I’m certain there were puddles, even before the fire trucks came. I know because I managed to step in half of them, and my socks were sopping by the time I reached the driveway.
It’s odd, though. I don’t remember hearing rain on the roof. In fact, I don’t remember much of anything after going to bed at ten. In my memory, the first drops of rain that fell were the ones that hit my skin as we ran from the burning trailer hours before dawn.
I fought my mother’s grip on my elbow as she pulled me, half backward and stumbling, down the driveway. I squinted behind us into black smoke and red flames, saw nothing there but more smoke, more flames. Over the sirens and the roar of fire and rain, I kept hollering for Widdershins, who was a good dog and came when I called her—six times out of ten. The other four, she was too fascinated by a windup toy or a dust bunny or the shoelace of one of my sneakers.
This must have been one of those times, because, although I called and called, she didn’t come.
“Shush,” Mom kept saying. “It’s okay. Shush.” I wasn’t sure who she was saying it to, except I was the only one who was making noise, so it must have been me. My voice was detached from my brain. I couldn’t shush. Could only call for my dog again and again, hoping one of my calls would be the one she heard. Any second I would see her oversize devil-horn ears and her manic smile bouncing out of the smoke. Her parenthesis tail would sling the raindrops back and forth, and she would plant muddy, maybe ashy paw prints on my knees.
Dad carried Ivy even though it had been nearly a year since she’d been little enough to carry properly. She was all elbows and angles in a tangle in Dad’s arms, and he set her on her feet as soon as we reached the end of the driveway. I wanted to run back to the house to look for Widdershins, planned on it till the moment Mom let go of me. By then, the fire was all through the trailer, and my feet stopped working, wouldn’t move me toward it. My voice finally stopped working, too, and I managed to shush. Stood silent and damp in my stupid Winnie the Pooh pajamas that had come from one of the Hefty bags foisted off on us from a well-meaning teacher, one who didn’t realize that twelve-year-olds don’t wear Winnie the Pooh pajamas. I pulled my wet socks off one at a time and held them, squeezing the water out of them while I watched the fire claim the sky. It was stubborn as Ivy, that fire, kept burning despite the water raining down on it, first from the clouds and then from the firemen’s hoses.
They were two beautiful elements, water and fire. Two elements I called every day when I did my evening spell.
For weeks, I’d been having nightmares about heat and water and the color red, so I bought a blue candle for peaceful sleep (and delicious, too—the candle was Blueberry Goodness, from Wax Works at the Radine Mall). Before I lit the candle, I would call quarters, which meant I would turn in each of the four directions with my arms raised and invite the elements to help me with my spell. Water, for emotion, in the west. Earth, for stability, in the north. Air, for energy, in the east. And … and fire, for cleansing, in the south. So I could be balanced. So all of nature would be on my side.
Then I did magic. Not the kind where green smoke poofs out of a top hat and a rabbit is either produced or eliminated depending on the magician. But the kind where you decide what you want and then you make it happen. In my family, this is what we do. Other families pray; we do spells. It’s part of the religion we follow, which Dad calls Wicca and Mom calls Not Quite Wicca. But then Dad’s only been a part of Mom’s religion since I was a baby, and he’s still going by the books in the New Age section at the library.
I go by what Mom teaches me, which is cool, because Mom goes by what her own mother taught her, and I never got to meet her mother. Doing a spell is like a cross between Christian prayer and taking a road trip with my father. When you pray—as far as I understand it—you go through a ritual to get yourself ready. Fold your hands. Maybe kneel. When the ritual triggers your mind that your body is ready to pray, you send up your wishes or intentions to the heavens for God to hear. Please heal Aunt Betsy or Make the other kids stop teasing me or Please help me stop having nightmares.
And when my father takes a road trip, he searches the route on the Internet first. Looks at every square inch of the trip via satellite before he even so much as packs a bag, so he has a picture in his mind of where he’s going and exactly how to get there.
When you do a spell, you get ready just like praying. Only instead of folding your hands or kneeling, you call quarters by turning toward the west and the north and the east and the south, inviting each of the four elements—air, earth, water, and fire—into your magic circle. The four elements belong to nature, and nature for my family is kind of the same as God.
