Sep 18

Alternate Susan — Chapter Ten

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Chapter Ten




When I saw the swath of destruction, I wished I had ditched work, even if it meant getting fired. The mesquite tree out front was still intact, but someone had kicked over all Zoë’s pots of succulents. It looked as though the major league of vandals had taken baseball bats to every piece of glass in the house, including the row of decorative blue bottles Zoë put in the front window. I could only tell they’d been broken because of the glass littering the front porch; plywood spared me the really bad news.

“Zoë?” The door pushed an arc free of glass as it opened.

Zoë was sweeping splinters of wood and shards of pottery into a pile. The cabinets, her beautiful new maple cabinets, had been destroyed, and most of her plates were smashed as well, including the hand-made ones she’d purchased piecemeal from arts and crafts fairs. What appeared to be fist holes marred the green wall, showing paper and white gypsum. The fish bowl was dry, and splinters of its glass littered the floor along with pages from the bookshelf.

“Nightjack,” she said.

“How do you know?”

“He said as much.” Zoë picked up the cat’s food dish and carefully poured it back into the food bin. “You weren’t here so he … he …”

Zoë began crying. Zoë, who’d lived on the streets for two years and suffered God knows what, was crying. Zoë, who regularly paid people to poke holes in her flesh, was crying. I felt like a cheap piece of furniture that had been dragged across the floor too many times. Whatever glue held me together was getting worn and brittle.

“What did he do to you, Zoë?” I asked, as gently as I could. I didn’t want to hear the answer, couldn’t bear to.

“He killed Spaz.”

“He killed your cat?” I almost laughed with relief, but didn’t when I saw Zoë’s grief.

She nodded, then pointed to the empty fish bowl. “And Rinch, and Miles too. He said he was going to kill everything in the house since he couldn’t kill you.”

“He didn’t hurt you?”

“The henna,” she whispered, and began sweeping angrily. “If you knew this was going to happen, why didn’t you stop it?”

“I didn’t know. It was only a hunch.” It could have been Zoë dead too. Zoë could be lying on the floor amid all this debris. Only a lucky accident had saved her. My knees gave out, and I sat on the floor. “Zoë, I am so sorry.”

“I raised her from a kitten,” Zoë didn’t sob much as wear a tragic expression of grief as tears poured down her face. It would have been inappropriate to tell her so, but she’d never looked more beautiful.

“Where is she now?”

“In the freezer. To keep her, fresh, you know. To keep her from smelling.” Zoë picked up a spoon from the wreckage, tried to straighten it out again, and let both pieces fall when the spoon head snapped off the handle. “I didn’t know what else to do with her. The cops have already been here, and I called my insurance company. I don’t know what else to do.”

Her voice trailed off in a squeak. I minced my way across the floor and made her hug me. She felt so fragile, so petite, as though she were made of a material more delicate than flesh and bone.

“What are we going to do?”

“Make a saline solution,” I informed her, suddenly chilled. “One cup salt, two cups water. You’ll have to boil it to get it to dissolve.”


“Nightjack could come back. I’ve got to renew the protection wards around us.” And hadn’t Zoë said something about that earlier, about how I’d let them lapse? “I should have done it a long time ago.”

The spell involved rosemary, which was easy to gather since the djinn had ripped our bush out and dumped it on the back porch. The other ingredients were cholla spines, the vertebrae of a mouse, a skein of orange yarn, and a long poem written down on my computer. Susie had all the spell components in the tackle box in her closet. Like me, she also had two guns.

I’d taken the gun safety course and gotten my concealed carry permit on account of Bo. I even wore my Glock for a few weeks, but it quickly became a nuisance. Since then I’d stuck with pepper spray and a restraining order. Guess it was time to start wearing it again. It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

“Here,” I said, tossing Zoë the shotgun and a pair of shells.

“How long have you had this?” Zoë asked, staring at the gun as though it were an exotic snake.

“I don’t know when Susie got hers, but I got mine just after Bo left the dead bat on my doorstep. I never told you because I didn’t know how you’d take it. You got the saltwater done yet?” I asked, loading my Glock’s magazine with the shells from my pocket.

“But you, if I had …” Zoë still hadn’t loaded the shotgun, so I took it and the shells from her.

Actually, I was pretty sure that guns wouldn’t do anything against Nightjack. Since he wasn’t entirely of this world, he probably couldn’t be killed by normal means. Zoë didn’t need to know that the shotgun was nothing more than a placebo. “Zoë, can you hook your monitor up to my computer while I deal with the spell? He busted my monitor, but I think the computer itself is okay.”

