“She’s a witch, man, I’m telling you!”
Mike looked warily at his cousin. Jason seemed really worked up about the whole thing. His eyes were bulging and Mike could see beads of sweat forming over Jason’s lip.
Mike looked away and squinted up toward the stoplight. He blocked the late afternoon sun with his hand so he could see the light change.“Alright, alright, so she’s a witch. So what?” He tried to make his voice as calm and soothing as possible.
“We gotta burn her, man, like at the stake!” Jason’s eyes were starting to take on a maniacal gleam.
Mike was stunned. “What?!? Are you crazy? Boy, you done lost your damn mind!” The light turned green and he stomped on his old pickup’s gas. As the truck dove into the intersection, a late-model SUV shot across its path, the driver apparently oblivious to the light he’d just run. Mike jammed both feet down hard on his brake pedal and cut the wheel, missing the SUV by a hair. Horns erupted from every direction. When they came to a stop, Mike glanced over at Jason. His eyes had bulged even further out of his head and his mouth was a round “O” of terror. Mike ventured a look around. Horns were still blaring and traffic at the intersection was at a halt. Half-dazed, he slowly released the brake and crept forward. Traffic resumed behind him as if nothing had happened.
Neither of the boys spoke. Mike pulled into the first available parking lot and dropped the truck into park. They sat in silence for a few moments, then Jason muttered, “Witch. Gotta burn witches.”
Mike lost his cool completely. “We just almost died!! What the hell is wrong with you, anyway?” He slammed his fists on the steering wheel as he yelled. His hands were shaking as he reached for the crumpled cigarette pack on the dashboard. Once he had a smoke in his mouth, he started fumbling for a lighter. “Gimme a light,” he growled. Jason just stared out the window. Mike cuffed him on the shoulder. “C’mon, man, gimme a light.” Jason slowly reached into his pocket and withdrew a Bic.
Mike lit his cigarette and took a long, calming drag. A sidelong glance at Jason told him the conversation wasn’t over. He blew out a long stream of smoke and took the plunge. “Ok, why do you think she’s a witch?” He pulled out his phone and typed a hasty, “Runnin late,” to Kim. When he set his phone down, he turned and gave his cousin his full attention.
Nobody really knew what exactly was wrong with Jason. As a child, he tested just high enough to stay out of Special Ed classes, and struggled just to keep a D average. Always big for his age, the fact he failed several grades only made him stick out like a sore thumb among his smaller classmates, a fact about which the other children tormented him daily. He hated everything about school, and finally dropped out of the ninth grade a few months before his eighteenth birthday. Some believed he was mildly retarded; others maintained he was terminally lazy. Mike, who, along with their cousin Chuck, spent more time with Jason than anyone else, knew he was somewhat slow-witted and gullible, but once he got an idea in his head it stuck with the tenacity of super glue. If Jason was really convinced Kim was a witch and that burning her was the thing to do, it was going to be hard to convince him otherwise.
“She got cats. Black ones. And there’s an upside down horseshoe over her door. She got all them candles. And I seen a book of spells on top of her TV. She’s a witch.” Jason’s voice was calmer now, but had a stubborn edge to it.
“Look, man, even if she is a witch, it’s just business. She’s got the best stuff for the best price, and she’s just down the road. What business of ours is it what her religion is?” As he mentioned “stuff,” Mike’s anxiousness to get this conversation over with and get to Kim’s to make the pickup mounted. He drew another long puff on his smoke.
“S’posed to burn witches.” Jason was starting to get agitated again.
“Who told you that?” Mike was exasperated. He suspected he knew who had been talking to Jason about Kim, and it infuriated him. “It was Ashley, wasn’t it?” Jason’s mouth clamped shut and his chin jutted out rebelliously. Mike wiped his hand down his face in frustration. “Dude, you know you can’t be listening to her! You know she lies about everything! She was just trying to start trouble! Look, burning witches was something a bunch of ignorant, superstitious people did a long time ago. You go doing something like that today and you gonna go to prison for the rest of your life!” He heard his voice rising and practically squeaked out the last word. He took a deep breath and tried again. “Have I ever led you wrong?” Jason cocked his head to the side and started to answer, but Mike interrupted before he could speak. “On purpose?” He clarified. Jason shook his head. “And Ashley has, hasn’t she? She lied to you about that money she borrowed, didn’t she?” Jason nodded miserably. “She’s tried to get you in trouble, too, hasn’t she? Remember when she told Aunt Peg you stole money from Grandma’s purse?” Jason’s head fell further and his nod was even slower this time. “So, dude, you can’t be believing anything and everything she tells you! Even if Kim is a witch, it’s not our business or our job to do anything about it, ok? We just buy from her, that’s all.”
