Stories

The Kaliyah Chronicles Part One

serpentcircle

I Am Not a Vampire

Online school was not something Mother would consider. I understood her reasons. She was a normal person and she grew up like a normal girl. For her, pep rallies and school socials were important events that helped her fit in and enjoy the milestones that all normal mothers who used to be normal girls think their daughters need. It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t know me. It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t even understand that people like me exist.

The electrical shocks in my limbs had gotten worse in the last year or so. My tolerance to daylight was decreasing as well. Mother gave me iron supplements and tried to force me to eat red meat. The red meat helped a bit. I was able to hide the intense, stabbing electric-like shocks that went through my limbs, for the most part. I was having a much harder time with the shifts in consciousness lately, though.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this is another teen vampire story. You’re wrong. OK…well, you’re not completely wrong. But I’m not actually a vampire. When I was 13, I was convinced I was a vampire. I read on line all about psy vamps and sanguines and becoming pale and hating the sun, etc. And I was all excited that I had a name for what I was. I was all ready to join a house and a coven and move in with them and be all vampy. I was disappointed to find out that many of the people who write this stuff are life stylers who basically want to cosplay full time. I had the idiots who tried to convince me that they were several hundred years old and somehow always wanted sex with me, a child, as their end game. They were pathetic. They couldn’t talk about history in a meaningful way, didn’t know any dead languages or old techniques for doing things. They were frauds. They were predators. And two of them who tried to hurt me got what they deserved. They hadn’t met anyone like me before. I was real, you see. And more than that, I’m not anyone’s lunch. Their bodies will never be found.

Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Now you think I’m a monster. I’m not a monster and I don’t enjoy killing people. It’s the worst experience of my life, to be honest. I was so disappointed that the label I thought I had found for my condition wasn’t accurate and the people who claimed that label were not, for lack of a better word, usually very competent. They just wanted to play dress up and try to be scary and they would have these parties and wear flashy contact lenses and drink the blood of their willing donors. It was all very Anne Rice. And it wasn’t for me, in the end. Because what I am is not what they are. I wish I were just a life styler cosplayer who likes to wear black. That would be fun. That would be less painful.

I never found anything on line or in books that completely describes what I am and what I experience. I was alone. This isolation was my cloak and my protection. I couldn’t be with other kids my age. They were frightened of me as a very natural reaction to my energy. They used to bully me. Then they left me alone, whispered behind my back, but never taunted me. They instinctively knew that they shouldn’t anger me. And I feel safest when I’m alone, because I don’t have to try to control my behavior. I don’t have to worry about harming anyone. I honestly don’t know how long my life will be, and sometimes I hope that my condition is terminal and I won’t live very long. I know that sounds dramatic and teenage goth suicide romantic but it’s not. It’s the truth. I think anyone who had to live like I do would probably feel the same way.

I wish that death did not feed me. I am a very nice person by nature and I dislike harming anything, even bugs and flowers. I don’t squish spiders. I wish that my condition would go away. I wish I could go to college and live in a dorm and put band posters on my walls with that stuff that you can remove that doesn’t harm the paint. I wish I could go to parties and drink beer and complain about the cost of textbooks. I wish I could be a nurse. I always wanted to be a nurse.

The first one was a guy who was about 30 and told everyone that he was 750 years old and had been “changed over” at the age of 24. It was getting pretty hard for him to keep up his story because he was clearly ageing. I mean…you can’t tell people you’re eternally 24 for very long. I was targeted and wooed by him when I snuck out of the house and went to a vamp party in a seedy basement club downtown. I had been invited by someone on line in a vampire chat room. I know it was stupid for me to go. But I was 13.

I wore regular clothes and showed up hoping that I would find “my people.” I was very excited to be in a place where others understood me. What I found was a lot of booze, a lot of sex, and a lot of leather and silver barbells through pale flesh. What I found was a den of delusional predators. They wanted to be something. I, on the other hand, desperately wanted NOT to be what I was. I scanned the room. I felt each person’s feelings, their motivations, their reasons for being there. Some were definitely psychic and had energetic talents like I did. They looked at me when I looked at them, and they nodded and I nodded back. This gave me hope. At 13, I didn’t know that being psychic didn’t automatically make a person be like I was. I was so hopeful then. I was innocent. I was a child.
Antonius (that is what he said his given name was) was thin and handsome with a mop of what looked like natural, undyed black hair and piercing blue eyes. He had a story about how he was changed by a woman who was very wealthy and owned the estate on which his mother worked. and he stuck to his story but the details didn’t work. When I asked him on the second night to say something in his native tongue, he rambled off what sounded like a phrase he had memorized phonetically. I asked him how to say, “I dislike red wine,” and he obliged me with a string of sounds. Of course, I have a perfect memory…it’s not a gift, I promise you…and I later looked up the phrase he said. It was not a phrase in archaic Bulgarian (his mother was supposedly Bulgarian and his father was a Roman soldier…you know…the usual story…and that’s why his name was Antonius). It was not a phrase in any known language. I wasn’t shocked. He seemed a bit dimwitted but was a master at applying impressive eye liner.

I liked him and thought he was fun to hang out with, so I started going to the parties pretty regularly. It seemed that I had to attach myself to someone so as not to be “preyed upon,” and that’s what I did. I became Antonius’ “minion.” And so the grooming began, and he got me pretty outfits to wear, and made me up to look like a vampire queen of the night, and it suited me quite well. He wanted me to move into the mildewed corner room he had in the club, the one with a few bare lightbulbs hooked up to extension cords and a bathroom down the street at the gas station when the club wasn’t open. He behaved as though this were a great privilege he would bestow only upon one so worthy as I clearly was. We would be creatures of the night together. It would be grand.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I learned a lot that year. I learned from these self-described vampires that human blood really did stop my pain for a moment. I liked the taste of it and enjoyed the ritual of feeding, as it was romantic and the donors clearly liked what they were doing. These people knew how to play their parts and we all had a lovely time drinking wine and exchanging blood for cuddles and it was, in fact, the only time I really felt part of something. That was nice. It probably saved my life at that time, as 13 is a time of desperation for even a normal child. I was becoming convinced that I should leave my life at home with Mother, leave school, and live in a basement with a 30-year-old mechanic who drank blood at night and wore capes. I was “in thrall” as they say. I was a vampire! I was part of an underworld that was romantic and edgy, and I was in demand. Donors flocked to me. It was idyllic and the danger that I felt each night was thrilling. What I didn’t understand is that it wasn’t the danger of being preyed upon that would undo me. It was the danger of learning what I really was. And my innocence was not to be had by Antonius. It was to be had by Death itself. And there was no safe place for me after that.

It was the 4th of June, and it was a full moon. It was beautiful, actually, to survey the darkness with the moonlight, and it activated my second sight even more crisply than does fresh blood from the willing. I felt free and exhilarated and was enjoying the wine that Antonius gave me while we sat near the window in his little room, the moonlight streaming in. Antonius was being even more attentive than usual, and he asked if he could brush my hair. I agreed and he took to gently but firmly pulling an old brush from a silver antique set he kept on a dresser. The story was that the set had been his mother’s set. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the maker’s mark on the silver put it firmly in the early 19th century. Women had no boar’s quill brushes 750 years ago. They had only combs. I studied history. It was a passion of mine and it was more fun than school assignments. I was failing miserably at school that year and I didn’t care. I was going to be a vampire. Vampires didn’t need high school diplomas. Antonius would change me soon, and I would become immortal. That was the plan. I mean…that was what he said, and I hoped against hope that he might have some power to give me. I knew he wasn’t immortal, of course. But a girl can dream.
As he was brushing my hair, I felt his energy shift. I also felt woozy. And as I had only drunk a half glass of wine and knew that I could have a glass and a half before becoming tipsy, I quickly realized that I had been drugged. The energy he was emanating was not loving. It was predatory and it was possessive. What happened next is hard for me to describe, but not at all hard to remember. We don’t have words for these things. Why would we?

The energy of Antonius wanting to possess me without regard for my will felt like it triggered something within me. I could feel Antonius revel in the idea of possessing me, of owning me, of having me the way one has a beautiful bauble which inspires envy in others. And something in me grew. It grew without my intention and I had no control over it. I was not able to want anything or plan anything. There was a possession of my body and my mind and my spirit and it felt both powerful and good. But when I tell you that I could not control it, I am not lying. I did not want to kill Antonius, even though I knew he wanted to do something that would have harmed me had I been a normal girl. Even though he didn’t care if it would harm me. I grew physically from the rush of power that shot through my limbs, and turned to face Antonius, who dropped the brush and stood up, opening and closing his mouth silently.

My vision became perfect. I could see light in particles and waves. I could taste the moonlight and I could hear the rush of blood in my veins and his. I heard faintly the attempts Antonius was making to stop me from hurting him. He was saying soothing things, then turned to begging for his life. And his fear was an appetizer to the main course, which would be his entire being, which I would consume, whole. And there was an ancient knowing within me, and my feet turned to claws with talons that dug into the floor and I grew to the size of the room, looking down at tiny Antonius. I heard my own voice utter a spell in a language I both did not know and knew to my core. It was an incantation to enthrall my prey. And he fell into my hands and I ate him whole, leaving nothing. I awoke in the morning and decided not to go to school. I felt amazingly well, satiated, and clear headed. I remembered everything. My clothes were ripped and stained, but I saw no evidence of Antonius in the room. I changed into another outfit he had bought for me. It was a simple off the shoulder black dress. If I wore it without the corset that came with it, I might pass for a goth who was dressed down. I found the black boots under the bed. I surveyed myself in the mirror. I looked reasonably normal.

I walked and walked. I walked for miles and felt no fatigue and no pain. I was calm, complete…it was the first time I could remember feeling this good since I was a tiny child. Eventually, I went back to Mother’s house. Mother was worried and distressed. She had called the police. As soon as I turned up, she called the officer who had taken her statement and told him I was back home.

I sat down at the kitchen table and felt completely calm. I told Mother I was sorry for worrying her, and that I would go back to school. She was very upset and just sort of ranted at me about how worried she was and why couldn’t I just go to school like everyone else, etc. When she took a breath, I said in a steady voice, “I was adopted, wasn’t I?”

She blinked. She started to speak and then stopped, then started again. Eventually, she just sighed and said, “Yes. You were adopted. I was unable to conceive, and my husband and I wanted a child so much. We adopted you as a newborn. We decided not to tell you because we thought you would feel alienated by the idea that you had another family somewhere. I’m sorry. It was wrong. When dad died, I thought of telling you but decided it wasn’t the time. I love you just as much as if I had given birth to you, darling.” She rushed over to me and threw her arms around me. I hugged her back. I could feel her conflicting emotions. I could tell that she told herself she really gave birth to me. It was why I never felt it from her before. It was a story she told herself so often that she believed it, at least on the surface. I felt the rush of pure maternal love coming from her heart. I was sorry that I had hurt her. She was a good mother, but I never felt truly connected to her. Now I knew why.

I will not tell you the story of the other vampire life styler whom I consumed. It was a similar scene, but with less grooming and game playing than happened with Antonius. The man thought he was the predator and I was the prey. He was incorrect. That is all.

In the interim, I have attempted to be a good daughter to my mother. I returned to school. I got passing grades. I became hungry again in a couple of weeks and the pains returned, as did my sensitivity to light. It was difficult to endure. By this time I knew that I was doomed to be a monster and would need to feed on humans. I had also figured out that females were not my food. It was only men whom I was compelled to eat. I also found that, though hungry, it was a predatory motivation in a man that ignited the cycle of transformation that led to my ability to grow and to consume them. When the pains would get too bad to endure, I eventually had to go out to feed. I walked alone at night in a short skirt, a change of clothing in my bag. It never failed. There was always at least one. If I sat and cried on a corner, eventually one would come who had bad intentions. The ones who really wanted to help gave me money and offered a ride. I didn’t take a ride from them. I just thanked them and waited for the next one. And always, like flies to bonfires, they came.

