Barrel of Monkeys

It’s possible to die from embarrassment. This is true. His mom said it wasn’t, but she lied, like, a lot–about the crusts on bread being the healthiest part, about the monster not being under the bed, about his face getting stuck like that, and more things than he cared to count.

Wait. Did this mean… Santa Claus…?

No. Adults would never lie about that. Santa Claus and God and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. These were too important. Such falsehoods would be blasphemy.

Trevor shook his head. Focus. He needed his full attention on the task ahead if he wanted to see another Christmas. He darted across the lawn and flattened himself against a wall on the side of the tiny house. Moments later, his sister joined him. He whispered harshly, “What are you doing here?”

“Helping you!” she whispered back.

“I don’t need help!”

“Mommy will kill me if you don’t come home today.”

“Anna,” he explained, “if she catches us, she’ll eat us both!”

“Mommy?”

“No, you dummy!”

Anna gasped. Maybe, now that he used a forbidden word, she’d appreciate the gravity of the situation.

“The witch,” he explained. “She’ll eat us both.”

“You’re bigger,” she reminded him. “She’ll be too full, and I’ll get away.”

“You’re slower,” he retorted.”

“What if you get scared to death?”

He’d considered this already, when he’d made the decision to come here. It was no contest. If he died of fright, he’d just fall over, his hair standing on end. If he died of humiliation, all the blood rushing to his head would make it explode, necessitating a closed-coffin funeral. His parents would be extra sad then. It was bad enough he was risking everything just being here.

“If you think you’re going to die,” Anna asked, “then why are you here?”

“You’re too little to get it,” Trevor explained. “Scott double-dared me to do this.”

“So?”

“It was a double. Dare. If I don’t do this, my life is over. Or worse, I’ll be embarrassed to death.” He concluded, “Anna, we both don’t have to die here.”

Across the street, Scott impatiently shrugged and tapped his digital watch. Trevor’s dad wouldn’t let him get a watch of his own because he wasn’t old enough, so he didn’t know how long he had before he had to get to school. Probably not long. His logic was simple: if he investigated the witch in the morning, she’d probably be asleep. Still, this didn’t give him long to talk himself into it.

He sighed. It was now or never. With Anna behind him, he rounded the corner, between the flower bed and the front of the house. The one thing he didn’t get was the garden. Why would a witch grow plants? Maybe it was a disguise. It was pointless, though. Everybody knew a witch lived here, and if everybody knew it, it must be true.

It took about fourteen excruciating steps to reach the front door, and from there, another two to the poster window he figured belonged to the living room. He scooted over so that Anna could peek inside too. And what they saw was… disappointing. There was a TV, a sofa, a bookshelf, some paintings, and, in the background, a kitchen. Where was the cauldron? The broom? The jars full of nightmarish items for spells? The cat? How was he supposed to tell Scott that everything was so normal? Maybe it was another disguise. Just in case, he pressed his ear against the glass, and Anna followed suit.

Her eyes widened in fear. “Did you hear that?”

He didn’t reply. It was so awful, he had to keep listening. From deep inside the house came a low groan.

“What was that?” Anna whispered.

Trevor put his finger to his lips.

The groan repeated, more clearly this time. It didn’t seem to be getting closer–just louder. By the third time, he realized it belonged to a man. A man in pain.

Anna figured it out at the same time. “We should go!”

He again put his finger to his lips. Was someone being tortured? He turned to Scott, who was mouthing something urgently. Trevor shrugged and pointed to the window.

Anna gasped. “There’s someone else in there!”

“What?” He listened again to the sound of a high-pitched moan. It was a woman. There were two people being tortured! The man groaned and the woman moaned, over and over, faster and faster.

And then the woman yelped, “Oh, God!”

Anna grabbed Trevor’s arm. “We have to do something!”

“We can’t!” he hissed. “We’re just kids!”

“Oh, God!” cried the woman.

“We have to call someone!” Anna squealed. “The police!”

“Oh! God!”

Trevor could barely hear himself think. “We don’t have a phone!”

Oh! God!

“Trevor!” Anna scolded.

“Oh, God, I’m coming!”

The couple inside were on their own. The witch was coming, and Trevor and Anna weren’t sticking around. Squealing, they fled for their lives.

Trevor risked a look back, and behind them, Scott was hunched over, cracking up. However, when the door to the witch’s house began to open, his hysterical laughter became hysterical fear.

***

With her left hand, Rafaela clutched her robe closed, and with her right, she pushed her chaotic, black-and-graying curls out of her face. Three children, whom she assumed were the ones screaming a second ago, were running down the street, much faster than she thought their little legs could carry them.

From the bedroom, her boyfriend asked, “What the hell was that about?”

She frowned and closed the door. “Damned if I know.”

Critical Hit

It was not difficult to convince the mother to take her daughter and stay for a few days in a place that wasn’t her home.

Over the past month, what had started as a little girl’s nightmares become a mom’s nightmares, which then evolved into whispers from the walls, escalating into deep scratches on their skin while they slept. She’d tried counseling, exterminators, and dermatologists, all to no avail. And so, when a forthright young woman with impeccable posture appeared at her door and introduced herself as a witch and paranormal consultant, she was desperate enough to toss her the keys and find a hotel.

This is how Gina the teenage witch and paranormal consultant operated–with composed swagger and competent grace.

And this is how Jin always found himself at her beck and call.

Her best friend Susan, also at her beck and call, said to her, “Baby,” she said to her, “I am freezing.”

Susan’s boyfriend spoke, as he always did, economically. “The temperature is a clue.”

Jin sighed. He was never enamored of Victor to begin with, but he could tolerate his all-American masculinity. But now that he was taking magic lessons from Gina, he’d developed a crippling stating-the-obvious addiction. Jin, for one, wished he’d go back to being the Strong, Silent Type.

“Yo,” ordered Susan, “Punk Rock. It’s time for that voodoo that you do.”