Jason sat for a moment with his head down. He appeared to be deep in thought. Finally, he lifted his head and looked at Mike and smiled. “Ok,” he said.
Mike tried to put the truck in gear and realized it had died. He turned the key and the ancient engine rumbled to life. Easing out into traffic, Mike asked, “So, we cool?”
Jason just kept smiling in that blissfully blank way he had and said, “Yeah.”
They came to the outskirts of town and turned down a narrow, roughly-paved road. Old trees lined either side of the lane, their branches forming a gloomy tunnel that led to Kim’s lonely little house. When they pulled into Kim’s driveway, Mike groaned. There, parked between Kim’s beat-up Nissan and Chuck’s Jeep was Ashley’s bright green Mustang. He pulled in behind the Nissan and parked. As he and Jason walked toward the side door, one of Kim’s many cats – a black one – darted across the walkway. Mike looked up from noticing the cat and caught sight of the upside down horseshoe over the door. A chill rippled up his neck even as he scornfully dismissed the sudden fear that shot through his mind. He looked over his shoulder. Jason’s eyes were starting to bulge again and he was sweating profusely despite the cool fall air. Mike shook himself and let out a nervous laugh. “We just need to get high, man, that’s all.” He reached up and knocked on the door.
The pungent aroma of burning incense greeted them first as the door swung inward. Kim stepped out of the gloom inside wearing a long black dress with a wide, flowing skirt. “Boo!” She stared at the odd looks on their faces, then threw her head back and laughed. “You should see your faces!” She gasped between giggles. “You look like you seen a ghost! Get inside!” She ushered Mike and Jason inside to where Chuck, Ashley, and Ashley’s boyfriend Paul were sprawled out in the dark living room. Heavy curtains were drawn over the room’s only window leaving thin cracks of the sun’s last rays to draw lines in the smoke before dancing across where Ashley and Paul were tangled together on the couch. The tray of lit candles on the coffee table cast weird, dancing shadows in the hanging smoke. Chuck and Kim were sharing the love seat, so Jason perched on a barstool he dragged in from the kitchen and Mike folded himself into the big papasan chair.
Chuck relit the cylindrical pipe he was holding and passed it to Mike. Mike took a long, deep hit off it and handed it off to Jason. He held the smoke in his lungs for several seconds before exhaling through his nose. The familiar delicious tingle immediately flowed to the tips of his fingers and toes and his lips. Twin plumes of smoke emitted from his nostrils, and in the growing euphoria settling over him he thought they looked like a dragon’s breath. The pipe came around to him again and he took another satisfying hit.
Conversation in the room drifted into silence as the pipe continued to make the circle. Mike stared vacantly at the muted old console TV, trying to make sense of the fast-moving images. His gaze wandered to the top of the set, and the relaxed, comfortable fog in which his brain had been lolling parted. There, on top of the set, was a large, black, leather-bound book with odd symbols on the cover. He blinked several times trying to focus on the unfamiliar characters. He turned to look at Kim and was startled to see her staring at him, a curious look on her face. Something about her gaze disturbed Mike and he looked away quickly.
Ashley must have seen him looking at the book, too, because she suddenly broke the silence. “Hey, Kim, what’s that book on top of the TV?” Her voice was light and casual but there was a derisive undertone to it.
Kim arched one eyebrow before she answered. “It’s Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law,” she said, her icy tone daring Ashley to inquire further.
Paul utterly failed to notice the growing tension between the girls. He piped up from his corner of the couch, “So, what, are you like a devil worshipper or something?” He sounded genuinely curious.
Without taking her mocking eyes off Kim, Ashley answered, “No, silly, she’s a witch. Isn’t that right, Kim?”
