A rattling engine and a pair of headlights in the distance interrupted the quiet evening. My daughter Rosie stirred in my lap, but didn’t wake. I was sitting in the upstairs rocking chair, watching the rain through the window. It had been raining for three days, the sort of long drizzle that made me tired and Rosie cranky. The noise ended any chance of a doze. I knew that engine.
My mother’s Volkswagen Bus hadn’t been to this old farmhouse in years. The day after the Army classified my brother as Missing In Action, she’d packed up and left without a word to me. Now she was back.
As I rose from the rocking chair, my daughter murmured and tried to burrow into my shoulder. She didn’t even know her grandmother, she’d only been three months old when Mother went away. I shushed her and kissed the top of her head, cradling her as I walked back to her room. It only took a minute to get Rosie tucked in, but I lingered a while longer, watching her sleep. She had her father’s brow, and frowned in her sleep just like he had. I would have stayed longer, but there wasn’t time. The Bus squealed to a halt in the driveway.
My room was across from Rosie’s, and it only took me a minute to unlock the trunk at the foot of my bed. I drew out the sawed-off double-barrel shotgun, opened the breach, and slid two shells in place just as the heavy knock landed on the door.
I slammed the breach shut. “Coming, Mother.”
Anne Redthorn, my mother, didn’t even flinch when I opened the door with the shotgun leveled at her face. She just nodded at me. “Annabell. You look healthy.”
“Mother.” I looked her up and down. The past three years hadn’t been kind to her. She’d been comfortably stout when she left, but now her cheekbones protruded and her eyes had sunken. Her hair, chestnut brown before, had many thick streaks of gray and lay pasted against her scalp by the drizzling rain.
“Are you going to shoot me, or let me stand out here until I catch my death?” She quirked up one corner of her mouth in a wry smile.
I drew in a breath and swallowed. I wanted to drag her inside and hug her, but it wasn’t safe. This was harder than I thought it would be. “You know I have to test you. Touch the horseshoe above the door.”
She reached up to the cold iron she’d nailed up there when we first moved in. The two ends of the shoe were just visible, barely protruding past the casing. Mother placed her finger on the iron and pressed down. “The Bus is mostly steel, you know. If I were some fae beast posing as your mother, I wouldn’t have been able to drive here.”
“I know,” I agreed, “but I didn’t see you get out. Now the silver nail.”
There was a crooked nail driven into the doorframe. It was so tarnished now that you couldn’t tell it was silver by looking at it, but my mother grabbed it without even looking. She’d put it there. That alone was almost proof enough that it was her, and the silver was undeniable evidence that she had not been physically corrupted by lycanthropy or other abominable curses.
“Satisfied?” She asked. “Or shall we test all the forms of unquiet spirits as well?
To anyone else, Mother’s cocked eyebrow and half smirk would have seemed condescending, but I knew her. She was proud that I’d kept up my craft. What she probably didn’t know was how necessary it had become while she’d been gone.
“You can’t be too careful these days.” I lowered the shotgun and backed out of the doorway. “You didn’t call. You didn’t write. I thought you were dead.”
“I’m not dead yet, but the night is still young.” She stepped inside and ran her fingers through her lank hair, squeezing drops of water onto the doormat. “Put the kettle on, will you? And where’s your sister? I need to talk to her.”
The farmhouse was old, and had been built on the foundations of an even older pre-Revolutionary estate lost to history. The front door opened directly into a large den with wooden floors and a fieldstone hearth. I stepped over to the fireplace and shoved the kettle on its hook until it swung over the embers, then put the shotgun barrel-down into the barrel where we kept the poker and other fire tools. It wasn’t good for the weapon, but it was convenient. I’d put it away later.
“Amy left two years ago,” I told Mother. I busied myself with building the fire back up so I could collect my thoughts without the distraction of looking at her. I could have taken the kettle to the gas stove and had it ready faster, but my mother’s return meant coven business. We did things just so, as her mother, grandmother, and many-times great grandmother’s had back into the mists of time. I felt the weight of Mother’s stare as I worked. She was patiently waiting for me to continue, so I did. “She writes, so I know she’s well. She joined a coven out in Arizona. Her last letter came four days ago. It’s on the writing desk if you want to read it.”
“I might.” She cleared her throat and I heard her sink into the thickly-padded easy chair. It was her proper place, so much so that I never sat on it or let Rosie sit there. Only the old barn cat had dared usurp her spot, and he’d died last year. “That’s the spot I’ve missed. Be a good girl, Annabell, and fetch me something to eat? I’ve been on the road since Tuesday.”
It was Friday. At her age, that had to have been hard on her. I hurried into the kitchen and bounced a bit as I stepped off the fire-warmed hardwood and onto the cold tile in my bare feet. It was almost completely dark now, but I knew the layout of the kitchen by heart. Even before Mother left, it was my domain. I had a pan of cornbread sitting on the counter, fresh-baked that afternoon. I put a chunk of that on a plate, then dug in the icebox until I found a half chicken from the day before.
