Jack of Hearts: Use magick
Leering skeletons, laughing pumpkins, and the loud music began to recede, all swimming together in the weirdest sensation. Bethany Salem blinked and shook her head, thinking that it was too hot in the huge family room of Vanessa Peters' home, or maybe she'd eaten something she shouldn't have. Food poisoning could make you hallucinate. Halloween music boomed from hidden speakers, and a bunch of kids were doing the limbo with a broom held by Wolfman and Little Bo Peep across the room. Her best friend, Tillie Alexander, plopped down beside her on the sofa, prattling about the great decorations, the fantastic catered food, and how much this party must have cost. Her gold costume shimmered and oozed in the dim lighting as she stuffed a worn deck of Tarot cards in a gold- beaded pouch.
Bethany's mouth grew dry and her tongue felt like it was cemented to the roof of her mouth. She breathed in little gasps, her heartbeat quickening. Tillie didn't seem to notice and turned to talk to someone else, waving the gold pouch expressively in the air as she chattered. Bethany's natural vision collapsed to a pinpoint, replaced totally by some sort of psychic vision. Her fingers clawed at the neck of her costume, the orange and black sequins catching briefly under her nails, but no one noticed. It was as if a part of her floated up in the air somewhere, her mind observing a new scene in some sort of weird time lapse. She was no longer at the poshest teen Halloween party in Cedar Crest. Where was she?
She couldn't feel her physical body anymore. The experience was like a bad horror movie, the kind where you yell at the girl on the screen to run. Except she couldn't scream. Her tongue would not obey, and there was nowhere to go. No more party. No more Tillie. She was in a surreal place where she floated freely in the air, and the man below her had a gun.
The man raised his arm. The scene stuck, like a videotape on pause. She saw the dirt around the edges of his mouth, as if he'd just consumed a chocolate bar, but the rest of his face was obscured. A shadow? No, a mask. One of those black masks that only cover the area around the eyes and the bridge of the nose. A garish red-and-white polka dot bandanna covered his hair. He reminded her of a fat, dirty pirate, except the fat was padding, she was sure of it.
The woman's shocking blue eyes opened in surprise, devoid of hope.
Paralyzed. The crack of the pistol-a hollow, elongated sound that thrummed through the air, as if the bullet passed within a millimeter of Bethany's ear as it bored straight for the woman's heart.
The yellow wall so bright behind the falling victim; her head snapped back, arms akimbo, then folded like a wilting white poppy with a splashing, crimson center.
Another woman, an older one with dark skin, materialized. The scene began to slip away, the edges growing fuzzy but not completely melting. The wizened figure cocked her head as the long, black tendrils of her hair glowed with white streaks, its ropy length in pieces as if she individually twirled the tresses in boredom moments before. She stared at Bethany with liquid black eyes that carried just a hint of ice blue speckling the iris. Bethany couldn't move. The killer pirate didn't move. And, obviously, the woman on the floor remained frozen in death.
The old woman pointed a gnarled, dark finger at her own forehead, leathery with age and crisscrossed by tiny, intricate wrinkles. Slowly, a third eye appeared beneath her wavering finger. The eye shown with an inner, blue light. "You can see," said the woman. She continued to point to the third eye. "You have the gift. You must use it wisely. This is the awakening. In time your skill will grow. Don't disappoint me."
Bethany's heart pumped an erratic momentum of blood through her veins.
"Hey, snap out of it!" yelled Tillie over the steady cadence of music.
Bethany jerked her head, focusing on the smiling face of her friend. She was back at the party, the murder scene gone. She sighed with relief, not realizing that she'd been holding her breath.
"Have you been sitting here the whole time I was gone?" asked Tillie.
Bethany opened and closed her mouth, then said, "You were gone?"
"For about fifteen minutes, girlfriend." Tillie plopped down beside her on the couch, throwing the gold-beaded bag on the coffee table. "Glad you saved my place. Right beside the food." She smacked glossy lips. "We're supposed to be having a good time, you know," Tillie reminded her, cocking her head and dipping her dark fingers into a bowl of buttery popcorn. "What's with you? You look like you've seen a ghost or something."
"Or something," muttered Bethany, throwing her friend a lopsided grin while trying to ignore the pounding in her temples. She took a jittery breath. Maybe she was just going plain old nuts. She examined her soda can, hoping no one slipped anything in there. Drugs were not her thing, and most of the people here were not her friends.
Tillie pushed the bowl of popcorn toward Bethany. "Want some?"
"Nah, I'm trying to watch my weight."
"Yeah, right," replied Tillie. "Like you're really fat."
