The sun busted through the treetops as Torri Dowe and little Lida hurried down the hillside. The Kirby place was off the beaten path, so there was nothing easy about it. They picked their way around the biggest boulders and huge tangles of boughs caused by broken trees and pipe vines.
Their feet crunched on the fallen leaves and twigs littering the hillside floor, their voices muted and close.
“We gotta hurry, Torri. Come on!”
Torri re-adjusted the huge pack she carried. They’d been walking for hours so the damn thing hung halfway down her back as she slouched forward, soaked with sweat. “I’m hurrying, Lida. Any more hurrying and I’m gonna trip and break my neck, and then what are you going to do?”
“Shit, I don’t know.”
“And don’t say shit. Your ma would kill you.”
“But you don’t mind.”
“No, I don’t, but I’m not the one who’ll tan your hide.”
“That is true.”
“Damn right it is. Now quit fussin’.”
Torri got a burst of energy toward the bottom of the hill as things cleared out. There was plenty of space between the white pines to walk and their feet didn’t get tangled so much. She even pulled ahead of the little girl, who was carrying nothing, by the way.
Lida had come to Torri late last night yapping that her mother was about to have a baby and how they couldn’t get to the regular doctor in town. Furthermore, Lida suspected there was something wrong with the baby, or her mother, or both.
And while Torri suspected there wasn’t all that much wrong, probably just the mind of a little girl exaggerating everything, she thought it best to be sure.
She’d thrown some essentials together in her pack and left her home in Black Mountain, walking all night to get here.
Just now, they came out of the woods and found themselves at the base of a big, flat hill that rose up and then angled down way off in the distance. If she remembered correctly, the Kirby place would be at the far side and just over another small hill.
Not much farther at all.
“All right. Looks like clear sailin’,” she said and plowed forward through the knee-high switchgrass.
Light glinted off the early morning dew and the sun was finally warm enough to drive off the overnight chill. But like any Kentucky Fall, you could be freezing one minute and burning up the next, so Torri had packed a few sweaters and various shirts to adjust her layers as necessary.
“What makes you think there’s something wrong, Lida?”
The little girl kneed her way through the tall grass, which came up to about her waist.
“Well, Pa’s been acting funny. And him and Mama have been fighting a lot.”
“Well, just the usual stuff. Money. Pancakes.”
“Pancakes? That seems dumb.”
“Yeah, I didn’t understand that argument. But they had it.”
“What do you think is causing all this? They still love each other, right?”
Lida shrugged. “I guess so. It all started after Pa came home one night from a card game with his friends. You know, Rob Petry who works at the Marathon, his brother Eddie, and the Samuels boys.”
“Yeah, I know them all in one way or another. Haven’t seen the Samuels boys in years, but yeah. Boys playin’ cards ain’t so strange, Lida.”
“I know that. But things seemed different after the game. Like, Pa had some strange moods. Kept going out to hunt at odd hours, never did bring nuthin’ back.”
“People sometimes hunt at strange times. Early in the morning, sometimes before there’s any light at all.”
“I know. Jesus H. Christ, Torri. I ain’t daft.”
“You better watch your mouth, girl, talking to me that way. I’ll turn right around and march back home.” Torri would never actually do that but she wasn’t about to have a little girl mince words with her.
“Sorry. I’ll stop.”
“Fine. Now, what else?”
“I don’t know, Torri. It just feels bad, and I didn’t know who else to tell.” The little girl’s face scrunched up with torment and fear.
Torri admonished herself even as she wrapped her arm around Lida’s shoulders, giving her a squeeze. “You did the right thing. You should always come to me for help. I’m just tryin’ to get to the bottom of it before the bottom gets to me, if you know what I mean. Now, go on. Tell me more.”
“Well, Daddy has always hunted. But, like I was trying to say, lately he’d leave in the evening, sometimes even before supper.
And Daddy never misses supper. And then he’d come in real late with a strange look in his eyes. Like he was doing something wrong and dared anybody to take him up on it. You know, sorta mean?”
“Yeah. I know what mean is like.”
“And Mama would worry, worry, worry. She’d stay up half the night worrying.”
“When did all this start, you know, with the card game and dark moods?”
The girl twisted her face up, thinking. “Oh, probably around the middle of summer.”
“So about three months.”
“Right. And it’s been getting worse. Mama put up with it at the beginning, but she called him on it one night and they had an awful row. I thought he might hurt her.”
