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She looked up at me with a pained face. “These artists were fucked.”

“It’s what they believed,” I said.

“Could you imagine if it’s what they saw?”

It was my turn to look pained. “I don’t want to think about it.”

She watched me careful y with her big blue eyes. Final y, she said, “Do you think this is what’s going on with you? I mean, real y?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Maximus doesn’t seem to think so. In fact, he says it’s rarely the case and if this was somehow…demon-related…we would definitely know about it. I mean, look at everything that has been happening. It seems to be a ghost and it seems to be centered around me. Aside from the pig, it’s always been about me.”

“And yet you got this book out.”

I looked down at my nails. The coral polish was all chipped off and they looked normal again. “I just have a funny feeling. Down here.” I put my hand on my gut. Then I put it to my head. “And here.”

She nodded attentively. “I think you’re awesome for trusting your instincts. You’l probably be wrong. But I don’t think being extra careful wil be a bad thing.”

I remembered Maximus’s warnings about the dangerousness of doing exorcisms to people who weren’t possessed. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Soon my parents were at my door, coming in just as Ada hid the books underneath the pil ow. They looked nice and fancy. My dad was actual y wearing a suit, even though the navy jacket was stretched too tightly against his ever- burgeoning bel y, and my mom was flawless as usual in a lavender shift dress and black pearls.

“Ada, you need to leave your sister alone,” my mom chided her. “Go on, shoo.”

“I’m being picked up by Rachel in ten minutes,” she lied with a toothy smile.

“Al right,” mom said to her, then focused her pale eyes on me. “Have a good time, Perry. Don’t burn down the kitchen. Whatever you do.”

“And no funny business,” my dad said sternly, to which my mother smacked him on the arm. “What, you said it first.”

They left the room, with my mother cal ing out, “We’l let you know when we’re on our way back. Nine-thirty at the very latest!”

After they left and we were safe, I looked at Ada. With Maximus arriving at 6:30, it didn’t give me as much time as I hoped.

“I hope they don’t come home when we’re in the middle of it, cuz that would be awkward.”

“Then your ginger boy better know how to do a quick cleansing…” she said wryly.

I had a feeling that he wasn’t sure how to even do a cleansing in general. Oh well , there was no point in dwel ing on it. We were all green when it came to this side of things and had no choice but to wing it.

At 6:30 Maximus came rol ing into the driveway in his snazzy truck, coming up to the front door armed with a dozen bags. The scratches on his face were somehow uglier and clotted black red.

“Do we need all this stuff?” I asked as I opened the door and welcomed him in.

“Unfortunately,” he said, and stooped down to give me a quick peck on the cheek. He looked behind me at Ada, who was giving him the staredown.

“Ew, what happened to your face!” she said.

He smiled and stroked his cheek fondly. “Wildcat.”

I blushed, then shot her a look of my own, internal y warning her to behave, and a wave of resignation flooded her face.

“Oh. well , we’re glad you could make it,” she said with reluctance.

“Why thank you, blondie,” he said. He held out one of the bags for her.

“You can be in charge of the cleansing material.”

She took it hesitantly and peeked inside while he turned to me. “Do you have the Witch Bottle? Have you created a permanent home for it yet?”

“Say what?” Ada said, but I understood what he was asking. I quickly ran up the stairs to my room to fetch the bottle from my nightstand. As he had asked, it was a glass bottle and the hair from my family members’ heads, plus mine and Ada’s nail clippings were resting at the bottom. It looked like a gruesome rat’s nest of black and blonde hair.

I brought it back down to the kitchen where they now were, lifting items out of the bags and spreading it out on the island countertop.

“Here you go,” I said, handing it to him. We all winced at the bottle in unison.

“Lovely,” he said. “And the home?”

I told him I dug a hole in the back yard where we could bury it and no one would be the wiser, unless my parents decided to put in an in-ground pool one day.

“Yeah right, a pool. Dad’s salary ain’t what it used to be,”

Ada said under her breath.

Nothing’s as it used to be, I thought.

We looked out at everything displayed before us. There was a small brass bel , the Witch Bottle, two unmarked glass vials fil ed with clear liquid (which I assumed was holy water), a box of salt, two small bowls, packets of red and saffron-colored spices, a small bottle of crimson oil and a black candle and a white candle.

“You’re going to do some show and tel with us first, right?” I asked.

Maximus smiled and walked over to the broom closet.

He emerged with a broom, which he handed to me, and a mop, which he handed to Ada.

“I wil . But first we have to clean the house from top to bottom.”

“Perry! You promised me there wouldn’t be any manual labor!” Ada cried out, staring down at the mop in horror.

“I didn’t know!” I shot back and looked at Maximus for an explanation.