Kim started to stand, but Chuck laid his hand on her leg. “Just ignore her, doll. She’s not worth it.” Kim’s eyes dropped to the meaty paw on her thigh and she glared icicles at its owner. Chuck got the picture and withdrew his hand sullenly.
Kim leaned forward and looked hard at Ashley. “Yeah. I’m a witch. Got a problem with that?”
Mike did not like the direction this was going at all. The tension was ruining his buzz. It looked like violence might erupt between the girls, and Chuck was not one to take any kind of rejection lightly. Mike wanted out of there before things escalated further. He decided to step in and try to sidetrack Kim.
“So, uh, hey, can I get like a gram? I got this thing I gotta go do.” He heard the nervousness in his voice and hoped no one else did. Jason was staring hard at Kim and he looked ready to jump in if things got rough. Mike swallowed hard as Kim’s granite gaze slid towards him.
“Yeah. Hang on, I gotta go get my scales.” Kim stood and strolled out of the room, hips swaying provocatively.
As soon as she was out of sight, Ashley whispered loudly, “Can you believe she just admitted it? Are y’all just gonna sit here and act all cool about being in a witch’s house? I mean, it’s almost Halloween! What if she turns us all into toads or something?”
Mike rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to tell Ashley to shut up, but before any sound came out Kim bellowed from the bedroom, “If anybody’s gonna get turned into a toad, it’s gonna be you, you stupid bitch!”
Ashley’s eyes widened as Kim stepped back into the living room, scales in one hand and a thin black wooden rod in the other. She set down the scales and stepped close to the end of the couch where Ashley sat. She pointed the rod at Ashley and began muttering arcane-sounding syllables.
Later, Mike was never quite sure if he had actually seen what happened next, or if it was a product of his drug-addled mind. But his eyes told him a pale blue light was beginning to emanate from the end of what he could only think of as a wand. Ashley, who had grown up scuffling with her brothers, did not hesitate. In a flash, she jumped up from the couch and punched Kim in the mouth. As soon as Kim stopped murmuring, the blue glow disappeared. Ashley hit her again before any of the guys made it to their feet and Kim fell backwards into the coffee table. Melted wax sprayed out around her and the stench of candle smoke mingled with that of scorched fabric quickly overpowered the odor of incense. The bag from which Mike’s gram was to be measured skittered across the floor and came to rest against Jason’s feet, dusting the toes of his black shoes gray. Mike stooped and grabbed it and stuffed it in his pocket.
Ashley’s breath was coming hard and fast. Paul tried to sit her back down on the couch, but she jerked away from his touch. Chuck tried to help Kim stand up and got a similar response. Mike grabbed Jason’s arm and pulled him towards the door. Jason, entranced by the drama unfolding in front of him, refused to budge.
“Come on, man, we gotta go! I don’t wanna be here when the cops get here!” Mike tugged harder on Jason, but Jason outweighed him by a good sixty pounds and stood unmoved. Mike looked back at the others in time to see Kim pull herself to her feet. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, then – Kim again leveling her stick at Ashley like a gun, this time screaming her incantations, Ashley grabbing the heavy glass ashtray from the end table and smashing it across Kim’s head. With a sickening thud, Kim collapsed in the floor. Ashley stared down at her for a long moment, the others looking wildly back and forth from Ashley to Kim’s crumpled form.
Mike’s throat felt like it was lined with sandpaper. He swallowed hard. “Is she…” He couldn’t quite bring himself to finish the question, but Paul answered it anyway.
“Nah, man, she just unconscious.” Mike suspected Ashley’s boyfriend was not as calm as he sounded.
“Gotta burn witches.” Jason’s matter-of-fact declaration turned everyone his way. “Well, we gotta do somethin’,” he continued. “She wake up, ain’t gonna be no cops and jail. She gonna kill us all. Or worse.” He shuddered.
“I hate to say it, but the dummy’s right.” Paul immediately put up his hands in apology as both Mike and Chuck stepped towards him. “Sorry, sorry… but he is right. We can’t let her wake up. Even if she don’t do some witch thing to us, if she call the cops, we all end up in prison.”
“But we didn’t do anything!” Mike protested. “We was just sitting here! Ashley’s the one who hit her!”
