Even More of the New Novel [fiction]

As promised.

This is the last bit of writing I will post from the new novel. Thank you, everyone, for the likes.

Chapter 3?

Vree

More Blood:

Vree shut the book with a bang. A floorboard squeaked at the doorway and her mom entered the room.

“I hope you like what your dad and I did to your room,” she said. She carried a white plastic basket of folded clothes in front of her, which she handed to Vree. She rested a quizzical gaze on Vree’s face. “Dinner’s almost ready. I hope you’re hungry.”

Vree’s mind cleared. “Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked.

“No, no. Dave and Nola are helping. I want you to rest.” Karrie’s green, sorrowful eyes scanned Vree’s face as she peered at the girl. “How are you feeling? Are you still menstruating heavily?”

Vree’s face heated. Lenny sat motionless next to his treasure and the removed floorboard, listening.

“I’m fine, Mom.”

“Do the burns on your back hurt you? I have some aloe vera cream, if they do.”

“No. The burns don’t hurt and the Internet says they’ll disappear soon.”

Karrie’s gaze remained fixed. “Let me know if you need anything.” She peered at Lenny and the floorboard.

“My old hiding spot,” he said. When she did not reply, he said, “I’ll put the board back right away, Mrs. Erickson.”

“That’s a good idea. And make sure it isn’t loose. Glue it down if you have to. No one needs to break any ankles.” Karrie turned to Vree. “We’ll talk later. For now, though, put away your clothes and return the basket when you’re able.”

“I’m fine, Mom. Seriously. And I’d really like it if you’d let me live a normal life again.”

Karrie looked thoughtful. “I suppose I could have you pick some parsnip from the garden for tonight’s salad. Pick the firm small to medium ones, and nothing with lots of whiskers and brown patches.” She turned to Lenny, “Please go with her and—”

“Mom, I don’t need babied.”

“I just want someone to go with you as a precaution.”

Vree put her basket on her bed, then crossed her arms and sighed.

Lenny stood. “I will, Mrs. Erickson. I know how to look for the really good ones.”

“Be quick,” Karrie said to him. “I’d like to eat before five.” She studied Vree’s face once more. “We’ll talk later, just us girls, when we have some time alone.”

When she left, Vree put away the clothes while Lenny glued the floorboard with a bottle of white glue from Vree’s desk. Then he picked up the large book and laid it on her bed.

“Were you actually reading this mumbo-jumbo, or pulling my leg?” he asked.

Vree bristled at his accusation and shut her dresser drawer extra hard. “I looked and the words came. Is that okay with you?”

Lenny held up a hand, palm out. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I just thought that … maybe…”

“What?”

“You know.” He dropped his hand and gestured at the book. “Tell me what all that mumbo-jumbo says.”

“It’s poetry.”

“Poetry? Why would someone write poetry in cipher? I thought it was a book of codes, something top-secret.” His frown deepened. “So, what’s the key?”

“What key?”

“The key to the cipher. You know … the key that told you what the figures meant.”

“I don’t know. They just came together and made sense to me, that’s all.”

“Really?” Lenny opened the book. “Amazing.” His smile and the admiration on his face beamed volumes at Vree.

“It wasn’t amazing,” she said, almost whispering. “It freaked me out that the numbers and figures turned into words. I didn’t mean to get angry. Sorry.”

“Will you read it to me?”

“Now?”

“Later. Right now we need to pick some parsnips so you can eat.” Lenny gestured for her to go. Then he followed her from her room. A white crow appeared on the book and watched them leave.

*

The vegetable garden was behind the garage, less than two feet from the rear wall. The rows ran lengthwise to the field that edged the garden and Vree’s backyard. Something moved in the shadows. She focused on Lenny’s back and followed him toward the field, past potatoes and onions, to the three rows of parsnips. She put on work gloves she had brought along, knelt in the garden, and dug. She glanced at the sky of puffy white clouds and tried to ignore the dread that squeezed her stomach. Lightning could strike anywhere and at any time. Even on a sunny day in October.

She stayed close to Lenny, who worked at her side.

“These are really mutant carrots,” she said. “Am I right?” She dropped a pale yellow parsnip into a wicker basket at her side and knocked dirt from her oversized gloves.

“I guess so, I think.” Lenny pulled a long parsnip from the ground. It was brown and hairy looking. “Yuck.” He threw it away from the garden and it landed in the field. A mangy, orange tabby cat ran from the field, hurried to Vree, and rubbed its thin, bony body back and forth against her knees, purring loudly. She hesitated to pet the cat. Pus oozed from its closed right eye.

“You poor thing. I’m sorry you’re so sick. Are you hungry? Would you like some milk?”

The cat quit rubbing against Vree, looked at her with its healthy yellow-green one, and mewed.

“Come on.” Vree stood. The smell of peppermint gum assaulted her nose when she turned toward the house.

“You found him,” a plump woman with no tan said. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” She peered at the cat, snapped her gum, and tilted her head at Vree. Her short red hair corkscrewed in many directions.

Vree stepped back and missed falling over Lenny.

“Hi, Mrs. Matthews,” he said, looking up. “Is this your cat?”

“One of many, Leonard.” She lowered her arms and the cat sprang at them. She lifted it to her face, peered at its eyes, then lowered it to the ground and told it to go home. The cat darted around the side of the garage and out of sight.

“Thanks for finding him,” she said to Vree. “He likes to run off and be away for days. I’ve told him not to, but he’s so stubborn.” Silver bracelets jangled while she brushed hair from the front of her tight-fitting sweater that matched the color of her bright red lipstick and nail polish.

Vree steeled her eyes from the woman’s large breasts. “I’m happy you found him, Mrs. Matthews.” Her gaze dropped to the woman’s black leggings that ended at silver anklets and the top of a pair of black sandals that revealed red polished toenails. There had to be a tattoo somewhere, probably hidden for only Dr. Matthews to see. She blushed. “I have to go inside now.”

Mrs. Matthews placed a hand on Vree’s left shoulder. “When I heard about your accident, I was so worried. I’m glad you’re okay.”

Heat from Mrs. Matthews’s hand warmed Vree’s shoulder. The scene around her changed.

She ran. She ran from the house where she had discovered her husband and his hunting dogs frozen inside the living room. She tried to block the image of how surprised his dead face looked, as though he had realized seconds before his death that he was dying.

She ran across the front lawn, toward Myers Road, stumbling where it connected to the blacktopped driveway, and falling when she entered the old country highway scarred with long grooves made by the metal wheels of Amish buggies. Blood from her nose dripped into one of the tracks and reflected the backlit clouds in a sky that had once been sunny and promising a pleasant night.

The witch’s curse was upon her. Soon, she would be dead too if she stayed any longer.

She stood and ran for her life.

A large, black dog appeared in front of her.

One of the witch’s hellhounds.

She turned. She would risk drowning to get away.

Rolling gray clouds blocked the sunlight when she entered the angry field of brambles and thorny weeds that slapped and poked and grabbed at her, scratched her forearms, and slashed her brand new Rayon dress—the blue gray one with lace collar and ivory buttons. The tangled growth grabbed and stole her chunky non-strap pumps, causing her to fall. She hurried upright, glanced back only once at the dog watching her, and left her shoes as she continued to flee from the witch who lived next door.

She found the path that led to the rocky cliffs above Myers Lake. Once she made it past Lovers Leap, the cliffs would become less steep and the path would lead her to Russell Road and the sheriff’s house. She prayed he would be home. There, she would call her daughter at New Cambridge’s college campus to come get her and take her away from Ridgewood and Myers Ridge for good.

She was glad Ben had taught Evelyn how to drive an automobile.

At Lovers Leap, bars of iron piping and chain-link wire still fenced it in; there was little chance of falling over the edge and drowning. But someone had removed the piping and wire at a ten-foot section where the sloping path came close to the edge. One little slip there and she could tumble over the side.

That’s when the witch spoke from behind her.

“You cannot escape me.”

A strong force pushed her toward the cliff.

“No,” she cried.

The force was like a giant invisible hand that brushed her aside, sweeping her off her feet and over the edge.

*

The scream in Vree’s head diminished. The sickness in her stomach did not.

A large black dog stood behind Mrs. Matthews. Its head towered two feet above hers. A pair of red eyes stared down at Vree. She swallowed the lump in her throat.

The buzzing sound returned like a sudden scream for a second. Then it quieted, but not completely. Not until Mrs. Matthews took her hand from Vree’s shoulder.

Vree’s stare remained fixed on the dog’s eyes. Something in them burned like a crackling fire. A sudden voice similar to the one downtown entered her mind.

You see.

Vree swallowed again. The backdoor was too far away to outrun the giant dog.

Answer.

She nodded when she realized the creature had spoken to her. “Yes.” Her voice cracked. She cleared her throat and caught her breath. “I see you.”

YOU SEE BLOOD.

Vree winced from the force that pounded her head. “Yes,” she said again.

The dog turned and loped away from her. It turned and looked over a shoulder at her before it bounded into the field and into the woods where the trees and brush were thick and dark and hid the creature from her.

“I need to go,” she said, bolting from Mrs. Matthews and her quizzical look. She ran from the garden and charged into the house. The soles of her tennis shoes pounded across the morning room, into the foyer, and up the stairs to her bedroom.

When she entered the room, she would have mimicked the woman’s scream from the vision had she not been out of breath.

*

Still More of the New Novel [fiction]

As promised, I am continuing to release a few chapters of my work-in-progress novel about Vree Erickson.

Chapter 2?

Vree

Lenny:

A twisting ribbon of blacktop took them to a long, stone paved driveway that led to a light blue, two-story Colonial home, trimmed in eggshell white. Karrie parked inside the two-car garage attached to the back of the house, took Vree’s bags, and headed for the door that led into the laundry room. Vree followed, stumbling for a moment like a newborn foal on its legs the first time. While she paused, the sweet smell of fresh mowed country grass sprang from her dad’s John Deere tractor mower near the entry door. She took a wide path to the steps that led her inside.

She passed through the laundry room, dodged the round breakfast table in the morning room, and tried to ignore the smell of baked chicken from the kitchen as she went into the foyer and climbed the squeaky but polished wooden stairs. She made her way across a soft sea of cream carpet and stopped at her big brother’s bedroom when she heard her dad humming inside.

Charles Erickson, a tall, thin man in a black T-shirt and brown coveralls stood at the walk-in closet with a screwdriver. He had bushy but well-groomed blonde hair, frowning eyebrows, serious looking blue eyes, and an upturned nose above a pinched mouth on a clean-shaven face. He stopped working a screw in the doorframe and said, “Hi, honey, welcome home. Will you hold this door for me?”

Vree sidestepped past his toolbox and held the wooden door until he told her to let go.

“It’s good to have you home,” he said, squinting at her a moment while he turned another screw to adjust the track of the closet door. “I think you’ll like what I did to your bedroom.”

A noise at the open window near the closet caught their attention. Someone had erected an aluminum extension ladder. A boy in a brown leather jacket appeared and caulked the top of the window. He was almost featureless behind the gossamer film of dust on the glass, but Vree recognized her neighbor and best friend Lenny Stevens.

Her father went to the window screen and said, “I’ll pay you an extra twenty if you wash all the dirt off these windows when you’re done caulking. I have glass cleaner and towels in a box on the workbench in the garage.”

