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WITHER' S RAIN
WITHER'S RAIN: A Wendy Ward Novel
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Powell's Books Powell's Books

John gives an overview of the book:

When the ancient, demonic entity once known as Elizabeth Wither finds a human host, a new reign of terror begins in the town of Windale, Massachusetts. Now Wendy Ward, a college student with a gift for white magic, stands alone against the evil of Wither's rain.
Read full overview »

When the ancient, demonic entity once known as Elizabeth Wither finds a human host, a new reign of terror begins in the town of Windale, Massachusetts. Now Wendy Ward, a college student with a gift for white magic, stands alone against the evil of Wither's rain.

Read an excerpt »

PROLOGUE

Windale , Massachusetts
October 31, 1999

…blood, as black as crude oil, flows with a life and a will of its own, seeking a course through the rubble of the collapsed building, aided by yet not prisoner to the pull of gravity, occasionally rising over a rock when no lower outlet avails itself…an incomplete entity, still the blood has awareness and a driving instinct to find the warmth of human flesh…absent from this awareness are the memories of what it has been or even how it has been reduced to this tenuous race for survival…over rubble and glass, dirt and weeds, the blood courses with the cohesion of quicksilver…almost senseless, it seeks by touch alone any indication of humanity’s presence wherever it flows … without a warm, living human host, its temperature starts to cool and its millennia-old awareness begins to fade into oblivion…

#

“Pull over, I’m gonna be sick,” Angelina Thorne said from within a bundle of blankets on the passenger side of the blue Ford F-150 pickup truck. Shivering, her voice was a weak quaver.

“Sure, Gina.” Brett Marlin swung the truck onto the shoulder of Main Street, passing a partially demolished gas station and an overloaded  Dumpster at the edge of the lot before stopping the truck and shifting into park. As he loosened his grip on the steering wheel, his hands were trembling. He sighed, reached for his door handle, but Gina’s hand caught his other arm. “What?”

Gina Thorne’s face appeared ghostly in the dashboard light. Her usual pale complexion had been reduced to sick pallor by the evening’s events. She had dark rings under her light blue, almost gray eyes. And her long, strawberry-blond hair hung in sweat-soaked tangles. “She was already dead, right? Before you put her in the…?”

Brett nodded, unable to give voice to the lie.

“She was so small…”

“Too small,” Brett said, nodding again. “Wouldn’t have mattered if…” He let the rest of this thought pass between them unsaid. Part of the lie was his alone to bear, but somehow he thought she knew all of it.

“It’s for the best, right?” Gina asked him, searching his eyes.

“For the best,” he said, his voice hushed.

“Because we’re only seventeen. We have Danfield together next year. Our whole lives ahead us,” Gina said, then clapped a hand over her mouth.

Brett reached for his door handle again. Gina shook her head, keeping him planted in his seat as she pushed her door open. Dropping the blankets she staggered to the edge of the road, where the shoulder met the grassy incline that rose to the sight of the abandoned Windale Textile Mill. Since Gina wanted privacy, even after what they’d been through together less than an hour ago, and he was unwilling to be completely alone with his grim thoughts, Brett turned on the truck radio. He hit the scan button several times, searching for an upbeat song, and happened across the local all news station.

“…golf ball-sized hailstorm, which disrupted the sixty-fifth annual King Frost parade, ended as mysteriously as it began. The brunt of the freak storm was localized in the downtown Windale area and the main parade route, and was responsible for several serious injuries among the twenty thousand spectators. Many outlying areas were also hit by the storm, where it caused numerous fires, damaged cars and windows. Property damage estimates will have to wait until morning, although Mayor Dell’Olio, himself injured during the storm, expects the totals will reach into the hundreds of thousands.

"Elsewhere, an unrelated fire erupted in Windale General’s Childbirth Wellness Center —”

“Jesus!” Brett gasped. His hand jerked forward and switched off the radio before he could hear anymore. As guests of the Harrison Motor Lodge, he and Gina had been as far from downtown Windale as possible and still they had heard the sirens. Easy enough to assume the crowd gathered at the King Frost parade had gotten out of hand. When Brett checked out of the motel, the balding desk clerk had been dozing in front of a small black-and-white television set tuned to a cooking channel with the sound turned off.

Brett sat up straighter in his seat so he could see Gina, bent over the grass, retching. They had wondered if anyone would miss them at the parade. Not that any of their friends, or even their families, had ever suspected anything. Gina had been good about disguising her condition. And amid all the destruction in the town tonight, their absence would never be noted.

#

Dry heaves. And still her body wracked with uncontrollable spasms. She was sore and tired and just wanted to go home and sleep for a week. To sleep and forget about…everything. But first she had to get through the next hour or two. Only when her retching subsided did she become aware that she was crying, silent tears washing away the remnants of her mascara and falling as quietly to the grass beneath her. Get a grip, she told herself. Can’t let Brett see me like this. We decided this together. We did this together. Can’t fall apart on him now.

Gina climbed to her feet on wobbly legs, then reached into the pocket of her baggy jeans for the damp wad of tissues. First she dabbed her eyes, then she wiped her mouth. The residue of bile still burned her throat. She craved a breath mint or a shot of vodka, maybe both. About to return to the truck, she stopped at the faint sound of crying.

She pulled the truck door open and looked in at Brett, whose sandy hair was a mess from him running his hands through it too many times. His square-jawed face was tight, his brown eyes wide with concern. “You hear that?” she asked.

“What?”

“Crying…I thought I heard a baby crying. I still hear…”

“Gina, wait — !”

She turned away from the truck, even as Brett opened his door, and turned toward the sound, toward the Dumpster at the edge of the old gas station lot. With the loss of its main source of revenue, namely the daily mill worker traffic, the gas station had closed shop. Now it looked as if somebody had finally purchased the property and was clearing the lot for some new enterprise. Her gaze was drawn up the hill, to the abandoned factory, where she thought she saw a tendril of smoke spiraling into the night sky. Impossible, she thought, the mill’s been closed for years.

Gina returned her attention to the thin, reedy crying sound, so soft it teased at her consciousness, almost a memory, yet not quite hope. All the guilt and regret still hadn’t changed her mind. Given the same set of circumstances, she would make the same choice all over again. As much as she hated admitting that to herself.

“Gina, stop!” Brett called. “You’re just imagining this.”

“I’m sure I heard something,” she muttered, stepping softly, almost creeping. She peered over the lip of the Dumpster, staring down into the construction debris. Split boards, rusty nails, chunks of mildew rotted lath, jagged strips of metal…no way anything could be alive down there. Still, she leaned forward, gripping the edge of the Dumpster, feeling the chill bite of the metal against her palm. A strange sensation, as if all her warmth were leeching out into the metal, overcame her. She shuddered.

“Gina!”

Something cool and slimy coated her fingers, covering her hand in the blink of an eye. Startled, she jerked away from the Dumpster. Her hand was as black as if she’d dipped it in a bowl of India ink, and ached with pins and needles. Unable to resist the simple urge, she raised the blackened hand to her nose and inhaled. Her eyes burned and her nose began to drip, as with a sudden nosebleed. But when she looked down at her hand, she saw the strange liquid was dripping up and stretching amoebalike, splashing across her lips and rushing into her mouth and nostrils.