Jin laughed. “Why are you calling me Punk Rock? You’ve never done that before.”

“Trying it out,” she replied. “What do you think?”

“I kind of hate it.”

“Harsh,” she admitted, “but fair.”

Gina cleared her throat. “Sobriquets aside, I believe it is time to begin this aforementioned voodoo.”

Jin didn’t wait another second before throwing himself into a bombastic tune–a soundtrack to his mood. He’d been having a bad week, both academically and socially, but when it came to situations like this, he was a star.

Because Jin had superpowers.

“That voodoo that I do–
Yes, I do the voodoo–
The music is my tool!

I see, hear, smell, and feel
The hidden that is real.
I tell you: it’s real cool!”

But not this time.

Gina studied the look on Jin’s face. “You appear disconcerted.”

“This is…” he told her. “This is really… bad.”

“Please specify.”

“In a haunted house,” he explained, “there’s always this light… haze everywhere. But here it’s a thick fog.” He squinted in concentration. “No, wait, more like smoke. No, a sandstorm! No, a whiteout!”

“That is disconcerting,” she agreed.

“Now what?” Susan asked hesitantly. She wasn’t all that into this supernatural business, but two of the people she loved most were, so here she was. Her expression made it clear she wished she wasn’t.

“Now,” Gina answered, “you will remain in this room while I instruct Victor on a simple blessing that even he, in his enthusiasm, cannot possibly misinterpret to disastrous ends, as he seems eager to do. “

Once…” Victor mumbled.

“Jin,” she continued, “will search the building for the presence that is wreaking such havoc.”

Jin tossed Susan a look of solidarity.

His first stop was the girl’s bedroom, where all this started. He wasn’t there long when he caught a glimpse of his reflection in her cute, little vanity. His reflection was all he caught.

“Oh, fuck!” he cried out. “Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck oh shit oh fuck!” he continued during his dash back to his companions. “We have to leave,” he declared, somehow without screaming.

Susan’s uneasiness snapped into panic. “What?”

“They’re gone,” he told them.

Gina understood immediately what he meant. “That’s impossible.”

Susan was only moments away from freaking out completely, which was the only rational response to the situation. “What’s gone?”

There was no time to explain to her that he could see in mirrors the inhabitants of an eternity of alien worlds–realities, dimensions, whatever. It was just something he’d been able to do since was a boy. You know, superpowers. But now, for the first time boy, these beings were absent. And what’s worse was that he had a pretty solid feeling they’d fled from the area, like fauna before a forest fire. “Me,” he said. “I’m gone.”

“But this is unprecedented!” Gina clutched his arm as he fled. “We have to investigate!”

“Nope,” he replied.

“I’m sharing that nope,” Susan agreed, “and I brought a bunch of my own.”

“Don’t you recognize the significance of this?” Gina begged.

Susan closed her eyes, and when she opened them, they were rolled so far back in her head that they were simply white. And yet, she scanned the room as if she could see just fine.

Jin had seen enough horror movies to know what possession by an evil spirit looked like.

When Susan’s mouth opened to speak, he expected a growl or an unsettling harmony–anything inhuman, really. So it came as a surprise when the only change in Susan’s voice was its newfound steadiness. “Hello, Regina.”

“Hello,” Gina replied politely. “To whom do I speak?”

Susan’s head shook. “No names.”

“You have mine.”

“Because you are careless with it,” the thing in Susan’s body replied. “Out of all the people in this room, you should know how dangerous that is, Regina de Costa, daughter of Lucio Marcos de Costa and Helena Torres, graduate of the school in the cave.”

“If you know who I am,” she stated, “then you know that I can compel you to tell me whatever I wish.”

“No, you can’t.”

The room fell silent for a moment.

“What are you doing in her body?” demanded Victor with the kind of fragile calm that has to be constructed very, very carefully.

“The door is open. Anybody can come in.”

“I don’t understand,” he confessed.

“This door has been unlocked and not properly closed.”

“I still don’t–“

Brad,” Jin whispered.

Victor frowned. “Who?”

Jin waved his hand. “Long story.”

“I want to hear it.”

“Gina used Susan to channel a ghost but she had her permission and it really, really helped people and I can’t believe nobody told you about that,” he stammered.

“Is that how this happened?” asked Susan’s voice.

“But,” Gina breathed. “I shut the door.”

“Not well enough. It’s been opened since then, more than once. If it hadn’t, I’d never be able to fit in here.”

Victor’s calm began to crumble. “Gina, what did you do?”

Instead of responding, she turned to the monster inhabiting her best friend. “What. Are. You.”

“I am not here to answer your questions.”

“You will.” Tracing a complicated symbol in the air with her fingers, she snarled, Espírito, você deve legar para–

Susan’s fist smashed into Gina’s throat. While she crumpled to the floor, gasping, Susan’s other hand whipped out and grasped Victor’s face as if it were a scrap of paper about to be wadded up.

As he struggled to free himself, Susan’s voice told him, “Victor Huber, you are far more intelligent than you look. You can make an educated guess as to how much damage these well-manicured fingernails could do to your skin if you don’t stop squirming.”

Reluctantly, he did as he was told.

Jin didn’t quite had the time to grasp what was happening until that voice addressed him. “Jin Harima, I want you to look me in the eye.”

He obeyed, and it was clear that, even without pupils, the thing was watching him.

“Sing for me, phonomancer. I want you to see my face.”

“I can’t…”

“Sing.”

Trembling, Jin found a tune:

“I’ve never witnessed such violence.
I’ve never seen Victor laid low.
I’ve never seen Gina silenced.
Whatever you are, I don’t want to know.”

The thing’s real mouth and voice told him, “You don’t have a choice.”

And he was right; this was something he never wanted to know. Its expressionless features were bland and generic, like something an artist would sketch as a placeholder before filling in the details later. Yet they made him feel like a mouse in a field hearing the screech of an owl.

