2022, March 23th
Collapse – 27 years
Katherine watched from her front door as Josephine drove off.
She should’ve felt ecstatic. Today, she’d discovered her own magical power, a powerful one at that. Tomorrow, she would leave with a coven of like-minded people. Why could she not shake the feeling that something was wrong?
Maybe it was her inner pessimist—the part of her that was certain that good things just didn’t happen to her—but she couldn’t stop replaying the million little glimpses she’d seen inside Alex’s mind.
The coven was not the cheerful family they pretended to be. They had arguments, feuds, and cliques, just like high schoolers. But for her, they put on a show, because they wanted her. She was an acquisition, but the smiles had come down today. The moment Alexander realized she was reading his mind, she’d gone from being an annoyance to him to a mortal threat. He wasn’t the only mind reader now. Josephine thought that he might behave better from now on, but Josephine had never seen inside his head.
And there was Sakhr. He’d been careful not to look at her, but she’d seen enough about him in Alex’s mind. His power defined him. He was the bodyswapper, the one who kept them all alive. If someone could ever replace him in that role, it would provoke something in him far different than better behavior.
She went inside. Her father was in the other room watching the Badgers game. When he saw her, he muted it and meandered to the kitchen.
“How was Jesse’s?” He leaned casually on the counter while Katherine pried her boots off.
“It was okay. We finished the homework and just watched some television.”
Her father nodded, his mild curiosity sated, but then Katherine met his gaze. Her mind filled with thoughts that told a different story.
He had tried to look ‘Jesse’ up in the school directory. There was one: a boy, not a girl, and he was two grades below Katherine. Her father had called the boy’s mother and confirmed that Katherine had never been there in her life. He knew Katherine was lying to him, but this week, he had seen more life in Katherine than he had since her mother died. She was happy, and it had something to do with where she was going each night. He didn’t think she was getting involved with a bad crowd. She wasn’t cutting classes, and her grades were fine; he’d called the school and checked. His hope was Katherine was seeing a boy. Oh God, did he hope that. At least he’d understand the secrecy. He hated that she would keep it secret from him, but he’d understand.
All of this was hidden behind his look of boredom. He was confused, and hurt, and desperate to know what was going on with her.
And tomorrow she would be running away.
“Thanks for letting me stay out so late,” she said.
He shrugged. “Have you eaten?”
“Yeah. I’m probably going to disappear in my room for the night. I have a little bit of work left.”
She met his gaze again.
Fear that she was slipping away from him.
It had been so long since they’d spent time together. Was she outgrowing him? Was she going to disappear one day. He wanted so much to do something with her. Anything. He’d play dolls with her again if she wanted, but she hadn’t done that since she was a child.
That memory was strong inside his head. She had been eight, and they’d been playing house. Or doctor. Katherine kept jumping from topic to topic, and he wasn’t sure. He was responsible for steering Clifford the Big Red Dog to a car accident to drop off paramedic dolls who were riding him, but Katherine kept telling him he was doing it wrong. He took the dolls off Clifford too soon, or he moved them to the site instead of walking them. With everything he did, she got fussy. He’d lost his temper and snapped at her. It only happened once, but Katherine was done. She never played with dolls again. Logically, he knew she simply outgrew them, but he still blamed himself for ruining it for her. Bit by bit, she became this girl who’s interests strayed farther away from him. No more chess. No more games. Even when he went along with things she wanted to do, such as shopping, it felt perfunctory for both of them.
He’d give anything to know what to do.
Katherine did something she hadn’t done in ages. She hugged him, and kissed his cheek.
“Goodnight, daddy. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Immediately, she headed off. She couldn’t hold herself together if she stayed any longer.
“Goodnight,” he called after her.
In her room, she tossed her backpack against the bed and read her notebooks on witch powers. Now that she knew she could learn them for herself, she studied her notes in a different light. After every section, she’d clear her mind and concentrate on the questions.