“Gina, what is it?”

She wanted to scream but could not. She was paralyzed with fear and with something else, something approaching a drug-induced ecstasy. Trembling, as wave after wave of the black substance poured into her mouth and nose and eyes and ears, she felt her knees buckling. She moaned. Then someone tugged the ground out from under her…

#

It happened in an instant. Brett slammed his truck door shut and followed Gina toward the Dumpster, reluctant to give credence to her hallucination. If she was hearing an infant cry, it was definitely in her mind. Still, he was only a few yards behind her when she jerked her hand back from the Dumpster, a few feet away when she raised a black-coated hand to her nose. Even as she shuddered and moaned, he leapt forward, just in time to catch her as her legs buckled. The second time that night he’d had to carry her to the truck, the first being when they left the motel room. Years of weight-lifting had given him enough upper body-strength to carry her effortlessly. He lowered her into the passenger seat, reclined the back rest a bit more, then tucked the blankets around her. A quick examination of her left hand, showed it was pale but otherwise normal. The sheen of black he’d seen must have been a trick of the light and shadows.

As he drove her home, he kept glancing over at her, willing her to awaken. Finally, she blinked herself awake. She flashed him a dreamy smile, the same drowsy, contented smile that usually followed their lovemaking. A long time since he’d last seen that smile.

“What happened?” she asked.

“You collapsed, back there at the Dumpster,” Brett said. “I thought maybe you cut yourself or something.” He shrugged. “Probably just exhaustion.”

“Yeah,” she said, “I’m sure that’s all it was.”

“How do you feel now?”

She lifted his right hand, from where it rested on the gear shift, and squeezed it, hard. “Better,” she said. But now her smile seemed almost predatory. “So much better, Brett. You have no idea…”

Puzzled, he watched her as long as he dared before returning his attention to the road. “Good,” he said, finally. Maybe they could put this night behind them, as if none of it had ever happened.

“We’re starting over,” Gina whispered. “A whole new beginning. Only this time, we won’t make the same mistakes.”

#

…from the brink of darkest oblivion, awareness returns and expands with a rush as the black blood courses through the human’s veins and arteries, spreading to the limits of this new host body, learning all its secrets from the inside out, yet already beginning the slow process of corruption…time passes and the changes begin to give the black blood purpose, awareness recovers a lost memory, a single thought, an identity by which it has known itself for three hundred years…and the name is Wither…

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Windale , Massachusetts
May 17, 2000

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Wendy Ward asked Alex as she parked her black Civic in one of the faded herringboned slots on the fractured asphalt parking lot beside Marshall Field.

Wearing a predominantly green Hawaiian shirt over baggy, faded jeans, Alex Dunkirk held his dragon-head metal cane between his legs. He spun it within the circle of his left hand and grinned, his hazel eyes glinting with amusement as they peered at her over the Ray-Ban Wayfarers low on the bridge of his nose. “Gotta get back up on the horse, right?”

“True, when you fall off the horse,” Wendy said. “When the horse falls on top of you, then I’m not so sure.” Wendy wore a baggy silver blouse, black jeans, and silver Skechers with neon green piping. She examined his face for a moment, noticing the fine line of scars around his forehead. He had bigger scars, she knew, on his left arm and both legs. Alex often joked that he’d received the Frankenstein monster special but the HMO wouldn’t spring for the twin neck bolts. He’d been weaning himself off the painkillers, but always had at least a dull ache in his legs and left arm, especially before it rained. Working out with light weights was helping to build up his endurance, but he still tired easily. Sometimes he seemed so strong. Other times he seemed as fragile. But she would never tell him that.

“If you want to catch Professor Glazer at the airport…”

“Okay, okay,” Wendy said. “No more stalling.” Alex pushed up his Ray-Bans as they climbed out of the car and walked side by side with her up the grassy knoll to Marshall Field. Grimacing all the way up the incline, Alex used his steel cane for traction more than support. Once they crossed the four track lanes, he flipped the cane back over his shoulder. But it was more than a cane. Alex had it specially made by a shop in Cambridge . If he pressed a recessed button on the side, the dragon-head handle snapped up, becoming a hilt for the eighteen-inch blade that slid out of the cylindrical housing. “Since flight is no longer a viable option,” Alex had told her when he first demonstrated the convertible cane-sword, “I’ll be prepared to fight.”

Alex stopped and looked to the expanse of bare dirt stretching the length of one side of the field. “So they’re really gone.”

Wendy nodded. “They tore down the bleachers and hauled away the pieces less than two weeks after you were attacked by Wither.” She regarded Alex’s thousand-yard stare. “What are you thinking?”

“Those bleachers saved my life.”

“You were nearly crushed to death under them!”

“Nearly,” Alex said. “But if I hadn’t been pinned under there, she would have finished me off.”

Wendy shuddered, slipped her arm around his waist and turned into his embrace. “I don’t want to think about it.”

“Do you?”

“What?”

“Think about her? Wither?”

Wendy sighed. “Spent the better part of the last six and a half months trying to forget about her. That answer your question?”

He chuckled. “Suppose so.” Taking in the abandoned athletic field with one last sweeping gaze, “I thought it would creep me out. But I feel okay.”

“Hmm,” Wendy said, grinding her pelvis against his. “I’d say you feel better than okay, Mr. Dunkirk.”

“Careful, Ms. Ward,” Alex said with a quick kiss on her lips. “People could be watching.”

“Let them.” Wendy took his head in her hands and gave him a properly thorough kiss.

“As interesting as your proposition sounds, Ms. Godiva, this is probably the last place I’d pick to test the flexibility of my patchwork limbs.”

Wendy frowned, released him and stepped back. “Good point. ‘Ick’ factor is way too high here. And we have that airport run.”

#

The public address system at Logan International Airport announced that passengers for Flight 313 to San Francisco International should begin boarding…and still no sign of Wendy. Karen looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of her favorite student.

Art Leeson slung the straps of two hefty carry-on bags over his shoulders, picking up Hannah’s small bag last in his left hand.  With his free hand he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Ready?” he asked her, a disappointed look on his face. He knew how much she’d been looking forward to seeing Wendy one last time. She suspected Art himself wanted one last chance to say good-bye to the young lady who had been so instrumental in ending their Halloween nightmare.

“Suppose so,” Karen said, picking up the child’s car seat.

Hard to believe how much their lives had changed in less than seven months. Paul was gone, killed by one of the three-hundred-year-old Windale witches, rather one of the nine-foot-tall demonic creatures who had been perceived as witches by their seventeenth century neighbors because in those days the creatures had still appeared human. Since Paul’s death, brought together by their shared grief, Karen and Paul’s brother, Art, had begun to spend more and more time together. Friendship had grown into something more, something intimate. She still wasn’t sure she was ready for marriage, but Art loved her and Hannah. And while she cared for Art a great deal, her emotions were too unsettled about what had happened in Windale, about what was continuing to happen to Hannah for Karen to know her own mind. She hoped the change in scenery would bring her emotions into focus. Art deserved no less.

