Claire’s plane was right on time, and I was waiting outside the security gate when she and Roger came through. It had been months since I’d last seen her, but she hadn’t changed at all, except that her reddish-blonde hair was short now, in curlicues that framed her snub-nosed face. Hugs and kisses were exchanged—not with Roger, of course, though I wouldn’t have minded. I had always found his thickset dark bearishness attractive. For his part, it seemed that a smile and our usual handshake were quite enough.
It took a while to load all their suitcases into the Explorer. Claire glared at me as I counted aloud: two for Roger, and six, a personal record, for her. I just grinned and complimented her on keeping her cute figure for another year, and she smiled and forgave me. Glen and I had already made our move to the Brown Palace, so I drove us there directly.
The hotel’s Palace Arms Restaurant is one of the best in the city, and we had dinner reservations for seven. I puttered about on the computer in our suite while Claire and Roger unpacked. Then we went down to the bar to wait for Glen. Claire brought out a small photo album, and I dutifully admired pictures of my nine- and twelve-year-old cousins.
“Adele and Jacob have grown so much I hardly recognize them!” I exclaimed. It was true. It had been over a year since I’d seen them, and kids change so fast at that stage. Adele was dark like Roger, and Jacob had his mother’s strawberry-blonde sunnyness.
“You should come out and visit us this fall, Ethan; the trees will be beautiful then, and the children would love to see you.”
I smiled. I’d been to St. Louis a time or two, and I much preferred Denver’s high, dry climate, any season of the year. “Why don’t you bring the kids with you next time you come to Denver?” I suggested.
“They’re at camp in the summer,” Claire said and changed the subject, realizing that the topic had reached its customary impasse.
Glen soon arrived, and more greetings were exchanged. At the restaurant, all four of us ordered bison steak, one of the Palace Arms’ Western specialties. It was delicious, richer than beef and somehow more satisfying. Between bites, we talked about anything and everything, and Glen and Roger discovered a mutual interest in the hotel’s fitness center. When we’d finished our coffee and a polite few minutes of after-dinner chat, both of them donned shorts and T-shirts and went down to work off their meal. I might have been tempted to join them if the center had included a pool.
Instead, Claire and I settled back in the comfortable sitting room of our suite with a nice bottle of wine.
“This is a wonderful old hotel, Ethan. I’m glad you decided to stay in town while we’re here. Do you like living in the country? I was so surprised when you said you’d moved.”
I smiled. I wasn’t about to tell Claire why we’d moved.
“It’s beautiful… you know, fresh air and all? We’re in the foothills, right up against the mountains. I wish you could see the house—after we’ve done some work on it, of course.”
“Maybe next year. That’s quite a lot of property, Ethan. Do you plan to keep any animals?”
I knew Claire meant chickens or horses or something, but… “No, no farm animals. Right now, we’re just enjoying the wild life.” That was certainly true.
Claire looked wistful. “The city is all right, I guess. I enjoy St. Louis, but I think I’d like to move to the country too. I just love the out of doors. In fact, this year Roger and I decided to extend our business trip into a real vacation. We’re staying on an extra week, at a nature retreat in the mountains.”
“Oh, really?” I laughed. “I thought you packed more suitcases than usual.”
Claire smiled, mellow enough now to ignore my teasing. “Yes, we’re taking a tour bus up to Estes Park on Friday, as soon as the convention is over. The ranch driver will pick us up there.”
I raised my eyebrows. “You know I’d be glad to drive you to Estes.”
“That won’t be necessary, dear. We’re going with another couple from the convention; it’s all planned.” Claire leaned back, a dreamy expression on her face. “I’ve always wanted to spend time on a real ranch… riding horseback, swimming in the creek… you know, roughing it.”
A strobe light went off inside my head. I had a sudden chaotic vision of utter, empty blackness splashed with brief, bright points and a crushing sense of danger. It almost seemed familiar, like a puzzle piece falling into place. My throat tightened, and that wonderful bison steak threatened to make a sudden reappearance. Then the room was back, and Claire was going on about the joys of an overnight hike. Before I could blink, the door opened and Glen and Roger were there, sweaty and laughing.
Claire kissed my cheek and got up quickly, pleading an early morning. When she and Roger had left, Glen headed for the shower.
And I sipped my wine, wondering what the latest vision might mean, or if it meant anything at all.
Our hotel bed was fine, a pillow-top with real Egyptian cotton sheets, but I couldn’t get comfortable. The dark behind my eyes filled up with disturbing images that refused to stay in focus and be recognized. I dozed, then half woke again and again, only to be dragged back into the uneasy depths. When I finally roused myself, the morning was well advanced. Tuesday was my “aerobic yoga” class, and I was glad when Ms. Singh put us through a routine that was more strenuous than usual. I had hopes that the exercise would help me sleep that night.