The face quickly faded into the wind, leaving only Susan’s, which ordered, “I want you to tell Regina de Costa what you saw, and then I want you to forget. Are you listening, Regina?”

She was still struggling to inhale, but managed with great effort to turn her head toward them.

“Gina…” Jin tried to say. “It’s… the thing… looks…”

“Never mind,” Susan’s voice told him. “The look on your face says everything.” Susan’s mouth grinned, but it wasn’t Susan’s grin. This was even scarier than anything he’d seen so far.

“I really won’t remember?” Jin squeaked.

“Nor will Victor Huber,” it replied. “You are insignificant.

“Regina de Costa, daughter of Lucio Marcos de Costa and Helena Torres, you are not. You are a clever little girl. In fact, you are, by far, the cleverest human for miles around. But you are still human.

“I entered this home twenty-eight days ago to find something, but it’s not here. After I abandon this body, I will continue to search this town until I find it. My business is not yours, and it will remain that way. Do you understand?”

Seething, she nodded.

“Now leave,” it concluded. “And so will I.”

Susan’s hand released Victor, and her eyes closed, opening again with irises where they belonged. “Sorry about that,” she said. “I must have spaced out for a second.”

Jin blinked. “Me too. Weird.”

Victor rubbed the bruises on his temples. “Huh.”

“Are we going to do this thing?” asked Jin.

“Not necessary,” coughed Gina. “The matter has been settled. It was simpler than I had anticipated.”

Susan frowned. “Wait, what?”

Gauntlet

The first time it happened, Gina was directly and consciously responsible.

She’d been asked to settle a matter of paranormal significance, and found the solution in her friend Susan, whom she convinced to allow a ghost to speak through her. This worked out satisfactorily for everyone, except for Susan, who was deeply unsettled.

The second time it happened, Gina didn’t notice because she was distracted.

Several weeks later, Gina opened the door of her dorm room to Susan, who was wearing a split lip garnished by a trickle of blood leaking from her nose.

“What…” Gina tried to ask.

“Post-racial America,” Susan told her as she pushed her way inside. “Can you take care of this for me?”

“Certainly,” Gina replied. “I’m educated in the art of fisticuffs, and my less-than-impressive stature contributes a certain element–“

Susan snorted. “‘The Art of Fisticuffs?'”

Fisticuffs means–”

“I know what it means,” she chuckled. “Don’t sweat that part; I took care of it. I meant my face. Magic it or something.”

“I can’t just wave my hand and eliminate your injuries.”

“Then what do I pay you for?”

Gina assumed this was a figure of speech, because Susan had never given her money, and so she chose to keep her mouth shut.

Susan slumped onto Gina’s bed. “I just don’t want to be walking around school looking like some kind of thug girl.”

Gina scrounged through her dresser and produced several spice jars and two bottles of oil, which she then proceeded to mix in something that looked like a cauldron. “What I can do is apply a poultice.”

“You mean chicken parts?”

Gina took a deep breath. “I can apply an herbal concoction that will heal you overnight. If you like, I can also infuse it with a glamour that will mask their appearance.” There will still be mild discomfort, but no visibility.”

She point eagerly. “That! I’ll take one of those!”

Gina gently wiped up the dried blood with a moist towel and applied the mixture to her friend’s nose with a careful finger. But when she dabbed it onto Susan’s lip, her entire hand began to tingle.

Susan winced.

Susan’s brother Gerard was a proud nerd. When he’d learned of the dearth of Gina’s experience with the violent action cinema of the 1980s and 90s, he forced her to sit through as many of them as she could tolerate. This turned out to be a lot more than either had expected, in that they were much like high-sodium snacks; they contributed nothing to her mental or physical well-being, and yet she could not partake in just one.

Why was she thinking of this just now?

She tried to swallow, but her throat had dried up.

A near-universal trope in those movies occurred in the second act, in which the hyper-masculine hero would endure a lost battle or a pyrrhic victory and retreat to the very feminine heroine–although the heroine rarely committed a heroic act of her own–who nursed him back to health from his superficial injuries, an act that invariably led to a chaste, highly obscured sex scene.

Ah, yes.

That trope.

Susan was, if anything, hyper-masculine. But she was also very heterosexual. Come to think of it, so was the feminine Gina.

So why was all of her blood rerouting itself to her ears and face?

Their eyes locked for a moment, but only for a moment.

Susan shook her head and asked, “Is that it?”

Gina scrambled away, without any of the grace she was known for. She tried to speak, but had to clear her throat. “No,” she coughed. After a deep breath, she whispered, “Véu o dano para ela visage até que seu rosto pode falar por si.”

“Now is that it?”

With cold, shaky fingers, Gina handed her a mirror.

Susan examined herself for a moment, blinked, and bounced up and down on the mattress, squealing, “Gee! This trick is swell! Holy cow!”

Gina returned her supplies in the appropriate order to the appropriate drawer until her vascular system resumed its appropriate function. “Indeed,” she replied, “but the swelling will subside as long as you don’t interfere with the poultice.”

“I feel better already.” Susan hopped to her feet and blew her a kiss. “Thanks for the love, baby.”

Considering the nature of the encounter, it was understandable that Gina didn’t register the momentary strangeness.

The third time it happened, Gina was also distracted, but for different reasons.

Over the previous weeks, a number of incidents occurred that revived her faith in herself–something she thought she would never need to revive. And so, shortly after the last of these, she found herself in a franchise coffee bar, wondering what to do next. Susan slid into the booth across from her and said, “Yo.”

“Yo,” Gina said back, her mind still unfocused.

“Where’s Rafaela?”

“She departed moments ago,” Gina told her. “Indefinitely.”

“I needed to talk to her about something.”

Gina picked up one of the cafe’s customer-reward cards and turned it over in her fingers.

Susan continued, “Gerard’s been acting… different… since they hung out the other day. What’s up with that?”

