“So I don’t get any say in this?”
“In a word, no.”
My mother was driving too fast, as if she couldn’t wait to get rid of me. It wasn’t easy to drive too fast in Manhattan’s Upper East Side traffic, but she was managing it.
“I thought America was supposed be be the land of the free,” I said.
“But you are fourteen years old—”
“And American law is founded on Roman law, in which children and women are the property of men, to be disposed—”
“Oh, don’t give me your post-punk feminism. I was burning bras long before you were born. Your father gets you one weekend a month, that’s the court order, that’s what we’re doing.”
Last month Mom refused to bring me, “for my safety.” The judge was not impressed, seeing as how he’d already ruled that there was not a safety risk. He wanted to throw my mother in jail for contempt. Her lawyer talked him out of it, but then sent her a bill for two thousand dollars for his efforts. Apparently, my safety was too expensive to fight for.
If I was going to see my creepy father, I figured I may as well dress for the part. So I wore my black knee-high boots, black cargo shorts, leather jacket. Black lipstick, black sunglasses, black ear buds, black fingerless gloves, silver nose ring. Only my nose didn’t have black.
My mother pulled to the side of the road in front of my father’s building.
“You know you can pull into the drive,” I said. The main entrance was under the building, at a u-shaped drive where you could either drop off or leave your keys for the valet.
“Yeah, and tip the doorman not to key your car on the way out. I’ll pick you up at five on Sunday. Be outside.”
“What if it’s raining?”
“You’re not made of sugar.”
“Salt maybe,” I said, and got out, because… end the conversation. So my revenge was to just go and not look back for the little wave and blown kiss and all that.
The doorman opened the door for me. “Good afternoon, Miss Vasylyk. I’ll let your father know you’ve arrived.”
“What, did he give you my photo or something?” I asked.
“It’s my business to know your father’s callers,” he said with a smile, which didn’t, strictly speaking, answer my question. I stepped into the waiting elevator to discover there were no buttons, save “door open” and “door close.” But the doors closed, and it started moving. Apparently, you could only ride the elevator where the doorman let you ride the elevator.
The door opened on a young man in a rumpled suit, long hair in corn rows.
”Nicole?” he asked.
“What, didn’t you get my picture?” I asked.
“Of course I got your picture,” he said. “I just thought it was polite to ask. This way.”
He turned down the hall. Through the arch on the left I saw my father in the library, evidently in conversation with several well-dressed older men. I didn’t follow my escort.
When he turned back, I waved a hand toward my father.
“Your father’s in a meeting right now,” he said. “I’m to show you to your room.”
“Where I’m to wait until called for?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Is that a problem?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s a problem.”
“Sucks to be you,” he said, and turned away.
So I followed him. If he wasn’t going to fight back it was no fun to fight. He led me to the back of the apartment, to a large guest room with a queen-sized bed with black silk sheets. Jeez, Dad, what kind of guests did you usually keep?
My escort walked off without a word, which at least meant I didn’t have to figure out if I was supposed to tip him, or what. I threw my bag in the corner, flopped on my bed, played a song. This was stupid. Maybe my father only wanted me to claim something on my mother, but I wasn’t going to be a passive prize. If he’d won me, he was going to have to deal with me.
I got up, retraced my steps back into the hall. The men in the library were singing together, which is totally not what I’d expected. Unbeknownst to me, my father was leader of a dark underworld of barbershop?
It was a weird, chanting sort of song, rising and falling in a fluid, unconstrained rhythm. More Gregorian chant than barbershop, now that I heard more. There was a strong smell in the air, sort of like incense, but meatier and smokier, like frankincense and pork, scorched on a wood fire.
As I stepped into the archway, I saw them all, arranged in a circle, clutched hands held high. My father had his head thrown back, his face glowing, but what caught my eye was his chest. My father has always been a big man. Well over six feet, square-shouldered and bulging with muscle like a prize fighter. But now he was swelling. Literally. Great bulges grew in his deltoids, rippled down his arms, spread to his gloved fingers. One cuff link had popped, and his collar sprung loose from his shirt. Yes, my father still wore a button-on collar. Something surged under his shirt, like he was Sigourney Weaver in a science fiction show, but it did not burst forth.
With a strangled cry, my father opened his mouth, and two thin tentacles uncoiled, reaching and twisting in the air. Then abruptly the chanting stopped. My father closed his mouth. The tentacles didn’t withdraw, they just ceased to exist.
“The girl!” cried an old man opposite me. “She saw! She saw!”
