It was really that quick. Just hearing that name — Victor Marsh — I knew I would need him to be part of the ritual. That name. How it speaks simultaneously of the green Earth — “marsh” — and of success — “victor.” I took it as an omen. You see, I notice things like that. Those like me — we all do. The True People have an instinct for constructing the components of a ritual, and that name promised so much. And promise like that is important to look out for. Because, for one of the True People, like me — everything we do is ritual. That’s what builds the instinct. Every action, we recognize, has immediate ritualistic consequences. Even before I met Bellbrun, when I was very young. Because we understand that the universe truly is what the Horses made manifest to me. It is a web. A complex, interconnected patchwork. The Star Threads is what we called them on TK Wanderlad; patterns that could be traced or followed, in order to understand the nature of the universe — or the people in it. That’s what the Cosmic Circus was made to do. Since that night — July 04, 1976, when I laid my blood bare in the grass which was my price to pay — I’ve had the ability to see the bloody patterns of the world. I’ve said this before, yes, but you need to understand it. You need to know its importance to me. And it needs to be important to you. This was a gift specifically to me from the whole of the universe. Indians, I’ve read, once sent their children into the woods to suffer … so that the children might acquire the power to have visions. It certainly didn’t help them predict what was to befall them. But that’s about what you do with the knowledge you are given. Their sight was surely limited by their wrongbody status. I suffer no such shortcomings. I went on such a visionary journey — of my own accord — and gained that special sight they built whole faiths trying to find. I didn’t bleed for the gift; the gift came to me because I bled. The ability to follow the patterns of glowing gold that I have figured out make up the Star Threads. And I have discovered that every living person glows with them. Watch long enough, and you will see the threads untangle on a microscopic level that is also somehow visible. The threads drift from every living wrongbody and make up the collective will of the cosmos, as the tapestry bends and weaves. The pushes and pulls of the universe drag the connected people along. But you can break that, with enough skill and with enough strength. That’s what The True People do. That’s how we control and ride the Star Threads. But the tapestry is not just for travel. The pushing and pulling can guide your actions — if you can harmonize yourself to the pull of those strings of golden bloody starlight. It makes me wonder if, when stars are born — is it from some massive spilling of blood? Was the guiding star of Christianity born to tell of Jesus, or was it rather the slaughter of the children by the king’s soldiers that birthed that star? How has no one thought of this before? And further, did the Red Sea part because of God’s will? Or did the Red Sea part from powers Moses gained on the deaths of the firstborn of Egypt? Did Jesus ascend from the power of his own bloodshed? It is worth noting that blood always comes before power in even the so-called books of peace. That peace itself is defined first by bloodshed. That peace can come only after that blood is shed. When Revelations arrives for this doomed wrongworld, will it be the burning wrongbodies whose blood gives their savior the power to do what that book promises? These are interesting thoughts to consider — but they aren’t so important to me. Because, by the time Revelations comes, and the Horses fulfill their destinies, I hope to be long away from this place. I don’t know what’s to become of them. It is not for me to question them about such things. It is for them to question me. And they have. I don’t test them. They test me. That is why it was a mistake for me to try to touch the Princess of War. The Horses are not wrongbodies. They are angels. Do angels transcend worlds like the Cosmic Circus? Do they predate the Cosmic Circus? I have no idea, but these are hopefully thinks I will find out once Cameron and I journey to the True World and leave the wrongbodies to their fates as they burn up into ashes. It makes me think, too, about the question of when a wrongbody’s life becomes forfeit? I mean, the answer, of course, is automatically. By ‘virtue’ of birth — of which they have none, born as they are out of elements of the profane. But I’m thinking in the shorter-term. At what point have they wasted their potential to be useful? How many times can they still be of value to a ritual? In their relative youth at the time, Deacon and Reggie were malleable and easily tipped into the terms of the ritual. But Victor Marsh? He was a different story. And that’s where I knew my determination would have to come into play, and the second part of the ritual began.