Unwilling to lie about to her best friend about how her cousin had revoked Susan’s brother’s status as a virgin, Gina shrugged and waved her hand over the slip of stiff paper in the other. “Lançar uma identidade da minha escolha sobre esta.

“Whatcha doin’, baby?” asked Susan.

“Reverse engineering a glamour Rafaela used on a playing card,” Gina replied, handing it over. “What does that look like to you?”

“Like you got three punches left for a free beverage of your choice.”

Gina sighed. “It’s supposed to be a convincing falsification of a driver’s license, identifying me as a woman of twenty-five years.” She took it back with a frown. “Rafaela told me she got the idea from a TV show.”

“Two actually. But one was a comic book first.”

“Is that right?”

“Geeky shit.” Susan smirked. “I tell everybody I like it because of my brother, but… you know.”

Gina kissed the card and said, “Por favor, me obedecer, você, uma vez que uma árvore; por favor fingir ser o que eu peço de você.

Susan snatched it away and blinked. She then straightened out her posture, raised her chin, and announced in a dead-on, upper-crust British accent, “Jolly good work, I say!”

Gina thought this was weird, but she let it slide.

The fourth time it happened, Gina finally caught on.

This was kind of surprising, given that she and Susan had, between the two of them, swallowed two-thirds of a bottle of vodka purchased with the aid of the magical fake ID. Neither of them had families they wished to return to, or any other place to go over Spring Break, so they sat in the bleachers in the empty football stadium and bathed in the company of the other, undistracted by homework or Susan’s boyfriend.

Susan, while handing over the bottle, blinked before swaying and slurring, “I could never dig this game–just a bunch of lunkheads in helmets throwing around a balloon and crashing into each other. Now, boxing? That is a gentleman’s sport.”

“Susan,” Gina laughed, “I wasn’t aware of your… unexpected opinions on the subject.”

“Who’s Susan?”

“You…?” Gina replied.

“Trust me, doll, I don’t know who the devil this Susan is.”

Gina’s eyes widened, and her head cocked excitedly. “To whom do I speak?”

Grabbing back the bottle, she said, “You’re speaking to Susan, baby. And I think you need to slow down on this shit.”

Gina grinned.

The fifth and sixth times were a delight for Gina, who took the opportunity to chat through Susan’s mouth with deceased figures from all eras of history.

The seventh time, however, was not a delight.

The Fiction of the Fix

Gina spooned the gooey mixture of underbaked batter and runny icing onto a saucer and attempted to shape it into something resembling cake. Unlike her fellow work-study food-service employees, she respected the importance of presentation in dining. Even the past semester and a half of shoveling such wads of sugar couldn’t break her of that.

On the other side of the glass, a student huffed, tapped his feet, and reached out his hand. She passed him the dish, and he dropped it onto his tray, alongside a plate loaded with piles of yellowish beige corn, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes–not a vitamin or protein in sight. She’d learned early on that unsolicited nutritional tips tended to be met with scorn and inexplicable rage, so she just set her jaw and hoped for his sake he’d change his ways before the onset of type-2 diabetes.

As he scooted away, she flashed a smile as empty as the carbohydrates in his meal and called after him, “Have a nice day! Looking forward to seeing you again real soon!”

The next person in line pointed at an item and asked, “What’s that?”

“Grapes, sliced bananas, and assorted melons suspended in a sweetened gelatinous substance,” she replied without looking up.

“Sounds yummy.”

“It’s ghastly,” she confessed.

The customer snapped her fingers, and Gina finally decided to see who it was. “Rafaela?”

Her cousin smirked. “You have a shocking amount of dignity for someone with a plastic bag covering their hair.”

“Dignity is all I have at the moment,” Gina replied before examining the contents of her lunch: fried chicken coated in a glistening sheen of canola oil, a mixture of anemic carrots and peas the color of olives, and the aforementioned mashed potatoes.

“Don’t judge me,” Rafaela growled.

“Only students are allowed here,” Gina informed her.

“I totally pass as a student!”

“At your age?”

“That hurts,” she pouted.

“I thought you needed an ID to get past the door.”

“You thought right.” Rafaela slapped a card on the counter. “It’s a good thing I have one.”

Gina picked it up and turned it over. “This is the three of clubs.”

She took it back. “It’s whatever I want it to be. The spell even works on credit card readers. Cool, right? I got the idea from a TV show. You get BBC here?”

“Technically that’s theft, Raffi.”

She rolled her eyes guiltily. “I’m pretty good at rationalizing it,” she said.

Hey!” yelled the student behind her.

I’m deciding!” Rafaela yelled back.

Just pick something!

I have a sensitive palate!” She turned back to Gina. “Anyway, I need to talk to you, ASAP.”

“Observe: I am working.”

“Can’t you take a break?”

“I. Am. Working.”

“Surely anybody here is qualified to sling this shit.”

“You’re being rude,” Gina told her.

“And you’re being as sensitive as my pallet,” Rafaela snorted. “Okay, I’m assuming there’s a franchise coffee joint somewhere in the student union. I’ll meet you there when you’re done.”

Come on!” whined the next guy in line.

Chill out!” Rafaela barked. “You’re young! You got all the time in the world!

I got class!

If you had any class whatsoever, you’d be patient!” She admitted to her cousin, “He’s right, I should probably pick something. What kind of pudding is that?”

“Either vanilla or banana,” she replied. “I can’t discern which.” She filled a small bowl and handed it over. “It’s unlikely you will be able to either.”

Rafaela grinned. “Don’t ever change, Gee.”

An hour later, Gina became a coed once more and joined her cousin, who was sipping on a blended an iced pumpkin-spiced chai mocha latte while objectifying the torsos of passing frat boys.

“What’s this urgent business?” asked Gina.

Rafaela unfolded an enormous sheet of paper. “I’ve scried up a matter of mild supernatural significance just off campus, and I think you should look into it.”

Gina told her, “This is a map of Doha, Qatar.”

