30. Revolver

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.”

“Okay.”

She met his gaze again.

Fear.

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.”

“Why?”

“I’ll explain on the way. Are you packed?”

“No.”

“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.”

She looked.

And she saw.

23. Insecurities

2022, March 23th
Collapse – 27 years

“What if you’re focusing past them, but your eyes just happen to line up with theirs?” Katherine asked.

“I don’t know,” said Alexander. “Whenever I’m reading minds, I’m focused on my target. I wouldn’t look past them.”

“Can we try it?”

“Sure. Why not?” Alex smiled broadly. It was a good smile.

For Katherine’s final night, Sakhr had taken everyone to the highest class restaurant this small town had to offer—a repurposed townhouse with tables set up throughout small rooms. Sakhr had reserved a room for the coven. It had mild art along the walls and plastic logs in a fireplace which flickered with orange electric light. Whenever the waiter left, they had the room to themselves.

Katherine tried staring through Alex, her eyes wide.

“Can you read my mind?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“And you’re sure your eyes are lined up with mine?”

“Yep.” Alexander made of show of covering one eye as he checked.

“What if you focus on my eyes and I look past you.”

“Okay.”

“Are you getting anything?”

“Nope.”

“Really? How about now?”

“Nothing.”

“Hmm.” Katherine took notes of the results. Alexander’s smile switched off while she wasn’t looking.

Apart from a few side conversations, Katherine’s questions were the center of attention. She had a prominent seat between Josephine and Sakhr, giving her a line of sight to every other witch.

“So I guess it probably doesn’t work if they’re unconscious then,” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Alexander said. His smile was back at full force “We could always knock out one of the busboys if you’d like to try it.”

“That’s okay.” Kat missed the sarcasm as she took notes. Alexander’s eyes met Sakhr’s. Tension passed between them.

Josephine stepped in. “Maybe you’d like to ask me more questions instead?”

“Oh, well. I guess so. I mostly asked you everything I could think of on Saturday, but now that I know powers can improve, there was something I was wondering.”

“Yes?”

“How come when we both talked to people on Saturday, you could make people forget the entire conversation, but you can’t make them forget if only I did any talking?”

“Because then I wasn’t involved in the conversation. I can only block memories I’m a part of.”

“But you were. You were standing right there, even if you didn’t say anything.”

“I guess it just wasn’t enough.”

“So you can make people forget things I say, but only if you’ve said something during the conversation. Does that make sense to you? I feel like it shouldn’t matter. You were there. You were part of it.”

“I just can’t. The switches in my head don’t do that.”

“But you should be able to. I think you should be able extend your power out to anything you’re even slightly associated with, any shared memory. I think you could make people forget about the entire coven as long as you’re a part of it.”

“My power works for me, not others.”

“That’s only because you believe that. Think about this, you can make people forget about you when they see you drive down the road, right?”

“Right.”

“And it’s not like they just forget about you and only remember the car. You can make them forget the car was there, right?”

“Okay?”

“What if Sakhr was in the car too. Would that mean they’d forget about you and the car, but they’d somehow remember seeing Sakhr? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“That’s a good point,” said Sakhr. “And you have done this before. Remember Berlin?”

“I don’t know…” said Josephine.

“It makes perfect sense psychologically,” continued Katherine. “If a person gets into a car accident, they say, ‘someone hit me,’ not, ‘someone’s car hit my car.’ That’s because when people drive, their cars become an extension of them. You do the same. When you drive, you see the car as part of yourself. That’s why you can drive a car into somebody’s house and leave them wondering where the hole came from. When we were in the park, you could use a stick to knock over somebody’s drink and they’ll forget both you and the stick, because you see the stick as part of yourself. It’s you knocking over their drink, but if you throw a ball, they remember the ball because you stop seeing the ball as part of yourself. The ball knocked over their drink, not you. But if you could trick yourself into expanding what you consider part of you, then I think you could expand your power too. So if you imagined the entire coven as an extension of you, then you could blank us all from people’s memory.”

“Very clever,” Sakhr nodded. “That would be useful.”

“Hold up,” Josephine said. “I’ve thought about this before. I’ve been trying for decades to grow my power like that. I never got anywhere.”

“Maybe you just need a coach. I think you just have to visualize it properly. Next time we go to the park, we’ll try it. Alexander, could you come too? I might need help making sure she’s visualizing correctly.”

“Sure.” Alexander’s smile snapped back on, “that is, if Josephine is okay with letting me read her mind.”

“Would you be okay with that?” Katherine asked. “I wish I could read your mind instead. That would help me more, but I think even a third party could work.”

“Certainly,” Josephine said. “I’m looking forward to it.” She could always make Alex forget what he read.

“Okay, great. And you’re sure you’re okay with this, Alex? It might take a long time.”

“Anything I can do to help,” he said.

“Thanks! And by the way, thank you for answering all my questions. I was worried I was boring you the other day.”

“Of course not.”

“Cool. Because actually I have a few more questions if that’s okay.”

“Absolutely.”

Katherine missed the irritation behind his grin. “Thanks. I’d like to know more about how you visualize your mind reading. Do you have a mental exercise you do? Like, do you imagine looking through a window into their minds?”

“No. It just happens.”

“Did you ever confuse their thoughts for yours?”

“Nope.”

“Never? Sakhr said you used to do that.”

“Oh right. Then I guess I did.

“How do you tell them apart? Are their thoughts in a different part of your head?”

“Sure.”

Her brow furrowed at the ambivalent answer. “Well, what was it like the first time you read a mind? How could you tell it wasn’t just in your head?”

“Because their thoughts weren’t mine. They didn’t have the same voice. So for instance, when I look in your eyes, A voice in my head is excited about what to ask next, so I know it can’t be coming from me.”

“You never mix them up?”

“Nope.”

“How often do you catch people’s private thoughts?”

“All the time.”

“Do you ever feel bad about it?”

“What does that have to do with my power?”

“I was just wondering.”

“No. I don’t have a moral problem with seeing people’s private thoughts. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re not exactly the most moral bunch. Your private thoughts are tame compared to most. Take your desire to steal Britney’s body and taunt her while she’s stuck in your old one. I know you weren’t planning on telling us about that because you didn’t want us to think you were ‘psycho’. Except that we steal people’s bodies all the time, and then we kill them. Then we take all of their money and cut ties with their families. That’s much worse than your daydreams. Besides, I know that your desire isn’t wrath. It’s envy. You want to have her body, because your own body disgusts you so much that you don’t even include yourself in your own sexual fantasies.”

Katherine’s face went white.

Alexander.” Sakhr’s voice cut through the dining room like a slammed fist.

“I’m sorry. Were we not telling her about the body stealing yet? I figured she’d already put that together given how many questions she’s asked about it.”

“Alexander, you will cease this immediately.”

“Shouldn’t she know what kind of people we are before signing on with us? Wasn’t that the point of waiting around? It’s not like it matters. She’ll still come with us. Everyone in this town sees her as an undesirable little runt. Even our waiters are wondering what we’re doing with her. By the way, is our check coming? We’ve been sitting here a long time.”