Lenny rubbed dirt from the glass with his fingers and peered in. He had an unclouded, intelligent looking face, although caulk marked his high forehead and the left side of his slender nose. He glanced at Vree from beneath a head of thick, burnt sienna hair, before returning his attention to Vree’s dad.

“Yes sir,” he said. His full lips thinned as he grinned at Charles.

“Very well. Back to work, then” Charles excused himself and headed for the stairs. When he stopped and turned back, a thoughtful look crossed his bright blue eyes. “I set up your new easel where your old one used to be. Let me know if you want to move it.”

“Thank you. It’ll be fine.” She paused. “I’ll be fine.”

He nodded. “Get some rest.” He turned and headed to the stairs once more.

The aluminum ladder rattled as Lenny descended it.

Vree went to the window. Below, Lenny hiked up the waist of his jeans and looked up. Their gazes met for a second before he moved the ladder to the next window. Vree went to that window and waited at the screen.

When his face did not appear, she peered down. He was gone.

“Good grief,” she mumbled, “get a grip.” She went to the hall and followed it to her bedroom. Her artist’s easel sat in front of the tall window on the right. She pulled aside her lavender curtains. Something large moved in the dark green shadows of bushes and trees in the field behind the house. She tried to see what sort of animal foraged there when someone knocked at her door.

Before she turned from the window, a pair of beady red eyes peered from the shadows. With a gasp, she took a step back. When she looked again, no red eyes peered at her.

The person knocked again at the door.

“Oh, good grief,” Vree said. “Come in already.”

*

Lenny stood in the doorway, looking around at the room while Vree went to her box of pre-stretched canvases on her twin-size bed.

“It’s so different without carpet,” he said.

“It didn’t always have carpet. Remember?”

“Oh, yeah. We used to slide across the floor in our socks.” Lenny followed Vree to her desk where she unpacked the canvases. “This was our fortress, our pirate ship, our galactic spaceship, and even the Temple of Doom mines from Indiana Jones.” He laughed, “I still have our maps and all kinds of drawings.”

Vree sorted her canvases by size while he reminisced about them playing in her bedroom, as though it had happened a long time ago. His honesty and friendliness relaxed her. And he made her laugh when he told her that he had buried treasure in the floor.

“Seriously,” he said. He went to the window where she had stood moments ago and got on his hands and knees, inspecting the floor. “The new varnish has sealed the loose floorboards, but I hid some of our toys beneath the floor.”

Vree shook her head. “You hid our toys in the floor? Why?”

“Just the stuff that was special.” He peered up at her. “Do you have a knife or scissors?”

Vree fetched an X-Acto knife from her box of art supplies. Lenny took it from her, extracted the blade, and cut at the seams of a board. Vree watched and wondered what lay beneath.

He stopped cutting and said, “Your parents carpeted the floor when we were five. That was ten years ago.”

Vree frowned. “Hey, is my rag doll in there? She went missing right after Mom and Dad redid my room. I couldn’t sleep for weeks without her.”

“Maybe.” Lenny’s shoulders dropped and he returned to cutting at the varnish. When he stopped, he used the blade to lift the board until he could grasp it with his fingers. He lifted the wood and said, “Voila!”

Vree tried to peer inside but Lenny blocked her view as he reached inside. The space was deep enough to swallow his entire arm. He grunted and withdrew a dusty Raggedy Ann doll.

“Sorry,” he said, handing the doll to her.

She took it and blew dust from its cloth face. “This was my mom’s. It belonged to her mom.”

Lenny apologized again and pulled more toys from under the floor. Cars, plastic army men, a pink, stuffed bear with a missing arm—

“That was yours,” Vree said. “You called it Penelope.”

Lenny sat up with a half-filled, blue bottle of bubble solution with the wand inside. He blew some bubbles and Vree popped some of them. She held her rag doll close to her chest.

Lenny pulled out a half-dozen comic books before he struggled with something heavy. When he sat up again, he held a book larger than one of Vree’s largest coffee table art books. Its dusty cover was black, hard leather, and its pages were askew.

“I forgot all about this,” he said.

*

“What is it?” Vree knelt next to the book and looked for a title. There was none, even after Lenny blew away some of the dust, which made her sneeze.

“I found it one day when some construction guys tore up the sidewalk in front of your porch. It was just lying there in a burlap bag. It was so heavy. I could barely carry it to your room. I thought it was important and I wanted you to have it, so I brought it to your room, but you were in the bathtub, so I hid it in the floor. That was just before your folks had your bedroom redone.”

He pulled a loose page from the book. The page was thick and yellow; someone had written numbers and figures on it with a quill pen. He ran a finger over the page. “The whole book is like this. It’s filled with numbers and strange figures, like a secret code. I remember looking at it. None of it makes sense, but I thought it was pretty neat.” He slid the book off his lap, set the page aside, and rummaged again inside the floor for more buried treasure.

Vree picked up the page. The numbers and figures shifted and coalesced into letters that became words.

The transformation startled her and made her dizzy. She closed her eyes and told herself that she wasn’t crazy, that she was okay, that her mind was simply playing tricks.

She took a deep breath, told herself again that she was okay, and looked at the page.

“Free the dancers of truth so that you may know their poetry,” she read aloud.

Lenny ignored her while he continued rummaging.

She opened the book.

“It’s poetry and something else,” she whispered when some of the numbers and figures on the page became words. She sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor, placed the book on her lap, and read while Lenny extracted more toys and comic books from his old hiding place.

The visual clarity of a poem titled Enchantress stood out from the others.

Dost thou think her grotesquery is power?
Sweet the pleasure her shining breast gives.
Yet, turn to see her pluck the summer flower,
And see how long the golden lotus of women lives.
What men of torment take such pains?
That he should seek her all his days.
To sift away life’s joys and gains
On which his mind sees not her ways.

True love is worth the trouble spent.
Truth and beauty kiss in worth’s esteem
Of hard-fought love. Yet he is bent
To the crook of his folly’s mighty fire, it would seem.
He travels not to right his wrong,
His beldame stole his heart’s true desire.
He is lost in the siren of her song,
And dead in her all-consuming fire.

“Oh, how creepy.” Her head drooped over the book and the ends of her hair brushed the page. “These poems must be really ancient.”

Lenny looked up. “Are you reading that?” He craned his neck, leaned toward her, and peered at the page of numbers and strange figures.

Vree ran her fingertips over the ink and read the poem again. She nearly screamed when Lenny dropped a toy red Ferrari sports car, which struck against one of her tennis shoes.

She snatched the Ferrari from the floor. Heat from the metal caused her to drop it as if it had burned her palm. Dizziness overwhelmed her. She closed her eyes and waited for the moment to pass. When it did—

The sun had set. Twilight made it difficult to see detail along the side of the road where her car sat. The dark red LeSabre had a flat tire. She would be late to her son’s birthday party. She tucked her phone down her yellow blouse and inside her black, lacy bra.

She had managed to jack up the front of the car and remove two of the five lug nuts holding the tire to its wheel. But the other three would not budge no matter how hard she wrenched on them. She shook the can of WD-40, sprayed them again, then stood from her crouch at the edge of the road and waited for the smelly grease to do its magic.

The flat was on the driver’s side and that meant she had to work partly in the road. The empty highway and the fields of countryside brush were quiet around her. She pushed her bangs from her eyes and knelt again next to the tire, resting her knees against a blue plastic tarp she had found in the trunk. She brushed away some dirt from her black pantyhose and the hem of her navy blue skirt, and pulled again at a large piece of amber glass from the tire. This time it came out. She replayed in her mind the sound of the broken beer bottle crunching under the tire. She had not seen the glass until the last second before driving over it.

The fading sunlight behind the thicket of trees on the car’s passenger side made her nervous. She headed back to the trunk to find the road flares. She had set the spare tire on the ground next to a ditch of still water. Green scum had collected on the water’s stagnant surface and she thought she could make out the mostly submerged bulging eyes of a frog. It made her think of snakes, so she high-stepped her black high heels past the spare. She could hunt and field dress any wildlife, but she could not stand being around snakes.

She returned to the gaping trunk and looked inside for the box of flares.

A speeding vehicle approached behind her.

She stood up and turned.

Nothing.

She bent over the box again. Again, a speeding vehicle approached behind her.

She stood and turned again.

Again, no vehicle approached.

She brushed at her bangs and flicked a strand of hair from her hand—a chubby right hand. All her fingers were chubby. So were her wrists and arms … she had never been thin. But she had always been pretty. And tonight, Oriankor’s spell would make her beautiful. She wanted Howard to see how beautiful and sexy she could be. After their son’s party and the kids were in bed, she had a special present for him, which was still in the black plastic bag next to the German chocolate birthday cake on the backseat.

Behind her, not far away, a dog howled.

Another dog joined in. Then another until there was a chorus of howls coming at her.

She spun around. A large Rottweiler sat on the median. It vanished as an engine roared toward her.

The white van came fast over the crest of hill and at her. It did not move to the next lane to go around her. The large grille crushed her body when the van slammed into her.

The crash sent the frog to the bottom of the ditch water and spooked a pair of sparrows from their perch on the telephone wires above as parts of the car and van flew in pieces across the country highway. The van’s driver flew through the shattered windshield and cartwheeled into the field like a twirling rag doll, expelling blood and body parts along with loose change and bits of clothing into the patches of goldenrod, buffalo bur, nettle, and bindweed.

*

More of the New Novel [fiction]

May 2019 is here. My novel about Vree Erickson is growing and taking on a life of its own.

Meanwhile, to everyone who follows my blog, I am continuing to release a few chapters of the new book’s beginning over the next few days.

More of Chapter 1?

Vree

The ride home:

Vree and her mom said little to each other as they drove from the hospital’s parking lot. A numb cocoon enveloped her and she barely saw the world around her, including the lighted sign of Molly’s, her favorite restaurant. She rose from her funk at her mom’s insistence and ordered a large cherry berry punch at the drive-through window. Then she slumped in her seat again as they turned on Main Street, leaving the heavier rain at North Hill. The fractured pavement gave way to three sets of bone jarring railroad tracks that ran past an abandoned factory that once said RIDGEWOOD STEEL on its gray, two-story brick wall facing Vree. Now it said ID WO EEL because either the letters had fallen off or someone had removed them. Many broken windows along the building looked like sharp teeth of glass in dark mouths wanting to devour passersby. She took new notice to the cruel obscenities spray-painted along the lower wall. Her own angry words came to mind. She looked away.

Main Street’s ancient brick and cement storefronts pressed tight against each other on both sides of the street. Big windows with names like Suzie’s Styles & Cuts, Jerry’s Discounts, and Coleman’s Sporting Goods in large white fonts called for attention, but few people shopped here. Parking was no problem on either side of the street.

The rain quit, but the sky remained dim with bruised looking clouds. Vree rummaged inside her hospital bag, then bolted upright.

“We have to go back. I left my phone at the hospital.”

“It’s in your overnight bag. I put it there when you got dressed.”

Vree fell back against her seat and sighed.

“Relax,” Karrie said. She stopped at a red light next to The Pickled Pub, a nondescript brick and mortar building with a green steel door that belched two ragged looking men onto the uneven sidewalk. The men staggered past the building’s three grimy windows that had neon signs advertising ice-cold beer inside. The last window sported a black and white sign in it that announced fifty-cent wings on Friday and Saturday nights only.