She glanced down the crowded concourse for any sign of Wendy, then sighed. In a white, frilly dress and white stockings over black patent leather shoes, Hannah walked along a row a plastic chairs, touching her finger to each chair and counting softly, “One, two, free, four…” To look at her walking confidently and learning to count, one would think the little girl was three years old. Karen knew better. Hannah Nicole Glazer was less than seven months old. Other than her accelerated development, the doctors could find nothing wrong with her, pronounced her perfectly healthy. But Karen was learning there was a world of difference between healthy and normal. Sometimes she would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, thinking about Hannah and wondering if the whole ordeal with the ancient witch, Rebecca Cole, was really over. Were they really free of her? Or did Hannah carry a sinister legacy that would someday shatter their lives?

Hannah realized she was under her mother’s scrutiny and looked up with a smile. “Go bye-bye, Mama?”

“Yes, Hannah,” Karen said. “We’re going on the airplane now.”

“High inna sky?”

Karen smiled. “Very high, Hannah.”

“Ann Wenny come,” Hannah said, but it wasn’t a question.

“Aunt Wendy couldn’t make it, honey.”

Hannah shook her head, defiantly. “Ann Wenny come!” She pointed behind Karen. “Look, Mama!”

Karen turned and for a moment, saw only the hurrying throng of strangers. Suddenly, an auburn-haired young woman dashed between an Asian couple and a luggage cart. She wore silver and black and was waving frantically. Karen smiled. If only I had had as much faith in Wendy as Hannah does.

#

Wendy was a little out of breath. Combined with the exertion of the jog through the airport, was the fear she’d arrive too late to see off Professor Glazer, Hannah, and Art. She heaved a sigh of relief as she saw them preparing to board. The other passengers were moving in hushed conversations toward the boarding ramp. Well, boarding tunnel when you came right down to it, she thought.

“Hi, Wendy,” Karen said. “We’re boarding.”

Wendy stopped, grabbed Karen in a fierce hug. “I know. Sorry we’re late. Traffic was a mess and we had to park somewhere over in Rhode Island .”

Karen smiled as Wendy released her and asked, “Where’s Alex?”

“Coming,” Wendy said. “Told me to run ahead so I wouldn’t miss you guys.” Wendy crouched down and held her arms open for Hannah, who ran to her and wrapped her hands around Wendy’s neck. “I’m gonna miss you, you little cutie!”

“Ann Wenny go high inna sky?”

“Aunt Wendy has to stay here for a while, Hannah. So I want you to take real good care of your mother, okay?”

Hannah nodded, serious. “I hep Momma. See Ann Wenny again.”

Wendy fought back a tear as her throat grew tight. “We’ll see each other again, Hannah. Love you, sweetie!” Wendy hoisted the little girl into the air and handed her to her mother. “She’s a great kid, Professor Glazer.”

“I know.”

“Best of luck at Stanford,” Wendy said. “But Danfield will sure miss you.”

The public address system announced a last call for Flight 313. “Karen,” Art called. All the other passengers had boarded already.

“Thanks, Wendy. Have a good summer but don’t neglect your studies come fall semester. No excuses about any sophomore slump. Besides, we all need to put the past behind us and move forward with our lives.”

“One day at a time.”

Karen glanced down at Hannah, who was playing with the lace collar of her mother’s blouse as if she were trying to determine how it was made, and nodded. When Karen looked up again, her eyes were moist. “Take care of Alex, too.”

Wendy nodded. “Don’t forget to send your e-mail address.”

Art stepped beside Karen and offered his free hand to Wendy. She took it and yanked him forward into a hug. “Bye, Art. It’s been a pleasure.”

“Sure has. Aside from all the evil witch monster stuff.”

“Yeah, that I could have done without,” Wendy said. “You’ve got a special lady there.”

“Two special ladies,” Art said, glancing at Karen and Hannah. He turned back to Wendy and brushed a strand of auburn hair away from her face. “Letting your hair grow?”

Wendy shrugged, embarrassed. “Something different. Until it becomes a hassle.”

“It suits you.”

Wendy laughed. “You sound like my mom. Hey, you guys better get moving. Those tickets are nonrefundable.”

As they walked down the ramp to board the Boeing 757, Hannah watched Wendy over Karen’s shoulder. Wendy gave her a little wave and Hannah curled her fingers open and closed, a slow-motion farewell. “See Ann Wenny again.”

After they were gone and the plane had taxied away from the boarding ramp toward the runway, Wendy sat down in one of the molded plastic chairs, all of which were momentarily empty. She planted her elbows on her knees and rested her face against her palms. When Alex stepped up beside her, she was crying silently. He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “That does it,” he said. “I’m buying one of those portable motorized scooters.”

Wendy laughed. “You’ll break your legs — again.” She stood and walked into his embrace, tucking her head in the hollow under his chin. “Everybody’s leaving.”

“Not everyone,” Alex said. “Not for good. Frankie will be back for fall semester. I’ll be back even sooner.”

“Promise?”

“Scout’s honor.”

She looked up at him. “You were a Boy Scout?”

“Well, if you’re gonna get all technical…”

She punched his shoulder, the right one. Once, a couple months ago, she’d slugged his left shoulder and his face had gone ashen. He’d almost fainted from the pain. “Wait here for me?” she asked.

“Not going anywhere.”

Wendy walked against the flow of traffic to the nearest rest room, which was currently empty. By some weird trick of acoustics, all the ambient sounds of a thriving airport were muffled. The whisper of her shoes and the sound of her own breathing seemed amplified, as was the steady drip from a faucet at the opposite end of the long row of sinks. The cold fluorescent lighting seemed to sap all color out of the long room.

She examined her face in the mirror. Her eyes were a little puffy and red-rimmed from crying, and her hair was disheveled from running along the concourse, but otherwise she looked okay. Since she never wore mascara, she avoided the crying hazard of sad-clown face.

She worried about Professor Glazer and Hannah. While they never really discussed Hannah’s accelerated growth and intellect, the circumstances of the little girl’s birth weighed on both their minds. Wendy half believed that Professor Glazer took the teaching position in California to distance herself from what had happened on Halloween in Windale, as if moving thousands of miles away would be enough to make her life and Hannah’s life normal again. Wendy already felt as if a piece of herself had gone missing. Of the three of them, Wendy knew she would miss Hannah the most. She had a bond with the little girl. Maybe she was just exhibiting an early maternal instinct. Better keep that particular thought from Alex or I’ll scare him half to death. Wendy chuckled and told herself she was being silly.

After running cold water into her cupped palms, she leaned over and splashed it on her face. She looked up and saw, standing beside her and reflected in the rest room mirror, an old woman with loose gray hair, wearing a long white robe and sandals. Wendy gasped.

In a paper thin voice, the old woman said, “It’s not over.”

Wendy spun around to face the woman, but nobody was there. Except for Wendy, the rest room was deserted. Wendy clutched the edge of the sink for support, forced herself to take several deep breaths. She must have imagined the old woman. But she was so real. Wendy walked over to the row of stalls and pushed the doors open, one by one and found each of them empty, just as she knew she would.

Voices approached. Two women. A mother and daughter, maybe, chatting about the merits of the Grand Tetons versus Yellowstone National Park as they made their way to the sink to check their hair and makeup. They glanced at Wendy briefly, the older woman smiling for a moment before resuming her conversation. Wendy forced a smile, then hurried out of the rest room.