Part II. Determination
Now. don’t get the wrong idea. Drodden is a small town, and — by 1977, at least — I had heard the name Victor Marsh before Reggie had said it — but I only knew the name, really. And I hadn’t thought of the significance the name might have to my rituals before I heard Reggie speaking it aloud. I remembered that Cameron had mentioned someone named Marsh once, but I couldn’t remember the context at all, or if it was Victor. Rituals can change things. Rituals can make something immortal. Something else to consider here: since the show had ended, Cameron and I hadn’t talked much. Mostly because his parents had been keeping him inside. We all thought he had the flu or mono or something. That hadn’t been it, but I’ll get into that later. I want to tell you how I met Victor. After our time at Garten Park, Reggie and I returned to the Peak household. I’d done that before, of course. But never during the exchange of power between a parent and a babysitter, and, yes, I was nervous about that. Especially with the unknown quantity of Victor Marsh. I wanted to oversee it. To impose my will on Reggie by my presence, to ensure his silence — even though I was reasonably sure there was no need to worry. But I didn’t want to stay there all night. Doing so would arouse more suspicion than any amount of control I could impose. So it was a balancing act. Unknown factors can complicate everything, whether it’s a ritual or the drawing of a child’s power — such an important act for the True People. But I knew it was a bad idea to just leave it up to Reggie to get home on his own and deal with whatever ‘where have you been’ questions might come. So, to keep control as long as I felt comfortable, I walked Reggie home. He was quiet, as he sometimes was after an encounter with me at Garten Park. Often, he would make leading pronouncements to me about what ‘we’ had done, as if he’d actively participated, and expect me to display affection. Sometimes I accommodated. Other times — like that day — he would appear to get lost in his own mind. He seemed particularly withdrawn that time, though, which accentuated so many of my concerns. When you manipulate a person’s reality, it is not a thing you simply accomplish. It takes time. Patience. Dedication. So, I remember that I walked very close to him, and spoke quiet words of encouragement. I talked to him about how the good feelings in his body were the result of the magic inside of him. The interconnectivity of intimacy. That kind of thing. Nonsense, and not at all worth repeating here. Unimportant nothings about his destiny and the power inside of him and the vast potential that power held; so, the usual with Reggie. He seemed receptive, but it was always harder to tell what got through to Reggie than it was with Deacon. I took Reggie the long way around, back to his house, to avoid Deacon, who I asummed was either at a movie or playing with a new toy or just satiating himself with chocolate. Reggie looked worried about getting home late, and I spent a lot of the time on that walk repeatedly assuring him that if he arrived late his parents would be fine with the fact that he was accompanied by a responsible adult like myself. I was probably repeating myself out of worry, too. I remember that I kept assuring him over and over that his parents know I’m responsible. I’ve always liked the word ‘responsible,’ in that it can mean a tendency toward either good behavior or the kind of behavior that gains one infamy, and the word’s the same either way: ‘a responsible adult,’ ‘the responsible parties.’ It’s a good example of the contradictions inherent in wrongbody language. The True People speak in song. Oh, I am so ready for that. To not have to hear the mewling of wrongbody voices begging at me. Sometimes, after an encounter with me, Reggie would cling to me and ask question after question. That was nearly intolerable, and — to be honest — I hated the sound of his voice in and of itself, regardless of situation or context. Wrongbodies’ voices in general are like that, to me, really, but Reggie’s especially. It was high-pitched in its pubescence, squeaky and jagged. It hurt my ears. So, despite my concerns, I was glad for his general silence throughout the long walk back. By the time we got to his front porch and climbed the brick steps that led to his door, Reggie was a half-hour late from when he’d agreed to be home; “Let’s hope I’m not screwed,” he said. He reached into a zippered mini-pocket at the top of the regular pockets of his shorts and unzipped it to retrieve a key. He knocked three times as he opened the door, as if he’d developed a routine to warn anyone in the house he was coming in — to his own house. It struck me as odd, but — wrongbodies, right? I have to admit I was a little nervous about so many wrongbodies in the same place, surrounding me. Especially given what I’d been doing with Reggie, I didn’t want to be the center of attention. Stronger than that, though, was my desire to control the situation. I hadn’t specifically put off a chance to meet Reggie’s mother and father, but I was also in no hurry. New situations lead to