The men disappeared around the building’s corner and a moment later, three girls on bicycles turned up the street. They shrilled and shrieked at each other as they raced by. The green door belched again and a dark-complexioned, white-haired woman exited. She propped open the door with a broken cement block, leaned against the front wall of the three-story building, and smoked a cigarette. She seemed to pay no attention to Vree watching her, or anything else around her for that matter while she inhaled deeply from her cigarette. Her lined face looked ancient and her plump body had on a tattered green Army jacket, a red sweatshirt, and blue jeans that looked brand-new.

A chill crossed over Vree as a giant black dog filled the beer joint’s doorway. large red eyes peered at her.

DOES IT SEE ME?

The words came to Vree in a shout that hurt her ears.

CAN IT SEE BLOOD?

Vree put her hands to her ears and shuddered from the voice’s ferocity.

Buzzing sounds followed, as though thousands of bees had flown inside the SUV and were now inside her head.

The air rippled around her like disturbed pond water and made her nauseous. She fell back, worried that she was going to lose her cherry berry drink all over her lap.

“Wait,” she cried out when her mom started through the intersection. Something terrible was going to happen. A chill ran between her shoulder blades. “Stop the car. Please stop the car.”

Karrie brought the SUV to a quick stop. “What’s wrong?” Worry mixed with the fear on her face.

The rippling air stopped. So did the buzzing noise, which made way for the hammering of blood rushing past her eardrums. Outside the window, the white-haired woman still leaned against the wall and smoked her cigarette. The dog and its red eyes were gone.

A hand pulled at her chin. “Vree. Look at me. Are you okay? Let me see your eyes.”

“I got really sick for a moment.” Vree turned and fumbled for her drink.

A car horn sounded behind them. The Sorento’s engine stalled for a moment before it roared to life and the SUV leaped through the intersection. Vree almost dropped her drink.

Her hands trembled as she sucked the last of her cherry berry punch though the straw.

“Are you okay?” Karrie asked. Worry edged her voice.

“I’m okay,” Vree lied. She closed her eyes and tried to relax, but her mind replayed the red-eyed dog she had seen and the words she had heard. Does it see me? Can it see blood? What did that mean? What blood? Whose blood? Who had said those words?

Whatever had happened to her was not a seizure. And it frightened her more knowing there was something else wrong with her.

*

Changes and the New Novel [fiction]

April 2019 is ending. I wish I could say the same about my novel. I continue to move forward with it, painstakingly slow.

The novel is about Vree Erickson and is a reworking of Night of the Hellhounds/Margga’s Curse novel, which I published as an ebook in 2013 under its first title, and 2014 under its second one. As of now, its working title is Curse of the Hellhounds, though I am leaning to Blood Curse or Blood’s Curse, perhaps, for its final title.

I have written many synopses for the book over the past four years, changing events and characters and tenses and points of view so many times that I quit working on it several times, always feeling unsure about the story’s quality. Finally, I convinced myself last year to write another discovery draft—a.k.a., a first draft—and let the story unfold naturally. Surprisingly, it was not too different from the original novel.

But there were several major changes. Among them:

  • No move
  • No alien creatures
  • No dead father, no spirit
  • No dead witch, no spirit
  • Bring back hellhounds for major roles
  • Change Margga’s name, yet again

I left the witch in the story but changed her role to one I created in an unpublished draft prior to 2012 when I drafted Night of the Hellhounds. Her surname Dekownik is a Polish surname. Her father, Titus Dekownik—Titus is an alternate spelling of the Polish name Tytus—married Aleta Benitez y de la Herrera, a quiet, passive witch whose family came from Madrid, Spain. Originally, I named their only child and daughter “Marisa,” which means “bitter.” I changed it to the invented name “Margga” in 2013 in attempt to give her an ugly-sounding name. After much consideration, Margga is Marisa again.

To everyone who follows my blog, I am releasing a few chapters of the new book’s beginning over the next few days.

Is this the beginning, Chapter 1?

Vree

At the doctor’s:

Rain outside Ridgewood Mercy Hospital drummed like a carwash rinse down the long and narrow plate glass window. Storms had a way of looking worse through windows. Vree Erickson turned her head away.

The storm had darkened the Radiology’s waiting room to a faux twilight. The artificial lighting overhead exaggerated the sterile plainness of the white room she sat in. Even the five gray chairs against the back wall lacked a true designer’s skill.

Vree looked for a clock and found none. Whatever the time was that afternoon, she would be going home soon. She was out of the hospital gown and in her favorite Starry Night T-shirt, black jeans, and a new pair of black and pink Asics tennis shoes.

Her mom, Karrie Erickson, sighed next to her and pushed at the keypad on her smartphone. i hope its nothing serious, she wrote.

“Tell Daddy I say hi,” Vree said.

Karrie nodded. She sent the message a minute later. She wore a white jumpsuit Vree had never seen before, and she ran a delicate hand through her auburn hair, her telltale nervous tic. She smiled at Vree, which widened her strong jawline, but it did not fit with her pinched brows and the troubled look in her bloodshot, blue-green eyes.

“Hello.” Dr. Carlyle rushed into the room and headed straight to Karrie with an outstretched arm. The bottom of his white lab coat billowed from brown slacks while he hurried.

Vree sat up straight while he and her mom shook hands. This was it. Soon she would know what was going on in her head.

The doctor turned in front of her and said, “How do you feel, Verawenda?”

“I’m good.”

“Good.” Dr. Carlyle pulled at the collar of his green shirt, then took a digital notepad from under his left arm and sat next to Karrie, away from Vree. Even though he was probably her mom’s age, Vree found herself attracted to his handsome, good-natured face.

Silence fell and she found the sound of rain disturbing. With each breath, she waited for his revelation. A long moment passed before he stopped referring to his notes. His expression no longer held the good nature from a moment ago.

“Your first CT scans revealed small amounts of bleeding and some swelling in your brain. But that was temporary. Your last scan revealed a tumor.”

His words jolted her. “A tumor? Is that bad?”

“It’s pressing against your brain and inoperable but likely treatable with stereotactic laser ablation.”

“And what is that?” Karrie asked.

“The procedure concentrates on the tumor itself while preserving neighboring healthy tissue.” The doctor peered at Vree, which caused her to lean toward him. “Some patients have seizures afterwards, but they’re mild and happen less often than if you were to have surgery.”

“Do you do the ablation?” Vree asked. “And how soon can I have it done?”

Dr. Carlyle smiled and shook his head. “No. Our hospital is not equipped for that.” Then to Karrie, he said, “It will mean traveling to New York City or Philadelphia. Both have excellent hospitals.”

“She will get better,” Karrie said. “Right?” Hope flickered in her eyes.

“That’s what we’re aiming for. Meanwhile, I have prescribed Verawenda some meds for now. I recommend she rests frequently and takes it easy for a few weeks. No running, jumping, bicycling … anything physical or strenuous.”

“What about her Phys Ed classes at school?”

“Not right away. Maybe some light swimming with a teacher present. Again, nothing physical. No contact sports of any kind.” The doctor referred to his notes again. Vree left her seat, walked to one of the narrow corner windows, and stared at the rain. On a clear day, she would have been able to see past the trees, to the bottom of the hospital’s hillside and the Walmart and McDonald’s at North Hill Plaza. She placed a finger on the glass and traced patterns until she heard her name again.

“She is doing exceptionally well for someone undergoing the trauma of a near-death experience,” Dr. Carlyle said. “I want her to see a specialist in brain trauma for possible physical weakness and memory impairment, as well as altered aspects of her personality while her brain heals. I’ll set up an appointment and call you.”

Vree stopped listening again. The rain had slowed and the window cleared of its kaleidoscope of colored patterns. A white crow walked into view on the concrete ledge and peered in at her with black eyes. It cawed from a large, black beak, its sound muffled by the glass and the rain.

Vree placed her hands at the sides of her face and peered out at the crow. It cawed again before it vanished like a ghost, as though it had never been there.

She closed her eyes and shivered. The tumor was causing hallucinations.

Dr. Carlyle called out a goodbye to her. He and his reflection in the window left the room. It was time to go home. Vree shuffled to her chair and her pink and purple striped overnight bag next to it. Her mom picked it up and handed her a white plastic bag with the hospital’s logo on it.

“What’s this?”

“Important papers,” Karrie said. “Prescriptions, restrictions, and literature on the brain. Don’t lose it.”

Vree scowled, followed her mom to the elevator bay, and entered the large elevator. Before the silver doors closed, she quietly prayed she would not faint or have a seizure and die on the way down.

*

New Ridgewood, 2 [fiction]

Wherever Vree was, she could not see much, just gray darkness similar to the warm and safe kind beneath her blankets when she and Zoey used them for tents in her bedroom. But she was not beneath her blankets. The grayness was infinite here, wherever here was, and she floated and rolled and swam in it, which made her certain she was dreaming.

There was nothing to look at, only her hands and arms and the rest of her body below her head, though they were almost impossible to see in the grayness. She wore a gown—no. Not a gown. It was a long T-shirt—the kind she wore as pajamas. She also had a pair of white ankle socks on feet that seemed far away. They floated in and out of sight.

She grew bored with floating, so she sat, surprised to find a plush seat beneath her—a sofa by its size and shape when she stretched out her arms on either side.

“Nice,” she said.

The sofa made a comfortable bed.

“Very nice.”

She floated alone. And she liked it.

She floated with her sofa, going nowhere.

There was no sense of emergency here—no alarm to awaken her to another day of chores, no schedules to follow and adhere to, and no places to be at, like Chase’s baseball games and Emma’s piano recitals.

She liked that, too.

Except for the infinite grayness. It was like being underwater. She searched for color. She had seen plenty of colorful underwater worlds of coral reefs and tropical fish.

But this was not the ocean.

“Where am I?” she asked a pinpoint of white light far above her, shining like a solitary star a billion miles away.

An urgent need to go to it overwhelmed her. Whatever was there was important. Perhaps color was there.

“Hurry,” she said to her sofa, which floated and ignored her requests for it to speed to the light. “I need to go there. Now.”

“Let it come to you,” a familiar voice said from the seat to her right.

“Daddy?” Vree squealed, delighted to hear his voice.

“Be patient,” he said from the grayness, his thin body an almost featureless shape in the seat next to her. She scrambled from her seat and leapt in his embrace of long arms that wrapped around her and held her close. His Aqua Velva cologne made her grin wide while she snuggled against him.

Sudden white light bathed them as though someone had flicked on a light switch. Vree fell from her father’s embrace but remained snuggled against him. He wore his usual dark work suit and shoes—all business. And her T-shirt was the Bugs Bunny one from last Christmas.

She smiled a short-lived grin at her father who now wore his blue silk robe and matching pajamas and slippers from the same Christmas.

“How did you change clothes so fast?” she asked.

“It’s Christmas,” he said, pointing a long finger at the infinite white space in front of them. Vree looked. She wanted to see a Christmas tree and decorations there, but there was none. No Christmas smells of cookies and cake, and no carols playing in the background. No noise at all.

Someone coughed. A quick, soft cough loud enough that it sent her attention to an armchair that descended from above them. It stopped in front of the sofa and a girl looked up from an open, oversized hardcover book.