“You really think that’s gonna matter to the cops? I’m telling you, man, she gets the law involved and we all going down!” Paul slammed his fist into his hand. “She ain’t worth no prison time. We gotta make this clean.”
“Gotta burn witches,” Jason agreed softly.
“Look, I’m out. Do whatever, but I’m out. C’mon, Jase, let’s get on up outta here.” Mike tugged on Jason’s arm again but Jason shook his head.
“Burn.” There was that crazed glint in the big man’s eyes again.
Mike glared at him in frustration for a few seconds, then grumbled, “Fine. Let Chuck drive you home. I’m out.” He turned to walk out the door, but Chuck’s voice stopped him.
“You in this, too. I seen what you put in your pocket. You leave, you leave the bag. Stay and help, we split it up.”
Mike was torn. He didn’t want to leave the bag. He didn’t want to go to jail. He didn’t want to leave Jason there. He didn’t want Kim to come to and do something horrendous to him. He didn’t want to have Chuck mad at him. Reluctantly, he turned back. He sighed. “What we gonna do?”
Paul and Ashley had disappeared into Kim’s bedroom. Chuck grinned. “I know what I’m gonna do.” He unzipped his pants. “She wouldn’t give me none before, I’m gonna take it, now.” He pushed the coffee table aside and rolled Kim onto her back. Mike looked on, sickened, but unable to summon the words to tell Chuck to stop. Jason stared, too, jaw agape. Chuck had pushed the voluminous black skirt up and straddled the inert form when he froze, peering intently down at Kim’s blank face. He looked up at Mike and Jason, and Mike thought he saw a faint shade of green creep across his cousin’s face. “She ain’t breathing, man, she ain’t breathing.” His enthusiasm for conquest seemed, among other things, to have deflated completely.
He quickly stood and was zipping his pants when Ashley and Paul reemerged from the bedroom carrying two heavy blankets. Ashley looked from him to Kim, observed the state of Kim’s dress, and rolled her eyes. Paul knelt down next to Kim and started rolling her into his blanket. Without looking up, he said, “There’s a gas can on the porch. Somebody go get it.”
Chuck looked at Mike. Mike, still unwilling to participate, looked at Jason, who lumbered out onto the porch and returned moments later carrying the red plastic jug. Paul took Ashley’s blanket from her and rolled it, too, around Kim’s limp body. Then he took the gas can from Jason and started sprinkling the blankets with it. Gasoline fumes added to the already overwhelming mixture of aromas in the room, and Mike nearly gagged.
When the can was empty, Paul set it down. “Matches.” He issued the word like a command and everyone dug in their pockets. Six lighters were produced, but no matches. Mike spotted Kim’s box of matches on the floor. Hating himself for it as he moved, he picked up the box and handed it to Paul. “Everybody take one.” Paul handed out matches to the others. Mike was last. He took his hesitantly. When everyone had a match, Paul held the strike strip out over the roll of blankets. Ashley struck her match first and dropped it. It went out as it fell and hit the soaked blankets with an ominous hiss.
Paul struck his match next. It flared to life and Paul held it for a moment as it settled into a steady flame. When he dropped it, the responding burst of ignited fumes and gasoline was instantaneous. Everyone jumped back and ran for the door. An eerie, shrill wail followed them as they ran for their vehicles. Mike was deeply grateful for the lack of neighbors as he and Jason jumped in the old truck and tore back towards town.
They had not yet turned back onto the main road when Mike’s phone started singing his text tone. He glanced at the screen long enough to see Chuck’s name and the words, “My house 9pm.”
By nine o’clock, Mike and Jason had pinched a considerable portion out of the bag and stashed it away and had worked their way through most of a fifth of whiskey. Chuck’s “house” was a converted toolshed behind their grandparents’ house, and to get to it Mike and Jason simply squeezed through the hole they had cut as boys in the fence between Mike’s parents’ backyard and their grandparents’.
They slipped into Chuck’s door to find Ashley and Paul already there. Ashley had obviously taken time to shower – her hair was still wet and she was the only one of them who didn’t smell like smoke and gas fumes.
“First things first,” Chuck demanded as soon as he saw them. “Where’s the stuff?”
Mike produced the bag from his pocket, and Paul grabbed it. “That’s not all there was!”