Some people use candles to help them focus all their energy. Some people use knots on a rope, untying one every day until they’re all untied and the spell is released. Some people, like Dad, use music to focus their energy. Ivy likes to dance, and usually manages to knock over at least one candle, which is why she isn’t allowed near my altar anymore.
But before you light the candle or tie the knots or play the music or start to dance, you’ve got to study the map. In your head, you picture exactly where it is you’re trying to end up—with Aunt Betsy, spry and griping at people the way she did before she got sick, or with the kids at school not teasing you and maybe even being nice to you or with yourself sleeping peacefully through the night. Your mind sends that picture out in all four directions, and the energy you’ve borrowed from the elements helps you follow the route you’ve mapped.
When you’re finished praying, you thank God.
And when you’re finished doing a spell, you turn in each of the four directions and say thank you to the elements. Earth, water, air … and that other one.
It took nearly an hour to get the fire out.
Even then, it wasn’t out. Embers still glowed deep red like the throat of the vicious dog that bit Ivy last year. Smoke rose heavy and straight up, even though the clouds were supposed to keep wood smoke low. Maybe it was because it wasn’t wood smoke, not completely. Maybe it was because it was everything else we owned, too. There were shoes in the smoke. There were thimbles and scissors. There were cinder blocks and river rocks. There were maybe even bones.
* * *
Now here we were, three hours out. Sitting on the porch of the general store.
The sky behind the heavy clouds was thinking on getting light. Not committed to it yet, just playing with the idea, the way a dog fixes on something, looks at it before she chases it. The thought of dogs, of Widdershins, made me ball my fists and stuff them as deep as they would go inside my shallow PJ pockets. My throat burned. With ash, I was sure, because I was too dry and burned for tears.
“Ember, please,” Mom said, and I looked at her slowly, as if coming out of a trance, like the few peaceful moments after you’ve done the perfect spell. Only backward. She didn’t have to say anything else, just “Ember, please,” and a glance toward my sister. I understood her meaning. Again it fell to me to calm Ivy.
My sister really did look pitiful, hiccuping and snotting all over Daddy’s sooty T-shirt. I dropped the baling twine I’d been playing with and squatted next to Ivy to take her hands. For reasons that escaped me, when Ivy got upset, there was only one way to calm her.
She didn’t smack me, didn’t cry harder, or even look up, which was a bad sign. Ivy didn’t like being called dingbat much.
“Ember,” Mom warned, but this time I ignored her. If she wanted me to make my sister feel better, she was going to have to let me do it the way I knew how. Ivy and I, we had one of those sisterly relationships that made cops and criminals look like the best of friends.
“Hey, Poison Ivy. Stop snotting on Dad. It’s disgusting.”
Ivy sniffed twice and dragged her pitiful face off our father’s chest, rubbing at her teary cheeks with her knuckles and leaving dark streaks of ash across her face. Where her cheek had been, Dad’s gray T-shirt was damp.
“Shut up, stupid,” Ivy squeaked in a voice stuffy with tears. She hated being called Poison Ivy.
“I’d love to shut up, but first I’ve got to find a way to get you to stop making those horrible noises.”
“I’m not making horrible noises, I’m just talking.”
“Like I said. Horrible noises.”
Ivy sniffled again and frowned at me, but I thought I caught a hint of her usual flicker underneath the grime. Two more fat tears rolled down her sooty little face, and then she stopped crying.
“Don’t be a jerk, Jerk,” she said.
I turned to Mom. “Problem solved. She’s back to being her remarkably articulate self.”
I saw Mom raise her eyes to the heavens.
Crying or not, Ivy stayed glued to Dad’s T-shirt, where I wanted to be myself, as if I were a little kid. If my brother Isaac were here, he’d let me sit next to him and lean on his shoulder. He’d put an arm around me without even teasing. Instead I sat alone on the top step, kicking bits of chipped concrete loose with my toes and fiddling with the baling twine once plucked from the porch rails of the general store. The whole railing around the old store’s porch was tied together with great loops of the stuff.
The longer I sat and the lighter it got, the harder I kicked and the more I fiddled. There was a scratch across the left lens of my glasses that made it hard to focus. My hands started twisting the baling twine, squeezing it into knots. There was something behind the knots that I was afraid to put a name to, something that had started building the minute I peeked through my best friend Anson’s window.