Rafaela blushed and folded it back up. “That wouldn’t be helpful, would it?” She pulled out the right one and tapped her finger on a street corner in a posh housing development near the football stadium. “Nothing major, I’m betting,” she said. “Probably just a poltergeist or possession.”

“When do you wish to investigate?”

Rafaela’s shoulders fell. “Not us; you and your goofy friends.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Gee,” she sighed, “I need to leave.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m bored,” she replied. “There’s nothing to do here except hang out with college students at least five years younger than me, and when you say that out loud, it’s really gross.”

“At the risk of insulting you again,” Gina said, “your level of maturity is a greater match for theirs than mine. In fact, your experience with both their world and mine acts as a bridge between us. I’ve never been more comfortable here than I’ve been since you accompanied–“

“Shut up!” Rafaela snapped. “You are such a teenager! This awkwardness and confusion you’re feeling? It’s the surest sign you belong here. Every student at this school is as self-conscious as you are–class presidents, jocks, sorority sisters… Every. Single. Student. Besides, anyone I talked to–and I talk to a lot of people–think you’re the most together person they’ve seen. Aloof, but together. Your friends adore the shit out of you. Why do you think they tried to summon a ghost in the library last week? To impress you.”

“They failed to do so.”

“No, they didn’t.”

“No,” Gina breathed, “they didn’t.”

“Anyway,” Rafaela continued, “it’s better for the both of us if I take off. And since I’m the slip-out-the-back-when-no-one’s-looking type, I’m going to throw my shit in my van and slip out the back when no one’s looking.”

As her cousin stood up, Gina said, “I don’t want you to go.”

Rafaela bit her lip. “Please don’t, Gee. You’re killing me.”

“I’m so lost.”

“No, you’re not.” She kissed her on the cheek. “You know exactly where you are.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yes, you do,” Rafaela told her as she strode off. But just before she reached the exit, she turned around and scurried back. “And don’t tell Susan I slept with her brother.”

Gina sputtered, “You engaged in sexual relations with Gerard?”

She shrugged. “I travel from town to town, righting wrongs. Him being a virgin? Totally wrong. Okay, I’m leaving for real this time.”

Rafaela wasn’t even gone for a full minute before Gina lost the fight with the grin that threatened to consume her face.

Sweep the Leg

“Yo,” Susan concluded, “I don’t think that’s her.”

“Who else would it be?” asked Jin.

“Don’t know,” she replied. “Does that urban legend say the ghost of Abby Winston likes to stand around in a toga, carrying a torch like some deceased Statue of Liberty?”

“Toga?” he muttered. “I thought that was an old-timey nightgown.”

“I’m pretty sure old-school nightgowns had sleeves.”

Jin snorted, “So now you’re an expert in Reconstruction-era sleepwear?”

“Vic, baby,” Susan begged the blond-haired, blue-eyed Midwestern masterpiece standing next to her, “this was your idea. What do you think this is about?”

Victor grunted. While Jin and his lover had been bickering about the identity of the pale girl they’d summoned and trapped inside a circle of chalk and candles, he’d been carefully studying her. Through black, glistening hair, she’d been studying them back.

According to rumor, Abigail Winston died in 1902 of pneumonia in the library her father had bought and paid for. Over the generations and to this day, friends of friends of students at this college claimed to have seen her spirit wandering the stacks, lantern in hand.

This girl was most certainly dead. Her skin had faded to an empty gray, her flowing dress–or nightgown or toga, whatever–had taken on the green of moss, and the eye he could see was dark and sunken, shrouded in the harsh light of the flames above and below her. So there was that.

On the other hand, that wasn’t a lantern she was carrying.

“I’m inclined to agree with you,” he replied after some thought. “That don’t look like some rich girl who died before her time.”

“Then what the hell is it?” asked Jin.

Victor shrugged.

Susan glared at Jin. “You’re the one with the superpowers,” she reminded him, “you figure it out.” She then turned her attention to her boyfriend. “I think it’s totally cool that Gina’s showing you how to do hoodoo, but if you do shit like this again next time she leaves town…” She pointed up and down her torso. “… you are never seeing this again. Ya dig?”

He nodded.

Jin belted out a song.

I know not what you are,
Or whether you have traveled far.
To illuminate our humble college.
Can you gift us your knowledge?

With the shadow of her eye, the girl glared.

“I got nothing,” Jin confessed, “but a general sense of pissiness.”

“Never mind what I said, baby,” Susan told Victor. “You’re cut off, irregardless.”

“It’s okay,” Victor assured them. “She can’t hurt us as long as she stays in the circle.”

Jin slapped his face in his palm. “You do realize you probably jinxed us.”

Sure enough, with the sucking sound of a foot freeing itself from thick mud–as opposed to the tile they all stood on–the girl took one step out of the chalk outline, knocking over every candle in her path.

“I got this,” Jin announced before serenading her.

Superpowers activate!
Danger I exterminate!
I’m Jin, the music master,
And you are a disaster!

She waved her torch in front of his face.

“What?” he responded. “What do you mean they’re not real? I’ve been seeing them all my life! Am I crazy? Holy shit I’m crazy!” He collapsed to his knees, eyes open wide and watering. “I saved her… from myself? Oh my God I tried to suffocate my own mom! I didn’t know! I’m sorry!”

The girl turned, pointed a finger at Susan, and whispered, “Soon.”

“Ain’t gonna happen,” Victor declared and lunged between them. What he got for his bravery was an eyeful of torch.

When he blinked away the spots, he saw his high school sweetheart, but older. Behind her scrambled a laughing boy he loved with all his heart. Through them, he saw a desert that stripped away his pride and his very name.

A voice he recognized broke through all of this, saying, “Victor, my disappointment in you is matched only by the virtuosity of your failure.”

A voice he didn’t recognize purred, “Hellooooo, gorgeous!”

