Chapter 22: Penance

After a while, when it seemed like nothing else was going to happen, Brandi entered the World Literature classroom and took a seat. In the back, she felt safe from the prying eyes of her teacher, even though, Mrs. Jenkins had already moved her up front. Hinting at the parent-teacher conference, that Brandi would need to get her eyes tested. But that had been a month ago, and having missed a few days, Brandi thought, it would be okay. So she took a chance, and slipped into her usual seat.

A few girls stared at her and she swore under her breath as Mrs. Jenkins approached the door. She issued orders. Commanding them to pass up their papers as she silently shut the door. Brandi did as she was told, halting only when a figured appeared outside the door. And Teresa barged in.

Everybody turned, as if they were seeing some sort of specter. As Teresa ambled towards them with uneven steps. She seemed to waver, like someone under the influence, and Brandi put a hand to her lips, hoping to hide her anxiety, as the pile of essays careened to the floor. Then the disjointed girl stooped, mumbled some sort of apology and reshuffled the pile. Brandi watched her carefully, as she inserted her own paper. Going over the possibility of how their lives would have been different, if they had never met. On her hands and knees, Teresa seemed to nod, staring directly at her, as if at that exact moment in time, she had been considering the same thing.

While Roger hustled into the room and noting the disparity between them, made a beeline to a much further seat. Trekking as close to the windows, as their teacher would allow.

At the front, Mrs. Jenkins called them to attention. Banging her thin whip, that some of the students suspected also worked as a cane. They turned to her and she read out the instructions, which had been written down on the board. They were being directed to page 731, to a short story called, In the Grove, which had been written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Underneath the directions, questions followed.

Brandi opened her book obediently and flipped through the pages. Wishing that she could be outside stretching her legs instead of in there, with them. Roger waved. Pushing a pencil behind his right earlobe, he stretched and observed Teresa, who had taken Brandi’s seat up front. Looking past her, he peered out the door’s narrow, glass partition, trying to make out the figure who was standing just outside.

Brandi’s eyes followed his. She tried to figure out why he had cut class, when someone rapped on the door. Lifting her head, she spotted Mr. Ono, and a spasm rose in her chest. She ignored it, as Mrs. Jenkins opened the door and let the math teacher in. A few voices rose. Some students even turned their heads in her direction and spoke in hushed tones. She tried to ignore them, even though she was almost certain that they were whispering about her. The news had spread. Was still spreading.

Adjusting the cord, which held the pendant, she tried to feel her connection to the bigger thing. The greater thing, that people often referred to as life. But she couldn’t feel it. Or see it. Everything was a disjointed mess, that seemed to be rushing forth, between her fingers.

She stroked her neck and unhooked her hair, from the coiffured bun, that she now realized had once belonged to her mother. And she held her breath, thinking that schools often came with their own inquisitions. She could almost feel it. The nameless students who had once been accused of cheating, some through the use of their cellphones. Others using their bodies to store pieces of information, that refused to stay intact in their brains. She lowered her head, wondering if it would have been better to have begged her mother for an extension; due to the party and her undiagnosed illness.Besides, hadn’t she taken too much cough syrup? And reached home late?  Wasn’t there somewhere else she could go?

From the other side of the room, Roger gave her a reassuring smile, as he tried to turn the pages of his dilapidated textbook. Sitting there, she could vaguely make out the edges of a comic book and a rueful smile, crossed her lips. She scratched her head, wondering about the date of the textbook’s extinction.

Then the voices at the door rose, and she heard the word penance and retribution. Mrs. Jenkins gave her a wry smile, before turning back to Mr. Ono.

Brandi bit her lip, remembering the last person who had gone mano a mano with Mrs. Jenkins. For two weeks straight, the girl had been made to recite dialogue from Hamlet. Brandi could still remember pieces of it. Pieces that floated across at them during recess: To be, or not to be, that is the question. She shook her head, remembering how she had stuck pieces of cotton in her ears between classes and had almost steam-rolled into the Principal, on the way to the bathroom. She grunted, thinking that even Ron and Harry Potter had been saved from the worst of it, even though they had had to encounter crying Myrtle.

