by Joanne Anderton
part 1 of 2
Robin opened the bathroom door and there was Jenny, lying on the floor and screaming into the tiles. It had to be the first sign.
A woman Robin did not recognise was standing over her, and glanced up with a shocked expression. “What... what’s wrong with her?” The woman’s voice was rattled, quivering. She lifted shaking hands to her mouth.
Robin hurried over to the curled up body of her co-worker. Jenny’s arms were wrapped around her pregnant belly. The terror on her face stopped Robin’s breath.
“She just started screaming.” The woman had not moved, not even to offered help, and Robin scowled up at her. She hated useless people. “Then collapsed. Oh, god, what if it’s her baby....”
“Get out of here.” Robin placed a hand on Jenny’s forehead and found it cool but damp. “There’s an office just down the hall. Tell the girl at the desk to call an ambulance....”
“No!” Jenny slapped Robin’s hand away with strength that surprised her. “No. Just leave me alone. All of you, please. Just leave me alone.”
Frowning, Robin leaned closer to Jenny’s pale face. Her eyes were wide and distant, as though they did not see the tiles so close but something far away.
“Get back!” Jenny screamed again, and struck out with a hand arched into a claw. Robin jerked upright, but not fast enough. Scratches burned on her cheek with shallow fire.
Gripping her head with her hands, Jenny closed her eyes and rocked against the tiles. “Go away, go away. Stop saying those horrible things. Go away, go away...”
Robin sat back on her heels, touching her own face with distracted fingers. The second sign, perhaps?
“What?” The unknown woman backed toward the door. “She’s...she’s mad!” Shaking her head, with wild eyes and a constant, hysterical giggle, the woman ran from the bathroom.
When Robin looked back at Jenny, she found her sitting upright. Colour had returned to her cheeks, and the terrified eyes replaced by anger.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” She lifted a hand, trembling, and pointed at Robin. A savage certainty fell on Robin’s shoulders as she stared at the manicured tip of that small finger. She knew what Jenny’s words would be before she even said them: “You’re doing this to me, aren’t you? You... you witch!”
Jenny scrambled to her feet and rushed from the room. Robin did not try to stop her. Because that was the third sign, surely. She was calling.
* * *
Instead of heading home that night Robin waited outside the building for Jenny to leave, sipping a coffee to try and stay warm. When the small woman, rugged up so thickly it was difficult to even tell she was pregnant, emerged from the automatic glass doors, Robin raised her hand and stepped forward. “Jenny!”
Jenny glanced in her direction and instantly averted her gaze. “I...oh, god I....”
Robin shuffled closer. “Don’t apologise, we really don’t have the time. Let me give you a ride home. I think we should talk, don’t you?”
Jenny hesitated, glancing into the street. Heavy rain fell onto an equally thick torrent of pedestrians, even though the sky had been clear a moment before.
Robin ignored the sudden, convenient rain and waited for Jenny to accept. At this point, she had no doubt that she would.
“Oh, it is a horrible night.” Jenny’s frown eased and she shrugged. “I guess...I mean, are you sure? If you don’t mind....”
With a smile, Robin led Jenny down toward the car park beneath the building.
Once they were settled in Robin’s heated car and making their slow way through city streets, Jenny cleared her throat. “I guess you want to ask me about today?” She looked down at her feet, embarrassment flushing her cheeks.
“Mm.” Robin darted ahead as the lights changed, and headed east. “Am I going the right way?”
“Ah, yes.” Jenny looked out of the car window, surprised. “But, how did you know?”
“So,” Robin cut her off. They didn’t have time to get into that one either. “So, you were hearing voices back there, I think. I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me about them?”
Jenny looked up quickly, her eyes suddenly wide and earnest. “I’m really sorry, Robin. I shouldn’t have said those things to you!”
“Don’t worry about it.” Robin shrugged. “Happens all the time. It’s a professional hazard, just part of being a witch.”
“Oh, good, I....” Jenny stopped, and Robin watched from the corner of her eye as the woman blinked. “You’re what?”
“A witch, Jenny. Just like you said.” Robin had had this conversation too many times to still find it amusing.