One by one, the firemen had left. And one by one, the neighbors drifted back into their trailers, none making eye contact with us, none asking us to join them. It was eerie, as if we were ghosts, as if we hadn’t escaped the fire the way Widdershins maybe hadn’t. They pretended they couldn’t see us standing in a miserable clump of confusion on the un-scorched tip of our driveway.
When we could move again, we made our way to Anson’s. I tugged and pulled and begged until the rest of the family followed. It wasn’t like we had a lot of choice. I mean, it wasn’t like we had any place to go except for Anson’s. Maybe Grandma’s. But I’d much prefer Anson’s over Grandma’s.
Only there was a heavy reluctance in my mother’s step, a dread I couldn’t place. Like she knew something I didn’t. She knew about the fight, of course. The stupid argument with Anson. But a fight wouldn’t matter on a night like this, right?
We reached his front porch with the heat of the fire on our backs, the embers still smoldering a glowing, wicked red. There were trees and two trailers between our place and Anson’s, but the brightness of the embers down the hill was reflected faintly in the glass of Anson’s storm door. I wondered if it would ever stop glowing, if the ashes would ever cool. I could picture it still smoldering come winter, melting the snow in a ring. I could picture things never going back the way they were.
I stepped up to the door and knocked four times, bold. So what if it was the middle of the night? So what if Anson’s family was the only family that didn’t come out to watch the beautiful show our home put on, sending sparks into the sky like fireworks? Anson was Anson. I always knocked the same, four times, bold. He always knew it was me and, every time except this one, answered the door in less time than it would have taken for me to knock again.
Anson’s mother’s dogs, a herd of Pomeranians and Chihuahua mixes, tumbled and squealed on the other side of the door. I waited to hear Anson’s father’s clomping boots kicking them aside, to hear Anson himself hollering at them to shut up as he wrestled the door open.
Instead, things stopped happening according to the usual script. Which is to say, nothing happened at all.
The second time I knocked, I only made contact three times. And less confident, with a shaking hand.
I waited. Then tried two softer knocks, more taps than knocks. There was a car in the driveway. There was a light on in the bathroom. A ball of dread weighed me down and made my fist fall from the door.
Mom tugged my shoulder. Ivy and Dad started drifting away. Even the stupid dogs stopped barking.
I raised my hand one last time, but I only got past the first tap when I saw Anson through the kitchen window.
Anson wasn’t best-friend material in the traditional, lots-in-common, same-gender-and-able-to-share-every-secret way, but we had been friends for an eternity—which was about five years at the Orchard—ever since his family rented the trailer up the hill.
Things had been weird with us lately. Anson tried to kiss me once, and it ended badly when I dodged. I’m sure in retrospect he realized he ought to have picked somewhere other than the edge of his front porch. It didn’t matter, because it wasn’t going to happen anymore. I told him if he ever tried something that stupid again, I’d sic Widdershins on him, and although she was a little dog, she was tough and Anson didn’t like the way she growled at him sometimes.
We went to the same school for a year when I was in fifth grade and Anson was in fourth, and that was a problem because Anson’s other friends thought he was weird for hanging out with me. He’d gone to New Hope Christian Academy since I’d known him, had finally gotten kicked out for setting a library book on fire. When we became classmates, he paid a lot more attention to the whispers of the other kids, whispers about my family turning people into toads and mixing up magic potions.
It was the more believable stuff that got to him. The fact that we messed with tarot cards, the fact that my mother had a ring of runes tattooed around her ankle. Funny how Anson had to get kicked out of Christian school before he realized it bothered him that his best friend wasn’t Christian. He didn’t so much mind my religion; only that I didn’t work too hard to hide it. More than once, he told me it would get me in trouble someday.
Things were so strange, the year we spent in the same school, that it was a relief to start sixth grade at Barthrow Middle School and leave Anson behind in elementary last year. I was almost sorry he would catch up with me this fall.
But no matter how weird things had gotten, Anson and I were still best friends. Tight like a knot. We could finish each other’s sentences, and I knew his moods on sight, even from a distance of seven feet and darkened by glass.