The first thing Alex said was, “You look like you saw a ghost.”

“That’s one possibility.”

“What happened?”

Wendy shook her head. “Wanna drive the Civic home? I’m thinking a nap might be on my agenda.”

“Half-hour drive,” Alex said, tapping his leg with the end of his cane. “No problem. Sure you trust me with your new car?”

“More than I trust myself at the moment.”

“But you’re okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” Wendy assured him. “Just have to remember Professor Glazer’s last lesson and put the past behind me.”

#

Gina Thorne stepped out of the shower, wrapped a towel around her body and ran a brush through her long, strawberry-blond hair to remove any tangles. The bathroom was moist with steam and the mirror was a foggy blur, revealing barely a ghostly image of her face. Scattered on the floor were a half dozen empty plastic bottles of various bath and shower gels, their mingled scents wafting off of her exposed skin.

She walked down the hall to her bedroom, her bare feet leaving wet prints on the deep pile white carpeting. After closing the door she hit the remote control to turn on the nineteen-inch television, switched to an MTV beach party event and muted the sound. Next she turned on her stereo and scanned the stations till she found one playing a rap metal song by a band with a lead singer whose voice had probably been enhanced by a shot of drain cleaner. It was almost like aural, if not melodic, violence. She cranked up the sound until she could feel the bass in the floorboards.

In one corner was a trash can overflowing with her entire collection of Beanie Babies, each one slashed with a letter opener, their spongy-pellet guts littering the pale blue carpeting like lumpy confetti. The stuffed creatures were beyond disgusting. She wondered how she had ever tolerated them… or how she had ever accumulated such a pathetic, syrupy collection of music CDs. And she’d taken great delight in slashing the hell out of the Thomas Kinkade lighthouse print that had looked down on her bed.

After toweling herself dry she tossed the towel on the floor and examined her body in the full length mirror. It had taken several months, but she’d finally shed all the weight she’d gained during her concealed pregnancy along with an extra ten pounds. Although she had never been as fit as she was now, all her curves were more pronounced. Turning in profile to the mirror, she appraised the smooth curve of her rear end, placed a splayed palm against her flat stomach, before sliding her hands up to cup the swell of her breasts. It was as if she were seeing her body for the first time, with a stranger’s eyes.

She slipped into a black bra, fastened the front clasp, then stepped into a pair of black bikini panties. Dropping to her unmade bed, she lit a cigarette and began to paint her fingernails cherry red.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed her bedroom door open. Standing in the doorway, holding onto the knob as he stared at her, was her thirteen-year-old stepbrother, Todd.

“What are you staring at, you little perv?”

Todd gulped. “Nothing much — loser,” he said, finally. “Dad says turn the music down, you’re giving him a headache. Mom says dinner’s almost ready.”

Gina stood and walked toward the stereo, aware of Todd continuing to stare at her in bra and panties. She lowered the volume and said in a threatening tone. “Next time, knock!”

“I knocked, bitch,” he said. “Not my fault you couldn’t hear!”

“Knock louder, or I’ll slice your little root off while you’re asleep.”

“I’m telling Mom.”

“Go ahead and tell her, Toad.”

Gina slammed the door behind him. Cursed under her breath, and turned up the volume close to where it had been before. She dressed in a sleeveless silk, leopard print blouse and a black leather skirt that fell to mid thigh, finally strapping on a pair of black stiletto heels.

Inevitably her mother rapped her knuckles on the door and opened it without waiting for Gina’s invitation to enter. First thing she did was turn off the stereo. “You upset your brother.”

“Stepbrother,” Gina corrected. “And he deserved it. Little pervert was staring at me in my underwear.”

At thirty-nine, Caitlin Thorne-Gallo was a raven-haired beauty who, during her marriage to the late Alden Thorne, improved upon her natural good looks with a vigorous round of nip, tuck and augmentation. Almost five years ago, Alden Thorne, founder and CEO of Thorne Biotech, spotted the recently divorced Caitlin Hayes in his own marketing department. After a whirlwind, three-month affair and despite a thirty-one year age difference, Alden and Caitlin were married. A short, but prosperous marriage for Caitlin, since Gina doubted her mother had ever loved the old coot. When Alden Thorne died two years ago of a heart attack, he left his considerable estate and majority holding in Thorne Biotech to his young widow.

Although Caitlin had waited over a year to marry Dominick Gallo, the regional manager in Thorne Biotech’s tax department, Gina had heard the nasty rumors that the two had been having a clandestine affair while Alden Thorne was still alive. If the rumors were true, Caitlin had managed to keep the affair secret from her own daughter. Even so, Gina suspected that Gallo was simply playing gold digger to the gold digger. Karma and all that.

To Angelina, his sweet sixteen-year-old, adopted stepdaughter, Alden Thorne had left only a trust fund that wouldn’t kick in until she was twenty-five years old. So Caitlin never missed an opportunity to keep her daughter in line by threatening to yank the financial rug out from under her at the slightest provocation. Gina had to endure seven more years of maternal badgering before she would have any sort of financial freedom.

“We’re a family now,” Caitlin said. She had been saying this since the day she remarried almost a year ago and, frankly, Gina was sick of it. “We need to get along with each other. Make this work. Will you at least try?”

“Whatever.”

“Were you planning on going out tonight?”

“Brett’s taking me out.”

“I thought you were eating with us.”

“Guess I forgot to mention it,” Gina said, the thought of eating with her newest family was enough to nauseate her. “We have reservations at Roy ’s Steakhouse.”

“Not the sort of place I’d expect to find a vegetarian.”

“I gave that up, Mother. We’re top of the food chain. Why pretend otherwise?” She shuddered at a sense-memory of biting into a slab of rare steak, the feel of warm blood trickling down her chin. At least she thought it was rare steak… and that the memory was hers. Lately her memories had been jumbled. Ever since that night at the Harrison Motor Lodge.

Caitlin glanced at the smoldering cigarette in the ashtray on the floor and heaved an indignant sigh. “You know I don’t allow smoking in the house.”

“Nerves,” Gina said. She’d started smoking a couple months ago and couldn’t get enough of it. Actually, there were a lot of things besides cigarettes she couldn’t seem to get enough of, alcohol being one of them. “Finals coming up. Besides, next year I’ll be in a dorm at Danfield and you won’t have to worry about me messing up your perfect little life anymore.”

“That’s not what I meant,” her mother said and sighed again. “Listen, Gina, I think it would be a good idea if you had a talk with Father Murray. You haven’t been yourself lately.” She looked around the cluttered bedroom, silently cataloguing all the oddities she found there before giving up. “The smoking, the late hours, poor grades, leaving your room a mess.”

Her mother, the hypocrite, had a maid come in five days a week, but Sylvia was restricted from cleaning either Gina’s or Todd’s room, supposedly to teach them some responsibility. Meanwhile, Caitlin never had to lift a finger.

Caitlin droned on, “Not to mention your recent rude behavior. Tell me, when was the last time you joined us at church?”

Last year, Gina thought. “I’ve been real busy.”

“It’s always some excuse,” her mother said. “But Gina, while you live in this house, you obey our rules. If you expect me to foot the bill for your tuition to Danfield, I demand that you treat your stepbrother, your stepfather, and me with respect. And it wouldn’t kill you to show a little gratitude.”