Katherine had slowly withdrawn into herself. She clutched her notebook to her chest as though it were a source of warmth. This was the same timid child Josephine had seen sitting on the school steps where the girls had tormented her.

Josephine wrapped her arms about Katherine and pulled her close. “Shut up, Alex. What the hell are you thinking?”

“I’m sorry. Was I rude?”

Sakhr rose. “Alexander, leave this restaurant now. I will speak with you back at the hotel.”

“Sure, fine.” Alex tossed his napkin on the table and rose.

“Wait.” It was Christof. Everyone looked at him, and then to whom he was staring: Katherine.

Still wrapped in Josephine’s arms, she looked up and met Alex’s gaze head on.

The silence hung in the air.

“What?” Alex uttered, his expression perplexed.

Katherine spoke. “You want a pretty girl’s body too.”

For the first time that Josephine had ever seen, Alex broke eye contact first.

Katherine continued. “You’ve always thought about asking Sakhr to give you a woman’s body instead of another man’s, but you’re worried everyone would think you’re gay. You’re not. You know you’re not. You just think to yourself sometimes that if you’d had a choice at birth, you would have picked female. Then you tell yourself you’re okay with being a man, but sometimes at when you’re laying in bed, you rub your hands across your legs and pretend—”

Shut the fuck up you little bitch!

He hurled his beer glass at her. She squeaked and recoiled. Josephine deflected the glass, but beer splattered both of them. Alex’s eyes were wild, but his gaze did not look near Katherine. After several seething breaths, he stormed from room.

Everyone was quiet at first, until Sibyl quietly asked, “Did you just read his mind?”

“Yeah.” Katherine paused, then, “Yeah! I don’t know how. It’s like I just figured out how he did it, and then I did it, like I finished a puzzle.” She looked at Sibyl. Her eyes lit. “I can still do it!”

“Christof?” Sakhr said. “What are you seeing?”

“I… I’m not sure.”

“Is she a mimic?”

Bewildered, he shrugged. “I just don’t know.”

“I see it!” Katherine was looking into Christof’s eyes. “I see what you see in me.”

Startled, Christof averted his gaze.

Katherine hardly noticed. “Oh my God. This is so awesome. I just get how it’s done now. I always felt like if I could just figure it out enough, I’d know how to do it myself.” She spun to Josephine. “I can read minds now! I can probably help you so much faster now too.”

Sakhr stood. “Yes. Indeed. However, we’re making a scene. Perhaps it’s best if we call it a night.”

Katherine spun to him. “Right now?”

“Yes. Between Alexander and the time, I think we’ve had enough excitement for one day.” He pulled out a wallet and left several large bills on the table. While everyone else stood, Katherine remained seated.

“But I just found out what my power is. Why do I have to go home now?”

Sakhr smiled warmly… at the table. “Tonight is the last night you’ll ever have to go home. Make sure you’re packed and ready. We have a long trip tomorrow. Then you’ll have all the time in the world to explore your power.”

“Okay…”

“Josephine. If you’ll take her back.”

Sibyl moved to.

Sakhr stopped her. “No. Just Josephine. Sibyl, I might need your help with Alex.”

The order struck Josephine as strange. Sibyl wouldn’t be any help with Alex. If anything, it was usually her that needed help from Sakhr when Alex was hard on her.

Outside, Sakhr addressed everyone. “All right. Let’s find wherever Alex sulked off to. Once we’re back, he and I are going to have a long, long talk.” He looked in Katherine’s general direction. “I must apologize for Alexander. He forgets his place.”

“It’s okay,” she said.

“Go home. Sleep well. Remember. You mustn’t tell your father anything, even to say goodbye.”

“I know.”

Sakhr handed car keys to Josephine. “Take her. We’ll meet you at the hotel.”


The ride to Katherine’s house was muted—not what Josephine would have expected from an inquisitive girl who’d just discovered her secret ability. Josephine tried to break the silence.

“I’m glad somebody finally threw mind reading in Alex’s face.”

“Yeah.” Katherine was gazing out the window.

“For years he’s been using everyone’s personal lives against them. But you taught him a lesson. I don’t know if he’ll forgive you, but I don’t think he’ll ever bully you again.”

“I guess,” Katherine wasn’t convinced. Alexander’s behavior had tainted Katherine’s opinion of the coven. Josephine’s optimism couldn’t change that.

She kept trying anyway. “Who knows? Maybe Alex’s power was just the first. Maybe you can learn all our powers.”

“Maybe.” Katherine hesitated. “Why does Sakhr keep him around?”

Josephine knew who she was referring to. “He’s a jerk, but he’s one of us. We’re a family. Sometimes you don’t like your siblings, but you put up with them anyway.”

“Sakhr doesn’t see him as family. He hates Alex. Everybody does except for Anton. Sakhr only keeps him around because he’s useful, and Alex knows that. He just doesn’t care.”

“You saw a lot in his mind, didn’t you?”

Katherine shrugged halfheartedly.

“Maybe now that you can read minds too,” Josephine said. “Alexander will have to behave himself.”

“Maybe…”

“Is something wrong, kiddo?”

Katherine turned to look at Josephine. Josephine had her eyes on the road. She pulled onto Katherine’s street and parked before her house.

“No. Nothing’s wrong.”

“You’re morose for somebody who just learned how to read minds.”

“I guess.” A pause. “Do you think you could stay for a while?”

“I have to get back.”

“Please? Now that I can read minds, I can help you improve your power too. I was serious before. I really do think you’re not using it to its full potential. You could be erasing so much more than just yourself from people’s minds.”

“And we’ll have plenty of time to work on it tomorrow on the plane. I promise.”

“Please?”

Josephine shook her head. “Sakhr wants me back. Besides, this is your last night. You should spend it with your father. We’ll have lifetimes to spend together.”

Katherine was silent a while. When she spoke, the words came out flat. “Okay.” She opened the car door. “Tomorrow then.”

“Flight’s at ten!” Josephine called after her. “I’ll pick you up here at seven fifty.”

“Yeah, sure.” Katherine smiled. It seemed forced.

Josephine watched as Katherine walked up to her house. She thought of getting out and joining Katherine, just for a while. After the way Alexander had treated her, she could probably use some assurance. She’d just spend a few minutes with her, that’s all.

She didn’t though.

21. Jabbering

2022, March 23th
Collapse – 27 years

After Sibyl’s outburst, Sakhr went to talk with her privately. They returned as Katherine was getting ready to head home.

“I’m really sorry,” Katherine said as she gathered her supplies.

“It’s okay.” Sibyl was calm, although still a little frosty as she sat at the table. “I’ll get used to it, but you should warn people before doing something like that again.”

“But I couldn’t! I had to trick you. It was the only way to get you to do it, or else you would have expected it to fail, and it would have.”

“Hmm,” Sibyl seemed doubtful.

Sakhr spoke. “If you ever think you can trick me into improving my power, you have my permission to go right ahead.”

“Same here,” Josephine said.

“Same,” Christof added.

