Ava’s grandmother was a centipede. It explained everything: the way her flesh seemed to be always just a little cooler than it should, the way she could hear you cry out from a nightmare and be there, crossing the long hallway faster than anyone should be able to. It explained the bits of soil and foliage that speckled the hardwood floor every morning – tracked in from the nightly burrowing underground. Most of all, it explained the clicking.
Ava sat with her legs hanging off the bed, too afraid of what she would see to worry about The Man With Claws or The Empty-Eyed Woman that usually lived under the bed. They were something different. The rapid clicking from the living room was real.
She had lied again last week. She had dreamed a centipede towering over her, weaving as it stretched almost full length in the air. The clicking feet had been groping for her mouth to stitch it shut forever. The belly scales had been red hot to burn her flesh into a matching pattern. She had spent hours reading about the habits of centipedes and looking at their horrible photos in National Geographic since she first started to suspect. Grandmother had stopped clicking and appeared so fast Ava didn’t have time to take a breath after she woke with a scream. She asked what Ava was dreaming and then Ava lied and said she’d been dreaming about Empty Eyes.
She hit the pillow a few times, angry that her grandmother had forced her to lie by being a liar herself. Tonight there wouldn’t be anything left to lie about.
She crept to the bedroom door and eased it open so carefully it made only a hiss. Her feet were sticky with sweat as she crept down the hall past the golden glow of the nightlight, into the small span of darkness, into the flickering blue where the television cast its unreliable light. She held her breath as she peered around the corner in the living room.
At first Ava thought she’d made some noise, that Grandmother had heard and turned back into her normal shape as a person. But she had been so quiet, and Grandmother was watching television so calmly and the clicks were steady. In her wrinkled hands she held two pale shiny sticks, and they were twisting a length of red yarn into intricate loops.
“What are you doing?” Ava asked suddenly.
“Knitting a little cape for you,” Grandmother said, as if she’d been expecting the question. “Do you want to stay up late tonight?”
Ava nodded and sank into the couch near Grandmother, tucking her long nightgown under her toes and hugging her knees in embarrassment. Any of the other kids in third grade would have known that grandmothers didn’t turn to monsters. They made you cinnamon toast and the best oatmeal with maple syrup for breakfast, they gave you the cutest and most cuddly stuffed animals, and they watched history shows. Ava stole a glance at the knitting hooks and didn’t look away until she no longer felt like running away from the sound.
The cape was another of the strange pieces of clothing her Grandmother always made. She would look like one of the old-fashioned porcelain dolls with puffy, velvety dresses and black shiny shoes with dozens of buttons. The sweaters were always too richly colored, too luxurious, but Ava wanted to wear them.
After that, Ava stopped having nightmares in her grandmother’s house.
Ava didn’t like to remember herself being so frightened and stupid as a child. Eight years later and she still felt a tingle of humiliation when she thought of that night. She pressed her forehead against the taxi’s window, soaking in the coolness. Rain wavered on the glass, the wet pavement slipping along under them. Ava’s throat began to ache and she dug intently through her purse. Billfold, mini flashlight, two-year-old cell phone, coconut-flavored lip balm, and a key ring still full of keys she’d never need to use again. The key to her house, empty now since the furniture had been sold to pay for the funeral. The key to her school locker. The key to the garage. Mom’s car key, the only thing left of the little Honda that wasn’t bloody or shattered or crushed. The metal trembled in her grasp and she closed her eyes. Wet roads. Failed brakes. Closed coffin.
She let the keys drop jingling into the bottom of the purse and found a slice of cinnamon gum. She unwrapped it and the burning in her eyes slowly went away as she chewed. The taxi smelled like cigarettes and the driver’s fingers were twitchy on the wheel.
“I don’t care if you smoke,” she said.
The driver shrugged. Not a talkative man. She hadn’t minded at first, but now she was starting to feel uneasy with the quiet.
“How long till we get there?”
The monotonous pelting of the rain made it feel more like half an hour, but Ava still wasn’t ready when the taxi stopped.
Her grandmother’s house looked nothing like what she remembered. Other than the gold-painted mailbox, she wouldn’t have recognized it. She stood at the gate, feeling like a trespasser. After the taxi’s engine noise dwindled and she still hadn’t seen Gran at the windows or the door, she set her luggage on the ground and pushed the gate open. The rusty spring was stiff and she had to hold it open with her hip as she dragged the luggage inside.