I only needed one every few months. I tried to stretch it out as long as I could, enduring the pain. I hate that I must kill. It is not something I enjoy. It is something I need. That is all. After a few kills, I started not to feel any emotions about it. This was frightening to me. I knew that they had families, friends, houses, pets. They had lives, and I snuffed them out. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t good. I was a monster. This was my lot. At 16 I know what I am. But I had not learned why I did what I did. Then, she came.

I was sleeping in my room. It was a pink room. Mother gave me a Normal Girl room. She worked so hard to help me be excited for teenage things, like prom and homecoming and wearing pretty dresses. She tried to get me to go out for sports. I couldn’t muster the desire to do any of it.

My room took on a weird smell and I felt someone looking at me. I sat up and tried to adjust my eyes, having been sleeping deeply. I smelled a combination of cinnamon and anise seed, like Mother used for mulled wine at Christmas. On my desk, sitting in the moonlight was a large, beautiful, shining woman. She smiled at me and light shone from her in all directions. I almost couldn’t look.
Her voice seemed to come from all around me. “My daughter, you are activated. Welcome.”

I rubbed my eyes. “I’m your daughter, huh? Please forgive me for not liking some things about the family line. Mind if I ask you why I need to eat men?”

Her voice was like honeyed wine. “Dear one, do you really think that consuming those who harm girls is a curse? Do you not know that you are saving human women from being violated by these disgusting beings? Have you never thought of it that way?”

“I guess I see your point. I still don’t like it,” I said. “Who are you?”

“I am Zahriel, Talto, Abizu, Lilith, the first woman. I am your mother, dear.”

“I don’t know those names,” I said. WHAT are you, then?

The woman shifted and arranged her feathered wings prettily. “I am Adam’s first wife, my love. I left him for his stupidity and his unwillingness to recognize me as his equal. I am called “demon,” but I am no demon. I am a goddess, just as my husband was a god, before he allowed his stupidity to destroy his godhood.”

I looked at her and saw how perfect she was, how beautiful. “So I am a goddess?”

She laughed. “You are a demi-goddess, as your father was a human man.”
I admit that the idea of being a demi-goddess was appealing to my ego. So what if I wasn’t a popular cheerleader. I was a demi-goddess. Take that, bitches.

I stretched and stood up, regarding this shining creature. “Can I meet my dad?” I asked.

The goddess smiled. “His greatest honor was to sacrifice himself to assure your conception, my love. His soul has joined the All. He is…unavailable.”

I nodded. “Why was I created, mother?” I looked into her eyes and saw that they were all colors at once, shifting and moving with time and space.

Lilith regarded me. “Several reasons move me to create my children, my dear. First, there is a need for my daughters and sons to roam this world. While many stories state that I vowed to harm the children of Adam and Eve, in fact, I do not wish to harm them. It is never done that any of my children nor I consume any man or woman who is not driven by predation. It is our mission to even the playing field. Those who harm the innocent, or seek to do so, become our food. If anything, I protect the children of Adam and Eve. At least, I protect the decent ones.” She looked bored, as though she was so tired of telling the story.

“Also,” she said, “there is the little problem of 100 of you dying per day.”

“Why?” I asked.

“The Creator is a blackmailer, my dear. He tried to force my submission and I told him to shove it. He kills 100 of my children per day. But don’t worry, dear. There are many thousands of you. You might live for a long time. Stick to the shadows and consume the evil and you’ll likely be left alone for a long while.”
I nodded again.

“Come here, my love,” she said. I walked up to her, feeling the heat she generated. She touched my eyes. I felt something shift and they stopped hurting. She touched my arms and my legs, and the ache went away. I sighed with relief.
“Thank you,” I said.

The goddess embraced me and I felt her strength enter my body. It was like being fed pure energy. Her wings wrapped around me. “I name thee Kaliyah, child of Zahriel. Go and do the work of protecting innocent women and girls, my lovely one.” Her voice entranced me. I felt tingles in every one of my cells. She had saturated me with her divine energy.

Lilith let go of me and turned me toward the mirror on the back of my door. “Look at yourself, my child. Revel in your noble beauty.”

Lilith Sigil
I walked toward the door. The light that shone from my divine mother allowed me to see my reflection in the mirror. My hair had turned a glossy black and grew until it almost reached my waist. My skin shone with health and resilience. My eyes grew bigger than I remembered and my lashes were longer. On my left upper arm there was a symbol, but it was not a tattoo. It was more glowing than ink could be. It shone with what looked like undulating energy. It was mesmerizing. I was overwhelmed by the beauty I saw in my reflection. I looked like a goddess. Or, you know, a demi-goddess.

“Kaliyah,” Lilith said gently. I looked away from my entrancing reflection. Think of having a different hair color.” I blinked.

I thought “blue” and my hair turned an intense navy color. I squealed. Lilith smiled lovingly. I thought “purple” and there it was…deep lavender with silver streaks shone down my shoulders. I jumped up and down lightly.

“I will visit you periodically, my love,” said my divine mother. I nodded gleefully.
“Will I meet any of my siblings?” I asked her.

“Yes, my dear, you shall meet your brothers and sisters, many of them. That is for another day, though, my sweet. Welcome to your awakening, and walk with power in this world. Thou art mine, and I am pleased.” And with that, the goddess was gone.

The Kaliyah Chronicles Part Two

After I knew who I was, it became easier to please Mother. I was able to feel a certain empathy for her. That’s not quite right. It wasn’t empathy. It was pity. I pitied her, a normal woman who had simply wanted a baby girl; who wanted to have a real mother-daughter relationship. I felt I had let her down immensely, being an abnormal demon thing, unable to have normal emotions, unable to share with her those things that mothers and daughters shared. We didn’t get our nails done together. We didn’t talk about dating. We didn’t go shopping. We did not have shared Pinterest boards with purses on them.

I went to school, kept to myself, and got passing grades. I mowed the lawn. I helped Mother with the dishes and I learned her spaghetti sauce recipe, duplicating it to within acceptable parameters, I was told. Her smiles and hugs told me when I was doing well by her. I felt satisfaction when I earned them. I knew that I was assisting her to feel better. This was important to me.

As I went forward with a new understanding of my identity, I learned things about my capacities and powers. I learned that not only could I change my hair color; I could cast a glamour around myself which would cause me to appear the way prey wanted to see me. I learned this slowly and by happenstance, from the breathy, guttural comments my food made to me directly before they realized their doom. When I was very hungry, I would think, “I wish that the perfect prey would come to me.” In less than a few minutes, the child rapist would appear, lewdly commenting on my non-existent Catholic school girl uniform, or my ample bust or lack thereof, whatever he personally desired. Did he like pigtails on underage, innocent teens? My hair would suddenly part and go up in elastic bands. As I gained more and more experience, I could taste the flavor of the prey’s perversion, and knew the chalky taste of a baby goth grabber, or the metallic taste and smell of the “she seduced me” sicko, always over 50 and Caucasian. Apparently, I could even change race, as I learned once when one dinner warbled his “sweet Asian kitten” swan song. I remained, shall we say, well fed.

In my first year as a consumer of human predators, I managed to attract solitary prey. After all, it was easy to go out alone at night and attract an opportunist to assuage my hunger. But it was one day that I found myself in a different situation that I met the first person, other than my divine mother, who knew what I was. I was out hunting as usual. I was magnetizing myself to my lunch. I had gotten on a bus to go into the city of Anoka, MN. I found it was best to jump around. It made me nervous when the news crews noticed that too many local men from one place had disappeared. I rode the bus for around 45 minutes and disembarked on a cute little street with lots of bars and antique shops. I sat on an ornate bench. It was green with black, iron legs and arm rests. After about 10 minutes, a well-dressed man approached me. He smelled of expensive cologne. I couldn’t get a fix on his flavor, but he began telling me that I would make a wonderful model. He was a photographer, he said, very well-known, and asked if I wanted to see his portfolio. I said, “sure.” He pulled out a tablet and began swiping photos of girls and boys, all teens and tweens, in various surroundings. None was specifically “sexy,” but there was a sliminess to the energy of the pictures that I couldn’t quite place. I had felt my hair change to red right before he approached. He commented on how photogenic my white skin and bright red hair would be. He wanted to photograph me in a deep green dress, he said.
The man handed me a business card and told me to call or text any time.

I said, “Is your studio around here? I have some time.” The man smiled and pointed across the street to a building next to a butcher shop. It looked abandoned. I asked about that. He assured me that his suite was in the basement. It allowed him to control the lighting for shoots, he said. I made my eyes big and nodded enthusiastically. We walked to the building and went down a rather dark stairwell. I began trying to consciously control my change as I felt the man’s excitement at getting me alone. I breathed slowly, calming myself.
We went through a large, heavy metal door, and what unfolded next was unexpected. I was standing in a beautifully appointed office, brightly lit and festooned with plants, artwork, and shiny marble floors. A crisply dressed lady in her 30’s was sitting at a reception desk, her Ray Bans were perched on her blonde head, holding back corkscrew curls. Dark red, matte lipstick, the kind that looks expensive, was meticulously applied to her perky smile. She chirped a greeting to us, calling the man “Mark,” and asked how he managed to meet such a beautiful model.

Mark laughed a friendly laugh and said, “Would you believe we met at a bus stop?” The lady practically sparkled and answered, “Like finding a Van Gogh at a garage sale!”

Mark led me through the office. It smelled like lavender and seemed to be much longer than it was wide, so it seemed “smaller from the outside.” We arrived at a photo set with special back drops and those weird umbrella-looking lights on stands that photographers always have. Several sets were arranged in front and back of one another, and I saw a boy who looked like a wrestler or a football player duck behind a screen, presumably to change clothing. Mark pointed to the middle set and invited me to go through a rack of size small dresses, asking which ones I liked. I looked through them and picked out a forest green strapless dress, plus another royal blue sequined ball gown. Mark looked pleased.

“What’s your name, dear?” Mark asked.

“I’m Katie,” I lied.

“Well, Katie, now you ARE 18 years old, and can sign a modeling contract, correct?” Mark nodded at me with an intense look. I gathered that I was supposed to agree that I was 18, so I did.

“Absolutely!” I smiled. “I just turned 18 last week, as a matter of fact!” I exuded my “barely legal” vibe with gusto.

Mark gave me a knowing look. He was well aware that I wasn’t 18. He said, “I’ll go get the contract, and you pop behind the screen right there and put on the green gown, OK?” I hauled the dresses over my arm and went behind the screen. I wondered exactly what was going on here. I mean, he was definitely under the table with his willingness to photograph a minor without parental consent. But there was more to it than that, I was sure.

I donned the green dress and walked out to the full-length mirror, surveying myself. Mark walked toward me with a clipboard. I signed the document without looking at it. I wanted lunch, not a long-term relationship. He couldn’t hold me to any agreement from inside my belly, after all. But how to get him where I could do the deed? I decided to let this play out a little longer.

“Katie, my dear, will you step over here and put a little of this lipstick on for me, please?” Mark held out a tube and a lip brush. I took it and applied the red gloss to my mouth in the mirror. “Oh, wonderful!” He clearly liked the result. He began to fiddle with the lights and set up a rolled down paper backdrop that looked like a forest in Autumn. “There,” he pronounced, pleased with himself. “Just go stand against the backdrop there, honey. Yes, but with your back to me, and look over your left shoulder like I’ve surprised you. Great! Eyes bigger, please. Perfect!” He snapped some rapid succession shots with his expensive looking camera. His phone began to ring, and his expression read as, “what now, for God’s sake,” or something like that. “Yes, Mark here…Yes, another VPN will be needed. Yes, a separate one. Can’t be too careful, you know…well, do you need me to talk to them personally? Fine. Hang on.” Mark looked apologetic and excused himself “for a quick blink,” he said.