“But that’s impossible.” Her voice trailed off as her eyes stared up at the car’s ceiling. A new hope was dawning there, an ability to believe the unbelievable because it was the only thing that could help. Robin knew the look well. “Really?”
Robin bit back on her frustration. “You want my help, don’t you?”
“See, people always do. Don’t question where the help comes from, Jenny. You just might not want to know.”
Robin would give it all the same. Despite the consequences, despite the fear. She had made her choice, and she would always be there.
The traffic began to thin as they drove through a tunnel. They sat in silence, Robin allowing Jenny time to gather her thoughts. The woman looked ill in the fluorescent lights, her skin a pasty yellow.
“They started in my dreams. The voices, that is.” Jenny spoke slowly. “And then, the pictures,” She hiccuped and began to sob.
Robin turned out of the tunnel and headed into suburbia. With one hand she fumbled in the glove box, found tissues and handed them to Jenny. In a few moments, the woman calmed down enough to continue.
“Every night,” she resumed. “I heard voices. They said....”
“Such horrible things.”
“Y-yes. About my baby. About how terrible a mother I’m going to be.”
Dread settled in Robin’s stomach. She had heard this kind of thing before, and far too often. “Tell me about the pictures.”
“My baby.” Jenny was crying again, tears running down her cheeks unchecked. “I saw her, I kept seeing her...dead. Her little blue face, tiny lifeless eyes. Saw her floating....”
“Jenny!” This time Robin stopped the car. She pulled over to the side of the road, and grasped the woman’s shoulder. “Look at me!”
Jenny raised horrified, bloodshot eyes. She was shaking violently beneath Robin’s hand. Robin squeezed, just a little, willing the shaking to stop. She was here, she was in time. This one she could help.
“None of that is real. Do you hear me? That’s not going to happen.”
Slowly, Jenny nodded. “I kept telling myself that. Every night I’d wake up crying. I couldn’t sleep for the fear. I kept telling myself; it’s just a dream. But then....”
“I started to hear the voice during the day. I thought it was people at work making fun of me, but they’d never say stuff like that! That voice, it comes and goes and I never know when it’ll come. Sometimes I see babies, dead babies, anywhere. I saw one in the staffroom and I threw-up right there.” Sobs finally consumed her voice.
“Jenny, listen to me. You are not mad.”
“Do you think it’s a sign? Do you think I shouldn’t....” Jenny’s voice was muffled and broken.
“No!” Scowling, Robin grasped Jenny’s slick chin, and tipped her face to stare into her eyes. Jenny flinched back a little, and Robin eased her expression. She was suddenly very, very angry.
“It is not a sign. Don’t even think about it that way. Just think about your baby, think about how much you love her. That is your best defence for the moment.”
“Do you know what it is?” The spark of hope relit within Jenny’s voice.
Robin sat back and stared into the evening sky. “I have a theory. Either way, we need to do something about it.” And if Robin was right they needed to do it now.
“How?” Jenny wiped her face with a handful of tissues.
With a grim smile, Robin glanced at her. “Got anything planned for tonight?”
* * *
For a few moments Robin sat in the car and stared at Jenny’s front door. She steadied herself, swallowed the anxiety, the nervous anticipation.
She remembered her predecessor, every single time. Remembered the rueful smile, the sour twist in her mouth as she reminded Robin that they were not outside of the rules. No one was. At the time Robin would lift her chin, would call up the fresh hurt and fierce anger that drove her into Her arms, and say it didn’t matter. As long as she had her justice, she could deal with the consequences.
But that was a long time ago now. The hurt never left, but the anger....
She knew now what those consequences would entail. And sometimes the fear was enough to wash that anger away.
But it was too late for doubts.
Robin grasped an oaken staff and a large bag from the back of the car, and scrambled out. Hugging herself against an icy, aggressive wind, she darted across the street. Clouds obscured any light the moon might have bestowed on the midnight landscape. There were only a few streetlights, and they shone weak and flickering. Robin hurried onto Jenny’s porch, knocked quietly, and hoped the woman was waiting for her as they had planned. A fresh gust of wind renewed Robin’s shivering, and sent a set of wind chimes pealing their tinny song into the darkness.