Zoë seemed comforted by me taking charge, and the loaded shotgun must have comforted her further, because she was cuddling it. I asked her to keep guard while I did the perimeter ward. By now, night was falling, and the mosquitoes feasted on me as I dripped the saltwater along the crack of the sidewalk. The poem that went with the spell was a series of rhyming nonsense words that clicked and snapped, binding our house and yard tighter and tighter.

One thinks of a ward as a protective circle, at least I did, but a perfect circle wasn’t possible. It was going to be more of a protective smushed oval. Houses in Hayden’s Ferry almost always have six foot block walls surrounding the back yard, and ours was no exception. For the back wall, I walked along the alley, figuring that including the rubbish against the wall and the dumpster into my ward wasn’t going to hurt anyone. It was dark in the alley, smelling faintly of motor oil and rotten garbage, and the neighbor’s dogs barked furiously.

I clenched my holster and walked faster. Chanting the protection incantation felt like whistling in the dark. That bastard. When Nightjack couldn’t kill me, he decided to hurt Zoë, and when he couldn’t touch Zoë directly, he went after the things which were dear to her: her cat, her garden, her house.

If it weren’t a completed ward with me on the inside, and the djinn came again, I could end up dead like Spaz. No, he wouldn’t kill me, he didn’t want me to die, not before he could take me back to the elsewhere as booty. He just wanted me hurt enough, physically or emotionally, so that I had no choice but to make another wish.

Screw him. This ward was going to be strong enough to keep an army out. I had to walk along the top of the block wall to make a complete line, battling against the orange tree’s branches which tried to push me into the neighbor’s yard. I didn’t dare trespass. I didn’t know the neighbors, and many people carried shotguns around here.

The bottle containing the saltwater threatened to slip out from under my arm. That’s what I got for hurrying, but what if he came back before the ward was done? My feet crunched the edge of the fiberglass shed roof (Zoë’s passionate about storage) and my arms windmilled a few times as I nearly lost my balance. The saltwater was nearly gone, and my chanting had become even more nervous.

I leapt down off the edge of the shed, scattering too much saltwater. The momentum I’d built up threatened to falter. I lurched to my feet. Saltwater dripped off my fingers. Behind the alley, the dogs’ barking had subsided to a few subdued whines of fear. Energy poured in through my feet with every step, and the bespelled cholla spines caused hot flares as I dropped them on the gravel.

“Anamona, dalasona, anamona, dalasona,” I chanted, projecting the image of bands of force dovetailing together. Finally, my feet reached the starting point.

With a final click, the circle flashed all over, and hummed like a transformer. I dripped in sweat, hot from the sultry night and exhausted in a way I’d never felt in my own reality. The ward glowed in my second sight, a half-glimpsed wallpaper of runes and words doming over our yard.

I wiped my brow as I went inside, relishing the cool air conditioned kitchen. “Let me rest a minute, and we’ll go out back and have a funeral.”

Zoë sniffed again and nodded. She still clutched the shotgun, and didn’t yet look her normal in-control self. I took the gun away from her and set it on top of the refrigerator.

Spaz was wrapped in several plastic bags, nestled atop a stack of “healthy” frozen entrees I kept telling myself I’d eat someday. I carried the cat outside, cringing as I saw what the demon had done to Zoë’s new hardwood floor. Something squished beneath my shoe. Eww. Part of a lizard. Spaz’s final prey, or Miles’ body? If it were Miles, he’d come back eventually.

Zoë turned on the spotlights, then used a broom handle to open the flaps so the lights illuminated more of the yard. The backyard was as much of a mess as the rest of the house. Her beautiful garden was in ruins. The beds had been ripped out, leaving rose bushes on the grass like so many corpses. The orange tree was still intact, but the pecan tree had been torn down as though struck by lightning.

“I was back here when he came.” Zoë whispered. “He climbed over the wall, told me not to scream or he’d tear my throat out, and went inside the house.”

“What did you do?”

“I had the phone with me, so I called 911. I thought he was a human at first.” Zoë picked up a shovel, tried to piece the broken handle back on it, then let it fall to the ground. “When he came back out, I threatened him with the pitchfork. He laughed at it, and the tines curled up.”

I followed Zoë to the storage shed, careful not to trip on the uprooted stepping stones. She set aside an awl and a rake before finding her second shovel. The pitchfork in question had been tossed into her herb bed. The tines twisted around themselves like parallel corkscrews.

“That’s when you knew he wasn’t human?”