Now that was strange. Jack Kirby, for all his plainness, was no asshole. Torri remembered him as being a good man. She’d known him since he was a little boy, and that was thirty odd years ago. She also remembered him giving off a nice aura when she looked at him. Not angelic, no, but green and true which was an indication of a good heart and mind. Healthy, anyways.
And only a strong outside force or a major heartache over a long period of time could change a person’s aura.
The two hikers were starting to lag again, still with about a half hour to go to get to the Kirby’s. On top of that, dark clouds were barreling in on them from the west.
Looked like a storm.
Torri made them pick up their pace, she didn’t want to be caught out in it.
They rounded the hill, cut across a creek, and then traversed another small hill that was fairly wooded but easy enough to get through. Sprinkles of rain were just starting, but the trees sheltered from the worst of it. Her nose picked up the pleasant scent of wet dirt.
The Kirby’s yard was just a little open space surrounding a ramshackle house with a tree out back, a tire hanging from it where Lida always played. It was a comfortable place all nestled into the hillside, and the house was built well. But as Torri gazed at the plume of smoke snaking up from its chimney, she realized Lida was right. Something was amiss here, although she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was.
The aura of the house was just wrong.
Jack Kirby came out the front door and down the steps, wearing overalls with only one side buckled and carrying his shotgun. His beard was long and dark and he had a little muss hair on his head haphazardly parted on the side. He was a thin man who had always looked a bit pallid, but his countenance had always been happy and cheerful.
It was not the case this time. He had a more sunken appearance now and shadows loomed beneath his unkind eyes. His aura was a sickly gray.
“Hey there, Torri,” he called, gesturing with his hands in apology.
“Glad to see Lida found you. Damn, you ain’t changed a lick since I was a boy. You could pass for seventeen.”
“Well, I sure as hell ain’t seventeen. What’s goin’ on, Jack?”
The man shrugged. “Something’s wrong with Sara. She’s been laying around all day. I told her to get up, but… I dunno.”
Torri gave him the most incredulous look she could come up with, raising her brows and twisting her lips together. “Well heck, Jack. Maybe it’s because she’s pregnant.”
“I told him that,” Lida whispered.
Jack nodded as if agreeing that were true, but it didn’t seem to register with him. His eyes seemed distracted with something else. As if there was someone standing right behind him and whispering in his ear. As if he was haunted.
“And why in the world did you bring your shotgun with you out here? I’m sure you saw it was me.”
Jack held up the hand with the gun and just shook his head. “Aw, I dunno, Torri. Seemed important. Never know what folks’ intentions are.”
Torri brushed by him, eyeing the shotgun with disdain and noticing its aura was as black as black could be. “Oh please, Jack. Come on inside, let’s see about Sara.”
Pushing the door open with a squeal, Torri instantly recognized something was wrong. Not right out in the open, no, but somewhere buried in the room. A stench that did not touch her nose but something that struck a deep, instinctive cord within her.
She stood in the family room. There was a mantle above the fireplace covered with pictures and knicknacks. The old hardwood floors had been refinished at one time, but even that was a long time ago. Wood paneling covered every wall. All of it, the whole house, was well over a hundred years old. Sara kept the place nice and clean except for some spots like the couch where there were a couple pillows piled at the end along with a tumble of throw covers. It looked like someone slept there a lot.
A cry came from one of the back rooms. Torri rushed down the hall, her feet causing the floorboards to squeak. She bypassed all the other rooms and followed her instincts to the last one at the end. The door was cracked open so Torri pushed it the rest of the way and went inside. The first thing that hit her was the stench of sweat. Next thing was Sara laying in the middle of the bed, legs sprawled apart and her hands crossed over her bulging bare belly, rubbing her hands light and shaky over it.
The room itself was simple. Probably a guest room for family whenever they visited. Just a dresser drawer and a nightstand on both sides. A closet with the sliding doors removed filled to the top with boxes. A tiny window above the bed was opened about halfway.
“That you, Lida?”
“Naw. It’s me. Torri Dowe from up on the hill.”
“Thank God. I wouldn’t have normally sent Lida by herself, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I was desperate.”
Torri’s eyes scanned the room, a doubtful expression on her face. “That’s fine. I’m here now.” And she went to the bedside, letting her backpack slide to the floor.
“Something’s wrong. I can feel it.”
“Yeah, that’s what Lida said. Tell me about it.”
