24 Apr The Road to Bastrop
“The Road to Bastrop”Written by Dirk Stevens Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 31 minutes
Early morning mist wraps the Texas highway like a burial shroud. A red BMW emerges from the fog behind us. I hold my breath and squint to see the license plate in the vanity mirror.
It’s from Colorado.
I breathe out and lean back in my seat.
“So when are we gonna talk?”
I pull my eyes from the mirror, but I can’t look at David. It was my idea to move to Salem, my curiosity that led me to that book club.
“When we’re safe in Mexico.” The lie comes as a hoarse whisper.
There is no safe place. Not anymore.
His blue eyes glance at me only briefly before his hand leaves the wheel and finds my knee. I feed my fingers between his and his focus returns to the road. He says nothing. He never does.
His silent support is always there lending me strength, respecting my freedom. For five years we’ve been on this journey together. If only I could tell him the truth.
David points out a sign as we pass. “We’ll need gas in Bastrop.” His hand tightens on mine. “And maybe something real to eat?”
Every ounce of me screams no. We can’t stop, not until we pass beyond their reach.
“Please?” He flashes me that look, those puppy-dog eyes.
I can already feel my resolve crumbling. We’ve been so careful. Stayed off the main roads, eaten gas station food and paid only with cash. There’s no way they should be able find us. But what if I’m wrong? They know he’s my weakness, my whole world. I know he’s the one who’ll pay if they find us.
“I don’t know.”
We’re so close.
He elbows my arm and nods at a sign just off the road. “They have an Itsaburger.”
I cough out a laugh. “That’s real food?”
“Sure!” His eyebrows waggle and I can’t keep from laughing. He acts like we’re teenagers on a road trip. But he’s already pushed himself beyond endurance without even knowing why. My heart aches. That’s who he is. That’s why I love him.
I told him I was in trouble, that we needed to leave. He didn’t ask or argue. He simply shuffled behind the wheel and drove. Thirty hours later and he’s still driving, no questions asked.
“Okay.” I take in the dark circles creeping in under his eyes and the last of my resistance melts away. He’s given me his all. “But only if we get it to go. Then I’m driving.”
I should tell him, but he’d never understand. To him witchcraft is herbs, psychology and sleight of hand. Something I do for fun. He has no idea the promotion, the new house, even his cancer going into remission last year, was me. All of it me, consulting spirits, casting charms, making our lives better.
Magik. At a price I didn’t, couldn’t pay.
He pulls into the lot. I scan the license plates as quickly as I can. None are from Massachusetts.
Of course not. I’m overreacting.
My legs ache when I stand. The scent of overcooked hamburger hangs heavy in the air, and I’m acutely aware of my need for the ladies’ room.
David smiles at my little dance and takes my purse. “Cheeseburger?”
I’m already halfway to door. “And sweet tea.”
I shiver as I enter the lobby. The air-conditioner must be working overtime but nobody else seems to notice. I find the restroom and open the door.
A movement in the corner of my eye draws my attention to the mirror. As I watch, a name appears written in the condensation on the glass.
I blink, and it’s gone, wiped clean by an invisible hand.
My heart stops.
They found us.
My hands shake as I fumble with the door latch. We have to leave, now.
I smash my shoulder against the door. It bursts open just as a man shouts. “In a restaurant? That’s just nasty!”
“David,” I scream, sprinting to the crowd gathering at the register. But he’s not there.
Behind the counter, a mouse darts across a steel table by the fryer. Light glistens against something on its paw. I only catch a glimpse but it’s a gold wedding band.
I shove my way forward and dive, reaching for him. “David, it’s me… “
But he doesn’t recognize me. He bolts.
For a moment, his body hangs frozen above the boiling oil.
Then, time slams into motion.
The scent of burning hair fills my nostrils.
My legs crumple.
Everyone is screaming.
But they’re not. It’s just me. And I can’t stop.
* * * * * *
I sit cross-legged on the bed, staring out at the yellow glow of the streetlights shimmering like stars against the pouring rain. Numb. Broken. Watching the world through a hotel window.
Bastrop. I know I should have driven on. There’s no guarantee they won’t target me next, but… I sniff and pull the blankets over my head like a cloak. There’s no point. Everything I did, every spell I cast, was for him. And now?
My chest burns.
I wipe a tear from my cheek just as the clock on the nightstand flashes to three a.m.
It’s time. I take a deep breath and stretch out with my feelings.
A soft tingle brushes against my cheek, the familiar touch of his wing. Raven, my Spirit Guide’s, way of letting me know he’s come.
“They found me,” I whisper, letting my eyes drift to top of the television, where I know he’s perched. Invisible. “David’s gone. They-” But all I get out is a whimpering hum as I bury my face in my palms. “David… I’m so sorry…”
My keys fall off the nightstand.
I swallow the lump in my throat and stare at the place I know he is. “What are you saying?”
He doesn’t answer.
Of course not. He’s a spirit. I wipe my nose in the blanket and glare at him. “Can’t you just say something? Just once?” I know that’s not how spirits work, but hate having to piece everything together, and I’m really not in the mood.
When he doesn’t answer, I roll my eyes and lean over the side of the bed. But the way my keys are sprawled out tells me everything I need to know. Four keys spread out in a cross, with the fifth in the center sticking straight up. A Quincunx. A Hoodoo sigil of protection.