“Okay.” Katherine brightened. “I do have some ideas I want to try on you guys, but I guess I should probably keep it to myself.”

“It is your call,” Sakhr said. “Josephine? Sibyl? If you’d drive Ms. Faulk back home?”

They did. Katherine was back to her old excitable self by the time they dropped her off. Josephine walked Katherine to the house while Sibyl waited in the car.

Her father answered the door. He looked as he always did when Josephine dropped off Katherine: tired, worn, and old, despite being in his thirties.

“Hi, daddy.” Katherine hugged him.

He returned the hug awkwardly as though this was unexpected behavior. It probably was. Ever since Josephine had approached Katherine that day at school, she hadn’t once reverted to that shrunken version of herself that slunk away from her tormenters. That was a different girl.

Her father disengaged. “Do you have any homework left?”

“A little.”

“Then why don’t you go do it and let me talk with our guest for a moment.”

“Okay,” Katherine agreed readily enough. No reason not to. Her father wouldn’t remember any conversation he shouldn’t.

She turned to Josephine. “You’ll pick me up tomorrow?”

“I will.”

“Cool. See you then.” She disappeared inside.

The father turned to Josephine. “I don’t think we’ve met,” he said.

“That’s right.”

“Name’s Allen.”

Normally Josephine would wipe his memory and walk off. She didn’t though. “Nice to meet you.”

“My daughter has been spending a lot of time with your kid. She never got around to telling me who they are. You’re not Allison’s mother, are you?”

“No. Not Allison. Jesse.” Jesse had been a safe name Katherine and the coven had agreed upon for a cover story.

“Never heard that name before. I’m not too surprised. I have to waterboard that girl to get her to tell me anything about school. How long has she and Jesse been friends?”

“Not long. They met last week.”

“Huh. Just that long? Well something’s really working out. I haven’t seen Katherine this way in years.”

“How is she normally?”

He seemed to consider whether to get into it or not. “It’s been rough. She’s been having some trouble at school with the other girls. I really only know what I hear from the teachers, but it’s been pretty bad. Really bad actually. It’s been affecting a lot at home. I can’t tell you how relieved I am to hear she’s spending time with someone. This week it’s like she’s actually back to normal. Wouldn’t tell me for the life of her what’s changed. So how’ve they been spending their time together?”

“Oh, you know. Whatever kids do these days. They spend most of their time in their room.”

Allen nodded. “I’m just glad she’s spending time with someone. I’d say they’re welcome to spend time here too, but I don’t want to rock this boat.”

“Is it just you and her?”

“Yeah, it is. She lost her mother a few years ago.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

He shrugged it off. “Her mother and I were separated. Kat though, she lived with her mom. The thing is, coming to live with me meant changing schools, and that’s when everything went sour. I was honestly considering transferring, or… something. Just get her back to her old school. Maybe that could help. I can’t tell you how relieved I’ve been this week.”

“Yeah.” Josephine forced a smile. By this time next week, this man would be contacting the police about his missing daughter. Kat would be happier with the coven, but that didn’t make Josephine feel any less nauseated about what they were about to do to her father.

“Anyway, thanks for dropping her off,” Allen said. “I hope I’ll be seeing more of you.”

“Yeah, I hope so too,” Josephine turned and headed down the walk way. Allen waved goodbye. Josephine cleared his memory before he closed the door.

She got in the car where Sibyl waited behind the wheel.

“Why’d you stay and talk?” Sibyl asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I shouldn’t have.”


Alexander and Anton came back near midnight, long after Sibyl and Josephine returned from dropping Katherine home. They burst into the hotel suite laughing and joking. Josephine would have awoken if she’d been asleep. As it was, she was on a couch in the common room watching quiet television to sooth her insomnia, something she’d inherited from her current body.

They removed their coats and boots as they chattered drunkenly in mixed English and Russian. Even though others were trying to sleep, Josephine knew from experience that telling them to be quiet was pointless.

Alex looked around. “Oh good. The sleepover’s over.” He sprawled onto the couch beside her. Anton collapsed into the armchair opposite Alex and withdrew a bottle of Scotch from a paper bag. Shrink wrap crackled as he unscrewed it.

Swell. The night wasn’t over.

As he filled two glasses, he glanced at Josephine. “How was the interrogation? She run out of questions yet?”

Josephine ignored him. Whenever Anton was drunk, his accent came out. It would work perfectly for any In Soviet Russia joke. “Maybe next time we’ll find out if I can fax my Authority. Or maybe it can work over smoke signal.”

Alex stretched to grab his glass. “And she’s going to be living with us.” He sipped. “It’ll probably get better once she’s easier on the eyes. Think Sakhr’ll let her dump that chubby body early?” His eyes were on the television, but Josephine knew he was waiting for a reaction out of her. “Course even then, it’s not like she’d be worth sleeping with. Could you just imagine that would go? ‘What happens if we fuck with the condom on backwards? If we fuck upside down, would it feel different?‘” He held up his finger. “Hold on. Actually, fucking her might be fun.”

Anton chuckled.

“Of course,” continued Alex, “chances are we’ll just end up with another lesbian in the group. I’ve seen her thoughts. She’s the kind of person who’d start with some harmless college kissing just to get attention.”

Josephine couldn’t help herself. “You shouldn’t worry. She won’t stay with us long once she realize what enormous assholes you are.”

Alex barked laughter. “Like hell she would. We could demand she fellate every one of us for entry and she’d still do it. Even with all her bubbly excitement, you still have no idea how badly she wants this.”

“I’m not saying she won’t join. I’m saying she’d run off after she figures out that she’ll get just as much bullshit from you as she gets now.”

“Nah, she’ll stay.” Pause. “You stayed, didn’t you?” He craned to look at her. She avoided his eyes. Within her reach was a table lamp. She envisioned smashing it across his head, then making him forget. He might think he’d hurt himself while drunk.

Sakhr emerged from an adjoining room dressed in a hotel bathrobe. His eyes were bleary.

“We’ll keep it down,” Anton said. He gave Alex a look indicating that he’d best agree.

“Where were you two?” Sakhr’s tone was like a father’s who’d caught his son sneaking in after dark.

“Out,” Alex said. “A few bars. Just having fun.”

“You left to get away from Katherine.”

Alex shrugged. “Yeah?”

“She noticed. She’s worried you don’t like her.”

Anton refilled his glass. “We needed break from her uh…” he fluttered his fingers against his thumb to indicate talking, “from her jabbering.” His english continued to devolve alongside his sobriety.

“She’s coming over again tomorrow. You two are going to be here, and you’re going to welcome her. I don’t want you affecting her desire to come with us.”

Alex shrugged, palms face up. “Why? Why roll out the carpets? She’s already decided. We could have left this shit-hole town last week.”

“I will not have her rushed. I want her to leave with us only once she’s ready to leave everything behind. I want her to want to be with us.”

“For what? What’s her fucking power anyway? I’d hate to go to all this trouble just to find out she’s a dud.”

“If you had been here today, you’d know it wasn’t.” He locked eyes with Alex.