“Well, the baby is early for one thing. Wasn’t supposed to come for another three weeks. And the pain is different this time.”
“What do you mean?”
Sara shook her head. “I don’t rightly know. When I had Lida it hurt bad, probably the worst pain I ever felt in my life. But this time, it feels like…”
The whole time Sara talked, Torri’d been looking her over. Touching her forehead. Touching her heart through her T-shirt where it had been pulled up. Running her hands over the woman’s belly, checking for tender spots and the like.
“Yeah. Go on. You can tell me.”
“Well.” Sara’s eyes went wide with fear, as if she were telling a truth she’d known all along but hadn’t been willing to admit to herself. “It feels like my baby boy is fightin’ something.”
“He’s been restless and kicking a lot. Kicking hard.”
Jack was suddenly standing in the doorway still holding the shotgun. “I brought the horse and saddled her up in case we needed to get Sarah to the hospital.”
“Uh huh. That’s a good idea, but how were you gonna do that?
This woman cain’t ride no horse.”
“Well,” he said, pointing off somewhere like Torri knew what he was talking about. “We’ve got a trailer and a tractor, too. There’s a trail goes right into town.”
Sara wore just a pair of cotton shorts which made it easy for Torri to inspect her hips, legs, and feet. The woman’s skin was hot to the touch, like she’d come down with a horrible flu.
“Hospitals are all right. Why didn’t you take her yesterday?”
Jack looked befuddled. “I don’t know. I should have. I just…didn’t.”
“Well, let’s hope it doesn’t cost your son his life.”
“Yep, it’s a boy,” Torri said, agreeing with Sara’s earlier assessment. “But that’s not here nor there. Lida, you there?”
“Yeah,” the girl called from the hallway.
“I need you to get some things for me. Think you can do that?”
Torri ticked off a list of things she needed and sent the girl off to get them while Jack just stood there in the doorway, holding the shotgun.
Jack snapped his head around. “Yeah?”
Damn. The man looked dazed as hell. Like he was under some kind of spell.
“Why don’t you go get the tractor hitched to that trailer in case we need to get on into town. And, Jack?”
“Can you leave the gun in here? I’ll make sure no one touches it. Especially Lida.”
Jack went to set the shotgun against the wall but he was having a tough time of it. Like he didn’t want to put it down. His fingers lingered on the well-oiled barrel, staring at it like a lovestruck man watching his lover sleep.
“Go on, Jack.” Torri eased her tone into something close to seductive, using her voice on him. It was an old trick, old magic woven into her tone that could make people do what she wanted, mostly. “Go get the trailer hitched to the tractor, like I said.”
“All right.” Jack shot Torri a sleepy look and left the room, his boots clomping down the hall.
She turned back to Sara, who had lifted her head from the sweat soaked pillow and glared at the gun like it was a coyote come to steel her baby off the front porch. “I hate that fuckin’ gun. I told him to get rid of it the night he brought it home.”
“He won it in the poker game, huh?”
Sara nodded. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
“Oh,” Torri sighed. “Just puttin’ two and two together. Now, a gun is just a thing, but sometimes it’s more than that, too. Best get this little boy out of you before we go provokin’ it, if you get my meaning.” Torri smiled and gave her a wink.
Sara’s eyes, still fearful, glanced at the shotgun. “I guess so. But what if Jack comes back? I’m afraid of him, too.”
“Darlin’, Jack isn’t the one you got to be afraid of. You just worry about your boy and let me take care of the rest. Now breathe.”
Sara did as she was told, taking long, steady breaths.
Lida came back in the room with a jug of water and some fresh towels, candles, a half bottle of alcohol, and some scissors. “I’m going to go heat up some water now like you said.”
“Wait. That all the candles you got?”
Torri counted nine candles. Not enough, but it would have to do. “Light two of those and set them on the nightstand here. Then get the water heated.”
The girl did as she was told.
As the girl ran off, Sara lifted her head, lips brushing Torri’s ear. “What is it? What’s trying to get at my baby?”
Torri shrugged. “I thought maybe it was something from this world but seems like it slipped in from another, darker place. It happens sometimes.” What Torri didn’t say was that it had been happening a lot lately. “That’s why I’m here. To protect ya. To run it out.”
“It’s from Hell?”
“Would it help if I prayed more?”
“Sure, honey. Pray all you want. God’s listening.”
“Didn’t think you cared much about God.”