mistakes. But Reggie was in crisis, and I was far more worried about Victor than Reggie’s folks. Reggie had told me enough about them for me to decide that — assuming Reggie’s stories were accurate — they were typically-oblivious. And I had been careful to make the keeping of a ‘sacred’ secret an essential part of the path I had set before Reggie. I had worked hard to make him want to keep the secret. I had tied the secret to my very life — convincing him that, if he were to reveal what we were doing, it would lead to uncovering my identity as a witch. And that the resulting events from that would prove fatal to me, and possibly to him. So, yes, I was worried about actually meeting them, but I felt like I had the situation under control. My hands had been shaking, though, the whole walk to Reggie’s house. I’d kept trying to remind myself that any meeting with them wouldn’t be for long. I’d just drop off Reggie and make sure he was secure, and then leave. Sometimes, the True People have to be responsible for wrongbodies in a … caretaker-sort-of-way. Not that Reggie looked like he’d be suffering too much at his house, even if he was embarrassed about having a babysitter. Their house spoke of overspending to display wealth. Conspicuous consumption, it’s called. A lot of wrongbodies do it. An obsession with objects, as I have discussed at length. Shiny hardwood floors reeking of pine. A kitchen with bright-red matching appliance decor. A living room that looked like a temple to a massive cathode television, a vast wooden entertainment center giving the TV outstretched wings to either side of it. Wall-sized mirrors on the farthest wall opposite the front door. I recoiled, even as I was paradoxically drawn to the mirrors. They offered back a warped and misty view, and were covered with veiny pale-green marbling that further distorted what they showed. Light from the opposing bay window hit the mirrored wall and reflected a sickly-green pallor over the living room. A white marble-looking fireplace took up most of the farthest wall of the living room area; across its mantle were photos of vintage cars. Over the fireplace was what had to be a Christmas-type framed family photograph: Reggie, a woman and man I assumed to be Reggie’s parents, and a breathtakingly handsome man — for a wrongbody. Now, don’t think me a hypocrite. Wrongbodies can be fun to mess around with, and they do have their uses, sometimes, remember. And they exist for the True People to use. We’ll discuss that another time, though. The handsome guy looked to be about his twenties; I decided it had to be Reggie’s older brother, going by the resemblance; he looked pretty much exactly like how I’d’ve imagined back then that Reggie would’ve ended-up looking like in his twenties.
“Hey, mom? Dad? I’m here,” shouted Reggie. His voice echoed big in the wide-open floorspace of the house.
“Who’s that beside you, in the picture?” I asked Reggie quietly.
Reggie craned his neck and leans across the wet bar to look toward an open doorframe that looked like it led down to a green-carpeted hallway that ended in a T-intersection.
“Mom?” Reggie called again. Another big echo.
“Reggie?” I asked.
Then he looked over at me and, much more quietly, answered: “Huh? What did you say?” He was still worried, still distracted.
“In the picture — over the fireplace,” I said. “Who’s the guy to your right?”
He looked over at the photograph, as if he hadn’t ever seen it before. Then, he looked back at me. “Oh, that’s just Frank. My older brother. He’s at college.” There was the briefest flash of what had to be anger in Reggie’s eyes, but it was gone so quickly that I didn’t really pay it much attention. I should’ve.
“Cool,” I said, noncommittal. I filed the name Frank Peak away for later. You’d do well to do the same.
A lanky kid came around from the farthest-left corner of the kitchen’s T-intersection, startling me. He had a big grin and seemed at-home. I guessed it had to be Victor. “Hey, man!” he said. “What’s happening?”
“Hey, Victor,” Reggie said, confirming my guess on who the lanky kid was, but doing so without the slightest hint of either real or feigned enthusiasm. Reggie was usually like this around other people just after one of our sessions. Like being with me made him temporarily forget for a while just how to relate to other people.
I liked that.
Another long silence hit.
That’s when I remembered that Reggie was waiting for me to confirm that Victor was either a dangerous warlock or a harmless mortal.
“Well, hey, back at you,” Victor said, clearly confused by the silences and trying to be friendly despite them.
I focused my eyes like I was inspecting Victor for a half second, and then I gave a wink toward Reggie as if to indicate everything was all right.
Reggie exhaled loudly.
Victor blinked, looking puzzled — perhaps confused by the interactions between Reggie and me, if he’d noticed them. “You OK?” he asked Reggie.
“Yeah,” Reggie said, avoiding eye-contact with Victor.
“OK. Cool.” Then, Victor looked over at me. “And hello, to you, too,” he said.
I remember worrying that Victor had caught the wink toward Reggie and thought it was meant for him.