Bethany narrowed her eyes. "We can't all eat like you and get away with it. Just think of my abstinence as fat prevention."
Sidney Bluefeather, computer nerd of the century and Native American activist at Cedar Crest High, wandered over and perched on the arm of the sofa. He looked as uncomfortable as Bethany felt. His eyes scanned the crowd but his expression said he was afraid to mingle. Tonight he was dressed in full native regalia, complete with a nasty looking knife that appeared more than real. He'd actually be half- decent looking if he didn't hunch his shoulders and did something better than a ponytail with his hair. He always wore baggy clothes, like he slept in them or something. His eyes were strange, like his gene pool was touched by a Mongolian khan. Too bizarre.
Bethany inclined her head slightly (no need to be a snob) but turned away to deter conversation. It wasn't anything personal, she just didn't feel sociable, which was stupid because that's what you were supposed to do at parties-mix and mingle. Coming here was probably a mistake. She scooted closer to Tillie to further seal the "don't talk to me" message. She wanted to tell Tillie about what just happened, but this wasn't the place to share her vision. Bethany tried to compose herself, running nervous fingers through her heavy, dark hair, then plucking at the black, silky sleeves of her witchy costume. The music was almost deafening and she was glad when, inexplicably, one of the speakers blew out, creating shouts, sparks, and squeals. Still, no one turned off the music.
Kids milled throughout the Halloween-decorated warren of Vanessa Peters' basement family room, spilling soda, laughing, dancing, and trying to scare each other or catch a quick kiss from a willing partner. Minus one speaker, the music played on. Sidney watched the crowd with wistful eyes. Bethany could relate. She wasn't the belle of the ball either. She'd have to remind Ramona that her glamoury spell was lousy. Maybe her housekeeper should brush up on that Hoodoo-bayou stuff of hers.
All the popular kids from Cedar Crest High were here, along with a few other, odd choices. She knew she was the latter. Sidney was another outcast and, of course, Gillian Merriday over there in the corner. All of them were outsiders, but for different reasons.
Sidney said, "I understand that, but-"
Bethany looked to the right. To the left. No one was around Sidney, but he kept talking quietly anyway. Weird. Bethany moved closer to Tillie. Definitely a glitch in the gene pool.
Tillie, it appeared, decked out in gold lamé and topped with a heavy turquoise and gold collar, was the life of the party. Of course, her friend was always the life of anything-outgoing, charismatic, charming. Besides, Tillie spent the last two hours reading her Tarot cards for all the kids, cementing her place as the center of attention, at least for this evening. "How did your Tarot readings go?" asked Bethany.
"Same old, same old. Some of them believe. Some think it's a joke. No biggie," said Tillie, flapping her hand in the air, the gold bands on her forearms gleaming in the low light.
"Anything interesting?" asked Bethany, shifting positions on the couch. She couldn't seem to get the vision out of her head. The murder. The old woman. Maybe she'd been so bored she daydreamed it all.
A loud burst of laughter mixed with the volume of music shrouded Tillie's reply. All Bethany heard was something about Gillian Merriday.
"What about Gillian?" asked Bethany, leaning closer. Gillian Merriday sat in front of her in chemistry class. A big-boned girl with thick, faded brown hair and snapping gray eyes, she walked around with a chip on her shoulder the size of the Titanic. She'd been suspended twice already this year, and it was only the end of October. Other than that, Bethany didn't know much about her, nor did she care to. Look at Gillian wrong and you might find yourself with a black eye, two if she meant business-off school property, of course. Tonight she was dressed like a very large, athletic Cat Woman. The plastic toy whip in her hand was a frightening thought.
Tillie's dark eyes narrowed. "One of those strange ones. She clammed up when I asked her about stuff at home. There were some really negative cards in there, but I wasn't sure what it was about, and there isn't much you can do when people won't open up. She's kind of snotty, so she fits in with this crowd. Her cards indicate a great talent. I've heard that she paints amazing stuff, but I've never seen it. Hope she gets over whatever it is and puts all that negative energy into her artwork," she added, waving her bangled arm in the air. "You can only go so far in a reading. The cards are tools to the subconscious. Too many people think psychics are some sort of gods that know everything, which is stupid. If that were the case, I wouldn't even need to go to school."
"I wish I didn't have to go to school!" Bethany rolled her eyes. "I've got a calculus test next week that I'd like to avoid. You know, Gillian Merriday doesn't fit anywhere. She's absolutely violent. I was surprised to see her here. No wonder you got a bunch of rotten cards."