Glen left work early, and we met Claire and Roger on their walk back from the convention center. Claire looked lovely in a white shorts outfit, her red-blonde curls shining in the Colorado sun.
In spite of a lack of sleep, I was in a good mood, having spent the remainder of my day book hunting, actually finding a rare edition that a client of mine had had on order for some time. I’d enjoy delivering it to her tomorrow, with a suitable markup, of course.
“God, I love it here, Ethan,” Claire exclaimed and turned to Roger. “Maybe we should move, darling.” Roger was sweating in his proper gray business suit and blue-striped tie; his only reply was a noncommittal grunt. Glen wore a short-sleeved dress shirt and had shed his tie the moment he left the air-conditioned office. Claire turned away from her sulky husband and grabbed Glen’s arm. I smiled over at Roger, and the big man looked even more sour than before, if possible. Maybe he was afraid I’d try to take his arm. I made a mental note to have Glen give Roger a few summer wardrobe suggestions. Roger never listened to me or to Claire; surely he would take advice from another alpha male after their bonding experience at the gym.
For tonight’s dinner, Glen and I had decided we’d take them to one of our favorite places, the Mongolian Grill. There you could choose from an impressive selection of meats, veggies, and sauces, create your own unique combination, and watch while it was cooked together on a sizzling metal surface by one of six attractive male chefs. Good food and entertainment too.
All day I’d done my best to forget last night’s unease, but instead of fading, the feeling intensified when we sat down with our meals. I was quiet for a few minutes, lost in my own world, picking at my lamb and rice and trying to slay my dreamtime dragons with the sword of logic. It wasn’t working.
“Claire?” I broke into the middle of a story Glen was telling without realizing it. They all turned to look at me, eyebrows raised. “Uh, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” I apologized. “I just have to tell you, Claire… I don’t think you should go to this ranch… I have a bad feeling about it.” I hadn’t known what I was going to say until I opened my mouth.
“A ‘bad feeling,’ Ethan?” Claire said slowly. She shook her head. “I know you have these ideas from time to time, honey. I even remember how upset you were all those years ago when your nanny was killed in that car accident you warned her about.”
I felt like I’d been gut-punched. She remembered too? That made the old incident and these new and similar feelings seem all the more real and immediate. I must have looked stricken because Glen put an arm around me, and Claire smiled and reached over to pat my hand.
“You’ve always taken things too seriously, Ethan, ever since you were a little boy. I know you have feelings from time to time, but they don’t mean anything, not really. Everyone has them. It was just a coincidence that something bad happened when you thought it might.”
She was smiling steadily at me, so sincere. Roger looked away, uncomfortable with the emotions, and I silently drew strength from Glen’s warm, accepting presence.
“It’s wonderful being here with you, buddy.” Claire had always called me that when we were children, back when I called her sis. “Let’s just have a nice meal and not worry about anything, Okay?”
A message from big sister to little brother. Claire always treated me with love, but she made it clear that she knew best about most everything, certainly about her own life. I forced a smile. “Of course, I’m sure you’re right.” What else could I say? No one ever listened—they all knew better than I did.
Glen gave me a questioning look, but I asked him to go on with his story, and soon all three of them were laughing about something, although I couldn’t tell you what it was.
I managed not to say anything more to Claire as the week passed. We did go to see “The Lion King,” and it was as entertaining as might be expected, an excellent production of the Broadway musical. Glen was mesmerized, and it was all I heard about for a day or two. As always, I was glad to see him happy.
I stayed busy as I usually did, visiting book shops and making phone calls, attending a meeting of the library board on Wednesday. Occasionally, Ms. Thornton’s face would flash before my inner vision, but I also kept that worry to myself.
Early Thursday morning I was studying my bleary, sleep-deprived eyes in the bathroom mirror when Glen put his arms around me. “Sweetheart, you’ve been tossing and turning every night since we’ve been here. Is something wrong?”
I leaned back against his broad chest. “I don’t know, Glen. I keep dreaming things—dark, confused, awful stuff.” He held me closer. “I don’t know what any of it means. I guess, maybe…”
I have no idea what I was going to say because that was when I heard the words in my head, so clearly Ms. Thornton could have been standing next to me… “Don’t wait too long…”
I shivered in Glen’s embrace. Could there possibly be a connection between that cryptic statement and my sleeplessness and general feelings of anxiety? Something inside me screamed “Yes!”
I turned and held onto Glen as tightly as I could while some watchful inner part of me let go with a dizzying sense of “at last!” “Glen, I think we need to call Ms. Thornton.”
Her voice was deep and warm and didn’t seem at all threatening, as I had secretly feared. She didn’t seem surprised that I had called, nor did she express resentment at my behavior at our last meeting. In fact, she acted as though we were old friends who talked every day. With no mention of why, we arranged to meet at her hotel right after tonight’s farewell dinner with Claire and Roger. Farewell dinner? Just thinking of it that way gave me a chill.