Victor leaned up against the edge of the wet bar and looked at me from behind waves of shaggy, curly black hair. He tugged at both sides of his open denim jacket, as if adjusting his style somehow, and then crossed his arms over his chest. Victor was a lot taller than Reggie back then, despite being only a few years older than him. Victor was at that awkward age for boys, when they’re all giant hands and too-long legs and gawky necks. “So … ” he said, as if this would lead to a conversation. When it didn’t, he looked back to Reggie: “Introduce us, maybe?” He was still trying to sound suave.
I remember that I tried not to laugh, tightening the muscles of my face to make myself inscrutable.
Another silence hit.
Reggie broke the silence. “This is Hilda Leek, Victor,” Reggie said, just as flat as a moment before, but much more relieved.
“Hey, Victor.” I said.
“Hey,” Victor said. Whether Victor had noticed my struggle not to laugh, or he heard something in my voice that told him he wasn’t impressing me, I’ll never know. But I remember how his eyes went a little sad with my ‘hey,’ like at that moment he could see how truly silly he seemed trying to flirt with me Victor pushed off the wet bar. “So, uh, she’s bringing you home from school or-?”
“It’s summer, Numb-Nuts,” Reggie said, overstating a face-palm. “Geez.”
“Ah, man,” Victor said shaking his head. “Where’s my head?”
“Up your butt,” Reggie said, grinning, and then laughing. He seemed relieved.
My guess was that his relief came because I hadn’t alerted him to any problems so far. Even though I felt far from secure.
“Well, shoot,” Victor said. He then affected that genial grin again. “Guess you got me.” He looked back toward the hallway from which he’d emerged, then looked back at Reggie and me. “Hey, your folks are both in the garage. Let me go get ’em.” He smiled at me and waved goodbye.
As soon as Victor turned the corner back into the hallway, Reggie reached out and took hold of my arm. “You’re sure he’s all-human?” he said, his voice a squeaking whisper.
“Completely,” I whispered back, pretending sadness. “I’m disappointed, honestly. I could’ve used a good fight.”
“Not in my house,” he said, wringing his hands together.
“Relax,” I whispered to him. “They don’t see anything with your eyes when witches fight, and it wouldn’t hurt the furniture.” I still don’t know exactly what I meant by that, except I wanted to watch Reggie’s brain squirm with confusion.
Victor came back out from the hallway. “They’re on their way,” he said. He leaned back against the wet-bar again. “So …” he said, and then stuffed his hands into his pockets.
That was when the adults from the family photo appeared. They both looked to be in their 30s-50s. The woman was maybe a little older than the man. To this day, I can’t often tell how old a wrongbody is once they get into that range. It sort of all starts to blur together with them. They all take on that dull, grey nothingness of an appearance.
“Hey, champ,” the man said, speaking to Reggie. While it was clear that he was the man from the family photo, he still looked kind of different; here, standing before me, he had mussy black hair, like Reggie’s, whereas in the photo it was perfectly-combed.
“Hey,” Reggie replied.
“Hi, Mr. Peak,” Victor said.
I remember thinking that Mr. Peak was somewhat handsome for a wrongbody, but no Frank. I remember noticing he had one of those hairless-gap scars in the middle of his left eyebrow, and another pink scar across his lower left jaw that ran about half its length.
“You’ve been making us wait, Reggie.” said the woman. She seemed more frustrated and impatient about getting on her way than upset with Reggie, though.
“I, uh, got turned around,” Reggie said toward the woman. “Sorry, mom.”
“Ugh!” The woman rolled her eyes. “When will he ever outgrow that?” Reggie’s mother looked like she spent a disproportionate amount of time curling her hair. Her hair was this enormous, artificial-candy-apple red halo around her head. Except, no, not a halo. Halos are for the Horses. This was a parody of a halo. I remember getting the feeling like she wanted to arrive at her destination before all the gunk in her hair started to lose potency.
“Sorry, mom,” Reggie said.
“So who’s your friend?” the man asked. He reached out his right hand toward me. “Hi. Amos Leek. Have we met before? I’m sorry, if- …” He trailed off, never finishing the apparent apology about whatever concerned him.
I reached my own right hand out and shook Amos’ hand. I opened my mouth to speak my name, but, before I could say anything, the woman interrupted. “It’s Sophia Leek’s daughter.”
It took everything I had not to strike out at Amos for saying that hated name — MOTHER’s. As it was, I was so angry that I momentarily didn’t feel like I could speak. I tried to soothe myself by thinking about that handshake; if Amos Leak had seen my right hand just a short time ago, it would have been a very different first meeting.
