by David Carroll
First Appeared in Burnt Toast#11, 1992
Day 1: In-Jokes
The sun shone through the windows of the kitchen and outside birds were singing. Birds liked this house it seemed. Birds could live here with no problems whatsoever, no sir, and that was fine.
New York was a little like that, and if the city had a darker side it was acknowledged tacitly, and that was the world we live in.
Morning Glory Crescent -- and all this stretch of suburbia with wide roads and its own paper (edited by one of the frightfully eager committees that are formed and reformed to fight for playgrounds for the children and the standards of the drains), was like that. And secrets could and are kept in the neat houses, and that was alright too.
But most of all this house was like this, and Darrin walked into his kitchen and kissed his wife good morning and knew the reason why.
It didn't stop things like meetings and deadlines and creative lapses at midnight, and Darrin passed up his wife's offer of scrambled eggs and toast. "Gotta run, honey," he said, a little breathless to match the slight disarray of his suit. "We've got another go at the Jenken's Shoes account and our revered client has got an attention span of just under zero."
"See you tonight then," his wife called after his retreating form, and he waved as he moved round a corner and out of sight.
His wife sighed a little, and looked at the newspaper lying, not so innocently folded, on the table. Darrin hadn't seen it on his way out. Not that it really mattered, did it? It was just a coincidence, and she had been round long enough to know that coincidences happen.
But still... She looked at the paper again, still not quite believing it. An ad was uppermost, just line art with a fancy border and a nice bit of calligraphy. It showed a beautiful kitchen, utensils neatly hanging in their various positions, not a dirty dish to be seen, and even with the line art you could tell that everything just shone. In the middle of the room a witch stood, with black cowl and pointed hat and a grin that was both evil and self-satisfied. The witch had warts on her face. The caption to the ad read:
If your wife was a witch you wouldn'tand in small letters at the bottom of the ad (she thought it was six point) were the words 'McMann and Tate'.
The ad had been on page nine of The Daily Chronicle, dated the fifteenth of March, 1966, today's date, and now it lay on her table and the hag stared out at her. Samantha burnt it, very carefully, not even singeing the remaining pages.
She sat in her chair for a while and then stood and started washing up. She knew Darrin wouldn't have had anything to do with such an ad. By the time she had finished putting the dishes in their proper places she had put it from her mind. And when she tidied the kitchen (which didn't shine, but she believed her pride in it was justified) she threw the paper away.
Clara was already upstairs with Tabatha, and she had already said goodbye. Samantha raised her hands in the air and clicked her fingers.
And the sunshine fell into the empty kitchen, and the birds sang to no ears but their own.
* * *
No one sang to Gladys Kravitz that morning, not in any language that she could hear. But something wonderful happened, nonetheless.
The phone rang.
Gladys looked up briefly from the living-room couch. It rang again and she gauged the amount of pain it would take to get across the room and answer it. If Abner had heard the ringing over the football game in his ears he gave no sign.
But Gladys never acknowledged the pain in her lower legs and hands. Never let the world see what she was suffering, because the world didn't care. It only expected her to move. The phone rang again, and somewhere someone expected her to do something, and she got up and walked across the room and answered.
"Hello?" she said in her high, nervous voice.
"Ah, yes." A voice answered, sounding a little distracted. "Could I speak to, ah, Samantha Stephens please?"
Gladys glanced round the room, thinking hard; glanced across the street to the house she peered at every day through her cheap binoculars. "She's not available right now, can I take a message?"
"Oh. Well, if you don't mind. I'm the journalist who spoke to Mrs Stephens yesterday about the article, you know. About her. I was just ringing for a little extra information."
Gladys almost fainted. "OK," she said. "I can tell her that. But..." She licked her lips and looked at Abner. He didn't even seem to have noticed she was on the phone. "I'm actually one of Samantha's neighbours, and I could tell you some very interesting things about her, and the strange things that go on in that house, I mean really strange," she said, forgetting she was supposed to be answering the Stephens' phone, saying it all in one breath, saying as much as possible before the journalist cut her off. But he didn't cut her off.
"Yes?" he said, sounding interested.
"Well," Gladys said, starting to smile. "It all started about three years ago, when Samantha and Darrin, that's her husband, bought the house at 1164 Morning Glory Circle, and I can tell you..."
And she did tell him, and he listened. An hour later, after the journalist had promised to visit her the next day and take 'more detailed notes', she went to hang up the phone, a happy woman.
She discovered her fingers had clenched themselves round the receiver and she almost panicked. "Abner..." she said quietly.
"Shhh," her husband gestured. "There's a good ad on."
But her fingers unclenched themselves without pain after all. "It doesn't matter," she said, looking at her hand in amazement.
Later on she took a bus into the city, and spent the day shopping, and finished it by finding a small cinema playing an old comedy called Who's Been Sleeping In My Bed?, which she greatly enjoyed.