The stone path, always neatly kept before, was slumped and blurred by unruly grasses and weeds. Ava hurried to the porch shelter and rang the doorbell. She waited as shuffling footsteps and a few indistinct words announced Gran’s approach.
“That must have been the quietest taxi in the world,” Gran said as she stepped inside. “I didn’t hear a thing.”
Ava didn’t remember Gran having a hearing aid, but she did now. It had been a while. “It’s fine.”
Gran gave her a tight hug and Ava felt eight years old again as a familiar scent rose from her cornflower blue shawl. Almonds and earth.
“Get your belongings upstairs. There’s a roast in the oven for dinner, and I even rented a movie if you feel like watching it.”
The suitcase felt heavier the closer she got to the top of the staircase and the wheels clipped the last few steps. The sloped roof and lack of sunlight made her room into a cave, and she smiled as she put the suitcase in the corner near the window. She changed into a dry sweater and went in search of a towel for her hair. The towel closet was empty except for some white sheets. She pulled them out to make the bed.
The sheets rippled to the floor and at first she thought they were torn up or cut. But it was more like a gleaming white ribbon, long enough to go from where she stood to the bottom of the stairs, maybe even to the kitchen. She piled it back onto the shelf and went into the bathroom. The sink was dusty, and the neon green plastic cup where she used to keep her toothbrush was still there.
Ava unfolded the hand towel; it was also furry with gray dust, and the sun had drained its color. She used the darker mauve side to pat away the rain. The faucet spurted tan water when she turned it on. Gran hadn’t been up here in a long time. Maybe years. Ava hadn’t been given the option to visit, but she still felt guilty.
Downstairs again to where dinner waited. Ava wondered if her days would always feel like checklists, moving from one necessary yet meaningless act to another. Mom’s propulsive way of going from work projects to study made sense. Passion motivated her. Ava reached into her mind for some kind of drive and couldn’t find one. Not hunger, not sleepiness, not desire. She existed.
Gran made a clicking noise with her tongue. “All that time on the road. You’re bound to be ready for some food.”
Ava forced a smile, feeling like a marionette with ugly, splintered features. She set the table as Gran asked, then poured them glasses of iced tea. Gran heaped a few slices of roast beef onto her plate. Way too much food. But hungry or not, she would eat it if only to thank Gran for cooking. She sure as hell didn’t want to end up responsible for making all the food. It actually smelled tasty, onions and other pungent herbs mingling in the sauce.
“Do you think you’ll be comfortable upstairs?” Gran asked. “It isn’t too musty up there?”
“No, it’s fine. I like the room. I couldn’t find a towel, though. Just a torn up sheet or something.”
“Lazy bitch,” Gran said.
Ava stopped cutting her roast.
“That woman from the cleaning service didn’t take it out,” Gran explained, her dark eyebrows diving down. “She knew it was her last week, she must have just ignored my notes. I asked her to stock the upstairs closet with towels and get rid of any junk. What does she do but tear up my bedsheet and leave it a mess.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll just toss it out.”
“Don’t bother. I have some towels you can take later tonight.”
Ava continued cutting, disturbed. Gran didn’t swear and she tended to be easygoing. She empathized, though. She’d been angry ever since Mom’s accident. Even the sound of the knife going through the meat was irritating. The serrated edge gritted as it went through tough sinew and scraped the plate lightly. She studied the bite on her fork. Pinkish middle, brown reticulated outside.
She ate as if she wanted food, tried to make the right sounds of enjoyment, hoped she paid the right compliment and thanks. The real test would be keeping it down.
Nighttime had been a real bitch lately. She no longer had nightmares but she often woke up with nausea. Her body wanted to starve and die. She didn’t blame it at all; it had been fed from earliest days by a woman who was now dead. Only natural it would try to follow her.
Still, when Ava found herself awake and sitting up with a familiar knot in her gut, she tried to fight it down. Not the first night at Gran’s. She dreaded the blast of bile in the throat. She’d have to brush her teeth twice to get rid of the taste.
She tossed and turned, paced the tiny room, leaned on the windowsill with her face against the glass, and finally had to sprint to the bathroom. She hit the light switch and the blinding bulb seemed to shatter in her eyes. The headache was instantaneous, yet it didn’t distract her from the sickness. Somehow she got to the floor before she passed out.