Amos brought his hand down and then looked over toward the woman with a puzzled expression. “Who’s that, now, Melanie?”
Another eye-roll from Melanie Peak. “Sophia and Darren. You know. The Leeks. This is Hilda, their daughter.”
The other hated name, this time FATHER’s. I controlled my rage enough to speak, this time, though. “That’s me,” I managed to say.
“They have that store with all the vacuums in the front window,” Melanie said.
Amos clapped his hands together with realization and pointed toward me. “Oh, the janitor family, right.” It was apparently only then when he started to genuinely question my presence. “Are you here to help Victor babysit?”
I was struck with hatred again, but tried to remember that I was the one who had the upper-hand, as it were.
Melanie amended Amos. “Victor’s sitting. Not babysitting.” She gave Reggie a knowing look that only worked to bring greater attention to Reggie’s embarrassment, but Melanie didn’t seem to notice the actual effect it was having because she seemed smugly satisfied that she had resolved the matter to her son’s satisfaction, nodding to him — thereby making it even worse.
Reggie just reached up and slid the palms of both hands down his face. “Ugh!” I remember that it sounded very similar to when his mother had made that sound.
Melanie didn’t seem to notice Reggie’s vocal response, either, because by that time she was focused on looking at the clock on the stove. Her frown was cartoonish, to me.
To his relative credit, Victor didn’t join into the conversation at that point. He just folded his arms over his chest and continued leaning against the wet bar. He had a funny sort of look of familiar resignation on his face.
“Are you here to help Victor sit?” Amos asked again, correcting.
I wanted out. “No,” I said, hiking the strap of my macrame shoulder-bag a little higher, in that way that says ‘I should be going now’ when you’re caught in a conversation you don’t want to be in. “I was helping Reggie get home.”
Melanie Peak got a sour look. “It’s like he said; he just gets turned around sometimes.” Her shoulders lifted defensively as she spoke; her eyes darkened.
Melanie’s response appeared to irritate Amos. “Melanie — hon — … ”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was just trying to be helpful.” I was the weakest statement I managed during the entire conversation up to that point.
“Mom, I know her, geez,” Reggie said, cheeks flushing with embarrassment. “I know her.”
“You do?” Melanie asked.
“So, how do you know Reggie?” Amos asked.
“From school,” Reggie said, keeping his cool about it and — wisely — keeping the explanation vague.
“School?” Melanie and Amos asked at the exact same moment. They looked at each other and there was this curious breaking of the prior tension. They reached out hands toward each other and hooked their pinkie-fingers together and then yanked them apart. “Jinx,” they both said.
I was baffled, but I figured I needed to elaborate a little. “Yeah,” I said, tipping my head toward Reggie but adding nothing more. My mind had gone blank. I couldn’t come up with any more details. I felt disconnected from the reality of what was happening.
“From school, where?” Amos asked.
“We’ve done custodial work for them,” I said. It was true, and it was the only thing I could think of. My family had done some emergency clean-up at Remington Primary and Pie Glenn Schools a few times over the last few years. I hadn’t seen Reggie during any of those times, but this didn’t seem like the type of scenario where the elder Peaks were taking notes.
“That must be where I’ve seen you,” Amos said, clapping his hands together again. Then, he turned toward Melanie. “Well, hon, we’d better get going.” He looked over toward Victor. “Emergency numbers are by the phone, Vic,” he said.
“Oh!” Melanie said. “Pie Glenn! OK.” She nodded. I remember thinking it was weird since Pie Glenn was for kids older than Reggie, but Melanie Peak didn’t elaborate further. Getting out of the house was clearly her top concern, and that seemed to be starting to happen. So, she looked over toward Victor and gestured toward the stove as she did. “And there’s money to call for a pizza under the — … ” She looked over at me, and then back to Victor. ” … — well, you know.”
“Cool,” Victor replied. He looked over toward Reggie. He took a few steps over toward a door between the foyer we were in and the living room. He opened the door; it was one of those hallway closest, filled with sports equipment and board games. “Tell you what — let’s order the pizza and we can play Banker’s Choice or something. Sound good?”
“That’s a baby game,” Reggie groused.
“Aw, c’mon — it’s my favorite!” Victor said.
“Then you’re a baby,” Reggie said, though it sounded like he was joking.