“So what if she did?” said my father. “Is our ceremony spoiled for the eyes of a female?”
“Yes, she knows. Whatever will we do if she goes to the police, and says she heard her father chant the dread name of Shak-Norrath? I might have to bail her out of the nuthouse!”
“I saw tentacles,” I said.
“A wisp of smoke, perhaps,” my father said. His chest was still, now. He refastened his collar. “Gentlemen, we have gone overlate this afternoon, but it was a productive meeting. At our next meeting, or the one following, we will be ready to initiate our plan. Ramón, take my daughter into the kitchen, get her a drink, and see she stays there this time.”
“What, you’re packing me off again?”
My father turned fully to face me. Towering over me, his dark eyes flashed. “Yes. I am packing you off. I don’t grudge you what you have seen, but do not disobey me in this.”
“Or what?” I said, thinking it was stupid to press my luck, but unable to stop myself. “You’ll throw me out? I doubt mom’s halfway home, she’d love to turn around and come get me. I’ll just stand on the street corner and chat with the johns while I’m waiting, shall I?”
“No,” he said. “I won’t throw you out. But we will spend the rest of the weekend learning about the importance of obedience.”
For a moment, I didn’t recognize him. Some dark and bloody shadow demon had taken my father’s place. There was hardly any change in his appearance, but for just a moment, the contours of his face loosened, swelled, shifted, then settled right where they had been, but wrong. Then the moment passed, and he was my father again. Whoever that was.
I followed Ramón into the kitchen.
“What do you drink?” he asked.
“Vodka,” I said, because I was mad.
“Straight, or on the rocks?” he asked.
I did a double-take. “Seriously?”
“I’m to make you a drink, and see that you stay here,” he said. “Those are my orders.”
“You know I’m fourteen, right?”
He shrugged. “This may come as a shock to you, but I’m not a cop.”
“Still want that vodka?” he asked. “I make a mean dirty martini.”
I considered. “Maybe just a little.”
“Little vodka, or little martini?”
He moved through the kitchen with the ease of familiarity, getting a stemmed cocktail glass and the shaker. In a moment he offered me an olive in about two tablespoons of liquor. I sipped it. It was weird. Fiery and floral and slippery and salty all at once. I almost liked it, except for the burn going down.
“What do you think?” he asked, and started mixing a second.
“I can definitely see the appeal,” I said. “But one is enough.”
“More than enough,” he said. “This isn’t for you.”
“So are you part of the secret cabal, or what?”
“Me, no. I just help your father in things he needs doing.”
“Like corralling his daughter?” I asked.
“Sometimes. One day I’ll take his coat to the cleaners and shine his shoes. The next I’ll solve a problem for him.”
“Yeah?” I mimed shooting a pistol into his forehead. “Solve a problem?”
“You really think your father would be involved in something like that?”
“I don’t know, how far does it go once you get into black magic and satanic cults.”
“Nobody worships Satan, here. It’s a political project. They’re trying to get the country on a better course. You can’t convince me you think it’s on a good course.”
“You don’t have a pedophile ring based out of a pizzeria in New Jersey, do you?”
“Oh no! You found us out!” Ramón deadpanned.
At that moment, my father walked in. He saw me, and scowled at Ramón. “What is she drinking?”
“A martini,” I said immediately. “Ramón said no, but I reminded him your orders were to fix me a drink.”
Ramón cocked an eyebrow, but didn’t contradict me. He handed the second martini to my father, who took it without remark. “I see I shall have to be explicit in my instructions. Well, Nicole, you’ve seen your father’s dark secrets. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. Do you have plans to sacrifice any virgins?”
“If we did, would you be in danger?”
“If I were, would I be in danger?”
My father grinned. “Well played. Of course not. This world is full of aimless virgin girls. Why sacrifice my own when another will do as well.”
I remembered the unicorn’s quote from Peter S. Beagle: “Real magic can never be made with someone else’s liver.” I decided not to bring that up.
My father faked a laugh, pretending it was all a joke. I laughed with him, pretending I believed.
“Let’s go to dinner,” he said. “What would you like? French? Italian?”
“Sushi,” I said, because it would be expensive. Probably wherever my father took me would be expensive, but whatever. We went to dinner. I tried to get my father to tell me more about his dark cabal, but he laughed, and pretended he didn’t understand my questions. After three tries I realized the topic was off the table. But I didn’t answer his pleasant questions of what I was doing, what classes I was taking, and certainly not what boys I liked. So the conversation was slow and awkward, before finally he told me about his official job, lobbying on behalf of private universities and other academic interests. I’d never known there was a historian’s lobby, but when I said so he laughed. “We are not the most influential lobby inside the beltway, but everyone needs someone to speak on their behalf.”