I knew what a VPN was. It stands for Virtual Private Network, and it has many uses, but one of them is to make a computer user untraceable and therefore anonymous. I decided to look around in Mark’s absence. I walked out into the lushly appointed hallway and headed toward a door at the end of it. I cracked the door and heard the hushed tones of many voices blending together unintelligibly. There were little rooms lining a long hall on both sides, and voices, young voices, could be heard from behind the doors as I advanced to each one. Although I still couldn’t make out what any of them were saying, I knew this was a sketchy situation just from my gut feeling. A door opened and an Asian girl with jet black hair and blue lipstick stepped out, packing a new pack of Marlboro Red 100’s against her palm. She looked all of 13.

“Hey,” she grinned. “Prom Queen, am I right?” She cast her gaze down and back up at my gown and my face. “You need a tiara er somethin’.”

“Sorry?” I said.

“I mean, I suppose Irish Lass is also a thing, if you can do a brogue. I do best as Rebellious Skater Girl. I can also do Asian Kitten in Kimono, but I hate it. Do these guys seriously think anyone my age wears a damn kimono?” She packed the cigs again, shrugging. “Smoke break,” she said, and walked out the door at the end of the hallway, which opened to the outside in the alley. I trotted behind her. My hunger ramped up and I started to sweat. I willed myself not to transform, confused because this girl was clearly not an old pervert dude. Then, it hit me. VPN. These kids were camming. They were freaking camming.

I popped my head out the door. She was lighting up. “I’m so new,” I said. I’m just modeling. How…um…how do I get to make some good money?” I had gotten pretty good at going through the wallets of my prey, and sometimes I hit it big, so money wasn’t really a thing I desperately needed. I just wanted to know what the hell was going on in this place. I assumed that these kids were getting paid, at least. This girl didn’t seem like a scared, controlled little thing, so that was my assessment. My gut was always right.

“Oh,” she nodded. “You gotta make ‘em trust you. Can’t go blabbin’. I make about $500 a week now, doin’ 4 hours at a time. Split’s 50-50. I’m goin’ to college with it. I’m not workin’ at my parents’ restaurant all m’damn life, you know? You can be paid on cards or in bitcoin or other crypto, even. Er cash. Whatever you want.”

“Split?” I asked.

“Yeah, like Mark’n them take 50% and provide us with computers, and rooms to work and costumes and they train us and stuff. And we get 50%, paid how we want. And they’re real nice and never mean, and I get snacks in the break room and they give us bonuses if we do real good. Where else could a kid like me make any real money, right?”

I clenched my fists, willing myself to relax. “Yeah,” I smiled. Breathe, Kalliyah.
I retreated into the building and stalked down the hallway. The door to the Asian girl’s work room was ajar. I looked into it and saw a laptop with cam and décor like a skater girl’s bedroom. Elliot Smith posters on the walls, graffiti art, neon colors with a black light lamp…the works.

I opened the door to the studio area just in time to see Mark walk back in. And now that I knew what was causing my powers to rise within me, I locked onto the energetic frequencies of the men on the other ends of each camming session, feeling their lust and their slimy predation. I had never had any more than one serving of that deliciously vile energy before me, and even though they were not physically there, the Life Force of those predators was palpable through the internet connections, and I grew uncontrollably large, seething and growling in my hunger. My head burst through the ceiling tiles into the crawl space above, and my talons shattered the marble flooring, scratching deeply into the rich, shiny stone. I heard Mark’s guttural scream and didn’t stop to tear his wallet from his sniveling body before swallowing him like a pizza roll. But my hunger did not abate. The receptionist whimpered as I advanced on her. I ate her too, as I heard the kids’ terrified voices hollering on their way out the back door into the alley. Still, my hunger was wild, and I raged, stomping around the trashed space, snarling.

A singular note pierced my brain. It cut through the rage. It calmed the bite of hunger in my gut. It sounded again. A bell. No, a whistle. A flute?
“CHILD OF TALTO, HEAR MY VOICE.” A deep, mature man’s voice boomed through the room. I spun around and looked down at the man, dark in his black coat and swarthy features. I could feel myself shrinking. “LILITH, YOUR MOTHER, IS KNOWN TO ME. HOW LONG AGO WERE YOU ACTIVATED?” He looked me right in the eyes. “HOW LONG?! SPEAK!”

My mouth had not yet transformed enough to allow me human speech, but it would in a second or so. I cleared my throat, trying it out. “About 8 months,” I said, my voice scratchy. I shrank some more, feeling the tatters of the gown around my left ankle. The man grabbed a robe from the rack and put it over my shoulders.

“You’re too young to control yourself. You hunt child predators?” His eyes were kind. Patient. His speech was slightly European to the ear.

“Yes,” I said. “There were too many. How do you know my divine mother?”
He smiled, and his dark eyes crinkled at the corners. “She and I know one another now for a very long time, my dear. If you were activated only 8 months ago, you are not of majority. You will not age physically, of course. You will always look this fresh and pretty. But if it was just 8 months ago, you must still be school aged. Am I right?”

“Yes,” I admitted.

“Scan my energy,” he said. “If you feel me trustworthy, I suggest that you come to my residence, not far from here. If you do not trust me, I shall leave you to your own devices.”

“I trust you,” I said. It was the truth. There was nothing but solid strength of character about him. I put on an outfit from the rack, and we left through the alley, just as we heard police sirens approaching a few blocks away.

The Kaliyah Chronicles Part Three

“I am Alan Bates, my dear. What is your name?” The gentleman was quite distinguished looking and handsome. He was meticulously groomed and had a resin incense smell about him.

“I am Kaliyah,” I said simply. I watched him intently as we strolled through alley after alley behind closely packed, quaint houses. His clothing was somehow unusual, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. “Mr. Bates, how is it that you know what I am? I have so many questions.”

He smiled a fatherly smile. “All will become clear to you soon, I believe. The recently activated children of your true mother are always overwhelmed at first. It seems that you don’t have anyone to guide you, is that true?”

“Guide me?” I was perplexed now.

“Are you unaware of the world beneath the world, my girl? There are cultures and places hidden from the eyes of normal humans. You have found yourself in a liminal place. Beings such as you are often drawn to such spots. It’s instinct,” he explained warmly. “And this is my abode. Please, do come in.”

I stepped into the dark doorway of a Victorian house, very tall, yet seemingly narrow. The scent of the resin which I had picked up from his person was strong in the foyer. My eyes adjusted quickly to the dark space, and I began to see elegantly appointed furniture and artwork.

“I would offer you refreshment, but as you have recently enjoyed lunch, perhaps a glass of water, or some tea?” His dark eyes twinkled a bit in amusement at his own humor.

I picked out a comfy looking chair in what looked like my adopted great-grandmother’s parlor. She called it a parlor, I remembered distinctly. “Water would be lovely,” I answered.

Mr. Bates picked up a bell and rang it. Within half a minute, a lady appeared. She was wearing a simple dress that seemed both a uniform but also just a dress. It was navy blue and tailored with a square neck. I guessed she was about 65 years old. “Justine, some ice water for my young friend, please, and Oolong for me.” She nodded silently, remaining just long enough to observe me with a slight smile on her face.

Mr. Bates sat down across from me. He regarded me pleasantly. “Kaliyah, it appears that you have yet to meet any of your siblings,” he surmised.

I looked at this mysterious man and felt almost dumbstruck. He had a strange effect on me, like being near him calmed me. I felt secure, like I never wanted to leave his house. I found it a bit unnerving. “No, I haven’t,” I said softly.

“Then allow me to introduce you to one of your sisters,” he grinned.
Justine returned with our drinks, and my eyes must have been wide with surprise, because she said to him, “You told her.”

Mr. Bates stood up and, with a bit of a flourishing gesture, said, “Kaliyah, child of Talto, I present to you your sister, Justine.”

Justine dropped a little curtsy, playing along with the amusing formality of my host. She pushed up her dress sleeve and showed me the undulating, shiny mark of my Divine Mother. “Hello, Kaliyah. It’s wonderful to meet you,” she beamed.
I looked at her closely and noticed that her eyes looked both young and old. I said, “I don’t understand.” The lady seemed to concentrate on something for a second, and then she transformed into a pretty woman in her thirties, it seemed. I gasped a bit.

“I hunt those who prey on the elderly,” she explained. I have two guises. One is an elderly woman, and the other is what you see before you. My hunts are drawn out affairs, mostly. I impersonate a corrupt lawyer in this guise, for people looking to illegally alter wills, and the like. My aged guise is used as I go about looking for those who steal old ladies’ purses or try to make them use cash machines. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, if you will.”

I was boggled. “So, not all of us hunt child predators….”

Justine took a chair. “Oh, no, we hunt all different kinds of predators. There are many of us, as I’m sure our Divine Mother explained to you. I was activated at 35. What you see right now is how I looked the day I first transformed. It was a Tuesday in March 1952. I have managed to evade the Creator all this time. I’m quite proud,” she smiled. “My first time was when I came upon a man mugging an elderly gentleman. It was quite something to return to myself in tattered clothing in an alley in Chicago. The old man ran away before I changed back. Probably scared the socks off him, the poor thing. It was still very cold, and I had to run into a store and make up a story about being attacked to explain my condition. I threw a coat on and tossed the saleslady the money while she called police for me. She turned her back and I snuck out the door. It was all very dramatic. Now I always carry extra clothes with me. I’m sure you do, too.”

I realized I left my backpack in the building I trashed. Good thing there wasn’t any ID in it. “I have a question,” I said. “Today was the first time I killed a woman. Usually I only hunt men. Why did I eat her?”

Mr. Bates chimed in. “You were in a frenzy. A frenzied Taltos will eat whatever is in their way. That was why I used the chime. The chime is tuned to an exact F flat. That tone will interrupt the cycle of the frenzy. Particularly young Taltos find it hard to control themselves when confronted with multiple prey opportunities. F flat tones are the only way to calm a frenzy, except for the Taltos gorging itself until unable to eat any more.”

Justine nodded. “You should have seen it when I gorged on the staff at an old folks’ home in ’53. The whole staff were committing fraud with the residents’ Social Security checks. Bloody, that was.” She shrugged. “And then I met Alan. That’s when life got much easier.” She looked at him affectionately.

“So, we are called Taltos, and that’s both singular and plural?” I clearly had a lot to learn.

“Yes. But you have many names. Zahrians, for instance. And lilin, of course. Also, you are often mistaken for other creatures, such as wendigos. Some lamia are confused for Taltos, and vice versa. Really, there are so many types of beings that it gets rather confusing.”

I looked at Mr. Bates. “Are YOU one of us, then?”

Mr. Bates sipped his tea. “No, my dear, I am not a Taltos. I am a different kind of being. I am a vampire.”

The Kaliyah Chronicles Part Four

“A vampire? Seriously?” I tried not to do it, but my eyes almost rolled completely back into my head. I know it’s a snotty teenager thing to do, but I couldn’t help it. I had heard those words before. Mr. Bates smiled amusedly and in doing so, bared his shiny white, straight teeth, which grew before my eyes into an impressive set of fangs. My mouth dropped open.

“…S..sorry…I just knew a lot of people who said they were vampires but weren’t…I didn’t mean to be rude…” I stammered and tried to compose myself. A glint of fear began to grow in my belly. I hoped dude wasn’t gonna eat me.

The fangs retracted but the smile remained. “I understand. No offense taken.” Mr. Bates had a patience about him that I found astonishing. It was like nothing in the world would upset him. Justine smiled too. She looked at me like I was the cutest thing she’d ever seen, and it wasn’t even insulting.

He regarded me, suddenly serious. “My dear, do your parents know about your identity? Have you successfully protected yourself from scrutiny?”

I squirmed a bit. “My adoptive father is dead, and my mother doesn’t know, but she’s getting suspicious about all my clothing that goes missing. I only eat every couple of weeks,” I said.

“And are you content to live with her?”

I looked into his eyes. They were almost black. “I mean, I guess so…it isn’t like I really have other options right now, you know?”

Mr. Bates said, “There is a school near here where you might feel more…comfortable. My niece and another of my…charges…attend there. It’s a boarding school. If you are interested, I could speak to your mother about it. I’m on the board of directors there.”