A pair of hands gripped his shoulders and shook him until the visions parted like a curtain, revealing sour face of his mentor, Gina. He kind of wanted the hallucinations back. “I advised you against spellcraft in my absence for a reason, Victor.”

His head whipped around the room in a panic. “Susan!”

“Susan is unharmed,” Gina told him. “She’s assisting Jin.”

He sighed.

“Are you functional?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Then listen closely,” she said slowly and clearly. “If you had been heeding my instructions, you would have recalled that research is essential to the process. And if you had done this research, you would have discovered that Rutherford Walton, the patron of this library, bore two sons and no daughter. The haunting you sought is a complete fabrication.

“Additionally, you also would have recalled the importance of leaving no gaps in the circle, no matter how miniscule.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Your apology means little if you intend to repeat this error.”

“I won’t,” he replied.

“Splendid. Now, if you’ll wait here, I must scold your partner in romance and monumental fuck-ups.”

Victor focused on the rescuer who had arrived with Gina–a woman clad in orange and green, topped off with ludicrously bouncy black-and-silver curls. She retreated from the menace of the girl slowly marching toward her, yet she grinned and bounced like a playful puppy.

“… an amazing year, I tell you!” she’d been babbling. “I mean, a kamaitachi and melon heads–which are a lot more menacing than their name implies, I assure you–and now you!”

Who?” whispered the girl.

“Sorry,” she laughed. “Manners. I’m Rafaela. Torres. Rafaela Torres. And you are… Wow… Although I’m curious: you can look like just about any female in the world, and you pick J-horror. Don’t get me wrong: It’s a good look for you, but still, why did you choose this?”

How?

“I don’t know,” Rafaela replied. “I think it was an accident. Either way, the circle is broken. You can leave now.”

Why?

“Your mistress isn’t here anymore,” Rafaela told her. “She hasn’t been in a long time. She’s home, waiting for you to light her way.”

No.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go back?”

Yes.

“Fine,” Rafaela said, just before sidestepping, ducking into a crouch, and kicking her ankles. By the time the girl landed on her back, Rafaela had sprung to her feet, planting one on her fist, which still held tightly onto the torch.

“Holy shit!” yelped Susan.

“Huh,” agreed Victor.

“Dang,” breathed Jin.

“That was indeed impressive,” admitted Gina.

“Thanksh!” Rafaela mumbled while plucking the cap of off a dry-erase marker with her teeth. She scribbled something onto the girl’s arm, recapped the marker, and shouted to the heavens, “Hecate, recuperar o teu servo partir desta terra estranha!”

The girl gurgled for a minute before her body crumbled into wet soil, her hair and toga into algae, and her torch into ash. All of these quickly dissolved into smoke.

That settled, Rafaela clapped her hands and asked the room, “Which one of you clumsy, adorable little children summoned a lampad?”

“I thought a lampad was a fish,” Jin said.

Gina groaned.

Rafaela’s eyes widened. “She appeared to you as a fish? That’s wild! I didn’t know she could look like different things to different people! I saw a creepy, gross dead girl! How did she look to everyone else?”

Gina groaned louder. “He thinks you said lamprey.”

“Oh.” Rafaela needed a minute to let this detail soak in. “Let me rephrase that: Which one of you clumsy, adorable little children summoned an ancient Greek underworld nymph who serves the three-headed goddess of crossroads and the moon?”

Victor exchanged a glance with Susan and Jin.

Rafaela rolled her eyes. “Don’t all raise your hands at once.”

Shibusa

“You probably can’t tell just by looking at me,” said Rafaela, “but I’m kind of an expert on mental health institutions.”

The diaphanous, yet sturdy form of a hospital orderly in front of her did not speak; it just crept forward, pretending not to be a threat.

“It’s subtle, to be sure,” she explained, “but your scrubs and badge are from the twenty-first century. The Ridges Asylum closed in 1993, so this means you’re not an actual resident. Am I right?”

The specter’s next steps were bolder.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” she continued, “and neither am I. Why don’t we just go our separate ways and pretend this never happened?”

It crouched and spread its arms like an American football player.

She flinched. “Look, if your purpose is to spook me, then well done. You found my sore spot, okay. Bravo.” Rafaela could not overstate the truth of this. Since she’d arrived at the shuttered Athens Mental Health Institute, she’d comforted the disoriented, frightened ghosts of the cemetery outside, confronted the murderers exiled to graves on the far side of nearby creek, and strolled casually through the dark rooms in the basement where secretive, questionable treatments had been inflicted upon the ill. And yet it wasn’t until she crossed into Ward N. 20 that it occurred to her to be afraid. “So, if it’s okay with you,” she concluded, “I’m just going to run away now.”

Apparently, this wasn’t okay, because it lunged.

Sidestepping, she admitted, “Yeah, didn’t think so.” While it recovered its balance, she fled, muttering the word Crap! every time her feet hit the floor. After charging up all of the staircases until she ran out of them, she ducked through a random door to catch her breath.

“Be cool, dude,” she panted. “You punched a wendigo once. You out-riddled a troll. This is just an imaginary dumbass in comfortable shoes.”

“Do you habitually speak of yourself in the third person,” asked someone else in the room, “or do you have an invisible accomplice you’re addressing?”

Fuck!” shrieked Rafaela. As soon as her heart restarted, she added, “I don’t care if you’re a ghost or not! You do not do that to a girl!”

“I’m not a ghost,” the voice replied.

Rafaela scanned the floor, which was decorated with the vague imprint of a human’s body. “Were you the shadowy figure watching me from this window earlier tonight?”

“Yes.”

“Is your name Margaret Schilling?”

“No.”

“Then I hate to be the one to tell you this, Margaret,” Rafaela said sadly, “but you passed away in 1978, and it’s two thousand…” She frowned. “Why would you tell me you’re not Margaret Schilling?”