“He ripped apart furniture as if it were cardboard. The demon said he came here to kill something. Yeah, I know, not a demon, a djinn. They aren’t really demons in the Christian sense. Potato, po-tah-toe.” Zoë picked up a shovel. “He was evil, and he wanted to kill me, and he would have done so if you hadn’t hennaed that spell onto my back. If you had been here, you would have been toast.” She began to dig in the hole where her irises once stood.

“Did the cops come?”

“After he’d left, yeah. The cops said I must have had some kind of party.”

“What? A party? Didn’t you tell them what you saw?”

“Officially they don’t believe in the supernatural, you know.” She looked at me, and wiped some tears off her face. “No, I guess you don’t know. Susan, cops turn a blind eye when mages do things to each other. No matter how many people practice magic, no matter how many television shows have mages helping cops out, officially they’re not allowed to believe in it, so if something happens by magical means, they come up with a more plausible explanation. One of the cops wanted to blame me for it somehow, but then I showed him my kitty, and, and … I can’t believe I cried in front of a cop.” Zoë began crying again.

“She was a good cat.”

“I want revenge.” Zoë dug furiously, and sounded as though she were getting angrier by the minute.

“We’ll get him.” While Zoë dug her cat’s grave, I gathered torn flowers. Except for a few sunflowers, the only things still blooming were the lantana and bouganvilla. Spaz would have to take what she could get. I put them in the garden basket (no handle, but no holes either) and set the basket down near the iris bed.

I touched my pinched fingers together and made a gesture as though I were ripping fabric. I did it automatically, unthinkingly. A gesture to activate a well-known spell. It was an impulse born of muscle memory, like the offering hands gesture I’d made just before Zoë’s rings got ripped out.

Suddenly, the fey I had sensed came into view. Our garden had a lot of faeries. Some had wings and an extra pair of legs in the midsection, others were round and earth colored like humanoid toads. They all looked vaguely familiar to me, like B-list actors I’d seen a hundred times but never learned the names of. One of the faeries, a tiny man with wizened apple-doll features, took off his leaf hat and put it in front of his midsection in a very human gesture of grief. Whether for the cat or for the garden I wasn’t sure, but they grieved with us.

Zoë dug the hole far deeper than it needed to be, missing an electrical wire by a scarily narrow margin as she stabbed the earth. Finally, she wiped a smudge across her brow and set the shovel aside. Garden faeries grew thick around us, weighing down the branches of the ash tree and clustering on the railroad ties that bordered the beds. Zoë didn’t act like she could see them, or hear them either, as they began a trilling and haunting melody. Seeing the faeries treat Spaz as though she were a person made me feel even more churlish. Sure, she was a nice cat and all, but I was glad it wasn’t Zoë being lowered into the earth.

Zoë’s tears made me uncomfortable, so I muttered something about wanting to be inside with the air conditioning, and left her with the faeries. As I looked out my bedroom window, they were still singing. They clung to the earth, the broken plants, and Zoë’s bent back.

“Fey adore gardeners. It’s a pity she can’t see them. They love her dearly.” Miles climbed the skirt of my dress. I didn’t respond, even when he got to my shoulder and nestled under my hair.

“I’m sorry to hear about your death, Miles.”

My bedroom was thrashed. My books had the covers torn off, the paint and drywall had holes in it, and my clothes lay on the floor. All of them, not just the dirty ones. My sheets, duvet, and mattress had a gash in it, as though Nightjack had used a machete on my bed. Feathers from the duvet fluttered around the room. I’d saved for a year to buy a goosedown duvet. So what if it never got cold enough to need it? I’d bought the best I could find, so it would last for decades. Now it was all ruined. Crap.

I lay down on my bed. The air conditioner whirred, turning on right after it shut itself off, no doubt struggling to chill the house despite unpatched holes. We’d have to get that fixed. Later. I didn’t want to deal with it right then.

“You need to summon your goddess.”

“My demon, you mean? I think we’ve had enough of gnosti for one day.”

Miles ran along the length of my dress, skin flaring as if he were sniffing. “You smell like fabric softener. You went to see Derek, didn’t you?”

“Brilliant deduction, Holmes, but it’s none of your business.”

“Miss Susan, didn’t I tell you—“

I sat up suddenly, and Miles had to cling to my dress to keep from being flung off. “I don’t trust you, Miles. You lied to me. You told me Maggie had been kidnapped, but that wasn’t true, was it? She left of her own free will. She wants to stay with Celestine. She’s happy there.”

“I didn’t know.”