The meal was pleasant enough, though my appetite seemed to have disappeared. I considered making one last plea to Claire, to cancel her trip to the dude ranch, but knew it would do no good. In her own way, Claire is as stubborn as I am.
I wouldn’t be driving them to the airport after their week at the ranch—that was all part of the vacation package—so this was to be our good-bye. We parted with the usual promises to stay in touch, maybe visit at Christmas, and for sure at next year’s convention. The ache in the pit of my stomach made me wonder if there would be a next year. It wasn’t easy to smile and let Claire go with only a hug.
Ms. Thornton welcomed us into her room at the Holiday Inn. This time she was barefoot, hair back in a ponytail, her face completely innocent of makeup. She was dressed sub-casual in jean shorts and a pink T-shirt with a faded picture of Tinker Bell on the front. None of it detracted from her beauty. Glen and I took the two chairs by the window while Ms. Thornton sat on the bed.
“Well?” she asked, fixing me with those beautiful, all-seeing eyes. “I’ve already told you I need your help. Have you come here to offer it? We’re running out of time.”
“You were right, Ms. Thornton,” I conceded, “When you said I have a problem. What I’d like to know is if my concern is the same as yours, and how helping you will help me.”
She shook her head impatiently. “You wouldn’t have been called to me if we didn’t share a similar motivation. Why don’t you tell me about your problem?”
I was still reluctant to tell her anything, but my worries for Claire’s safety nagged at me. “It concerns… the mountains,” I said finally.
She was instantly alert, “Where in the mountains?”
“Does the subject of mountains mean something to you, Ms. Thornton?”
“Of course it does, you know that… and for all the gods’ sakes, call me Lila!”
I exchanged glances with Glen… all the gods? “All right.” Why did the woman always have to act as though I could read her mind?
“Look,” she said, leaning forward. “I’m not your enemy. I’m not trying to invade your privacy. I don’t need to know anything more about you than what’s absolutely necessary. All I want is your help with this one project and I’ll be gone, out of your lives. We’ll act during the crisis period, which should be next Tuesday, and by Wednesday it will all be over.”
Crisis? Claire would still be on vacation then… somewhere in the mountains. I tried to forget that and focus on the situation at hand. “Why do you need us?”
She frowned. “That should be obvious. You’re psychic, aren’t you… clairvoyant? You see things before they happen.”
How did she know that? “You could call it that,” I said slowly. I’d tried never to put a definite name to my so-called “gifts.” “I’ve always thought of it as only an oddity.”
She shook her head. “Not in my world it’s not. To me your ‘oddity’ is an important tool. I need someone like you, someone who can see things.”
“See things?” I was tired of the things I’d been seeing for the past few days.
“Yes, and believe his own eyes.”
I felt like I’d fallen down the rabbit hole and Lila was the Mad Hatter. How could she possibly know so much about me when I perceived so little about her? The only good thing was she sounded crazier than I did. “Your world? What sort of world are we talking about?”
“The real world, though I suppose you’d call my take on it supernatural…” She held my gaze. “I have some unusual gifts too. One of my titles is psycho-interspatial mathematician.” I must have looked utterly blank. “You can think of me as a magician… or perhaps a witch.”
I felt Glen tense beside me. Certainly, he and I had some abilities that were out of the ordinary, but neither of us believed in all the things you might read about the paranormal. I didn’t care what weird title she claimed for herself but… witch? Maybe I wasn’t the only one who should be looking for a psychiatric diagnosis.
“So… what’s your problem?” I hoped I sounded as skeptical as I felt.
She sighed, tilted her head to one side, and stared over my shoulder. Nothing was behind me but the darkened window, and nothing was beyond that but night. I wondered what else she saw out there.
“I suppose I’d better explain a little. You see, once in a while…” Lila shifted position uneasily, her eyes coming back to my face. “More often than you would think, actually… something goes wrong with what we call reality. Oh, maybe it’s not ‘wrong’ exactly, maybe the change is perfectly natural, depending on your point of view, but my point of view isn’t any more godlike than the average mortal’s.”
I made an impatient gesture.
“Right,” she said. “You don’t care about my viewpoint. Okay, what happens, as far as I know, is that whatever sort of barrier separates us from other worlds—other dimensions, or times, or what have you—weakens somehow and a hole opens… a gateway. You’ve heard of people going missing, never to be found?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Well, most often there are perfectly ordinary explanations, of course… but sometimes it’s because they stumbled through an opening they didn’t see, a door that wasn’t there the instant before.” She stopped, as though that were explanation enough.
Glen shook his head. “What’s so awful about that?”