“You look like me,” Vree said.

The doppelganger smiled at her, then closed the book softly and laid it in her lap of skinny leg jeans—Vree’s favorite pair from last Christmas. She even wore Vree’s oversized tank top with a print of Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night on the front, which had also been a Christmas gift. Her blonde hair—either fastened in a bun or a ponytail in the back—was pulled tight from her face.

Vree noticed her own hair was loose and draped around her neck and shoulders.

“Who is she?” Vree asked her father.

“I’m you,” the doppelganger said.

“This is such a weird dream,” Vree said. “I don’t think I’ve ever dreamed about me before.”

“’Tis no dream, girlfriend,” the other Vree said. “Welcome to one of death’s many realities … home away from home … the land of repetition and boredom.” She yawned audibly.

“Hush,” Charles said to her. Then, to Vree, he said, “She’s your subconscious. She needs to be a part of you, not floating here without you. You must pull her in so you can recover. The two of you need to be one again.”

Vree clutched her father’s arm in a tight embrace. “Recover from what?”

“A coma,” the other Vree called out. “Lightning struck us. It killed Daddy and put us in the hospital, unconscious.”

Vree scowled at the girl. “I don’t like this dream. I wish you’d go away.”

“You’re in denial, girlfriend. But that doesn’t change the facts. You need to wake from this coma.”

“I don’t believe you,” Vree said. “Daddy’s right here. This is just a dream trying to go bad.” She searched her father’s solemn face. “Tell her she’s crazy.”

Charles met her gaze. “To awaken from your coma, you need to be one with your subconscious and create order in your mind. You need to embrace your subconscious again.”

Vree shook her head.

“You can do this, Vree, honey,” Charles said. “The lightning separated you from your subconscious, but it also triggered special abilities in you. You need your subconscious so you can live.”

Vree let go of his arm and scooted away. She crossed her arms over her chest and said, “This is just a dream.”

No one said anything.

Vree uncrossed her arms and looked down at herself. She no longer wore the Bugs Bunny shirt. Her red KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON T-shirt made her think of rain, thunder, and—

“If this isn’t a dream, then where am I?”

“Somewhere between life and death.”

Vree moaned and shook her head.

“Hey-hey, girlfriend,” the other Vree called out, “where’s the love?”

“I don’t love you!”

“Without her, you cannot live,” Charles said.

“If all this is true and you’re dead but I’m not, I don’t wanna live without you.”

“Hush your nonsense, Verawenda Renee. You need to continue living. You need to do important things where you’re going. Now, sit up straight, chin out, and bring your subconscious to you. Think it and it will happen. Accept her and she will come. Let it happen.”

Vree frowned at him. He had moved closer to her. She reached out and took one of his hands in hers. He lifted it to his mouth and kissed the back of it. Then he released it. A white light glowed from her hand, spread up her arm, then over her body until the light bathed her.

Across the short distance, white light bathed the other Vree.

“Now that you’re awakening, it’s time for me to go.” Charles’s form grew translucent. “The path of your new life will be difficult, especially where you are headed. But your subconscious will be with you to help.” He raised a finger to hush her interruption. “You can do this.”

He vanished.

The light hurt Vree’s eyes, so she covered them with her hands. She did not see the lights from each body connect and become one.

“Breathe,” the other Vree said, her voice coming from all directions.

“I am breathing.” Vree sucked in a breath. “See?”

“Deeper. I want you to take a deep breath this time. A really big breath.”

“Why?”

“You know why.”

Vree uncovered her eyes but kept them closed. Then she took in a deep breath.

The light vanished. So did Vree.

*.*.*

New Ridgewood, 1 [fiction]

Ridgewood continues to change. The same goes for her characters. After all, real-life 2017 is a bizarre, stranger time than 1970 when I began creating the place and her residents. And no matter how fictional they are, they need an essence of reality to make them current and believable.

I have told Vree Erickson’s story before. But no matter, it wants to change with the times. So I stopped wrestling with it over the summer and let it happen—let it write itself.

Here is the beginning of Vree’s story with new life breathed into it.


Vree Erickson yanked the steering wheel of her father’s John Deere riding mower and dodged mowing over her brother’s black leather baseball glove. Surface roots of the old oak tree in her parents’ backyard jostled her while she tried steering away from them. The lawnmower pitched left, right, left again, tossing her like yesterday’s roller coaster ride on Old Shaky, and then… BAM. The deck slammed down on a root. The blade stopped. The motor whined. Vree took her foot from the gas pedal and groaned. She had promised her father that she would be careful mowing the lawn this time.

But this was not her fault. Chase had promised that he had picked up his sports equipment before he, Emma and their mom left to shop at Ridgewood Village Mall an hour ago. Now Vree pondered what to do about the mower. All she knew was how to check and fill the gas tank and oil, and how to start it and turn it off. Driving the thing over the hilly terrain without killing herself was a plus.

“Hello? Vree? Are you there?” Zoey’s voice brought her back.

“Let me call you back,” Vree said to the voice in her pink and black headphones over her ears. She shut off the mower’s engine.

“Are you okay?” Zoey asked. “It sounded like you were in an accident.”

“My stupid brother left his glove in the yard, which caused me to get the lawnmower stuck on some tree roots. My dad’s gonna kill me if I broke anything.”

“Do you need me to come over?” Zoey asked.

Vree sat forward, tugged her red KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON T-shirt from her sweaty back, then wiped her palms on the knees of her blue jeans. “I’m okay,” she answered. A wet breeze blew the ends of her long blonde hair across her face, covering her eyes for a moment. She pushed her hair away and shivered from another breeze. The sunny day had turned gray in an instant.

“You get ready for my birthday party,” she said. “I’ll push the mower into the shed and finish cleaning the kitchen and living room.”

“I’m so excited for you,” Zoey said before she squealed. “You’re a teenager now.”

Vree shrugged. She didn’t feel any different.

“See you at six, birthday girl,” Zoey said before she ended the call.

Vree removed the Bluetooth headphones and put them over the steering wheel. Then she jumped from the tractor, pulled her hair back, twirled it into a bun, and hurried to the rear of the lawnmower. She needed to finish her chores by four o’clock and shower before Mom got home from shopping.

She placed both hands on the back of the seat and rocked the mower, grunting and pushing it until it was away from the roots. The damaged root exposed a white, wet wound where the lawnmower blade had cut it. Daddy would be disappointed in her for damaging his grandfather’s oak tree—again. Luckily, there was a can of tree wound sealer in the shed left over from last year.

She leapt into her seat and tried starting the mower. The engine coughed but did not jump to life as it was supposed to do.

If the lawnmower was broken…. She groaned. This was different from staying out past curfew, or cutting her hair uneven with Mom’s good scrapbook scissors, or vomiting corndogs on Daddy at Alice Lake’s rollercoaster ride yesterday.

“Come on,” she begged as she tried the engine again. Things had to start going her way.

Thunder banged from a sky that had grown darker with bruised looking clouds. Her phone’s weather app had told her it would rain today. If only her phone had an app to let her know when she was about to screw up her life.

I could dodge life’s embarrassments and stay out of trouble.

More thunder banged, vibrating its way into her. The sky seemed to open and drop a flood of rain past the umbrella of leafy branches and drenching her. She scampered to the tree trunk and shivered from the chill beneath heavy branches. Thirty yards away, her parents’ spacious Craftsman home beckoned her inside where it was dry and warm. Her orange tabby cat sat at the living room’s middle bay window, watching from behind the rain-streaked glass, and meowing for his three o’clock meal.

Vree looked away. Rain fell on the lawnmower and her good pair of headphones. She darted to the left side of the green and yellow mower and pushed, losing her footing twice on the wet grass after three steps. She hurried to the back of the mower.

After losing her footing again, she looked up. Her father’s black Escalade pulled in the driveway. She groaned. It wasn’t five o’clock. He wasn’t supposed to be home yet.

Charles Erickson hurried from his vehicle, leaving its headlights on, the engine running, and frantic wipers slapping rain from the windshield. He juggled his opened umbrella while he took to the right side of the mower and helped Vree push the tractor across the soggy ground, closer to the shed behind the garage.

A flash of bright white light and tremendous heat engulfed Vree. Something popped in her head. She fell unconscious to the freshly mowed grass, unaware that lightning had struck the oak tree, her, and her father, knocking Charles Maxwell Erickson, Esquire, out of his polished, black leather Florsheim wingtip oxfords.

An hour later, after Karrie Erickson returned home from shopping with Vree’s older brother and sister, the successful private practice lawyer, who had earned as much as six figures last year, lay dead inside the same Ridgewood ambulance that rushed his comatose daughter to the hospital.

*.*.*

To be continued, for sure.

Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 10 [fiction]

“Vree?” Grandma released my hand. “Are you okay?” She waved her other hand in front of my eyes as the remnants of the vision faded. “I seemed to have lost your attention for a moment.” Her face bore a concerned look.

“Tired,” I said, blinking and taking in the room that was my new bedroom.

“I need to finish supper and you should shower now,” Grandma said to me, standing. “We’ll eat as soon as everyone gets back.”

“Did everyone else go to the ER?” I asked, “Lenny, too?”

“No. He and Amy are in the kitchen. And I need to get back down there and make sure they haven’t burned anything. You, however, relax … take a nap after your shower. I’ll call you when it’s time to eat.”

Grandma picked up a gallon-size yellow plastic bucket that sat on my desk. She had cleaned up my vomit, probably when I’d been bawling into my pillow. Her shoes were soft against the stairs as she left me alone with my thoughts.

Bits of the vision still played in my mind. Had I glimpsed at a small piece of Grandpa and Grandma’s past? And what were all those references to magic and a child?

I needed to keep people from touching me.

A knock at the door interrupted my thoughts.

Lenny again.

I wiped my mouth with the backs of my hands in case any vomit lingered there, then told him to come up.

“I wanna give you something,” he said when he reached the top of the stairs. He faced me from the far side of the three-sided safety banister. “I was gonna do it earlier, but your grandmother…” He shrugged. “Well, you know.” He went to where his treasure lay buried and practically dived to the floor.

I stayed on my bed and watched him on the other side of the wooden banister. “What is it? You already gave me that weird book.”

“Things are gonna get weirder before this day is over.”

Weirder?

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Lenny took a small, brown paper sack from inside the floor and emptied its contents in his left hand. Then he returned the sack and floorboard, came to me, and dangled a necklace in front of my face. An arrowhead carved from gray flint hung from a delicate gold chain.

“It’s real,” he said, unclasping the chain. “I got it when I visited a Seneca Indian reservation in New York. Turn around so I can put it on you.”

“Why?”

“Arrowheads are powerful forces against witches,” he said. “It won’t protect me because I’ve been cursed. But it will protect you … just in case.”

“In case of what?”

“Margga likes hurting the people we…”

“Love?”

“Yes.”

My heart quickened. Lenny did not show any embarrassment about his admission. I turned away from him and he fastened the necklace around my neck after he brushed my hair out of the way.

“Just keep that arrowhead on you at all times today … especially tonight,” he said, going to the stairs.

“What happens tonight?” I hurried from my bed and practically pinned him against the banister. “What kind of danger are we in, Lenny? You need to tell me.”

“I don’t have time. My dad’s picking me up in a few minutes.”