The cold tile woke her up. The light was no longer piercing her head like a skewer and she didn’t even feel sick. She scrounged in the cabinet for a thermometer, but it was wasted time. Her temperature was normal. So not the flu, probably stress.
Restless, she crept downstairs. A cup of milk would calm any residual nausea. She left the lights off and hoped Gran was a heavier sleeper than she used to be. She sat at the table with a cup of milk and sipped it.
The room felt smaller than ever, but she smiled. There were all the knick-knacks Gran liked, arranged like friends around each station of the kitchen. The ceramic family of pudgy bears squatted by the jars of sugar, flour, and oats. On the windowsill by the sink, a yellow goose made of glass and a copper wire frog conspired. Wooden cat silhouettes atop the fridge, a group of brass butterflies pinned to the wall near the stove. And on the wall behind her, the cuckoo clock. Ava twisted in her chair to see it, and just as she did it chimed the hour. The glass nearly went flying as she jumped.
It was 3 am. She let out the breath she’d sucked in, shook her head in relief. The little door opened and she waited for the little Dutch boy and girl to come out on their rails. It was a chase; first the girl in her blue and yellow cotton dress would emerge. Just as she disappeared the boy would make his entrance. At the final chime, they would meet in the middle to kiss, then return to their own homes.
But when the wooden shutter opened and the girl doll wheeled around, something was wrong. Her head had been broken off. Ava suddenly had a lump in her throat. Things got old, they broke. She wondered if Gran had saved the broken piece and if it could be glued back together. The headless doll went in tipsy fashion to its door and out of sight. The boy doll came out, as always, just too late. It stopped in the middle and this time the glass did hit the floor. The boy doll held a wooden, painted head by its blonde hair. His shirt – usually yellow and blue to match the girl – was smeared with crimson gore. When the mechanism jerked to a stop and the shutter slammed shut, blood splattered the wall.
Ava’s scream didn’t wake the dead, though she yelled her name and truly believed Mom would come to save her.
Gran didn’t make a big deal out of it and Ava appreciated that. She was to stay either in bed or on the couch and watch some television while Gran did the shopping.
“It’s just the stress,” Gran said. “Lots of people have night terrors after things like this happen. Now watch something funny and put some happy thoughts in your head. I’ll bring a pizza home.”
Ava wrapped herself in an orange crocheted blanket and lay down on the couch. She chewed a wad of spearmint gum and watched Gilligan’s Island until all the tension knots had eased.
After dinner, they went out into the garden. Threatening clouds made an early dusk, and Gran had to squint at the sage and basil to see if it was ready to be cut. She silently separated a branch and snipped it off with the scissors. Ava followed behind with a small wicker basket. Swiftly it filled with shiny basil leaves, sticky fronds of rosemary, and then plants Ava didn’t know.
“What’s that?” she asked.
But Gran didn’t seem to hear.
“What’s this one?” she repeated when Gran put the next cutting in.
Again Gran was silent. Frustration welled up in Ava like the nausea she hated. Was she
just supposed to remember everything from when she was little? There were a million plants in this yard. Gran turned her head and Ava immediately regretted her moment of annoyance. She wasn’t wearing her hearing aid. The most intense affection struck and Ava reached out and touched Gran’s hair. The old lines of Gran’s face resolved into a little smile.
“Remember how you used to comb my hair?” Gran said.
Ava nodded. “I remember.”
“It’s so brittle now.”
They continued harvesting the herbs and went indoors. Rain smacked the screen door as Ava pulled it closed.
Her evening was boring but nice. Long after Gran went to bed, she stayed on the couch watching a reality show rerun. Athletic men and women huddled near a campfire and ate undercooked meat, running the gauntlet between parasites and the mock execution they would face if they didn’t finish their trial meal. Ava chewed on the nub of a hangnail, disgusted but unwilling to turn away. The loser was marched away from the campfire and into the trees, her ropy, bleached hair gleaming in the green dark. The show executioner returned with her gear and the rest of the combatants swarmed it.
With a sigh Ava clicked off the TV. The cuckoo clock chimed as she passed the kitchen, but she refused to look at it.
It wasn’t the brightness of the moonlight that woke her, but the thickness of the shadows on the roof. It swarmed with black insects – legs askew as they gathered in clots, the twisting forms of centipedes making a rococo background. Everlasting loops of them, millions of specks swarming from the corners of the room. Her eyes burned with the effort to focus.
