward a tree on the side of the creek opposite where we'd parked, "so if you wanna call it a ghost, fine, but it hardly seems worth it." Charles quickly looked to the tree.
"Is it there now?" he asked, with a quiver in his voice. Rick laughed.
"You're afraid! Look at you, it isn't even really a ghost and you're terrified!"
"You agreed it was a ghost!"
"Guys," I said, exhaling and passing. "Chill."
"I'm going back to Alpha," Charles said. "We can smoke just fine there."
"Hardly seems like your decision." Charles waved me off as he hurried back off the bridge. I turned to the others and saw Rick was still laughing and Mandy sighed. "I guess we might as well go get some food." With that, we all headed over and climbed into Alpha. I started the engine and we listened to the music as we finished the blunt. Right when I began to pull out, a rusty Chevette came tearing out of the trees and across the bridge, honking and veering as it passed us. It just clipped the front corner of Alpha and kept going, vanishing into the woods behind us. I grumbled, turned up the music, and punched the gas.
The blog of John Matteson.