“You’re leaving?”

“I have to. It’s almost six o’clock. She’ll kill me if I’m anywhere near Myers Ridge.” Lenny took my shoulders and gently pushed me away from him. White light glowed between us when he did.

It vanished when he released me.

He looked at his hands, stunned.

“Did you see that?” he asked.

I had, but one of my DVD cases fell over on my desk and interrupted my reply. At first, I saw nothing amidst the boxes and movies there. Then, a white crow materialized and perched on one of the brown cardboard boxes on my desk. I yelped, surprised and worried as its eyes glowed as red as burning ember.

“You’re him,” Lenny said.

I stepped away from my desk and pointed an accusing finger at the crow. “You can see that?” I asked Lenny.

“Enit Huw.” He drew closer to my desk. “Gam Gam told me about you,” he said, addressing the crow and growing more excited. “You’re the soul of time—past, present, and future. You appeared twice to Gam Gam. This is your third appearance. Now you bring hope for healing and new beginnings in life. You’re the sign of Margga’s end.”

“Someone has released the book of enchantment and opened it,” the crow said in a raspy voice. It cocked its head at me. “You! You have begun freeing the dancers of truth. You must continue so that you may know their poetry.”

Free the dancers of truth so that you may know their poetry. “That was in the book,” I said to Lenny.

“The sentries are watching you,” the crow said, its head still cocked at me. “They smell and taste your energy. They will report their findings and she will try to destroy you.”

“Are you talking about Margga?” I asked. “Margga and me?”

The crow cocked its head at Lenny and said, “The girl’s energy is unharnessed, chaotic, and exciting the witch’s spirit even now in the depths of Yalendora. The spirit feeds off chaos and will grow stronger when she returns. The girl must harness her energy or the spirit will consume it and turn this place to darkness again. If this comes to pass, her curse will include many, if not the whole world.”

“What can we do?” Lenny asked.

The crow turned an eye at me. “Harness your energy and free the dancers of truth.”

“Dancers?” I recalled how the numbers and symbols in the book had moved—danced—when they changed into words. “You want me to read that book of poetry Lenny gave me?”

Lenny lifted the weird black book from my desk. “This book?”

“Yes, the book of enchantment. The girl and the book are one. She must unlock the spell that will save us all.” The crow cocked its head at me. “You have been warned, Verawenda Erickson. Take heed. You must choose whether to live or die.”

Wait! “Choose whether to live or die? What does that mean?”

“I shall return soon for your answer.”

I started to protest more but the crow vanished.

Lenny sucked in a breath and picked up a long tail feather from atop the box. “A feather from Enit Huw.” His eyes were wide with amazement.

“What did it mean I must choose whether to live or die?” I asked.

Lenny went to my bed and sat, holding the book and feather on his lap.

“What did it mean I must choose whether to live or die?” I asked again.

“What?” He looked up at me. His eyes glistened. The amazement had left his face, replaced by one I knew well every time I looked in a mirror. “They could’ve lived. My Gumpa, Mom, Gam Gam. It’s all my fault. The enchantment Gam Gam looked for to end Margga’s curse was this book. And I had it all along.”

A car horn outside my window stopped me from asking any more questions.

Lenny stood and placed the book and feather on my bed. “This changes everything. I have to tell my family about it. In the meantime, read the book, Vree. I’ll be back before sundown.” He hurried past me, then stopped and came to me and planted a kiss on my forehead. “This is wonderful,” he said before he turned and hurried downstairs.

Wonderful? How?

I stood at the top of the stairs for several minutes before I resigned trying to make sense of what had happened.

A shower would relax me, so I went downstairs to the large bathroom next to Dave’s bedroom. The light switch revealed a roomy place painted gold, which added to the bright illumination from a makeup mirror above a black porcelain sink to the left of the door. I found an unpacked box of our toiletries on the sink’s black porcelain counter. Mom’s creams, lotions, powders, makeup, and bath oils and salts were inside, along with Amy’s and my less expensive ones. My purple T-shirt pajamas of Snoopy was there, too, which had somehow survived the fire and smelled of Mom’s sunflower and sunshine laundry detergent … and Daddy’s cologne. I found his bottle of Polo Black at the bottom of the box and held it close to my nose, remembering him before the lightning killed him and changed me.

Out of my shoes and socks, my feet welcomed the cool relief of the cream tiled floor. I locked the door and crossed the room to a black bathtub with two sliding frosted glass doors. I turned on the water via the two ivory handles and adjusted the temperature to my liking. There, I stripped, found shampoo and two fluffy towels next to the tub, stepped inside, closed the sliding doors, and plunged my head beneath the shower’s pulsating stream of warm water. When I stood up straight, something cold touched between my breasts and caused me to yelp.

Lenny’s arrowhead necklace—I still wore it.

I thought about removing it, then changed my mind and let as many memories and thoughts fade from the foreground of my mind. Coconut scented shampoo and soap that smelled like cocoa butter washed away sweat and left me feeling cleaner than I had since waking from my coma.

The arrowhead thumped cold against my chest again. I took a closer look at it. It didn’t look special, other than it was obviously handmade. I considered again removing it as I slid open the shower door and stepped from the tub. When I reached for a towel, they were gone. So were my clothes. White cabinets had replaced the dark oak ones above the toilet that had been black, and green linoleum with white and yellow daisies covered the floor.

Daddy opened the door and stuck his head inside.

“How bad is the cut?” he asked me. “Have you stopped the bleeding?”

I stumbled backwards and put my arms around myself to hide my nakedness. Only, I wasn’t naked. I wore a dry white T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans. Green tennis shoes with yellow shoestrings covered my feet. They and my clothes were covered with splatters of light blue paint. So were my arms.

“You’re gonna get infected if you don’t clean that wound,” Daddy said as he entered. He wore a white dress shirt open at the collar and black slacks held up with thin, black suspenders. I stumbled when he took me by an arm and led me to an ordinary-looking white sink and counter where pieces of broken glass littered the water-stained basin.

“Open your hand and let me have a look,” he said. He held my right hand, pulled open my fingers, took away a piece of glass, and dropped it in the basin. Blood dripped from where the glass had sliced my palm and fingers. I felt no pain.

I looked up at the mirror. I had no reflection and it startled me.

“What’s happening?” I asked. “You said you were leaving. Where are we?”

“Come,” he said.

“Where to?”

“I’ll fix you up.” He led me to the bathtub as plain as the sink. We knelt together and he ran warm water over the cut. I felt sickened as I watched my blood swirl down the drain. I pulled away.

“Relax,” Daddy said, taking my injured hand again.

“What happened to me?” I asked. “Why am I bleeding?”

He made hushing sounds and said, “Stop talking nonsense, Becca. I’m trying to look at your cut.”

I looked across the room and saw that I had a reflection now. The short-haired, brown-haired woman in the mirror had a round, pleasant face. She looked at me with dark but kind-looking eyes.

I turned my head slowly from side to side. So did the woman in the mirror, matching every move. Then she looked away while my gaze remained fixed on her image in the mirror.

“I was trying to hurry before the first storm,” she said. “You know how much I hate lightning … and being in this house, so close to the property next door.”

“The weatherman says sixty percent chance of clear skies tonight,” Daddy said, though his voice’s pitch seemed to change before he finished the sentence.

“We never have clear skies on Myers Ridge during Margga’s curse,” the woman said. “Let’s take the kids out of town tonight. We can stay at my parents’ camp overnight.”

Daddy’s grip tightened around my hand beneath the tub’s faucet. A man’s voice I didn’t recognize came from him.

“I’ll try to convince my mom to come along,” he said. “But you know she won’t wanna go. And I won’t leave her by herself.”

“Then I’ll take the kids and leave you two here.”

“Or you could stay and help us find the enchantment.”

“Please, Howard … we don’t know what the enchantment is.”

“The crow told Mom that we’d know it when we found it. I won’t give up helping her look. She says the special one is almost here … that she could come tonight. If so, and without the enchantment, Margga’s curse will continue.”

This time, the woman said nothing.

I looked away from the mirror and tried to pull my hand away, but the man’s grip held fast.

“You’re not my daddy,” I said to the man who looked like my father, “so I’m gonna leave now.”

His grip continued to hold tight, so I pushed him hard and yanked my hand from his. As he fell inside the tub, I pushed away and ran.

Outside the bathroom, I hurried down the hall, found the stairs, and flew down them, my feet barely touching the steps.

Downstairs, my feet found a solid floor of unfamiliar carpet. I tore through the living room filled with furniture that must have belonged to the people in the framed photographs I passed. I saw the woman in two of the photos—large studio shots done professionally. She stood next to an unknown man behind three girls and a boy in the last one. The boy looked like Lenny, but several years younger.

I called for my mom and grandparents as I ran through the dining room, to the kitchen that looked unchanged from Grandma Evelyn’s. No one was there.

I fled to the backdoor and entered a white blank sea of nothingness. I stood on the nothingness and saw nothing. I turned around and saw the house was gone.

Something cold touched the center of my chest. I almost screamed until Grandma and Grandpa’s bathroom appeared around me. I stood outside the shower. My reflection in the mirror showed my true self: frightened, naked and cold.

Had I had another vision? If so, it’d been a lot weirder than the others.

Water from the showerhead struck the bathtub behind me. I turned off the shower, wrapped my body in a fluffy towel from the rack, wrapped my wet hair in the other towel, and hurried to the locked door. The fancy sink next to me held no broken glass, which sent a shiver across my back before I unlocked the door and headed to my bedroom.

*.*.*

Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 9 [fiction]

The woman’s scream in my head diminished. The sickness in my stomach did not.

“I need to lie down,” I said, bolting from the porch swing and charging into the house.

The soles of my tennis shoes pounded against the steps as I hurried up the two flights of stairs to my bedroom.

I would have screamed when I entered the room had I not been out of breath.

My father stood next to my empty easel. A white glow surrounded him. Only his face was definite; it smiled out at me.

How could this be? He was dead.

“You’re a ghost,” I said.

“You haven’t painted anything new since your coma,” he said.

I swiped at hot tears blurring his image. I wasn’t ready for any more strangeness. “NonononononoNO.” I staggered to the edge of my bed and sat.

Daddy reappeared at my bedside, looking down at me. His head nearly grazed the slanted ceiling. His Nordic DNA had made him very tall.

“Are you really a ghost?” I asked, trying to make sense of what I saw. “Or am I having another vision?”

“I’m spirit, Vree, honey, just like when we talked when you were comatose. Your mind has connected to the astral plane and the vibrations of my energy again. But this time you have not projected like you did in your coma. This time, you have called me.”

“Why?”

“You wanted to tell me goodbye.”

“You’re leaving?”

“I am. I have gone to the light and came back to say goodbye. But returning to this plane takes a lot of energy. I cannot stay.”

“Where are you going? Heaven?”

“If that is what you want to call it.” The light around him began to fade. “I have to go. But before I do, I want you to remember to stay with the light.”

“What light?”

“Your light. You’re psychic. You can see and hear and do things no one else can. And so much more.”

“I don’t wanna be psychic. I wanna be normal. I want things the way they used to before lightning changed everything.”

“When you’re feeling down and unsure about your path, see the light and let it come to you. The light will strengthen you when things are darkest.”