“Well, unless you’re the missing person or their loved ones, not much, I suppose. But the flipside is that the hole goes both ways. That means other ‘things’ can come through to our side.”
I felt Glen shiver. “What kind of things?”
She shrugged. “How would I know? Whatever’s on the other side.”
I opened my mouth, but she held up a hand.
“Hold on. You don’t have the whole picture yet. Not all of these loci, other places, are exactly like ours. I don’t just mean they have different kinds of animals or something. Natural laws are not the same on all planes. The gravity itself may be different, or the air. What if a hole opens on a place where the atmosphere is a poison gas… methane, maybe?”
Methane and our oxygen-rich atmosphere? I had a sudden vision of a huge, fiery explosion.
“Exactly,” she said, without looking at me.
Jesus, I wished she wouldn’t do that.
Glen, who still seemed to be capable of rational thought, said, “So… what kind of world is due to connect with ours on Tuesday?”
Lila sighed again, deflating slowly, like a balloon with a slow leak. “I wish I knew. I just keep getting this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.” Her eyes found mine. “You know.”
Not waiting for a response from me, she turned back to Glen. “But I think it’s going to be something bad… very bad.”
He pursed his lips. “What can we do about it?”
That’s all it took for Glen. Someone said there was a problem, and immediately he wanted to help. No thought of risks or consequences, just this unselfish willingness to jump in with both feet. That wasn’t my way. I had to have time… time to think and weigh the possibilities. Was there really something we could do? What was it? What’s the worst that could happen? The best? I wanted information. I wanted to pick Lila’s brain for provable facts until I could reason it through on my own. Even then, I might decide it was too dangerous. We weren’t discussing another annoying complication in my life, here. Somehow I knew this could be deadly, both to Glen and to me. Damn it, the bitch could risk her own life if she wanted to, but Glen was precious. I wouldn’t risk him for anything—not for Claire, not even for the world.
“So, how often does something like that happen?” I asked, interrupting before she could respond to Glen.
“Too often,” she said, staring out at the dark again.
“Let me see if I’ve got this right. Holes open up? Like on the full moon, or something?” I was racking my brain for the little I thought I knew about witchcraft.
Lila rolled her eyes. “Doesn’t have a thing to do with the moon. How could it? Maybe there isn’t any moon on the other side. Maybe there are even two or three of them.”
I grimaced. “Okay, where do you come in?”
She straightened a little. “I’m part of an ancient association, a fraternity you might say. A select group of guardians, made up of people with the necessary sorts of talent and the right temperament. We travel all over, wherever and whenever we’re needed. We’re trained and committed to protecting our world from… intrusions.”
My mind was reeling… first interdimensional holes and now secret societies. “Then this sort of thing really happens on a regular basis?”
“Sure, little anomalies, ‘holes,’ open up all the time… every day. They’re hardly noticeable; most of them last less than a second. We don’t worry much about those, even though it is still possible for something unwelcome to come through in that short a period. We can’t be everywhere; there just aren’t enough guardians to go around. But the larger anomalies are different. They won’t close on their own.”
“So, what can you do about the big ones… this one in particular?” I felt that I’d gotten the emphasis back on Lila risking her life, not Glen and me.
“Well, with enough of the right kind of power, I can close it before it does too much damage. That is, if I can come up with the applicable directives.”
“The right spell,” she explained.
Magic again. I could think of nothing to say to that.
Glen took advantage of the lull in conversation. “Okay, Ethan is psychic. What do you want with me?”
Lila smiled at Glen in an altogether too familiar way. “It’s part of my talent that I can see talent in others. There aren’t many like you, Glen. Your ability to change the very structure of your body gives you excellent health and a tremendous store of natural energy. A witch with you at their side can do almost anything. When the rest of my group hears about you, you’ll be in demand.” Her smile widened. “We always need more like you. The shape-shifting gene mutation is worth conserving. Have you thought about reproducing?”
I couldn’t remember ever seeing Glen blush before.
“So, this… intrusion is going to take place in the mountains?” I said, not wanting to hear Glen’s answer, if he was going to make one.
“Yes, and I know generally where. I can use your help in defining it.”
So we were back to the beginning. “I still need to think about this.”
Lila looked away. “Fine. You can reach me here through tomorrow. Think it over all you want. But if you decide not to help me, I’ll have a go at it on my own, and I’ll need to find a larger, more secure and private place than a hotel room to get ready.” She stood up. “I’d beg you if I thought it would help, but…” She turned her back on us, and Glen followed me out the door.
Glen drove us back downtown in silence. I was barely conscious of the elevator ride or the walk through the hotel corridor, and I dropped into a chair in our suite, exhausted.
Glen paced back and forth in front of me. “What do you think, Ethan? Do you believe her?”