I thought about that. But how would I get out of a boarding school to hunt? I asked him. Mr. Bates, how would I get out to…you know…eat when I need to if I went there?”

“Please, call me Alan. As you were recruited as a student by me, I would impress upon your mother that I did so due to finding you to be an extraordinary young lady, and therefore would take you out every few weeks for…shall we say, volunteer projects at one of my three businesses? Are you interested in business administration, Kaliyah?” He smiled again and nodded at me.

“OK, Alan,” I said. “Why are you helping me?” I began to become fearful again. People usually weren’t this nice. Well, non-monster people, anyway. Maybe monsters were really nice people and the non-monster people were the true monsters…That had never occurred to me. My brain hurt a little.

“My dear girl, you are not human. Not entirely. Trying to thrive on your own as a young, activated Taltos is a recipe for destruction–literal destruction, as we saw today, didn’t we? Anoka is, as I said, a liminal place. It resides partially between the worlds. Beings such as we are instinctively drawn to these places. Here, there are other beings like yourself; not human, but functioning in the human world. Let me help you. With guidance, you can keep yourself safe, just like Justine has. I want to see you live a long life. You deserve it.”

Justine nodded at me. “Yes, sister, you shouldn’t be alone. Let us assist you and teach you our ways. I don’t know what I would have done without Alan’s help when I was young like you. I would be long dead by now, I am certain.”

I nodded. “What’s the story, then?”

Alan said, “Allow me to give you a business card, and here’s one for your mother,” he said, reaching for his wallet from under his suitcoat. He produced two elegantly printed cards. “Tell your mother to expect my call. I will inform her that I had a chance meeting with you through my housekeeper, Justine, who thought you’d fit in well at a prestigious boarding school where I am an administrator for the board. I will offer you a full scholarship. How does that sound?”

I saw what he was doing. I white lie to make it look as though I met him through a woman. It made him look more approachable. I liked it. “A full scholarship? I can’t take your money,” I said.

Alan gazed at me kindly. “Kaliyah, you are family to me, as you are sister to Justine, who has been my companion for 50 years. I am quite old now, even by vampire standards, and have had time to amass a large amount of money and holdings. The businesses are for reputation purposes, and they…how should I say this…allow me to avert the wrong kind of scrutiny. I am approaching the time when I will need to live elsewhere for a few generations, but I have time enough here for you to be educated and graduate. I am putting my affairs in order, but I can stay for several more years, at least. Please allow me to assist you. Your mother will know only that you have a scholarship. I will not tell her that it’s my personal money. With your permission, of course.”

Another lie. But I understood why he put it that way. Perhaps he was just used to protecting humans. The lies were not malicious, only protective, I thought. Still, I would watch him. I never liked liars. Then again, not telling my mother I’m a demon thing is kind of like lying to her. Maybe monsters had to lie sometimes.
“OK, I’ll consider it. I want to see the school first,” I said. I was starting to get really excited about the possibility of learning with Alan and Justine how to control myself and meeting more beings like myself. Up until now, I hadn’t let myself feel how lonely my existence had become.

I took the bus home. Mother was napping, so I threw on some clothes she would recognize. I had been doing my own laundry for quite some time, which helped with Mother not noticing as much that my wardrobe changed often. I had gotten good at getting money off my prey and going to the thrift store for cheap shirts and jeans, or what have you.

I had dinner ready for Mother when she woke, and we chatted while she ate. I had a bit of the ham steak too, and told her that I had met a wonderful man who told me about a great girls’ school in Anoka, and that it was a boarding school that could offer me a full scholarship. Mother seemed incredulous. “Why would a man just approach you and offer you a scholarship at a school?” She had a point; it did sound weird. I told her that I was there today for some shopping and met a lady named Justine, and Justine told me about the school. I said that she introduced me to Alan Bates, who was a board member and he interviewed me and liked me, so could Mother just please listen to what he had to say? She sighed. “Fine, I’ll talk to him. He wasn’t creepy was he?”

I said, “No…he was really nice! I want to go visit the school, please, Momma?” I knew she couldn’t say no to me if I called her momma. It was her weak spot.
We still had a land line. Mother was old fashioned. I snuck upstairs and called Alan, because I realized he didn’t know my given, normal name. He couldn’t call me Kaliyah to Mother. I got his voice mail and told him my name on the recording. I hoped he got it before he called. Having covered my bases, all I could do was wait.

I looked up St. Margaret’s School for Girls online. They didn’t have a website, but I found a page on the history of Anoka, Minnesota and it mentioned a little bit about the place. I guess it was a convent and then a school. I wished I could find out more. I was looking forward to seeing it and maybe even moving away from Mother’s house. Being more independent would feel good and being near Alan and Justine would make my life so much easier. I hoped this would work out. I hoped I could be part of something again.

St. Margaret’s School for Girls

Taija Arcane (1)

Photographer Scott Taylor, Model Taija Barnett, Stylist Kathryn Hunter

Prologue

This is my favorite place. Over the years, I’ve spent many hours in this cemetery, strolling between the statues and crosses, communing with the dead. Sometimes I forget that I’m no longer the pink cheeked girl who first saw with her inner eyes the things that walk here, unseen by all but a few of us. When I’m here, I forget that I am old.

Today I attend the funeral of a dear friend. Sister Mary Elizabeth, may she pass freely into the light, was and is a tender soul. It would distress me to see her walking here between the mists and shadows after today. A trapped spirit is never a happy one. Spirits walk here often because they come to visit those who come to visit them. But the cemetery is only a small part of the magical place that is St. Margaret’s School for Girls, and the whole of it is haunted.

Most girls’ schools don’t have cemeteries, of course. This school, however, has a history. First a convent in the middle of the wild woods, St. Margaret’s became a girls’ school in 1884. The original building of hand-hewn stone was erected in 1845, when all that could be seen in any direction was the Indian Territory that would become Anoka, Minnesota.

Now as I gaze across the field of grave markers, beyond the silent spirit of Mary Elizabeth standing at the foot of her grave, the old convent looms darkly in the distance. The day is sunny and warm. Birds sing above the heads of the weeping mourners, and I find it impossible to cry. The spirit of my friend regards the crowd with detached interest. She smiles as roses are thrown onto her casket. With a heavy sigh, I rise from my bench and take my place in line. In my hand I hold a spray of lilacs. Mary Elizabeth loved them.

“Hello, Mary,” I say. The spirit gives a startled look.

“Well, isn’t that funny,” she says. “I always told you not to pay attention to spirits.” She frowns. “I don’t want to leave.”

“You must,” I say. “Don’t become earth-bound. You have to walk through the doorway, Mary, or you’ll get stuck.” Several women look warily at me and cross themselves. “Look for the doorway,” I tell my friend. She stands, solemnly surveying the land.

“I’m going to miss this place,” she smiles. And then, with a shimmer, she turns away and disappears.

Chapter 1:  It’s Not That Bad.  It’s Actually Worse.

The first time I saw St. Margaret’s I was 16. My parents decided that it was best for me to spend my junior year at a no-nonsense institution that would be “free from distractions,” or in plain English, boys. I was miserable. I’d lost my only close friend, Amy, when her family moved to Austria the month before. I had never been good at meeting new people.

On the drive from New Ulm Minnesota, my tiny home town, my parents chatted about the lovely fall colors, the excitement of a new school, and how I would settle right in and make lots of new friends. I was dismal and made no effort to hide it. “I won’t stay,” I huffed dramatically. My mother turned and glared at me.

I shrank a bit and stared darkly out the window. I was going to hate it wherever I was anyway. One school, I told myself, is pretty much like another, with its cliques, its boring teachers, and the kids nobody notices, like me. I leaned my head against the window of the minivan and the pale, transparent reflection of boring, plain Clarissa Neil leaned back. My straight, mousy hair wasn’t blonde and wasn’t brown; my pale eyes weren’t green but weren’t blue either. I wasn’t tall or short. I wasn’t fat or thin. I just was; a study in mediocrity.

I regarded the scene glumly as we entered Anoka proper. Neat rows of Victorian style buildings lined the streets. The houses were well maintained and sat cheerily along the tiny, simply named blocks. Most had gingerbread adornments and original stucco or wood, and almost all of them had the steeply pointed roofs and leaded glass windows of old times. My mother called them, “charming.”

As we turned onto Main Street, I noticed the banners that hung gaily from the old-fashioned street lights. They said, “Welcome to Anoka, Halloween Capital of the World.” I laughed.

“Halloween Capital of the World,” I said.

“Everybody’s got a gimmick,” my father sighed.

I observed the old stone buildings along Main Street. Many bore carved dates, like 1880 and 1906. There were used book stores and antique dealers, a natural foods co-op, a butcher, restaurants, and specialty boutiques. We turned down Church Street just as twilight began to tint the air. Twinkling strings of white lights blinked on merrily, highlighting the decorative trees that stood sentinel at the entrance of St. Margaret’s School for Girls. Our minivan entered the open passageway and drove slowly down the gravel lane to the school.

The campus was lush with lots of greenery and decorative stone. There was a curious mix of modern and old looking buildings, both of which had ivy growing up the walls. A nun bent over a small pond at the side of an older outbuilding. She fed some fish, tossing the food into the water and gazing intently into the pool, a slight smile on her face. Dad pulled up to the oldest looking building. “Well, sweetie, this is the dorm.” He popped the back door and got out to help with my suitcases. I hadn’t seen the campus before, except on line. I’d been working as a camp counselor in training all summer to save up some cash for the school year. Mom and Dad never let me work when I was studying. They said it would screw up my priorities.

The lobby of the dorm was buzzing with the voices of girls and their parents. I found the big room disorienting. Stark whitewashed walls and contrasting dark woodwork gave the place an eerie feel. The ceiling was high with a stained glass, domed skylight that depicted the clouded heavens. Colored shards of light cast themselves like confetti on the floor. I noticed wrought iron planters, waist high, lining the walls in the back. Philodendrons and ferns spilled over the fancy metal designs, wrapping haphazardly around one another.

A stern, beaky woman sat behind a long table. Wire rimmed glasses were perched at the end of her impossibly long nose. I stifled a giggle and mom glared at me again. The nun’s name tag said, “Sr. Benita, Housemother.” She handed my parents some forms and gave me my dorm assignment. Dad and Mom helped me carry my things to room 211. The hallways smelled like old newspaper, and the ancient wood floors creaked dustily. I felt as though we were being watched from above. We passed an ornately carved set of French doors with a sign that said, “Great Room.” I made a mental note of the common area’s location, and proceeded on behind my parents, bags in tow on their little wheels.
My room seemed cramped for a double. The tiny window overlooked a courtyard, and beyond it, a cemetery. Beyond that there was a little wooded area. The room was sparsely furnished with an old metal bunk bed and a double desk with two battered wooden chairs. The closet was half the size of the one I had at home. My spirit plummeted. Mom looked around and forced a smile. “The view is pretty…” She said weakly. Dad patted my back. I resigned myself to my fate, exchanged a few more pleasantries with my parents, and hugged them goodbye. They waved from the end of the hall, admonishing me to call every Sunday, and were off to dinner at the golf club. I sat down on the bare mattress of the lower bunk and wondered how I would ever get through a whole school year here.

A scraping, clattering sound resonated in the hall. I got up and peered out the door to see a tiny, pale figure dragging two enormous wooden trunks from the other end of the corridor. Long, black hair spilled from beneath a 1960’s baby blue hat with a netted veil, just like in the old movies. I watched as the matching sheath dress that contained a girl traipsed down the hall, the huge trunks in tow. “Hi!” the girl said boisterously. She dropped the trunks just outside my door and wiped her brow with her arm.

“Hi,” I said. “Need some help?”

“Sure,” She chirped. “Those suckers are heavy!”

I grasped a handle and pulled. The trunk didn’t even move, and I felt my shoulder strain. “Sheesh, how can you even lift one of these things?” I marveled.