My heart stops. It’s a warning. He’s telling me I’m in danger. But he’s wrong. We made a blood pact. We can’t harm each other. That’s why they went after-
Raven taps his beak on the top of the television, interrupting my thoughts.
“I made a blood pact,” I whisper, still staring at my keys. I’m an idiot. They have my blood. That’s how they found him. A simple scrying spell, using my blood as a focus.
I blink up at the top of the television. “But the pact. They can’t break a blood pact. Not without…” a human sacrifice. “David.”
It was poetic. Efficient. My blood betraying my heart. Crushing my soul and voiding the contract all in one ritual. Torturing me before the kill. Like a cat playing with a mouse.
Hands trembling, I dive for my suitcase. There’s not much left. I used all my charms to keep David safe…to keep him hidden. It never even occurred to me to protect myself. That they’d find him through me.
I rip open the zipper and fumble through the bag of herbs I keep for emergencies. Rosemary, salt. Enough for now.
Crushing the ingredients together in my palms, I mumble the best incantation I can remember and dump a sprinkle of dust on the floor at each corner of the bed. Then, I reach under the bed and drop the rest in a pile under the center of the mattress, finishing the Quincunx.
“Thank you, Raven.” I brush the dust from my hands and dig my Grimore out of the suitcase. I don’t know why they waited to strike, but they missed their chance. And now, I only have one reason to live. To make them pay. One. By. One.
* * * * * *
Rosemary…Thyme. I sigh and glance down the isle of bins of granola, flour, and other organic food stuffs. I don’t know what I expected, a better herb section I guess, but for now this will have to do. I dump the thyme in the little plastic bag and slip the scoop back in its holder.
Most of the essential equipment shouldn’t be hard to come by, and I’m not entirely unprepared. I have my kit, my focus stones and whatnot. What I’m lacking is ingredients.
David…My chest burns.
I had everything I needed. Everything. I used every spell, every charm I could think of to keep him safe. I planned everything. I knew Deb would be using her grandpa’s map to track us. She had to have a emotional connection with it in order for the spell to work. If only we hadn’t stopped…
A little girl in a sparkly pink princess dress steps around the end of the shelves. “Oh! With Raspberries!”
I choke down the lump caught in my throat as I watch her bounce to a bin and glance back at the end of the isle. “Mo-Ommy.”
“Hold on, sweetie.” A woman on her phone pushes a cart around the corner, mumbling something about needing to reschedule. “Don’t forget your brother.”
“I won’t” The little girl stands on her tiptoes to reach the scoop.
Mother and daughter. My throat aches.
Twisting the charm around my wrist I watch the girl’s face knot into a scowl as she fights to shake the scoop free. It’s her freckles, the way her curly red hair bounces as she moves, the blue ribbons struggling for all their might to keep in contained. I can’t look away. She could have been mine. Pressure builds behind my eyes. I could have been her mother.
She stretches out as far as she can, hops on her tiptoes, and huffs, “I can’t reach it Mommy.”
The mother rolls her eyes, still speaking into phone. “Well, see if Frank can make it.” Without looking, she reaches over, slips the scoop free of the holder and hands it to her daughter. “Then, that’s her problem.”
The bow holding one of the girl’s pigtails slips loose. As if waiting to escape her hair explodes instantly in a giant red poof. She freezes for a second, scoop still buried in the bin, and then, almost in slow motion, reaches up and slips the loose ribbon from the tangle on her head, and stares at it. “Mommy, it happened again.”
The mother glances at her daughter, smirks, then squats down, pinching her phone between her head and shoulder. “I’m gonna sew these in, I swear…” She finishes tying back her daughter’s hair and taps her on the nose.
My chin trembles, and I turn away. She could have been mine. We could have had a family. David said he wanted a girl. A little girl with pigtails. A soft tickle trails down my cheek. I brush it away, but my fingers come back wet. I’m crying. I shake my head, forcing myself out of the moment. I can’t do this. I can’t let myself get distracted. I need to punish them for what they took. I owe it to him. To David.
Clenching my jaw, I glance down at the list in my hand. I need a pack of needles and red thread, never been used. That part shouldn’t be a problem, but I’ll need to find a thrift store. I need a cloth of memory and heartbreak. Again, simple, almost everything in secondhand store is full of memory. The candles, on the other hand are going to be a little tricky. I need five, and they have to be made of fat, not wax.
Absently, I search the wall for the meat sign. Those, I can manage, hopefully, assuming the butcher doesn’t trim lean.
But, the final ingredient is going to be more of a problem. Blood. Human blood, just a little, and it can’t be mine.
I stuff the list in my purse and march toward the craft section to find my needles and thread. Looks like I’m going to need ask Raven for a favor.
* * * * * *
Closing the door behind me, I drop my purse on the counter by the T.V. and set the bags down on the bed. It took most of the day to track down everything, but I managed to piece it all together, even refill most of my reserves.
I pull my kit out from under my pillow, open the lid and spread the altar cloth out over the bed.
Raven’s may be my guide, but he gets cranky if I don’t take the time to do everything just right. So I need to lay out what I’m planning, every ingredient, so he can get a good look at each. Herbs around the edge, focus items in the center, and…
I tap my chin. I need something shiny just for him to look at.
My gaze lands on my purse. Keys. That’ll do it. I dig them out and, drop them in the center, and pull the reading lamp around so they sparkle.
Better. I glance down at my watch. Quarter to twelve. Raven doesn’t like being summoned before midnight, and I don’t want to irritate him. Not when I need a favor. But patience was never my thing.