What was it like? What’s the most you could do? How did you visualize it? She’d hold the answers in her head and see if she could get that same little click that she felt with Alexander’s power, but nothing came. Maybe she needed someone to test the powers on. With Alexander, she’d looked him right in the eyes, and it happened. Or did it happen, and that’s why she looked him in the eyes? She’d seen her own power through Christof’s memories. All week, her power had been shifting and curling about itself as though something were growing inside, but Christof had only seen her when she was around the others.
Maybe that was the secret. Learning a power was both understanding it and being close to the witch. That still left so many unanswered questions. In theory, she could figure it all out tomorrow when when they traveled together, but she knew what was in Alex’s head. She saw how skittish they all became after realizing what she was, how quickly they sent her home, how reluctant Josephine was to come inside.
They weren’t coming tomorrow morning, she realized. Or if they did come…
That thought nagged at her.
Setting aside her notebook, she crept from her room and down the upstairs hall to her father’s bedroom. In his closet on the top shelf was a shoebox. Careful not to topple the other boxes on top of it, she sidled it off the ledge. Inside was a magnum revolver in a nest of tissue paper.
That was when she got scared. By taking this action, she’d changed a silly worry into something real—an acknowledgement that she might actually be in mortal danger. And even if tomorrow came, and they arrived to pick her up for the airport, she can never take back that she kept a gun with her this night because she thought they might decide to kill her. It would always be between her and them.
She took the gun, collected the bullets, and slid the shoebox back where it belonged. Her father didn’t realize that she’d always known it was there. Tomorrow she could put it back, and he’d never realize it had gone missing. Hopefully.
In her room, she familiarized herself with the gun. Years ago, her father had taken her to a shooting range. It had been one of his father-daughter bonding attempts. At the time, it was pointlessly dull. Now, it was endearing. She’d go again with him had there been more time.
She tucked the gun under her pillow and returned to her notes, particularly on Josephine’s power. Of all the powers, that one was most likely to protect her if… something happened tonight. She read the section front to back and concentrated. It made no difference. With no one to practice upon, she couldn’t tell if she was making progress.
And then the doorbell rang.
Her hands quivered madly as she took out the gun and the ammo box from under her pillow. She could hardly fit the rounds into the chamber.
“Katherine?” It was her father. “Can you come down here a minute?”
Tucking the gun under her sweater, she walked out to the top of the stairs. Anton waited just inside the threshold with her father.
“Your guidance councilor needs to speak with you,” her father said.
She saw in her father’s mind many questions. Why was a school guidance councilor making a housecall? What could Katherine be getting into that warranted this? Her father wasn’t questioning whether Anton was who he said he was. Her father took that for granted. Anton’s Authority echoed in her father’s head.
“I would like to speak with her privately,” Anton said. More Authority.
“Of course.” No question about it. Her father headed toward the kitchen.
“What’s going on?” Katherine asked.
Sakhr stepped around from behind the door. He’d been waiting out of view of her father. “Something’s come up. We need to leave tonight.”
“I’ll explain on the way. Are you packed?”
“That’s okay. Just come now. We’ll replace anything you need.”
“But why? What’s so urgent that we have to leave tonight? Where are the others? Where’s Josephine?”
“Josephine is waiting in the car. Come. We haven’t time to discuss this now.”
“If you’d look me in the eye, you could tell me everything that way. It would be quick.”
Neither did. They exchanged glances with each other. Anton stepped into the house.
Sakhr stayed at the door. “As the coven’s newest telepath, you’re going to need to follow the same rule as Alexander. No mind reading unless absolutely necessary. Respect our privacy.”
Anton was at the foot of the stairs now.
“I think I’ve decided I want to stay,” Katherine said, “I’m not sure I’m ready to leave my father alone. Maybe after I graduate you could come back. If you wanted to.”
Anton started climbing the steps.