“Robin.” Jenny opened the door and led her into a warm lounge room. A gas heater filled a decorative fireplace, and Robin hurried to stand in front of it. As she rubbed her chilled hands she looked over at Jenny’s uncertain figure. It appeared the woman had followed her instructions. She wore a simple white dress and a large, plain jumper to keep warm. Her hair was still a little damp, and left to fall loose over her shoulders. The room was lit by candles and the gas heater alone.
“Your husband?” Robin asked quietly, not wishing to break the solemnity.
“They offered him a night shift, and I told him to take it. I told him we would need the extra money.”
Robin hid a small smile.
“It’s a little strange, though,” Jenny continued with a frown. “It’s very rare for them to offer overtime. And tonight of all nights, it’s almost too convenient.”
“Haven’t I already told you not to question these things?” Robin peeled the gloves from her hands and threw them on Jenny’s couch. “Let’s just make use of it.” Everything was fitting together so well. It was not a good sign.
Opening the bag she had brought, Robin began piling short candles into Jenny’s hands. “All right.” She scanned the room. “We need some space.”
Within moments she had pushed the plaid-covered couch as far into a corner as it would go, and cleared the room of its coffee tables, figurines, and vases. She smiled as she placed a small porcelain statue of an eighteenth century woman safely among the couch cushions.
“You’ll need to move these pretty soon. Put them somewhere little hands can’t reach.”
“You can’t imagine how many people have already told me that.” Jenny rolled her eyes as she allowed Robin to help her onto a rug that softened the wooden floor.
Robin unbuttoned her coat and threw it onto the couch. Beneath it she was wearing a long white robe cut from a single piece of fabric. With a swift motion she released her hair from its clip, and let the auburn curls fall down her back. She slipped out of her shoes and removed every last piece of jewellery.
From her place on the floor, Jenny watched with wide eyes. Robin set the candles on the floorboards, circling the woman, and lit them. From within her bag she withdrew a large concave mirror.
Telling Jenny to lie still and relax, she headed into the woman’s kitchen and brewed her a quick cup of tea. Robin stood above the steaming water as herbs bled their colour into its warmth, and breathed in their fragrances. They did little to soothe her, to ease her harshly beating heart or the chill that raised the hairs on her arms.
She just wanted it over and done with. She told herself the anticipation, the dread, was the worst of it. Even though she knew it was not true.
Jenny’s face puckered into a frown as Robin helped her drink the tea. “What is that?”
“An infusion to help you sleep. Passion flower, hops and valerian. I can’t give you anything stronger than that. We don’t want you to be drugged, just asleep. It makes a difference.”
“And this is going to work?”
Robin collected her staff from the floor and stood above the pregnant woman. It was impossible to keep the frown from her face. Even though she knew she should be patient, understanding. Calm. “You wanted my help, didn’t you?”
Her face pale, Jenny nodded.
“Well, just relax and go to sleep. Concentrate on the smell of the candles. You said that this all started in your dreams, so that will be the best place for us to find out what’s going on.”
As Jenny lay back, however hesitantly, Robin turned around and closed her eyes. She stood in silence for a moment, visualising the circle around them, and raised her staff. Slowly, ritualistically, she moved to each quadrant and whispered an invocation. With the circle cast, she sat on the rug beside Jenny and placed the mirror between them. She rested the staff on her knees and smiled at Jenny’s worried expression. Reaching forward she touched the woman’s temples very lightly, and traced her fingertips over the mirror’s distorted surface.
“I need you to go to sleep now.” Robin’s voice dipped lower. She raised her eyes, and the instant Jenny looked into them her body relaxed. With a large sigh, Jenny closed her eyes, and began breathing deeply. Robin twisted a smile. The woman should have had more faith.
With Jenny’s gentle breathing in the background, Robin glanced down at the mirror. Candlelight flickered over its surface, and a disproportionate reflection of her own face gazed back at her. For a moment, she closed her eyes and centred herself. She focused on the sleeping person beside her and grasped her pliant hand. With the other she held her staff and looked back into the mirror. All traces of candlelight were gone; white mist floated beneath its surface.
Robin whispered a single word, and the mist reached out of the mirror to wrap her in its moisture.
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by Joanne Anderton