It’s hard as a writer is to let bad things happen to our characters. It’s also hard to create characters to be villains. Evil almost never sees itself as evil. But the toughest still is to allow a character to choose evil, even after you’ve grown to care about her. It’s not my fault really. The stories tell me.
I almost didn’t see her on the bench. It was an early fall morning, but the sun hadn’t quite risen yet. The girl had covered herself with newspapers before she’d gone to sleep. She couldn’t have been older than fifteen. She was wearing a tattered brown dress that might have been modest before some seams had ripped open. She had leaves stuck in her hair. Her skin, her hair, and her dress were all a soft washed brown, in contrast to the green bench.
Sometimes people fall asleep in the commons. Long day. Just exhausted. Sit down and fall asleep.
This girl had intended to spend the night here. Somehow, she’d survived a night in spite of everything that prowls the Commons. I was more afraid of the two-legged predators, but they weren’t the only ones. It was a perilous thing to sleep all night on a park bench. Something you would do only if you had no other choice.
Because I hadn’t seen her, I was closer to the bench that I might have been if I knew she was there. She must have heard me, because she startled out of sleep and threw herself in motion down the path, deeper into the commons. Terrified.
I’d read tea leaves long enough to know how fragile people’s lives can be. I also knew she was probably there rather than home with her folk for good reasons. Homelessness is not a choice made except in desperation.
After I got into the tearoom, I asked Rita, “How many people are homeless here in Boston?”
“How could anyone really know?” she answered me. “It’s sad but it’s also hard to help. Most of them become almost invisible. They become predatory after they’ve been on the street a while. Even if they’re good people, it’s a harsh life and they scrounge or steal to survive.”
“There’s a little girl I found there sleeping on a park bench,” I told her
“A child?” Rita raised an eyebrow.
“All in how you define that. She wasn’t a kid but she certainly wasn’t old enough to take care of herself. Maybe fifteen?” I wasn’t sure how old the girl was myself.
“Marlene, there’s almost nothing you can do. If you can get her to a shelter, they might be able to help her. But you don’t have the resources to take on the things she needs. Neither do I.”
I looked at her in disgust. Rita wasn’t known as a coward, but this seemed cowardly. She shook her head in acknowledgment of my disapproval. “Okay. Try. Talk to her. See if you can find out her story. We’ll try to find her some help.”
I thought it might be as easy as just calling the girl’s parents if I could find them. But even talking to this girl wasn’t easy. She wouldn’t let me get close enough to speak to her. When she saw me, she’d melt into the crowds or the shrubbery. It was impossible. I decided to start by leaving gifts. I came early, crept in as close as I could and left a cup of hot chocolate and a sandwich in a bag on the edge of her bench. I tiptoed back to the path, hoping I hadn’t woken her. She didn’t move.
On my way back in the evening, I walked past the bench. The Styrofoam cup was still on the bench. Someone had etched a smiley face on it with their fingernails. Maybe it was hers. Then again it could have been anyones.
I began a regular breakfast service. Something hot to drink. Something proteinaceous. Sometimes a cookie or a muffin from the tearoom as well. Day by day, I’d walk by and set them on the bench, careful not to wake her.
It went on for a week before she opened her eyes while I was laying the bag and the cup on her bench. I had suspected her of pretending to be asleep. I was right. I backed away from her bench as her eyes flew open.
“Why?” she asked me. Her voice was as soft as her dress.
Almost a whisper. She had been out long enough to be afraid of gifts from nowhere, for no reason.
“Random act of kindness, I guess. You looked hungry.” I tried to keep this light. She could be blown off like a dandelion puff if the winds of fear took her.
“I’m not, you know.” It wasn’t a convincing denial. She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Well, the hot chocolate has marshmallows in it, and those muffins are kind of legendary. You might want to taste them even if you’re full.” I slid the muffin closer to her on the bench.
She picked up the cocoa instead and sipped it. Both hands around the cup for warmth. She nodded. “It is good.”