After dinner we went home, and watched Lawrence of Arabia until late, then I slept on the black silk sheets.
In the morning my father was there with bagels, lox, and espresso. I sat with him in the kitchen, while he drew a five-pointed star on a piece of parchment.
“You go in the five directions,” he explained. “From after left, to fore, after right, left, right, after left. Then compass the world without raising your pen. The key is to make it circular, and pass through each of the five points precisely. Then put yourself at the center.” He drew an eye in the middle of the star. “If you do it right, with full intentionality, that little will protect you.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
“If you know anything of what I do, and you do already, you should know how to protect yourself.”
Somehow what had been so real and frightening last night seemed silly in the morning. “Do I need to draw it in blood, or can I use a Dixon Ticonderoga number two?”
“You would laugh at what we do?” my father asked. “You who have seen?”
“What did I see?” I asked. “You eating an octopus?”
“Amazing. How certain are you that you did not see magic done?”
I hesitated. Of course I hadn’t seen magic done. Because there was no magic. But how certain was I?
“I see,” my father said, as if he read my thoughts. Did he? “You are a young cynic. You believe in nothing. Of course you don’t believe in magic. But are you certain? Of course not. To be certain, you’d have to believe in science and reason. And you believe in nothing. You are smarter than everyone else, because you are never wrong, because you never commit yourself and say, ‘This is the truth.’”
That was disturbingly close to the truth. So close I didn’t particularly want to look at how true it was.
“Draw the elder sign,” my father commanded. “Now.”
So I drew.
“You missed the right point entirely, and cut off the after-right. Do it again.”
I tried again.
“Without putting corners on your circle. Again.”
It took me two more tries to produce one to his satisfaction.
“That will do,” he said. “Fortunately for you, the elder sign is not powered by your faith. If you make it correctly, with intention that it will protect you, it will.”
“Why are you showing me this?” I asked.
“Why indeed? Are you my heir? My apprentice? Or maybe just you are my daughter. You are a curious and fearless youth for whom I have some affection. The problem with being curious and fearless is surviving the moment when you discover that there is, in fact, something you should have been afraid of.”
We spent the rest of the day at the Museum of Fine Art, then my mother picked me up, right on time.
A month later, the ritual repeated.
“You don’t seem to be complaining as much about this visit,” my mother said, glancing suspiciously in my direction as she dodged traffic. There’s no winning with my mother. If I didn’t want to go, I was obstructing, and “not on board” with what we needed to do. But if I wanted to go, I was “taking sides against her.”
“Because I had so much fun last time, drinking cocktails with his mobster friends,” I said, throwing in a little truth with my snide remark.
“You don’t need to make this harder than it has to be,” she said.
I could debate that. If I had no option but to make it hard, didn’t that mean I needed to? But I suppose I could keep my snappy comebacks to myself, which would probably be the help she’d most appreciate.
After a moment, my mother said, “You know, if I chose to believe those remarks, I could probably end these visits.”
What the fuck was that supposed to mean? If she “chose” to believe me? As in, she could believe me if she wanted to, but just didn’t feel like it? So that was the end of my well-intentioned restraint.
“Sure,” I said. “If it was worth spending two thousand dollars on a lawyer.”
She dropped me off outside again, and again the doorman greeted me pleasantly, as if I were a regular visitor he looked forward to seeing. I knew it was an affectation, but he was good at it, and I couldn’t help but appreciate the game. Ramón greeted me at the elevator, but this time he said he’d carry my bag into my room, and I was to go straight to the library.
The same—or else a similar—crowd of men in dark suits was gathered around the room. I was brought into the circle.
“No, not next to me,” my father said. “Nor opposite.”
I squeezed in with one geezer between me and my father.
“Nor at one of the corners,” my father said.
“Circles don’t have corners,” I said.
“This is not a good idea,” said the old man on my left. “You are risking us as well as our purpose.”
“Nicole, change places with Sasha.”
I assumed this was the man on my left, since changing places with the one on my right would put me next to my father. I noticed Ramón had re-entered the room, but he stood just inside the doorway, well outside the circle.
“We begin,” my father said. We joined hands, and raised them up over our heads. They began chanting strange words again. In the center of our circle was a pale leather hide. It was too small to be from a cow or pig. A large sheep or goat, perhaps.