And I have fifteen minutes. I pick at loose piece of skin by my thumbnail. What am I gonna do for fifteen minutes?
My spell jar.
I slip the silver chain over my head, unscrew the top of the tiny glass bottle fastened to the clasp, and dump the contents into my palm. Now that I have fresh herbs to work with, I can upgrade the enchantment.
Adding sea salt, and a few sprigs of wormwood, I offer a prayer to the goddess and slide the charm back around my neck. I don’t know if she’ll hear me. Debra was the high priestess of our coven, but the gods are fickle. I settle down on the foot of the bed beside my ingredients, fold my legs to clear my mind. Besides, Raven is a messenger of the goddess. If she had abandoned me, he wouldn’t have come. He wouldn’t have warned me.
The clock on the nightstand flashes twelve a.m.
It’s time. I lay the backs of my hands on my knees, press my fingers together and stretch out with my mind. “Raven, hear me. I beseech Thee.”
Nothing changes exactly, but the air, the energy of the room ripples, a soft tickle brushes against my cheek, and on the edge of hearing, Raven caws.
He’s here. Goosebumps prickle down my arms. “Raven, Dread Guide, and Messenger of the Shadow Realm… here are the sacrifices I offer. I ask only that you aid me in my quest for justice.”
Just beyond sight, I sense Raven puff out his chest and hop over to my Altar cloth. He swaggers between the arrangement, prods the wedding veil with his beak, and ruffles his feathers.
My chest relaxes. He’s pleased. “I ask your guidance. I must strike them all as one, lest they slip from my grasp. Will you help me? How do I attain the blood I need?”
Raven tips his head, blinks at each item in turn, and shrieks so loud I almost hear him with my physical ears. I wince, but his meaning is clear. My spell isn’t strong enough. Even with the blood.
“No,” A voice croaks in my mind, sending my fingernails into my palms. “Dark deeds cannot be performed by creatures of the light.” He says. “Do not take this path.”
“But I must.” My eyes burn. He’s never spoken to me before. Not like this. Only in riddles and half guessed feelings. I didn’t even know he could do this. “I can’t let them get away with this. I’ll do anything.” I wince at the pressure building at the base of my skull. “Anything you say. Please, help me?”
“Justice,” Raven sighs, “Always, mortals willingly go. I hoped you were different.” He hops over my needles and thread. “So be it. You seek their blood? Then go. Find a creature of innocence, a beast that has done harm to none. Take it to the cemetery. There, break its neck as a sacrifice to the goddess, and spill out its blood on the freshly dug grave you will find there. Then, and only then, I will know you are truly willing to walk the path of vengeance.”
* * * * * *
Two in the morning. I squint at the etching on the headstone. Jose Garcia. Born June 12, 1924. Died. Sept 2, 2019. The same day as David. My eyes burn and I look away.
“Raven…” I should have known. What happens in the physical world and the spirit realms are connected. Magik is all about seeing the threads that bind, using them to weave our own tapestry. Pulling my cuff into my hand, I brush the fresh dirt smooth with my sleeve. The spell requires blood, the blood of vengeance. The blood of the victim. An innocent who died a violent death. David’s blood. But David has no body. None I could use, so I need to improvise. And that’s where Frank comes in.
Kneeling before the stone, I press a single candle into the dirt at the base of the headstone, take two candles in each hand, spread out my arms, and stare up at the moon. “Spiritus, venti et caeli, exaudi orationem meam, exaudi clamorem meum, ut iustita restituatur et moriatur reus.” Spirit of the wind and sky, hear my prayer, hear my cry, that justice be restored and the guilty die.
Yin and Yang, push and pull, light and dark… justice is woven into the very fabric of the universe. Balance in all things. “Timete deum justitae, sorores prefixae sunt librae. Fac me, quaaeso, brachium tuum, gladium tuum.” Dread god of justice, my sisters have tipped the scale. I beg you, make me your arm, your sword.
“Vita as vitam. In-” Beside me, the rabbit I bought at the pet store earlier digs at the floor of his plastic carrier, my voice falters. “In- I-nnocentia solvit pro innocentia capta.” Life for life. Innocence paid for innocence taken.
A soft breeze lifts my hair. A cold chill races across my skin, chasing a shiver down my spine. The spirits have come. They’re watching.
Without looking down, I reach back with both hands and press two candles into the dirt behind me. David’s death was without justice, without balance. And balance must be restored. That is the way of things. The law of all magic.
I plunge the other two into the ground by my knees, finishing the points of the star, reach into my jacket, pull out the palm sized silver bowl I use for spell work, and place it between my knees. Innocentia pro innocentia. The spirits demand it.
I slip my little brass dagger from its sheath on my forearm and plunge it into the ground beside the bowl. A lead ball sticks in the back of my throat. Somehow, I manage swallow it down, open the cage, grab the rabbit by the ears, and hold him up against the light of the moon. He kicks and my hand lowers.
It’s David. The Rabbit represents David. Its blood will be David’s as far as the spirits are concerned. Which means, symbolically, I’m the coven. I’m killing David. A sob rakes through my chest. I can’t do it. Even as a parody I can’t do it.
“Do you think Debra, Cathy, and Allison felt remorse at what they’d done?”
I glance over at the top of the head stone, where Raven is sitting, like a shadow in the night, watching me. “No. They rejoiced. After your beloved David died, they went to Gibralties for cocktails. To celebrate.”