“Try the muffin,” I said. “It should still be warm.” It was, for a fact. I got there right after they came out of the oven. She picked off pieces and popped them into her mouth.
She looked more and more childlike as we spoke. She let the newspapers covering her flutter to the ground. She sat cross-legged, hot cocoa in her hands.
I sat on the bench across from her. “My name’s Marlene.” I hoped that would prompt her into conversation.
For a moment she was far too busy with the muffin to speak. “Stephanie,” she said, through a mouthful of muffin.
“I usually come through here to get to work,” I said. “When I got my breakfast, I picked up some extra. You looked like you could use it.” I flashed what I hoped was an encouraging smile.
“Do you always lie to people?” She shot me a clear-eyed look, assessing me. So much for good deeds and random acts of kindness. I should have known. It’s terribly hard to owe someone something you can’t pay back.
“Why do you think it’s a lie?” I challenged her.
“It’s not exactly the truth either. You felt sorry for me.” The invisible elephant of pity waddled in and sat between us.
I back peddled. “I feel sorry for most people walking around,” I explained. “Most people are in a lot of pain almost all of the time. I’m there too. But I wouldn’t want to be sleeping on a park bench with no breakfast coming. That was a special kind of awful.” Her eyes narrowed. I’d said something that was about to launch her down the path in flight again.
“You’re not going to take me somewhere?” Her eyes telegraphed anger and suspicion.
“Not unless there’s somewhere you want to go. Although there are nicer places to stay than the Boston Commons. If nothing else it gets brisk.”
“You’re not going to pray over me?” Clearly, that had been a past humiliation for her.
“God no.” Pray for her, well yes. But not that embarrassing kind of public prayer display that came with guilt and a power struggle. She hardly needed that. Right now, my prayer for her was cocoa and a muffin. A full stomach and warm hands.
She looked straight at me. “You brought me cocoa every day.
It’s you, right?”
“Well, yes. Am I forgiven?”
She smiled her thank you. The smile warmed the air between us a bit.
“I need to go on to my work,” I said. “But if you need me or you need to talk, I’m at the gray building at the tearoom on the second floor.” I pointed at the tearoom entry.
“You serve tea?” It couldn’t show how bad a waitress I would have made, could it? Her eyes crinkled with questions.
“Sometimes. Mostly I read tea leaves. So, what would you like tomorrow? Would you prefer coffee or tea?”
“I like the hot chocolate.” She smiled through a hot chocolate mustache.
“Hot chocolate it is. See you tomorrow.” I resisted the urge to turn as I walked away.
When I came into the tearoom, Rita was watching her through the windows. “Is that your sparrow?” she asked me.
“I suppose she is,” I answered. “If I could just get her to a safe space. She’d probably see dragging her to the youth center as an evil betrayal. But it was warmth and safety and clean showers as opposed to a dirty crack house somewhere. Even if she hated me it might be worth the betrayal to save her life.” Rita nodded, not in confirmation of what I said but in acknowledgment. Anything felt better than finding her dead in the Commons. I resolved myself. The next time I saw her, I’d simply grab her wrist and drag her. She was so passive, surely she’d let me.
By the same token, Stephanie was waiting prey if she continued living this way. It was statistically inevitable. Rita was short on answers, so I ended up speaking to Father Brian at St. Philomena’s.
“There are programs,” he said. “Of course, she has to be off drugs. The general shelter at the woman’s place may take her in. Is someone abusing her?”
My gut told me that if we hadn’t gone there yet, it was inevitable. If not now, surely on the current trajectory. She simply didn’t have the structures around her to keep her safe. Street drugs would provide her with some sort of cold comfort, perhaps all the comfort there was. Sometimes I have premonitions. This was just a wretched feeling that the sky was waiting to rain bricks on her.
The next day there was a newspaper report of a teen death by drugs, found in the Public Gardens. The pictures of the girl were past poignant. Human scavengers left her half stripped and dead by the swan pool. Not old enough yet to really be a woman. Never going to get older. All of a sudden Stephanie’s situation wasn’t academic.
I convinced myself I had to talk Stephanie into going to the rescue mission.
