We were glued to the flames as they continued their dance in the cold air. The buzz of my phone vibrating caused us all to jump and me to gasp. With trembling fingers, I brought it out of my pocket and looked at the message. It was my mother.
“Those flames better burn out in the next ten minutes,” I warned them.
“Those flames shouldn’t be burning at all ,” Maximus said.
I leaned forward, edging away from his arm, and peered down at the candles. They were a puddle of mush, and through the translucent wax and flame I could see the metal of the bottom of the holder itself. The wax itself was on fire.
How was that possible?
Al at once a terrible BOOM fil ed the house. It sounded like the front door had slammed open.
The lights around us turned off.
The flames went out.
We were plunged into darkness.
Ada made a whimpering noise.
Then a ROAR and rustle from the living room and my eyes picked up a trace of glowing light out in the hal way.
Morbidly curious, we left the blackened kitchen, moving together like a unit of one, and cautiously stepped out into the hal . The front door was wide open, the salt in front of it dancing as if caught up in an invisible wind, one that we couldn’t feel. The salt floated and fel , then was swept along the hardwood floors of the hal like an ethereal trail, past our feet, and made a right turn into the living room, where the glow originated.
We fol owed it and I wasn’t surprised to see that in the living room, the fireplace was going ful blast, a roaring, crackling inferno. At first it looked like someone was standing in front of the fire, a black silhouette gazing down at the flames, his back to us. But it was only a trick of the eye because I blinked hard and there was no one there.
“Who lit the fire?” Ada asked. In her skinny frame she looked like she was about to keel over in fright.
“O r what?” I added, which didn’t help. She swayed slightly and leaned against the doorframe.
“There’s…something in it,” Maximus said, his eyes squinting in concentration. He began taking long strides across the Persian rug.
“Be careful,” I cal ed out warily.
He paused in front of the flames, staring down at it for a few moments, looking very much like the image I had just seen before. Almost exactly the same. Was I experiencing some form of pre-cognition now?
He grabbed the poker to the right of him and gently jabbed it into the heart of the fiery beast.
Ada and I watched him inquisitively as he pul ed the poker away and turned around to face us. At the end of the poker, speared like a flapping fish, was a rectangular piece of paper.
He walked over to us slowly, staring down at it with an expression of growing alarm.
“What is it?” I asked.
He careful y pul ed the paper, which was charred, smoking and torn all around the edges, off the pointed end and flipped it around to show us.
It was a photograph.
Not just any photograph. The last family portrait we had done, about three years ago. Though discolored from the flames, you could clearly see my mother and father standing behind the sitting room couch, Ada and I sitting down in front of them, our legs crossed politely, smiling attentively. It was a happy, cheery photo.
Wel , it had been.
Our eyes were scratched out and replaced with clean black circles.
I snatched it from Maximus’s hand, feeling sick to my stomach, a terrible knot of dread and dead butterflies.
A hush of heavy silence fel on us as we took in what it meant.
Was it a threat? A warning? A sign?
And who, what, sent it?
I opened my mouth to ask those things when a giant whoosh of wind came down the fireplace, putting out the flames in one go, smothering us in darkness again, and whipped the photo out of my hand.
Then the slow, menacing creak of the front door.
And… A string of explicit Swedish swear words fol owed by, “What on earth?”
My parents were home. I could hear Ada gulp beside me.
“Perry, Ada?” my dad cal ed out from around the corner.
“What is this stuff? Why is it so dark in here?” my mom cried. I could imagine her face crumpled at the sight of salt scattered everywhere.
Suddenly the lights in the hal way went on. We heard the click of the kitchen light next, and then they both made some sort of gasping moan together.
There was now enough light in the living room to see each other. I couldn’t see the photograph around me and had no idea where it had been blown away to, but I supposed it wouldn’t have made much of a difference if my parents found it. They were already losing their minds over the voodoo-like mess in the kitchen.
I sighed. Figured I’d have another thing to be scared of. I looked at Ada and Maximus.
“Wel . Time to face the music.”
Like the unit we’d become to face the unknown, we walked out of the room and into the kitchen together.
My parents were staring at the makeshift altar. My father was aghast, while my mother’s face was a pinkish red.
Probably from drinking and probably from anger.
They looked up at the three of us and I could see how hard they were trying to piece everything together. They were in for a surprise.
I explained what had happened the best I could, what I had thought had been going on from the very beginning, starting with feeling il , then the miscarriage, the nightmares, the slippers, the sleepwalking.
My mother just shook her head back and forth, unable to find the words. She didn’t need to. I knew what they were thinking. My father was shocked and appal ed that I was experimenting with “witchcraft and wizardry” under his roof (his exact words, too), my mother was terribly upset that her daughter was reverting back to the old days of seeing imaginary people and blaming demons for lighting houses on fire.