“Wait,” I cried out as Daddy’s spirit dulled and vanished.

“Come back,” I said, wishing I could have hugged him.

Large tears rolled down my cheeks and dripped on my hands clenched in my lap. I fell back on my bed, not wanting to face the weird and creepy world beyond my bedroom. Not ever.

Dave called from the bottom landing and told me to come downstairs to eat.

“I’m not hungry.” I stared at the ceiling. Daddy was gone. I never told him how sorry I was for causing his death. Was that why he’d left without saying he loved me?

“Hurry up,” Dave called, his voice closer. “We’re hungry.”

Pushing from the bed, I rose to all my height and shouted at the ceiling. “YOU NEVER SAID YOU LOVE ME.”

Without warning, my stomach buckled. I needed to vomit.

I charged the stairs and into my brother who had climbed the stairs and stood at the top step.

I halted but Dave lost his balance. He grabbed hold of the railing on his right to keep from tumbling down the steps. His momentum swung his body and slammed his right shoulder into the wall. There was loud cracking sound before he lost his grip and thudded to a stop halfway down the steps.

“Why can’t you watch where you’re going?” he cried out. He touched his shoulder and cried out more, using some offending words to describe me and my clumsiness.

I turned, fell to my hands and knees, and vomited on the floor.

Bile rose in my throat a second time but I held the sour liquid down.

My hair mingled in the vomit; its ends painted wet streaks across the wood when I moved my head.

Someone touched my back—my mother—and asked if I was okay.

I nodded and hid my face. I wished to be whisked through time and space to when my childhood had been happiest, to when Dave, Amy and I were happy together, to when Daddy gave us piggyback rides, read Harry Potter and Lyra Belacqua books to us, tucked us in bed at night and told us how much he loved us.

“We’re taking your brother to the hospital for x-rays,” Mom said. “Clean up your mess and take a shower. Make sure you wash your hair. Okay?”

I nodded again.

“She pushed me,” Dave said at the bottom of the stairs.

“I’m sure it was an accident,” Grandpa said.

“I don’t know what happened to cause this,” Mom said to me in her I’m-angry-but-can’t-show-it-right-now voice, “but you can’t let your emotions control your actions.”

“It wasn’t like that.”

“You can tell me about it when we get back … after you shower, and after we eat and have time to relax from our long day.” Mom started down the stairs. She stopped and turned around. “I know it’s been a big change for all of us, but you need to accept the fact that although change is scary, it’s important to adapt to it.”

“I know,” I said. “But sometimes I need a hug and … well, you’ve been so busy lately, and Dave and Amy treat me like I have cooties.”

“Cooties? Really, Vree, you’re not a little girl.”

“You know what I mean.”

“We’ll talk about this later.”

Mom descended the stairs. Somewhere downstairs, a door closed. Outside, three doors of a vehicle closed. The vehicle drove away and the house, inside and out, grew silent. I went to my bed and collapsed, bawling into my pillow until my sobs became dry heaves.

I sensed someone in the room, smelled Grandma Evelyn’s perfume before she sat on the bed, put an arm around my shoulders, and hugged me. Her affection quieted my sobs.

“If you need to talk,” she said, “you can come to me anytime, day or night.”

I sat up and leaned into her embrace. “You asked earlier if I’d had any visions,” I said between my sniffles. “Why is that?”

“Because lightning struck me too.”

Whoa! “Really? When?”

“I was nine years old, down on the backside of Alice Lake, fishing with my dad one summer day. I never knew what happened until after I awoke in his arms. He was crying, and he nearly broke me in half when he hugged me.” Grandma tightened her embrace around my shoulders. “I still remember my confusion and the pain after I was struck. The lightning had burned my back where it hit me. I was numb and couldn’t walk, so my dad carried me to his truck and drove me home. For several weeks, I had strange dreams and I thought I saw ghosts. I even saw strange-looking dogs prowling the grounds.”

“Were they big and black with red eyes and bull horns on their heads?”

Grandma loosened her embrace. “You too, huh? Well, they’re not real. They’re visions caused by your brain healing from the lightning. You’ll stop seeing them after a while, just like I stopped seeing them.”

“Don’t you find it odd that we’ve both seen them?” I asked.

“It’s all part of the healing process.” Grandma took my right hand in her left one.

That’s when she and my bed and the bedroom vanished

I tried to be my quietest when I closed the apartment’s front door, but the click of the latch seemed like a gunshot. I held my breath as I leaned my forehead against the door’s cool wood. Would Trevor awaken this very moment and find me gone? Or would Balen awaken in his crib and alert his father that I had abandoned them?

What sort of mother abandons their baby?

I held the doorknob in my grip and willed myself not to cry. Not now. There would be plenty of time to cry later. Now was a time to be levelheaded and leave before I changed my mind.

All my young adult life had been spent running away from my past, searching for the real me. Trevor had been certain living a life of magic would be best for me. But when Balen levitated the lamp last night, I knew I would never be comfortable with that kind of life.

I released the knob, crept down the stairs to the double glass doors of the vestibule, and entered the seven a.m. crawl of college students, professors, and campus workers along Maple Boulevard. I turned away from faces and automobiles that looked familiar and hurried to and out the black iron front gate of New Cambridge University. I buttoned my green wool coat to keep out the March wind blowing at me while I pressed on toward the bus station two blocks away. Once I made it to the bus station and had my ticket to Bakers View, I would call Sara and let her know I was on my way. Going home was out of the question. Would father ever forgive me for leaving our faith, falling in the traps of magic, becoming pregnant out-of-wedlock, and dropping out of the religion classes that he had paid for?

The Greyhound bus station was dimly lit but warm. My bus was scheduled to leave in fifteen minutes. Would Trevor know I was here?

I sat in the hard plastic seat near the loading doors, stared at the snack vending machine next to the cigarette machine, and wished I had brought some nickels and dimes with me. But I had put all my coins in Balen’s piggy bank last night, and the billfold in my purse contained only a few bills left from my last paycheck from O’Brien’s Bar.

A tall young man exited the phone booth next to the cigarette machine and dropped a white piece of folded paper. He seemed unaware of the paper on the dark tile floor. Was it important?

“You dropped something,” I said to him.

He looked at me with pleasant eyes that seemed as black as the long, wool duffel coat he wore. Unlike other men his age, his dark brown hair was short and he sported no sideburns or beard of any kind.

I pointed a forefinger at the paper. He held his gaze on me and his expression turned to curiosity and then to recognition.

“Evelyn Doyle. Hey, it’s me, Jack Lybrook.”

I flinched at the mention of my name. “Do I know you?”

“We went to Ridgewood High, though you were a grade behind me. And my parents and I used to go to your dad’s church for a while when you and I were kids. I was Jonathan … or Johnny back then.”

I nodded as recognition sunk in. Many boys had gone to my father’s Pentecostal church, but only Johnny Lybrook and few others had ever whispered to their friends how pretty I was.

“I go by Jack now,” he said. “You know, like JFK did.”

The clock above the loading doors told me that only five minutes had passed since my arrival. I looked again at the folded paper on the floor.

“You dropped that,” I said, pointing again.

“My notes. Thank you.” Jack fetched the paper and sat next to me. “Just got back from Ridgewood. I’m looking to buy some farm property there … maybe start a dairy farm.”

“Are you a student at New Cambridge?” I had never seen him there, but most of my time was spent with Trevor, and now Balen.

“I was,” Jack said. “Graduated last year … agriculture with a minor in business. I’m on my way to my parents’ place. My car’s in the garage.” He raised an eyebrow. “You?”

I looked around. Except for the man at the ticket window, it was just the two of us. I broke down and wept. I felt Jack’s arms around me. I welcomed his comfort and tried to hide inside his embrace. He hushed my sobs, wiped away my tears with a handkerchief, and held me until a man’s voice announced over the intercom that it was time to board the bus to Bakers View and points east of New Cambridge. Once aboard, I would forever leave behind the wizard and the thirteen-month-old son whose magic was stronger than mine and Trevor’s combined.

“That’s me,” I said, pointing at the loading doors.

Jack stood when I did. “You’re not a student?”

“I dropped out. On my way to my sister’s. Her husband doesn’t like me much.”

I don’t know why I told him that.

“Wait,” he said. “Join me for a cup of coffee.”

I shook my head.

“Cash in your ticket,” he said, “have coffee with me, and I’ll drive you anywhere you need to go.”

“Your car’s in the garage.”

He checked his wristwatch. “For another hour. Come on. It’ll save you some bread and give us a chance to catch up on old times.”

There was honesty and safety with this man’s kindness. I took his hand and let him lead me to the ticket window. Then, with the refunded cash in my purse, I went with him for coffee, vowing to myself to never involve myself with magic again.

*.*.*

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Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 8 [fiction]

The air tasted sweet and was warm as I sat on the front porch swing and rocked. Past a small rise in the road, a dark blue house across the road sat on a large hill almost two hundred yards up the road. It was a pretty house, more modern looking than the one I was at, surrounded by evergreen hedges by what I could see through the foliage between us.

Lenny entered the porch from the living room and stood at the front door. I ignored him, wishing to be alone with my thoughts.

He pointed at the house I looked at. “My dad and sisters and I live there,” he said. “My Gam Gam owned that house—this one too—until she died and willed them both to my dad.”

I sighed and halted the swing. “Why are you following me?” I asked.

“It wasn’t intentional. After I helped your grandfather, I kept getting in the way inside the kitchen, so I left. But I didn’t wanna be by myself.”

“So it was intentional.”

Lenny shrugged. “Is it okay if I sit with you?”

I scooted over. “I notice you never talk about your family,” I said.

As he sat to my right, the wistful look returned for a moment. He shrugged and said, “My dad’s the high school art teacher, my big sister lives at the lake, and my two little sisters are over there now, helping her run our mom’s restaurant.”

“Your mom owns a restaurant. How cool is that? Does she give you free food?”

“She’s dead.”

Crap!

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“It’s okay. Everyone has something lousy in their lives to deal with. It’s just nice to have friends around when we do.” Lenny stood up and took a box of chewing gum from a back pocket.

I accepted one of the sticks of Juicy Fruit from him. It was the original flavor, not strawberry or cherry or bubble gum, which are my favorites.

He sat down closer to me, and we chewed in silence. I played with my gum’s wrapper until I couldn’t stand the silence.

“Sorry about my behavior out back, but…” How could I tell him what I’d seen and heard without coming across as a lunatic?

“I get it,” he said. “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

“Go?” What was he talking about?

“To the bathroom.”

Oh. Yeah. “No. I saw something … been seeing something I can’t explain.”

“A big black dog with horns and red eyes?”

I shivered. “You too?” I wasn’t crazy. “What is it? How can it disappear like that?”

“Margga.”

There was that name again. I raised an eyebrow. “The dog’s name is Margga?”

Lenny leaned forward, put his forearms across his knees, and stared ahead. His muscular back and shoulders seemed to harden. “I hate her,” he said, his voice low and growling. He sat up straight and said, “You’re gonna find out about Margga’s curse sooner or later, so I may as well tell you a few things.”

Curse?

“It started at the property behind us, a long time ago when my great-grandparents mysteriously died.”

I turned to look at the property behind us, but changed my mind when Lenny began swinging the swing by pushing his feet off the porch floor.