Since her mother had ample means, Gina wouldn’t qualify for any financial aid, so she had to play ball by her mother’s rules. “I am grateful, Mother.”

“Then show it. Talk to Father Murray.”

Gina nodded. Long enough to tell him to fuck off.

“Thanks, dear, I appreciate it.” Her mother kissed her on the cheek. “Don’t stay out too late. You know I worry.”

Gina closed the door behind her mother and banged her head against the door. “I gotta get out of here,” she whispered. She sat before her vanity mirror and applied red lipstick to her full lips. The same shade she’d applied to her fingernails. She stared at her face in the mirror, once again with that odd, distant appraisal. Her pale blue eyes, almost translucent stared back at her. Trembling, her hand reached out and pressed against the glass of the mirror. Anger flashed within her like a sudden spark and the glass shattered under her palm. Pulling her hand quickly away, she marveled at the broad starburst pattern that now fractured her reflection. She’d applied only the slightest pressure to the glass and it had burst. Must be defective, she reasoned.

By the time she finished blow-drying her hair, Dominick, her latest stepfather, called up that Brett had arrived. Gina grabbed a clutch purse and hurried down the stairs, anxious to be out of the house, under the twilight sky, free of criticism, constraints, and false familial bonding.

Almost standing guard, Dominick waited at the bottom of the steps. Although he’d doffed his suit jacket, he still wore his white-on-white dress shirt, scarlet necktie in a perfect little Windsor knot, charcoal-gray suspenders and matching pants over black, tasseled loafers. At thirty-six, Dominick Gallo was three years younger than Gina’s mother. Just under six feet tall, with wavy brown hair and a well trimmed mustache, he stayed reasonably fit through regular tennis and golf dates with some of his fellow managers. If not for a too long nose and the smug attitude he wore like a tailored overcoat, Gina might have considered him handsome. Regardless, he was a self-righteous pain in the ass covering up, she suspected, for an inferiority complex or a small trouser hose. When Caitlin decided to take his surname, Dom Gallo had puffed up his chest, but he probably could’ve done without the Thorne hyphenate. Having everyone assume you’re the boss lady’s boy toy must do wonders for the self-image.

He looked her over with his patronizing little smirk, as if she must pass his inspection before he’d let her out. Either that or he just wanted to be sure to get an eyeful. “School tomorrow. I assume you finished all your assignments.”

“I’m caught up through Friday.”

“Good to hear it. Be home by ten-thirty,” he said finally. “And, Gina,” — he caught her bare arm and gave a little squeeze — “don’t do anything to embarrass your mother or me.”

She smiled pleasantly as she pulled her arm away. “Wouldn’t think of it, Dom.”

“Can’t say I like your attitude lately, young lady.”

Who asked you? Gina thought and squeezed by him before he could cop another feel. She bit her tongue and slipped out the door. Anything she said would only start a fight, ending in her being sent to her room or risking the loss of her collegiate funding. Getting to Danfield was secondary to just getting out.

Brett was leaning against one of the wraparound veranda posts. He turned as the right double-door swung open. While Gina had become more vibrant in the months since that night at the Harrison Motor Lodge, Brett had become more haggard. He smiled. “You look terrific.”

“I know,” she said. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

In the pickup truck he leaned over to kiss her and she turned her mouth away, offering only her cheek. “Time to mess up the lipstick later,” she said. “I’m ravenous.”

He started the engine and drove out onto Main Street without saying a word. Finally, she sighed and asked, “What?”

“Nothing.”

“Stop brooding and speak.”

“It’s just that you’re so…different now. I mean, I’m glad, though. You’ve put it behind you.”

She knew what it was. “Get over it, Brett. Or this won’t work between us. I have no intention of wallowing in depression with you for the rest of my life.”

“I know,” he said. “You’re right. It just… helps to talk about it, and you’re the only one I can talk to, so…”

“I’m sick to death of talking about it,” Gina said, exasperated. “We have a bright future ahead of us, but not if you keep looking over your shoulder.” She reached into the lap of his Dockers and squeezed. “Be a good boy tonight and I’ll give you a little surprise.”

“What — I thought we weren’t going to — ?”

“Changed my mind about a lot of things,” she said, crooking a smile. “Decided to seize the day.” She squeezed him again, harder this time. “Among other things.” She glanced out on Main and saw a row of fast-food restaurants. “Pull over!”

Brett swung the pickup onto the shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

Gina massaged her temples, trying to ease the flare of pain she’d felt a moment earlier. Something about the restaurants had made her incredibly tense. She looked at their plastic signs and garish lights. McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s…

She shook her head, brushed her long hair back from her face. “I don’t know. Something… I can’t remember now.”

#

“Put the past behind us and move forward with our lives.”

Karen’s parting words had become a challenge for Wendy. Either by fate or coincidence, there was a full moon this night and Wendy had all but abandoned any kind of ritual or mirror book observations on the Esbats. After dropping Alex off at his dorm so he could finish packing for his flight the next day, she had stopped home for a purifying bath among scattered lavender petals. Then she’d driven the Civic out to Gable Road, parked on the shoulder, leaving a white T-shirt dangling from the driver’s side window to convey a breakdown, before making her way along the game trail to her clearing. She was determined to finish before dark as a way of easing herself back into her clearing, back into her outdoor rituals.

From an ash staff, birch twigs, and willow binding she’d purchased at The Crystal Path, she’d constructed a small witch’s broom. She used that broom now and with symbolic, sweeping strokes purified her space, which seemed all the more important since she’d been away so long. With peg, string, and funnel, she poured a thin line of flour to form her circle before unfolding her meditation mat. Since she planned an abbreviated ritual and wanted to maintain her nerve throughout, she chose not to go sky-clad for this particular Esbat, though she had no problem removing socks and shoes.

She welcomed the four elements, starting with air to the east and proceeding clockwise through fire to the south, water to the west, and finishing with earth to the north. As she proceeded, she gained confidence in herself, in her ritual. She’d only brought a few ingredients with her, enough to make a healing sachet for Alex, something he could take with him over the summer to Minneapolis .

First, the parsley and sage she’d purchased at The Crystal Path had to be consecrated. She offered the seeds and leaves to each of the four elements, before using her bolline, the white-handled ceremonial knife, to cut the leaves into tiny pieces. If she were making an infusion with spring water, she would grind them into powder with mortar and pestle. Instead, she slipped the snipped pieces into a white linen pouch, along with a polished rose quartz stone she’d washed in a fresh-water stream. She tied the pouch with a length of blue ribbon, blue being a healing color and offered it to the north. She visualized Alex walking through a meadow, unencumbered by a cane, without discomfort or even a limp, holding the image until it seemed more memory than desire. “Mother Earth, bestow on this bundle the blessing of health and the power of healing.” If only in her imagination, within the confines of her visualization, she felt a warm tingling in her fingers and along her arm.

Her one bit of magic complete, she needed to reabsorb the magical energies she had raised from within herself. She broke a gingerbread cookie in half and scattered crumbs on the ground beside her as an offering, followed by a few drops of milk. She nibbled on the other half of the cookie and drank the rest of the milk. Finally, she thanked the elements for their attendance and broke the circle.