“Celebrate?” The rabbit kicks, and I have to grab his body with my other hand so he doesn’t wriggle free.
“I know, I saw. I sat outside the window. I watched your “sisters” raise a toast to your pain, your suffering… to their own cleverness at taking your love.” Raven flaps his wings and hops to the edge of the headstone. “Would you allow this injustice to go unpunished? Would show them mercy?” He twists his head to stare at me with his other eye. “Would you defy the goddess, who demands justice at your hand? Would you sacrifice the spirit of your love? Deny him vengeance from the world beyond?”
“No,” I whimper. I won’t let his spirit will wonder forever, searching for the justice he’ll never find. A restless spirit. A ghost. My heart cracks. I can’t let that happen. I won’t. “No. I’ll do it.” Jaw clenched, I hold the rabbit up to the light of the moon. “For David.” I grip the rabbit’s body in one hand, and the back of his head in the other. “Sanguis pro sanguine.” I close my eyes.
There isn’t much noise when I twist, just a soft crackling pop and the deed is done. The rabbit kicks on for a while, it makes cutting him open difficult, and I don’t get all the blood in the bowl, but enough to draw the pentagram with and a little extra. Enough for what I need.
I light the candles one by one, offering a prayer to the goddess as each one sparks to life. Raven sits on the edge of the headstone, watching silently until the ritual is complete. But once the candles are out, after I’ve poured the blood into one of my little jars, pocketed his teeth, and buried the remains, he taps his beak against the stone. “It is done. Your path is set, servant of the goddess.”
I give him a sharp nod as thanks and stuff my spell kit into my duffle bag. But I don’t want his praise. I just want this nightmare to end. I want David back.
“Are you prepared for tomorrow?”
My hand freezes in the bag. “Tomorrow?”
“Three and three must always be, equal in power and unity. Dark is light, to those who see, behind the veil of secrecy.”
My shoulders slump. “The scrying eye. I forgot.” It can only be cast once every three days, which is why there are always at least three witches in a coven. So we’re never vulnerable. But Deb didn’t want equals. She wanted to rule. And so, she kept some spells to herself.
There’s no way Cathy and Allison can cast it. It has to be Deb. And tomorrow is the third day since David…
A lump rises in my throat.
“I see,” Raven grumbles. “Then there is no time. Remember, mortals see through eyes tainted by hopes and fear.” He ruffles his feathers, jumps from the stone, and flies off to wherever he goes when he’s not here.
It doesn’t matter. Numbly, I jam my arm through the strap of my bag and slump back to the car. I know what I have to do.
* * * * * *
A single shaft of sunlight angles in through the crack between the curtains of my hotel room. It streams across my body as I watch the tiny flecks of dust float aimlessly in the light. Watching. Waiting.
All at once, the flecks dance and swirl, like leaves in a stream, moved by whatever ethereal currents stir them.
My heart skips the next beat. Deb’s here. Now. Watching.
Blank-faced, I stare at the window and surrender to the pain.
Numb. Broken. David’s suitcase lies beside me on the bed, his clothes wrapped in my arms, just so I can feel him again. Smell him again.
The alarm clock on the nightstand flashes two in the afternoon. Twelve hours since I completed the ritual. Nearly twelve more until I can summon Raven again.
Shaking my head, I push away the thought, and replay the nightmare in my mind one more time…David’s body, suspended in time, caught midair over the vat of boiling oil.
I tremble and press time back into motion. His body splashed into the fryer. My chest throbs, but I don’t move on. I go back to the moment I saw the mirror, and watch it all over again. I haven’t slept, I haven’t eaten in days. Not since David… My chin trembles. I clutch his folded straight razor to my chest, just to feel it in my hands. To have piece of him near me.
The last time I saw him with it, he was standing by the sink at home, running this blade over his leather strop. It always sent goosebumps down my arms, seeing the knife at his neck. I hated it. I hated the size of it, I hated how it looked against his throat. I bought him countless razors and electric shavers, hoping he’d trade. But he never did.
“You can’t beat the quality,” he said, while I stood in the doorway, heart pounding as he stretched out his neck, and slid the blade down his skin.
“There is such a thing as too close, you know?” I winced.
“Oh?” David smirked into the mirror. “I always thought I had the perfect face for headless.”
I folded my arms over my chest. “That’s not funny.”
“It’s a little funny.” Laying the razor on the edge of the sink, his eyebrow cocked. “I mean, you don’t want me to give you rug burn, do you?”
But I knew that look. “No,” I said backing away.
“Ugh,” He groaned, lather dripping from his chin. “I think I’ve gone rabbid.”
“No, you don’t.” I turned to run, but it was too late. His hand caught mine before I even made it out of the door. “David, don’t you dare!” I squealed as he spun me around. “David!” I threw my hands over my face to shield myself, but he went for my neck instead.
Outside, a cars honk pulls me from the memory.
I flip the latch on the razor, exposing the blade, and swallow. It really is beautiful. Ancient, but beautiful. I close it again and hold it close. David had to be the only man alive that still used one, but that was him. Unique. Special.
God, I miss him.
I sniff and go back to blankly staring at the curtain… the empty windowsill I swept clean of salt.
Outside, the noise of traffic rumbles on, the low thrum of people going about their lives as if nothing changed. The world spins on without me, without him, as if he never mattered at all.
