2022, March 16th
Collapse – 27 years
“Excuse me, ma’am?” A man approached Josephine. She glanced at him and smiled as though she hadn’t just watched him walk the last hundred feet toward her. “Can I help you?”
“No. Just waiting for my niece.”
“Your niece?” The man glanced toward the school. High schoolers had been pouring out for the last twenty minutes, though the flow had turned to a trickle. Most kids remaining lingered on the school steps in small gaggles waiting for whoever was picking them up. “What’s her name?”
“Katherine. Katherine Faulk.”
“And your name?”
“Josephine Gurney.” It wasn’t her last name, but she didn’t favor listening to someone butcher ‘Molyneux’ again.
“I’m one of the teachers,” he replied. “Neal Mitchell.”
“Nice to meet you.” The man was the swim coach. He wore a polo shirt and shorts, and he had that athletic build-melted-into-paunch that she imagined when she thought of P.E. coaches. Hanging from a lanyard around his neck was a whistle as though he’d just come here from shouting at speedo-dressed boys swimming furious laps in the school pool.
“You look cold,” he added.
“Yeah. I am.” She’d packed for California, not Wisconsin.
“How long have you been waiting out here?”
“About twenty minutes.”
“Should have brought a car. Most parents wait for their kids in the parking lot over on Plymouth.”
We did, she thought. She, Alex, and Christof had been waiting in their heated Hertz rental until a Spanish teacher came to the window and interrogated them, and they didn’t have answers for her. If Anton had been there, he could have convinced her to leave, but Anton was with Sakhr, finding a place for the coven to stay for the foreseeable future. So Alex and Christof parked down the street while Josephine stood in the cold clutching her now chilly coffee. She could evade trouble, but only if she were alone.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t think of that,” Josephine said. “I just thought I’d surprise her when she comes out.”
“She’s not expecting you?”
Ooh. Wrong answer. Josephine yanked that last bit of conversation from his head.
“She’s supposed to meet me here. I’m not sure what’s keeping her.”
“How about if I go check on her for you?”
“Thanks. Would you?”
The man nodded and headed back for the school. Just before he disappeared into the building, Josephine yanked the entire conversation from him. Though he’d be back. Twice now they’d had this conversation. Every time he came outside, he studied her, then beelined. Did she really look like a predator?
Finally, the girl emerged. Heading down the steps, she avoided the other clusters of students. At the bottom, she sat down and dug through her backpack. Out came the same pair of bulky plastic headphones she had at the airport. She futzed with the tangled cord, then took out an iPhone. It was an older one, but from what Christof had found out about her father’s finances, it still must have been quite the birthday gift.
A group of nearby girls noticed Katherine. They glanced, shared remarks, and then the smirks appeared. One motioned for the others to be quiet as she stalked toward Katherine.
Josephine watched. She understood the dynamic there. Those girls were attractive, and from the way they dressed, they were damn well aware of that. They were a different social circle from Katherine, and if they noticed her, it wasn’t because they were friends. Josephine glanced to the hybrid Prius down the road. Alex and Christof were staying put. They understood Josephine would approach first. She, unlike the others, could call a mulligan on conversations if they didn’t go her way.
Katherine was too busy looking at her phone to notice the girl sneaking up on her, not until her backpack was snatched away. She groped for it, causing her butt to slide down the steps. The others burst out laughing. Katherine clambered up the stairs toward her backpack. Her iPhone clattered. She tripped over her headphone cable. More peals of laughter.
The girls rifled through her backpack, dumping items out. Pens and pencils clattered. A folder landed upside down on the steps, and papers slid out the top. The wind fluttered them about. The girls giggled at a plastic makeup kit, then tossed it. A cloud of skin-tone dust puffed up where the kit struck the steps.
Katherine lunged for her backpack. She latched one hand and struggled. It kept the others from pawing through it, but the girl who’d first stolen it was busy leafing through a college-rule notebook she’d already removed.
“Aww,” she said. “Everybody look at this.” She held up a page for everyone to see. They all fawned as though watching a baby kitten. Katherine snatched for it, but the girl dodged.
“Does Mikey know you drew this?”
Katherine lunged again.
“It’s sweet, Katy. Is this what you did over spring break? Did you draw pictures of him?”
“I bet she has more,” someone else said. “She probably got them all over her bedroom.” Everyone laughed.
The main girl tore out the page.
“Stop,” Katherine pleaded. “Just go away.” She stopped her useless groping. “I wasn’t bothering you.”
While she wasn’t looking, another girl in short denim shorts had crept around and fetched Katherine’s fallen iPhone. She paged through it while the others looked through her notebook.
This was painful to watch. Josephine considered going over and doing something, but she wasn’t sure what. On the other hand, the coven would probably have an easy time convincing this girl to give up her old life.
The denim shorts girl going through her phone sniggered. “Death by Walrus?” She chortled. “Is that some kind of kid’s band? No. Listen. Everybody. She has the power rangers song on here.” She played the song and turned up the volume. Even from across the street, Josephine could hear the tinny noise coming from the headphones laying on the steps.