Twilight was past and the shadows were lengthening, darkening, but she felt invigorated and safe in her special place. The taint of Wither was gone at last. She felt whole again.

#

Gina climbed out of the pickup truck, calling to Brett who was filling up the gas tank, “I want chocolate.” She walked into the gas station’s mini-mart, glancing at the bored teenager working the cash register. Gina thought she might have seen him in the halls at Harrison High but couldn’t recall his name. She walked down the candy aisle and selected a Hershey bar. Pure chocolate, no nuts, nougat, wafers, raisins or crispies. She ripped off the wrapper, snapped off a section, down to the “S” and pushed it in her mouth with a low moan of delight. She finished that bar and ate another, taking a third for the road.

She walked up to the register, a pronounced slink in her walk, as she now had the clerk’s full attention and wondered if he’d accuse her of stealing. He wore a grease-stained gray polyester shirt with “Kenny” embroidered on a patch above the pocket. Placing the Hershey bar on the narrow counter, she looked through her clutch purse for money and found only one crumpled up dollar bill. This won’t do, she thought and had a bizarre idea. Staring into the clerk’s brown eyes, she said in what could best be described as a pouty voice, “Can you make change for a hundred, Kenny.”

With a gulp, he took the bill from her hand, but not before she placed her other hand on top of his and squeezed. A flash of warmth passed between them and Kenny seemed a little confused. Glancing down at the dollar bill, he stammered, “We’re not supposed to accept anything bigger’n a fifty.”

“But you’ll make an exception for me, won’t you, Kenny?”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “No problem.”

He popped open the cash register, lifted the tray, and slipped the dollar bill underneath with checks and large bills. Tomorrow his boss would probably wonder why the hell he’d hidden a dollar under the tray and why his drawer was short. Kenny counted out five twenties and handed them to her. Again, she held his hand between hers and thanked him. “Oh, you forgot to charge me for the chocolate.”

He shrugged, smiled, and said, “It’s on me, miss.”

“You’re very sweet, Kenny.”

As she walked out to the pickup truck, she was sure Kenny was checking out her ass. Small tradeoff for a ninety-nine dollar profit. Girl’s gotta have some spending money.

Brett climbed in the truck, glanced at his watch and said, “Better hurry. Don’t want to miss our reservation. And I want to make sure we have time for, you know” — he took in the long line of her thighs — “other things.”

“Don’t worry, Brett,” she said. “We’ll have plenty of time to satisfy our appetites later. First, one more stop before dinner.”

“Where?”

“Holy Redeemer,” Gina said, a mischievous glint in her eyes. “I promised mother I’d have a talk with Father Murray.”

#

Flushed with a renewed sense of inner peace, Wendy drove her Civic into the nearly empty parking lot behind Schongauer Hall. Carrying a small backpack by the straps, she hurried up the steps of the eerily quiet stairwell to the second floor. The hallway was deserted. A jazz instrumental played in a dorm room at the other end of the hall. Finals were over and almost everyone had fled the campus for summer break. On the dry-erase board mounted beside Alex’s dorm room door, was a note scribbled in block letters: On pizza run. Let yourself in!

Alex’s roommate, Jesse Osborne, had also left for home, Buffalo , New York , in his decrepit station wagon, leaving behind his dorm key, which Alex had lent to Wendy for just such an occasion. She let herself in and turned on the light. The room was small, utilitarian, each side almost a mirror image of the other, with a small bed and student desk against each long wall. Underneath each bed were four drawers that substituted for stand-alone dressers. The bookshelves over the beds and desks were empty of everything save a few scattered college newspapers. Wendy looked at a couple of them and saw they were open to the sports sections, found a couple pictures of track events and a few wrestling matches. Wendy recalled that Jesse had been on the wrestling team.

At the far end of the room was a window bench that overlooked the quad. At least Alex’s room doesn’t have a view of the parking lot, she thought. On one side of the bench was a shared closet. On the other was the door into the bathroom with a small sink, stool and shower stall. A private bathroom was a luxury. Most of the dorms had communal toilets and showers.

Alex had already packed most of his belongings away in two cloth suitcases and an Old Navy duffel bag lined up on the padded window bench. He’d left out a toiletry kit and a change of clothes. On his desk he’d laid out paper plates, napkins and plastic cups, along with a single red rose in a narrow glass vase. She smiled at the touch of romance amid all the disposable practicality. Possibly he remembered the time she’d told him roses were used in love magic. Or, it was just a rose. Either way, she appreciated the special touch.

She sat on his bed and unzipped the backpack. Inside were two dozen white candles, a box of wooden matches, another small box, the magical healing sachet, her linen robe and a bottle of white wine she’d liberated from her parents’ liquor cabinet. She wanted to have everything ready by the time he returned.

In less than five minutes, she’d scattered the candles across the desks, bookshelves, and windowsill, saying a quick prayer as she lit them that they wouldn’t trigger the sprinkler system. She poured the wine into two plastic cups and slipped into her robe, hiding her street clothes in the backpack. She put away the rest of the matches and tossed the small box on top of Alex’s toiletry kit. Finally, she turned off the cold fluorescent light, dropping the small room into a warm, amber darkness. She could imagine herself floating through the night sky, each tiny candle flame a distant star.

She was in the bathroom, finger-combing her hair when she heard Alex’s key in the lock. Well, it’s not a complete mess, she said, passing judgment on her errant mane.

“One large extra cheese — Wendy? Are you here?”

“Pizza man,” Wendy said, stepping out of the bathroom. “I thought you’d never get here.”

Alex placed the pizza box on an open corner of one desk, looked around at the assortment of candles and said, “I have the feeling I walked in on the middle of one of your rituals.”

“Not the middle,” Wendy said. “The beginning. It’s the time-honored I’ll-miss-you-so-hurry-back ritual.”

“I’m not familiar with that one,” Alex said, grinning. “You’ll have to walk me through the protocol.”

Wendy padded over to him in her bare feet and stood close enough to feel his breath on her face. “Oh, most of the ritual should come naturally. First you get a present.”

“A present? I just love a ritual present. At least I think I do.”

She took his hands and placed them on the ends of the cloth belt of her robe. “Unwrap it and find out.” He tugged the belt loop and it came undone. She guided his hands up to the collar of her robe and helped him pull it open. It slipped off her shoulders and dropped to the floor. She stood before him completely naked, bathed in the golden light of two dozen candles.

With a peck on his cheek, she said, “Grab your toiletry kit and join me under the covers.”

“You want me to shave now?”

“No, silly!” she said, slapping him on the rump.

He had a twinkle in his eye and not just from the scattered candle light. “You want me to shave you?”

She paused for a moment. “Ask me some other time,” she said, before slipping under the covers of his bed. “Now hurry up and get under here with me.”

Alex walked over to his toiletry kit and clucked his tongue. “A twelve pack?”

“I enjoy the never-ending struggle for perfection,” Wendy quipped.

He brought the box back with him, but even as he pulled his shirt over his head, he hesitated. “We haven’t — I mean, I’m not sure I’m ready for — ”

“It’s been almost seven months, Alex,” Wendy said. “I’m ready to give those patchwork limbs of yours a test drive.”

Alex chuckled. “Promise you’ll be gentle with me?”