The rhythm of life. There’s no use trying to fight it.
My thumb strokes the side of his razor.
One flower dies only to have its place taken by another. Threads cut. Threads retied. And life goes on without a pause. What’s the point? Everything we think is important, nothing. Our deaths, not even a pause in the circle of life. Why bother? Why not end it, now? With his razor? We could be together. Like Romeo and Juliet. Together in paradise.
The edges of the curtain sway and the flecks of dust swirling in the light go back to floating limp in the air. The way dust should.
I lay there a few more moments longer, but when I’m sure Deb’s gone. I toss David’s razor back in the suitcase, dig out the salt, and pour a thin line on the windowsill.
Three days since her last scrying spell. Three days before she can cast another. And what did Deb find? A depressed, suicidal woman, suffering alone in agony. Exactly what she was hoping for.
Turning back to my bag, I fish out my spell jar and slip the charm around my wrist, but it’s hardly necessary. If I know Deb, she won’t lift a finger against me now. As far as she’s concerned, the longer I suffer the better.
But her turn is coming. I flop down on the bed, crack open my spell kit, and go over the ingredients one last time. I already know I’m ready, now doubly so. She won’t suspect a thing. None of them will.
* * * * * *
Bins of bulk food tower around me like canyon walls, so high I can’t see the top. Monkeys screech at one another somewhere high above me, and jawbreakers bounce off the linoleum, falling like rain.
I pull the collar of my jacket up over my head to shield myself, but a familiar tingle ripples down my back. “Not now,” I hiss, and bolt to take shelter under a tree that sprouted from the walnut bin. I tried to take a nap after Deb left, but I couldn’t sleep. Until now, apparently, since I’m dreaming.
Shaking the jawbreakers out of my pockets, I glance up at the pink sky, reminding myself that we, humans, are creatures of two realms. The physical, and the ethereal. When we’re awake in the “real world,” we live in the dreams of our ethereal half. And our dreams are simply our ethereal side waking up in the spirit realm.
The scent of cotton candy, hangs in the air like fog, stinging my nose. I don’t remember falling asleep, but it’s not all bad. Holding out my hand, I catch one of the jawbreaker raindrops and pop it in my mouth. I was sitting on the edge of my bed, sewing the veil I bought into little dolls, one for Debra, one for Cathy, and one for Allison. But David’s here, somewhere. I push the jawbreaker between my teeth, stare out into the dim green canyon, and sigh. Maybe he’ll be drawn to me, maybe. Unless, he already crossed back into the waking world.
The thought sends my heart racing. I can see him now, wandering the streets of Bastrop without a physical form. Alone. Frightened. Unable to speak. Unable to touch. A ghost.
The thought makes my jaw clench, shattering jawbreaker between my teeth. The taste of mashed potatoes fills my senses. It congeals over my tongue in a thick sticky goo.
I have to wake up. I have to finish the spell before he gets to the physical plane. If I have to summon his spirit and perform an exorcism, to put him to rest, things are going to get really complicated.
I stretch the goo over my tongue and blow into a bubble. It floats out into the jawbreaker hail storm and pops, releasing a giant fluff ball of red curly hair. It falls to the ground and rolls to the wall of bulk food bins just as the storm passes.
Two legs sprout from the underside of the hairball, followed by the hem of a sparkling pink princess dress. And, before I know what’s happening, the girl from the market stands up, and tugs at her hair, trying to tying back with a blue ribbon.
“Hello,” She giggles and tips her head as she pulls. “Can you tie bows?”
“Sure.” I walk over to lend a hand. One of the first things I learned studying magik is that because we live between worlds, we never see the truth in either place. The “real world” is just as distorted by the memories of our spirit side, as our dreams by our waking memories. Whatever this spirit is, she’s not the girl from the store. My mind sensed something she has in common with the girl, and so that’s what I see.
Taking the ends of the ribbon, I cross them over and gently pull it tight around her hair. “How’s that? Too tight?”
“Nope, it’s good.” She hands me the other ribbon.
I take it and pull the rest of her hair into another tail on the other side of her head. “I was wondering…” I pause as I tie the bow. “Have you seen a man around here, asking for me?” She might not know. She could be anything, sprite or a wisp, or an incarnation of the goddess herself. In any case, it can’t hurt to ask.
“You mean David?”
My heart stops. “You know David? Do you know where he is?”
“Yes.” She spins around, staring at me like I just asked if her hair was red. “He helped me get some gummy worms.”
David’s here. My chest burns. I have to find him. “Where is he?”
“Gone?” I don’t understand. “Gone where?”
“To find you.”
No. “Did he-” I swallow hard. “Did he find a doorway?”
“No.” She looks down and tugs at the hem of her dress. “Raven took-”
“What?” A loud caw shrieks, cutting her off.
I glance up just in time to see Raven perch on the lowest branch of the walnut tree and fix his black eyes on me. “What are you doing here?”
“I-I fell asleep,” I sputter. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Hmmm…” He stretches his wing to adjust a feather with his beak. “You fell asleep.” He blinks, seeming to notice the girl for the first time. “Ah…”
She shrinks behind me, putting my body between her and Raven.
“Threads be here and justice there.” Raven lowers his head and spreads wings in a way that makes my neck hairs prickle. “Cut one thread to make it fair.”
I flinch. But the girl steps out from behind my legs. “Please.” She holds out her wrist, showing Raven the rune etched into her skin, the outline of a fish pointed up as if standing on its tale. The rune for bloodline and inheritance, the Olthila. “I have a family.”