The fire had grown while I hunted up dinner for my mother, and the den was filled with warm yellow light. The kettle had begun to sing, but Mother sat where she’d been before. She hadn’t risen to make the tea. By rite and rote, that was Amy’s job, but she wasn’t here. If Rosie had been awake, I would have walked her through the steps. It was never too early to learn.
With no one else to do it, I quickly made do. I gave Mother the plate without comment, and fetched a pair of teacups and poured the water over the herbs. I hadn’t prepared fresh ones since Amy left, but they gave off a strong scent as soon as the water touched them.
“Suak, urak, haizeak,” I muttered, quietly. The words themselves meant nothing to me, just syllables out of the old grimoire Mother had left behind, but their use in the ritual carried power. This was our coven, our home, our center. With her return, Mother was starting to heal a broken bond. I finished the short ritual without flourish. “Lurreko oparia, bedeinka gaitzazu.”
“Have you been practicing?” My mother asked as she took the teacup I offered. She took a cursory sip, then tore into the meal I’d offered before saying through a half-full mouth: “your pronunciation has improved.”
I nodded mutely and sat on the couch. Rosie and I shared it most evenings after dinner now, but it had been where my siblings and I learned our lessons, first from Grandmother, then from Mother. It felt different than it had earlier tonight. Better. I took a sip of the tea, savoring the bitter flavor and sharp aftertaste.
“It’s good that you’ve been practicing.” She took a large bite of the bread, somehow managed to sink deeper into her chair, swallowed, and sighed contentedly. “My little baker really has grown up. I’ve missed you, Annabell.”
“I’ve missed you too.” I finished the tea in a long swallow and set the cup aside. The fire crackled in the hearth. If Amy had been there, it would have been almost perfect. I opened my mouth, hesitated a moment, then put the troubled thought to words. “You said you needed to speak to Amy... did you have anything you wanted to say to me?”
She wrinkled her brow and looked at the ceiling as if searching for something. “More than I can keep my eyes open for tonight, dear. I need Amy urgently, so I’ll have to go. But...” She pursed her lips and looked into my eyes. Hers were deep brown, and still clear despite her advancing years. “Would you like to come with me? We could catch up, see some things you’ve never seen before.”
Leave the farmhouse? My breath caught in my throat. Didn’t she know what was out there? She had to, given how I’d answered the door with the shotgun. “I don’t think I could. This is the only home Rosie has ever known. And Jacob... he might come back. How would he find me if I left?”
“Oh, child,” Mother shook her head. “If he wanted, that boy could find you anywhere you went.”
I bit my lip. “That’s...”
“Cruel and unfair,” said Mother. “I apologize. It’s no one’s place to judge someone else’s heart, and it’s not as if I actually know why he’s gone. I’ll guard my tongue better.”
“Thank you.” I crossed my arms. “Let’s leave it at ‘I don’t want to go.’”
“Fair. And neither do I, truth be told. I love this old house.” She sighed, and went on in a contemplative tone. “Amy’s in Arizona, hmm? I can probably make that in three days if I leave tomorrow.”
“Why not stay a few days and rest? Get to know Rosie. She draws pictures of you and always wants to look at the photo album. She’d like to get a chance to actually meet her Nana.”
“Oh, that would be so lovely.” My mother clasped her hands together and smiled, then shook her head. “If it wasn’t so urgent that I reach Amy I might—”
“Just call her,” I suggested. “She sent me her number.”
Mother clucked her tongue. “You got a telephone? Next thing you’ll be telling me we have electricity now.”
We weren’t technophobes or anything, as Mother was perfectly willing to drive around in the Bus, but some things just didn’t belong in our home. I smiled and shook my head. “I take a pie down to the Carters’ place when I want to make a call.”
“What good neighbors,” my mother sighed wistfully. “I’d love to say, but I really can’t. If I weren’t so tired, I’d leave right now. Goddess, I wasn’t even thinking of your little girl when I came. Maybe I should chance the road...”
A long, eerie wail split the night and rattled the windows.
“What was that?” I demanded as I rose from my seat. My mother shrank into her chair as I looked at her. “Mother... do you know what that was?”
The fire guttered and spat as if swept by a stiff breeze, then faded from warm yellow to a pale blue. All the warmth fled from the room, and frost began to creep in spiderweb patterns across the windows. Goddess protect us. Something was coming. I leaped to the fireplace and grabbed the shotgun, then ran to the window.
“Anton...” Mother whimpered. She joined me at the window, a dark form next to me. There was no light remaining in the room. “Oh, my poor son.”
“Mother, explain,” I said through clenched teeth. “Now.”
“I always believed your brother was still alive.” Her tone was flat, empty, and her shadow bent in on itself as her shoulders slumped. “I was right. Now he might just kill us all.”
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