The events of today passed between their eye contact.

Alex sat up. “She did what?”

“What?” Anton asked. “What happened?”

“She evolved Sibyl’s power,” Sakhr said. “Sibyl is now able to see auras through walls.”

“How? Is that her power?”

“We don’t know. She did it by coaching Sibyl, but Christof saw her power stir when Sibyl’s power evolved. It reacted somehow to our powers.”

“What do you mean ‘coached’?”

“I mean she did it with all that jabbering. So let me make myself clear. When she comes back, you’re going to answer whatever questions she asks and you’re going to smile as you do so. If it is her gift to make us more powerful, then I will not have you jeopardize her desire to do so by alienating her. Do you understand?”

Alexander and Anton nodded.

Sakhr turned to leave. “Who knows. Maybe she’ll evolve your power too.”

19. Testing

2022, March 22th
Collapse – 27 years

“How about now?” asked Katherine.

“Yes,” said Sibyl.

Katherine was hiding behind a wall from Sibyl, Josephine, and Alexander. Only her gloved hand stuck out from around the corner, and she slid it out of view until only her four fingers were visible.

“Now?”

“Yes.”

Her fingers shrunk away until they disappeared. “Now,” said Sibyl.

“You can’t see my aura now?”

“Right.”

The tips of her gloved fingers reappeared.

“And now?”

“I can see it again.”

Katherine groaned. She emerged and sat at the table. “It doesn’t make any sense.” She tugged off her glove. “You can see my aura if I’m completely covered in clothes, but for some reason, a wall stops you. I’d think it was a thickness thing, but you can’t see through my hoodie when I drape it in front of me.” She tossed her glove aside. “It’s like your power just decides to ignore a barrier so long as I’m wearing it. That’s so stupid.”

Sibyl shrugged. She’d already returned to reading her magazine. Six days had passed since the coven had introduced themselves to Katherine. Each day, she’d come straight to the hotel from school, once even skipping classes. She’d inundate whoever was free with waves of fresh questions and tests. It didn’t matter who; she had fresh questions for everyone scrawled in that notebook of hers.

This weekend was particularly heavy. She’d convinced her father that she was going to a sleep over. From what Josephine understood, he had been too glad to hear she had friends at all to hamper her with parental restrictions. Josephine had indulged Katherine on Saturday. They’d wandered the mall performing every conceivable permutation of talking with people and making them forget specifics of the encounter. Today, Sunday, she hassled other coven members, those who were around anyway.

Alexander and Anton’s amusement had waned last week. They’d escaped to go do whatever they do together: probably alcohol, women, and a few drugs. Christof was here, though he was managing coven finances. That left Katherine alone with Josephine, Sibyl, and Sakhr for these marathon testing session.

“Okay,” She scribbled a note. “Sakhr, can I ask you more questions?”

“Sure.”

“You said you need physical contact to switch bodies.”

“Yes.”

“Could you do it with gloves on?”

“No.”

“So, not through their clothes either?”

“No. Skin to skin contact.”

“What about skin to hair? Or skin to nail? Or enamel?”

Sakhr chuckled. “You come up with the strangest ideas.”

“I’m not saying you should. I’m just wondering if you can.”

“Hair is no good. I’d assume the same for teeth and nail, but in all of my centuries, I’ve never tried.”

“Do you want to?” Katherine bared her teeth and leaned forward.

After a pause, Sakhr relented and lightly touched her front tooth. “No. See. I need to touch them, living flesh to flesh.”

She made notes. “Next question. Animals. Can you swap bodies with animals?”

He made a face. “Once. Never again.”

“Was it unpleasant?”

“Thoroughly. And no, we will not be conducting any tests with them. To that, I draw a line.”

“Okay.” She shifted targets. “Sibyl, what about you? Can you sense animals?”

Sibyl gave an exaggerated sigh and lowered her magazine.

“No, never mind,” Katherine said. “I’ve been bugging you all day. I’ll leave you alone.” She turned to Josephine. “What about you?”

“Oh, Honey. Can’t we take a break? We’ve been doing this all weekend. Aren’t you getting tired?”

Katherine set down her notebook. “Okay. I guess we can stop. Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“But how does it not bother you?” she said. “Your powers don’t make any sense.”

“Whose?”

“All of yours. Josephine, you can drive a car into somebody’s living room and make them forget everything, but if you knock over somebody’s drink with a tennis ball, they’ll remember the ball. You can make somebody forget about a car, but not a ball? And Anton. He can order someone to do something over a telephone, but not if he leaves a message. Why? A telephone already converts his voice into electrical signals. Why should it matter if it’s put on disk first? And Alexander can’t read minds unless you make eye contact, sure. And he can do it through a fish tank, but he can’t through a mirror for some reason.”

“That makes sense,” said Sibyl. “A mirror isn’t eye contact.”

“But what does that mean? A fish tank refracts light a lot. Let’s say he makes eye contact with you through one, and then someone lifts it out of the way. He’d suddenly be looking past you. That means it’s okay for light to bend a little, so then why should a mirror stop it? Every time a photon hits a particle, it gets absorbed and reemitted. The only difference between reflection and refraction is the direction of reemission after an electron absorbs a photon. On an atomic level, they’re basically the same thing, so why does it make a difference!”

Everyone responded with blank stares. Josephine brushed up on science every decade or so, so what Katherine said wasn’t completely lost on her. Even so, Katherine clearly had a passion for physics. She cited many atomic laws during her questions, so why were her science grades only B’s?

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out in time,” Sakhr said. “You have all the time in the world.”

“Okay,” She took some notes. “Can I ask you something? I promise it’s not about powers.”

Sakhr smiled. “Of course.”

“Back in ancient Egypt, did you ever switch places with a pharaoh?”

“No. I switched places with rulers before, but never someone as grandiose as a king or a pharaoh.”

“Why not the pharaoh? It would have worked, wouldn’t it?”

“Certainly it would, but why would I?”

“Why wouldn’t you? You could have ruled Egypt.”

Sakhr smiled knowingly. “Why bother? Beyond a point, more power does not improve luxury. Well… not in any way that’s worth the trouble. I’d be burdening myself with the affairs of politics, and unless I revealed myself for who I am, any legacy I built would die with body I was in. I’d rather live as I am: with a close pack of compatriots, free to go wherever I want. Besides,” He leaned in conspiratorially, “I know I can take the place of any ruler. In that way, I already am the most powerful person alive.”

“I suppose so,” said Katherine. For a while, she remained silent. “Can I ask another question?”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever met any other witches? One’s that didn’t join the coven?”

“A few, centuries ago.”

“What could they do?”

“Back when the coven was only Christof and myself, we met Celine de Launois. Her power was desire. Every man wanted her, without question. When we met her, she was married to a Belgium viscount. It was a bad relationship; abusive, both ways. She cheated on him constantly, and he hated her, but he’d always come back to her bed.

“I knew the risk of getting involved with her, even if she was one of us, but of course, her powers already played their magic. Christof and I both became smitten with her and told her everything of her powers and ours. We were obsessed.” Sakhr shook his head, “and she was the most manipulative bitch I have ever met. It was her little game to turn us against each other.”