“We have to make sure all the affected areas are clean before we do this,” he said calmly. “Dust and dirt hold a lot of negative energy.”

“Oh, please,” Ada said.

“Hey, I don’t make the rules,” Maximus said, raising his hands in mock surrender. “And I’m not getting off any easier either. I’l be dusting.”

I eyed the clock. We were going to have to clean in a hurry.

We started with the first floor before we made our way through the house together with Maximus dusting hard-to- reach areas, fol owed by me with a broom and a garbage bag and Ada with the mop and a bucket. Our house wasn’t a mansion by any means, but it was quite large and there were an awful lot of nooks and crannies. It took almost an hour for us to do the whole house. My parents were definitely going to think something was up when they came back to a sparkling clean home, but I was hoping that by then it wouldn’t matter what we told them – our problems would be over.

When we finished, we gathered back in the kitchen, which Maximus deemed as the heart of the home (and probably why the pig carcass was original y hidden there).

He organized all of our special items on top of my mother’s navy blue dish cloth so it resembled an Ikea altar of sorts.

Then he brought out a pair of nail clippers and small scissors from the front pocket of his black shirt, clipped his nails, had me snip a small chunk of hair from the back of his pompadour do, then he stuck it in the bottle with the rest of our offerings and deftly sealed it with duct tape.

“Now,” he said, lifting up the container of salt, “we purify.”

He walked out of the kitchen and to the front door. Ada and I fol owed him, staying a few feet back, unsure of what he was going to do.

He stooped down and shook a thick line of salt across the path of the door.

“Purifying salt,” he said in a loud, booming voice that seemed to echo off the ceiling and wal s, “al ow positive energy in and negative energy out. all ow all unwanted energy and entities to leave this house, never to return.”

Part of me wanted to laugh because what he was saying was just so Harry Potter/hocus pocus that it sounded ridiculous. The other part of me felt a tug of trepidation, like there was actual power in the words.

Ada moved an inch closer to me. Evidently, she felt it too.

He got up and smiled faintly at us. “Now we go around the house, clockwise, and do the same at every door that leads outside.”

Ada and I exchanged looks but we walked down the hal to the French doors at the back patio. When we finished with that door, we went to the one at the garage and Maximus repeated himself.

“I’m glad you didn’t use our salt,” I whispered, feeling like my voice should be kept to a minimum. “My mother would have wondered what I was cooking.”

“She’d probably think you accidently used salt for sugar, like that pie you made,” Ada snickered and I joined in, embarrassed at one of my first attempts at baking.

“Ladies,” Maximus said sharply. We looked at him in surprise. I’d never heard him take that tone before and it shut both of us up. “My apologies, but you’re going to have to start taking this seriously. Perry? This means you. This is your ghost. If you aren’t one hundred percent committed and believing in this, then we’re just wasting our time. Or worse.”

I looked helplessly at Ada, then at the floor, chagrined.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.

He placed his hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. His face was stil stern, his mouth set in a hard line, but he nodded. “It’s all right. But I mean it. Now, time for the holy water.”

Back at the kitchen, with me feeling like I had my tail between my legs, he picked up a vial of the holy water and in a clockwise direction again, we went to every single window in the house.

He flicked the water on them, the drops sticking and glimmering in the lights of the room, and asked Ada and me to imagine ourselves forcing negative air and energy out of the house, the salt and water combining to form an invisible shield.

We returned to the kitchen and Maximus loudly proclaimed, “I come this night to cleanse this home. This home belongs to the Palominos and negative energy and entities are unwelcome here. They want you to leave. You shall leave!”

The house was silent. Deathly, sickly silent. I was holding my breath and it looked like Ada was too from the way her face was losing color. We were too afraid to move.

Maximus was also stil , his eyes searching the air around us.

Final y, I had to whisper, “Was that it?”

“No,” he said with a shake of his head. “I just thought something would have happened. We now have to go around again and sprinkle the water in every single corner of the house.”

Ada let out the breath she was holding and whined, “Again? I’m getting tired.”

I elbowed her. “Suck it up.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever examined every corner of your place, but there are a lot more corners than you’d think. And we had to go everywhere, even the bathrooms and the icky, spider-webbed crawlspace under the stairs. Together we chanted, “As we cleanse this space, negativity leave this place.” It slowly went from feeling like a childish rhyme to something much more powerful. I could actual y feel it. This push and pul in the air around me, like good and evil were having a tug-of-war and I was their prize.

When it was all over we were back in the kitchen and Maximus was raising the Witch Bottle high in the air. With the overhead light fixture il uminating his flaming hair and submissive posturing, it looked like he was offering the bottle to the gods. In a way, he was.