Victor thought so, too: “Well, goo-goo and gah-gah to you, too, man.” He said the words like he was a newscaster, in that style. “Seriously, man, do you wanna play?”
Reggie clearly thought about it. He glanced over toward me.
“It’s my favorite, too,” I said toward Reggie.
“Fine,” Reggie said, rolling his eyes. Then, another “Ugh!” Playful, this time, however.
“We’ll escort you out, then,” Amos said. He was first to the door, and opened it for me to leave.
I gave Reggie two pats on the shoulder and said “See ‘ya, kid.”
“Bye … ” Reggie waved, deliberately focused on looking over the paper menu from the pizza place. I got the sense from his tone of voice that he wanted to say more. But from the way he was looking away from me I felt like he didn’t feel comfortable saying whatever it was he wanted to say with these particular — or just so many — people around.
I followed Amos out the front door.
Melanie exited the house behind me.
“See you, guys!” Victor said.
I decided to try out a different approach. “Your son’s a good kid,” I said to Melanie, looking back toward the door as Amos locked it. “He’s smart. My uncle’s the same way.”
“Oh, yeah?” Amos said, turning to face me and coming down the porch steps.
I thought about the cars along the mantle. “Genius mechanic, but not the best sense of direction,” I said. It was a complete lie. But, perhaps, a useful one, I thought.
“Oh, yeah?” Amos said. His eyes had brightened. “That’s great!” He looked over toward Melanie. “Maybe Reggie really is a junior mechanic-in-the-making.”
Melanie scrunched up her face as if in pain, and brought her hand to her temple. “Do you have any aspirin?” she asked Amos. “Waiting and worrying about Reggie has given me the start of a migraine,” she said. “I want to nip it in the bud.”
Speaking as someone who gets migraines, I can assure you that aspirin is not enough. But Melanie Peak seemed like the type of person for whom every headache is ‘a migraine.’ Later, she’d prove me right about this.
“Aw, no,” Amos responded to her, sounding sympathetic. “Honey .. you’re supposed to save the headache ’til tomorrow, hon,” Amos said, voice lilting with a mild chuckle. He felt at the pockets of his coat and pulled out a bottle of aspirin and handed it to Melanie.
“I’m glad I could help get him home safe,” I told Amos and Melanie, keeping my voice quiet. “I hope you two both have a lovely night.” I repeated the strap-to-shoulder-lift, hoping not to be roped into anything further with the Peak elders.
“Have a good evening, Hilda,” Amos waved.
“Yeah,” Melanie said, before dry-swallowing the aspirin. “Oh — and, I’m sorry if I sounded rude. It’s just — thank you for bringing him home.”
I started to turn, to walk away.
“Do you need a ride somewhere?” Amos asked.
“We’d be happy to let you off at the bus stop,” Melanie offered, making it clear that whatever I’d done — other than what she didn’t know I’d done — she’d decided to forgive me for.
“Nah,” I said. “That’s ok. I’m walking for a diet.”
“Oh, well, OK, if you’re sure,” Amos said.
“Well, you’re making great progress!” Melanie said. Even though I wasn’t on any kind of diet, and she’d never seen me before, as far as I knew.
I wanted to hit her so very much. But I kept myself together and just nodded. “Thanks,” I said, trying to sound genuinely grateful. “Take care, Mr. and Mrs. Peak — bye!” I then turned and headed out toward the bus stop that was eight blocks away. I wanted away from the Elder Peaks that badly. I walked along the sidewalk, looking at the wrongbody houses, all all alike. Like fancy rats’ nests. All roofs and cars and tended lawns. All contempt from me. Lights already on and it wasn’t dark yet. The appalling waste. That is why they’ll burn. That, right there. This particular night is so clear in my memory, for so many reasons. I remember a hatred burning me up — a hatred stoked by every shiny car and every trimmed shrub. The wrongbodies burn and will burn, wasting and cutting what should be allowed to live and be free. And it was all there for me, on display, house after house of it. By the time I got to the bus stop, I was practically shaking. I waited for a little over an hour for the bus to arrive. I boarded; then, I sat in the back of the bus, lost in my thoughts and my rage. Eventually, the bus reached the stop at the Dodden Visitor’s Center — the closest stop to my house. I trudged homeward. I remember feeling a curious longing for that shabby doormat with its steely mesh full of dried-up dead leaves. I suddenly wanted to see the doormat more than I even wanted to be home. The doormat wasn’t trying to be more than it was. It was just a doormat. To this day, nothing makes me more frustrated than seeing something or — worse — someone trying to improperly elevate themselves beyond the station they deserved. Back then was no different. The doormat had no pretenses. The doormat wasn’t convinced it was a red carpet or a royal path of rose-petals. It was just a doormat. Our ground-floor store was just a store. MOTHER and FATHER would be there, just being MOTHER and FATHER. The doormat looked shabby because it was shabby. MOTEHR and FATHER belonged in that. That was their destiny. Only I didn’t belong — because I wasn’t what I appeared to be, and I knew that as certain as I knew tomorrow’s sunrise would come. The difference between those false dreamers and the reality of me was that I had proof. And that proof was what I was thinking of when I heard voice from behind me.