“What happened?”

“Like with Anton’s Authority, we grew resistant. We saw what she was doing and left her behind.”

“You didn’t have any leftover feelings for her?”

“No. Once we got away, the effect popped like a bubble.”

“Oh,” Katherine turned to an early page in her notebook and added “Desire (proximity?)” under a list of powers.

Sakhr had told the same story to Josephine when she joined, just as he’d told Sibyl, except Sibyl sensed a lie. She and Josephine had learned the truth years later from a drunk Alexander.

“You know that moment right after a guy shoots his wad?” he’d said. “There’s a moment of clarity there. Guys think straightest then, because there’s no lust. That’s when Sakhr slit her throat.”

Sakhr must have known Alexander would find out. Maybe Sakhr told him the truth up front. Which would mean Anton would know too, since those two share everything. That left only the coven women in the dark. It’s not like Josephine and Sibyl would be horrified that Sakhr had killed someone. They all killed each time they stole a body. So why lie? It always bugged her.

Katherine finished her notes. “Were there any others?”

“No,” Sakhr said. “Every other witch I’ve met is in this coven.”

“That’s it? Wow. Eight witches in all the world. Why are we so rare?”

“I don’t know. There may have been more, but until I met Christof, I wouldn’t even have known another when I saw them. Christof was the one who recognized me. Even now, this coven can only be in one place at one time. Many may be passing us by.”

“But there are all those stories about witches and wizards…”

“They’re always charlatans. Those with real powers keep it to themselves. As late as fifty years ago, people like us would be killed for witchcraft. Most, I suspect, never find out they have powers at all. No one in this group knew until Christof and I showed them.”

“Why not? Wouldn’t Alexander have figured out on his own that he could read minds? How did you figure out you could switch bodies?”

“My first switch was entirely by accident. As for Alexander, from how he describes it, he didn’t realize the thoughts in his head were not his own. We had to point it out to him.”

“Oh, I see.” Katherine pondered a while, then turned to Sibyl. “Can we do just one more test? Please. Just one?”

Sibyl sighed and set down her magazine. “Fine.”

Katherine scampered into the other room. After much banging around, she returned wearing her black hoodie, unzipped and with the hood up.

“Just to make sure,” she said, “you can still see my aura when I do this.” She tucked her hands into her sleeves, turned around, and held her arms out like wings. None skin was visible.

“I can.”

“And it’s centered on me, right?”

“That’s right.”

Katherine disappeared around the door. Everyone could hear her moving. Then her hooded head popped into view. Beneath it, she stuck out her arm with the sleeve still tucked over her hand, giving the impression she was handless.

“Before we start…” She popped her head out of view, “you can still see my aura when I hold my arm out like this.” Her arm waved.

Sibyl sighed with exasperation. “Yes, I can still see your aura.”

A long pause. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“You’re certain?” She waved her handless sleeve about.

“Yes. Get on with it.”

“Okay. I just wanted to make sure…”

Slowly, the sleeve of the hoodie pulled back. Instead of her arm, what appeared was the end of a wooden coat hanger.

“…Because I’m not actually in view at all.”

Sibyl stiffened. Her breath caught. Christof snapped his head up from his work to look at her. She turned to look around. Her petrified gaze skated up and down, as though the walls and ceiling were covered in bugs.

Katherine, unaware of Sibyl’s reaction, continued. “You’re still able to see my aura, right?”

With no response, her head popped back into view. Her huge smile faded when she saw Sibyl.

“Sibyl?” asked Christof. “Your power… what are you experiencing?”

“Everybody.”

“What?”

She stood and backed against the wall. “I can see everybody in the hotel.”

Katherine’s smile returned. “You did it. You can see through walls. You just had to know you could. All I did was—”

“Shut up!” snapped Sibyl. “Make it go away. There are too many of them.”‘

Katherine’s face blanched. “I thought… I didn’t…”

Sakhr spoke. “Christof, what are you seeing?”

“It’s like her power just sprouted. It looks different now. Bigger. And Katherine’s power… it’s like it’s simmering. I think their powers interacted somehow.”

“Change it back,” Sibyl snapped. “I don’t want this.”

Sakhr turned to her. “Calm down, Sibyl.”

“No. I won’t. Her silly questions caused this. How am I supposed to sleep? How am I supposed to block them out?”

“Relax. You’re just startled.”

“No. Stop talking. I…” Lost for words, Sibyl raced from the room. The slam of an adjoining door marked her exit.

Katherine was on the verge of tears.

Josephine rushed to hug her. “It’s okay,”

“I’m sorry. I thought she would be happy.”

“She will be, honey. She will be. Sibyl has a tiny comfort zone. It’s very small, and very comfortable. She just needs time.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. The tears began to flow.

“You have nothing to be sorry about,” Sakhr said. “That was amazing. I think we’re a step closer to figuring out what you can do.”

16. Scribbling

2022, March 16th
Collapse – 27 years

“And how far away can you sense them?” Katherine asked.

Sibyl shrugged. “A hundred meters, maybe more. They don’t disappear. I just don’t notice them anymore, if that makes sense.”

“I think so.” Katherine scribbled in her notebook. “What about if they’re mad or something? Can you sense stronger emotions from farther away?”

“Now that you mention it.” Sibyl leaned back. “Once, we were at a local harvest festival in France. This was just before we met Josephine. I sensed fear far away in an alley. When we passed by, a few brutes were robbing someone, but I’d only sensed the fear at first. It wasn’t until we were closer that I sensed the others. So I guess I can. I never put much thought into it.”

“Really?” asked Katherine. “You’ve never tested that? You never tested the range limit of your own power?”

Sibyl shrugged. “My power has always been good enough for me.”

Katherine’s face lit. “Would you let me test it for you?”

“I… suppose so.”

Josephine smiled at this exchange. Ever since they’d picked Katherine up from near the school, her reclusive attitude had turned inside out. During the car ride, she barraged Alexander and Josephine with questions. What’s it like to take memories? Can you make people forget anything? Can you make them remember? What’s it like to read minds? Why do you need eye contact? Can you read minds through glasses? Foggy glasses? Stained glasses? Mirrors? One way mirrors?

She and Alexander answered as best they could, but many answers ended up being, “I don’t know.”

The coven had rented a row of connected suites at a nearby Hilton. Sibyl was waiting in the presidential suite when they arrived. Katherine bombarded her with a fresh round of questions, only this time she had her notebook. She was like a pressure cooker of excitement; Josephine wondered if she might explode.

“What about walls?” she asked Sibyl. “Can you see through walls?”

Sibyl found the idea amusing. “No. No, I can’t see through walls.”

Katherine furrowed her brow. “Why not? Didn’t you tell me earlier that you once sensed someone sneaking up on you when they thought you were asleep?”

“Yes?”

“Weren’t your eyes closed? Didn’t you see their aura through your eyelids? And wait! You said you could see auras from behind.”

“Well…” Sibyl’s fumbled for words. “I don’t really see them. I sense them.”