* * *
The lady was not Egyptian, her hair and skin colour made that obvious enough, but she was fluent in Sallah's tongue, and more than that. She had passed the trinkets and curios for the tourists without a glance, and only looked briefly at an old tapestry of hieroglyphs hanging shadowed on the back wall (and did she mouth some of the words to herself, muttering the symbols that were written without grammar or context as if they meant something more than 'Fascinating place, Egypt. Went there for a bit of a look round last year, you know'? Sallah couldn't quite tell). No, she went past most of the shop and went to the real shelf.
Sallah got his artefacts from a great many sources; some were hard-traded in the bars and on the streets, some were bought off the Englishmen with white hats and faces covered in permanent sweat. And Sallah had no compunction stealing from the other thieves in this town, and he owned a workshop where millenia of history could be summarised with skilful application of chisel and paint. But the portly little trader had a pride in this collection of small and dingy pieces. And while they were relatively cheap (they certainly couldn't compete in price with the flashiest of his 'artefacts') he always made very sure before trusting a new exhibit to this shelf. Certain of his customers knew this, and perhaps one of them knew this lady in turn.
Sallah was getting old, but his voice was low and polished as he talked through the pieces on the shelf, and the lady would make the occasional comment, or pick up an object and simply hold it before putting it back. Sallah knew what most customers would buy by the expressions in their eyes, but the lady (whose smile was ready and voice was friendly) was deadpan. Her hazel eyes told him nothing. She finally decided on a small statuette (not even of a god, just a man) and they started haggling in earnest, and Sallah discovered this was a language she was fluent in as well.
But before they could conclude business someone spoke from behind the lady, breaking the flow.
"Oh, Samantha, don't you know Egyptian is so passé this year? I'm off to Brazil myself, apparently they sell the most divine Aztec jewellery that was smuggled South during the Seventeenth century."
The lady looked indecisively at the statuette. Sallah tried to see who else was in his little shop, but to no avail.
"Well, I'm sorry, but I'll leave this for now", the lady said, and in a louder voice. "See you for lunch, Mother."
"That's quite alright," the Egyptian bowed, wanting to kick something. "Come back any time."
When he raised his eyes there was no-one in the shop but himself, and the bell at the door lay undisturbed. But stranger things had happened to Sallah, and it was the loss of the sale that galled him throughout the rest of the day.
* * *
Next Samantha tried a little shop in Bern and a huge emporium in Oporto where one of the salesman used to have a nice behind-the-counter store of interesting and, in mortal terms, illegal objects. Bern had nothing worth looking at twice, and the Portuguese salesman had been replaced. After a light lunch with Endora in Rome (which was currently as passé as Egypt apparently, but quiet) she tried Darwin and Ontario.
"Perhaps I have been out of it too long," she said to no-one in particular, as she surveyed a little English store which now sold records and badly reproduced posters.
"What was that?" asked the little man beside her.
"Oh, I'm just looking for a birthday present for my Aunt Enchantra," Samantha replied vaguely. "And I'm not having too much luck."
"She's not interested in rare Beatles singles, is she?" asked the young woman with the man, holding up some obviously prized vinyl.
"I don't think so," said Samantha, and she moved on again.
* * *
"Helen," Darrin hollered, walking out of his office. The secretary looked up from the words appearing like magic on the typewriter in front of her and smiled nicely. Before she could say "Yes, Mr Stephens," or words to that effect, she was handed a board on which a piece of paper flapped ungracefully.
"Give this to Art and see if they can make the modifications. They've got", he looked at his watch, "forty-seven minutes before the deadline. Mrs Cosgrove has 'been in touch', and if the original is printed we can kiss the account goodbye."
"Yes, Mr...", Helen managed to say.
"Oh, and Helen, where's Larry?"
"He's in his office, there's some sort of..."
"Right. I've managed to leave the Ganzer account at home again, so I might as well finish it off there in peace and quiet, tell Larry I've gone will you?"
She smiled. "Yes Mr Ste..."
"Any appointments tomorrow?"
"Just at ten fifteen and..."
"Yes?" she said, finishing a sentence.
"Hurry up with the art."
"Yes, Mr Stephens," she said to the empty doorway.
She finished typing the letter, and took the elevator down one flight to the Art Department, and then back up again.
She completed one letter and was half-way through another when Larry stormed out, stormed into Darrin's office, stormed out again.
"Where is he?"
"He's gone into town to see some sort of concert with his wife."
"What?" Larry looked like she'd just said Darrin had gone to the moon. "Ring his home, we might be able to catch him. I want an explanation for this." Larry threw a paper on the desk, with an ad for Karing Kitchen surface cleaner uppermost.
"I'm afraid he's going straight in, and he said he won't be home till late."
Larry looked like he was going to explode. He took out his vengeance on the piece of paper still in his hand, and finally managed to calm down.
"Fine," he said at length. "Fine. Tell him I want to see him in my office before he clears his office out tomorrow morning. Oh, and Helen."
"Yes, Mr Tate?"
"Retype this, would you?" He handed her the letter he had just crumpled, and went back into his office.
Helen did as she was told.
* * *
When he was young, Neil had been fascinated by magic, the twin art of charm and deceit. But he had outgrown it, moved away, turned his fascination of the unknown into a love of science.