My head was pounding. Why me? Did I trust the woman? More important, did I trust myself? Did I, as she suggested, believe my own eyes? Most of the extraordinary things I saw, my everyday “feelings” came true: knowing who was calling before I answered the phone, picking the right shelf to find the book I wanted… Those little gifts were part of my day to day life, and I took them for granted. The big difference here was the intensity of the feeling, and that my decision to trust it or not might mean the difference between life and death. Could a hole, an anomaly such as Lila described, be the menace I felt hanging over Claire and Roger?
“I don’t know what to think, Glen. It all sounds crazy… but I suppose it’s no more unlikely than clairvoyance.” I hesitated. “Or were-cats.”
Glen looked at me, a hint of hurt in his eyes. “I know I’m a beast, Ethan, a freak. But I love you, and I’d go anywhere, do anything that was necessary, to protect the people I love. Wouldn’t you?”
“Glen, I didn’t mean—”
He cut me off. “Ethan, I believe her. If she isn’t who and what she says she is, how could she know so much about us? I know you’re trying to understand everything, trying to figure it out logically, but you should just trust your gut. You were the one who first saw her, and you knew even then that we would meet. There must be a reason she came into our lives.”
Yes, I had to admit there was a kind of weird logic in everything that had happened in the last few days. I sighed, rose, and wrapped Glen in a crushing hug. “You’re right, Glen… but you’re not a freak… and you’re my beast.” Catlike, Glen rubbed his forehead against the side of my face, sharing his scent, marking me as his own.
It was after midnight, but she answered her phone on the first ring. I had one last question for her. “Lila, can you tell me what will happen to any people who might fall into this… anomaly?”
She was quiet for a moment. I wondered if she was reading Claire’s face from the surface of my mind.
“I’m sorry, Ethan, I can’t say for sure. I know I’d like very much to prevent it, or to get them back.”
“What do we have to do?” I asked. I could almost see Lila rubbing her hands together.
Glen and I picked Lila up early the next morning. She had asked us for ideas on a suitable place for her preparations. Large, private, and secure, she said. Following my gut instead of my better judgment, as Glen had suggested, we offered her space in our home. Why not? There was plenty of room, and we were already officially committed to working with her.
Now, there’s logic for you.
Glen dropped Lila and me at the house and drove back to his office in town. He was hoping to rearrange his schedule and perhaps see some of next week’s clients today, freeing him to help in whatever ways might become necessary.
On the drive out, Lila had immediately laid down one cardinal rule. Glen and I were not to have sex of any sort, not even masturbation, between now and the ritual. If we did, she said, it would drain away some sort of essential psychic energies… or something.
We agreed, of course. I was ready to agree to almost anything by then. But I was doubly sorry I had let my stress and uneasiness deprive us of our usual bedtime pleasures for the last few days.
When we arrived, I suppose I expected an immediate flurry of activity on her part, perhaps the consultation of a crystal ball or the shuffling of tarot cards. Wasn’t that what witches did? But once Lila had unpacked her things in the only other downstairs bedroom, she requested a tour of the house.
There wasn’t much to show. Many of the upstairs rooms were merely catchalls for unwanted items left behind by former residents, while others were but havens for spiders. Glen and I did our day-to-day living in the stone-flagged ground floor kitchen. Connected to the study by the breakfast bar, the two became a sort of great room. The master bedroom was downstairs also, and a few hardy plants survived my unreliable care in the south-facing solarium. Thankfully, the guest bath was in an acceptable state of repair. I couldn’t see sharing something so intimate with a woman. The only other presentable space was the library. Situated on the north, opposite the solarium, it was always dim—so much the better for my book collection. I often spent time there and had been known to dust now and then. Books, especially old books, had always been my passion, and I made a tidy income from locating rare volumes for my clients.
Lila seemed to regard the dark-paneled walls and antique-oak shelving with approval. Then, as though she had read my mind, she headed directly to the cabinets that held my favorites.
“Go ahead,” I said, feeling an odd pride in sharing my treasures with another… even if it was Lila.
“You have some fascinating works here,” she said. I suddenly remembered that a few of the books I’d kept for my own dealt with witchcraft and the occult, though I had bought them more for their antiquity than their content. Her fingers touched several spines, finally removing a thin volume I knew well. A twelfth-century monk, Brother Andreas, had written, or perhaps copied, a treatise on madness. What interested me most about it was his description of the sufferers’ symptoms, so similar to the manifestations of my own visions and illogical “feelings.” Were these ancient unfortunates my brothers and sisters, and were they, as the Brother suggested, not truly mad but touched by the divine in some indefinable way? I had turned those pages so often, I almost had them memorized. Now, watching Lila, intent on the handwritten letters, I felt a growing discomfort. Did she know the uncertainty that ran through my mind when I read those words? Did she understand, or was she judging me?