The next night the temperature was predicted to be below freezing. I searched through the commons paths until I found her on a bench. “You can’t stay here, you know,” I said after handing her coffee.
“There’s nowhere for me to go.” She shook her head. “Will you take me to your house? Your mom’s house? A place with friends?”
I had none of those options. Jane would have been livid If I brought home a runaway teen. “The shelter’s not so bad,” I said. “They’ll feed you. You’ll be warm all night.”
“I’ll go to the shelter if you’ll go with me. If you’d stay there, I’ll stay there.” It was a challenge, pure and simple.
How bad could it be? I pulled her by the hand into Jane’s borrowed car and headed to the shelter.
There was a long line of women, with and without children waiting at the door. Some of them had suitcases or shopping carts. Some simply hand knapsacks or a garbage bag of things. Stephanie had a small book bag that once had been probably for her school books. A brusque woman dumped her meager possessions on the table. It held an extra pair of shoes, several tee shirts, and some socks. A granola bar, I recognized as something I’d left on the bench. And her childhood copy of Velveteen Rabbit. “You can’t bring in food,” the lady said, grabbing the bar. “If the girls know you have that, someone might fight you for it.” It went on to a table behind the woman. “They’ll feed you inside, hon,” she said, less unkindly. She handed her a plastic grocery bag. It contained a bottle of water, a paperback bible and a tract titled, “Jesus died for you!”
The woman put a hand on my shoulder, to stop me from entering. “You don’t look homeless to me.” She stared up and down at my clean skirt and woolen jacket.
“I’m not. I’m her friend,” I explained. “She’s scared. I’m trying to get her settled in.”
“You can stay while Pastor Brandon gives the message,” she allowed.
We were shuffled into a community room set up as an auditorium. Several tough older women stood at the doorways and directed people to the chairs.
The pastor came in, dressed in a shiny suit wearing cowboy boots and a thick smile.
His voice had come straight from Texas.
“Good evening, all you ladies! It is such a blessing to have you here tonight. You sit yourselves down and we’re going to soak ourselves in the word of God! But first, let us pray that God will make our hearts truly humble and able to receive His holy word.”
A man at the piano played a hymn I didn’t recognize. “Now stand and sing this glorious hymn of Salvation.”
The pastor directed the singing, as the attendants broke into a chorus. followed by some of the women who were familiar attendants.
There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
There was a small keening in the background behind the music. Stephanie looked around, uncomfortably trying to figure out where it was coming from. I followed her stare. Three rows back there was a young blond girl doubled over in pain crying softly. It cut through the music unpleasantly. Another woman held a howling infant that would not be consoled. One of the attendants ushered her and her child out to a separate room.
The hymn ground on regardless.
Then in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy power to save,
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.
The preacher began his service with a reading from Romans. “Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.” He looked over the crowd expectantly, reading expressions. Several of the women wore sweaters instead of coats and were still shaking from cold. Some were slumped in their seat almost asleep.
He revved up both his energy and voice to a pitch. “You know,” he said. “God has brought you here tonight for a reason. God has brought you here. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you came here on your own or that you came here by accident. You’re here because of your sins.”
I began to hear the sounds of hoof beats softly in the background. Perhaps it was the sound of my heart. No one else appeared to hear it. But it left me feeling so urgent, so panicked. I shifted in my seat, unable to settle.
“We know your sins,” he continued. “Don’t think we don’t. God knows your sins. If you’re here in this room it’s because God is reaching out to you as a sinner, willing to change you. To wash you in His blood.
The man who wrote that hymn was a heroin addict. Just like most of you. He was washed in Jesus’ blood. He was a sinner just like all of you. Just like all of us.” His voice rose to a crescendo.