“Yeah, well, some of it spilled before I picked it up.” He had already planned what to say and gone over it with Jason. There wasn’t any way to go back and check, now, was there? Paul looked doubtful, but clearly he was no more keen on the idea of going back to Kim’s than anyone else.
Ashley pulled a small scale from her purse. “Got baggies?” Chuck took the three steps necessary to reach his “kitchen” and tossed her a box of fold-tops. She set to work divvying the white powder five ways.
“So, what we gonna say when the cops come asking questions?” Mike eyed the size of the five small piles and was glad he’d pinched as much as he had.
“We wasn’t there. We don’t know nothin’.” Chuck’s voice was firm. He sat down in his ratty old armchair and pulled a box from underneath it. From inside the box he pulled a glass pipe, which he loaded by pinching from two of the piles Ashley had in front of her, disrupting her careful measurements. She glared at him, then scraped it all together and started over. Chuck grinned at her and switched on the TV.
The newscaster wrapped up a segment on the new mall opening up in a nearby city, and turned to face a different camera with a somber expression.
“Firefighters are still working to extinguish a house fire just outside town this evening,” he announced. An image of Kim’s home, engulfed in flames, appeared over his left shoulder. “Apparently, the conflagration had been raging for quite some time before motorists on the highway saw the smoke and called 9-1-1. It has not yet been determined if there was anyone in the home, or how the fire started, but Fire Chief Carr is on the scene and assures WFTR there will be a thorough investigation.” His face transformed from serious to light-hearted in a blink as yet another camera took over. “But it looks like we may get some rain to help those fellows out, eh, Rob?”
The weatherman appeared not to have heard the story as he brightly responded, “That’s right, Frank, and boy, is it overdue! Tonight the clouds will finally roll in…”
Click. Chuck dropped the remote into the chair next to him. A morose silence descended on the room. The only sounds were Ashley’s scraping noises as she focused intently on her little piles. Mike suddenly discovered a hangnail that required his full attention. Jason and Chuck stared at the darkened screen, while Paul watched Ashley’s obsessive scraping.
After a while, Ashley finally decided the piles were even and began pushing each one into a separate baggie. She handed one to each of the guys and stuck one in her purse after tying a knot in it. The pipe lay cooling on the table – for once, no one was interested in lighting it. Finally, she scooped up the keys to the Mustang and jerked her head towards the door. “C’mon, Paul, let’s go.”
Paul shrugged and stood. “Later, guys.” None of the cousins spoke as the couple left.
A few minutes later, Mike stood, too. Jason didn’t move. “You gonna crash here tonight?” Mike asked him. Jason looked at Chuck, who shrugged and gestured toward the couch. Jason nodded wordlessly at Mike.
Mike made his way across the dark backyard and through the hole in the fence. From the window of his tiny studio apartment over his parents’ garage, he could see when the lights went out in Chuck’s shed. Alone in his room, Mike finished off the bottle of whiskey. Just before he passed out, he thought he saw a faint blue light coming from Chuck’s window.
The next couple of weeks were tense. The investigators quickly found traces of gasoline and the charred remains of Kim’s body. The police were asking questions all around town, and someone eventually told an officer the cousins spent time with the deceased. Someone else let slip there had been animosity between Kim and Ashley, and before long all five conspirators had been brought in for questioning. One by one they were told someone else had talked, and one by one the cousins fell for it and struck a deal with the prosecutors.
Jason caved first, still convinced they had done the right thing by burning a witch. When the officers took him in for questioning, it only took a few minutes of prompting before he spilled his guts. Once he did, neither Mike nor Chuck saw much point in holding out and both scrambled to make deals. Chuck left out the part where he had planned to rape Kim’s unconscious body; Mike declined to mention picking up the bag of dope; both lay the blame for Kim’s death squarely at Ashley’s feet.
When the deputies stormed Paul’s house at three o’clock in the morning and took him in for questioning, he tried to hold out, but when faced with the evidence Jason, Mike, and Chuck had given, he started singing like a bird. He and Ashley had been fighting more and more in the weeks since Kim’s death, and he was only too happy to save his own ass by pointing the finger at her.
In the end, none of the boys served more than a couple of months in jail. After a lengthy trial, Ashley was convicted of aggravated arson and murder in the second degree and sentenced to thirty years in prison.