“Bullshit you didn’t know. You’re her familiar, or pretending to be one. You live with her, you sure talk to her, since she’s supposedly the only one who can understand you. Or was that a lie too? Did you even know my mom? This whole time you’ve been manipulating me to get what you want, only I haven’t figured out what it is you want yet. Why don’t you just tell me and get it over with?”

“I died for you.” Miles pushed himself up with his front legs, no doubt trying to look more impressive: 1.8 inches tall instead of 1.4.

“No, you died because you happened to be here.” The gun had slipped around to the small of my back. “Why do you want me to summon my goddess?”

“Your goddess could have told you where Maggie was. I didn’t know for sure.”

“But you knew she wasn’t in trouble. You just wanted me to find her, so you could get her to give you one of her wishes.”

“You misjudge me.”

“And what about Derek? You told me he was evil, but he’s Susie’s boyfriend. He saved me. What do you have against him?”

“It’s not right for you to be dating someone like him.”

“How so someone like him? A guy who quit magic? Is it because you think he’ll talk me out of being a thaumaturge.”

“He’s a darkie.”

I curled my lip in disgust. “So you’re not just an immortal talking lizard, you’re a racist immortal talking lizard.”

“I’ve been around a long time, and I can’t help the way I was raised. In my day it wasn’t done and I can’t lie and say I approve.” Miles huffed, his blue throat ballooning out twice.

“You’re not even human.”

“I was, once,” Miles said. “You don’t know the things I’ve seen, Miss Susan. I’m old. Very old.”

“Then tell me what you’re all about, and tell me the truth this time.” I took off the holster and set it with the gun down on my desk. Comforting as it was, it felt a little too cowboy to keep wearing it in the house.

“All right, I’ll tell you. I used to be a man.”

“And Maggie turned you into a lizard?”

“Maggie?” Miles gave a dry sardonic cough, then scampered down my arm to the desk. It still creeped me out to feel his little claws tickle me. “No, she doesn’t have that kind of power. No human does.”

“Who did then?” .

“Miss Susan, I am uncomfortable talking about this.”

“We can’t have trust without communication.”

“It was a punishment.”

“For what?” I asked. “Did you kill someone?”

“No, worse than that.” Miles walked back and forth along the desk as through trying to escape. Either that or he was pacing. His lizard behavior didn’t always correspond with human behavior. “I don’t want to tell you.”

“What could be worse than murder?”

He didn’t say anything.

“Derek said something about a gold mine.”

“He shouldn’t know the story. This is my story, and mine alone. You aren’t to share it with anyone. I know how women love to gossip.”

I rolled my eyes at his chauvinism, but didn’t say anything.

“When I was a man, many decades ago, I was a mining engineer. I started a gold mining company: Youngstown Mining Inc. I was the president and founder, and my brother-in-law was a silent partner. Some army friends of mine helped me with the rest of the work. We had a plan to leach the tailings from earlier gold mines.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Earlier mining wasn’t as sophisticated as the technology that our company possessed, and they weren’t always able to extract all the precious metal from the ore they mined. They left the tailings on the ground, and there was still plenty of salvageable gold in it. Youngstown Mining Inc. leased the land, and we started cyanide leaching the tailings.”

“Did you get the gold?”

“It wasn’t as much as we’d hoped, but we turned a small profit.” He sighed. “Our lease required us to clean up afterward, but we didn’t have enough budget for that, so we declared bankruptcy, and left our mess there.”

The phone rang, and Zoë answered it. Sounded like the insurance adjuster, by the way Zoë was talking to him. “And that’s bad.”

“Very bad, Miss Susan. Cyanide is terribly lethal. Two drops on your skin would kill you instantly, and we had pumped thousands of gallons of cyanide-contaminated water into our leach ponds.”

“So, what happened? Did you go to jail for it?”

“Oh no. At that time what we had done was perfectly legal, by human laws, anyway. But it was a terrible crime against the desert. People don’t realize this, but the desert, all land, in fact, has a sentience. The desert is a goddess, and she barely tolerates us. We are a blight upon her perfection. We do not belong here in this land.”

“Yeah, I feel like that sometimes.” This whole valley was nothing but artificially watered trees, grass and asphalt.

“She appeared before us in human form. She judged us guilty of poisoning her, and cursed our clan.”

“Cursed your clan?”

“Those were her words. I suppose by clan she meant our company, because everyone else in the company died. I was worse off.”

“Worse off? Being a lizard isn’t all that bad, is it?”