“Look as long as you want,” I said. “I’ll be back later.”
I went for a walk down by the stream, as I often did when I needed to think… or not to think. There was a flat rock there, warmed now by the summer sun, that was just right for sitting. What I call meditation may not be exactly what Ms. Singh tried to teach, but it works for me. After a time, when I felt less scattered, I made my way back.
The kitchen door was open when I returned, letting in the afternoon breeze. The house was pleasantly cool and filled with a delicious aroma.
“Hi,” Lila said. Wearing one of my aprons over her T-shirt and shorts, she smiled at me, then bent over the open oven door and turned to place something on a rack. “I got hungry. I hope you don’t mind.”
As I stared, she cut a large square of what had to be chocolate cake and set it on a plate next to a wedge of cheese. From where I stood it looked like Havarti.
“Cake and cheese?”
“Sure. Chocolate goes with everything. You want some?.
Empty after a breakfast of black coffee and a forgotten lunch, my stomach rumbled.
“Sounds like you do,” she said smugly, and filled another plate.
I heard the slam of a familiar car door.
“Better make it three,” I suggested, as Glen’s nose led him into the kitchen.
Lila was right; chocolate cake is good with cheese. Glen opened a bottle of white merlot and, after second helpings of the unconventional appetizer, we moved on to a salad of fresh vegetables, and finally a steaming bowl of Glen’s home-canned onion soup with garlic bread. While we ate, Lila proved herself capable of making entertaining small talk, relating anecdotes of her travels to many countries and even sounding interested in the details of our everyday lives.
Glen said he had been unable to complete all his business obligations and would have to return to town on Monday. I didn’t look forward to spending so much time alone with Lila, but as she said, perhaps there was something I could do to help.
When all of us had eaten our fill, seated around the large kitchen table, Glen replenished our wineglasses. I was now ready for a more serious chat. Yes, we were committed to whatever course of action Lila thought best, but I was determined to have some details.
“Lila,” I began, “Glen and I have agreed to help you with your ritual…”
“But what, exactly, will we be doing? I mean, do you burn candles, or chant, or dance around in circles… what?”
Lila looked at me and then at Glen. “Well, there will be some chanting, but I’ll take care of that. Mostly, you two will join in when it comes time to raise power.”
I opened my mouth, but she held up a palm.
“Look, it goes like this. First, I have to figure out which spell will work best on this particular occasion. That’s mainly guesswork… aided by intuition, I hope. I already have the herbs and things I’ll need… that recipe doesn’t change much from time to time, unless… do you have any sage around here?”
“I bought a Lakota smudge stick of sage and sweet grass, if that would help,” Glen offered. I had to give him a look. Obviously there were still things I didn’t know about him.
“Perfect! It always helps to include something specific to the area. So, after we compound the spell, we locate the projected spot on a topographic map. As I said, I know generally where, and you,” she said, aiming a fingernail at me, “will help me pinpoint it.”
“Then what?” said Glen.
“Then we go there, set things up, burn some herbs and incense, lay down a protective circle, and wait until the time is right.”
I nodded. I wasn’t completely sure of what all that meant, but she made it sound simple… if you accepted the premise at all.
“And that’s it?”
“No, to close a really large anomaly, once it has opened, takes considerable power. I’ll need all three of us to raise enough. That’s where the real ritual begins. Everything else is only preliminary.”
“Okay,” I said. “How is the power raised, exactly?”
“Didn’t I say? It’s why I want you two to abstain until the ritual. We attract energy through sex… fucking, to be exact.”
I was speechless.
“All three of us?” Glen wasn’t speechless.
“Yes, certainly. Two might be enough, but three is better, and a woman and two men is optimum.”
“It is?” I squeaked.
Glen said, “At the same time?”
Lila snorted. “If you think about it a while, I’m sure you’ll figure out the mechanics… oh, and no condoms.”
“Bareback?” I asked, incredulous.
“Has to be, in a case like this. Anything but skin to skin contact retards the energy flow. I don’t know why. I just know… no condoms.”
“But, what about…”
“Ah, yes.” Lila nodded. “Dating in the twenty-first century. I’m clean, just tested a month ago, and I’ve been celibate since then. It’s part of the ritual cleansing, but I don’t suppose you care about that. Since we’re on the subject, what about you two?”
I hated having this type of clinical conversation with anyone, especially her, but I supposed it was more like talking to a doctor… a witch doctor, in her case.
“Glen and I were tested fourteen months ago, right after we met, and we haven’t been with anyone else since. We’re both clean.”
“Good. Your auras look healthy, so… no problem going au natural.”
Our auras? I could think of one potential problem of unprotected sex with a woman. I cleared my throat.
“Are you on the pill, or… I mean… what if you get…”
She laughed. “I’ll be sure and send you a christening card. Don’t worry; conception can’t happen during this kind of ritual. At least it never has before.”