Usually she could will away the fear by making pictures out of the things she saw. Not tonight. Her pictures kept falling apart. A still-life painting decomposing to free the swarming life that had nested behind the canvas.
The kitchen was off-limits after the night before, so Ava went to the living room and pulled out an old family photo album. She flipped right to her old favorites. Gran in her wedding dress, standing next to a man whose smile looked like he had a toothache. He’d been gone long before Ava was born. Mom had been only twelve when he’d died of heatstroke.
The next photo she visited was the one where Mom was getting ready for prom. She wore a sea green dress, sleeves made of spumy white chiffon. Gran tied a ribbon around her waist. Years passed in the magic flip of a page. Cousins, aunts and uncles, friends she’d rarely heard of. Then the last photo of Mom and Gran together. They were sitting at a small table, playing cards. It was a summer party. Ava loved this photo because she could remember the things that weren’t captured in the scene – the string of tiny lights creating a half-moon around them all, the smell of crushed grass as she went up the path to the boulders. They had planned a hike to the rocks for the next day, but Ava had been too curious.
Mom barely noticed when she left as if to go up to the house. She circled back around the side of the small rented cottage and spied on the grown-up guests. They wore dresses with oversized flowers and khakis. Men and women alike wore sandals. Their feet weren’t smooth and pretty like her own; she hated the knots and chipped toenails and thick, dry yellow skin on their heels. Of course Mom hadn’t thought to invite any kids, and Ava turned away from the party and sought her own entertainment.
Though the path was winding and pitched steeply downward, Ava had no trouble. She liked the feeling of being almost off balance, the burn in her legs as she slowed her descent. Pebbles worked their way into her sneakers. The boulders were stunning and she regretted seeing them alone – almost. She touched the striations, felt the stiff ruffles of lichen and smelled the severe cool stone. After a while she sat down in the middle of the stone formation. Grass tickled her palms, the earth pulsed beneath. Under the soil things went about their lives. The whole outside world seemed to be trying to get in her skin.
She lost time. When she returned, the guests had gone. Lights glared on an empty scene. She went by the buffet table, but the platters had only a few pieces of sweaty cheese, smears of sweet pickle juice, and broken crackers. She went inside.
“Mom?” she called.
No one answered and Ava went further into the dark cottage. The room she shared with Mom was closed, and from within came a high-pitched and eerily repetitive sound. A thud rattled the floor under Ava’s feet.
“Mom,” she said again.
The hinges squealed and the doorway filled with light so consuming that Ava saw nothing as Mom grabbed her hand. They got in the car and Mom was speeding down the gravel road before Ava had time to buckle her seatbelt. Mom had a bloody scratch from the corner of her mouth to her chin. Her knuckles were red.
“What you heard was Gran crying,” Mom said finally. “You know how that man walks around town and talks to himself? And sometimes he’s scary and the police have to come? Sometimes people get old and – ”
“I know what dementia is,” Ava said, taking refuge in irritation. “But Gran was fine today!”
“She’s not, Ava. She’s sick.”
Gran had been hiding in the bathroom, terrified of the stranger she thought was breaking into the house. When Mom had gone in to talk with her, she’d lashed out, scratching Mom’s face and making her stumble.
They spent the night at a hotel halfway between the rental cottage and their home. Ava woke up in the night with a knot in her back and blood slick on her thighs. Mom had told her it would be happening soon, so she took a shower and changed into a clean, oversized t-shirt. She was so quiet Mom didn’t even wake up.
Phone calls followed. Mom tried to convince Gran to see a doctor and get medication. The one-sided conversations Ava managed to listen in on started with tears and ended with arguments. Until Gran got the help she needed, Mom decided, they wouldn’t visit. Gran was too much of a danger.
Ava closed the album. Gran didn’t seem dangerous now. She seemed distracted and deaf. Mom had gotten it wrong, or Gran had finally gone to the doctor and taken some meds. She felt bad for never trying to visit, but the topic had upset Mom so much it had rarely been mentioned. A queasy sense of betrayal hit her. Mom wouldn’t have wanted her to stay here. But if she’d known, if she could see Gran the way she was now, everything would have been normal again.
She was too awake and upset to go back to bed. Her stomach was tipping between sickness and hunger. Finally the idea of vomiting was worse than her reluctance to go into the kitchen. She just had to keep her mind off her dream of the clock and its murderous dweller.