He didn't know how it happened, couldn't identify the point of transition, but as he looked out the window at the machine he knew something had changed. The machine, Gemini 8, would lift them away from the Earth, beyond the confines of the atmosphere, out into space. Neil Armstrong looked out the window, and thought about infinity.
It had been done before, a handful of times, but that didn't matter. Because this wasn't science any more, this was magic. And this time, it was real.
* * *
The only thing that came in through the window was darkness, and in that darkness Samantha studied her husband's face.
It was an expressive face, his, capable of a thousand nuances.
"Do you love me, Darrin?" she said suddenly. He stirred and opened one eye and smiled a little.
"Very much so," he replied, and his face said he meant it. Samantha ran her hand through the hair on his chest and leaned over to kiss him.
He murmured contentedly as he kissed her back, and his hand found her side and ran up and down in lazy arcs.
They knew each other's bodies well.
Their kisses became shorter and harder, and when they had lost all but physical sensation, and their bodies danced against each other, it was like magic.
Day 2: Slapstick
"Grandma," said Tabatha between mouthfuls of mushed banana and spinach.
"What was that, dear?" said Samantha as she mopped away the spillage. Tabatha was just old enough to eat by herself, and Samantha kept a close reign on the process.
Endora appeared floating in the air behind Samantha and beamed happily at the couple. "Ah, isn't Tabatha getting to be a big girl now? Hello my dear."
"Hello mother," said Sam, sounding pleased. "How's the preparation going?" She took the furiously waving spoon from the two-year-old and put it in the sink, then disposed of the small empty jar and turned to face her visitor.
"Not bad," said Endora thoughtfully, as an apple flew from the bowl on the kitchen table into her hand. "We're having a great deal of trouble with some of the entrees, the Moss Banks have had a bad year, you know. But Hagatha has had a splendid idea and I believe our troubles are solved. It looks like Ticheba herself will put in an appearance, and you know how rarely she leaves the palace."
"That would be wonderful," Samantha said as she put some more toast on.
Tabatha, becoming bored with all this grown-up talk, called to herself a pot and large spoon, hanging from the nearby wall. But before she could start connecting one to the other Sam turned and caught the spoon in mid-fall. "Uh uh, darling. Musn't twitch. Your daddy doesn't like it," she reprimanded softly.
"What don't I like?" said Darrin as he breezed into the kitchen for his waiting breakfast. He saw his mother-in-law and his smile froze. "Endora. Is there a more pleasant way to start the morning than seeing your smiling face?"
"Why Durwood, I didn't know you cared," she smiled.
"Because if there is, I want someone to let me in on the secret. I'm sorry Sam, but I've just lost my appetite. I'll grab something at the office."
"Darrin..." Samantha said, sounding worried. But he kissed her before she could continue, and kissed his daughter on the forehead, and was out the door.
"There you go mother, you've upset him."
"Upset? It looked like plain rudeness to me."
"Now, mother. You're being silly. Darrin is a perfect gentleman. It's just that around you he feels defensive, and rightly so." Samantha finished washing the plate and glass Darrin had left.
"Hah, like all mortals he hides what he feels. They couldn't live together if they actually had to admit they suffered from emotions."
Samantha sighed. "Yes, mother. You win, but only because I don't have the time to argue. I still haven't found a suitable present."
"Well, you go on, dear. I'll mind Tabatha till Clara arrives."
Samantha smiled, clicked her fingers, and was gone.
"Grandma," said Tabatha again, experimenting with the word.
"Can you get the apple, Tabatha? Can you get it?" said Endora smoothly.
Tabatha reached up to twitch her nose, and called the apple from Endora to herself.
Endora laughed in delight.
* * *
Abner answered the front door, but before he could say anything to the man at his doorstep Gladys had bustled past him, and the words were already gushing out.
"You must be Mr Eshkol, so good of you to come so... you have no idea... Abner dear, take the man's coat..." She took the coat and passed it to her husband. "Do you want a drink?"
"No, thank you," the man replied, his voice as she remembered it, very measured, very smooth. "It's a bit early in the day for me. Uh, can I have my note-pad? I'm afraid it's still in my coat."
Abner handed the coat back to Gladys who gave it to Mr Eshkol and took his hat in exchange. Looking through the coat he found a pen, which he passed on to Gladys who passed the hat to Abner.
"I'm sure I had it..." the man murmured, looking through the last pocket.
"Don't worry, Abner will get you one. Abner."
Her husband gave her the hat while she passed the pen back to Mr Eshkol, who put it in a pocket. He swapped the coat for the hat, which he put on, while he searched his trouser pockets.
Abner returned with a pad, passing it to Gladys who gave him the coat.
"Here they are," said Mr Eshkol, finding his notes in his waistcoat. He put them in his trouser pockets and handed his hat to Gladys, who passed it onto Abner.
"Shall we begin?" the man said.
"Yes, certainly. Come this way. Did you see the house? The things that happen... you just wouldn't believe."
"I believe you," said Mr Eshkol again, in the same slow voice, and Mrs Kravitz simply grinned.