Tillie shrugged. "I haven't the vaguest idea how she got invited to this party, unless Vanessa wanted to be safe, rather than sorry. Gillian sure wasn't helpful, and she's in her usual sour mood. Besides, the way she kept flicking that dumb plastic whip sort of messed up my concentration."
"Don't worry about it. This wouldn't be the place to tell your deepest secrets," remarked Bethany, thinking of her strange vision a few moments ago.
Tillie dipped her head. The tight black cornrows of her hair laced with strands of gold made her look like she was a queen herself, apropos since she was dressed like Cleopatra. "Yeah. Right. I see your point." Tillie dug into the bowl of popcorn. "Come on," she said, licking her fingers, "what's up? You're normally not so reserved. Get with it. This is a party!" She stood up and swiveled her gold-clad hips, then flopped back down.
Bethany thought Sidney would tip off the end of the couch. If he could pick his tongue up off the floor she'd be surprised. Worse, he probably heard their conversation. Maybe not. It was pretty loud in here. She was glad she didn't say anything about the Witch thing. Besides, what was he to her? She suppressed a giggle at Tillie's natural exhibitionism, then shoved a torn Halloween spider decoration aside. This wasn't the time to talk about one's insecurities, or the fact that her imagination had just murdered a woman, or what might be lurking in the dark folds of Gillian Merriday's life, especially with Sidney hanging over their shoulders because he didn't have anywhere else to go. She'd save the stuff about the vision for Witches' Night Out next Thursday, when she, Tillie, and Nam got together to learn and work real magick, not that fake garbage Vanessa was trying to do over there in the corner-light as a feather, stiff as a board-geez, what kid stuff! She wanted to think about what the vision meant before she said anything to anyone.
Bethany switched subjects. "What was Vanessa talking to you about when we first got here?" She cast her eyes briefly in the direction of the Peters girl dressed in a Marie Antoinette costume that must have cost a fortune. The girl abandoned her levitation game, engaging herself in a major flirting session with some blonde-haired guy. "She seemed pretty interested in you awhile ago."
"What? You've been sitting here observing everybody?" Tillie shook her head and smiled. "You are your father's daughter, that's for sure! His detective mentality is rubbing off on you. Dangerous. You've got to learn not to be so intense!" She leaned back into the sofa. "There's an open spot on the winter cheer squad," explained Tillie. "Vanessa's the captain. She wanted to know if I'd like to fill the space."
Bethany raised her eyebrows. "What about tryouts?"
"There's only one spot. The coach doesn't want the hassle. I was a cheerleader in middle school, so it's sorta of a been-there-done-that kind of thing."
"Do you want the spot?"
Tillie downed another handful of popcorn. "Dunno. I don't want it to interfere with swim season. Since you've been watching everybody, where's Nam?"
Bethany's eyes swept the ill-lit basement, past the life sized-replicas of the Mummy and Edgar Allen Poe. "Over there," she said, not wanting to point at the petite girl dressed in the leprechaun costume. "By the steps near that Frankenstein poster. Talking to the new kid. I think his name is Michael Raines." Nam's pretty, dark head was bent close to Michael's, their hair almost intertwining. Bethany felt a silly surge of jealousy and then silently reprimanded herself. Why shouldn't Nam find someone she liked?
"Looks like an intense conversation," said Tillie.
"Yeah." And here I sit, thought Bethany, definitely not anyone's major attraction, discounting the hovering Sidney Bluefeather, of course.
Nam caught her eye and trailed over to the sofa, dragging Michael Raines behind her. He wasn't much taller than Nam, and was a bit on the thin side. Unlike the other guests, he wasn't in costume, as if to say that dressing up wasn't cool. He had those hooded eyes that reminded you of raw wildness. Bethany could see why her friend was so taken, in an odd sort of way, but he seemed too old for her. She'd heard he was a senior. Strange that he would be hanging with a sophomore. His blue jeans were so baggy you could stuff another whole person in there.
"This is Michael," said Nam, her green eyes shining. She brushed a stray, baby-fine black hair from her flushed cheek. Bells around her ankles jingled every time she moved her small feet clad in tiny green elf shoes. "We've been talking most of the evening. We have so much in common!"
Michael gave them a thin smile and shrugged, as if an introduction to the minions was a necessary evil. He squeezed Nam's shoulders, drawing her back slightly from the two girls. The bells whispered.
"He's from New York City," said Nam. "He moved here in late summer. He's living with his aunt." Jingle. Jingle.
"You some kind of Witch?" he asked, his expression bordering on a sneer, his eyes boring into Bethany's. Not waiting for an answer, he leaned over and whispered something in Nam's ear. Her flush deepened.