“If you insist,” she said, helping him with his button-fly jeans.

“You know, the pizza’s gonna get cold,” Alex said. “We could do this after.”

Wendy had an added gleam in her eye, “We will.”

Wendy was hungry for the taste of him, the feel of him, the warmth of him. They had been intimate for the first and only time just hours before he’d been attacked at Marshall Field. She’d almost lost him forever that night and she couldn’t bear the thought of him flying so far away, not seeing him again for months without being close to him one more time. Despite the urgency of her need to be with him, she had to maintain a slow, careful pace, watching his face for any signs of pain as she rolled on top of him or as he twisted underneath her. She found the best position was with Alex on his back while she straddled his hips, her knees supporting most of her weight. She helped him slip on the condom, then guided him inside her. As she found a slow, determined rhythm she leaned down and trailed her hair across his chest, then planted hot, breathy kisses along his throat. He ran his hands up her sides and cupped her breasts.

Afterward, she lay beside him, studying his face in the candle light, memorizing his features, tracing her finger along the scar above his right eyelid with her index finger. “Oh, I forgot, I have another present.”

“Maybe we should eat a slice of pizza first.”

She leaned way out of the bed and reached for her robe on the floor, pulling it toward her by the cloth belt. Alex took the opportunity to give her bare ass a playful swat. “Hey! Save that stuff for later.”

She curled into his arms and handed him the sachet. “Something to remember me by.”

“I think you’ve already given me that.”

She kissed his cheek. “You’re sweet. But this will make you better, patchwork limbs and all.”

He took the small pouch and noticed her broad smile. Arching an eyebrow, he said, “You were out in the woods tonight weren’t you.”

“Small ritual,” Wendy confessed. “One spell. Healing magic. Kind of a health talisman. Keep this close to you. In a pocket, under your pillow at night.”

“I thought you were nervous about going out in the woods again.”

“I was,” Wendy said. “But it’s time to forget the past.”

“And move forward with our lives,” Alex finished.

“Exactly.” Wendy sighed in contentment and rested her cheek against his bare chest. “I realized tonight I finally feel at peace again. I finally feel safe.”

#

For nine-year-old Abby MacNeil, the monsters had always been real. Sometimes they were even human. But not always. Almost seven months ago, one of the not-so-human monsters had killed her father, who was himself a creature that lived on in one of her occasional nightmares, if not during her waking hours. She remembered his name, Randy, but his face was fading away, a lost memory. He had never loved her as a father should love and cherish his daughter, had never been kind to her and, when he had too much to drink, had touched her in ways that made her hate herself and hate him. She’d been a nuisance in his life but he was all the family she could ever remember. And all she wanted was to forget he ever existed.

Art Leeson and Sheriff Nottingham had rescued her from the other monster, the ancient, dark monster called Sarah, who could fly and smelled like the worst garbage she could ever imagine. The sheriff, who asked her to call him Mr. Nottingham, and his family had taken her in, but while she had become comfortable in their home, she still felt like an outsider, a visitor on a really long sleepover.

All six of them lived in a one-story frame house with three bedrooms. Abby had her own bed but shared a room with seven-year-old Erica, who insisted that Abby was her older sister. Five-year-old Max and four-year-old Benjamin had bunk beds in the smallest bedroom. Of course, the sheriff and his wife, Christina had the largest bedroom, with their own bathroom. Rowdy, the Nottinghams’ chocolate Lab, seemed to prefer the boys’ bedroom most nights. The Sheriff had built an addition behind the two-car garage and used that room as his office. Behind the house was a large deck with eight sides, shaped like a stop sign, a bigger, fenceless yard that ended with a dark tree line.

Looking dark and enchanted under the full moon, the forest seemed to call to Abby just as it had before, behind her own house. Then she had found the gravestones of the three Windale witches, the witches who had become the not-so-human monsters.

Abby leaned against the deck railing and stared across the yard into the deeper darkness of the trees. She remembered dreaming of the forest, running between the mighty columns of trees with long, loping strides. When Mrs. Nottingham asked who wanted a piece of chocolate cake, Abby waited until Erica, Max, and Ben had run inside screaming, “I do! I do!” before calling after them. “I’m stuffed.” Rowdy had gone with the majority, no doubt anticipating more table scraps.

“Well, let me know if you change your mind, Abby,” Mrs. Nottingham called. “Time for baths soon.”

Abby was already crossing the yard, mesmerized by the scent of the trees and the rich earth before her. As she stepped over some tangled underbrush past the tree line, the darkness seemed to open up for her, revealing treacherous, exposed tree roots and outlining low hanging branches that might have scratched her face or jabbed her eyes. Even as her vision adjusted to the darkness, her hearing became more acute, picking up the distant sound of a hooting owl as well as the rustling of a nearby raccoon. The air was alive with the buzz of insects and the rich fragrance of moist earth and fresh leaves. Soon she heard the trickling of a small stream and she let herself follow the peaceful sound, closing the distance to the source of fresh water. The full moon peeked between the crisscrossing tree boughs more frequently as she neared the stream and she knew the forest was thinning at last. In a few minutes, she stepped out of the trees and stood alone on the grassy bank of the meandering stream.

Abby sat on the grass and felt a shuddering in her body.

Less than seven months ago, before the not-so-human monster had kidnapped her from the hospital chapel, Abby had been in a terrible car accident with Art. She had been paralyzed, unable to move her arms or legs, and by the looks on the faces of her doctors at the time, they thought she would never walk again. In overheard, whispered conversations, she had listened to them talk about cancer or something else, strange growths that had covered her bones, unlike anything they had ever seen before. They never could explain what had happened to her bones or why they had healed completely soon afterward. She was a medical miracle, some of the nurses said, or at least a medical mystery. Maybe that’s why she felt like an outsider. She had experienced something no other little girl ever had.

Abby shuddered again and felt an ache deep in her bones. One of her nightmares was that she would wake up and find out that she hadn’t been cured, that she was still stuck in that hospital bed, a helpless prisoner to her own paralysis. If nightmares monsters are real, maybe what you think is your real life is nothing but a dream, Abby thought. Maybe I’m dreaming now.

Then she screamed.

In the moonlight, her eyes reflected yellow.

Her right hand burned so bad she thought it was on fire. She grabbed it in her left hand and held it up to her eyes. Beneath her flesh, the bones were moving, contracting, her fingers shortening, becoming blunt. The fine blond hairs on her forearm multiplied and became coarse, turning into white fur, a shade lighter than her hair. The crunching pain of shifting bones spread to her other hand, then her legs, hips and even her jaw. She screamed again, but this time the sound came out more like a desperate howl, for she knew the awful truth of it.

Abby MacNeil herself had become a monster.

#

Gina Thorne entered the Holy Redeemer Church through the back entrance, turned at the corridor that branched off from the choir rehearsal room and walked to Father Murray’s office. If she recalled correctly, he stayed in his office till eight o’clock on Wednesdays. She was careful not to make too much noise in her stiletto heels. Best not to ruin the surprise.