Black hair, smug eyes, crimson lips, crisp jeans, and the most stylish of blouses drifted into the moonlight. The lean, delicate young woman rested a hand on her impatiently cocked hip and replied, “Because my name is Regina de Costa, though many have taken to calling me Gina, despite my protestations.”

Rafaela squeaked, “What the hell?”

Gina is the diminutive of Regina,” she explained condescendingly, “a fact that should be obvious.”

“Gee?”

Gina’s pride fell from her face like an imploding building. “Raffi?”

“What are you doing here?”

It took some time for Gina to process this. “I sought a ghost,” she said. “Apparently I’ve found one.”

Rafaela shrugged. “They are everywhere around here.”

“I was referring to you.”

“I’m not dead,” she told her. “Yet. As far as I know.”

“I’m speaking metaphorically,” Gina replied, “as a commentary on your sudden, unexplained absence from my life.”

“Gee,” she sighed, “that was almost ten years ago. I was eighteen; you were eleven. Seems like a long time to be pissed off.”

“My grudge exists in proportion to the challenges I faced without your correspondence,” Gina told her. “I don’t think you’re aware of how much your guidance sustained me during my tenure at the school in the cave.”

“Are you serious?” Rafaela snorted. “You honestly believe I don’t know what that place is like?”

“What I’m saying is that your experience was similar enough to mine that I expected, at the least, a modicum of empathy.”

With a deep breath, Rafaela asked, “Did Aunt Helena ever tell you why my parents resigned from the corporation?”

“Mother never spoke of it,” she replied.

“The school broke me, Regina.” Rafaela forced herself to remain calm. “I made it three years; that’s it. Not even halfway. I was hospitalized until I was fourteen. I guess I just didn’t have the stomach for it.”

“Why was this never brought to my attention?”

“Why would it be?” Rafaela asked. “You were a toddler.”

“I mean, afterwards,” she clarified. “When I was old enough?”

“A Torres had never dropped out before,” Rafaela told her. “Period. Imagine how much sympathy Grandfather had for me.”

Gina curled her lip without a word and nodded.

“I needed help, and there aren’t a lot of options available for dropouts, so Mom and Dad said ‘Screw it’ and left. I started writing you when you were old enough to go to school, because I didn’t want you to be alone.” She shrugged. “Frankly, I’m surprised my letters got through. I’m kind of an embarrassment.”

“I’m sorry,” whispered Gina.

Rafaela cleared her throat. “‘So what brings you here?’ asked Raffi, changing the subject.” She waited for Gina’s gaze return to the present before continuing, “Did Aunt Helena send you?”

“Mother and I haven’t exchanged words in months,” she replied.

Rafaela blinked. “That’s unexpected.”

“No one is more surprised than I.”

“I’ll be blunt:” Rafaela told her; “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Is that so?”

“When you set aside hormones, mental illness, and counter-culture,” she confessed, “I stopped writing because I thought you were kind of conformy.”

Conformy isn’t a word.”

“What can I say?” Rafaela grinned. “I’m a rebel. Linguistically even.”

She watched Gina fight back a smile. “Your wardrobe confirms this,” she said.

Rafaela glanced down at her trademark yellow blouse, green tie, and orange sweater vest. “It’s my look, man!”

“Indeed.” Gina smirked. “I have to inquire about the state of your hair.”

Fingering a silver lock, Rafaela said, “I flunked out of school, remember?

“I wasn’t aware this was a consequence.”

“You never told me what you’re doing here, Gee.”

Gina lowered her gaze to the shape on the floor. “Decades ago, Margaret Schilling left the safety of the institution below for this room. She froze to death in this room, naked and alone.

“Last summer, I abandoned the comfort and consistency of home in the name of curiosity. Of late, I’ve been questioning the wisdom of my choice. I sought out the only one I feel might sympathize with my plight.”

“You know what?” asked Rafaela. “I have a better idea.”

“And that is?”

“On the other side of this door, I’m being stalked by something in the form of something else I can’t deal with,” she informed her. “If you can get me out of this building–which, as a graduate of the school in the cave, I’m positive you can–then you can share this bag of weed I’m carrying and talk to an actual living being about your identity crisis.”

“I’ve never consumed cannabis,” Gina confessed.

“You don’t know what you’re missing. So let’s stop wasting time; you have some baking to do.”

“I assume baking is a euphemism for–”

Rafaela smiled at her cousin. “You are such a square, Gee.”

Disinformation

The arrow loosed by Alyrus the Elven Archer missed so narrowly, its wake ruffled the greasy hairs on the orc’s head. With a roar, the even-more-furious creature hefted and heaved a jagged stone mace at its attackers.

Venn the Cleric was a man of peace. He shunned battle, preferring instead to tend to the wounded. But, on this day, he saw this beast’s weapon about to crush the band of mercenaries he’d come to love, and his fate became clear. He scooped up his only armament and threw himself before the orc. A normal wooden shield would have splintered beneath the solid granite of that mace, but the Blessed Shield of Virtue took the full force of the blow without even bending.

The cleric’s actions provided just the opening needed for Jeran the Darkly Learned to step forth and bellow, “Gorvis, O God of All That Is Chaotic and Good, I summon from you a fireball with which to smite–“

“That won’t work,” declared Rjallin the Dwarven Warrior of Exceptional Skill and Moderate Physical Strength and Charisma. “You might as well be casting poetry–and dreadful poetry at that.”

Jeran the Darkly Learned, known to most as Jarrod the Computer Sciences Major, slammed his dice onto the table. “For fuck’s sake, Gina! Stop doing that!”

“Do you expect me to sit here and allow you to butcher the magic you profess to practice?” asked Gina the Dwarven Warrior of Exceptional Skill and Moderate Physical Strength and Charisma. “Alyrus is down to seven hit points and three arrows. Venn’s shield won’t take much more of this onslaught, and Sqilp is a useless Halfling with a miniscule dagger who can hardly be expected to damage a level-nine orc!”

“Hey!” yelped Alex the Halfling Thief.