She, on the other hand, hated Hamlet. Couldn’t stand Ophelia with her drivel. How hamlet had sent her mad with his talk of “get thee to a nunnery.” She cranked her neck, thinking that she wouldn’t go down without a fight. That whether or not her mother approved, she would do whatever she thought was right. Besides, she wasn’t one of those gifted children who could rely on scholarships. Instead, for her there had always been academic probation. She took a deep breath, thinking how easy it was to fall back into old habits as Teresa raised her hands in the air and gave her old friend an applause.

The faces of the teachers grew more constrained and Brandi sucked in a breath. If she was going to fail, she thought, she would do it grandly, so she turned and bowed. The way she had seen musicians do it when she had gone to recitals with Avery and they had scoped out the musical conductors. Back then, they would chatter incessantly, calling each other in the day or the night. Not caring about the time difference. But now they hardly spoke. And thinking about it, she almost understood the difficulty that her parents had faced, trying to carry on a long distant relationship. Not that she or Avery had even discussed dating. Besides, Aunty Pam would definitely have had a coronary. Before which, she would have killed them, for good measure and just to be on the safe side.

A piece of paper landed on her desk and someone shouted, “Back to work.” Brandi tore open the note, which read: I know what you’re trying to do. She glanced around the room, trying to figure out who had sent it, as the door closed and Mr. Ono departed. Rolling it into a ball, she stuffed it into one of her pants pockets, deciding instead, to scan the author’s biography for some idea on how he had lived.

The pages turned. Backwards and forwards. The blurb mentioned that his death had been a suicide. But she chose to ignore it. Skipping the lurid details, she jumped to the year of his birth, which coincided with the year of the dragon. And she felt an affinity, even though she wasn’t prolific or a Japanese writer. She focused on the story about the woodcutter and his wife. A story that seemed to have many takes, depending on the participant.

And holding the lower part of her mouth between her hands, she thought of the Norwegian painter, Edward Munch and the painting Teresa had shown her, which had been entitled The Scream. Back then, during the days of their own goals, she had felt the title fitting. Now though, she wondered if ‘Man Losing All Sense of Hope’ was more affable. Or even ‘Hysteria’. She read through the passage, feeling a vague sense of unease, as if somehow she knew that she would not be able to accomplish her task. No, not the way she had first envisioned it.

Then, she blew air into her t-shirt, feeling the heat exacerbate. Surely, her mother would be upset, not to mention Nicholas, who was suddenly getting even more parental. She shook her head, wondering about her father. What sort of a reaction could she expect from him? Guilt? Fear? Confusion?

She rubbed her fingers together, thinking that if they were pieces of wood, soon they would become a kindling. She looked from Roger to Teresa. Who could  she trust? Roger seemed useful. Intelligent. But did he have the strength to go through with this? Whatever this was? And yet, he had sworn to protect her. She wondered how that worked, as Teresa scribbled down a few things from the blackboard.

“Darkest of day and brightest of night,” she hummed. “Help me to see with sight beyond sight.” The windows opened and she felt a strong surge of breeze as Teresa looked across at her and frowned. The pages from Roger’s book scattered, dancing around the room, as his expression hardened and he turned to appraise her.

“Stop it!” Mrs. Jenkins yelled, banging down with her cane again.

The room spun for a second or two, and Brandi almost didn’t know where she was, until an arm touched her shoulder.

“Close those windows,” Mrs. Jenkins ordered. Roger and two other boys leapt to their feet, quickly placating her as Brandi’s eyes narrowed; she focused in on her teacher.

What was happening to her? she wondered, rubbing her sweaty palms into her jeans. She closed her eyes tightly, feeling both cold and afraid. Then she looked over at Teresa, remembering that time they had viewed The Craft. Could her friend, really control the elements? She thought of Teresa’s charm bracelet and her knowledge of aikido.