Abner watched as the two went into the lounge-room to talk. He knew he wouldn't be welcome, but he was curious what the two had to say to each other, and he was curious about Mr Eshkol, in his late forties perhaps, with grey hair and weathered skin and blue eyes and little numbers tattooed on his forearm, not quite hidden by his long sleeves.
But he was very tired, like he was always tired, and he just stood there for a while.
"Abner?" called his wife from the next room.
"Yes," he replied.
"Do you have Mr Eshkol's pen?"
* * *
McMann and Tate was by no means the biggest of the advertising companies in the marketplace, nor the most prestigious or the most visible (situated as it was in the innocently named International Building several blocks from the CBD). But it had a hard-won reputation for good product, and in its customer relations it somehow managed to combine hard-sell with the personal touch with great success. For a company with less than twenty people in permanent employment they were doing remarkably well, and Larry Tate, the active partner, never let anybody forget it. McMann, the silent partner, was just that -- and opinions differed among the junior staff about what he looked like, what he did, and if he was dead or not.
Darrin (who was well aware of Mr McMann's mortal status) walked into the main reception of McMann and Tate with a smile on his face, his briefcase in one hand and a large artwork folder in the other. "Morning, Helen," he said cheerfully.
"Morning, Mr St..."
Helen stopped mid-syllable, but Darrin didn't notice. He had stopped listening, and in the room, all was still.
A soft voice came out of the stillness, not breaking it.
By hyena's laugh and crocodile tears
Perhaps there was a faint ringing sound but, like the voice, it faded quickly into the air, where even the particles had ceased their dancing.
"...ephens," concluded Helen ritually. "Mr Cosgrove rang and wanted the appointment moved forward an hour. If you hurry you can make it."
But Darrin didn't seem to be in a hurry, he just wandered over to the window and looked outside. From here nothing moved, the traffic was hidden far below and the glass stretched forever. Only a distant glimpse of flickering sun on water added a sense of time to the scene. "Isn't it beautiful?" he said softly.
"The appointment," Helen reminded him. He broke away from the view, and walked over. "That's funny," he said. "That old bat Mrs Cosgrove rang yesterday and I thought it had been settled. That's lovely perfume you're wearing, what is it?"
"Mr Cosgrove..." she tried again, with a nervous glance at Larry's door.
"Mr Cosgrove is a fawning imbecile and a couple of minutes won't matter. Anyway, can't you feel it, it's a beautiful day." He breathed deeply, and went to put his things in his office, breaking into a loud and cheerful whistle.
"Ah, you've finally decided to get here," Larry said, looking out his door.
"Hi, Larry, have you noticed Helen's perfume, it's really quite pleasant."
"Wonderful, I'm so glad to hear that. Now come in here, Darrin, I want an explanation."
"Sure," said Darrin brightly, and put the case and folder down outside his door and disappeared behind Larry's. Helen sighed, and kept on typing.
From her perch at the top of the room Endora laughed, as inaudible as she was invisible. And then, with a wave of her hand, she wasn't there at all.
* * *
"Good to see you, Lare, you're looking real good this morning. A bit tired maybe, but hey, I know you're a busy man, and..."
"Darrin," Larry said very patiently. "Do you remember the Karing Kitchen campaign you worked on last week? No little memory lapses now, tell me if you do."
"Yes, sure I do, what's the trouble?" He sat down, and started running his hand appreciatively over the arm-rest on his chair. "I need some better chairs in my office, must make a note..." he mused.
"Well, we've had complaints, haven't we. It wasn't what the client wanted." Larry continued, still being patient, and Darrin finally seemed to realise this was a bad sign. A high defensive note entered his voice.
"We went over it carefully with Mr McMillan, you know that, you were there."
"We went over something, but it wasn't this." Larry threw the paper to the table. It was todays, there had been some sort of mix-up and they hadn't been able to stop the ad from repeating.
"What?" said Darrin blankly, leaning over to look at the drawing.
"I mean, it's not even good advertising. How are you supposed to sell kitchen polish by addressing the husband, eh? Tell me that." Larry's patience was just about all used up.
But Darrin wasn't listening, he was just staring at the paper. It was the Chronicle, one they themselves received, and while he often didn't have time to read it, he knew Samantha did.
A well of shame and anger rose within him, stronger then he could have imagined, but he didn't hold it back, he just stared and thought of Samantha, who was so strong, and who hurt so badly.
He snatched the paper and crumpled it into a ball, tearing it and ripping it and throwing it against the wall.
"Darrin," someone shouted at him. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
He flinched and he started crying. Softly at first, the tears trickled from his eyes. Someone was approaching him, trying to shake him. He backed away, throwing his arms up to ward himself, backed himself into a corner. And the tears flowed without stopping and he sobbed violently, and he beat his arm against the wall in an overflowing of frustration and pain.
* * *
"This is getting ridiculous," Samantha said to herself in a private mall somewhere in San Fransisco.
"Miss," someone shook her sleeve gently. "Miss." Samantha looked down at the pretty girl, perhaps thirteen, with long brown hair by her side. "Are you..." the girl started nervously, then finished in a rush. "Are you the Queen of the Witches?"