“Then how come you can’t sense through walls?”

“I’m… I just can’t”

“Can you see my aura right now?”

“Yes.”

“My whole aura?”

“Yes.”

“But you can only see my top half. The rest of me is under the table. What if I lowered? When would you stop sensing my aura?”

“When you’re out of view.”

“But what’s that mean? When I’m completely out of view? So if you could see a few hairs on my head, you could see my aura?”

Sibyl didn’t have an answer.

Alexander laughed. “She’s got you there, Sibyl.” He helped himself to a tiny bottle from the suite’s mini fridge. “I think I might have an idea what her witch power is.”

“What?” asked Katherine.

“A never-ending well of questions.”

He said it with a smile, but Katherine’s energy receded. “I’m not annoying any of you, am I?”

“No.” Alexander sat on the bed next to Josephine. “On the contrary. I find this endlessly amusing.”

“Oh, okay.” Her smile bounced back. She resumed scribbling notes.

Josephine marveled at how different this girl was. When they’d first seen her at the airport, she was pitiful—a frumpy child no one would look twice at. Now with her face alight, she was actually kind of cute, if only she took care of herself more, and wore something other than that hoody. Now that she’d taken it off, her figure wasn’t too bad. Sure, she had a bit of weight in her thighs, but with only a few pounds less, she might be curvaceous, maybe even attractive.

That school was poisonous for her. The bullying and the poor home life had been slowly transforming her into something ugly and forgotten. It warmed Josephine’s heart knowing that they were going to be her heroes. Now Katherine would become the person she deserved to be.

Katherine looked up from her notes. “What about clothes? Clothes don’t stop you from seeing auras, right?”

“Right.”

“But what if I put my hoodie on and turned away from you? You wouldn’t see any of my skin, but you’d still be able to see my aura, right?”

“I…”

“Can we try it? Then can we try the table thing?”

“I suppose—”

A knock interrupted them.

“I guess it will have to wait.” Sibyl stood quickly. She couldn’t reach the door soon enough.

Sakhr, Anton, and Christof entered. Each carried supplies and groceries.

“Ah,” said Sakhr. “I see our guest has already arrived.”

Katherine gave a tiny wave and tried to smile. She was back in her shell. Josephine couldn’t blame her. Sakhr had a severe, paternal aura about him. It had accumulated over centuries of living among mortals. It gave others the impression of being near royalty.

After dropping his bags, he bowed majestically. “It is my pleasure to meet you. Katherine; yes?”

Katherine nodded.

“My name is Sakhr, and I am the father of this coven. I am pleased to welcome you to our group.” He held out his hand.

Eyes wide and body tense, Katherine took his hand. “Hello,” she said, then nearly yelped when he planted a kiss on her knuckle.

Once he let it go, she cradled her hand as though it had become foreign to her. Sakhr continued. “Allow me to introduce you to Christof Schuster. He is the man who spotted you.”

Christof greeted her with a casual smile. Katherine responded with less reserve. Unlike Sakhr, he kept a younger and more approachable body. It made him less intimidating.

“And here is Anton Formenko,” Sakhr continued.

Anton nodded.

“Hey,” said Katherine. “You’re that guy from the airport. The guard without a uniform.”

“Yes.”

“What were you doing?”

“I was finding out where you and your father lived.”

“You were using powers on him, weren’t you?”

Anton nodded.

“What’s your power?”

“It is Authority. When I give orders, others feel they must obey.”

Katherine stared at him in awe. Josephine could sense questions forming inside her head.

“Wow,” she said. “Is there any limit to it?”

“Limit?”

“Could you, and I’m not saying you should, but could you order someone to shoot themselves?”

Anton chuckled. “No. It is not absolute. They have their will. They only see me as someone they should obey. Not even a peasant would listen to a king if he tells him to kill himself.”

“Could you order someone to count all the blades of grass in a field?”

“They might start. I don’t think they’d finish. Reason would find them. Think of it this way. A law officer can order you to do a lot, because you fear them. You respect them. You act without thinking, but still within reason. That is my power, only stronger. It works better if they see me as an authority. That is why I told your father I worked for the airport.”

Katherine scribbled furiously in her notebook. She looked up when she finished. “May I see it?”

Anton looked around, like a magician looking for a suitable volunteer. He settled on Katherine. “Stand on your chair.” Beneath his words was a tone Josephine had heard many times. Even after more than a century, the small fight-or-flight part of her brain hiccuped. Something automatic tried to kick in.

Katherine, however, didn’t hesitate. She was on her chair instantly.

“Did you try to disobey?” asked Anton.

“I… wow. No. I didn’t. I feel like I could have. Just…” She laughed. “Try it again.”

“Try to resist this.” Once again, in that strange voice, Anton said, “Take off your clothes.”

Katherine’s eyes widened. Her body went rigid. Her hand drifted to the sleeve of her T-shirt and hesitated.

“Do it,” Anton said.

Trembling, she pulled the sleeve over her arm.

Josephine looked around. Everyone watched. Alexander was smirking.

“Stop it,” Josephine said.

Anton did nothing.

“Anton. I said stop it.”

Sakhr spoke. “Anton, enough.”

Anton relented. “Stop undressing and sit.”

Relieved, Katherine dropped into her seat.

“I hope I did not scare you. You see though that you would have done so. Not easy to resist.”

Katherine nodded. Her body still quaked a little. “I see. Couldn’t you… I don’t know… have shown me on one of them?” She looked at the coven.

Anton shook his head. “I wish I could. If my power still worked on them, I’d be running this coven.”

Sakhr gave a dry laugh at that.

“No. People hear my power… they build tolerance. Their minds learn it’s a trick.”

Katherine nodded in understanding. “So you won’t be able to do that again?”

“Don’t worry. I won’t. Just for demonstration.”

Katherine nodded. Her eyes drifted to Sakhr. “May I know what your power is?”

“You may. Although my power is better demonstrated than explained. Shall I?” He sat and extended his hands across the table toward her.

She took them.

Josephine circled and got ready to grab Sakhr if necessary.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“Yes?”

Then it did happen. Sakhr jolted upright. He would have fallen out of his chair if Josephine hadn’t caught him. Alarmed, he looked about. His frantic gaze fell on Katherine, who observed him calmly. He stared in disbelief, then slapped his hands to his chest and felt himself over. It’s when his hands fell to his crotch that his panic took over. A wordless noise escaped his lips. It turned to a yell, and then a scream.

Alexander burst out laughing. The others chuckled. Josephine rested a calming hand on Sakhr’s shoulder. To an outside observer, one might suspect that something terrible happened that Sakhr hadn’t expected. To Josephine and the others, they’d seen this panic many times over.

Sakhr and Katherine had switched bodies, and now Katherine was discovering what it felt like to have male genitalia.

From within Katherine’s body, Sakhr held out a hand. “Here,” he said in a calm female voice.

Katherine was too busy panicking, so Sakhr reached and touched her arm. Instantly, the switch was undone.

Sakhr, back in his own body, calmly retook his seat. He stated the obvious. “I can switch bodies with others.”