“Well, God’s real, ma’am. Just like my powers of the Earth. Just like sorcery, too. They all do a thing, sometimes together.”
Sara’s eyes brightened, and the hint of a smile crossed her lips.
“Okay, then. Do what you gotta do and I’ll leave it all in God’s hands.”
Lida came back ten minutes later with a pot of steaming water. She set it next to the candles on the nightstand.
“Good. Now, I want you to do one more thing for me.”
“Shit, Torri…” the girl shot her mama a look, then stood up straighter and wiped the sweat off her own forehead. “I mean, sure. What is it?”
“Can you fetch me some gnarl root? The ones that grow around the oak trees? Might need a tiny spade to dig some out.”
“Yeah. We got a big oak out back. I’ll check there.”
“How are you doin’, Sara?”
Sara screamed in reply, causing Torri’s shoulders to clench up.
Then the pregnant woman half-rose from the bed, lingering at the apex of pain, before collapsing once more, gasping curses and prayers at the ceiling.
Torri told the woman to lean up, then repositioned the pillows beneath her to provide a little more support.
Torri got situated between the woman’s legs, checking her for dilation and the general health of things down there. She’d done this hundreds of times and could instantly tell things seemed fine. And when she ran her hand over the woman’s pelvis, she could discern no additional complications. The baby was positioned well enough for now. She just hoped there was nothing tangled up inside.
She’d just have to deal with complications as they came, using whatever magic she could to save Sara’s child.
Sliding off the bed, Torri got on her knees and fished through her backpack, taking out six or seven ingredients. She crawled to the nightstand and placed them there, stirring them into the pot of smoking water: salt, witch hazel, and rosemary, along with the ground bones of a black squirrel and some relatively fresh rabbit’s blood. Turpentine and some other things, too.
As she worked, she whispered a common Earth prayer. One of protection and light, something to sweeten the pot.
Green grass, hear my prayer…
Brown dirt, hear my prayer…
Rock and field, root and tree…
There is nothing more fae than thee…
The words caused the contents of the pot to swirl counter clockwise, little bits of green and brown twisting and turning inside the mixture as if every particle were dancing with life.
Torri smiled, but she still needed that girl. “Lida! Where are you?”
Sara’s hand shot out and gripped Torri’s arm. Her eyes were terrified, lips quivering with a combination of fear and desperation. “Is my baby going to be okay?” And she didn’t mean was her baby going to come out okay. No, this woman already had one child and could birth a baby. What Sara wanted to know was if her baby was going to be born blessed with the light of the Lord and not something, well, something darker.
Sara’s fear ignited Torri’s will. This should be a happy moment, not dark and terrifying. Fixing Sara with a serious look, Torri said, “Your baby is going to be better than fine. I ain’t gonna let anything happen to him, you hear me? You just do the pushin’ and I’ll do the rest. And we’ll beat this thing. Got it?”
Sara’s expression got bolder. Her jaw set. Her eyes flared with determination. She nodded but then, just like that, another contraction wracked her frame, knocking the steady look right off her face.
Torri got between her legs again and noted that her dilation was about as large as it was going to get. The baby was coming soon.
Running feet came down the hall, and Lida burst into the room, her hands covered in dirt as she held out two handfuls of the gnarl root.
“Just in time…” Torri took them to the pot, peeled off the excess green, and cut the root into tiny pieces with her pocket knife.
She stirred the contents into the steaming concoction, whispering the words of a spell, and the root disintegrated, congealing the mixture into a thick paste.
“What are you doin’?”
“I’m making an Earth poultice. It’s a general kind because I wasn’t expecting…” Torri glanced at the shotgun. “Just do me a favor and set the rest of those candles out around the bed. Get `emlit, and make sure they don’t tip over. Got it?”
Lida nodded and got to work.
With the poultice cooling, Torri gave the shotgun a dirty look. The thing looked plain enough, but something dreadful had attached itself to it, Torri was sure. The haunting of an object was not so bad, usually. The malevolent spirit might cause the thing to malfunction in some way, or become bent or useless. But sometimes the spirits were smart and determined enough to want their own sort of freedom from the thing, possessing those who used them. Men like Jack Kirby.
That’s when spirits became the most dangerous.
Another pained yell from Sara got Torri’s attention. “Okay, Sara.
Curl up like a pill bug and push!”