"No, no I'm not," said Samantha softly.
"Look, my father taught me." The girl held out her arms and said "Srewolf reappa" and her arms contained a small bouquet of wild-flowers. She presented them to Samantha with a bow and a blush.
"Thank you. Tell your father he is a very lucky man."
The girl nodded and grinned and ran away, and Samantha looked after her, perhaps a little sad. And even, she realised surprised, a little envious, and she wasn't sure why. She dismissed the emotion, and continued her search.
* * *
Helen Stuart looked up worried at the sounds coming from her boss's office. She stood up and was about to knock when Larry himself came rushing out, looking panicked.
"Ah, Miss Stuart, don't worry, Darrin's only going over a new approach for a home safety campaign. Can you, ah, pick up some lunch for us from the sandwich shop on the corner, we'll be busy here for quite a while."
Helen nodded, trying to see past Larry into the office, unsure of what to do. But there was only one thing she could do, and she nodded, and went downstairs.
Larry disappeared back into his office and then, with a furtive glance appeared again, dragging Darrin behind him.
"Got to get you home, you're obviously not well," he muttered to Darrin, in what he hoped was a reassuring tone of voice.
Larry quickly checked the corridor and made a rush for the elevators, the unresisting Darrin in tow.
Somebody came out of a door up the corridor and Larry turned mid-stream, walking quickly round a corner and into the fire-stairs.
"Come on, big guy," Larry said encouragingly as they started the climb down. Darrin was still sobbing, still not caring about anything but an internal grief that washed away everything else. "We'll get you home to Samantha."
"Samantha?" Darrin's head jerked up, though his wet eyes remained unfocused. Larry looked in those eyes, and couldn't quite identify the emotion raging behind them. Until with a yell of impatience Darrin raced down the stairs and out of Larry's sight.
Larry just stared.
He walked out of the nearest exit, distracted. Someone was already in the corridor. "Sorry," said Larry, "Just going for a bit of, you know exercise."
He disappeared back into the echoing stair-well, and tried to work out what was going on.
* * *
Gladys Kravitz had run out of words. She felt tired and hollow and happy. Mr Eshkol looked up from his neat and unreadable shorthand and smiled at her. "Thank you, Gladys," he said, and she jumped a little because she had forgotten the timbre of his voice, but his words were all that she needed.
"Uh, you must be thirsty, can I offer you some tea?" she asked, a little breathless. But he stood up and pocketed his notes and declined.
"I must be going and start compiling what you have told me." He reached down to help her up, supporting her by the forearm.
"How are your hands?" he asked kindly.
"They're a little sore at times," she said, "but they're all right now."
"Good," he said. "There is already too much pain in the world. Take care of yourself, Gladys. Go out and enjoy yourself tomorrow, see a movie or a play, or have a picnic in Central Park."
She grinned a little, feeling young, and didn't know what to say. So she showed him to the door and watched him leave.
His questions about her hands had startled her, I mean, why would anybody want to know about her? Why would anyone care?
But today, nothing could spoil the way she felt.
She decided not to wait until tomorrow, and went to find Abner, to tell him about the picnic.
* * *
Mr Eshkol left 1163 Morning Glory Circle, driving back to his cheap hotel in the city.
Mr and Mrs Kravitz left half an hour later, Gladys looking a whole lot happier than Abner.
Clara and Tabatha were having lunch in the local park, and if the presence of a seven-foot-long and over-friendly stuffed tiger was anything to go by, it would be an extended one.
Larry Tate rang the Stephens' house, and wondered where the hell everybody was. As he put the receiver down and paced up and down his office a little (absently chewing on a roast beef and tomato sandwich delivered by his secretary) Samantha returned to her house and prepared to go shopping.
After her frustrated search of the morning the chance to do some real live gathering of food came as a bit of a relief.
Samantha drove to the local shops, turning a corner just as Darrin screeched round the one at the other end of the street. The wheels ate grass as he drove wildly onto the lovely sloping lawn, and he shouted his wife's name as he fumbled with his key.
Samantha drove into the car-park, humming a song she had heard that morning, and not for two hundred years before that. She glanced up and saw the new billboard erected to replace the one for Barker's dog food.
Darrin searched the house frantically, finding only empty rooms.
The poster showed a fly caught in some obviously lethal spray. But the fly had a black hat on, and warts, and the poster was captioned:
Thou shalt not suffer a fly to live.and behind the warts was Samantha's own face, and the name 'McMann and Tate' was there, and there was also a signature, and it was one she knew very well.
As Samantha felt something within her wrench loose and bleed venom, Darrin realised his house was empty (no, not empty, deserted), and he screamed. Despair took his heart and squeezed it, and there was nothing else in the world but that sharp sensation of loss, and he wrapped himself into his arms and felt like he would die.
* * *
When the fireman arrived he saw that the fire was already out, and had only affected the side of one building. He spat, and asked what had happened and nobody knew. Samantha wasn't there to tell him.
She also wasn't at the house when Larry called again, and Darrin heard the bell and did not answer.