Katherine was still recovering from her hyperventilation. Involuntarily, her hand strayed between her legs, just to make sure. Even Josephine grinned at that.

“Is it permanent?” Katherine asked.

“It is.”

“What happens if your body dies while you’re in somebody else?”

“Then it dies, and the other person dies with it.”

Katherine pondered this. All panic was gone. Curiosity was back.

Finally, “How old are you? Chronologically?”

Josephine was impressed. Katherine had skipped past the question of whether he was in his original body, and jumped straight to the logical conclusion: immortality.

Sakhr grinned like a smug cat. “For my first switch, I left my slaver to build the pyramids in my stead.”

That wasn’t entirely true, but Sakhr told it that way for effect. He was born as a slave in Egypt. However, he later admitted that he’d actually been a servant to an overweight politician, and that he was born about five centuries after the pyramids were constructed, but everyone agreed that Sakhr’s pyramid version was punchier.

“Wow,” said Katherine. “What if… How do you…” She giggled. “I have so many questions I don’t know what to ask first.”

“You have all the time in the world to ask them.”

Katherine chewed her lip a moment. “When do I get to know what my power is?”

The others didn’t respond.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing’s wrong,” said Sakhr. “We’re just not sure yet.”

“How did the rest of you learn your powers? Is it through experimentation?”

“Normally I tell them,” Christof said. “When I look at people, I see these things in my head, like living blocks of clay, or physical metaphors. Somehow, I always know what they mean, like how you know things in a dream.”

“But not with me?”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can tell you are a witch, I’m just not sure what your power does.”

“Can you tell anything?”

“I think… I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like it can do anything.”

Katherine’s smile faded. “You mean I can’t do anything special?”

“Maybe not now, but it’s not nothing. I can see it… wriggling. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

“Was it doing that at the airport?” Sakhr asked.

“No. At least I don’t think so.”

“But it’s going to change?” Katherine asked.

“Don’t worry, Katherine,” said Sakhr. “We will figure out what you can do. If it can be unlocked, we will.”

“And if it can’t?” Katherine’s expression was pleading, like a child asking if their parents were going to be okay. Josephine wanted to hug her.

“It will,” Sakhr said. “Whether it takes days or centuries, we won’t give up.”

“Centuries? How could we take centuries to…” Her eyes widened. Her apprehension was forgotten. “I get it. Body switching. Right? You’ve been keeping the others alive. You switch with one of them, then you switch to a stranger’s body, and then back to your own. That puts you back in your own body, and leaves one of you switched with the stranger. That’s it, isn’t it?”

“Very good, Katherine,” Sakhr said.

“Are you all really old?”

“Some of us are older than others, but yes, everyone here is at least a century old.”

“Are you going to do that for me one day?”

“If you choose to join our coven, yes.”

“I’ll join!”

“Just like that?”

Katherine nodded violently.

“We travel, Katherine. To avoid detection. You would be leaving your old life behind. Your education. Your father…”

Katherine paused. This might be the first time since Josephine had introduced herself that Katherine had thought of home. For Josephine, joining had been a simple choice. Her family had been dead. The Russians had executed them when they invaded in 1870. They had let her live, as though they’d forgotten she was there. She only understood why years later after Christof explained her power.

Katherine nodded slowly. “I still want to do it. I hate my life here. I want to leave. I can finish learning on my own. I just… I should call my dad. He’s probably worried about me right now. Can I see him one last time?”

Sakhr almost laughed. “We just arrived yesterday. I don’t plan on leaving for at least a week. Take time, Katherine. Make sure this is what you want to do.”

The, “take your time” speech was comforting. He had told it to Josephine too. She always had appreciated it, even if she’d already made up her mind in the first minute.

Though sometimes she wondered what he’d do if a new witch said no. She knew Sakhr too well now. He wasn’t someone who would take no for an answer. Perhaps this choice—this time—was just a gentle illusion. It never came up for Josephine. And it clearly won’t come up here either.

Katherine would become the seventh witch in the coven.

15. Sketching

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.

She did.

“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.

“Katherine?”

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.”

“What?”

“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.”

“What?”

“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?”

Pause. “Okay?”

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.”

What?”

“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.

“Who?”

“Those girls,” Josephine pointed to the pack. “They just called to you.”

“They did?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Like what?”

“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?”

“Actually, yes.”

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?”

“Yes.”

“Then am I thinking?”

“Polkadot elephants.”

Katherine startled, but only for a moment. “And now?”

“Oklahoma.”

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.

12. The Girl

2022, March 14th
Collapse – 27 years

“How about them?” asked Alexander.

Anton craned to look down the airport terminal in the direction Alexander indicated. Two women were seated together, chatting and giggling as they simultaneously listened to a song by sharing a pair of earbuds.

Anton’s face scrunched. “Why you always point out child women.”

“You’d rather have someone your own age?”

Anton shrugged. “I’d rather have real woman, older is wiser. She’s a woman who knows her way around the bed.”

“A prostitute knows her way around the bed. If you want, I know just the girl for you in California. Real old. Plenty of experience.” He grinned at Anton, which didn’t stop until Anton finally acknowledged him with a grunt.

Josephine overheard their conversation. She’d grown adept at tuning them out over the past hundred years, but never quite adept enough that her skin didn’t crawl. Wherever they all went, whether to seedy back alley bars, or a consulate dinner at parliament, those two would sit together and play “Who’d you rather” while leering down woman, and they frequently took their game too far.

The coven had passed through Saudi Arabia about seventy years ago. At the time. Anton had a body nearly identical to the one he had now, a Ukrainian man to match his Ukrainian accent, with a body straight out of an action movie. Alexander had been middle eastern to fit their surroundings.

The coven were guests in the house of Raheem Al-Nader, an oil baron. Josephine and Sibyl were kept separate from the men most of the trip, but afterward, Sibyl discovered something Alex and Anton had done. They’d gotten close with some burka-covered servants who were distant nieces of the host, and had slept with them later that night. Anton had to use his Authority to break through the usual barrier of Middle eastern modesty.

“It was a like a bet,” Sibyl had heard them boast. “What would you see once you lifted the veil?”

“Not really a gamble for you,” Anton had said. “You see their minds.”

“There is a world of difference between what a woman thinks they look like, and what they actually do.”

The coven moved on days later. Josephine checked back to see what became of those women. They were publicly flogged. Alexander must have known. He showed no reaction when Josephine accused him later.

“Now there are women you should be looking for.” Anton pointed Alexander toward a group of four thirty-somethings gathered at a restaurant table inside the airport.

“Cougars. I can see their wrinkled asses from here.”

Anton sighed. “So? Who cares? The fruit has spoiled a little. It is when the sugar is sweetest. And they work harder for you. They know they must earn your attention.”

Josephine had heard enough of their drivel. She collected her suitcase and headed off in search of Sibyl.

“Are we offending your sensibilities?” asked Alexander.

“Oh by all means,” she muttered. “don’t let me intrude.” She didn’t look at Alex when she spoke. Even accidental eye contact was enough for him.