Brandi closed her eyes, fighting back tears, as the teacher placed a detention slip on her desk. She looked up. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Don’t worry, dear,” Mrs. Jenkins said, removing her arm. “Mr. Perkins is only there to keep you, innocent.” Brandi frowned, bowing her head. It was almost as if, she were back in the cave with Quasimodo. Almost as if, he was telling her, again, that she couldn’t win.

Chapter 17 : Destiny and the 3 Simple Rules

Brandi pulled back, as the woman’s lips curled into something that appeared close to a snarl. Thinking that this wasn’t anything like what she had expected. The woman, Yin passed her hands through her hair and looked at Brandi again as a large television screen appeared in the center of the room. There the girl saw two men whose ages seemed closer to twenty-something. One of the boys had curly black hair like Roger and wore glasses; while the other one seemed a bit more tame, in a plaid shirt and dockers khakis.

Brandi edged closer. A hand reaching to her lips as she almost swore that he, the second young man, looked like a Van Elder. “Does this have anything to do with my father?” she asked, turning back to the Nameless One. “Is that really why I’m here?”

“Just watch the screen, my child,” The creature said. “Watch the screen.”

In the background, not to far from the man who appeared to be her father and his guardian, she caught sight of three young women. All of whom projected pointy objects that she suspected were wands. She reached across, touched the screen, and felt a sharp surge of electricity rush upwards into her arm.

The Nameless One shook her head, as if to say don’t do that, when the voices suddenly became audible.

“Darkest of night, and strongest of day, help us to see with sight beyond sight,” the women cackled, looking at the two men, whose apparel changed to some flashy metallic costume that Brandi could barely recognize. Was that also something that she could do as well, she wondered as she saw the women begin to fire.

“Van! Get back,” the boy with the glasses said, trying to act as a barrier between Van and the group of women.

He ducked behind a wall as the young women continued mixing the contents of their caldron.

The other boy tried to sneak past them, but one of the women kept throwing her wandering gaze at him and uttered something like a hex that seemed to keep him rooted to the spot.

“Without a guide, the Seer is unable to act,” the woman said, moving closer to the bespectacled man. The other two women laughed. “Stronger are we. The sisters of three.”

Brandi saw the man behind the wall stand up and point his sword towards them, as if he was issuing some sort of a challenge.

“Let Dwight go. He’s done nothing to hurt you.”

“A friendship so strong that nothing can break. A Seer, a daughter and lasting heart ache.”

The man edged closer. “What is to come will happen without us, you cannot name her for she is beyond.”

Brandi looked at the Nameless One, wanting to ask if he was referring to her. But the Nameless One held her breath. Remained silent. She was almost as silent as Brandi’s mother who had kept almost everything about her father hidden – the few things she had learned were gleaned either from picking her grandmother’s mouth, or making inferences about the things she saw.

She watched the men in silence as Van rushed at the furthest woman who seemed closer to him in age. He creeped up on her, then roped a hand around her neck. At first Brandi wondered if he was trying to smother her and then she saw something glint, and realized that he was reaching for something. A pendant. No, the wand.

Watching them struggle, she was relieved when it clattered to the floor. But then, the woman’s sisters could only look over at them with concern. But that didn’t prevent them from stirring their mixture as the cauldron bubbled and steam rose to the surface.

“It’s too late,” one of them said, pointing towards Dwight. “He’s going to leave without you.”

Brandi saw her father gasp and push the woman away. The look on his face more skeptical and doubtful as she grabbed the wand, pointed it at his friend and uttered a few words. Before Dwight disappeared. Leaving him alone.

Standing there, Brandi shook her head. Before now, she would never have thought that witches were real. No, to her, they had only been part of the myth and lore of centuries that storytellers used to frighten kids. Make them see reason. She held her breath, trying not to consider the idea of vampires and werewolves. Her hopes dashed because it looked as though her father had failed.

Just then, the screen collapsed. Closed in on itself and she took a moment to remember that she wasn’t the only person in the room, who had gone over the consequences of his actions.