Then suddenly I felt something flowing around the circle. At first I thought it was my imagination, but it grew and intensified. It wasn’t electric. It felt more like liquid, pouring between us. Something viscous, but moving with heavy speed. If it wasn’t on all sides at once it would sling us off balance. I felt certain if I let go my neighbors, the recoil would hurl me out of the circle.
Almost across the circle from me, my father began to bulge and swell. He opened his mouth, and the tongue that came out was a long, thick tentacle. It stretched out, thinning, the length of his forearm, his whole arm. The force of magic whirling around us grew, until I was holding on to my neighbor with all my strength. If I let go, I would be thrown through the wall behind me.
My father’s tongue touched the hide at the center. All the force of magic flowed out of the circle. The hide swelled, pulsed a slow, pale light. Without the magic coursing my knees buckled. I fell to the floor, breaking the connection and for a moment, my vision went gray.
When I could see again, the hide on the floor in front of me had swelled. It was a hideous, mottled thing, like a slug, the size of a small couch. Vague shapes of eyes seemed to roil up out of its depths, peer through translucent skin, and glide away. It spread out, thinning, and one end rose up, a questing blunt point.
“Watch out! Watch out!” Someone grabbed my arm, and hoisted me to my feet, back away from the monstrosity.
“She is in no danger,” my father said. “It is under my command.”
“Then send it out of here,” said one of the old men.
It was Ramón who had pulled me out of the circle. He was still holding me back. I jerked my arm out of his hands, just on principle.
“Are you afraid, Leonid?” my father asked. “Do you doubt my control?”
The thing suddenly swung around to the man who had spoken. He jumped backwards. His neighbors stepped away from him. It had spread out, it was more the size of a double mattress. It could easily envelop a whole man, sealing him inside a pulsing, living muscle, until the air grew stale, and finally failed.
“All of you doubt me?” my father asked, and the upraised end swung around the circle, making the men jump back and shout. My father laughed.
It was so obvious what he wanted. Why couldn’t the others see it?
The thing was hideous and terrifying, but my father was controlling it. He wanted people to acknowledge his power. I stepped forward, and touched the thing. It was yielding. Damp but firm.
My father laughed again. “All your wisdom. All your study. But it is the child who dares approach the rhokkoth. Now you know why I wanted her in the circle.”
“Yes, you control it, Anatoli,” Sasha said. “Now send it away to do its purpose.”
“Yes, its purpose,” my father said. “Let it terrify someone else.”
The thing flowed across the floor, gliding as imperceptibly as a slug, through the open glass slider, onto the balcony, up and over the parapet.
The group broke up after that. Once again I was dismissed to the kitchen with Ramón. This time he made me a full-size martini.
“They’re so dumb,” I said. “It was so obvious.”
Ramón, who hadn’t been part of the circle, said, “You’re missing some details, Nicole.”
“What?” I sipped the martini. It went down easier this time.
“You could touch it. With them all acting scared, you could touch it and he could mock them. But if one of them hadn’t been afraid? Had acted as if this thing were not dangerous? He’d have been made an example.”
“What, you think my father would kill an old man just to show off?” I asked. “You don’t know my father.”
Ramón shrugged. “He wouldn’t need to kill him to make an example. Do you know your father?”
I stared at him. But of course he was right. If the thing had enveloped Sasha, suffocated him for two minutes, then released him weak and gasping for air… he’d have proven both his command, and its terrible power. Would my father have done such a cruel thing? Did I know my father?
He came in the kitchen, then, accepting the drink Ramón passed into his hand.
“What do you think now, Nicole?” he asked. “Is this just late night fear and imagination? Will you rationalize all you have seen and done in the morning?”
“I guess we’ll see in the morning,” I said.
“I guess we shall,” he said. “Check the news. There’s a certain incumbent of the US Congress, a John Mercer. Old establishment figure. Well-liked. A shoe-in for the primary. There’s a good, strong, young candidate running against him, someone who can help this country, but he doesn’t have a chance. Everyone likes Mercer. He’s comfortable. He can’t not win.”
“What are you saying?” I asked. Because I thought I knew, and I didn’t like it.
“Did this really happen, Nicole? Did we summon a rhokkoth from a shadow realm?”
For the first time, I feared my father. I knew there was only one answer to this question, and I didn’t want to know what would happen if I didn’t give it. “Yes,” I said.
He laughed. “I guess we’ll see in the morning.”
I went to bed, uneasily, and didn’t fall asleep. Sometime late at night I got up, tore a page from my notebook, and carefully scribed an elder sign on it, all the while intending to protect myself from evil. Then I went back to bed, and finally, I slept.