The park was simply empty.
The hours of the afternoon went on forever, and night fell slowly. Neil Armstrong and his partner felt the explosion beneath them with every sense they had, taking away all sensation, all thought. Into that night they flew, escaping the Earth, moving to speeds faster than any man had ever moved before.
Perhaps they had the right idea.
Day 3: Drama
Nothing lasts forever, and even New York is finite.
Out here, beyond the city and the suburbs and even some outlying farms there is only the woods, and they are very old, and they appear impervious to man's progress. Only time will tell if this is true.
But on this day, when the sun's light is still feeble, a man walks through these woods. He is feeling old himself, and the breath is white on his lips and the crackle of twigs under his feet is the only sound he hears.
He travels lightly, for his age. Every now and again he runs his hand over a cut into the bark of trees along his route, each perhaps several days old. Last time he was here he had used a compass, but now he comes empty-handed, all he has is his box of cigarettes, and the matches to light them.
When the marks ran out he found a natural clearing in the middle of the woods, perhaps thirty feet in diameter. The leaves and weeds had been cleared from the ground, leaving only loose dirt and rocks and the tiny scraps of green that had been missed. Even the dirt was undisturbed, the strong scent of man had kept the animals away.
In the middle of the clearing was an unlit pyre, a cone of bound branches and dry kindling, standing round a vertical stake, ten feet high. Bound to the stake was a life-size straw effigy, arms and legs and head defined by tight lashings of twine, and tied to the stake twice around the torso. Pinned securely to the 'face' of the effigy was a slightly blurred photograph, obviously enlarged. It showed a smiling woman, her face framed by sweeping honey-blonde hair. The little girl she held in her arms had the same smile and the same colour hair, but it was shorter.
The man had been very scared when he had taken that photograph, sitting in a car on a suburban street.
Now the man looked round the clearing, making sure all was as it should be. Nothing had been disturbed, and there had been no rain as he had feared possible. He was satisfied.
He didn't want to use an effigy for this task, but it was the only way.
He took the box of matches from his pocket, and grabbed some kindling from the base of the pyre. Lighting a match carefully, cupping the tiny flame within his hand, he fed the kindling, and with the kindling he fed the pyre, and then he stayed to warm his bones.
* * *
When Samantha returned to her house early that morning she was wearing her flying suit, green highlights sliding over the black material as it fluttering slightly in the air she displaced from the centre of the lounge-room.
She looked round the room coldly, appraising the contents one by one. Tabatha had come with her and was sitting on one of the lounges, looking round interested.
Samantha would be damned if she was letting someone chase her and her daughter out of their home.
Samantha closed her jade green eyes and visualised the house. Saw it inside her mind, not as an picture but as the real thing, in all dimensions and to the minutest detail. She watched the house spin slowly, and she moved through her own picture, through the gardens and under the grounds and up the stairs. She became intimate with the house, knowing every part of it.
She commanded all the dust, all the dirt, all the tarnish and rubbish and even the scratches to begone from her house. And her house was clean. She commanded the now gleaming dishes and cutlery to return to the place where they lived.
The kitchen and all within it danced, all too briefly before gravity regained control. And the kitchen shone.
Then she focused onto Darrin's belongings, his clothes and books and equipment and everything, and was about to command them to begone from her house, when one of those minute details finally registered. She opened her eyes and looked round the lounge-room again.
Then she looked behind the lounge, and there was Darrin himself, asleep, but with a look of such loss on his face Samantha suddenly lost all her anger, all her resolve. It drained out of her, leaving nothing but confusion behind.
For the first time since yesterday afternoon she started to think. "Oh my stars..." she said slowly. "Darrin?" And, almost instinctively, moved round and knelt beside him, ran her fingers through his hair. She didn't know yet what was going on, but she finally realised that after three years of marriage, she should at least trust him enough to ask.
She sat down, looking at him, wondering what to do.
For the first time, and a little belatedly, she realised it could have been a trick, could have been magic (and her mind still revolted at yesterday's image, but she knew magic was impartial).
"Grandma," said Tabatha suddenly, and Sam looked at her.
"Yes, good idea," she said slowly, then raised her voice. "Mother, I want to talk with you. Right now."
And Endora was there.
"What is it?" she said irritably. "The main course has just escaped again and the orchestra looks like it's about to have a civil war."
"Mother," said Samantha calmly. "Did you put a spell on Darrin?"
Endora looked down, noticing the sleeping man for the first time. "Well..." she said, thinking it over. "I do seem to remember one little..."
"Take it off. Now."
Endora sighed. "OK, OK, I don't have time to argue." She clicked her fingers twice. On the first click Darrin moaned slightly, and moved to a more comfortable position. On the second she disappeared.
"Good," said Samantha, and changed her clothes as she bent to wake her husband, running cool fingers through his mind to ease the memory of the pain he had felt.
Darrin smiled and opened his eyes. "Sam, you're as beautiful now as the day I married you, and I love you." He looked a bit closer while she smiled. "You also look younger than the day I married you, must be the light."