The girl shrugged, grinning. “I’m strong for my size.” Together, we muscled the trunks into the room. “Lisette Bates,” the girl said, extending her hand.

“Clarissa,” I responded, taking the glove into my grip and shaking tentatively.

She pumped my arm up and down, “Good to know you! Hey, would you like some pork rinds? My uncle owns a butcher shop. They make pork rinds.”

“Uh…” I said, staring at her. I was having trouble taking this tiny girl in.

Lisette flung open one of the massive trunks and began rummaging through its contents. I looked closely at the strange box and realized that it looked incredibly old. There were metal reinforcements holding the planks together and a shield shaped ornament hung from the clasp.

“That trunk looks interesting,” I commented.

“Oh, it’s been in the family for a long time,” she said distractedly. A fabric parcel tied with string emerged from behind the lid, and Lisette tossed it at me. “They’re really good. You’re not a vegetarian, are you?”

I caught the package. “No….”

“Oh, good,” she smiled. “I don’t get along with vegetarians.”

The pork rinds were delicious, and I munched happily as Lisette cast a bizarre assortment of costumish clothes onto the floor in the corner. There were gaily colored hats of all varieties, retro ball gowns, elbow length gloves, and ripped jeans. I watched, fascinated. My wardrobe consisted, for the most part, of Levi’s, t-shirts, and hoodies, with the occasional dress for weddings and church. I suddenly felt even mousier than usual.

“This is my first year here,” I said. “Have you been here before?”

Lisette’s face popped up over the top of the trunk. “Yep. Started here freshman year. Classes are boring, but there’s a lot that goes on here. The school’s haunted, you know.” Her head disappeared behind the trunk again. I watched random socks spew into the air, punctuated by the occasional bracelet or shoe.

“Haunted.”

“Uh huh.”

There was a knock at our door. A girl stuck her head in and said, “Hey, you guys, there’s a meeting in the great room. It’ll only take a minute.” We got up and followed the crowd down the stairwell to the great room to get our schedules and linens.

Chapter 2:  Don’t Believe Your Eyes

Lisette snored. I don’t sleep well anyway, and the girl kept me awake the whole first night. I tried kicking the underside of the top bunk, but nothing fazed her. The moonlight came right in the window, shining like a spotlight. I was preoccupied with worry about my class schedule, and this wasn’t helping. Trigonometry and Physics, back to back. I sat up glumly, pondering whether to write my own obituary, or leave it to my mother, who would be overcome with grief and embarrassment.

Some nights, the moon is so bright, it’s like the world is illuminated by a black light lamp. I sat at the desk, looking out the window. For the first time, I carefully observed the scene that unfolded from the vantage point of room 211. The old convent-turned-dorm was built at the apex of a hill, and the second floor offered visibility all the way down into the woods behind the grave yard. The little courtyard just outside was filled with decorative plants, a vegetable garden, and various statues. The hill descended to the cemetery with its scrolled iron gate. Beyond that, the evergreens rose tall, in a typical Minnesota way.

I opened the window with some effort. The ancient wood was warped, but I eventually succeeded and was rewarded with a warm burst of luscious night air. I looked out over the expanse of land and wondered how old the cemetery was. Some of the stones and statues were modern, while others were crooked and crumbling with age.

Movement at the edge of the grounds caught my eye, and I squinted to focus better. A nun in traditional habit was walking along the edge of the gate, just inside the burial grounds. She seemed lost in a reverie, drifting slowly. She stopped and looked up at me, as though she had been told just where I was. Then, before I could register any response, she vanished. I gasped and started back from the window, then jumped up again to scan the landscape for her. She was simply gone. There was nowhere for her to go that I wouldn’t have seen her, except possibly behind one of the larger grave markers. But I had seen her dissolve before my eyes, in less than a second’s time. Not sure of whether to trust my own experience, I explained to myself that I had dozed off at the desk and dreamed up the whole thing. That made me feel much better, and I closed the window and lay down, finally falling into a deep sleep.

Lisette poked me unceremoniously. “Wake up, it’s time for breakfast!” The bell sounded keenly and I rolled onto my stomach.

“Not hungry…” I muttered.

“Come on, Sleepy,” she said, and hauled me up to a sitting position with what seemed like no effort at all.

“Hey!” I was not in a good mood. I rubbed my eyes and squinted at the clock. It was 7:15. Lisette was bopping around the room with the spring of a Tigger. I wanted to hit her. “You snore!”

“Yeah, sorry.” She was standing in front of the mirror on the door, adjusting her uniform. I never had to wear a uniform to school before, and thought it was the most ridiculous thing ever. She eyed me in the reflection. “See ya!” She bounced out the door, book bag in tow.

By the time I made it down to the cafeteria, there wasn’t much of a selection left. I got the last of the oatmeal with half a banana and some orange juice. There was only one person at the tables and I went over and asked if I could join her. “Sure,” she said, barely looking up.

“What subject do you teach?” I asked, as pleasantly as I could.

“I’m a student…a senior. My name’s Maria,” the girl looked at me steadily. I could see, now that she regarded me, that she was younger than I first suspected. She wasn’t wearing a uniform, which had thrown me off. I asked her why she was in jeans and a sweatshirt, and she said that she worked in the garden during first period, helping Sister Mary Elizabeth, whose job it was to tend the plants. “The school keeps costs down by growing a lot of the vegetables that we eat,” she smiled. Maria’s dark eyes were extra-large, and framed by long, curly lashes. Her cocoa skin had a glowing sort of look, like I always imagined I had when I was a little girl, pretending to be a princess. I was immediately jealous. She was the kind of girl I secretly hated, the kind who commanded attention just for walking into a room. Maria popped up suddenly from the table and said, “See you later!” The bell rang, and I rushed to get my dishes to the kitchen, worried that I’d be late to class.

When I got to Humanities, I was out of breath. First hour, for me, constituted a good quarter of a mile’s walk from the dormitory, and I was red faced and sweaty when I burst into the modern class room.

The nun behind the podium glared at me angrily. I cringed and found a desk at the edge of the class, my bag spilling noisily on the tile floor. I stooped to collect my pencils and notebooks and felt my face burning. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. I was sure the rest of the class could hear it, too.

“May I have the pleasure of knowing your name, young lady?” The nun’s voice was cold, and it echoed throughout the room.

“Um, I’m Clarissa Neil.”

“N-e-i-l, or N-e-a-l?”

“N-e-i-l.” I tried not to stare at the huge, fleshy mole between the teacher’s eyes. It was hideous. Stern and pale with thin, grayish wisps of hair peeking from her wimple, she looked like an extra from “Lord of the Rings.”

“Excellent.,” she said. “Report to Sister Mary Elizabeth for detention, directly after dinner. Her office is on the ground floor in the dormitory.”

I stared at my desk. “Yes, Ma’am,” I said quietly. Wow. First hour on the first day, and I already had detention. So far, so good. I supposed there would be no keeping it from mom and dad, either. I had a nice grounding to look forward to at quarter break. Not that I had a packed social calendar anyway. I tried to suck the hot tears back into my eyeballs and concentrate on the lecture. Somehow, I told myself, I’d get through this year.

Back at the dorm cafeteria in line for lunch, Lisette bounded up behind me, bouncing up and down as she eyed the food through the glass windows of the service counter.

“Ooh, Chow Mein!” She squealed. I found my roommate’s seemingly constant good mood to be grating.

Lisette got an extra huge helping of Chow Mein and pulled a little bottle of unlabeled red juice from her book bag. I sulked to the nearest table and sat down with my tray. My roomie followed, chattering.

“…So I told her…Who even uses trigonometry, anyway? It’s not like I’m gonna be an astronomer, or something, so why do I have to learn this stuff?” I felt my eyes glaze over.
Maria appeared as if by magic and sat down next to me. “Hey, Chica!” Lisette chirped.

“Thin Lizzy and the noob! How’s it, ladies?” Maria smiled a stunning smile. Her uniform looked disturbingly lewd, for some reason, like it was lingerie instead of clothing. “Liz, did you tell the roomie about our meeting tonight?”

Lisette looked at me and said through a mouthful of Chow Mein, “There’s a meeting tonight.” Then she smiled at Maria and said, “Yup.” Maria rolled her eyes.

“I have detention tonight,” I grumped.

Maria smiled. “No, you don’t.”

“Excuse me?” I blinked.

The Hispanic girl flashed her glistening teeth and said, “Nobody misses the meeting. Mary will make an excuse for you. She’s cool.”

“Oh,” I muttered. “What’s this meeting about, anyway?”

“You’ll see,” Maria said cryptically. I raised my eyebrows and kept eating.

After lunch, on my way up to the dorm room to pick up my math book, I walked through the hallway that led past the great room. It was just as creepy as it had been on my first night. I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching me. Layers of pale yellow paint stood thick on the walls, accented by dark cherry wainscoting. The wood was worn smooth and rounded by the generations of girls who absentmindedly brushed against it. I wondered how many hands had touched these walls, and how many of those hands were still alive. Old photos of students lined the hall. Some were yellow and smudged, with images of girls in long dresses and long hair. Others showed blue eye shadow and beehive hair styles. Each step led me closer to the present time. I stopped at one photo that said, “Class of 1972.” I peered intently at the tall, pretty girl at the end of the back row. She was the spit and image of Maria. I stared for a second and decided that it must be her grandmother. Crazy, though, it looked just like Maria, down to the cute beauty mark on her left cheek. A sound brought me back to myself.

The great room doors were closed, and from behind them, I heard faint crying. Cautiously, I put my ear to the door. Soft, mournful sobs, just out of reach of my normal hearing, emanated from the space beyond. I nudged the door open a crack and peered inside. Venturing a little farther, I poked my head into the room and looked around. The place was still and the crying had stopped. I told myself I must be crazy. I was hearing things. What I didn’t know was just how crazy things were about to become.

Chapter 3:  A Ritual of Blood

Note to self. Sauerkraut: just say no. Dinner was tasty, but now I regretted it. My stomach was always touchy, even when mom made her trademark “Minnesota bland” food. Ran in the blood, she said. We were especially susceptible to gastric issues, a fact that was becoming more apparent, now that I was away from home. Clutching my belly, I crippled my way down the hall toward Sister Mary Elizabeth’s office. I’d never had detention before, except one time in 3rd grade when I had to skip recess to write reminders because I was blamed for scribbling on the bathroom wall.

The door was open. The scent of incense filled my nostrils. It reminded me of my parents’ church. Rather than make me sicker, the thin tendrils of smoke that wafted from the small brass burner on the table calmed me, and my stomach settled almost immediately. Sighing with relief, I relaxed. In front of me sat a petite woman about 25 years of age. The only nun I’d seen here who wasn’t wearing the traditional wimple to cover her head, Sister Mary secured her curly, dark locks loosely in a bun, held by an unsharpened yellow pencil. Her dark eyes turned down slightly at the corners, and her cheeks were pale white marble.

“Clarissa, I presume,” she said with the faintest Irish brogue.

“Hi,” I said. “I don’t usually get detention.” I looked around the room instead of meeting her gaze. What kind of loser gets detention on the first day of school?

“Oh, sweetheart,” she said. “She always gives someone detention the first day. You were just the lucky one.” Mary winked at me, and her nose crinkled as she smiled. My shoulders unclenched. Finally, a teacher who seemed human in this place.

Mary’s office was painted slate blue. Her Mac laptop stood open; a close-up of a King Penguin grinned at me as her wallpaper flashed off. The nun took a deep breath.

“Clarissa,” she whispered, “is this your first year here?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Then I would like to give you something,” Mary said. She reached into her desk drawer and produced a coin on a long, red ribbon. “This is a medal of St. Michael. Keep it with you always.”

I looked at the gift with confusion. “Why?” I asked. “You just met me.”

Mary Elizabeth grabbed my hand and held it firmly. I looked down and noticed that both her hands were swathed with white gloves.