“There are only three rules,” the redheaded woman said by her side. “You are asked only to memorize them. Know every detail.” She turned, a slight edge developing on her last three words. “Because when you first received the box, you were told to follow the rules. Knowing them can help you escape a much worse fate.”

Brandi looked down at her hands, wondering what could be worse than being deserted, as she passed a finger over the cuticles that she had wanted desperately to return. Did the woman know that already, she had partially failed? She averted her face, thinking of this as only a warning because, the woman couldn’t be serious, she thought, expecting her to live up to some age old rules that didn’t really apply to her. Or her father.

The Nameless One arched her back and pointed a finger into her chest, realizing how much things had changed over time. How people now sought fame as position as those things were more important than living rightly. Justly. Her features hardened. “Being chosen doesn’t make you a celebrity,” she said, looking down at the girl as if she was someone’s spoilt daughter, who needed to be chastised. Made to see reason.

“You are only here to help others. Your friends, family, they are no longer your concern.” She extended a hand. “You must promise this.” The Nameless One faced her. Appraised her as if she had been the one who had sounded glib.

Brandi closed her eyes, remembering Mrs. Jenkins and her need to instill order into the world. Was this woman any different? she wondered, realizing that for her, things were about to change. Could she follow such orders? she wondered, slowly looking around the room. Could she make the necessary adjustments? Follow suit.

The Nameless One retracted her arm, pulling out a pen and paper. “This is the contract, if you intend to be a Seer sign it and get it back to me.

Brandi watched them for a few seconds and then with a slight nod, she accepted the pen and the paper. Having watched a few lawyer shows with her mother, she knew better than to just sign on the dotted line and return it. Instead, she would go through it like a woman undoing box plaits with a fine tooth comb.

“Is this standard issue?” she asked, as if the papers were some sort of weapon that people like the Nameless Ones used to make them do what she wanted.

She hung her head. Uncertain. Wanting someone else to be there. Someone perhaps like Roger. The Nameless One shook her head, smiled. Reaching across at Brandi, she gave her shoulders a light squeeze. “You can decide on your own time,” she said, as the girl folded the papers. “But bring it back to me when you’ve done what’s required.”

Brandi stopped for a second, drew in a sharp breath. She had to decide this. She had to figure out for herself what could be done. She nodded to the Nameless One as the house started to disintegrate and then she found herself alone. The paper wrapped neatly in her hand.

Taking a deep breath, she walked back down to the water, and took a seat, trying not to think of her father. Trying only to imagine, her way back home.

Chapter Nine – the Trouble with Teresa

It was one thing when your best friend told you that she wanted to possess special powers. And another when you started to believe her.

Not that Teresa had been naive or gullible. Usually on April Fool’s she was the one person who failed to be duped. The old whoopee cushion trick could get no rise from her. Neither could the false messages of school closing or no homework. Because whatever it was she had learned to stare the perpetrator in the face and tell that they had been lying.

But with Brandi, it had been different. A bit of wishful thinking that she had been almost certain, would amount to nothing more than a few incidents of trust, here and there. Like at the restaurant. But that had gone wrong. Because the man with the red cap had made a few alterations and changed things. History.

She took a seat on the sand, slowly, trying to wrap her mind around everything that she had learnt from her mother; her fingers touching the sports bracelet on her arm. She was useless when it came to soccer. But aikido and kendo proved more versatile; showing up her skills and mental tenacity. Her ability to think ahead and more – something thankfully that didn’t require the movement of a ball.

“You have been chosen,” those were the words that her mother had uttered a year ago and although she had not known what it meant. Somehow, she now knew that she was different. But after that, her mother had mysteriously disappeared and Teresa had been trying her best to get another hold on her – to find out as much as she could from the town’s archives and the local library that seemed to possess newspaper print going back for centuries. She had gotten glimpses of her, a school girl making a row with an errant banker, who had decided to take away her family home. A lost love, who had been sent away and cursed because she refused to give up her powers. And then there were the suspicions of her as being a witch.