Sara got her knees up, grasping them, and leaned into the next push. Her cheeks puffed out. The veins and tendons in her neck made cords as she strained.
Torri gave Sara’s leg a little slap. “Well, I’ll be, Sara Kirby. There’s the crown. I see the little feller.”
Sara tried to smile but was too busy breathing like a locomotive between contractions. Her eyes were tired but lucid.
“I’m done with the candles,” Lida said, standing next to the bed and waiting for her next instructions.
“Okay, Lida. I need you to shut the door and lock it. We can’t let your Pa in no matter what, okay?”
Lida nodded. She rushed to the door, slamming it shut and locking it. Then she moved a small wooden box from the closet to help bolster the thing. Still, it was a thin little door and it wouldn’t hold for long.
“Good. Now, there’s a big bag of salt in my backpack. Take it out and open it but don’t do anything yet.”
The girl knelt beside the pack and rooted through it. Poor thing was probably frazzled to death on the inside, but she didn’t let it show a single bit. That’s what Torri loved about the hill folk. Stolid as oak trees and with plenty of fight in them.
“Sara. Take a deep, deep breath, and push!”
The woman did as she was told, spittle flying as air burst between her lips.
After that one, Sara fell back. “I cain’t. It’s never gonna end.”
But Torri Dowe saw the baby coming, its precious little head pressing out from between Sara’s legs.
There was something else, too. Some oily slick substance coating the baby’s head, sliding up between Sara’s legs and grasping, pulling the child from its mother.
Torri clamped her lips against her rising terror. “You fight for this baby, Sara Kirby. You fight right now. It’s trying to separate you from your child. Before, together, you were too strong for the evil. But when your boy leaves you, he’ll be vulnerable.”
“Then I shouldn’t push.”
“No! It’s too late for that now. That baby has to come out of you if he’s gonna live. Keep pushin’ and I’ll protect him from the dark thing.”
Sara nodded and got back to it—taking a deep breath, pushing, screaming—then quicker breaths.
Torri retrieved a handful of the poultice from the pot. It was the color of mud, maybe a little darker, and had an earthy smell to it.
She rolled the doughy substance into a ball, the sap from it staining her hands. She made a little mark on her own forehead, then at the hollow of her neck.
As she did so, she whispered the Earth prayer.
Green grass, hear my prayer…
Brown dirt, hear my prayer…
Rock and field, root and tree…
There is nothing more fae than thee…
Then Torri spread the poultice all over Sara’s thighs, up and down and in between, over the baby and making sure it got everywhere. She repeated the Earth Prayer as she worked, asking the rocks and roots to grant them strength, feeling the energy of the land come seeping up to her through the floorboards. It charged her like a battery, crackled in her ears.
Sara cried out in pain once more, her breathing erratic now.
Torri had to hurry.
She put one knee up on the bed and leaned over Sara, making the same markings with the poultice on the woman’s forehead and in the hollow of her throat.
Sara’s entire body clenched up. She gasped.
“It’s okay. That’s natural. It senses me now. It knows I’m gonna try to drive it out.”
There came a rapping on the door.
“Hey! Y’all all right in there? I got the tractor running.” The doorknob rattled. “Hey, why’d you lock the door? Hey! Godamn it, lemme in, Lida!”
Torri got between Sara’s legs again. Now the dark substance had seeped up to Sara’s knees, wrapping around them like some kind of octopus or something, locking her legs apart and pulling that baby right out of her. Once out, it would try to infest that baby, and the child would be lost to them.
Torri needed to destroy the darkness now while it was out in the open.
“Lida,” she said. “Start pouring the salt from candle to candle.”
“Like connecting the dots?”
“Exactly. You connect all the dots but leave one side open, got it? Go all around the bed, too.”
“Okay. What about Pa?”
“Don’t pay no damn attention to your Pa. He ain’t hisself right now.”
“Okay.” And Lida got busy pouring the salt.
Torri placed her hand on the child’s crown, feeling the oily substance slide around beneath her poultice-stained fingers.
Sara pushed, another scream escaping to shake the room.
Torri closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then she addressed the spirit. “I see you, spirit. You see me, too. I’m the woman of the wilds. Grassgall they used to call me when I was a child in the Old Country. I’m the protector of the people of the hills. I’m the destroyer of demons, the bringer of Earth’s light and hope.”
The black substance drew back a little from its hold on Sara’s knees, constricting like a salted slug.