Books were too demanding, too heavy, too permanent to enjoy ever since Ava had discovered how a car could crinkle like tin foil and snap out a life in a half-second. She hated the evidence of other people still making solid objects and putting their thoughts down in tidy order. Didn’t they know there was no point? If a car could be smashed, fences and walls of words could certainly be ruptured. Ava fantasized about a garden fork bursting through pages, slicing through the soft earth of the paper, black letters wriggling like maggots on the blades.
Gran had a bookshelf down in the cellar where she kept copies of old magazines, and Ava went downstairs, stepping softly so she wouldn’t make the old steps cry out. The light came on with a fizzy noise. The shelf was enrobed in cobwebs but Ava wasn’t afraid of spiders anymore. She chose a women’s magazine from the nineties. The light and meaningless titles made her smile. How To Know He’s The One. Horoscopes For Homebuyers. Seven Makeup Tricks For Younger Skin.
A thick subscription card and a piece of yellow note paper wafted to the floor. She bent to pick them up and froze. The words were fresh as the day they had been written and it was Mom’s handwriting.
“What did you find?”
Gran stood at the top of the stairs, peering down with a look Ava couldn’t interpret. She instinctively slid the papers back into the magazine and pinched it tightly closed as she went to the staircase.
“Just some old magazines.”
“Couldn’t sleep again?”
“No. I’m tired now, though,” Ava lied, anxious to get to her room and read the note.
“Nonsense,” Gran said. “You look sickly.”
Gran insisted Ava check her temperature. Ava sat on the couch with the thermometer poking beneath her tongue. Gran’s hearing aid was out and lying on the coffee table. Ava wondered how Gran had even heard her moving through the house. Her temperature was normal, of course, but Gran gave her a cup of orange juice to take upstairs.
“Just in case you’re coming down with a cold. Even if you’re not, you’ll feel better after you drink it.”
Ava pulled her door closed and sat on the edge of her bed. She sipped the orange juice and took a few deep breaths before looking at the note. It was probably just a grocery list, or a phone number for some long-ago friend. She read it twice, frustration building. It made no sense.
Creating visions, drawing life. Silver, wicker, dried werdestem, fear.
She looked at the back of the note for more but there was nothing. Her memory pushed forward the image of Gran staring at her as she handled the note. Concern or suspicion in her eyes, hunching over either to see beneath the dangling bulb or to grab the cellar door and yank it shut. She wondered if Gran ever saw her as a stranger for a second.
Ava finished the orange juice and put the note beneath the mattress. In a moment of paranoia, she pushed her suitcase in front of the door. Even then, sleep was slow to come.
Her dreams were getting bad again. She rarely woke completely, staying half-submerged in worlds where she was burning, being devoured by beetles, drowning. Sometimes Gran came upstairs and gave her a cup of tea that helped her sleep again, but it just made reality feel blurred and she stopped drinking it all. She poured it down the bathroom sink every morning to avoid hurting Gran’s feelings.
Two weeks passed. She hadn’t looked at the note again, but only because she had memorized it immediately. It whispered to her constantly. Silver, wicker, werdestem, fear. She tried unscrambling the letters but the words didn’t make sense together. Her lists were weighted with fever, weird, scream, wet silk. One afternoon when Gran went out to get groceries, Ava went to the cellar.
She put the magazines in a pile on the floor and went through them one at a time, hunting for yellow notepaper, blue ink, her mother’s youthful scribbled words. She went from 1992 to 1993, glossy photos like seasonal time capsules. Spring cleaning, Easter wreaths, flags and berries, swimsuit diets. She found the next note stuck in the recipe section.
Which is the coldest hand? The one around your throat.
How morbid for a teenager. Ava put the note aside. She found the next note in a Spring 1995 home decorating magazine.
She is not right. Sometimes she is almost deaf and sometimes she can hear everything.
October 1995: She hears better after bad dreams.
February 1996: She looks younger now.
After February there were no more notes. Ava searched frantically, forced her hand behind the bookshelf to see if anything had fallen behind it. She took the notes upstairs and studied them. She held them up to sunlight to see if there were any impressions from previous writing. She took them down to the kitchen and warmed them over a stove burner to look for invisible words. Nothing else revealed itself. She didn’t want them out of her reach so she kept them in her pocket, a thin shield against the dread that flared up unavoidably when Gran’s car came down the drive.