As the preacher pranced up and down delivering his sermon, he was compelling, but also somehow repellent, like a snake in the sun. He was so full of judgment and anger. He smelled of sweat and something animal. Mist shifted around the man’s head. In the poor light of the hall, I thought I saw his head morph into a horse head. It had a mane and rolling wild horse eyes but a human smile. It was inhumanly grotesque. I thought of domestic horses, of ponies at the fair, of the cart horse that pulled the carriage for rides in the common. It was nothing like that. It was will with will and desire. It had no control and no limits. I felt the room start to shake. Most of the women seemed to be numb from cold or exhaustion. A few women responded to the man’s animal magnetism. Staring eyes and open mouths. A few looked up at him with shining eyes and adoration. But the blond girl rose shakily to her feet. She threw her arms out and looked down at herself. Her nose was a soddened red blossom on her face. “Blood. Everything covered in blood. Is Jesus covered in blood? Are you? Am I?” She looked down and her hands and clothes. She held out her hands and stared at them. The brown stains on her dirty jeans and coat were suddenly horribly suspicious. One of the attendants reached for her. Tried to calm her. Two women grabbed her shoulders and shuffled her outside, where she could no longer disturb people.
While everyone’s attention was on her, Stephanie bolted for the door. She left her backpack, everything and ran into the night. When I reached the doorway, she was gone. I had no idea where she’d disappeared.
She wasn’t there when I walked through at twilight. Nor was she the next morning. I took her knapsack and left it by her favorite park bench, hoping she’d return there. When I went by in the morning, it was gone.
Had the mission frightened her? Intruded too strongly? Made her afraid of the crazies there? It would have taken little enough to have done all three. It was all more than likely. It would be hard enough if she was just poor. But for a teenager with all that pride and confusion, it was very easy to offend. The poor crazy girl was probably what Stephanie feared as her own future. The mission hadn’t offered anything better or kinder.
There were several colder days where I didn’t see her. Then there was a morning where she greeted me from the bench. Her hair was combed. She had a serviceable pair of jeans and a blouse and a warm jacket. Some reasonable tennis shoes. She grabbed my hand and pulled me down to her bench.
“You won’t believe it!” She said. “I met the nicest people. I’ve been staying at their house. It’s full of nice people. Lots of food, and I can come and go as I want.” She was beaming. She was right. I didn’t believe it.
“Where are they?” I asked her. Maybe she’d found some college kids slumming who made space for her.
“Would it be in a stone house in Salem?” I asked her. Oh, god. Not the Artemesian sisters. Of course. They’d welcome fresh meat for a cult of spiritual ghouls. Maybe not.
“How did you know?” She smiled back at me. “The building is the coolest! They teach me new things every day. They say I can be a part of the sisterhood if I study. And I met the nicest guy. They have him come in to study with them.”
“How long have you known them?” I sounded dreadfully old, even to myself.
“Not long, but it felt like home instantly. They’re all so accepting. And Bill is just out of college and he’s working for his dad’s office. But he teaches dancing and drumming.” She reached up and twisted a strand of hair around her finger. A fidget? Her own doubts?
The Sisters of Artemesian were a den of sociopaths. I’d been invited to join them only to find they were spiritual cannibals. I’d watched them kill and suck the souls out of half a ballroom full of people in public. If I grabbed her by the arm, tried to carry her away, told her they were evil people, would she hear me?
“The Artemesian sisters are a dark group. They hurt people. They’ll hurt you, Stephanie. They’ll change what kind of person you are.” I crooned at her softly, as if I could hypnotize her. I had coaxed her closer with my soft and hypnotic tone. I reached for her wrist. I grabbed it.
She pulled from me spitting like a cat. “Do they talk about everyone covered in blood?” she asked me. Well, the rescue mission folk had. And had scared her past sense.
“The sisters warned me about people like you,” she said. “Do-gooders. People who hold you back. People who are afraid to be someone. Or to let me become someone. So, I should go home because my parents miss me?” Her face slid into a sneer.
“Who do you want to be, Stephanie?” I asked. I still had a hold of her wrist. She backhanded me with her other hand, took skin with her nails. It stunned me and I lost my grip. She stood outside my reach.
This was no longer a rescue. She’d been co-opted by the cult.
Getting her out now would take an extraction.