"You're not doing so badly yourself, old-timer." She leant over and kissed him, and he pulled one of her arms aside so she fell forward onto him, and they both laughed, and held each other for a while.
* * *
The man walked out of the woods, following the markings back to the car.
There had been a bad moment back there, where the bonfire had looked like it was more than wood and straw. Memories had come back of bodies in trenches and lonely shower blocks and cold. They had burnt numbers into his body, and those little marks that said who he was still burned sometimes, but it was the cold he remembered. The cold and the bonfires lit to fight it, where oil was the kindling, and neither wood nor straw was used as fuel.
He had heard somebody once say that in the midst of horror your characteristics intensify, that fear defines who you are. He had known that as a lie, fear makes you nothing. And if he had escaped, it was only because animals know how to run.
It was a bad moment, but he had gotten over it. He had learnt how to be stronger than his memories, he had learnt to get on with his life, as best he could. Even the dreams had gone away.
By the time he had reached the car he was smiling, and the sun itself was showing warm in the sky. It was going to be a nice day.
Helen Stuart watched him get into the car, and smiled back at him. "I thought you had got yourself lost," she said. "Wondered if we'd need a search party."
He shook his head, amused, and rested himself in the comfortable seat.
"What's going on, really?" the girl asked after a pause.
"Nothing, my dear," he replied. "It is over. You have tendered your resignation to the bosses you dislike, and I am finally satisfied. You have been of great help to me, and an old man thanks you for it."
She smiled shyly and, impulsively, leant over and gave him a tiny peck on the cheek. "Do you still want to be let off at the bus stop?"
"Yes, and you are still going to look up your sister out west, and see if you can do something more useful than type."
They had only known each other three weeks, and Helen still smiled at the memory of her bumping into him, literally, in a bar. They had spent many evenings together, and he told her many stories. But while his face was sad, his stories were always of his home and his childhood, and they made her laugh. She told him the few brief facts about her own life, and he listened attentively.
She drove him to the bus stop he had requested, on the route back to the city, and as he stood there beside his few bags he waved at her, and she never saw him again.
* * *
"Auntie Serina", said Tabatha from the play-pen in the lounge-room. Darrin looked up from the television set suspiciously. "Sam," he called. "Your batty cousin isn't here, is she?"
"No, but I am now," came a high voice from behind him, and he turned with a grimace on his face to see Serina pop into existence, realising once again that his wife's face did not go well with long hair, beads and multi-coloured guitar.
"Oh joy," he muttered. "What else can go wrong today?"
"Love you too, big daddy," she smiled as Samantha came down the corridor from the den. "Oh, Sammy, isn't it exciting?" she cried, running over to her. "Do you know who's going to be there?"
"I know very well and," she stopped in mid-sentence with a sudden thought, "...and I still don't have a present."
Darrin put up his hand. "Am I missing something here?"
"Oh Darrin," Samantha said. "Enchantra's twenty-first birthday party is on tonight and I was going to tell you but I never got the time. And I still haven't found her a present. I'll have to go and look for one this afternoon."
"Uh, can't you just zap one into existence?" said Darrin, having a bit of trouble following the logic in this conversation.
"No, silly," said Serina, wandering over to play with Tabatha, "that would be cheating."
"Yes," Samantha said, distracted. "But I'll have to put Tabatha to bed first. Come on now. Off you go, Serina, she's had a hard day."
"Oh, no fun at all, cousin, that's what's wrong with this household," Serina said with disgust, and raised her hands and clicked her fingers and disappeared.
"I'm sorry," said Samantha. "I was going to tell you."
"Do you have to go, we could just spend a pleasant evening at home, open some champagne..."
"No, I'd love to, really, but this sort of party doesn't happen very often."
Darrin narrowed his eyes. "Hey, didn't she say it was Enchantra's twenty-first? You can't tell me your aunt is twenty-one years old."
"Not years, Darrin," Samantha said with a slight smile. "Not years."
She picked Tabatha up out of the play-pen and was about to take her upstairs, when Darrin called her back. "Sam," he said with a serious look on his face. "I called Larry earlier, and he was rushing round panicking because one of the secretaries has quit and half the office hasn't turned up to work because of the Gemini orbit. And yet he still wanted to know how I was, said I should take the day off, because I was in a real state yesterday."
Samantha bit her lip, but he continued. "I do remember it, sort of, though the details keep slipping from my mind. And I know what that means."
"Darrin," Samantha said. "It was mother, she put a spell on you to make you write some horrible ads. But don't blame her, she doesn't understand the extent of her own trickery sometimes. She means no harm. And I thought it was the least I could do to soothe the memory for you."
"But it's witchcraft. Don't you understand, I can't do anything about it, and it makes me feel so..."
Samantha kissed him, very lightly.
"I know," she said. "I know. But magic isn't what makes us who we are, it just helps us along sometimes. You may not have married me for my power, but it exists, and I can't be sorry for it. But I married you knowing who you are and what you are, and I have never regretted it."
She started walking up the stairs, carrying Tabatha with her.