“My great-grandfather, Reginald Myers, was a famous Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter. He and his wife lived in a big Victorian house at the property next door, before my Gumpa and Gam Gam had it razed.” Lenny put an arm across the back of the swing, which placed me in a faux embrace with his arm behind me. I thought about moving closer to him but he took his arm away, stopped swinging the swing, and sat forward with his forearms across his knees and his gaze fixed ahead again. “Gam Gam claimed she destroyed the house because she found my great-grandfather and his two hunting dogs frozen inside the house on a sweltering July evening. She also said she found my great-grandmother dead at the bottom of the cliffs on Myers Ridge, at a place called Widow’s Ravine. A witch named Margga killed them.

“Since then, my great-grandfather’s ghost returns on this night. So do the ghosts of his two hunting dogs. But the creepy part is people have seen a third dog—sometimes a fourth and more—all of them black, with horns and red eyes. Gam Gam called them Margga’s hellhounds and told me to always stay away from them.”

Lenny turned and looked at me. His gaze was hard and serious. The air around me felt chilly.

“There’s more,” he said, lowering his voice to almost a whisper.

“More?” The air seemed to get colder. I shivered.

“Yes.” He leaned close and took my right hand in his. Dizziness and the sound of bees buzzing everywhere overwhelmed me. The world around me changed and—

I ran. I ran from the house where I had discovered my husband and his hunting dogs frozen inside the living room. I tried to block the image of how surprised his dead face looked, as though he had realized seconds before his death that he was dying.

I ran across the front lawn, toward Myers Road, stumbling where it connected to the blacktopped driveway, and falling when I entered the old country highway scarred with long grooves made by the metal wheels of Amish buggies. Blood from my nose dripped into one of the tracks and reflected the backlit clouds in a sky that had once been sunny and promising a pleasant night.

The witch’s curse was upon me.

I stood and ran again for my life.

Rolling gray clouds blocked the sunlight when I entered the angry field of brambles and thorny weeds that slapped and poked and grabbed at me, scratched my face and forearms, tore away long, black strands of my hair, and slashed my brand new Rayon dress—the blue gray one with lace collar and ivory buttons. The tangled growth grabbed and stole my chunky non-strap pumps from my feet, causing me to fall. I hurried upright, glanced back only once at the house, and left my shoes as I continued to flee from the witch who lived next door.

I found the path that led to and past the rocky cliffs above Myers Creek. Once I made it beyond Lovers Leap and Widow’s Ravine, the hill would become less steep and lead me to Russell Road and the sheriff’s house. I prayed he would be home. There, I would call my daughter, Adrienne, at New Cambridge’s college campus to come get me and take me away from Ridgewood and Myers Ridge for good.

I was glad Reginald had taught Adrienne how to drive an automobile.

As I approached Lover’s Leap, I saw that it was still fenced in with bars of iron piping; there was little chance of falling. But someone had removed the pipes at the section overlooking Widow’s Ravine. The path came so dangerously close to the edge there. One little slip and I could tumble over the side and fall to the rocky creek below.

That’s when I felt the witch’s presence behind me, and felt the sudden push from right to left, as though a giant invisible hand had brushed me aside like an insect, veering me off course and sweeping me over the edge of Widow’s Ravine.

*.*.*

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Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 7 [fiction]

I stayed close to Lenny, who guided me across the backyard. Along the way, I stopped at a line of three large, bleached canvas camp tents in front of a square fire pit made of cement blocks.

“Some of the bedrooms aren’t done yet, so your grandfather thought everyone would enjoy sleeping outside,” Lenny explained next to me.

“A campout. Sweet,” I said, recalling times of camping with Daddy. “But I’ve never slept in a tent before. We always rented cabins.” Then, “Are you gonna spend the night with us?”

Lenny shrugged in the sunshine and looked wistful, as if something troubled him. “I can’t tonight,” he said, leading me from the tents. “It’s gonna rain. Plus, it’s my birthday … my dad has other plans.”

I wished him a happy birthday and asked, “How old?”

“Fifteen.”

“Me too.”

“I know. Your grandparents told me.”

“So, fifteen and tenth grade,” I said, fishing for more information about him.

“Yep.”

“Maybe we’ll have classes together.”

“Probably.”

“That’d be nice,” I almost said. I bit my lower lip to keep from showing my excitement of knowing that we’d be together at school.

“Here we are,” he said as we entered the ordinary looking field of wild grasses and flowers.

“Where are the blueberries?” I asked, looking around.

“We’re standing in them.”

I bent over. Short clumps of both ripe, plump, light-blue blueberries, and unripe, tiny green and white ones grew among the weeds at my feet. I had expected to see even rows of large, cultivated bushes with fat berries and no weeds anywhere, like at the berry picking farms in Pittsburgh.

“I’ll getcha started,” Lenny said.

Following his instructions, I knelt low to the ground and picked the bluest berries. Lenny headed right, so I went left, pushing weeds aside in search of the ripest berries for Grandma’s pies.

I had my bowl halfway filled when I heard a cat meowing nearby. An orange, mangy tabby ran to me when I looked up and rubbed its body back and forth against my knees, purring loudly. I hesitated to pet the cat. Pus oozed from its closed right eye, which the cat rubbed repeatedly against my pants.

The cat was definitely malnourished and sick, and its cries were steady and weak. Its body trembled.

“You poor thing,” I said, still hesitant to touch the animal. “Would you like me to get you some milk? My cat loved milk. His name was Perry Mason, but he died when lightning burned down our home.”

The cat had quit rubbing its sore eye and now looked at me with its healthy yellow-green one. It still trembled and meowed pitifully.

“I’m sorry you’re so sick. I wish there was something I could do to make you better.”

I turned to Lenny who stooped low and picked berries at the far edge of the patch, thirty yards away. I wanted to ask him if there was a vet on Myers Ridge, but the cat hissed and ran off, disappearing into the taller field grass at the edge of the woods.

I decided that if the cat returned, I would use the rest of my birthday money to get it to a veterinarian. Then I returned to picking berries until my bowl was full. When I stood, the sound of buzzing bees filled my head and made me dizzy. I dropped to my knees as nausea fell over me. The air rippled around me. Across the way, a black beast the size of a pony stood a few feet behind Lenny and watched him pick berries.

My weakened state kept me from calling out, to warn Lenny of the Rottweiler I had seen in my vision.

Was that what this was? Another vision?

The air stopped rippling. The buzzing continued but my head and stomach settled. The dog turned and faced me with flaming red eyes like the ones I had seen across the road and downtown. An inch or two above its eyes were two long and sharp ivory horns that reminded me of cow horns, though they pointed out, not up. A shorter horn poked straight down from the center of its chin. It bared sharp teeth at me, and I emitted a small yelp as I recoiled backwards, both startled and frightened. Berries from my bowl scattered to my lap and the ground. I looked up at the dog’s grotesque face, its stare still focused on me. My breath and the voice I tried using to call out to Lenny for help felt locked in my throat.

The buzzing in my head turned into a sudden scream for a second. Then it quieted, but not completely. A masculine voice similar to the one downtown entered my mind.

Can it see?

I swallowed and caught my breath, but otherwise remained still.

Do you see?

I winced from the anger in the dog’s tone. Then I nodded when I realized it had spoken to me. “Yes. I see.” My voice cracked. I cleared my throat and caught my breath again. “I see you. Yes.” My voice was barely above a whisper.

You see blood?

Blood? I looked hard at the creature. It didn’t appear to be bleeding. “Please don’t hurt me,” I managed to say.

You see blood!

“No. No blood.”

I thought I heard it squeal as it vanished.

The buzzing stopped. I scooped up my bowl and hurried past Lenny. “I’m going in now,” I said when he called for me to wait for him. I walked as fast as I could with legs that felt rubbery and shaky, and I let the wooden screen door slam shut behind me as I rushed indoors to Grandma’s bright yellow kitchen.

“Lenny’s bringing the rest of the berries,” I said out of breath to the quizzical looks I received when I passed Mom at the refrigerator and handed Grandma my bowl. “I’m taking a shower,” I added and held up my stained hands, “if that’s okay.”

“That’s fine, honey,” Grandma said from in front of her large white stove. “But you’ll want to wait about fifteen minutes until the last load of laundry is done washing. Our pump can handle only one job at a time.”

I looked at my blue fingers. “But what about my hands?”

“I already have a solution for that.” Grandma put an arm around me and led me to the kitchen’s aluminum sink. “Cornmeal, toothpaste and lemon juice works wonders on blueberry stains.” She put my bowl of berries in the sink, then scooped her fingers in a yellowish paste in a ceramic cereal bowl on the windowsill and rubbed it on my hands. “Just let this sit for a few minutes, then wash it off with warm water.”

She wiped the paste from her own hands with a dishtowel and returned to the stove where silver pots of cubed potatoes boiled, kernels of corn stewed, and leafy spinach simmered in butter. Mom went to the right of her and stirred the corn with a wooden spoon. Her shoulders slouched and I knew she was exhausted after our long drive. I turned on the water to wash my hands so I could relieve her. It would take my mind off what had happened outside, and it would put me in good graces with her and Grandma. That’s when Amy stepped from the washroom at the right of the stove and stopped at Mom’s side.

“I can do that, Mom,” she said. “You should sit and relax … maybe take a nap.” She embraced Mom for a moment, then took the stirring spoon from her and turned her attention to the pots on the stove.

“Thank you, sweetie,” Mom said. She stretched and released a yawn before heading in the direction of the living room.

“You’re such a dear,” Grandma said to Amy.

“With Daddy not around, I do what I can to help,” my sister said in that falsetto voice she uses when she tries to be better than the rest of us.

Whatever.

I quietly mimicked her words about helping while I scowled out the window above the sink and watched Lenny trudge from the blueberry patch, carrying his bowls of berries. There was no sign of any ugly, pony-size Rottweilers around.

He looked unhappy, so I washed the paste from my hands, dried them on Grandma’s dishtowel, and hurried and met him at the screen door.

“Sorry I didn’t wait for you,” I said through the screen while I thought of a fib that could make things better between us. “I had to use the bathroom.”

His expression softened, but a frown remained on his forehead.

“Are you gonna let me in?” he asked as he held up the two bowls of blueberries.

I started to open the door when Grandpa stepped into view and stood beside Lenny. He carried a coil of white clothesline around a shoulder and held a half-eaten sandwich on wheat bread. The smell of mustard and onion wafted through the screen.

“Help me string this clothesline when you’re done with those berries,” he said to Lenny before proceeding to the side yard and the nearest T-post of clothesline. Someone had hung a colorful display of shirts and pants to dry on the two lines there.

I opened the door and let Lenny inside. He brushed past me and entered the kitchen.

Before the door closed, I caught a glimpse of a large animal standing at the edge of the woods beyond the blueberry patch. I pressed my face to the screen and stared long at the large black dog that stared back at me with its fiery eyes.

You see blood!

The words came like thunder and sent me sprawling on my backside. I hurried upright but the dog was gone again when I looked through the screen.

“And stay gone,” I said. “I don’t ever want to see you again.”

*.*.*

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Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 6 [fiction]

I opened my eyes to Mom’s concerned face looking down at me. A warm hand and soft fingers pushed hair from my forehead. I lay on the living room sofa and I felt like I floated. I put a foot to the floor to keep myself anchored.