“I’m staying with them,” she said brightly, “so I won’t be here in the mornings. But I wanted to say thank you. You were nice to care about me.” Her face broke into a tea party smile. She stood arms crossed, tall like a warrior. Stiffly frozen. As if something might crack.
Before I could reach her again, she loped down the sidewalk towards her new home, on the wings of young love, happy and proud as a girl could be in her new life.
I knew better. Stephanie had joined the world where she could only be predator or prey.
I rode the elevator into the tearoom. Rita was across the room staring through the windows down at the common. When I looked down with her, I saw a woman and a flash of orange and black stripes through the crowd. It was Roane, leader of the Artemesian sisters, walking a tiger cub on a leash. Cameramen were flashing shots and the woman was giving the cat hand commands like you would with a dog.
I ran back down to the commons to look. Roane was off in a distance, getting into a cab with her charge. I looked back to the bench where the girl was. Still gone. She hadn’t returned, even though I’d left.
Back up at the tearoom, Rita called me to her office. “Well, Marlene, did you get pictures?” Half laughing at me.
“It was mostly over when I got down there. Roane was already leaving.”
“Roane will do anything, I suppose, for publicity,” Rita sighed. “There were photographers everywhere. Do you suppose she got the tiger from the zoo?” she asked.
“Where else?” I wondered. I should have known.
Winter came upon fall in increments of cold and ice drops. I kept watch, but Stephanie was nowhere in the park.
That winter, it was as if something was stalking the commons. I kept feeling eyes on me, particularly after dark. It was a cold night after a reading party when I thought I saw the silhouette of a huge cat near one of the trees walking home. Probably just my imagination. I felt it in the shadow, smelled its breath on the wind. The moon rose and the shadows seemed to move fluid like water across the snow.
I dreamed of Stephanie that night. She was no longer a shy child. She followed me, dancing along behind me, almost stalking me. When I turned to look into her face, her mouth was open, inches from mine, and her teeth were long and white in the moonlight. I woke, shuddering.
The next day, I visited the Holy Cross homeless shelter that Father Brian had told me about. Threading my way through a line of people in shabby clothes and wild hair, I walked into the kitchen to see a man in his late forties filling bowls of soup with a ladle. He was terribly thin and tall. He had an old man’s face and hands, but a young man’s movements. He seemed animated by a sense of hope and decency that warmed me to him immediately.
“George, there are crackers today. Take a couple packages.
They’re good with the chili.” He filled another bowl after another. I waited in line, without a soup bowl. When it was my turn, he smiled and said, “Get a bowl. I can’t pour soup into your hands.”
“I’m not here for soup,” I said, holding up the line.
“That’s a shame,” he said. “Rick makes the best chili.” Several of the men cheered in agreement. It was a scruffy group but kindly. There were no strangers here. They’d cobbled themselves into a family. They’d take me in too if I let them.
“May I talk with you?” I was shy speaking to him. He was on a mission, and I wasn’t part of it. But he was gracious. “I’m not here for me,” I said. “I’m so sorry. I should have made an appointment.”
“I’m Ron. Ronald Pritchard.” His accent was from nowhere near the east coast. I could hear Midwestern corn fields rustling in his voice. “Bill, come take over.” A bushy man in a butcher’s apron came up from the back of the kitchen and took Ron’s place pouring soup. I followed Don into an overstuffed office. He motioned to me to clear the pile of newspaper off the other chair seat and sit down.
“How can we help you today?” He took my hands into his long thin ones. They burned with gracious warmth. I couldn’t filter things in talking to him. He saw through everything. My embarrassment. My liberal white guilt. My sense of helplessness. “I tried to get her into the rescue mission. The place scared her pretty badly. She ran from me. She ran from them.”
“What did they do?” he asked, leaning forward.
“There was a lot of talk about blood in the sermon. One of the women freaked out and Stephanie ran off in the chaos.”
“The theology scared her?” he asked me. “I guess so,” I said. “It was pretty morbid.”
“Not sure what do?” His smile was broad and familiar.