I nodded and looked away. Sex… outdoors, probably on top of a mountain… naked… the three of us. It sounded unbelievable. My imagination provided all sorts of images, but only one or two variations involved all of us in fucking at the same time.
With whom had she done this before… and why did I care? What other kinds of rituals were there where she might get pregnant? And was the faint thrill I felt due only to a few days’ abstinence? I had no more questions for anyone but myself that night, and we finished our wine in silence.
Watching Glen prepare for bed was almost torture. By the time he had brushed his teeth, I was painfully hard. I know he knew I was aroused, his sense of smell alone would tell him, but he gave me only a sympathetic look and a chaste kiss before turning out the light. I desperately wanted to ask him if denying himself was as difficult for him as it was for me but decided such a discussion wouldn’t help. In the interests of keeping our bargain, we left T-shirts and undershorts on, something we rarely did except in the chill of winter. I wanted to cuddle—for reassurance, if nothing else—but decided that would make things even more difficult. I was glad when Glen’s hand reached out to clasp mine, and I fell asleep, comforted by that small bit of the warmth I craved.
Unlike my usual morning laziness, I woke when Glen did, at an ungodly 7:00 a.m. The bad dreams seemed to be giving me a break, so perhaps I’d just had enough rest. At any rate, I felt the need to be up and doing. We were both in the kitchen by seven thirty, where Lila was already busy. The large wooden table was now almost buried beneath maps, drawings, scraps of paper, and old books.
“Morning,” she said, cheerfully.
Today her outfit was a tank top and cargo shorts, showing off the lithe muscles in her shoulders, back, and calves. Her chestnut hair was held back with what looked a lot like one of my leather hair ties. Oh well, what’s mine was hers, I supposed. Drawing the hair away from her face emphasized those high cheekbones, the wide brow and firm chin, making her beauty seem almost masculine… except when you got below the neck. I tried not to look too closely there, but in spite of my restraint, I was almost certain she wasn’t wearing a bra.
“I hope you don’t mind.” She pointed to a thick volume. “I borrowed this one from your library.”
While Glen made coffee, I walked over to see what book she found so interesting. It was a really old one, the spine cracked and the binding mouse-chewed until the only thing holding it together was several strips of duct tape. In spite of the eighteenth century date inscribed inside the front cover, the seller had let it go cheap… partly because of its condition, but also because he thought it contained nothing but gibberish. I couldn’t read it either, but it still interested me. No one else I’d consulted, not even the profs on the museum staff, had been able to decipher the odd words or even to tell me in what language they were written. I hadn’t shelved it, and it had lain forgotten in a box in the corner of the library. I wondered how Lila had found it.
“You can read that?” I asked.
“Sure.” She nodded. “No big mystery. It’s English, only written in code. I’ve seen others like it.”
“Yes, it’s a grimoire… one witch’s personal spell book.” She turned to Glen, who was at the counter pouring coffee. “There are muffins, if you’re interested.”
Glen and I ate bran muffins, along with coffee and orange juice, at the breakfast bar. I had better luck digesting the food than Lila’s explanation. I owned a spell book? What on Earth made me buy such a thing?
Glen only glanced at the pile of books and papers on his way out to the garage. He planned to spend his Sunday in preparations for our mountain expedition, which included changing the oil in the Explorer, checking its brakes, and other such practical stuff I knew little about. Glen also had quite a collection of outdoor items… backpacks and canteens and the like. I was never much for hiking, so I’d leave it to him to choose what we might need.
I started the dishwasher, then looked at the loaded table in the center of the kitchen.
“Um… Lila, you can use any place you want to spread out your stuff. There are lots of rooms upstairs, maybe some bigger tables or a desk. I can clear out a whole room for you if you like. I know the house isn’t as clean as it could be, but I do know how to use a broom.” I hadn’t thought about our state of housekeeping when we invited Lila. Damn, how embarrassing.
“Oh, and thanks for making breakfast, but it really isn’t necessary for you to cook. I can always defrost something.”
She smiled. “I’m not much for cleaning, myself. You should see my place. I like to cook, though. There are lots of similarities between cooking and witchcraft.”
I nodded, though I didn’t know if she was teasing me or not. The mind-reading thing seemed to go only one way.
“I think your kitchen will do quite nicely. There’s plenty of room here and lots of good light. Is that okay with you? We can eat at the breakfast bar.”
I shrugged. Why not?
“So, that’s a spell book?” I asked, taking another look at the old, dusty volume.
“Uh-huh.” Lila dug under the layers of paper. “Like this one.” She brought out an even larger book, maybe twelve by eighteen, obviously not new but in much better shape than the one from my library. It was beautifully bound in deep red leather and embossed here and there with suns and moons and other esoteric-looking symbols.