Teresa pulled her toes out the water and squealed. This should have had nothing to do with her, she thought, letting the charm bracelet echo in the wind. She didn’t want anything to do with Brandi Daniels, she thought, even though they had once been friends. Even though by the look of things, somehow they still were. She bared her teeth and bit into her arm, trying to tell the difference between what was real and what was fake. Because friends didn’t hurt friends. Didn’t turn on you and make you feel misplaced. Especially when it came to boys.

She closed her eyes, thinking back to the diner and how she had seen them together. Surely there was nothing going on between Brandi and Roger, she told herself, even though her mother had now filled her with some nagging predictions. They could be together, she seemed to be saying and there’s nothing that you can do about it.

Teresa closed her fist and beat the sand, hoping that the infected eggs had done the trick and tonight her friend would see to reason as the clock ran out. But then, she knew that like her, it would be hard for Brandi to face the truth and Teresa watched her arm go up and down. The sound of the bracelet filling her with an eerie sense of calm that seemed to relax her. She pushed strands of hair back and sat up, watching her reflection as though she was reading pages from a book. She should be tested. Or made to see…

Reason. Teresa looked into the water as though it was a huge cauldron and needed a spin. She still didn’t have enough strength for that, so she took a deep breath and formed a smaller pool in the sand – thinking about the party tonight and the possibility of going to the dance.

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” Stephanie asked, appearing out of nowhere. Teresa shrank back, not wanting to infuriate her. Shielding her eyes with her hands, she looked across at her, from her position further inland, watching as she ambled closer.

Her sister’s face didn’t waver and Teresa wondered how she could be so young, when she was supposed to have been a few years older. Standing up, she dusted her hands in her pants. “I was only clearing my head. Preparing myself for the task at hand,” Teresa said, her eyes down cast. “What’s the plan?”

“It’s all on a need to know basis I’m afraid,” her sister said, flashing her a warm smile. “And right now you really don’t need to know.”

Teresa bit her lip and looked down at her shoes, wondering why there was this need for secrecy when they were already joined. She thought of the pact they had made to rescue their mother and looked down at the scar on her arm, where the stray arrow had grazed her. Heat surged through her body just thinking about it because she was never one to make sacrifices for loved on, except that Stephanie had been insistent. Showing her the three witches who had bound her mother and would deliver her, if only she could deliver Brandi and Roger.

She pulled down the sleeve of her sweater, imagining the pink baby doll dress that they had already picked. Something to “die for,” according to Stephanie. But she hoped it wouldn’t go so far. Brandi had been a friend to her and this thing with Roger was probably nothing more than hormones, she told herself, thinking of how it had been with Spooner. How being with him had seemed to make all of her dreams come true.

“Snap out of it,” Stephanie said, splashing her with water.

She shrieked, gazing and uncurled tendrils of hair. “I said I would help, you don’t have to baptize me.” She said, got to her feet and grabbed her duffle.

“Good.” Stephanie yanked her by the arm. “It’s good to know that you’ve remained compliant.” Teresa gave her a peculiar look, like the one at the library. The day she had decided to show up, even after they had been separated for more than three. No, maybe just absent. Or missing.

“So that’s all you require of me?” she asked, watching the slim card with the picture of the luxurious hummer. “To act like a mode of transport?”

Stephanie shook her head in the affirmative, transformed her younger sister’s clothes with a slight twirl. “Yes, be beautiful and friendly, but get her where she needs to go.”

“All right,” Teresa said, as if she’d heard this many times before. “I’ll get Cinderella to the ball, you and the messenger do what you have to do to warn her – but it better not be like last time.”

Stephanie raised her hands in the air and smiled. “Surely you have forgiven me for that accident. And not tonight, there won’t be another slip.” Teresa looked at her as though she believed her. As though her friend’s life still meant something. And then she remembered her mother, surrounded by the three witches like with Macbeth as they promised him things. Perhaps, there was no other choice. No other way. She sighed.

Turning away from the thunderous waves, she watched as the stretch limo appeared and thought that she could keep her audience waiting, deal or no deal. Pact or no pact.