Blood was just about everywhere now, up the woman’s thighs and soaked into the mattress.
“I bring guidance to lost souls,” Torri continued. “I free the possessed, and I offer you the opportunity to release this mother and father and their child, to go back to where you came from. I promise that I will lead you to another place where you can find the peace and harmony that was always intended for you.”
At the part about releasing Sara and her child, the substance expanded once more, tightening its hold on mother and child.
Sara screamed, not from the baby, but from the pain of her legs being pressed apart. The evil spirit would break her like a wishbone before it would give them up.
Sighing, Torri withdrew her hand.
“Okay. I’m done with the salt. Now what?” Lida’s voice quavered as Jack tore at the doorknob.
“Lida, pick up that shotgun and point it away from the door. Point it at the other side of the room. That’s right. Grip it as tight as you can, and don’t let it go no matter what.”
“Okay,” the girl whimpered, holding the big gun and pointing it at the wall.
“Lida, you open this door right fuckin’ now, or I swear to God I’ll knock it in.”
“I can’t, Pa—”
“Hush, child,” Torri said. “If your Pa comes in, you keep that gun away from him, you hear.”
The poor girl just stood there with the shotgun in her hand, her skinny little legs quivering. She looked over her shoulder with fear-soaked eyes and nodded. “I’ll sure try.”
The door shuddered as Jack threw himself against it.
Leaning over to the nightstand, Torri took up one of the candles and held it between Sara’s legs. She hoped she’d gotten the turpentine mixture correct in the poultice.
Too late now.
She set the candle to Sara’s thighs.
The poultice caught fire in a big whoosh, heat and flame engulfing everything.
Torri kept her hand down there as the dark substance twisted and jerked, finally constricting into a ball where it rolled onto the mattress.
Snatching it up, Torri held the black ball in the palm of one hand, squeezing it tight as she stumbled off the bed, falling to her knees by the door. She turned, grabbed up the bag of salt, and quickly finished connecting the last two candles.
Now the evil spirit couldn’t get back to Sara or her child. At least there was that.
It jerked once toward the bed then jerked back the other way.
But Torri held it with both hands now. It tried getting inside of her, pulling itself toward her mouth so hard she had to clench her whole body to hold the damn thing.
“No, that ain’t gonna happen,” Torri said with scowl, turning her whole will on the thing.
The door came tearing open, the wooden box falling over as
Jack tripped his way into the room. He wasn’t concerned about his wife and child possibly dying on the bed. No, he glared at Torri Dowe because she held the thing that had possessed the gun all these months. The thing that had bent Jack to its will, keeping the family divided and keeping Sara from getting any real help.
“What the fuck is going on in here?”
Torri held the ball out to him. “You been cursed, Jack. But I got it. I—”
The thing ripped out of her hand like a dark bullet to zip across the room and into the gun. The barrel surged like a garden hose filling with water, a metal and oil snake writhing in Lida’s tiny grip.
“You hang on now, Lida. Hang on.”
As skinny as she was, the girl clung to the gun like nobody’s business, even as it jerked her back and forth.
“Gimme that damn gun!” Jack roared, lunging for his daughter.
Torri tackled him square. Drove him into the paneled wall with a crash. He tried to throw her off but Torri was wiry strong and kept herself atop him long enough for…
Both barrels of the gun went off with a boom!
Lida cried out and let the gun go, and it clattered to the floor.
“The salt, Lida. Get the salt.”
The little girl nodded and got the bag while Torri stayed on top of Jack, hissing under her breath. “Your wife is dyin’, Jack Kirby.
You’ll quit your damn fussin’ if you want me to save her.”
Lida knew what to do by now, and she kicked the gun to the a clear spot on the floor then poured salt all around it, trapping the evil spirit inside the smoking weapon.
Jack Kirby fell limp beneath Torri, his expression turning confused as the evil spirit’s influence fell away. He looked over at his wife laying there on the bed, covered in blood but not burned a single bit. He nodded, eyes filled with remorseful tears.
Torri lurched to Lida’s side. “You okay?”
Lida nodded, staring at the burned hand that’d been holding the barrel when the shotgun went off.
Back the other way, Torri dove back onto the bed.
The baby was here.
“Okay, Sara. Now you push like you ain’t never pushed in your life.”
Torri staggered onto the Kirby’s front porch to the glorious sounds of a baby crying in its mother’s arms. She let the door swing shut behind her and came down the stoop, holding the exercised shotgun in one hand. Her legs were a little wobbly, and she was up to her elbows in blood, but damn did she feel good.