Katherine grabbed for the iPhone, but the girl danced around her. Katherine ended up snatching the girl’s blouse.
“Hey,” the girl yelled. They lost balance together and fell down three steps to the concrete. The girl tried to rise, but Katherine held her down, trying to wrest away the iPhone.
“Let go, you freak,” the girl yelled, but she didn’t release her own grip on the iPhone. Katherine had tossed all shame to the wind and wrestled like a schoolhouse boy.
Everyone else found this hilarious. They didn’t notice Neal Mitchell come out of the building.
“What is going on here?” His voice caught everyone’s attention as though he’d cracked a whip. The two wrestlers got to their feet. Katherine had recovered her iPhone and corrected her glasses. The denim girl examined scrapes on her legs and glared at Katherine with utter disgust.
“I said what is going on?”
“This freak just attacked me,” the denim girl yelled.
The one who stole the backpack originally spoke calmly. “Katherine came out and spilled her stuff on the stairs. We tried to help, but I guess she thought we were trying to take her things. We weren’t. Here.” She held Katherine’s backpack out to her. “We were just trying to help.” Her smile was venomously sweet, but Neal couldn’t see that from where he stood.
Katherine snatched her bag back. “They stole my stuff,” she exclaimed. “They dumped it all out.” As though saying this, she finally noticed all the papers which were now scattering across the school yard. She cried out in dismay and hurried after them. When she bent down to fumble for a paper, her great moon rear end wrapped in tight denim showed to the girls. Despite a teacher being right there, some sniggered.
“Come back here, Ms. Faulk. I’m not done.”
“But my science papers…”
“Come back here.”
“Why were you two fighting?”
Shorts girl answered first. “I picked up her iPhone to give it back to her and she freaked out and pushed me down the steps.”
“She wasn’t giving it back,” Katherine said.
“Did you attack her?”
“I… fell and knocked her over.”
The girls all laughed at the paltry excuse, even if it was true.
“It didn’t look like that from where I was standing. I don’t care what happened, fighting is unacceptable.”
“I was just trying to get my phone back. They were dumping my stuff all over the place.”
“No, we weren’t,” said the main girl. “We were just trying to help you.” She smiled again, a sweet, patient smile.
Neil made up his mind. “You two. Detention this Friday.”
“What?” yelled shorts girl, “but I didn’t do anything.”
“I don’t care. The rest of you, help Katherine get her papers before they all blow away.”
“Of course,” said the leader. All the girls worked to gather Katherine’s papers under Neil’s watchful eye. They returned them to Katherine with smiles. Katherine stuffed everything into her backpack.
Once everything was returned, Neil nodded. “Okay then. And you two will report to the study lounge Friday after class.”
The girl in denim protested. “But I didn’t—”
Neil cut her off. “Ah ah. No more. All of you head home. Stop lingering.”
“Yes, Mr. Mitchell,” the leader said.
Neil disappeared inside.
The girl in denim turned a black look on Katherine. “I cannot believe you just got me detention. You and your weird, freakish behavior.”
Katherine was studying her iPhone. “You broke it,” she muttered. She jammed it into her backpack.
“Good. You deserve it. You got me detention. I’m going to tell everyone how you— hey! Don’t walk away from me.”
Katherine pulled up the hood of her hoodie and trudged away.
“Hey, Kaaaatheriiine.” It was the leader.
Katherine turned. The girl was holding up the sheet from Katherine’s notebook that she’d torn out. She made a show of putting it away in her own backpack.
Katherine knew there was no way Katherine would get that back. She turned and kept trudging away. The girls giggled.
It was time for Josephine. She approached. Katherine didn’t notice until Josephine was nearly in front of her.
The girl looked up. Her eyes were bloodshot. A tear had dripped onto her plastic lenses. She wiped at it with a finger, only to smear it.
“What?” she said flatly.
“I saw what those girls did. It was pretty awful.”
“What do you want?”
“I’m sorry. My name is Josephine. I’ve been waiting out here to talk with you. Would that be all right?”
Katherine studied her. Her eyes narrowed. “I’ve seen you before. You were at the airport.”
Josephine was taken aback. “Yes. That’s right. You have a good memory.”
“Are you following me?”
“Sort of. Yes, but please don’t take it the wrong way. My friends and I saw you in the terminal, and we recognized something in you. So yes, we did come to Wisconsin to meet with you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We’re a group of people with unique abilities. We travel together and look out after one another. When we see another like ourselves, we reach out to them.”
“Like yourselves… what? What are you?”
“Other people usually call us witches.”
Katherine stared at her, then looked around. She crossed to the other side of the street, away and around Josephine.
Josephine chased her. “Wait. Hold on. I’m being serious.”
“Go away, or I’ll scream!”
“Just hold on a moment.”
“Leave me alone!” Katherine’s pace picked up.
Time to try again. Josephine flipped a mental switch. Katherine slowed down.
“Katherine,” called Josephine.