“Or if you don’t, that’s okay too. I get it if you don’t want me in the group anymore. And that’s okay. I’ll just… I’ll just be here. I won’t learn any more powers.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. She hardly noticed.
“We don’t have time for this,” Anton said, taking one step at a time. “Come with us.”
The sound of his voice made her body tremble. Without thought, her legs moved toward him. She was down two steps before she clutched the banister. She didn’t have to obey him. He’s here to hurt her.
“Please,” she said. “Please, leave me alone. I won’t tell anyone. Please.”
A rusty squeak came from the back of the house. Someone just passed through the kitchen screen door to the yard. Her father was talking.
Anton was half way up the stairs. “Do not disobey me, Katherine.”
Again, her body moved reflexively. She clung to the banister as though her legs were dragging her down. Anton was almost in reach. Frantically, she pulled the gun from her waistband and aimed it.
He froze, eyes wide. Sakhr practically dove outside the door. All traces of his ancient air of paternalism were gone. He was a man ducking a threat.
Anton held his ground. “Put down the gun, Katherine.” She didn’t. Each time her body reacted less and less to his Authority. Her gun leveled at him.
“I said put it down!” he roared.
She hardly even realized it when she fired. The bang was deafening for sure, but it was the gun’s reaction that she noticed. The kickback was as though she’d just pushed a shopping cart into a wall—hardly anything at all. Anton’s head snapped back. As though in slow motion, he fell backward down the stairs. He was airborne for an eternity. Blood streamed from a hole above his left eye. When his body hit the steps, he tumbled the rest of the way, his limbs limp and aimless. At the bottom, he came to a rest. The frozen look of surprise was still on his face.
Something crashed in the kitchen. Her father yelled. He struggled with someone. Then came the sound of a solid crack.
Moments later, Alexander emerged holding her father as a shield. Her dad’s feet dragged, and his arm flailed about for support. Alexander was holding a kitchen knife to his throat.
He’d been grinning when he entered, but upon seeing Anton, his expression turned black.
“What the fuck did you do?”
Katherine’s legs nearly buckled. She clutched the gun with cold, white knuckles.
“You cunt. Do you have any idea what I’m going to do to you now? Do you have any idea?”
“Kat?” Her father sounded groggy. “Run. Just run.”
“Oh shut up.” Alex cracked him on the head with the butt of his knife. Allen would have crumbled if Alex hadn’t been holding him up. “And you,” Alex looked at her. “Put that fucking gun down before I start filleting your old man.”
“Dad…” Katherine’s voice came out as a whimper.
“Nnn… No,” said Allen.
“Look into my eyes, bitch. I will do it. If you put that down and come down here, your daddy gets to live. Up to you.”
In his eyes, Katherine saw that he would hurt her father, but he wasn’t sold yet on letting her father live. That would depend on how he was feeling, or how much she pissed him off.
Either way, she was going to die tonight. That had been decided long before she shot Anton, but now that she had… Oh, my. The things Alexander wanted to do to her. This little bitch had just ended a friendship spanning centuries. They were a duo who understood each other like no other people could. And when they put their powers together, they were unstoppable. Alex could see clean through anyone, and his insight made Anton’s Authority work better—better for picking up women, for gambling, for doing all the things the duo loved to do. That’s because Alex saw how Authority worked. He could see in the minds of others while the Authority worked primordial parts of their brains. It would tickle the fight-or-flight response—lock down the super ego. In time, he’d learned just what memories and feeling worked best, and how best for Anton to work his magic.
He understood Anton’s power in a way Anton never did.
And now Katherine saw it too.
She took a breath and calmed herself.
“Let my father go.” Her voice wavered, but Authority was there.
Startled, Alex reared back. As though of its own mind, his hand released the knife. His grip relaxed, and her father slid to the floor.