I shook my head in abject shame. “I have no idea how to help her. I thought if I got her off the street she could clean up and go home to her folks. She almost spit on me when I suggested that. She’s run from somewhere for a reason. I guess getting her home would be more like throwing her back into the fire. I’m afraid she’s in with some very dangerous people. Do you know the Sisters of Artemisia?”
He whistled low. “The Artemesian sisters!” he asked. He shook his head. He’d obviously heard something. “Personally, no. There are stories though. None of them good. I don’t believe in witches, exactly, but these folks are a bit out of the box, aren’t they?”
“She’s found a benefactor there. A group of women. What you’ve heard is probably true. They’re predatory,” I tried to explain. How could I tell him I’d watch them suck souls out of people? “Have you heard of the Witches’ Ball?”
He shook his head no. “Not my kind of party. I’m busy here.” But there was the sense that he was not too busy to go there. He was too smart to put his hand in that kind of a buzz saw.
“I want to check that she’s okay. I feel responsible,” I told him.
I did. If I’d only been more able to reach her.
“You really can’t be responsible, you know,” he told me. “She’s the only one who can live her life.” For a rescue missionary, he had a clear sense of what was and wasn’t possible. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear though. I certainly hadn’t listened to Rita either.
“Yes, but she ought to get a chance to live it,” I pushed further. “I’ve got a bad feeling.”
“Storm sense?” he inspected me as if looking for a sign. “Something like that. I had a bad dream,” I said.
He smiled and shook his head. “Dreams are just dreams. Does this kid remind you of someone you know?”
“She reminds me of me,” I acknowledged. “If I hadn’t had to be responsible. If the cards had been different.” I didn’t want to tell him that I was a reader and that more than not, my dreams came true.
“Do you want to go looking for her?” he asked me.
“Short of showing up on the Artemesian sisters’ doorstep, I wouldn’t know how. I wouldn’t know where. And I wouldn’t be welcome.” That was an understatement.
“That sounds like a story in itself,” he said, inviting me to tell.
I couldn’t. Not yet.
“But not for today,” I said. This man was too aware to tell and too sharp to miss the details. I didn’t want to open that door around him.
He said, “I really don’t know if we’ll find her, but I can take you with me. I do the rounds of the area, just to drop off sandwiches and check and see if someone’s out there in distress,” he answered. “Would you like a tour?”
“Who do they remind you of?” I asked him.
“Me,” he said. “If I hadn’t been more looked after. More cared for. If someone hadn’t rescued my ass. Come on, I can show you where the kids hang out to party.”
He turned to Bill in the back and said, “Can you handle clean up and shut down?” The man smiled and waved him away with a dish towel. Ron pulled on a ratty jacket and a striped knitted scarf, and workman’s gloves. He grabbed a large shopping bag full of wrapped sandwiches. “Let me take you for a walkabout,” he said.
We started down the edge of the Charles River near Beacon Street. Twilight had come early. The passageway was well lit, but off into the alleys, I could see the light of trash can fires and small circles of homeless people huddled around them. He stopped by several fires and pulled sandwiches out of the bag he carried and passed them out. At each stop, he asked about Stephanie. “I didn’t expect to find her here,” he told me. “This isn’t where the kids go. This is an older, more alcoholic crowd.” We went down by the edges of the Charles River, along a muddy path. Under the bridge, there were large cardboard boxes, scrounged from someone’s trash, now someone’s home. Our flashlight beam woke one man, startled from his sleep with newspaper and a dirty coat draped over him.
Ron said, “These places are between the cracks of the city. The city fathers don’t officially know people live here. Most of the folk here are lost in alcoholism and drugs. It’s not generally where the kids are either. It’s not a party spot.” One of the men left his box and asked Ron a question. Ron pulled a sandwich out of his ratty coat pocket.
The silence as we walked got more and more uncomfortable, like an itch. I found myself babbling. “There was something else I didn’t tell you about the mission. The pastor there is more than a bit over-animated. If I weren’t in a church service, I’d have said there was something spiritual riding him.”
Ron whistled. “Where have you seen that before?”