"Honey," he called out, trying one last time, putting some real enthusiasm in his voice. "Come and watch the TV with me this afternoon. Everyone is watching it, it's exciting, we're getting reports from the capsule, and they reckon that we're not too far away from a landing on the moon? Can you imagine that? People actually walking on it?"
"Yes I can," said Samantha, turned to look down at him. "I'm sorry, but I know what it's like." And she walked up to put Tabatha to bed.
Darrin sighed, and turned off the television.
"Horrible ads?" he said to himself to break the silence. "That I really don't remember."
* * *
"Come on, baby," Samantha said soothingly. "Time for some sleep, it's been a long day."
"Bang," said Tabatha, and she screamed.
The bedroom window exploded inwards as the bullet struck it and kept on going.
* * *
Darrin made the door in three steps and was in the middle of his lawn in another five. He saw something long and thin being drawn back through an upstairs window of the Kravitz house and he turned wildly to look at the shattered window above him.
"Samantha!" he yelled at the top of his voice. There was no answer.
Suburbia resumed its peace, and perhaps curtains fluttered in nearby houses, but Darrin knew he was on his own.
He fought his first impulse to rush straight upstairs to his wife, and ran across the road as fast as he could.
He couldn't understand what was going on, couldn't comprehend any more than that he had to stop whoever it was that had...
He gave a little cry and kept running.
The front door was ajar and he rushed inside, all thoughts of his own safety forgotten.
And Abner and Gladys were there, lying at the bottom of their own staircase, still breathing.
"I told them to go out today," a sad voice said from above the couple, and Darrin saw Mr Eshkol for the first time, coming down the stairs.
He carried the rifle loosely in one hand, in the other he held a pistol, and it was pointed straight at Darrin's chest.
"You weren't suppose to be there," the old man sobbed. "She was supposed to drive you away. Oh God, it was supposed to be so perfect."
Darrin took a step forward, sweating, and the old man dropped the rifle, putting both hands on the pistol, steadying it. He was still inching down the staircase, and Darrin wondered how close would be close enough.
The old man was also sweating, and it looked like his eyes were clouded with tears.
"But maybe this is best after all," the man said. "You become affected by all that you touch." He took the safety off the gun with a click that sounded like a shot.
Sirens in the distance.
Darrin tensed, another step, just one more, and this guy, whoever he was, whatever he was talking about, wouldn't know what hit him.
The man took that step.
"No," a clear voice sounded from above them, and Darrin stopped himself from moving, and the man shrieked and fell, rolling the last couple of feet. A shot went off, loud and echoing and Darrin fell back a step, thinking for a second he was dead.
The man was sobbing and pleading in pure terror, and Darrin looked up to see why.
Samantha was there. Not on the stairs, above them. Dressed in black that seethed in the same wind that tore her hair backwards from her face.
She floated down the stairs a little, looking like a angel, a terrible terrible angel, all dressed in black.
The man howled and tried to steady his gun.
"Tabatha's safe," Samantha told Darrin. "I dropped her at mother's", but she still came closer, and her face held nothing but fury.
"I know why you did it," she told the man. "You did it because I was a witch, and you needed no other reason. But how, how did you know?"
The man turned his head from the sight, his eyes bulging.
"No!" he screamed, twisting into upright position, bringing his gun upwards to fire.
Samantha twitched, and to Darrin it looked like the room was filled with tiny droplets of red, and then he saw the pistol fall to the floor, and the man was no more.
Samantha sat on the staircase, dressed in old slacks and a comfortable shirt, and she was crying.
"Oh Darrin," she said through the tears and he sat beside her, put his arm around her. "Oh Darrin I'm..."
"No," he said gently. "Don't apologise. Everything is alright, everything is quite alright." He ran his hands through her beautiful beautiful hair, and perhaps she believed him.
* * *
Gladys didn't tell the policemen anything, said she had never seen the man before. They had gone now, looking for a suspect that had run off in a direction none of the neighbours could quite remember.
Abner sat beside her, and they were sort of leaning on each other, though neither admitted it. She watched Samantha and Darrin walk across the road and into their house, and she sighed.
While the police had been talking to her she had been holding a pen, and she was still holding it.
She didn't even try to let it go.
* * *
The police had taken the rifle, but they hadn't found the pistol which now sat on the coffee table, looking ugly.
Darrin had examined it. It was very old, obviously an heirloom, pre-dating the Second World War by fifty years at least. A swastika had been carved into one side of the hilt and, more recently, a Star of David on the other. Scratches ran across the face of the swastika, as if someone had tried to deface it, but the etching was deep.
"He must have seen my face in the paper one too many times," Sam said quietly. "We haven't been quite as subtle as we might have been, and people can get suspicious."
Darrin sighed. "Can we do anything about it?" he asked.
"We can be careful."
After a long silence Darrin tried to change the subject. "Are you still going to the party tonight?" he asked.
"Yes," she said, and nodded at the weapon. "And I think I've found Enchantra her present. Darrin, you don't want to come, do you? I didn't think it was your sort of thing."
"Samantha. I'd be delighted."
She grinned, and they kissed each other, and that was fine.
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