She fired. This time however, she over anticipated the kick back. The shot merely nicked Alex’s arm. Alex moved, but Katherine fired again, and again. She didn’t stop. Bullets flew high and wide as Alex stumbled backward out of view. Plaster and dust exploded around him.
The final shot punched his chest. The gun clicked empty. Alex slumped against the wall and slid to a seat beside Allen. He glared at Katherine. Despite wheezing for dying breaths and blood bubbling from his lip, he could think only of his hate for her.
Katherine rushed down the stairs to her father. As she rounded the bottom, Sakhr lunged from the front door and grabbed her waist. He threw her at the stair banister. Her head collided with wood. Pain seared through her. She crumpled. Something warm and slick poured down her face.
Sakhr reached around the front door and reemerged with a baseball bat. He approached.
“Put… put the bat—” She never finished.
Sakhr brought it down in an overhead swing, right onto her leg.
In that moment, pain was all she knew. The scream that tore from her lungs was long and piercing. It petered into a hoarse croak. Her shin bone jutted from a massive gash. Blood poured.
Sakhr raised the bat again.
Katherine pulled herself away, but there would be no escaping it. Before Sakhr could swing, Allen collided with him from behind. They fell, into a grapple. Allen rolled on top of Sakhr and press his forearm into his neck. Sakhr struggled, but Allen’s chokehold was solid.
“Kat, get the phone,” her father yelled.
Then, they stopped fighting. Allen stood. Sakhr, in turn, screamed. He looked over his own body as though it were covered in insects. Sakhr had swapped places.
Now in her father’s body, Sakhr grabbed Allen, who was too bewildered to react. He dragged him toward Alex.
In dread, Katherine saw what was about to happen.
“No,” she yelled. “Stop!”
Her Authority caused Sakhr to pause, but the voice of a broken, bleeding girl was not enough to keep him.
“No!” she yelled again. She tried dragging herself toward them.
By now, Allen had gained control of his senses. He pieced together enough to realize the enemy was in his own body. He kicked and thrashed. Sakhr had to wrestle him the rest of the way. He grabbed Alex’s hand and placed it on the shin of Allen’s current body.
It was as though they each hiccuped within a fraction of a second of one another. And it was done. Sakhr was in his own body. Alexander was in Allen’s.
Alex straightened. He looked at his old body, and then at his new one. “Fuck!”
He felt his new gut. “Fucking fuck. Shit.”
He ran a hand through his thinning hair. Hissing, he jerked it away when his fingers touched a welt—the one Alex had inflicted on Allen when he first broke in. “God fucking damn it!” He slammed a hand against the wall.
Katherine’s father, now inside Alex’s old body, stared in wide-eyed disbelief at the man now impersonating him. His eyes turned to Katherine, and she saw his thoughts. He felt pain and confusion, but at seeing his hurt little girl, he understood one thing for sure: he’d failed. He was going to die. She would follow, and there was nothing he could do about that.
His thoughts stopped making sense. They were flashes of unrelated ideas and memories—just a random chaos of firing neurons as his brain shut down. In the end, there was no final wish for Katherine to escape, and no sentiments of love, just a muddled mess of panic and despair.
And then nothing.
He was dead at the hands of people Katherine had brought into their lives. She knew it wasn’t her fault, but that didn’t change anything. He never got to understand why.
Alex snapped around to look at her. “She’s still alive,” he said. A humorless grin crept over his face. It was not a smile her father had never made. “Shall I do the honors?”
Sakhr brushed himself off and looked down at Katherine. “Fine.” He stepped over her body and headed up the stairs. “I need to find her notes. We don’t have much time. So be quick about it, will you? Don’t look her in the eye. And for the love of all that is holy, don’t touch her.”
“Sure, sure.” Alex fetched the dropped bat and stood over Katherine. Once Sakhr disappeared upstairs, he looked Katherine directly in the eyes. “Do you think I’m going to be quick about it? Look into my eyes, bitch. Take a look and see what I’m about to do to you.”
And she saw.