The frosted glass door was open only a few inches, obstructing most of the view into the office. All she could see was a mahogany bookcase. Instead of knocking, she gripped and opened the door. Father Murray shoved his desk drawer closed, almost dropping the cigarette he held in his other hand. He’d been sitting alone in the weak spill of light from a green-shaded banker’s lamp, not expecting anyone. “I’m sorry, you startled me, young lady,” he stammered. He wore a black shirt with a clerical collar. His hair was more gray than black and hadn’t been washed in days, while his pale face was a study in fine lines and wrinkles, his bulbous nose etched in a splay of tiny red blood vessels. And he needed a shave. “May I help you?”

“I was told you wanted to see me, Father,” Gina said, spreading her arms. “So here I am.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t recall your name.”

“Gina,” she said. “Angelina Thorne.”

“My heavens,” he said. “You have changed.”

“Could you light me?” Gina asked. She took a Kool cigarette out of her clutch purse, put it to her lips then leaned over his desk, far enough for him to get a complete view of her cleavage, far enough for him to catch a good whiff of at least three of her shower gels.

He opened the top drawer and took out a Zippo lighter, giving her a glimpse of what else he kept hidden in his desk. With a trembling hand, he lit her cigarette, then pointed to an uncomfortable looking wooden chair and said, “Please. Sit down.”

She dropped back into the hard wooden chair, as unforgiving as a church pew, and crossed her legs, so the leather skirt would ride up, exposing even more of her creamy bare thigh. Father Murray looked away, making a show of straightening several stacks of paper, folders and ledgers on his desk.

Gina inhaled and blew a stream of smoke  up toward the sign on the wall, the sign that read No Smoking.

He followed her gaze and cleared his throat. “Oh, that. Well, it’s after hours, don’t you know. Nobody to complain.”

“Lucky for us.”

“Quite,” he said. “Now, if I recall the situation correctly, your mother is concerned about your behavior these past several months.”

“She’ll get over it.”

“I think it’s her desire that you, as you say, get over it, Miss Thorne. She tells me you haven’t been to church at all this year. That you are rude, inconsiderate, stay out too late and have let your grades suffer.”

“My grades will be fine,” Gina said. “I’ve made special… tutoring arrangements with some of my teachers and they are quite… pleased to give me the grades I deserve.”

“Be that as it may, I want you to know it is not uncommon for teenagers to go through a rebellious period. Still and all, you wouldn’t want to participate in behavior that would jeopardize your future. And you must be mindful of your mother’s prominent position in this community.”

And appearances are everything to mother, Gina thought sourly.

“Don’t worry father, I don’t think she’ll forget your offering plate.”

“Insolence is an ugly trait, Gina.”

“My insolence isn’t why your hands are shaking, Father,” Gina said. “Don’t mind me. Go ahead. Take that little flask out of your drawer and finish what you started before I so rudely interrupted you.”

“We are here to discuss your behavior,” Father Murray said, his face becoming red in indignation.

Gina blew a stream of smoke into his face. “Careful. High blood pressure is the silent killer.”

“Young lady!”

“Listen, old man,” Gina said. “I don’t have time to sit here and be lectured by a hypocrite. As long as we’re discussing vices, just how many do you have, Father? Smoking, drinking, young choir boys?”

“Miss Thorne!”

“No, I suppose not,” she said. “I saw the way you pretended not to check out my legs.”

“This meeting is over!”

“Fine, then let me help you out, Father. I know you’re anxious to resume your bible study.” Gina leaned forward, her brow creasing in concentration. Anger helped. The spark warmed her, made her whole body hot and tight with the need for violence. She watched in satisfaction as the desk drawer jerked open, as if by an invisible hand.

Father Murray gaped, then gasped as the silver flask rose from inside the drawer and wobbled in midair on its way to his face. He swatted it aside, as if it were a stinging insect, and jumped out of his chair. The screw cap, already loose, fell off as the flask struck the desk blotter. The metal container tipped over, spreading a puddle of whiskey. Gina took an exaggerated whiff. “Strong stuff, Father. I approve.”

Father Murray’s face was livid, his pale skin now a blotchy red. Gina imagined she could here his heart thundering in his chest, rushing blood through clogged arteries, and it was beating too fast, working too hard. The priest was already breathless. With the power of another thought, spurred by her own rage, she tweaked his heart, made it beat faster and faster still.

Father Murray gasped again, but this time clutched his chest with his free hand. Blood spilled from his right nostril, over his lips to stain the stubble on his chin. Trembling, he fell back into his chair. His cigarette fell to the desktop and began to char the dark wood grain. “You — you are evil!”

“Now, now, Father,” Gina said. “That’s not a very politically correct thing to say. Remember, I’m the misunderstood, rebellious teenager.”

But his voice failed him, followed a moment later, by his heart. Father Murray fell forward, his face splashing in the puddle of whiskey. Gina leaned forward in her chair, elbows on her knees, then looked at her own smoldering cigarette. “These things really are hazardous to your health.” She pursed her lips and blew the puddle of whiskey toward the priest’s smoldering cigarette where it lay at the edge of the desk. When the first drop made contact with the glowing ember, a blue flame caught and whooshed across the entire pool of whiskey. Father Murray’s face happened to be right in the middle of that puddle. His clerical collar began to burn and his face darkened.

The scent of burning flesh intrigued her, but not enough to risk ruining her leather skirt, should the office’s antiquated sprinkler system decide to kick in. She took a drag of her cigarette, shook her head and left the burning priest in his office.

Gina followed the corridor around the sanctuary area and entered the church by the door near the altar rail. Beside every other row of pews was a tapered stained glass window fifteen feet high, depicting the Stations of the Cross and other biblical scenes. Half of them had probably been donated by Alden Thorne. And the old man had given her nothing! Gina crossed to the nave and walked halfway down the length of the church before turning to face the crucifix she knew was there, the ten-foot long plaster Jesus with his crown of thorns, lit from above as if by heavenly light. She hadn’t been to this place in months and would never come again. She knew that now. And as she stood there, the anger, the rage and the hate boiled within her. The energy from all that fury had to go somewhere. The church pews began to vibrate against their floor bolts. Still it wasn’t enough. Plaster statues of various saints in various states of martyrdom wobbled on their pedestals, then toppled over and split in pieces, losing limbs. But still it wasn’t enough.

She squeezed her fists at her sides until the bones creaked and her fingernails scored her palms and drew blood. She gritted her teeth until her jaw ached and tendons along her neck throbbed. Finally, she threw her head back, arms raised at shoulder level, bloody fingers straining outward, and screamed with the intemperate wail of a banshee.

With an ear-rending explosion, every stained glass window burst simultaneously, blowing out of arched frames in thousands of jagged pieces, bits of multicolored shrapnel carrying messages of salvation and redemption too small to be understood.

At the same moment, the emergency lights and all the electronic votive candles popped, casting the church in unaccustomed darkness. And the long shadows were a comfort to Angelina Thorne. A comfort to her and the dark entity blossoming inside her with a growing memory of ancient evil.

Copyright © 2003 by John Passarella

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Stand-alone Sequel to WITHER, followed by WITHER'S LEGACY

About John

Co-author of the Bram Stoker Award-Winning First Novel WITHER. Also the author of WITHER'S RAIN, WITHER'S LEGACY, KINDRED SPIRT and three original media tie-in novels, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Ghoul Trouble, Angel: Avatar and Angel: Monolith. Releasing latest supernatural...

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