“The meeting is important,” she said. “You are excused from detention. When I was a student here, I thought the stories were stupid, but I learned…” The nun’s jaw tightened.

“Pay attention to what Maria says, child, and heed the warning. But…,” Mary whispered, “don’t get too close to Maria. She is not what she seems.” The nun gazed at me seriously.

“I don’t understand, Sister…What are you talking ab—”

“Run along now, Clarissa,” Mary said, suddenly harsh.

I jumped up, the medal hanging from my finger. “Thank you…Ssister,” I stuttered, and ran out the door. I put the medal around my neck and let it fall under my blouse. Mary looked so serious when she gave it to me that I was more nervous than ever about whatever this “meeting” would entail.

Up on the second floor of the dorm, girls were milling about in various stages of sloppy dress. A few had sweats under their uniform skirts, and still others were in their pajamas. Everyone seemed a bit more active than on the previous night, and there was tension clinging to the walls.

In our room I found Lisette sitting on her bed, legs dangling over the side of the bunk. She had two of her special juice bottles, one in each hand, swigging alternately from each in rapid succession. “Thirsty?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she grinned. “Special supplement that my uncle makes me. I have health problems. This stuff is the only thing that works. Meeting’s starting.”

We went down the corridor, me with a notebook and Lisette with her juice. The lounge was strewn with girls, all whispering and giggling. Maria stood in the center, reading note cards to herself. She seemed focused, her lips moving silently as she read.

A sharp knock on the door frame halted the hushed conversations, as all eyes looked up at Sister Benita, the House Mother. “Maria, do you have things in hand for movie night?”

Maria grinned beatifically. “Of course, House Mother.” She inclined her head toward the television and DVR in the corner. “All set!”

The nun’s face was expressionless. “Very good. Any shenanigans are to be reported on my return. I will be in the refectory for a staff meeting.” She turned on the heels of her sensible shoes and marched audibly away. Peals of girlish laughter rang in the hall as soon as she was out of earshot.

Maria stooped to retrieve a box from under the long curtain that framed the only window in the room. She began to pass out white candles like the ones my parents kept for power outages. We each took one. I watched as Maria produced a wooden box from which she extracted an exquisite silver chalice, a red stone decorating the bowl. I had never seen anything that looked so old or so expensive. It had strange symbols carved on it. The girls were lighting their candles, one from another. I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck. My stomach began to ache again. When all the candles were lit, the circle of girls took on a luminous glow. Maria stood serenely in the center, holding her candle in one hand and the chalice in the other. I looked around the room at the faces of my classmates. Some were very serious; others looked terrified, a few seemed bored. Maria turned slowly as she spoke.

“Many of you know why we are here tonight, and some of you don’t. We’re here in order to keep you alive.” A freshman snorted derisively. Maria smiled at her, a little too widely. “As has been seen time and again, the land on which this school was built is cursed. Some of you will choose not to believe. In that case, we encourage you to make the sacrifice anyway, because in the past, those who refused often regretted their decision, if they lived long enough. Many died gruesomely within days of refusing the covenant. Some say it’s because the land itself was haunted since before the convent was built. Some say that the town of Anoka was created on an energy vortex held sacred by the Ojibwa and Dakota people who inhabited this place before the European settlers came. Most everyone agrees that, whatever the reason, this place is a magnet for supernatural forces.”

“Oh, gawd, please…” A blonde freshman snuffed her candle and stomped toward the door. Maria regarded her with a sad look, and continued.

“This is not a hazing prank,” The tall girl turned on her heel, shiny mane twirling in a glistening arc. “People die here. The only assurance of survival is the covenant created by the first class of students at St. Margaret’s, in response to a tragedy that killed many. This place requires blood sacrifice. A small amount, given willingly, seems to placate the land, allowing us to live here safely.”

Maria nodded to an older girl whom I recognized as living on my floor. She reached under the couch behind her back and brought out a smallish cardboard box with little plastic bags inside. Girls took the bags and passed the box. My plastic bag contained a small lancet, like the kind they use at the doctor’s office to prick your finger, and an alcohol wipe. I ripped the bag open with my teeth and looked around the room. A few more girls were getting up and leaving. No one even looked at them. Lisette sat beside me, draining her juice bottles. She sighed contentedly and winked at me. Then she opened her lancet and sat staring at her fingers.

Maria brought the beautiful chalice around the room. Girls poked their fingers and let a few drops of crimson life splash into the red-stoned bowl, squeezing the flesh to close their tiny wounds. It was my turn. I winced and steadied myself to stab my finger when Maria hissed under her breath. She stepped back and closed her eyes, tightening her grip on the chalice. Visibly struggling for her bearings, she planted her feet firmly before opening her eyes again. Then she was her old self, smiling widely. Her eyelids dropped to half mast, and she purred quietly. “I see that you received a gift from Sister Mary.”

I blinked. The medal burned hot against my chest, and I thought back to what the young nun told me about Maria. Why was Maria assisting Mary Elizabeth if they were enemies? And why was Maria afraid of a St. Michael medal that she couldn’t even see? My head reeled.

Maria held the chalice at arm’s length, and I closed my eyes. It took two tries to get my finger to bleed. I successfully deposited two drops into the cup. Maria moved next to Lisette. “How many sacrifices are you worth?” The chalice bearer grinned lewdly at Lisette.

“One, thank you, Maria Consuelo Lucenza. Uncle Alan sends his regards and asks how you’re getting along.” My roommate smiled sweetly, batting her eyelashes. A small snarl came from Maria’s chest. Lisette shook three drops of blood into the chalice and dipped into a curtsy. Now I was completely lost.

When each student had given a small amount of blood, Maria returned to the center of the room. The girl by the couch who gave us the lancets reached under the other side of the long piece of furniture and brought out what looked like a box of dirt. She handed it ceremoniously to Maria.

The Hispanic girl knelt beside the wooden box of earth and solemnly held the chalice high in the air. “Spirits of this land,” she said, her head held toward the ceiling, “accept this gift of life blood from us, that the vulnerable might escape your wrath.” Maria poured the contents of the chalice into the dirt and mixed it around with her hand. The girl by the couch brought out a small bowl of water. Maria held her hands over the dirt and the girl poured the water over them, leaving them clean. A towel was passed to her, and she dried herself.

One by one, the girls came forward and doused their candles in the box of dirt. Lancets were collected in a plastic bag. They put the candles into a box that got pushed under the couch, along with the dirt and the box with the chalice. Rosewater was sprayed, and several girls took out perfume and shared it copiously. Everything was quickly hidden, and a movie stuck into the machine. The girls sprawled out onto the floor in various positions. The film was jumped to the middle, and everyone trained her eyes on the TV. I leaned against the couch.

The door of the lounge creaked open. Sister Benita stuck her head into the room, looked around, and then closed the door.

Chapter 4:  Hags and Haunts

Lisette was less than helpful when I asked her what the hell had happened in the lounge. I asked her if she believed any of it. She said, “Hey, the ritual can’t hurt and it might help. Who knows? I’d hate to find out by getting killed.” When I asked her about the interchange between her and Maria, she just grinned, “My uncle taught me never to give information unless there is a compelling reason. Maria and my family go way back. That’s all you need to know.”

“Do you live with your uncle?” I asked her. She nodded, throwing her socks on the floor.

“Since I was three. That’s when my health problems started. My Uncle Alan knew how to take care of me, so mom and dad said I should stay with him.”

“Mind if I ask what your health problems are?” I was curious about the mysterious supplements she’d been drinking.

Lisette turned and looked at me, her hands on her hips. “You sure are a nosy Nancy tonight, aren’t you, Clare Bear? It’s a blood disorder, okay? I get weak and grumpy when I don’t have my supplement.”

“Chill,” I grumbled. “Sorry.” Lisette huffed as she climbed into her bunk and went to bed early. I switched on my book light and tried to concentrate on Milton for Humanities before giving up and lying down.

Questions swirled in my head and I lay sleepless again, wondering what was really going on in this place. I silently stuck my feet into my bunny slippers. Getting out of the dorm room was easy. Lisette could sleep through a war. I brought my tiny keychain flashlight, which wasn’t much help. Emergency lights glared their circles of illumination between big, black expanses of darkness that reached down the hallway like dash marks. I padded down the corridor and found the door to the lounge unlocked. A few computers whirred in the corner, and I sat down at one of the study stations. Wiggling the little wireless mouse to get the screen to pop up, I searched “Anoka Minnesota.”

Aside from government websites that told of elected officials and job opportunities, I got a few interesting hits. I learned that Anoka was a hotbed of haunted places. Lots of “haunted location” websites listed Anoka as a prime area for “ghost tours” and genuine paranormal activity. The old Jackson Hotel, now “Billy’s Bar,” was the scene of the first official murder in the county. It was also haunted by the ghost of a red-haired lady. Too, there were five major fires between 1855 and 1884. St. Margaret’s School was established in 1884, just after the August 16 fire that wiped out 86 buildings. And I was amused to note that Anoka was, indeed, the federally recognized “Halloween Capital of the World,” having established the first organized Halloween parade in 1920. I found nothing about the student ceremony that the girls insisted had been going on since 1884, only that the name “Anoka” came from a native Dakota phrase, ano-kah-tan-han, which means “on both sides,” presumably because the town was on both sides of the Rum River.

The air in the lounge was thick. I smelled roses. The same feeling that I was being watched, as though I were in the great room corridor, fell around my shoulders. Mary Elizabeth’s medal hung heavily. A creak from the far corner of the room caught my attention. I turned to look behind me and saw nothing. As I searched “Anoka MN Hauntings,” and was learning that the old Pillsbury Mill was a dangerous place that saw hundreds of worker deaths, I heard another creak. This time, in the reflection of the computer screen, I saw something move.

I whirled around in my chair. Across the room was an old nun, some sixty or seventy years of age. Her face was friendly. She sat in the chair opposite me, smiling. Where her legs should have been I saw nothing but the faded upholstery of the seat cushion. I smelled a combination of roses and brown sugar.

“Hello, young one,” she said.

My heart banged against my ribs and I could hear the blood in my head. “Hello…,” I whispered hesitantly.

“You seek knowledge about the convent,” she said. I nodded dumbly. “The curse is real. We are all trapped here until the one called the Seer comes.” The apparition turned to mist.

I sat stunned for a long time. The computer timed out. I looked around the shadowed lounge for a good while, waiting for the apparition to appear again. “What do you mean?” I asked the darkness. She never came back.

The next morning I decided not to tell anyone about the ghost. Number one, they might think I was crazy; number two, I wondered if I was. I thought it best to concentrate on my school work and just observe. There was a lot of spooky stuff going on, and until I knew more, I wasn’t going to tempt fate.

On Saturday morning, I took a walk to see all the beautiful colored leaves that decorated the school grounds. The maples were dark red and orange, and I wanted to take a few pics to send to Amy in Austria. It was my favorite time of year, and the weather was becoming crisp and delicious. I loved Halloween and it was only a few weeks away. I was more than a little excited about going to school in the “Halloween Capital of the World.” I’d read about the annual parade and all the fun contests that went on in the town during the holiday. Maybe it was my way of dealing with seeing the ghosts; at least “pretend” ghosts were something I could handle.

As I passed a shed on the far end of the garden behind the dorm, Sister Mary E. hummed from inside the little wooden structure. Her behind stuck out, all covered by her modest skirt. She bent to retrieve something and popped up to meet me, holding a trowel and a basket in her gloved hands. “Clarissa,” she smiled. “Out for some fresh air?”

“Good morning, Sister,” I said with measured steadiness. I’d been dying for a chance to talk with Mary Elizabeth since the night of the meeting. “Isn’t Maria helping you this morning?” I asked casually, trying to sound conversational.

Mary smiled again. “No, Maria’s obligations don’t extend to weekends. I’m on my own today.”

I thought for a moment. “Sister,” I said cautiously, “would you like some help?” I considered myself a pretty fair gardener, and really wanted to find out more about the strange happenings of the last few nights.