“This one’s mine.”
I was intrigued, in spite of myself.
“Does every witch have her own spell book?”
Lila nodded. “If he or she is serious about their craft, they do.” She gave me her teasing smile. “And, in case you wondered, witches come in the male variety too. Outsiders sometimes say ‘warlock’ for the guys, but to us we’re all witches.”
“Oh,” I said. Lila always seemed capable of making me a feel a more than a little bit stupid. I tried again.
“Why would every witch need a personal spell book? Wouldn’t copies of one book, with all the spells written in it, be enough?”
Lila poured herself some coffee, then perched on a stool at the counter, crossing one ankle over the opposite knee. Her shorts were baggy, and keeping my eyes on her face suddenly became difficult.
“Every spell we use is slightly different. There may be a general formula written down somewhere, but each practitioner works in whatever way feels right to him or her. You start by copying down your basic plan, and then after the spell is finished, you go back and evaluate how well it worked and maybe change it a little for next time. That’s how a book becomes unique… your own. But even the most time-tested basic spells are still experimental. All spells were made up on the spot by someone once, out of necessity, dozens, maybe hundreds of years ago. If they worked, they were recorded, if not…” She shrugged. “Does that make any sense?”
I nodded. I hated to admit it, but I was beginning to have more respect for Lila and her “craft.” In an odd way, it all sounded reasonable. Maybe this mumbo-jumbo was real and could do what she promised. For Claire’s sake, I certainly hoped so.
“What was it you called yourself before?”
“You mean the psycho-mathematical thing?”
“In some circles, it’s a more acceptable name than ‘witch.’” She grinned.
“Lila,” I had to ask, “does what you do ever strike you as… odd?”
“You mean, spending my life sealing up holes in the space-time continuum?” Her eyes twinkled. “I assure you, I have to shop for toilet paper just like everybody else.”
“But, do you think of this as a calling… or just a job?”
She put down her cup and leaned forward. “Ethan, once upon a time I was just an ordinary person with a little ‘gift.’ Then I met some people who convinced me that by using that uncommon extra I could help others… make a real difference in the world. That sounded good to me. Now, years later, here I am.”
I pulled out a chair and sat, the table with the stacked papers between us. “I don’t want any of this psychic stuff to be real, Lila. I think I’d rather be certifiable than have knowledge of things before they happen… especially something bad, like this.” Right then it was true.
She regarded me intently. “What have you seen?”
I shook my head. “Nothing specific, nothing I remember clearly, just darkness and formless, ugly things… but they scare me. I haven’t been this frightened in years.”
I looked up, and Lila was standing next to me. She reached out to put a hand on my forearm.
“I get scared too, Ethan, sometimes, especially right before a big one. What if I don’t remember something important? What if the spell doesn’t work? What if, in spite of my best efforts, it all goes to hell?”
“How do you live with that?”
She lifted her hand to smoothe my hair lightly, then stepped back. The touch tingled. “I keep moving,” she said.
Suddenly I felt even worse… I suppose grim is a good word for it. Lila studied me. I tried to look away, but she pulled out another chair and sat down close.
“Ethan, will you tell me something?” Her voice was soft.
“Why do you fight so hard against what you are?”
“What am I?” I asked, feeling lost and terribly inadequate.
She pushed closer to me, until I felt her thigh, then her shoulder and arm against mine. It didn’t feel sexual, just human and comforting.
“You’re a powerful untrained psychic… like I was, once.”
I stared at her.
“No, I didn’t mean I was exactly like you.” She bumped my shoulder with hers. “We’re not twins, you know.”
I felt, rather than saw, her smile.
“I meant that I didn’t understand the power I had, that I spent a lot of time pushing it away, trying to pretend it didn’t exist.”
That sounded all too familiar.
“Ethan, when you fight your gift the messages can’t come through clearly. The more you relax and let it in, the more you will understand, and the easier it will be for your mind to interpret.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I muttered.
“Would you rather know, or just go on feeling something is wrong without knowing what or why?”
Either seemed a bad choice. “Are you sure we’re not both crazy?” I asked.
She smiled again. “My therapist says I’m not.”
“Ethan, when I was a kid I accepted myself, just as I was, quirks and all. Then I grew a little and learned that other people didn’t believe in psychic powers, or if they did, they thought they were wrong and that anyone who had them was evil. For a while, I took on that view myself and spent a lot of years asking ‘Why me?’ Then I found a place I fit, where I could be exactly who I am and help others too. So now I’m just me again. It feels pretty good, and I like myself, most days.” She hugged me, one arm round my shoulders. “You’ll get there.”
I sighed. “This isn’t getting us any closer to fixing that hole in the mountains, is it.”
Lila shook her head. “We can talk more, after,” she said.
I nodded. It was good that she thought there would be an “after.”