He sat at the table with his head down. His shoulders were hunched, his arms wrapped around his face. I couldn’t see the rest of him. Didn’t need to. He looked like he did the night his brothers convinced him to take a shot at Mrs. Dartmouth’s cat with a pellet gun. Looked like he did while his three brothers cursed because he missed. All shriveled up with guilt at the very thought of hurting something.
Or the night the boys set fire to Emily Clusky’s kite and then let the wind take it, a banner of orange against the black night sky, till it burned through its string and caught the grass on fire.
Or the time he stole the hubcaps off the church bus. Or the time he put a rock through the window of the general store. Or any other of the half a dozen times in five years he had done something stupid because his brothers told him to and he still thought he could win their approval.
I could read guilt on Anson like a warning label.
I took the steps two at a time on the way back down.
“What’s your hurry?” Mom asked, soft.
I didn’t answer. Quickened my pace. And she read my mind the way mothers can once in a while.
She said, “I know you’re not going to listen to me, Ember.” Kept walking as she tucked a strand of early gray behind her ear and didn’t quite look at me, fixed her gaze on the sunrise.
It was easy to see, looking at her like that, what all the kids at school meant when they called her a witch. Even without the tarot cards and the jewelry the other mothers whispered were the symbols of evil—even in Dad’s KING OF THE BARBEQUE T-shirt and a pair of flannel pajama pants with penguins on them—she could have been the other kind of witch, the made-up kind of witch. The kind with potions and broomsticks, but instead she was my mother, whose magic extended only to making the perfect cup of hot chocolate. And occasionally mind reading.
I hadn’t spoken, but she knew what I was thinking.
“Be careful with revenge. You tend to get what you ask for. Just … not quite the way you asked for it.” Her voice was quiet like smoke or tears, and I didn’t listen, but I heard.
She quickened her pace and I quickened mine. Wet pebbles scattered under our bare toes. Cool. Then warm as we passed home. Then cool again. Ivy scrambled to keep up and Dad lifted her once more.
The closed-up old general store down by the main road used to be the heart of the community, back before Walmart. Now it was splintered boards and dust and everything forgotten. The broken sign out front said HAD MARK, and we all guessed MARK was part of MARKET, but nobody remembered what the HAD was from. I hopped up the cement steps and picked at the baling twine on the railing till a piece came loose in my hand. I started twisting it, knotting it. At first, I assumed we would make our way to Grandma’s small apartment in Barthrow Community, which wasn’t too far away to walk if you were out of options. Or we could go to Barthrow Motor Lodge; the fireman had given Dad enough money for a room.
But fatigue hung heavy in the air like smoke. Dad sank onto the store’s front porch, burdened as he was by Ivy. He heaved a sigh and stretched out his legs the way he did when he wasn’t going to move for a while.
Mom knocked acorn tops off the porch railing, straightened the ratty old rug, and wiped a smudge off Ivy’s face with her sleeve. Then she sank to the steps as well.
Me, I stayed up the longest. Holding the rope, yanking the knots tight, forcing revenge into the fibers. Walking to the end of the porch and back with a careful pattern: Step on one board, skip two others. Step on one board, skip two others. I knew which ones creaked and which ones had knotholes the perfect size for shoving notes down, so that someday, when somebody tore down the old general store to make room for a 7-Eleven or a car dealership or a grocery store, they would find messages from the past, a whole nest of them buried under the porch. Notes about the climate, in case there had been any major changes. Notes about what a pointless exercise school was, in case they had eradicated it in the future, they would feel justified.
And notes from my journal, where I recorded all my rituals and spellwork and especially my tarot readings. I was getting really good at tarot readings, thought maybe it would be cool for someone to pull them out later and realize which ones had come true.
My paper and pens and my tarot cards were all back up the hill, gone in a mass of ash and puddles of black water. There wasn’t any point in worrying about the knotholes. There wasn’t any point in doing anything right now. The stiffness went out of my knees, and I sat, knocking bits of concrete step away with my toes, squeezing the knots in the baling twine where I’d tied up all my anger, shivering like Widdershins after a bath, until the sun rose higher and higher, making a dull dent in the heavy clouds.
Copyright © 2011 by Sarah Dooley