In the morning there was nothing remarkable in the news. My father said nothing about it. We went to the planetarium and did the tourist thing. The story didn’t hit the news until just before my mother picked me up. John Mercer had died in his sleep.
I thought about turning my father in. I like to think that I would have. Except I couldn’t imagine what I would say. “My father did a black magic rite, and sent a giant slug-monster to murder him” didn’t sound like a persuasive tip. I could say he was guilty, and hope the police could find the evidence. But what evidence could there be? If asked to testify, I would have to swear that my father was nowhere near the scene of the crime.
Later, a week before our next monthly visit, I called my father.
“To what do I owe this honor?” he asked.
“Listen,” I said. “I don’t want to come over.”
“This is very disappointing to me. May I ask what has brought about this change of heart?”
As if I had ever wanted to come see him… “Let’s just say I’m not comfortable being part of some of the activities.”
“Ah. I see. This is a moral stance. I wish I could discuss this with you more in person.”
“Yeah, well, to do that I’d have to come see you again.”
“True, true. Once more. We could meet once more, discuss your concerns, and arrive at a mutually agreeable decision.”
“It seems like a waste of a weekend to me,” I said. “I’m not going to change my mind.”
“Humor me. See, the thing is, you are fourteen. You are a minor, you have very few rights beyond the will of your parents. Essentially, you are not fully human under the law. To end your visits without a court order, you need me to agree. So this is your choice. Come talk to me next weekend, or file a petition with family court, and pay your lawyer, and hope for the best.”
So of course I went. What else was I to do? Explain to the judge that my father practiced black magic?
We had dinner that night in a French restaurant where all the entrees came in tiny portions on big plates with artful swirls of sauce. My father looked bigger even than I remembered him, but his movements were odd. He used to be smooth and graceful, as if he were unusually light for his size. Now he moved in short jerks, like he was powered by worn gears.
“So, Nicole,” he said. “You say you would like to cut off our visits, because you do not approve of my activities, is that correct?”
“Close enough,” I said. Usually I’d use stronger language, but, yeah, I didn’t approve of murder.
“Though you are aware of the ultimate goal of them? An end to the needless suffering in this country. A restoration of effective government, that will reduce crime, poverty, and pollution. Thousands—tens—hundreds of thousands of lives saved, millions of lives improved. This is what you don’t want to be a part of?”
“It’s the murder I don’t want to be a part of,” I said.
“Oh, but that’s the bit you are a part of,” he said, and smiled unpleasantly. “Remember? You helped raise up the rhokkoth. You were party to the magic.”
“But I didn’t know—“
“Didn’t you? You joined the circle around the skin. You had no idea what—who it came from? You thought we were just going to sing Kum Ba Yah? When you touched the rhokkoth, you thought you were petting a kitten? This is what you are saying?”
“I didn’t know—“
“You should have known,” my father said. “And when you did know, you did nothing. You withheld knowledge of a crime from authorities. That makes you an accessory all by itself, never mind your active participation in the ritual.”
I stared at my father. My mother had always said he was manipulative and cruel.
“You style yourself a rebel,” he said. “But now you see the difference between a true revolutionary, and a teenager with a ‘tude and trendy wardrobe.”
“You don’t need me,” I said finally. It was weak, even to my own ears.
“Don’t I?” he asked. “Look at me, Nicole. See me not with the eyes of a child, but with eyes unclouded.”
This was unexpected. What did he want me to see? That he had wrinkles, now? Creases along the sides of his mouth, streaks of gray in his hair? That something dark and monstrous lurked behind his eyes? That his flesh did not seem solid, that his face slipped and reformed always changing in some subtle, terrible way. That he seemed to have a nest of serpents under his jacket. That it took constant effort for him to hold himself together. That some day, I did not know when, but knew it was inevitably coming, he would be over-powered, and collapse into darkness.
“Who shall be my heir?” he said. “One of those craven fools who meet in my study?”
“Not me,” I said.
“Not you, then,” he agreed. “But you will keep coming to see me.”
“But I won’t join in any more monster summoning,” I said.
This was agreed. But any hope I may have harbored that it would end my involvement in dark arts was destroyed late that evening, when he insisted on showing me how to mend a rent between worlds. It seemed like a harmless thing to learn.
“Better than harmless,” my father said. “If left unhealed, someone untrustworthy could exploit such a thing to do harm.” So I learned. But with it came the knowledge of how to see where the boundaries were thin, and how they might be pried open as well as pulled shut.