“She took me to the land we had poisoned, transformed me into this form, and gave me immortality as a punishment. It only takes a drop of cyanide to kill a human, and even less to kill a lizard. There’s nothing like a hundred sequential cyanide deaths to convince a man of the error of his ways. Every time I died, I prayed it would be the last.” Miles froze, staring out the window at the wreckage of the pecan tree outside. “These nature gods are capricious. So often those who sin against them go unpunished, but those of us who have the misfortune to attract their notice, we learn to not underestimate their wrath. I spent sixty long years as a lizard, trapped in my own silence, before I met Maggie. She and I haven’t always gotten along, but she was the one who enabled me to speak and be heard by another human.”

“So why did you lie to me?”

“I didn’t. I just told you what I thought was true. Maggie didn’t tell me why she left.”

“Miles, I’m sorry to tell you this, but neither me nor Maggie are going to wish you into a man again.”

“I know. You only have a few wishes. You wouldn’t want to waste them on me.”

“No, because I’m not going to make any more wishes, that’s why.”

“Why ever not, Miss Susan?”

“Hello? Didn’t you just get squished by a djinn?”

“That was the djinn? Surely you’re joking. Miss Susan, why would he hurt you? He’s beholden to the ones who summoned him, isn’t he?”

“Apparently not.” I explained to him what Derek had told me. Miles, despite his evident hatred of Susie’s boyfriend, didn’t insist Derek had told me a lie. In fact, he just got quieter, until he finally whispered, “Oh, Miss Susan. You and Maggie are in grave danger.”

“Yeah, I know. Well, I’m going to read Susie’s spell book, and see what I can learn about how to banish the djinn.” I made sure Zoë’s monitor cables were attached, then booted up my computer. On the desk, Susie’s datebook and a half a pack of mints were miraculously untouched. I ate the mints all at once, and flipped through the datebook.

“That’s it? That’s all you’re going to do?” Miles scampered up my sleeve, peering at the daybook.

“What else can I do? I’ve got this place under a protection spell, the cops have come and gone, and we’ve got loaded guns in case that thing comes back.”

“I doubt the guns will help against one of the djinn, Miss Susan.” Miles shook his scaly head. “But that ward of yours is a strong piece of spellwork. That should keep anything out.”

“We’ll see.”

A car door slammed. I left the day planner on the desk and went outside to see who it was.

Amber had parked on the street rather than the carport, either because of the ward or because of the pile of rubble accumulating on the cement. Zoë was still crying, but she’d evidently decided to channel her anger and grief into cleaning, using the headlights of her car to light up the driveway while she swept glass. I envied her energy. As for me, I only felt tired, and sick of it all.

“Susie! Have you seen Darius?” Amber hurried up to me.

“No, why?”

“I went to see him and his dad said he was gone and—What happened here?” Amber got out of her car and walked to the sidewalk.

“Nightjack destroyed the house, killed the cat and fish, tried to kill Zoë, how are things with you?” I wasn’t too tired to be sarcastic.

“Susie, what are we going to do?” She grabbed my arms.

“I don’t know.”

“You have to do something. This isn’t what I thought would happen. How can we get him to leave us alone?”

“I don’t know what to do. I have a memory problem.”

“That’s not funny anymore.” She let go of my arms and backed way, eyes wide. “You’re not Susie.”

“Yeah, you figured it out. I’m not Susie. I’m Susan. Su-san. What kind of grown woman goes by Susie anyway? I’ll tell you what kind, the kind that lets herself get fat. Look at these arms!” I held up my flabby bicep. “Susie’s a girl’s name, a baby’s name, the kind of no-good bitch who would cast a spell to leave, dumping all of this crap on my lap!”

Amber flinched at my crescendo. “What?”

“Yeah, I faked it. I faked our friendship. Ha! And you thought only men could do that. Susie’s gone!  You’re stuck with me, little old Susan, and I don’t even know who you are except that you work in accounts payable. So no, I don’t know what you and Susie did last week. I don’t know how many wishes she made, and I don’t know how to get you out of this mess. If you want help with something, go and ask Susie. She’s probably back in my world, getting my ass fat with guacamole burritos. Good luck finding her. And if you do find her, give her a kick in the butt from me and tell her thanks for nothing. Sorry, Amber. Tell you what, I’ll help you look for Darius right after I find out a way to get rid of the djinn that you and Susie summoned. That is, if it doesn’t involve us dying. Oh yeah, and how to get my old body back. After that, I’ll pencil you in.” And then I felt bad, because Amber’s eyes were pained and shining with tears as she got in her car and drove away.

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