“Among some people from Haiti,” I answered him, trying not to say too much.
“What is it you do, Marlene?” he asked.
I was uncomfortable answering him, but I found lying to him impossible. “I tell fortunes. I read tea leaves in a tearoom. What I saw reminded me of the Voodoo women and their loas.” It was a confession more than anything. “I think I saw a horse spirit riding him. Am I certifiable?”
“Let’s leave that question alone for a moment. What do you mean, riding him?” he asked me.
“I saw his head shift into a horse’s head. But not a tame horse.
Something wild, sexual and uncontrollable.”
“You say you give guidance to people. Do you know how you’d guide this man?” He raised his eyebrow in question.
“I have no idea. Most people who come to me are troubled by what they experience and want help with it. This man was loving the experience. You could tell. It was a violent spirit, wild eyes, distended nostrils. Deeply sexual, but all animal instinct. He seemed in sync with it.”
“Did he feel trapped by it?” Ron asked.
“I have no way of knowing. But he seemed to be enjoying the rush.” After that, we walked silent, him digesting what I’d said. I was trying to figure out how crazy I’d sounded.
We left the riverbank and went into the Public Garden from the Beacon and Arlington street corner. The sun had set a half hour earlier, but the globe lights glowed. For all their effort, they didn’t throw light very far. Each had a circle of perhaps three feet at its base. The effect was glowing sky but darkened underbrush. The leaves left were the browns of beginning November, not the glowing shades of earlier fall. We skirted around the Ether statue, originally celebrating a medical marvel, now offering relief from the general pain of life. The moon was just beginning to rise. We passed the row of bronze ducklings following their mother down the garden path. I thought how very unsafe it was for ducklings, for the young
and the fragile and those on the edge of the social system. Ron pulled me towards a small grove of pines and then stopped me behind one of the trees. There was a group of laughing teens. Some were tattered, some were simply out for a night’s escape of comfort and safety in the suburbs. But no sign of Stephanie.
We walked out of the Public Garden into the Commons. In the corner was the hanging ground. There were stories of ghosts there, but the site was deadly quiet. Ron brought me to a bench shrouded in brush. The sky was clear and the moon showed full over the clearing. We could see them without the lights.
There was no bonfire. There was a group of women of different ages within a small grove. One man led the group in the dance.
Someone played a soft flute melody, almost like birdsong. They danced scantily clad, even in this cold, arms reaching to the moon in supplication. I recognized Alex. Swirling at their feet was an orange and black striped animal. But it didn’t move like a dog. It was feline. As it lunged at one of the dancers, I recognized it as the tiger cub I’d seen the lady walking in the commons. But it was off leash now. It had grown considerably. It leaped freely among the dancers. The cub patted one dancer’s ankle. She screamed at its touch and fell, bleeding. I heard the cub drag its prey into the bushes. I heard the sound of teeth tearing flesh. The flute music played on and everyone continued in the dance. Why weren’t people responding to the screams? Why weren’t they trying to control the beast? I remembered the witches’ ball. The Artemesian people had a way of making a bubble of space and time normal folk couldn’t breach. They made their sacrifices within that space.
I startled. Ron clapped his hand over my mouth, shook his head in warning. “You don’t disturb them. It’s not safe. That woman is there willingly.”
I cringed at the sound of the teeth biting through bone. “Can’t we call the police? Something?”
“I think you know,” he said, “that if the police come, they won’t even find blood, never mind a body.”
“But I know some of those women. One of them is a friend of mine.” I struggled against his hold.
“They have no friends,” he said sadly. “Just hungers. Wait.”
He pointed my view to the center of the group. The fallen dancer was a ragged form, on the ground, submitted and cowed. One by one, the dancers swirled up to the form and kissed her. She lay on the ground moaning audibly. I couldn’t turn away and I couldn’t bear to watch.
Ron grabbed my face and shook my head, no again. He silently shushed me. “You wanted to know.”
I had. But I hadn’t expected this.