“You be hers, so she be in you. Sins of the mother are all imbued. The Innocent taken, innocence lost” His voice lowers to a whisper. “Blood is required. That is the cost.”
The girl lowers her arm, but when I look at her again, her hair is darker, her nose and cheeks not as round. I blink, but it isn’t the girl from the market. It’s Alex. It’s Deb’s daughter. She turns her to face me, but where her eyes should be, two empty sockets full of maggots stare blankly up at me.
I stumble back, my heart pounding in my throat.
“Wasted,” Raven shouts so loud the word echoes like thunder against the bins. “So much hope, lost! Wake,” he hisses, dragging the word out in a lingering hiss. The bark under his feet smooths into scales. “Spin the accursed wheel!”
My back slams into the bins on the opposite side of the canyon. It’s not just his perch. Every twig, every branch, slithers, every leaf watches me with golden eyes. Snakes. I can’t breathe. He’s sitting in a tree of snakes.
“Behold the harvest.” He throws his wings wide, and bodies drop from the canopy, dangling like fruit by a hangman’s noose. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them.
My head spins. Something soft presses against my cheek, and my whole body jerks. Heart pounding I jolt up, covered in sweat. But I’m awake. I’m back. I’m in the physical world.
Tossing the doll aside I grab a pen and paper from my kit and scribble down everything I can remember before it fades away. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make sense of it, but I have to try. I have to follow the threads.
* * * * * *
It’s been hours since I woke, but my hands still shake as I stuff the last of dried herbs into the final doll, stich her closed. Snipping off the red thread I toss a glance at the clock on the nightstand. Two-thirty. I lay her down beside Debra and Cathy’s effigies inside my kit, and take a deep breath to try and try to settle my thoughts.
It’s not unusual for spirits to take animal form. They do it all the time. Some cultures even call them animal guides. They’re supposed to protect you, give insight, and wisdom, but…
The image of Raven sitting in the tree of snakes presses in on me.
I shake my head to clear the memory. This is ridiculous. I’m a witch. I know how to interpret dreams. It was the first thing I researched after Raven came to me. I can still quote the passage.
“Ravens, while often regarded as a bad omen in western society, in dreams, represent transformation and opportunity. They are intermediaries between the material and spirit worlds. Creative and playful, ravens can represent a return to a more youthful exuberance.”
Picking up the spool of thread, I tuck it away in my case, remembering how happy when I read those words. I smile as I slip the needles back in their pouch and drop them in beside the thread. If only all messages from the spirit world were that easy to decipher. A tree of snakes can mean nothing, danger from multiple enemies, or awakening. A raven with a snake can mean healing, or triumph over danger. A raven with spread wings means a major change. Adjusting his feathers, like Raven did, is usually an omen of death.
I sniff and snap the sewing section of my kit closed, trying not to think about the bodies. I think death is probably a safe bet. And I do have multiple enemies. Three of them. I’m about to send them to the shadows, so death and major life changes. It all fits.
It’s just… I toss the scissors in with the iron knife, and sharpening stone. That’s the first time Raven ever acted like that. The first time he ever scared me, even in a dream. And, I know the Druids didn’t trust him, its all over their mythology. Raven, or Fhithich as they called him, is a trickster. Selfish. Vain. Sometimes helpful, but other times vindictive and mischievous. Like Loki.
But, then again, Odin had two, Huginn, and Muninn. They flew back and forth between worlds, serving as his eyes on Earth.
My stomach growls, reminding me that I haven’t eaten in four days. I don’t feel like it, but I need to eat. I’m no good to David if I can’t move. Closing the lid on my spell kit, I fasten the latch, and slip it under my pillow, but I can’t get the image out of my head. I don’t know what it is exactly, but something doesn’t feel right. I just can’t put my finger on what.
I glance down at the frayed end of a piece of thread I trimmed off one of the dolls.
Red, like the girl’s hair. My fingers go numb. Deceit. In dreams, red haired girls always mean deceit.
My head throbs.
That doesn’t help. I’m deceiving Debra. It could just mean-
No, the canyon, the bins, the jawbreakers, the whole dream was about her. And, she had a binding rune on her wrist. I’m the one being deceived.
My stomach pinches. It doesn’t matter. I need food, and I need to find a place to work, some place I can set up an altar. Some place thick with loss and despair. Snatching my purse off the nightstand, I slip on my shoes and head for the door.
I hate dreams anyway. What’s the point of going to the spirit world if all they give you is vague cryptic messages that could mean anything?
* * * * * *
I drive aimlessly for an hour before I find an old abandoned farm house on the edge of town. The kind with the cellar doors on the outside. The roof is caved in, but from what I can tell from the road, the basement should be intact, enough.
I turn around at the end of the driveway and head back into Bastrop to find some food. I can’t go in to the restaurant, not after what happened to David, so I pull through the drive through of some local sub shop instead.
The weather’s nice, sunny, warm, only a handful of clouds hovering like balls of cotton scattered on a sapphire sea. The perfect day for eating outside.
It’s already after five when I sit down on a park bench and open my sandwich. A few kids are on the playground across the pond, their mothers stand in a tight group off to the side gossiping, oblivious to anything but their conversation.
As mothers do. I roll back the paper and take a bite. Vinegar, oregano, basil… I glance down at the seasoning on the bread. It’s a curious thing, how much witchcraft people use every day without knowing it. How much passes without notice.