The outcome had been better than she could have hoped, what with her getting there so late and all, and with the dark spirit having gotten good and dug in with the family, but it could have been worse. One, or both of them, could be dead now, possibly at the hands of Jack Kirby himself. Hell, all three of them, four of them, could be dead.
But the end result was that the hills had another son, and a curse had been lifted. And that was a goddamn good thing.
“We thank ya, Torri Dowe.”
Torri staggered a few more steps then turned to find little Lida smiling at her from the porch.
“Well, you’re welcome. But remember how brave you were. If you can be half that brave the whole rest of your life then you’re gonna be fine, yes ma’am.”
Lida could barely contain her pleasure. She gestured toward the backyard. “You can sit on my swing if you want. I always go there when I want to think.”
Torri looked out that way and saw the tire hanging from one of the lower branches.
“You know what? That sounds mighty nice. Thanks.”
She started in that direction and Lida called out that she’d bring her some ice tea. Again, fine by Torri.
The grass in the backyard was a little long and spotty, bright green in the places where water had gathered, lighter on the high ground. Soon, nothing would be growing as Fall cooled everything down and got things ready for winter. That’s what she loved about this part of the land, these Kentucky Hills. The changing seasons. It reminded her of the Old Country.
Torri dropped the shotgun in the grass (it wasn't going to hurt anyone anymore--she'd sealed the spirit in tight), grabbed the rope, and swung one leg over the tire. Then she got the other one over and let her momentum just sorta swing her lazily around.
She wanted nothing more than to be home on her own hill now, in her own cabin with a nice hot cup of black tea in her hands. She missed her cat, Tavia, and her garden. She would undoubtedly miss her own bed before too long. The Kirby’s would need her for another few days at least.
Letting her arms dangle over the top of the tire, she put her head down and closed her eyes, listening as the wind picked its way through the trees, whispering things only she could hear. Endearments, mostly. Caresses across her skin that felt downright heavenly. But sometimes the wind teased her, too, tousling her hair around her face or giving her a cold snap.
It was just playing with her, of course, as the wind was want to do.
As her mind settled, she picked up reverberations of a more ethereal nature. She was tuned to those types of things, as all witches were, to the waves of power emanating from spirits and souls and everything in between. From the physical to the metaphysical, Torri Dowe had a line on most things within a certain distance of her home. She even sensed some tremors in the between world, the Fade, whenever a monster crossed into this world from someplace else. Especially if they were real mean and powerful. Torri heard and felt those things like a regular person might hear all the things in a forest when they walked through. The birds and insects. The rustling leaves. A shimmering brook.
As far as other witches went, she and her coven mates lived distant from one another, settling all over the United States so she hardly ever felt their reverberations. Usually, she had no idea what they were up to unless she called them through the water line.
She had other friends, too, not just the witches. These were strong entities who’d passed over to Earth centuries ago and were good, faithful powers who shook the Ley Lines of the world whenever they moved. One such person was an old vagabond named Gruff who lived up near Cincinnati in the Under River, a place Torri had only visited once but remembered it being a beautiful place. Gruff was a friend, and she could count on his reverberations to calm her whenever she was rattled or sad.
Torri listened for him, hoping to take reassurance in his footsteps, but something was wrong. His reverberations shook and wavered, sputtered and flared, causing Torri’s own heart to skip a beat.
Her eyes opened wide as she strained to listen.
There was a heavy crash, like an elephant felled by distant thunder, and Gruff’s reverberations died.
The sudden emptiness tore a cry from her lips, a toast of sorrow to her most ancient and respected father. Her fists clenched in anger and confusion. What had happened? Had he been killed? Had he simply gone away? She didn’t know, might never know.
She instantly regretted not going to see him sooner. Always sooner than later, they’d say to one another, but it was never soon enough.
Torri put her cheek to the tire and wept as the grasses stretched up from the ground in a fibrous rasping to stroke her feet and knees with a lover’s touch. A bough from the oak tree she swung beneath wrapped around her shoulders with a rough bark hug.
Torrie shook from head to toe and squeezed her eyes shut along with her fists as tears chased themselves down her cheeks.
“Oh, Gruff,” she said, quietly sobbing. “What happened you old fool?”
Tether War will be available for in eBook format September 11, 2017.