“She’s right,” snickered his roommate, the Elven Archer whose name was also Alex. “That is a tiny dagger.”

“That leaves you and me,” Gina added, “and if you continue to deploy ridiculous, impossible spells, I’ll be forced to carry the weight of this entire conflict–and I can’t, with certainty, guarantee victory.”

“Gerard,” Jarrod whined, “can we just get on with it?”

“Gina,” sighed Gerard the Game Master.

“I accept your authority,” she huffed, “but under protest.”

“Actually,” said one of the Alexes, “I’m kind of intrigued.”

“I see,” Gerard noted. “What do you think, Alex?”

The other Alex took a break from gazing at Gina’s décolletage to reply, reluctantly, “Look, Jeran is leveled-up enough to cast a small fireball, so just let him.”

“Victor?” asked Gerard.

Victor the Cleric shrugged and nodded. For him, this was loquacious.

“The ayes have it,” Gerard announced.

“Who the fuck is this guy anyway?” snarled Jarrod. “First we let her play–no offense, Gina–and now we get this guy? Shouldn’t he be baling hay or something?”

For a split second, Gina was overrun with the image of Victor panting with effort, his bare torso gleaming under a Midwestern sun, his back flexing, his torn jeans straining against his taut legs… She shook this off and focused on the more pressing question–what was he doing here? He’d only recently joined the campaign, and it was clear from his performance that he hadn’t the slightest experience with tabletop gaming.

“Watch it!” Gerard snapped. “That’s my brother-in-law you’re insulting.”

Victor grinned that grin. “Let’s not be hasty.”

“That’s my sister’s boyfriend.”

This, of course, explained how Victor learned of their quest to find and destroy the Black Chalice of Stepfeun the Mad, but it did not explain why. He and Susan were normally inseparable, but she was nowhere to be found tonight.

Jarrod folded his arms and sat back in his chair. “Fine. Enlighten us, O Regina the Wise, on why a spell that has appeared consistently in the manual since the second fucking edition is ‘ridiculous’ and ‘impossible.’ We’re all dying to know. Except Alex.”

Alex muttered, “I’m actually kind of curious now.”

“Basic science,” she replied. “That’s all.”

Jarrod snorted, “What the fuck does ‘basic science’ have to do with an imaginary fantasy world?”

“Your question is ignorant, so I’ll assume it was rhetorical.”

“Fuck you!” Jarrod sputtered. “That was a perfectly legitimate question!”

“Very well then.” She held up the meticulously painted pewter figurine that represented Rjallin the Dwarven Warrior of Exceptional Skill and Moderate Physical Strength and Charisma. “Each swing of my Mighty Battle Ax Panstrogm requires force, leverage, gravity, and momentum to puncture the hide of an orc. Likewise, Alyrus’s arrows are useless without Newtonian laws of action/reaction, combined with aerodynamics, and again, momentum. If his shot fails, we can always blame operator error–unlikely in this case, though, given Alex’s experience points–or atmospheric conditions left entirely to chance, hence the die roll. When it is my turn to strike, chance will similarly determine the random environmental factors that will aid or hinder me. In conclusion, what you’re asking is to violate the natural order to which the rest of us are beholden, and to that I call bullshit.”

“Come on!” Jarrod turned to Gerard and the two Alexes for moral support, but found none, so he returned to Gina. “Your girlfriend’s boyfriend gets to use magic!”

His implication of a sexual relationship between Susan and herself wasn’t a new one; in fact, it was understandable. The level of affection displayed between the two could easily have been mistaken for romantic. That came to an end, of course, with the arrival of Victor.

“I assume you’re not referring to his healing abilities,” she said, “because the herbs, potions, and powders he uses to accelerate tissue regeneration are chemical and biological agents.”

“The Shield of Virtue is a magical artifact,” he reminded her.

“Magic is a combination of metaphor, willpower, and most importantly, science,” she replied. “The spell cast on the shield greatly strengthens the elasticity and molecular bonds of the wood–physics augmented only subtly by the supernatural.

“On the other hand, fire is a chemical reaction in which molecules are rearranged violently, releasing heat, light, and other byproducts. If your mage possesses the knowledge and focus to ignite such a chemical reaction, there is still the question of the fuel required to maintain it. In an atmosphere such as ours, he could create a small flame, but it would die quickly.

“Even if I were to grant you an oxygen-richer environment containing non-poisonous quantities of an accelerant such as methane, a fireball would not even so much as scorch the clothing our opponent wore, unless it was polyester, and that is a separate lecture altogether.”

Jarrod digested her words and grumbled, “Okay, fine. Can I at least cast lightning?”

“That would be acceptable,” she replied.

“All right, guys,” Gerard said, “time to pack it up. It’s getting late.”

“This…” Jarrod pointed at her. “This is why this fucking campaign is taking fucking forever.”

“Totally worth it,” swooned one of the Alexes.

On their way out the door, Victor tapped Gina on the shoulder. “So, um, you’re really into this whole magic thing, aren’t you?”

“I take this silly game far too seriously,” she confessed.

“It’s all real, though,” he prodded.

“Nonsense,” she replied. “As I just told you, it’s make-believe.”

“Don’t nonsense me. I seen you scare off those monsters.”

“Those were aggressive adolescent boys,” she said. “They’d been behaving as monsters, but the idea they were literally so is ludicrous.”

“They were scary, black-eyed monster children, and you stood up to them!”

“Victor,” she said calmly, “perhaps role-playing isn’t for you. You can’t seem to separate–“

“Susan told me everything.”

She grunted.

“I want to learn how to do what you do,” he told her.

Gina drummed her fingers against her thigh. Before running away from home, she’d excelled at her studies at the school in the cavern. But she was only eighteen, and hardly trained to instruct. And yet this request tickled her ego so thoroughly, and his goofy earnestness made him irresistible.

“Very well,” she sighed. “Find me tomorrow afternoon.”

He grinned that grin again.