Time went by. Each month I saw the roiling under my father’s jacket grow greater, his features older and less distinct. Each month he taught me more about the dark arts. The next month he showed me how to levitate objects, which seemed a harmless diversion. A party trick.
The month after that he proposed showing me how to command monsters.
“I don’t think I want to learn that,” I said.
This time we met in his dining room. Ramón brought in an Indian dinner, a collection of flat bread, dal, curries, pakoras, lamb and pork in fiery sauces. My father held himself awkwardly at the table, one shoulder higher than the other, as if he were wracked by scoliosis.
“The moral objection, again,” my father said. He reached for his wine and misjudged the distance, nearly toppling the glass before he grappled it, and splashed a little over his hand. His face contorted in a snarl, then he tipped a large swallow down his throat, steadying his glass with both hands.
“So when you see the Unspeakable Ones emerging from the depths, the moral choice is to be helpless? If the rhokkoth slips from my control, and attacks an infant, the moral choice is to wring your hands and curse my carelessness? There is no wickedness in being able to command monsters. The wickedness is in what you command them to do. But the immoral choice is to be helpless in the face of monstrosity, when you could have the power to act.”
So I learned how to command monsters. He did not tell me, but it was obviously true, that the same power that commanded monsters could also command a human spirit. So perhaps there was something inherently wicked in the magic I learned. Perhaps there were other things I could have been taught, to intervene in the crises he had described, things that would not violate the sanctity of another person’s will.
Did I seriously just use the word “sanctity”? So maybe there was something I believed in, after all.
That day, he sent me on my own to do my New York tourist event, walking the High Line, while he remained behind “to attend to some affairs.” If he had done this on my first visit, I’d have assumed it was to get rid of me. But this time, I wondered what I would have seen if he had tried to go walking in public with me. He was unsteady just moving about his apartment.
The news had changed, too. There had been several deaths similar to that of John Mercer. Several had been important people in public office, always opening the way for someone more extreme. Some seemed random: a couple homeless people, a teenage boy walking alone after dark. My father could command the rhokkoth. But when he was not commanding it, what did it do? All were suffocated, with no bruising of the neck or face. Police were investigating whether they were the work of a single assassin, and the death of John Mercer had been reclassified as a homicide.
A month later, for the first time in a long time, four of his geezer friends were present. We went down to the parking garage, at the bottom of the building. My father walked with a cane, in a crablike, jerky shuffle, moving obliquely. He took a couple tries positioning his body so as to move in the direction he wanted. The geezers kept their distance from him. We gathered in a circle around my father’s Maserati.
“Today, Nicole, we are going to do something very simple. We are going to lift my car.”
I already knew how to levitate objects, but I couldn’t manage anything more than a medium-sized dog. This was far beyond my power.
“To do this,” he said, “you are going to link us together, and use our collective power.”
“You want us to put our power into her hands?” one of the old men asked, scowling.
“Then you’ll drop it on someone’s head, I haven’t decided who,” my father said.
“Yeah, right,” I said. “I don’t think I need to know how to use someone else’s power.”
“Because you prefer to be weak?” my father asked. “Faced with a great terror, you would prefer to be defeated one by one, rather than victorious together? Please, Nicole, we know you are smarter than this, and I am short on patience. If we pass on dropping the car on Sasha, can we at least lift it?”
So I went along with it. I learned the chant, I raised up the swirling circle of magic. I didn’t grow a tentacled tongue, fortunately, but I shaped the power, and I lifted that Maserati. It might need some suspension work, the way I put it back down again, but I lifted it. My father was pleased.
Me, not so much. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed picking up a car. Let me tell you, the rush of endorphins from holding a ton of metal over your head is a trip, but that was exactly the problem. My father was seducing me into his power. Every time he brought me a new lesson, I told him no, and then I learned what he taught me, and I loved knowing it. I was frightened how much I loved knowing it.
My father called me four days later. His voice was thick and hoarse. “I need to see you. Tonight.”
“What?” I asked. “Are you crazy? I just saw you.”
“It cannot wait.”
“If you agreed to skip the next regular visit Mom might take me this weekend,” I offered. Though I doubted it. Doing anything because my dad wanted was not a winning argument.
“This weekend is too late,” my father rasped. “This is… important.”
I thought about telling him to try to persuade my mom, but then thought better. I knew what he was capable of. I was not going to invite him to do that to my mother.
“Ramón is on his way to pick you up,” he said.
“I have school tomorrow,” I reminded him.
“You will learn more tonight than from a year of school. He should be there at nine twelve. When you get a text, go out and get in the rental car that stops out front. Do not… do not fail me, Nicole.”