My shoulder, back and leg muscles ached, but not as bad as my head and eyes; I’d had a seizure.

“How do you feel?” Mom asked.

“I’m fine,” I said and smiled to hide the pain I knew was evident on my face. I reached out and touched one of the silky short sleeves of Mom’s blouse. She wore a cerulean one now with dark blue buttons. I frowned. “Going somewhere?”

“No.” She kissed my forehead before she stood and left the room.

I pushed myself up, waited for the dizziness to clear, then staggered on wobbly legs to the hallway. I thought about splashing my face with cold water in the little bathroom across the hall, but the sound of an electric drill in Mom and Daddy’s old bedroom sent me that direction. Curious, I stepped inside. It still had Mom’s cream-colored wallpaper with blue floral and butterfly patterns on the walls. But a different king-size bed sat where my parents’ bed had been. This one had a rose-colored spread on it.

I took another step on the cream-colored carpet. A tall, sinewy man wearing brown coveralls and a black sweatshirt with rolled up sleeves stood at the walk-in closet with a screwdriver. Grandpa Lybrook was brown, leathery and fit, which came from working long hours outdoors. He lifted his head of well-groomed dark hair and studied me with serious looking brown eyes below frowning brown eyebrows. Then his upturned nose twitched as a slight smile moved the corners of a pinched mouth on a clean-shaven face.

He stopped working a screw in the doorframe and asked, “Will you help me lift this door?” His voice was strong and deep.

“Is it heavy?” I took a step back. “I really shouldn’t lift anything right now.”

“Nonsense. You’ll be fine.”

I looked at the wooden door, then walked over to it and lifted it. It was light. I lifted it higher until Grandpa told me to stop.

“Thank you, Verawenda.”

“Everyone calls me Vree,” I reminded him.

The old man squinted at me a moment while he turned another screw to adjust the track of the closet door. “How are you feeling, Vree? Good as new, I hope.”

“I called you and Grandma from the hospital but you didn’t answer,” I said.

Grandpa grunted. “Phone reception is lousy here. All of Myers Ridge, for that matter, depending how the wind blows, ever since those new sinkholes appeared at my farm and forced your grandmother and me to finally move.”

A noise at the open window across the room kept me from asking what a sinkhole had anything to do with phone reception. Someone in a Navy blue sweatshirt and jeans stood on a stepladder and caulked the top of the window. His face was almost featureless behind the gossamer film of dust on the glass, but I could tell he was good looking.

Grandpa went to the window screen and said, “I’ll pay you an extra twenty if you wash all the dirt off these windows when you’re done caulking. I have glass cleaner and towels in a box on the workbench in the garage.”

The person rubbed dirt from the glass with a cloth and peered in at us. Lenny Stevens had an unclouded, intelligent looking face, although caulk marked his high forehead and the left side of his slender nose. His full lips thinned as he smiled at me from beneath a head of thick, burnt sienna hair before he descended the ladder and said, “Yes sir, right away,” through the screen.

Grandpa returned to the closet door, finished turning the screw, then rolled the door back and forth on its track before he excused himself and headed for the door. He stopped and turned back. A thoughtful look crossed his dark brown eyes.

“I got you some canvases so you can paint some pictures while you’re recuperating,” he said. “I got you an easel too, along with some paint and other things. You’ll find them in your bedroom.” He turned and headed out.

“Thank you,” I called out.

I turned back, but Lenny was gone. I vowed to call Zoey later as I headed to the door.

That’s when I noticed a corner of Mom’s carpet lay rolled away from the floor and some of the floorboards were gone. Grandpa must have decided to fix the section that always squeaked.

I went to it and peered at the darkness, then squealed and backpedaled, dropping my handbag into the hole when a gray mouse scurried from it and ran out the door.

“Ew,” I said, peering down the hall and hoping Mr. Whiskers would find it before it nested in the house. I barely saw its tail vanish around the corner as it entered the morning room.

Back at the hole, I convinced myself that there were no more mice in it before I reached for my bag. The space was deep enough to swallow my entire arm as I felt around the basement’s ceiling and the cement foundation.

I touched something large and leathery. It felt like a book. My bag lay on top.

I retrieved my bag, then lifted a dust-covered book from the floor. It was heavy and as large as one of my coffee table art books. Its dusty cover was black, hard leather, and its pages were askew.

There was no title, even after I blew away some of the dust, which made me sneeze.

I pulled a loose page from the book. Someone had written numbers and figures on the thick and yellow page with a quill pen. I ran a finger over the brittle page. Parts of it crumbled at the edges. The numbers and figures on it shifted and coalesced into letters that became words.

“Free the dancers of truth so that you may know their poetry,” I read aloud.

More words formed from the numbers and figures across the page, which made me dizzy to watch, so I closed my eyes. But I peeked at the book. More brittle pages revealed more numbers and figures that turned into words. More poetry. When the numbers and figures finished turning into words on the pages in front of me, I sat cross-legged, rested the book on my lap, and read silently. Like most poems, none made sense. There was talk about war and captains and kings. There were Greeks and Romans, gods and goddesses, and lords and princesses. Was this history or fable? I couldn’t tell, so I skimmed the verses until one poem stood out from the others because of its shortness and the large size of its letters.

Born from lightning’s flame,
She lives in the heat of shame
Until gone from her life of false existence
She travels the distance, enlightened
And brightened by the flame.

Whatever it meant, I found it rhythmic and catchy.

I closed the book and started to put it back, then changed my mind and headed to my room, the book in hand and weighing down my left side.

I passed framed photographs of Daddy and ignored them. Up the squeaky wooden stairs, I passed more photos. The smell of fresh paint filled my nose. Someone—probably Grandma—had recently painted the upstairs hall a fresh coat of white. More photographs adorned the walls. I went to my room. My single bed with a pink cover with small purple butterflies printed on it sat to the left of the door and my dresser to the left of my bed. A box of oil paints and brushes sat on my bed, and a new painter’s palette sat on the dresser. The easel grandpa had mentioned sat next to my window.

My room was different, but not because of the gifts inside it.

I placed the book and my handbag next to the paints and brushes, then went to my window and pulled the blinds so I wouldn’t have to look at the oak tree in the backyard. Before the blinds closed, the white crow appeared at my window.

I shrieked and stepped away, bumping the easel and knocking a blank canvas from its perch. I caught it and stood it up again, then peeked out my window blinds. If the crow was there, I didn’t see it.

What I saw, however, caused me to drop the blinds and back away from the window.

“Eyes,” I said when Lenny came to my door and knocked on the frame. “Red eyes.”

That’s all I remember before waking up on my bedroom carpet.

*.*.*

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Margga’s Curse, revised: Chapter 5 [fiction]

“So, Grandma and Grandpa are staying with us, huh?” I said, looking back at the red Dodge pickup truck in the driveway. “Things are gonna be different.” I lowered my voice. “A lot.”

I unbuckled my seatbelt, slid from my seat and out my door, and stood like a newborn foal on concrete next to the sweet smell of country grass coming from an open window. A memory charged at me, but I hurried away from it and followed Mom to the back door.

The door opened and a shorthaired, red-haired woman wearing a green sweatshirt, blue jeans and pink tennis shoes, stepped out and greeted us. Then she hurried to me and hugged me.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Grandma Evelyn said, stepping back and appraising me with a smile. “How do you feel? Can I get you anything?”

“I’m … better,” I said. “I have to have more tests, but….”

Grandma raised an eyebrow.

“It’s true,” Mom said. “It’s all about getting to the bottom of this tumor and getting it taken care of.”

“Which isn’t going to happen with us standing in the garage, talking about it.” Grandma put an arm across the back of my shoulders.

Everything vanished.

The young woman tried to be her quietest when she closed the apartment’s front door, but the click of the latch seemed like a gunshot to her. She held her breath as she leaned her forehead against the door’s cool wood. Would Trevor awaken and find her gone? Or would Balen awaken in his crib and alert his father that she had abandoned them?

What sort of mother abandons their baby?

She held the doorknob in her grip and willed herself not to cry. Not now. There would be plenty of time to cry later. Now was a time to be levelheaded and leave before she changed her mind.

All her young adult life had been spent running away from her past, searching for the real her. Trevor had been certain getting married next month and living a life of magic would be best for her. But when Balen had levitated the lamp last night, she knew she would never be comfortable with that kind of life.

She released the knob, crept down the stairs to the double glass doors of the vestibule, and entered the seven a.m. crawl of college students, professors, and campus workers along Maple Boulevard. She turned away from faces and automobiles that looked familiar and hurried to and out the black iron front gate of New Cambridge University. She buttoned her green wool coat to keep out the March wind blowing at her while she pressed on.

The Greyhound bus station was dimly lit but warm. Her bus left in a half-hour. Would Trevor know she was here?

She sat in the hard plastic seat near the loading doors, stared at the snack vending machine next to the cigarette machine, and wished she had brought some nickels and dimes with her. But she had put all her coins in Balen’s piggy bank last night, and the billfold in her purse contained only a few dollars left from her last paycheck from O’Brien’s Bar.

A tall young man exited the phone booth next to the cigarette machine and dropped a white piece of folded paper. He sat two chairs to her right and seemed unaware of the paper on the dark tile floor. Was it important?

“You dropped something,” she said to him.

He looked at her with pleasant eyes that seemed as black as the long, wool duffel coat he wore. Unlike other men his age, his dark brown hair was short and he sported no sideburns or beard of any kind.

She pointed a forefinger at the paper. He held his gaze on her and his expression turned to curiosity and then to recognition.

“Evelyn Doyle. Hey, it’s me, Jack Lybrook.”

She flinched at the mention of her name. “Do I know you?”

“We went to Ridgewood High, though you were a grade behind me. And my parents and I used to go to your dad’s church when you and I were kids. I was Jonathan … or Johnny back then.”

Evelyn nodded as complete recognition sunk in. Many boys had gone to her father’s Pentecostal church, but only Johnny Lybrook and few others had ever whispered to their friends how pretty Evelyn was.

“I go by Jack now,” he said. “Like JFK did.”

Evelyn glanced at the clock above the loading doors. Five minutes had passed. She looked again at the folded paper on the floor.

“You dropped that,” she said, pointing again.

“My notes. Thank you.” Jack fetched the paper and returned to his seat. “I’m looking to buy some farm property in Ridgewood … maybe start a dairy farm after I graduate college.”

“Are you a student at New Cambridge?”

“No. I go to Penn State. It has a first-class agriculture program and excellent business courses. Our Spring Break is over and I’m catching the next bus.” He raised an eyebrow. “You?”

Evelyn looked around. Except for the man at the ticket window, it was just the two of them. If Trevor found her before her bus left, would Jack try to protect her? She didn’t want anyone getting hurt because of her. But that’s what she did: hurt the ones she loved.

She broke down and wept. She felt Jack’s arms around her before she saw that he now sat next to her. She welcomed his comfort and tried to hide inside his embrace. He hushed her sobs and wiped away her tears with a handkerchief.

He held her until a man’s voice announced over the intercom that it was time to board the bus heading east.

Evelyn took Jack’s hand and let him lead her through the loading doors, away from the man who claimed to be a wizard, and a thirteen-month-old son who could perform magic stronger than hers. As she boarded the bus, she vowed to leave magic forever.

*.*.*

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