“I would welcome the intrusion,” he said. “In fact, why don’t you share your thoughts on the matter.” His gaze was steady, daring her to look.

Responding further would just be rising to his goading. “Ignore them,” Sibyl would say, “He wants you to react. I see it in his glow.”

Anton ignored them both as his gaze prowled the terminal. Unlike Alexander, he at least had the decency not to include fellow witches in their juvenile games. Josephine glanced toward Sakhr and Christof. As the two oldest witches of the coven, and the ones who’d brought them all together, they sometimes acted as parents, but both were absorbed in books without a thought to spare for squabbling children.

Josephine strolled away without another word. Alexander chuckled in her wake.

Sibyl was in line at a magazine shop. She had an armload of gossip magazines and a horseshoe-shaped pillow to help her get through the coming flight. Hidden between the magazines and her bosom were several boxes of chocolate and candy she’d pilfered from the stand beside the cash register. She’d long ago internalized that the bodies she occupied were disposable. Every ten years or so, she’d take the body of a thin, attractive woman, and she’d indulge. Thighs would thicken. Breasts would grow. She’d turn a sculpted work of art into cellulite and loose jowls. Then Sakhr would get her a new body. Of all the members in the coven, her bodies had the quickest turnover rate. Josephine kept her opinions about that to herself. Sibyl was the closest thing she had to a friend in the coven.

As Josephine approached, Sibyl glanced at her and smiled sympathetically. Josephine’s aura would be spelling out her argument with Alexander.

“Tell me we have separate seats on the plane,” Josephine said. She meant separate from Alex and Anton.

“I think so.” Sibyl juggled all her items to one arm and fetched the plane tickets from her purse. “We’re in the other aisle, by the windows.”

Josephine’s mood did not lift. The entire coven was in first class. They never flew anything else, but that would put Josephine close enough to hear the idiots harassing the flight attendants. It was a five hour flight across the country. Neither Alexander nor Anton could behave themselves that long. Would they actually convince a stewardess into a Bathroom Trip using their wit and guile? Or would they cheat? Alex might read minds for hints on how to seduce the women. Anton might convince them to stay and talk, or even tell the girls that they found Anton attractive. The flight attendants weren’t witches. That made them fair game.

It was how most of the coven saw other people. Even Josephine was guilty of that. When you’re immortal, it’s hard to see others as equals. Their transient lives are only there to supplement your own.

Sibyl might actually be the best of them, probably because of her empathy. Even though she wrecked other people’s carefully toned bodies, she always targeted selfish sorority types. It least it was some kind of morality.

“You know what would be crazy, Sib? What if we changed our flight?”

“What do you mean?” Sibyl asked. “You want to stay in Boston?”

“No no, I mean go somewhere else. Look.” She pointed to a nearby gate. “Detroit. …okay, that’s a bad example, but there. Look. Dallas. What if we went to Dallas? It’s warmer there.”

“But Sakhr doesn’t want to go to Dallas.”

“I know.”

“So why would he go there?”

Josephine waited for Sibyl to figure it out.

And she did. “No, Jose. Please, don’t.” Sibyl looked at her with dismay. “We can’t leave them. Don’t talk about that. Alex will find out.”

“Alex already knows. I think he’d prefer we left.”

“But we can’t. You know we can’t.”

“But let’s do it anyway. You know how long it would take them to find us? When he does, you know he’d let us right back in.”

“He doesn’t want us to leave.”

“We don’t need his permission.”

“Please stop, Jose. I don’t want to talk about this.”

“It’s fine if you don’t want to go…”

This caused Sibyl to nearly drop her items as she grabbed Josephine’s arm. “You promised me you wouldn’t leave me with them.”

“I’m only joking.”

“You’re half joking. I can see it. If Sakhr finds out you’ve been talking about this…”

“Why would he?”

“Alex might tell him.”

“Alex thinks about leaving all the time himself.”

“But he doesn’t tell Sakhr that, but he would tell him if you were.”

“Honestly, what’s Sakhr going to do about it? Hold us at gunpoint?”

“You know what he’d do.”

“It’s an empty threat. We’re too important to him.”

Sibyl started to respond, then caught herself. “Stop talking,” she said.

Josephine glanced over Sibyl’s shoulder.

Alex was approaching. “Ladies.”

“What do you want?” Josephine kept her eyes down.

Alexander grinned. “Relax. Sakhr wants us.”

“We’ll be there in a minute.”

“He wants us now.”

“Then he can—”

“Christof found one.”

Her brain stumbled. Even Sibyl dropped her guard and turned.

“What? Who?”

“Come and find out.”

When they got back, Sakhr and Christof were standing together by an airport pillar. Their reading books were away, and they stared across the terminal at a pair sitting by a full length window wall—a small man and a girl. The man looked worn and tired. Beneath a denim jacket, his potbelly pushed his undershirt over his belt, but the rest of him was scrawny, as though his fat had drained from his limbs and pooled in his abdomen. He was talking with Anton.

The girl was slouched in a chair beside the man. Probably his daughter. She paid no attention, just listened to whatever noise her massive headphones were pumping into her ears. They must close out the world for her

“Which one is it?” Josephine asked.

Sakhr nodded toward them. “The girl.”

“She walked right past me,” Christof added. “I almost missed her.”

Alexander grunted in disinterest. It annoyed Josephine, but she understood why he had. The girl was plain. She had thick plastic lenses and black hair pulled back in an unkempt pony tail. She wore a hoodie that hid her body well, but she’d obviously inherited her father’s dumpiness.

Josephine didn’t care. Looks lasted only as long as your current body, and the idea of having another girl in the coven was too enticing.

“Not much to look at,” said Alexander. “What’s her power?”

“I’m not sure,” said Christof.

Startled, everyone turned to him.

He sensed it. “I can read her just fine. I just don’t know what I’m seeing. She’s…” He winced as though staring into a sunset. “…Nothing? No. That’s not right. There’s something there, it just doesn’t look like it does anything.” He shook his head.

“Maybe she’s a dud,” Alex said. “A useless power. You two have seen them before, right?”

“Not for a long time,” said Sakhr.

“She’s got something,” Christof added. “If she’s got a dud, it’s a strange dud.”

Sibyl turned to the others. “What is Anton saying to them?”

Sakhr answered. “I told him to find out where they live.”

“He’s making them nervous.”

“He’s pretending to be security,” Alex replied. “Security makes everyone nervous.”

Anton finished and returned to the others. The girl glanced at him as he left.

“They’re from a town near Milwaukee, Wisconsin.” He handed over a sheet of paper with an address written on it. “Father had dental conference in Florida.”

Alex grinned. “He took his kid to a dentistry conference?”

“Orthodontics, yes. No mother. He couldn’t leave daughter home alone. Man is Allen Faulk. Daughter is Katherine Faulk. I know nothing else on her. She did not want to talk. I did not push.”

“Wise.” Sakhr nodded. “Anton. Alex. Get our flights changed.” He faced everyone else. “It looks like we’re not done with cold weather yet.”