She hears better after bad dreams. Ava wanted to believe it was the lack of sleep putting such a reasonable sheen on those words. Gran never wore her hearing aid any longer; it sat in a blue plastic bowl near the keys.
The temptation to turn the house upside down changed places with an atavistic need to ignore her fear. Fear of going to bed and dreaming, fear of waking up from a pit of dreamless sleep and being nauseated. She was guaranteed one or the other. Her sickness always came with hallucinations now. The idea of explaining it to a grief counselor was laughable. Grief didn’t make you see hollow-eyed people, insects exploding from a sink faucet, blinding light around trembling and unidentifiable shapes.
The herbs were nearly all stripped from the garden now. A few verdant stems remained, but the dark patches of dirt were swiftly overtaking the greenery. Ava squeezed the handles of the basket tightly, but her question insisted on being voiced.
“Didn’t Mom have a friend that died when she was a teenager?”
Gran nodded, but continued her silent circuit of the garden. Ava wondered if it was too bad of a memory to be talked about.
“It was winter, right?”
Again the wordless nod. Shame pricked at her and she helped Gran finish the work without more prying. They went inside and Gran took the leaves and stems to the sink. Water hissed on stainless steel, like too many voices in Ava’s head.
“Sounds like you already know the story, Ava.”
“Only a little of it. Like it was really cold out and they think she got lost.”
“Your mother made friends with Chelsea at the grocery store. Miss Priss always wanted your mom to sleep over at her place – guess she didn’t like the country much.”
Gran’s voice dipped lower, quieter. Her words thumped one after the other like shuffling feet long past exhaustion.
“Chelsea McNamara. She was fifteen when she died. She was missing for six days. Your mom wanted to go out in the woods with the search team. But it was too cold. I couldn’t afford to get her snow boots to keep her feet from frostbite. They found Chelsea wrapped up like a mummy under the snow.”
Spooked by the image, Ava looked down at her nails. She tugged a hangnail free. When she looked up, Gran was staring at her, a stoic hardness in her eyes.
“They don’t know who did it. They don’t know why. Your mother had some very bad times after that. She was paranoid, took to locking herself in her room or the basement. It took two years of therapy before she could go a day without thinking someone was after her. I’m surprised she told you at all.”
Before bed, Ava studied the notes again. The weird notes were different now that she knew about Mom’s fear. But Gran had claimed the paranoia sprang from the murder. So why had the note-taking started months before?
She did what Mom always told her – she asked herself the question and slept on it.
The answer hit her with such hilarious simplicity that she laughed even before her eyes snapped open. It was a recipe. The silver-wicker note was a recipe. Ava reached out and turned on the light on her bedside table, then screamed.
Gran stood in the middle of the room, holding the cut-up ribbon of white sheet. She didn’t look like Ava’s scream had woken her. Maybe her dementia was back. Ava decided to help her downstairs and back to bed. But when she moved to get up, Gran lunged. There was no confusion in her eyes, only determination. She landed across Ava, gripping her throat so tightly that the blood immediately began to pound in her eyes.
“You haven’t been drinking it,” Gran said. “Or this wouldn’t be so difficult.”
Her hands were no longer those of an old woman – they were a monster’s hands, hard as claws.
The chill of the basement woke her. A sense of suffocating stillness stopped her from screaming. There was a musty taste in her mouth, and her jaw ached. She twisted her tongue out from under the pressure and the pleated texture immediately made the words wet silk flare up in her mind.
Gran had tied her to a chair in the basement, wrapped her up (like a mummy, like Chelsea, like a moth in a web) in the white ribbon thing. It had never been a sheet. How had she not noticed the pale silver stitches on the ends of the sheet and the glossy threads running through it? The silver stitches had shapes that were hard to follow – or maybe that was just her vision swirling.
From the corner beside the bookshelves, Gran approached. The swirls weren’t in her vision, they were really there. Dark spirals that reeked of almond and decay together. Gran spoke and Ava really heard her voice for the first time, stripped of false warmth, of any emotion except maybe triumph.
“You found your mother’s writings? Her little scribbles? I thought those were long gone. Thought I cleaned them all out of here, burned them all up on the stove.”
Ava worked her jaw side to side, trying to find that magic angle that would let the gag slip off.
“She was right – I never liked Chelsea. She tasted like chlorine and lavender. But she gave me back some of my color.”