I close my eyes and drink it all in, the taste of onion, tomato and mayonnaise on my tongue, the lap of little ripples splashing against the shore, the gentle rustle of leaves in the trees overhead, the musty scent of the pond, and the way it mixes with the scents of Bastrop.
A high pitched laugh in the distance opens my eyes. Almost as one, the mothers cover their mouths, laughing at some joke or bit of gossip, blind to the magik all around them. Oblivious to the sun on their skin, the laughs of their children, all of it.
I swallow and take another bite, but my eyes burn. How many moments did I spend like that with David? Oblivious? How much magik did I miss? How much was taken? We could have had a family, a future. That’s all I wanted. To be a wife, a mother.
Debra. My chest aches and I rip the next bite free. It was one spell, one. And I’m the one who read it, not David. It wasn’t his fault. None of it. Not that I couldn’t get pregnant, not that none of the doctors we saw could help, not the price Debra demanded in exchange for the fertility spell, and it wasn’t David that snuck into her sanctum and copied it from her Grimore. It was me. All of it. Me. Not him. Me.
One of the kids pops out of the end of the slide. She ducks, about to run around one side, but pivots and darts the other way as another girl rounds the corner, chasing her. A little red-haired girl.
I stop chewing. It’s the same girl from the market, from my dream. Bastrop isn’t that small. It can’t be a coincidence. Someone, some spirit, is trying to tell me something.
A soft flutter pulls my attention to a trashcan chained to post a little further down the path, where a raven is playing tug of war with a couple of blue jays over some bit of garbage.
“You’re it,” the boy screams, and vanishes behind the slide, squealing. The girl takes off after him, but her foot slips and she slams into the side of the slide, hard enough the thud carries all the way across the pond.
I wince, and my gaze flicks to the mothers, but she’s already on the move, running. I finish chewing, swallow, and take another bite. Almost as if she was the one who was hurt. “Olthila,” I whisper. But I think I understand my dream now.
I was so focused on the pain, on David, that I didn’t realize what Debra actually took. They didn’t just kill David. They took my life, my children, my future. My Olthila. Everything.
Killing them isn’t enough. Shaking, I toss the rest of my sandwich to the jays. It’s not enough. Justice means balancing the scales. That’s what the goddess demands. They need to suffer the same fate. Innocentia pro innocentia.
I snatch my purse from the bench and hurry back to the car. They started this, not me, and by the goddess, they’ll live to regret it.
* * * * * *
It’s midnight before I head back to farm house. The broken silhouette stands against the moonlight like the carcass of some long dead, long forgotten beast.
I swallow and pull my car deep into the underbrush. It’s so overgrown I don’t think anyone’s been here in decades, but the last thing I need is interruptions.
Clutching my kit to my chest, I make my way through the darkness. No flashlight. No light at all. Tonight the darkness is my ally.
The stairs creak under my weight as I descend into the cellar and set my kit down on the floor. “Spiritus timoris et tenebrae, exaudi me. Veni ad me.” Spirit of dread and darkness, hear me. Come to me.
Only then do I reach into the pocket of my robe, pull out one of the candles I’d prepared, and light it. The dancing light brings the broken beams and rubble out of the darkness. Two walls are completely caved in, but the west wall, the one I need is still intact.
I wedge the candle into the dirt on the floor, pick up a few loose stones and stack them in two piles, and lay some of the broken boards on top. Stepping back from the altar, I can’t help but smile. Moss hangs in sheets from the crumbling stone wall, the moonlight angling in through the cracks in the floor above me, thick with the air of forgotten memories and broken dreams. I couldn’t have asked for a better place.
I toss my altar cloth over the boards, lay out my silver bowl, the effigies of Debra, Cathy and Allison, along with all the ingredients I’ll need. “Dea noctis, susurrus mortis, audi causa mean pro iustitia. Squamae tuae praefixae sunt, quaeso, modo uteas deno exaequarent.” Goddess of night, whisper of death, hear my plea for justice. Your scales have been tipped, I beg you only to set them level once more.
Pouring the rabbit’s blood, ritually David’s blood, into the silver bowl, I pull back my sleeve and dip a thin brush into the half-congealed mass. “Nulla labes in sanguine qui effuses est. Iustitia in morte nulla.” There is no taint in the blood that was spilled. No justice in his death.
Taking each effigy in turn, I paint their hands red with David’s blood. “Sanguis eius in minibus est…” His blood is on their hands…
I dip the brush in blood once more, and paint the Olthila on their chests. “Per familias suas.” On their families’ hands. I take the needles I used to sew the dolls, and dump them in the bowl of blood. Next, I sprinkle in a pack of rat poison, the rabbit’s teeth, the match I used to light the candle, and few maggots I found In the garbage behind the hotel…pausing to set up and light a candle as I add each item.
Once all the candles are lit, I take the brass dagger in both hands and stab the mixture three times. Once for Allison. Once for Cathy. Once for Debra.
Before I even lift my blade from the third stroke, the candles sputter and die.
“And so it is done,” Raven croaks, and all the candles reignite. “The wheel spins on.” I pull my dagger from the blood, and he hops down from the shadows onto the altar. “The goddess is pleased, justice is served, and David’s death will be avenged.” He walks over to the bowl, dips his beak into the mixture, and drinks it all. Every last drop. “Come. Your spirit shall accompany me on my task, that you may witness the justice you have wrought.”