Of course they didn’t believe me. Why would they? They never believed me. They only believed that I had completely lost my mind again and was heading down the same slippery slope. In fact, just explaining what I thought was going on and how everything made sense in regards to that only gave them a reason to put the puzzle together themselves. But instead of believing I was haunted by a ghost, they decided I was going nuts again. My mother’s face contorted into a worrisome frown that both aged her and reminded me of years ago.
Ada spoke up from time to time, bless her overlooked little heart, and tried to get them to see that something actual y was wrong here and we had the best intentions. It didn’t matter how much she sided with me, my parents dismissed whatever she said. Ada might have been the favored child, but she was stil just a teenager and when it came to matters like this, it was like she didn’t exist at all .
The only person they were wil ing to listen to was Maximus. Only Maximus barely said anything. He didn’t pipe up once to reinstate my case or to give me support.
He was silent, tal and watching, almost with disapproval, like he was suddenly on my parents’ side, as if this whole ritual hadn’t been his idea.
Final y, when I was done saying everything I could say and Ada had quietly started cleaning things up, my parents fixed their disbelieving eyes on Maximus.
“And what is your version of events?” my father asked him coldly.
Without looking at me, he gave them a smile and said, “It’s pretty much the same as Perry’s.”
“She believes this is what’s happening to her,” he continued. My heart paused. “And I know better than to argue with someone with that conviction. I reckoned the ritual would get it out of her system.”
“You sneak!” Ada growled at him as she shoved the spices, bowls, bel and vials into a garbage bag with a noisy clatter. “You told us this would work! You believed it!”
“Ada, hush,” my mother told her, then looked back at Maximus. “Wel , you’ve made a fine mess of our house in doing so.”
“I was only trying to help your daughter, Mrs. Palomino.”
She crossed her arms and eyed me. “Yes. I see that.
Wel if this continues any further, the only help that Perry wil be getting wil be from poor Dr. Freedman. I swore we’d never been setting foot in his office again…”
The dead butterflies were stirring in my insides again, awakened by the bone-chil ing threat of seeing my old psychologist. I could have kil ed Maximus right there and then for insinuating that he was humoring me this whole time, and I shot the deadliest of death glares at him in case he was oblivious too.
He wasn’t. He shifted uncomfortably, avoiding my stare, and said to dad, “I’l make sure this place is cleaned up ful y before I leave. Real y, it’s just salt and spices. I’l bring the vacuum around and it’l be sucked up faster than you can say Atchafalaya.”
My dad narrowed his eyes at him briefly, then relaxed. “I know you like your food down South; however, there’s no need to make the carpets Cajun too.”
Was that a…joke?
Yes. My dad smiled at Maximus, despite what was going on. He smiled, then patted him on the shoulder and my mother and him left the kitchen and went up the stairs to their room.
Once they were out of earshot and I could no longer hear my mother’s faraway cries over the discovery of more cinnamon and sulphur, I smacked Maximus hard across the arm. I almost went for his face but a quick glance at his cheek told me to back off.
“What the fuck was that?” I yel ed at him, trying to keep my voice even and under control and failing epical y. The anger and frustration inside was dangerously high, swimming in my throat, ready to spew the most poisonous venom at him.
“Ow,” he said, and grabbed his arm, rubbing it and stepping away from me.
“You’re an ass!”
“Seconded!” Ada put in.
He shrugged dramatical y. “What? I couldn’t just nod along with you ladies; that would have made me seem just as loco as you two.”
“Excuse me?” I drew out the vowels in a shril cry.
I took a step toward him and he took a few back until his legs hit the stove.
“What?” I asked. “You afraid of me now? Afraid of me when you saw what happened tonight?! I mean, you saw.
You saw it. You saw the thing outside, you saw the lights go out, the fireplace, the damn fireplace lit up all by its fucking self. And the picture. The picture of my family, now who did that? And don’t say I did, don’t you dare!”
“Lower your voice,” he said to me, his eyes hardening.
I walked until I was pressed right up to him and jabbed my finger near his eye.
“Don’t you dare tel me to lower my voice. You and your, your…passiveness, your chicken-shit, yel ow-bel ied fuckery, you nearly cost me a visit to my old shrink! You could have ruined my life, and no I’m not saying that lightly.”
“Perry. You reckon you’re possessed by a ghost, and in some cases, the devil. I’d say your life is already ruined.
I had no words for that, so I just glared at him and then walked away in a huff and stood, seething, by my sister.
She shot me an apologetic glance and said to Maximus, “But you did see it. I saw it too, and I know I’m not cray-cray.
Wel , not always. Not often. I mean, come on, there’s something here. And now it’s going to stay here because you were too afraid to tel my parents the truth. You… douchecanoe!”