On the day the trial ended, Jason, Mike, and Chuck met Paul coming out of the courthouse. Paul had a hunted look on his face. Mike broke away from his cousins and reached out his hand to Paul. After an awkward moment, Paul took the outstretched hand and as he did, his face crumpled. Chuck stepped forward and put his arm around the stricken fellow, and a few seconds later, Jason lumbered over and joined them. Together, they made their way to the parking lot. They reached the green Mustang first. Mike recoiled.
“You driving her car?” His voice was incredulous.
“Yeah. She ain’t gonna need it anytime soon.” Paul gave a sad half-shrug and Mike’s heart went out to him.
“What you doing tonight, man?” He asked. Again, the same wistful twist of the shoulder.
Mike looked over Paul’s shoulder at Chuck, who sighed and rolled his eyes. He could see where this was going. He threw up his hands and mouthed, “Whatever.”
Mike slapped Paul on the back. “C’mon, man, follow us to Chuck’s. I think we all need a little pick-me-up.”
Chuck’s Jeep was parked next to Mike’s truck. When they were out of Paul’s hearing, Chuck asked, “You think that was a good idea?”
Mike gave him a hard look. “Damn, dude, the man’s been through a lot. Let’s just hang with him for tonight.” Chuck was shaking his head as he climbed behind the Jeep’s steering wheel.
The Mustang was already in Mike’s driveway when he and Jason pulled in. Chuck drove around and parked at their grandmother’s. He was unlocking the door to the shed when Mike, Jason, and Paul squeezed through the hole in the fence. No one said much as they filed inside. Chuck dug beers out of the fridge for all of them. Mike pulled out shot glasses and poured four shots of whiskey. The dismal silence was broken by the sounds of empty glasses hitting the table and pop tabs hissing open. Chuck pulled the box from under his chair and within moments, the air was filled with acrid smoke. Someone found the remote and clicked the TV on, but no one could focus on the screen. The flickering images cut eerie trails through the smoky air.
At first, Mike thought the TV was responsible for the blue glow. As it got brighter, he blamed the alcohol and the pipe. The pipe was being passed again and he reached for it. He put it to his lips and lit it. As he inhaled, it seemed like the blue light was flowing into his lungs. He started to exhale and started to choke. It felt like his lungs were on fire. Instead of fading, the burning grew more and more intense. Tears filled his eyes and he looked up at the others. Through the haze, he saw Chuck grabbing desperately at his strangely glowing crotch. A wail of pain cut through the silence, and Mike looked frantically at Jason, whose open mouth seemed to have blue flames pouring into it. Paul joined in the screaming as his hands took on the same eerie glow. It looked like his hands were on fire.
The cousins’ grandmother heard the keening screams and ran to her window. Intense blue light poured through the windows of the shed in the back yard. She quickly dialed 9-1-1, but by the time she heard the sirens approaching in the distance, the shed was engulfed in blue flames. Police, firefighters, and EMTs poured into the back yard in time to see the little building collapse in on itself. The four bodies they later pulled from the ruins were charred beyond recognition.
As Ashley shuffled down the row of cells to her new home for the next thirty years, catcalls and taunts followed her. The officers stopped her at a cell occupied only by an unmoving form rolled up in a blanket on one bunk. Ashley felt the chains on her ankles fall away as one officer knelt next to her feet. She shook away the pins and needles in her hands when the cruelly tight cuffs were removed from her wrists. When the cell door grated open, both guards shoved her hard and her knees hit the rough concrete of the cell floor. She hardly heard their jeering as she eyed the roll of blankets warily. It shifted and heaved when the door slammed shut.
The guards laughed at the screams that followed them down the corridor from the new girl’s cell. There was always a lot of racket when they brought in new fish. They settled back into their chairs at the corridor’s entrance and had just gotten comfortable when the fire alarms went off.
The investigation that followed went on for months before reaching the conclusion Ashley must have somehow ingested some substance that caused the fire. Every inmate they questioned all told the same story – as soon as the guards were gone, bright blue light exploded from the new girl’s cell, followed by an ear-splitting shriek. Then silence. Dropping the now-closed file into his filing cabinet, the warden shook his head. At least he’d had the good sense to put the little arsonist in a cell by herself.