“And what am I supposed to tell Mom?”
My father made a strange noise, halfway between a groan and a roar.
His voice was tight, and tensely controlled. “I would not tell your mother anything. But after, you can explain your action, saying I told you I was dying.”
The call ended.
I threw a change of clothes into a backpack, feeling scared and pissed. I finally felt sympathy for my mother. This was my father’s manipulation at its most extreme. If he wasn’t really dying, he was going to be.
I had no idea what was going to happen, but the thought of all those powers roiling under my father’s jacket bursting out of control did not sound like a peaceful end. While I was waiting, I went into the bathroom, and used my black eyeliner to draw an elder sign on my breastbone, right above my heart. I didn’t think I got it right, so I did another below. I didn’t like that one, either, so I did a third, just over my solar plexus. I was wondering if that was good enough, when the text came.
I buttoned up my shirt, grabbed my backpack, and ran out. A large Lincoln town car was waiting. I jumped in, and Ramón sped off before I had my seatbelt fastened. To my shock, a police car appeared in front of us, with lights flashing.
“Holy shit!” I said.
“There isn’t a lot of time,” Ramón said as we followed our police escort through a red light.
“Yeah, but…” but you can’t just call up the police and say, “I am in a hurry and need an escort.” Did my father know the right people? Or had he just prevailed over someone’s spirit?
We made it in half an hour, half the time my mother takes. Pulled down into the entrance and jumped out. The doorman had the door open and the elevator waiting.
As we were going up, Ramón said, “You don’t have to do this.”
I didn’t understand what he was saying. If I wasn’t going to visit my father, the thing to do would have been to stay home.
“Any time you need to, you walk out the door,” he said. “I’ll get you home.”
“Sure,” I said, because it seemed called for.
The doors opened on my father’s apartment. Four of the old guys were standing in the hallway, looking exhausted and terrified.
“Thank God!” one of them said, which struck me as absurdly funny.
“How is he?” Ramón asked.
“Beyond anything we can do.”
“He killed Petro.”
I started toward the library, then I saw what was in there. At first it made no sense to me, just a tangle of long wet things. Were they tentacles, or snakes, or intestines? There was a dress shoe in the middle of the floor, and a shred of a suit jacket. Then I realized there was a foot still occupying the shoe. Dangling from several ropy bits was an enormous mouth, big enough to swallow my head. It had no lips, just jagged sharp teeth.
“Nicole.” It was my father’s voice. It didn’t come from the mouth. I stepped closer. Settled in a corner, strung about with wet nerves and vessels was my father’s head. Something gray beneath it swelled like a balloon, a pair of balloons, then they expelled their air.
“Thank you for coming,” he said. The gray things were his lungs.
“What do you need from me?” I asked.
“I need someone to give my power,” he said, the lungs squeezing out the words. His eyes didn’t look at me. I wondered if he could see.
“I don’t want it,” I said.
Out of the corner of my eye, something like a black talon lifted what appeared to be a thigh. Probably Petro’s thigh. The lipless mouth bit into the meat.
The lungs drew a deep breath.
“You must take it. No one else can hold it.”
“Looks like it didn’t work so well for you,” I said.
“It will be better for you. I made mistakes. I had no teachers. I had to build my power, sacrificing over and over at every misstep. I am giving it to you whole. It won’t destroy you.”
“Choose another,” I said.
My father’s head rotated slowly, as if manipulated by a twisting string. His eyes came to face me, huge and bloodshot. “You are my heir!” he shrieked. “What do you think we’ve been doing all this time? The way is prepared for you and you alone, if you do not take it, all will be lost!”
“Sucks to be you, then,” I said.
The various tentacles and snaky bits writhed and reached. The talon dropped the thigh and quested toward the doorway where I stood. Ramón put a hand on my arm.
“I will not be refused!” he roared. “If you are not a willing heir, you will be a vessel. Hold her!”
I jerked my arm away from Ramón. One of the old men grabbed my wrist, but I’d taken a good self-defense class in middle school: he got the heel of my palm up into his nose. He let go. Another flailed ineffectually for my arms. A judiciously swung boot bent his knee sideways. The third grappled me from behind, pinning my arms to my sides. With a loud pop, his brains blew out one side of his head, spattering my shoulder. Ramón turned his gun on the fourth man, who was too terrified to make a move. But his hesitation left him between me and the library. The talon latched into his back, and dragged him backwards through the doorway and out of the way.