"Don't be silly," said Nam hurriedly. "Bethany's not a real Witch."
Tillie's dark eyes widened and Nam jerked her head once, her lips compact.
Bethany opened her mouth to reply but the couple moved away, Nam's jingles swallowed by a rendition of "Monster Mash" blaring from the stereo.
"Correct me if I'm wrong," said Tillie. "But he seems like a turd." She rolled her eyes and flicked her wrist, the gold bands winking in the dim light.
"You know what they say, love is blind but the neighbors ain't."
"I always thought that meant you weren't supposed to kiss in public."
Bethany snorted. "It means that other people can usually see what's going on, even though you're hormones are thinking instead of your brain."
"Oh. Unusual for Nam to do all the chattering. She's not a regular magpie."
Gillian Merriday clomped toward them in black spiked boots, the plastic whip riding over her shoulder reminding Bethany of a shark fin. Her intense eyes focused on Sidney Bluefeather as she brushed past the girls. She positioned her back to Bethany, but her voice was so shrill, Bethany could hear her anyway. "What was that girl doing with Michael Raines?"
Bethany couldn't hear Sidney's answer. She wondered idly if Gillian had a thing for the new kid, too. If so, she was outclassed. Nam was a sweet girl with a pixie figure and an insatiable desire for feminine clothing. Gillian was built like construction equipment, with a big mouth and a mighty wrecking ball for a fist, though to be truthful, she wasn't fat, just all muscle. If Michael was interested in Nam's type, Gillian wouldn't be in the running. You never knew, though. Ramona was always telling her that appearances could be deceiving. Bethany hoped that, for Nam's sake, Gillian's interest was only in passing.
Bethany kicked a stone and leaned against the hood of her car. The engine ticked slowly as it cooled in the frosty air. Her breath slid in misty plumes from her lips as she hugged herself, trying to ignore the nips of the occasional night breeze. Tomorrow was November first and the claws of winter definitely extended along the river, creeping into Cedar Crest.
Disappointed. She really wanted to go to that party. Couldn't believe it when Vanessa Peters invited the three of them. If you weren't invited to a party thrown by Vanessa, then you just needn't bother to exist. Tillie and Nam seemed to fit in okay, but she still felt out of place. For Bethany, the party turned out to be a major bummer. She and Vanessa hadn't been the best of friends since school started in September. Now Tillie was thinking of joining the winter cheer squad. She'd be around Vanessa all the time. And what about Nam? A budding romance and the denial of WitchCraft rolled into one night. It was obvious Nam didn't want Michael to know about their involvement in the Craft. How would all this affect Witches' Night Out? Or their training with Ramona?
Bethany turned, gazing out over the hood of her red Camaro, the sheen from the heavy wax coating glistening black under the vapor lights. She felt best when she was alone, just herself and the moon, but right now its fullness paled against the lights from the city streets and her heart ached. Yes, change was necessary and a good thing, but did everything have to happen at once? A slight chill raced down her spine. Ramona reminded her before she left that she had to light a candle for her mother when she got home. October 31 was the modern Witches' night to honor the dead, though she and Ramona would follow the ancient ceremony of Samhain when the moon reached fifteen degrees Scorpio, which wasn't until next week. She thought uncomfortably about the strange vision she had at the party. She could still see the victim's stricken expression, as if it were a real memory. Those wide, staring blue eyes . . . and what about the old woman? What was that? Bethany shivered. She'd been working on her meditation exercises, following Ramona's instructions. If this was the result, she wasn't so sure she wanted to continue. Yes, she'd experienced psychic feelings before, a knowing kind of thing. A calmness always came with that experience, but this was different. Definitely scary.
"Hey, Witch girl! You gonna stand there all night, or are you going to actually pump some gas into that fancy car of yours? I gotta git me some lovin' yet tonight. My wife is waiting for me. Get on your broom, girl!"
Startled, Bethany jerked back to reality, long enough to take in the burly guy hanging out of the window of his pickup, scowling at her. A real Ranger Rick, complete with a gun rack that wasn't empty. He edged his truck closer to the bumper of her car. Impatient jerk, she thought.
"That's some costume you got there!" he yelled. "Are you a good Witch or a bad Witch?"
Bethany ignored him. She pumped what she needed and headed for the convenience store door, her footsteps hollow on the cold, greasy macadam. She heard Ranger Rick grumbling behind her, something about teenagers and curfews. How soon you forget, she contemplated, that you were once as I am.
She reached to open the door of the convenience store and caught what she thought was her own reflection.
Until she looked closer.
And saw the transparent visage of the old woman with the third eye staring back at her.