My neck hair prickles. I’m not sure I want to see this, but I bow my head anyway. “Thank you, kind Raven.” Only a fool would insult the spirits by refusing their gifts.
Raven’s body sways as he walks to the edge of the altar. “Then sleep, and know that what mortals truly crave is not justice. Know it as I do, through my eyes.”
My eyelids droop. I drop to the floor as quick as I can, but for a split second it’s like there are two of me. The me lowering myself to the ground, staring up at Raven watching me from the alter, and the other me standing on the edge of the altar watching the woman in the black robe’s head drop to the floor. And then, I’m whole again.
I fluff my feathers. “Come, mortal,” Raven’s voice whispers in my mind. “We have much to do.”
Without my will, my wings spread, but instead of flying for the opening, my head lowers, and I dive into a shadow on the floor.
* * * * * *
Darkness swirls around me, like shadows in the wind. I can’t see, but I can feel Raven’s wings pull against the shades as if they were my own.
“There.” He flips our tail. Pinpricks of yellow light blink into stars below, and we spiral down. Moonlight fills the sky above us, as a large brick house comes into focus. One I recognize. Debra’s. We’re in Salem.
Raven’s eyes fix on the cars parked in the driveway, Allison’s and Cathy’s. “Ah, book club.” A laugh rumbles in our throat. “Your former sister, Allison’s daughter, is worried about her math test. They’ve gathered to ask goddess to intervene rather than have her study.”
We flutter down and land on the living room windowsill. Inside, Allison, Cathy and Debra sit around a table holding Debra’s grimoire, hands locked together, eyes closed, heads back, staring up at the ceiling, their mouths moving in unison.
Raven shakes our head. “Fools. The goddess’s favors come at a cost. Blood for a bauble, a soul for a kindness, and justice. Always, mortals receive justice.”
He presses our beak through the glass as if it were the surface of a pond, and caws. The needles from the potion I mixed, along with the maggots and rabbit teeth, float from our beak in a stream, real but not. See-through, like smoke. They float across the across the room, divide into three puffs above their heads, and drop into their upturned mouths.
I watch, waiting for them to react, but nothing happens.
“Do not expect vengeance yet.” Raven pulls our beak free of the glass. “I assure you, they will die, choking on their own lungs. But it is the goddess’s wish that they know pain first.” He turns and we leap into the night sky.
Salem stretches out beneath us. Street lights pass in blur, the scent of ocean fills our senses, and then it all crawls to a stop.
“Hmm…a party,” Raven grumbles as we take a perch on a high branch overlooking another house, one I don’t recognize. Music thunders from the open doors in deep resonating thuds. “It seems your coven’s children are all here together. Friends, even.” He casually lifts a wing to straighten a feather, but his eyes are fixed on the crowd of teenagers dancing on the patio. “These children have not wronged you.” Lowering our wing, he shakes our head. “Why do you desire justice? Do you not know what Men are?”
He clacks our beak, spreads our wings wide, and caws, “Desire mercy, not justice, mortal.” The matchstick I used to light the candle flies from our mouth toward the house like a missile.
The match hits the side of the house. For a moment, time stands still. The dancers stop, hands frozen in the air, the thud of the music stretches out in long deep drone. And then, everything slams back into motion. Flames explode from the windows and doorways. Bodies tumble through the air and vanish into the night.
The roar of the explosion shakes the tree, boards and fiberglass insulation rain down all around us, but not a single feather ripples on our chest. “It is done, mistress,” Raven sighs in my mind. “Justice is served, and the cycle continues.” Our wings sag. “Do you not understand? Vengeance requires more vengeance, always. The scale tips with weight of your guilt, and so justice must be paid.”
But I don’t understand.
“Mortals are ever fools,” Raven croaks. “Come, bear witness and know what you have done.” Turning our back on the fire, Raven jumps into the sky.
We land back on Deb’s windowsill, and Raven pushes our head through the glass.
“Slow down, I can’t understand you,” Deb rounds the side of the couch where Allison and Cathy sit, watching her pace, eyes wide. “W-what?” Deb rakes her hair back over the top of her head and moves the phone to her other ear. “What do you mean, the house exploded?”
Allison coughs into her hand.
“Everyone but you?” Deb glances at the other two witches watching her, but she can’t meet their gaze. “Did you call 911?”
Allison coughs harder. Her face twists into a pained-looking scowl.
Cathy’s gaze locks on Allison’s fist as she takes it from her mouth. “Debra?” She whimpers, her voice climbing three octaves in a single word, but even from here, I can see the blood on her hand.
Deb spins on her heel, and her eyes drop to Allison’s fist. “By the goddess…” The phone slips to her chin. “Jake,” She gasps, her eyes scanning the room. “Are you wearing that charm I gave you?” Her eyes close. “Good. Don’t take it off, sweetie. Do you hear me? Don’t you ever take it off.” Debra coughs, winces, and her chin trembles. “I love you.”
Raven pulls our head back through the window, taps on the glass, and Deb wheels around, her gaze locking on us instantly.
“Justice served, justice required.” Steaming the glass with our breath, Raven smears my name into the fog with his beak. “The trap is laid, the cycle continues. Perhaps Jake will show you mercy. But do not trust to hope.” We turn from the window and spread our wings, but before we leap into the sky, Raven pauses to shake his head. “Oh, what fools you mortals be.”
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A