“No!” I shouted, and using the magic my father had taught me, I slammed the pocket door across the opening and held it tight. Before he could wrench it open, I stuck my finger in the blood and brains on my shoulder, and drew an elder sign on the door. First try. Something hit the door so hard the whole wall shook, but it could not break through.
“You did it!” Ramón exclaimed.
I breathed a little easier. Two of the old men were alive, but they were on the floor, and looking too busy with their own pain to be trouble.
“Let’s just leave,” Ramón said. “Your father won’t last long, and he can’t do much as he is.”
There was a horrific crash, and the wall exploded in plaster dust. Something whipped around my ankle, my neck. I was jerked off my feet as more things wrapped around me, all but one flailing arm completely in his control. I was dragged face-to-face with my father’s head.
“You tried to stop me with an elder sign on you belly?” he asked. “Clever girl! It would have worked if I hadn’t already laid pathways into your mind. I knew it would come to this. I’d always known. Now my power, my will shall continue, with you as a vessel.”
“Yeah?” I said. “Then say the magic words, why don’t you.”
With my one free hand, I grabbed his windpipe and squeezed. The tentacles yanked me every direction, but I twisted my hand in the tube of gristle. His eyes bugged out, his mouth worked soundlessly. The tentacles smashed me against the wall, but my father’s head flung with me, He must have stunned himself because everything went limp. I held on longer. Ramón came tiptoeing through the wreckage, but I held on anyway. I wasn’t going to take a chance of him reviving.
“Come on,” Ramón said. “Let’s get you out of here. The door men turn a blind eye to a lot of things, but not this.”
I looked at the gore surrounding me. It appeared that my father had been disassembled with a lawn mower.
“I can’t run away from this,” I said. “They know I was here. The police know I was here. Guilty people run.”
“You’re right,” he said. “You’re right.” He pressed a hand to his forehead.
“I’m fourteen,” I said. “I’m the helpless victim. No one is going to believe I’m responsible for this.”
My hand was still twisted in my father’s windpipe. I pulled a loop through a loop, and drew it tight in a knot. Just to be sure for sure.
It took a little time, but eventually Ramón and I worked out a story for the police. Mostly, it consisted of not knowing what had happened in the library. There was no explanation for the gore, so we would offer none. To charge us with a crime, the police would have to come up with an explanation of what had happened, which seemed impossible.
The only tricky thing to solve was the death of Sasha, who Ramón had shot. So we made up a story about two men smashing through the wall. We said Sasha must have been in league with them, because he attacked us, to cover their escape. We blamed him for hurting the other geezers, and said Ramone had killed him in self-defense. As to how my father had been disassembled, we had not seen, and had no idea.
We thought we had a solid story.
The police detective was a round little man who peered at everything through thick glasses. He looked at the hole in the wall for awhile, scratching his bald head, and then he started ripping our story to shreds. Why had it taken us an hour to call the police? How had the two men smashed through a solid plaster wall, as if they were driving a bulldozer? Then he asked about the elder sign on the library door.
I explained about my father being into black magic, and said that I was scared, so I drew the sign, hoping it might work. I’d hoped at the mention of magic that he would dismiss my explanation as silly, but to my surprise he acted as if he believed me.
“Before or after they broke down the wall?” he demanded.
I froze. I’d drawn the sign with Sasha’s blood and brains. That meant I’d drawn the sign after Sasha had been killed. “After.”
He studied the door. “So why didn’t they come through the door?”
I didn’t answer him.
“I mean, if you drew the sign first, and it protects against magic, then it makes sense. They couldn’t get through the door, so they go through the wall. But if you hadn’t drawn the sign yet, why didn’t they come through the door?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Why’d you draw the sign on the door?” he asked.
“I told you,” I said.
“You were afraid, right. But, you see…” he looked back at the hole in the wall, at me. “They’d just come through the wall. Right? Bang, crash, the wall falls down, two men run out. You’re afraid of what’s in the room. Okay, that makes sense. But it seems to me, with a big gaping hole in the wall, if it was me, I’d be afraid of what might come through the hole in the wall. Right? But you drew the sign on the door.”
Our story was in tatters.
“I got three dead men in this apartment,” the detective said. “Are you going to tell me what really happened?”
I looked at him, at his watery eyes and his shiny bald head and his plain, ordinary, sacred humanity. I could get out of this. I knew how. I could say certain unprintable words, followed by, “Detective, I’m a teenage girl whose father was horribly murdered. Believe me, and let me go home.” I knew I shouldn’t do that, but I knew what would happen if I didn’t.
So I did.
Credit: Eugene Fairfield
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