Katherine turned. Her eyes showed no recognition. “What?”
“Those girls kept a paper of yours.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“I’m going to get it back for you.”
“Just watch.” Josephine jogged to where the girls lingered on the steps. When they turned to look at her, Josephine yanked away the backpack from the pack leader.
“Hey!” She yelled. The rest startled. Josephine took the memory of the theft from all their minds. It caused them to stand around dumbly, until Josephine dumped the backpack’s contents out. The pack leader once again yelled, “Hey!”
Josephine wiped her mind again while she rummaged through her belongings. She found the sheet of paper. It was a high school quality drawing of a boy’s profile. Effort had gone into it, although Katherine could use more practice. As Josephine turned to leave, one last idea came to her. She popped the lid off her cold coffee and tossed the remainder at the pack leader. She shrieked. The others yelped and backed away.
Josephine dropped the cup and jogged back toward Katherine, who watched with wide eyes. The girls had already forgotten what just happened.
“Here you go.” Josephine handed the paper back to Katherine. Katherine stared at it like a feral dog measuring whether the treat in the human’s hand could be trusted. The girls behind Josephine were still bemused. Neil had come out after hearing the shriek. He was speaking with the girls, while others collected the fallen belongings. None looked Josephine’s way.
“Why did you do that?” Katherine asked.
“Because they’re a pack of bitches who had it coming.”
Despite Katherine’s mistrust, she softened a little. “But you just assaulted a student. You could get in trouble for that.”
“They don’t remember.”
“They don’t remember. I plucked the memory of it from their heads.”
Katherine nearly smiled as though it were a joke she just wasn’t getting. “What do you mean?”
“Want to see more?”
Josephine turned back to Neil and the girls. “Excuse me,” she yelled. “Neil… whatever your name was, can you come over here?”
Neil peered at her. Excusing himself from the girls he came over. “Can I help you?”
“I was the one that threw the coffee on the girl.”
“I dumped all her things on the stairs too.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Because I’m a psychopath.” She cast a smile over her shoulder at the wide-eyed Katherine to make sure she knew it was all game. If that line scared her too much, Josephine could always pluck the memory later.
“Is this your idea of a joke?”
“No. It’s my idea of fun. Picking on children. You should probably call the police, because I’m not going to stop.”
Neil sputtered. His face grew red. “I don’t know who you think you are, but you need to—”
“Stop,” Josephine said, “aaand forget.”
And Neil trailed off. He frowned as though he’d lost his train of thought.
“Are you going to help them?” Josephine asked.
“Those girls,” Josephine pointed to the pack. “They just called to you.”
“Oh, sure. I’ll… have a good one.” He returned to the girls.
Josephine turned back to Katherine. “Neat. Isn’t it?”
“What do you want with me?”
“I wanted to meet you.”
“But who are you?”
“My name is Josephine, and I travel with other people like me. We each have unique gifts.”
“I can erase memories. Another of us can read minds, another can sense auras, another can sense other people who are like us.”
Katherine’s eyes ceased being wide. Her shoulders slumped. “Oh.”
“Oh? That’s your reaction.”
“And you think I might have powers too?”
Katherine spun and started marching away.
“Wait, hold on, where are you going?”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” Katherine yelled over her shoulder. “I don’t know how you got Mr. Mitchell to do that, but I’m not dumb.”
Good lord this girl is hard to convince. Josephine considered wiping her memory again. Not yet. “I can offer more proof.”
Despite her skepticism, Katherine paused and turned a narrowed gaze on her. “Like what?”
“Telepathy? If my friend can read your mind, would you at least give us a chance?”
Katherine eyed her narrowly, but she didn’t march off. Josephine waved at the Prius down the road and yelled for Alex.
The driver side door opened. Alex got out. Normally, he and Josephine would never cooperate on anything, but nothing brought the coven together like a new witch.
Alex approached. “Hello, Katherine.”
“You can read my mind?”
“Then am I thinking?”
Katherine startled, but only for a moment. “And now?”
She said nothing this time, but Alex continued. “Galvanization. The super retarded Green Bay Packers. A room with a fishbowl in the middle of the floor. Three Blind Mice. Seven ice skating rhinos.”
Katherine was petrified.
“Yes, I can,” answered Alexander to an unspoken question. “I can see your family, your friends… or the ones you used to have. I can see those girls, and how they torment you every day of your life. They’re the ones who put nasty messages about you on Facebook—who photoshop pictures of you and post them online. They call you Princess Leia because of your headphones, the ones you had to fix yourself after they stomped them into a toilet, because your father can’t afford new ones.
“I see all of that, Katherine. But that’s about to be your old life. Today is the start of something new. We knew the moment we saw you that there is something special about you. You can do something no one else in the world can.”
“What can I do?” she asked in a small voice.
Alexander put on his award winning smile. “I’m dying to find out just as much as you are.”
He had her. Josephine had to hand it to Alex. He could be a real bastard sometimes, but like all bastards, he could draw you in with his words and his smile.