“Oh, that would be lovely.” Mary’s voice sounded like music to me. She handed me a small garden claw and pointed to a bag of straw clippings across from the neat rows of acorn squash lying greenly on thick vines. “We’re insulating the garlic for winter,” she said.

“We’re not harvesting the garlic?” I asked.

“No, they take several years to grow. We’ll let them sleep this year and harvest next fall.” I fell in behind her, grabbing handfuls of straw to spread over the bulbs. I knew what I wanted to say, but it was a hard conversation to start. We worked in silence for several minutes before I couldn’t take it any more and just blurted it out.

“Sister, I need to know what’s going on in this school! That ceremony was the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen…”

Mary Elizabeth stopped working and sat back on the heels of her “Keds” tennis shoes. She wiped her forehead with her sleeve. The gardening glove left a smudge of dirt across her face. “Clarissa,” she sighed. “Most students here think the ceremony is just a schoolgirl hoax. They do it because they think it’s fun and mysterious. And those girls never know the real reason for the ritual, which is exactly what Maria said it is. The girls who don’t participate in the ritual often leave the school and enroll elsewhere. Their parents dislike the “hazing” tactics and call the headmistress to complain. The headmistress will scold the older girls for carrying on the silly prank that has been traditional at St. Margaret’s since long before I was a student here. Little comes of it, ultimately.

“So the land is really cursed?” I asked.

“Sadly, it appears to be true. Those who don’t make the sacrifice are generally in greater danger than the rest of us. During my stay as a student here, there were several accidental deaths, and all of them were girls who chose not to give during the blood rite. Two also disappeared during my studies here. Am I superstitious? Perhaps. I say, better safe than sorry.” Sister Mary looked resigned.

“Is that why there are so many ghosts here?” It just came out, before I could stop myself. I sat down, turning the garden tool in my hands.

Mary pursed her lips. “Have you been hearing noises?”

“They talk to me, Sister.” I looked around to see if anyone had approached us. I lowered my voice and whispered, “I’ve seen one for sure, maybe two. And one talked to me. Actually conversed with me! She said that the spirits were stuck here until someone called the seer comes. Sister, I’m afraid,” I said honestly.

Mary’s brow wrinkled. She sat in silence for a minute, obviously thinking hard about what to say to me. The wind blew bits of straw around in little twisters—miniature tornadoes like their bigger sisters that ravage the Midwest every summer. Whole towns were decimated every year in Minnesota by these dervishes. The people of Anoka were used to it. They even named their public high school teams “The Tornadoes.”

“Clarissa,” Mary Elizabeth said finally, “you shouldn’t speak of spirits.” The chill of the ground seeped through my jeans, making me shiver slightly. “The Adversary gains power when we acknowledge his darkness. Give voice to what is good and right. The Prince of Darkness brings many delusions to the innocent. Pay no attention to these evil dreams.” Her eyes looked clouded and serious. She worked furtively as she spoke. I watched her gloved hands deftly pack the straw around the garlic tops. I could feel that Mary would not continue the conversation, even if pressed. As she reached with her far hand into the bag of straw, I saw a dark red stain on the inside edge of the gardening glove.

“Sister,” I said, pointing to the growing splotch, “did you cut yourself? You’re bleeding.”

Mary glanced at her wrists. “Oh,” she said casually,” I have such sensitive skin. Even when I wear gloves, my condition acts up. It’s nothing.” She quickly picked up the bag of clippings and the tools, walking back to the shed. I stood up, shaking my legs for circulation. Mary turned around at the door of the little structure and waved. “Thank you for your help, Clarissa,” she called. I waved back. Apparently, I had been dismissed.

My mother was excited on the phone that night. “Mom,” I said. “I thought we said we’d talk on Sundays.”

Her voice was bubbly and light. “Oh, sweetie, I just got off the phone with my old boss, Bill. He’s got a guest teaching position available in Tucson at the U of Arizona. It’s a holiday intensive for their poetry center, and he thinks I’d be perfect for it! They pay’s good, too! I’m so excited!”

“That’s great, Mom.”

“Do you think you and Dad can get by without me over Christmas? Just once?” I could hear her breath, shallow little gasps of joy, over the crackly connection.

“Of course,” I answered. “Good for you, Mom. I’m proud of you.” I admired my mother for getting her Master’s degree so late in life. She always wanted to teach at the college level, and she’d managed to get a few appointments at some arts colleges in between her consulting jobs.

“Oh, good! You two will have some good father-daughter bonding time, I bet. Tell me all about school,” she chirped.

I took a deep breath. “Uh, well, the classes are pretty demanding. I have Trig, and I’m working really hard at it this time.” I’d taken Trigonometry at my other school, and my grade was…disappointing.

“I’m sure you are, honey,” mom said reassuringly. “Are you making lots of friends?”

I grimaced. “Oh, you know,” I hedged. “It takes a while to meet people. My roommate is nice.”

“That’s fabulous, sweetheart,” mom said distractedly.

“So that’s about it, Mom.” I thought about telling her what was really going on. I wanted to ask her if she’d ever seen a ghost, and tell her about the ceremony and the curse. Then I thought about how I would sound. “So, Mom, the school’s cursed because the land demands blood for some reason. Oh, and it’s haunted. I’ve begun talking with dead nuns. It’s o.k. though, because we did a blood-letting ceremony to keep us safe. What’s new with you?” Right.

“Well, honey, I have to get a few things done yet tonight. Glad you’re settling in,” mom smiled through the phone.

“Love you,” I said.

“Love you too, sweetie.”

I sighed and hung up the phone, spinning my St. Michael medal around my finger distractedly. I couldn’t think any more that night. I hung the medal on the back of my chair and went to bed.

Chapter 5:  Bones and Blushing

Lisette grabbed one of my arms and Maria grabbed the other. It was a Thursday afternoon, and I was studying in the computer lounge. They hauled me down the stairwell to the lobby of the dorm, ignoring my protests and questions. I was deposited in front of a poster next to the bulletin board that hung on the back wall above the planters. I blinked, reading the bright blue block letters. They said, “Fall Social Scheduled for October 3rd. St. Margaret’s hosts St. Bartholomew’s School for Boys. Volunteers needed for decoration committee.”

“Do you know what this means?” Lisette demanded.

“Uh,” I said. “We’re actually going to meet some guys?”

Maria rolled her eyes. “No, Stupid! Freedom! Getting off campus!” She put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows. “The committee?!” She tapped her forehead and looked at me expectantly.

Lisette jumped up and down lightly. “We need to go to the store to buy decorations. Free day, dude!”

It dawned on me finally. “Oh, we’re the decoration committee!” Lisette and Maria high-fived each other.

I regarded the two of them, confused. “Since when are you two so tight?” I asked, eyeing them suspiciously.

They grinned and Maria laughed, “We’re kinda like cousins.”

“Yeah,” said Lisette. “One big happy family.”

“We put the fun in dysfunctional,” Maria giggled.

Lisette snorted and rolled her eyes. “Something like that.”

Sister Benita was in her office, wearing her wimple, a blue tee-shirt, and what must have been men’s khaki pants. She sat typing at an ancient computer, the ever present spectacles glinting in the sunlight that poured in from the window. We burst in, almost getting stuck in the doorway because we entered side to side. “We want to be on the decoration committee!” We all shouted in unison.

The nun looked up from her work, expressionless. “I see,” she said. “Three young decorators with an eye for balloon arches and streamers. How fortunate we are to have you.” She typed a few more strokes and leaned on one elbow. “Alright, then, come see me Saturday morning around 9 o’clock with a design plan and a list of supplies. I’ll set you up with petty cash, and you can get started.” Then she went back to her typing, and we ran down the hall, giggling like little kids.

Before I knew it, it was Saturday, and we three were prancing down Main Street, petty cash in hand and a list of party supplies in Maria’s pocket. Lisette wore a hot pink denim mini skirt with a black “Sid Vicious” tee and combat boots. Her black vinyl overcoat was shiny and elegant with a matching cinch belt. She looked adorable. Maria had on Apple Bottom distressed jeans, green leather wedge sandals and a baby doll cotton top with little orange and green flowers on it. She had a canvas khaki windbreaker tied around her waist, in case she got cold. I resolved to rethink my wardrobe as we walked. My melon colored baby tee, white hoodie and Levi’s looked boring by comparison. Oh, well. Nothing I could do about it today.

Neither of my companions seemed at all concerned about actually buying decorations. Lisette gleefully perused the purses in a little shop on 2nd Street, and Maria seemed happy just to be off campus. She smiled her perfect smile at everyone in the street. Several men walked into lamp posts. Maria and Lisette found this hysterically funny. I cringed.

We rounded a corner and came to a storefront with the word, “Tobacco” carved into it in ornate stone letters. There was a brass plaque bolted to the heavy door. It said, “1901.” In the big display window I saw what appeared to be a complete buffalo skeleton, along with a hand lettered sign that read, “Natural History Museum Store.” Lisette heaved the solid oak door open nonchalantly with two fingers. Maria and I followed behind her. A bell tinkled from above the entrance. I was hit with a sweet, smoky smell mixed with the unmistakable stench of formaldehyde. The science labs at my old school stank of it all year, and I remembered holding my breath as I made my way past the biology department to study hall.

The store was completely full of stuffed and skeletal dead animals from what I could see. Huge, heavy glass display cases separated three aisles. I wandered around on the battered, uneven wooden floor, marveling at the nightmarish sights. To my right I noticed a revolving display with earrings, necklaces, key rings, and bracelets. There were centipedes encased in epoxy, flies suspended in amber, buffalo teeth, feathers, and rabbits’ feet. I was entranced and disgusted all at the same time.

“May I help you, sweet girl?” A voice came from my left, startling me out of my wonderment. A gnarled man in a stained lab coat was standing a little too close to me. I smelled garlic and red wine on his breath. Trying to back up, I bumped my butt on a display case. The case rattled.

“Uh, no thank you!” I sputtered. His thick, wire rimmed glasses belonged in the Smithsonian, and they were so smudged I wondered how he could see through them. He ran a hand through the hank of yellow-grey hair that hung in greasy sections down the left side of his face and trained pale grey eyes on me through the grimy lenses.

“We have many unusual artifacts, my sweetling,” the man said. His gaze traveled down my body. I felt a little ill.

“I’m just here with my friends,” I gulped. I pointed to where Maria and Lisette should have been. A fiftyish man in a black leather trench coat and a goatee grinned at me and winked as I mistakenly pointed at him. He was perusing a shelf of amber colored glass jars and jugs, all with hand-written labels. One large jug read, “Fast-Acting Tissue Solvent.” I quickly scanned the store and realized that my companions were nowhere in sight.

“Clare Bear!” My roommate’s twangy voice came from the back of the store. From behind a cracked-open door marked “Employees Only,” a thin strip of Lisette’s face revealed itself. The door was to the left of a long black counter of inestimable age. Under the counter were bins that reminded me of penny candy at an old-fashioned general store. Instead of root beer barrels and taffy, there were, according to the labels, marsupial tails, small rodent metatarsals, and large mammal femurs. The femurs stuck out at odd angles.

“Excuse me,” I said to the salesman, arching my back over the waist high display case to wriggle free of him.

“Of course, sweetling,” he bowed slightly with a flourish.

Relieved, I made my way back to the doorway and Lisette pushed it open. I entered a hallway with a black tiled floor. It was lined with several slim, old looking wooden doors. One had a sign that said, “Water Closet.” “Do you work here?” I asked Lisette.

“Nope, Uncle Alan owns it. He’s got three businesses in town,” she said. My roomie pushed open the door at the end of the hall and we entered a laboratory-like room full of metal tables and shelves. The chemical smell was overwhelming.

Maria was bent over a stainless steel table with a girl I didn’t recognize. They were talking animatedly. The girl was dressed in exaggerated goth-wear, complete with a too-short version of our school uniform, fishnets, and black platform leather boots. Her hair was dyed characteristic glossy black with bangs, and she sported a red rose tattoo on her left forearm. Maria laughed heartily and looked up, noticing me. She waved me over.