“Hilda … ” the voice said.
I knew the voice. I hated the voice. Every muscle in my body tightened as I turned to look at who had spoken. To confirm what I already knew.
“Hilda … ” she said again. It was Jamie Hiltraud. Being — well, there’s not much better word for it than being Jamie Hiltraud. She was standing on the walkway. Staring at me. To this day, I’m not sure if she just happened upon me, or if she’d followed me there. I honestly didn’t care then. Now, though? I wonder …
“Leave me alone,” I said to her, trying to put as much venom into my voice as I could. “What do you want?”
“I just want to talk to you, Hilda. Just like always. I’m trying again, like before.”
Trying. A good word for Jamie. She was very trying. Everything about her irritated me. Just the very way of her. Wearing that home-stitched pioneer-cut dress — like always. With those two thick braids on either side of her head, hanging down over the front of her shoulders — like always. And holding a heavy-looking Y-shaped stick in her left hand, at the point where the top of the Y branched to two points.
I was as disgusted as always by her. “I don’t need your help,” I said.
“I’m really sad to hear that, Hilda.” Jamie’s plain, mousy little wrongbody face looked sad. Except, when Jamie Hiltraud looked sad, she looked sad. Jamie was just like all the other women in her family, in that way. It was like their faces were only wired for one emotion at a time. As if to prove that point, Jamie’s face became hopeful. Just that. Hopeful. “It’s not too late, you know,” she said.
Her hopeful face enraged me. Pushed me over the edge toward wanting to commit violence — right then and there. To walk over and take that stick — into my good, right hand — because how she was holding it was profane. Oh, how I wanted to take the stick she was holding and beat her to death with it and forget everything and face the consequences of a wrongbody existence in a wrongbody jail cell. That’s how angry I was. You have to understand, though. Just — the sheer plainness of the Hiltrauds. There was — is — no complexity to the Hitraud women. When a Hiltraud woman was happy, she looked happy. Profoundly, exactly happy. And when a Hiltraud woman was sad, she looked sad. Profoundly, exactly sad. It was maddening. Especially with the reminder of the sacred symbol of the True People being held like that.
She seemed to sense my rage. A Hiltraud Regret-face. “Oh,” she said. “I’ve made you angry. I’m truly sorry.”
I steadied myself, breathing through my teeth. “Just go away,” I said, moving to head back toward the glowing golden path that led home. The path she couldn’t see. The path none of her kind could or would ever see. “You’re a sick fuck, and so’s your cult-ass family.”
Silence for a moment. Then, she answered back: “All right. I won’t force you to talk to me. I’ll stay here, Hilda. I’ll let you be. But — you know how to reach me, if you change your mind, though, right?”
“I fuck you won’t fuck you change fuck you my fuck you mind fuck you,” I said, as I turned and walked away with big, stomping, angry steps. I just kept walking the straight line away from her. It was all I could think of to do. But then a thought came to me. I realized I hadn’t hear her walking away. I wondered if she was doing it again. I didn’t want to look, but I had to. I cast a quick glance over my shoulder, just to see.
She was still standing there, in the exact same spot on the path. But she had lifted that stick out in front of her, holding onto both of the shorter edges, holding it out in front of herself, like she was balancing it. Her eyes were closed. And, as she did this, the golden tapestry of blood — the tapestry that surrounds everything, that drifts from all living creatures as they march toward death — seemed not to be there around Jamie Hiltraud. Like it was recoiling. Like it was alive. Like it was afraid.
And I was afraid, too.