The bushes rustled behind us. I felt a presence and turned to see Stephanie, skyclad, her hair wild behind her.
“You came. To see me. How nice of you!” Her smile was full of delight. She grabbed me like a child with both hands and pulled my hands up to her face. As I looked up I could see sharp white fangs in her smile. “You know, the people at the mission almost had it right. Everything comes down in the end to blood.” Her smile widened as she slid into the tiger cub, pretty orange and black fur slinking over her features. Her nails were wicked claws that held me in place. I saw the spark that had haunted me swirl out of her eyes and circle me, delighted for another chance at me. It bobbed, grinned and danced like a firefly in a circle around my head. Then it flared hot fire and I felt it burn my skin at the threshold of my face. Her white teeth clamped around the flesh of my arm, holding me in place while the spark left my skin pocked and burned and my hair smoking.
“Retro me, Satanus!” Ron roared. “In Nomine Christe!” I hadn’t expected that force in his voice. There was a flash and darkness. I saw Stephanie startle and run before I fell into a heap.
When Ron shook me awake, I was in a patch of moonlight alone with him in the quite dark. My face was blistered and I had a bracelet of small puncture wounds in the fleshy part of my arm. “How long have you been fighting with that?” he asked me. He
wasn’t talking about Stephanie or the cult. He was talking about the fire element that had become the dread of my dreams.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it a fight,” I answered him. “More an escape and evade tactic.” I was too stunned to deny that I was its quarry. Even as I said it, I knew it true. I’d been fighting for my life since Alex had talked me into casting a spell on someone. I’d done more than make a pact with a demon. I’d made a deadly enemy and a worse ally. The only way to stop it from what we’d set up for it to do was to set it on myself instead. And I had no defense against it at all. Worse still, Ron now knew the demon had something to do with me personally. I’d lost my anonymity in the attack. I’d showed I was connected with these people and with this thing. “What did you say to it?” I asked him. “That wasn’t English.”
“English isn’t that thing’s first language. Latin isn’t either, but it responds better to Latin. Demons seem more familiar with Latin. Or perhaps the words lose something in translation. I told it to go away in the name of Christ.”
“That’s sort of simplistic, isn’t it?” I asked him.
“Yes, it is. But it works. Evil is subject to the blood of Christ.” His answer was so final. There it was again. The blood of Christ. As a concept, it had thrown Stephanie screaming into the night. It had driven her into the arms of Artemisia. It scared me too. Somehow it promised a change I wasn’t ready or willing for.
But I also hated being wrong. So instead of accepting help, I snarled at Ron as put his hand out to me. “What do you think you can do for these kids? These people? How can you change them?
Save them?” I thought of the sweet child sparrow now sporting a pair of fangs. “How did she get to be that monster?”
From his face I knew. He’d seen her too. He’d seen the innocence dissolve as a person slid from prey to predator. “They often do. I can’t help them at all. I see that they’re fed. I listen if they want to talk. If I’m lucky, God shines through me. I leave them with Him.”
He offered me an arm up, again. I shook him off.
“None of us live to ourselves or die to ourselves,” he said. “You’ve got to serve someone.” He held out his hand to me again.
I always thought of myself as helping the people I read for. But had I? Had I kept them safer? Told them the strict truth? I couldn’t control my own will. My own will was a shabby small box that had cobwebs and filth in it, and a big hole ripped in one corner. And I clung to it because it was mine.
I pushed myself off the ground, refusing his outstretched arm. “Can I walk you home?” he said. “Get you to your door? Those wounds aren’t deep but they’ll need cleaning. Cat bites are particularly infectious,” he went on.
“No.” I backed away from him nervously. Obviously, he’d seen worse things than horse head spirits himself. He knew what I was talking about. His help included more than an escort home and Band-Aids. While it was offered freely, I had no illusions that it wouldn’t in some way cost me changes I was unwilling to make. I made my excuses and fled. But as I walked home, I felt the spark might flare out of the darkness at me, at any moment.
Like this story? It’s part of Book One, Tea Room Tales, Sight Unseen. Available at Amazon.com.