“Clarissa,” Maria said, “this is Phoebe.”

Phoebe smiled, shrugging. “Hi, Clarissa. I’d shake your hand, but…” I looked down over the lip of the metal table just in time to see Phoebe’s rubber gloves pull an eyeball out of what appeared to be a large dog head. The hooked implement in her grasp pierced the eye and extracted it with a juicy schlupping sound.

I steadied myself a little on the edge of the table. Fighting off nausea, I mumbled, “S’awright…”

“Poor Clarissa,” Lisette said from behind me. “I had to rescue her from Igor.” Maria hooted.

I remembered the old horror movies my parents watched at Halloween, like “Bride of Frankenstein.” Igor was the sniveling, bug-eating side kick. I had to admit, I saw the similarity. “His name is Igor?” I asked.

Lisette laughed. “No, his name is Roger, but we call him Igor. Long story.”

“Right,” I said.

“So Feeb,” Maria smiled. “I bet Clarissa would like to see Melvin.”

Phoebe giggled and pulled off the rubber gloves, laying them on the table. “He hasn’t been feeling well lately, poor baby. Maybe he’s better after his nap.” The goth girl went over to a tool cabinet and took the top off of a glass terrarium that sat balanced there. She began cooing into the sand and rocks that lay on the bottom of the enclosure. “Come here, sweetie. That’s my good boy. Oooh, there you are….”

Phoebe pulled her cupped hands from the glass cage, whispering baby talk into them. “Behold,” she said, “Gromphadorhina portentosa, the world’s largest hissing cockroach.” She held up a shiny black and red three inch bug. I felt my jaw drop, and then immediately shut it, not wanting the bug to get any ideas about where to go next. The little monster lifted its head and let out a threatening hiss. I jumped back for the second time that day. Phoebe praised the hideous thing with a stroke of her finger. “That’s a good boy!”

My eyes darted to the ‘Exit’ sign in the very back of the room. “I need some air,” I said, and bolted for the door, trying to keep my breakfast down.

The alley behind the store was sunny and strewn with pebbles. The backs of old buildings, their bricks sporting the faded remnants of advertisements for Club Soda, threw the last of the fading summer’s heat into the corridor. There were bright green dumpsters bulging with garbage. The smell was acrid and I thought for sure I’d be sick. I leaned against the back of the Museum Store and tried to breathe. Nausea washed over me as I felt hot sunshine on the back of my head and cool, shadowed brick on my behind. Bending over into a crouch seemed to help stop the dizziness. I’d never imagined anyone keeping a cockroach as a pet, but then I had never known you could get a job pulling the eyeballs out of severed heads, either. This was going to make one hell of a Facebook post.

I noticed a creaking sound and watched a door swing open about fifty feet away. A tall, slim man emerged from the back of the building next door. He heaved a garbage can up and over his head, spilling the contents into one of the dumpsters. I stood up a little, testing my balance.

The man looked over at me and held his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun. He smiled. I straightened up more and smiled back. I wasn’t feeling very friendly. He put the trash can down and began to walk toward me. “Crap,” I muttered to myself. I hastily cleared my throat and put on a polite face.

“Hi,” the stranger grinned, landing in front of me with a quickness I didn’t expect. His face was open and kind, with eyes so bright blue they were startling. He was wearing a white apron over a grey uniform shirt. I guessed he was 18 or 19 years old.

“Hi,” I said back.

“You ok?”

“Oh, um, yeah…I’m fine,” I fibbed.

“I’m Drake Masterson,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you.” He started to extend his hand but hastily pulled it back, wiping it on his apron. “I’ve kind of got blood on my hands,” he said. “I work at Bates’ Meats.” Drake nodded in the direction of his workplace.
His eyelashes were long and dark, and he needed a shave. Short brown hair framed his face, and I smelled Crew hair pomade.

“Clarissa Neil,” I squeaked.

Drake’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “You look a little pale, Clarissa Neil. Are you sure you’re feeling well? I hate to see a beautiful girl in distress.”

My breath caught. Say something, the voice in my head screamed. And don’t stare at him! He’ll think you’re an idiot! I opened my mouth and shut it again. Blood pricked my cheeks and I knew I had turned red as a tomato. I pretty much wanted to die.

The back door of the Museum Store opened and Phoebe’s head popped out. “Found her!” She yelled back into the shop. Phoebe stepped out into the sunshine with Maria and Lisette tailing her.

Lisette playfully whacked Drake in the chest with her open hand. “Puttin’ moves on my roommate, Drake?”

“Sure am, Mighty Mouse!” Drake laughed in a caramel voice. “Try and stop me.”

Maria grinned. “We’d love to, Drake, but we have balloons to buy. We’ll have to foil your evil plot later.” She grabbed my arm and pulled me back into the Museum Store. I stole one more glance at Drake, who was leaning good naturedly against the side of the building. He waved a goodbye and smiled handsomely.

Spots danced as my eyes adjusted to the indoor light. The strong chemical odor of the lab room burned my nostrils again. Lisette smirked sarcastically and said to Maria, “Check out the Clare-meister. She’s in love.”

“I may vomit,” Maria replied flatly.

“What?” I demanded. “I’m not in love. I just met him. Anyway, is there anybody in this town you guys don’t know?”

“Sure,” Maria laughed. “We don’t know Mike.”

“Guy with the red Corsica and two kids?” Lisette said. “Nope, we don’t know him.” I picked up a tissue sized box of sterile plastic gloves off the counter and threw it at her.

Chapter 6:  The Culling Begins

We did eventually get around to purchasing balloons and streamers for the dance. On the way back from Party Papers on Main, we were schlepping bags of unfilled balloons and crepe paper rolls in Halloween-y colors when we walked by a little boutique. Lisette let out a low whistle and pointed to a Mediterranean blue dress in the window. It was a silky knee length fit and flare with flutter sleeves and a layered, floaty hem. “Ohhh,” I said. “I wish I could pull that off.”

Maria laughed. “You could so pull that off, baby! Poor Drake won’t know what hit him if you wear that to the dance!”

I blinked. “Drake’s going to the dance?”

“He’s a senior at St. Bart’s. He only works at the butcher shop on weekends,” Lisette confided in an exaggerated whisper. She opened the door to the boutique and dramatically gestured me inside.

Maria nudged me from behind into the store. My head danced. I was going to see him again. At a dance! I pictured Drake’s arms around me with soft music playing, my head on his chest. I pictured him kissing me.

“Earth to Cadet Clare! Come in, Clare, this is Houston.” Lisette yanked on my arm, snapping me out of my daydream. “Oh, boy, I can see where this is going,” she sighed. “You’ve got it bad, honey.”

“Do not,” I said defensively.

Maria asked the salesgirl if we could see the dress in the window. The girl stopped twirling a dreadlock and looked up. He red titanium lip ring twisted as she frowned and put down her phone. “What size?” she huffed.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “A six, maybe?” The girl’s phone buzzed on the counter and she looked longingly at it before walking acidly toward a rack in the back. She kind of threw a dress at me and stalked back to the counter.

We all crammed into the purple plywood dressing room and I held up the dress on its hanger. It really was beautiful. I looked at the price tag and gasped. “Ninety dollars? I can’t buy this!” I felt my face fall.

“Don’t you have enough money?” Maria asked.

I blanched. “Well, I do have the money in my account, but my parents would kill me if I spent ninety bucks on a dress.”

Lisette looked annoyed. “Are you parents here, then?” She pretended to look around the cramped cell. “I don’t see them.” I sighed and whipped off my clothes. Maria helped me pull the dress over my head and zipped me up. We all surveyed me in the mirror.

“Here,” Maria said. “You need to see the 3-way.” She took me by the hand and led me out of the stall into the store.

I stood on a little platform by the lighted triple mirror right outside the dressing room. I could hear the salesgirl gabbing away on her cell phone, ranting about her boyfriend to some invisible, patient friend. The mirrored reflection didn’t look like me at all. Well, except for the stunned, uncomfortable expression. That was mine. From the neck down, though, a curvaceous beauty queen stood before me. “Wow,” I breathed.

“It fits perfectly,” Maria purred. “Turn around! Let’s see it!” I turned from side to side and around in a circle, watching the glistening blue skirt float effortlessly in the air.

“Too modern for me,” Lisette observed. “But it’s perfect for Miss America, here. Buy it, Clarissa. You look amazing.”

Visions of mom yelling at me about smart financial choices jostled my head, but I pushed them away. They were immediately replaced with visions of Drake asking me to dance. I felt my chest swell with glee, and promptly seized the moment.

In the few blocks between Main Street and the school, I vacillated between sweet ecstasy and mind-twisting terror at the thought of seeing Drake at the social. What if he didn’t notice me? What if I stepped on his feet while we danced? Which shoes would I wear? What if he liked someone else? It was brutal. I followed along behind my two friends, who were talking a mile a minute about who knew what. I barely noticed when Maria broke into a run about half a block from the front gate of St. Margaret’s. Lisette cursed under her breath and took off after her. I clutched my bags and followed, yelling, “Hey! Wait up! What’s wrong?”

A cluster of girls and Sister Mary were crouched in a circle on the lawn of the dorm. Lara, a girl from 4th floor whom I recognized from my Humanities class, was wandering around crying uncontrollably. I dropped my bags and ran up to Mary Elizabeth. In the center of the fray lay the lifeless body of Jessie, a freshman. Her neck was obviously broken; her curly blonde head lay at an impossible angle on the blood-spattered grass. I gasped and looked away, feeling big tears burst from my eyes. Jessie was Lara’s roommate. I remembered her stomping off in disbelief the night we did the blood rite. “Did she jump?” I asked Mary.

Mary Elizabeth was crying too. She reached over with her gloved hand and shut Jessie’s eyes, praying briefly in Latin and making the Sign of the Cross. “It appears that way,” she said.

Sister Benita came running out of the dorm building carrying a bed sheet and a cell phone. “Yes, yes, sir,” she said into the phone. “No, she is definitely deceased. Yes, sir. Her roommate witnessed it. Please hurry.” Benita covered the body with the sheet and told us to go to our dorm rooms so the police could do their jobs. I walked like a zombie with my bags, not even wiping my tears away. Lisette and I sat silently in our room. I watched her drink her juice and thought about Jessie and her poor parents. I wanted to call my mom.

Lisette paced back and forth, swigging from her bottle. “It’s starting again,” she said blandly.

“What’s starting?” The wooden boards of the floor complained noisily as she walked between the window and the closet, over and over again. Her face was intense with pain.

“The elimination of the ones who didn’t do the rite. It’s the same as last year. One by one, they die if they stay. It’s horrible to watch.”

“Lisette,” I sighed patiently, “Jessie committed suicide. How can that possibly have anything to do with this curse thing? She was probably depressed or something. I knew a kid who hung himself from a tree last year at my old school.”

She stopped pacing and glared at me. She seemed about to lift off the floor from sheer rage. “Jessie wasn’t depressed,” Lisette said through clenched teeth. “Something else had to happen to her. I grew up with Jessie. She wouldn’t kill herself!”

I looked at the floor. “Sister Benita said that Lara saw her jump out the window. I’m so sorry, Lisette. This must be awful for you.”

“I don’t want to talk about it!” Lisette yelled at me, red faced. Then she launched herself out of our room and slammed the door.

I lay on my bed for a long time, pondering the fact that I was officially a horrible person. A girl had just died and the only thing I could think about was whether the Fall Social would be canceled, robbing me of the opportunity to try for some smooch-time with a serious hottie. Wow, how low was that? Of course it was horrible that Jessie killed herself. I just couldn’t get Drake’s eyes out of my head. I kept seeing scenes of us alone. I felt a hot tear in the corner of my eye. Jessie would never go to another dance again. Jessie was dead. I heard the wail of a siren and the sound of tires on gravel. They had come to take Jessie away.

 

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