Gran pointed to the wicker table next to Ava’s seat. She looked at a photo of Gran standing beside Mom and Chelsea. She had a thin streak of gray in her hair and insistent worry lines on her forehead, soft jowls starting beneath her jaw. The photo behind it was more disturbing. Gran and Mom again, years later at Mom’s graduation. No worry lines, no gray, definition in her jawbone and color on her cheeks. Mom looked too serious for a graduation.
At once Ava knew what must have happened at the vacation home. Gran had tried to siphon away Mom’s youth. She’d trapped her in the bathroom until Ava had called. She might have broken her concentration. Maybe she did save Mom’s life, at least that time.
Gran was putting leaves in a shallow, metal bowl half-full of glowing charcoal briquettes. The smell was like holiday dressing sizzling on top of thick blood and charred bones. Ava watched in wonder so strong it nearly overwhelmed her terror as the smoke and the dark tendrils laced together. Her chair became an island amid darkness. From across the room Gran was touching her, hands of blackness and acrid smoke brushing her hair back, caressing her cheeks and throat. Already Gran’s wrinkles seemed to be filling, her hair turning from stark white to a softer blend of brown and gray. From the corner of her eye Ava saw a lock of her own hair bleaching gray inch by inch. She screamed but the gag muffled the sound. The gray crawled up her hair faster, and her teeth began to feel wobbly in their sockets.
A burst of anger as she realized that Gran had been collecting the herbs for this rite for weeks – she’d helped gather them, blindly following Gran in her silent walk around the garden. That horribly cozy-smelling herb, with its underlying notes of iron, must be werdestem. She could almost find it amusing, these innocent items positioned around her. A wicker coffee table, a stupid ten dollar table from a kitschy shop. The locket Gran had worn since Ava could remember was only silver-plated. The only really genuine ingredient was the fear, whipped up nightly by visions that Gran had put in her drinks, in the stuffing of her pillow, in every corner of the house.
Her eyes were going blurry with cataracts and her hands on the arms of the chair were shriveling, liver spots spreading like a colony of inexorable mushrooms. She looked across at Gran and saw a vixen witch with wavy black hair standing over a smoking cauldron – and laughed aloud at the campy scene. She could almost hear the thrum of anxious violins. The thickened darkness around her wavered like a mirage when she laughed, and her vision cleared for a moment.
The crash of fear subsided with the upsurge of a wild idea. She thought of how many times Gran had done this and how inside she must be just like a worm-eaten pecan – her soul rattling in each new, youthful body. And this time Gran wanted to look like Elvira! Ava laughed again and this time the gray streak in her hair began to dissipate, leaving her original dull brown. The most boring brown, yet she’d never seen anything that made her happier.
Then her mouth was free, and then she squirmed out of the silk warps like a butterfly coming out of a chrysalis. Gran was hunching over the fire, one eye blazing with hate and need, one eye dead white. Her long black hair began to pale again, and she screeched, waving her arms above the smoldering leaves to stir up more smoke. The darkness was repelled by Ava now, drawing back and leaving lacy light behind. She took a step forward and the black swirls sucked back hastily. Her fear had diminished to mere caution and a sense of growing strength. She took the picture of Gran and Mom and Chelsea and smashed it on the floor. Glass burst and she laughed at the destruction like a kid knocking out a window, her joy a weapon and a shield.
The darkness swept over Gran in a sucking whirlpool, tunneling down her throat and shuddering all the way to the tips of her fingers and toes. Ava stepped past the rapidly aging husk and took the stairs two at a time. The basement door locked itself.
Ava went through the whole house and found a stash of Mom’s notes. Recipes for healing broken bones, broken hearts, and broken minds. Gran’s bedroom closet held a supply of alchemical ingredients, dried herbs, and fabrics so alive to the touch they must have cost a hundred dollars a yard. Ava collected them and put everything in her suitcase. She burned the recipes that seemed dangerous and organized the rest of them into a binder. Mom always said she’d be a good administrator.
The local paper ran a short obituary for their little-known citizen, dead of apparent heart failure, survived by her granddaughter – who was missing, assumed to be a runaway. By the time it was printed, Ava had hitchhiked halfway across the country.
Rachel DiMaggio writes dark fiction, runs the Freelance and Fiction website and blog, and has been privileged to edit several fiction and non-fiction manuscripts. In her spare time, she enjoys baking, playing video games, and watching horror movies. She and her husband live in Massachusetts, which is perfect because she is guaranteed to get a few snowed-in-with-hot-coffee days every winter.