Her joints ached as she eased her way down the stairs, giving her a second moment of annoyed realization for the day. The first happened just minutes before. The flutter in her belly, a blend of anticipation and angst, made her sleep fitful through the night, turned the glaring red numbers on her nightstand into the enemy. She had determined to rise early, and was quite sure she did so when she opened her eyes to find the demon clock gloating. She had fallen back asleep, the only true sleep she got all night, right when she needed to be awake.
As she placed her foot on the last step, her knee made a pop in protest. It was the result of an old injury, one she foolishly decided to treat herself in her younger days. Physical therapy was just a racket, after all, where pseudo doctors charged exorbitant fees to tell their patients to walk. What kind of moron couldn’t figure out how to walk? It annoyed her every single day that she couldn’t go back and smack her younger self upside the head. Maybe if she had just paid to learn the fancy, healing kind of walk, she wouldn’t have to scramble to catch herself at the bottom of the stairs every morning when the knee decided to simply not work.
She shifted her weight to the other foot and closed her eyes, flexing the leg with the bum knee until a louder, far more painful pop could be heard. The pain was bearable. The idea of having to crawl to the bathroom and pull herself up to reach the cupboard where she kept the knee brace was not. Not today. She could not be down for the count today. With her still shut and her lips murmuring a hopeful mantra, she placed her foot back on the floor and gingerly tested her weight.
Relief washed over her and she shook her head. Even just a few years ago, this wouldn’t be such a grand production. Getting morning coffee would have been simply that and nothing more. She would have gotten up, walked down the stairs without having to grip the handrail for dear life, and made a cup of joe.
She wasn’t young anymore.
She wasn’t all that old, either; certainly not as old as she hoped to be one day. But age is a funny thing. As Marma had told her, it’s not about years, it’s about perception. Experience. And…
She stopped, her hand reaching into the cupboard to grope for her favorite mug. What was the other thing? Perception, experience…and…
Dammit. She couldn’t get a decent night of sleep, her bum knee was beyond hope, and her memory was going. She’d have to try and remember to tell Marma the new symptom later.
She poured the dregs she’d left in the pot the day before and set a fresh batch of coffee to brew. She briefly considered microwaving the old coffee, but decided that if she was in a desert and came upon a watering fountain, she wouldn’t let it run in the hopes of it getting colder. She chugged the first cup right there in the kitchen, hoping the little caffeines would speed to her brain and wake everything up. She needed to be awake and with it when Marma arrived.
She placed her empty mug next to the coffee pot to wait for a refill, then shuffled into her den to wake her computer from sleep mode. It was off. There must have been updates. She sighed heavily, because of course there would be another annoyance on such a tense morning, and hit the power button. While it loaded she tapped her fingers on the desk, wondering if she should take her shower now, or if she could push it to a bit later. Marma didn’t say what time she’d be there, after all.
On the other hand, it had been a full seven and a half hours since she had checked her Facebook feed. Someone could have been kidnapped. Or had a middle of the night existential crisis. Or just stirred shit up. Any of those things needed immediate attention. A shower could wait.
The coffee pot beat the computer in the performance race and a beep of completion sounded from the kitchen. She hoisted herself out of the computer chair with a bit more energy now that the front line of caffeine soldiers had been deployed, and the knee hardly protested at all. She poured herself a new coffee and flexed her leg again. No, there was no pain.
As it had since she’d contacted Marma, the little voice of doubt started chiding her again.
“See?” it said, picking up the script right where she had shut it down some time around three a.m. “We don’t need it.”
“I do need it,” she muttered to herself, trying to quiet Doubt once and for all. “If I don’t do this now, it’ll be too late.”
There was a slight swish, an icy little breeze that tingled up her spine and set her teeth to chatter in fear. Her hand stopped dumping too much sugar into the fresh coffee and she froze, her feet rooted in place and her heart pounding painfully.
“I’m glad you’re an early riser.” The alarmingly sweet voice of Marma always terrified her. It had since the beginning. It was kind, like the voice she remembered coming out of her grandmother when she was a child. And yet, there was always a dark note. It was threatening in its ability to so completely soothe, as if Marma was casting one of her spells every time she opened her mouth.
Perhaps she was.
Marma slipped her bony hand over the woman’s shoulder and gave a little squeeze.
She turned then, her trance broken. “Marma! I’m so sorry. I didn’t think you’d be here this early and I didn’t even get to shower yet. Would you like some coffee? I’ll get you a cup. How do you like it? Sugar? No, black. I’m guessing you’re the type to take it…”
“Hush,” Marma commanded.
She stopped speaking instantly, embarrassed that once again she had no control over her mouth when Marma came around.
Marma slipped her hand up the woman’s jowly neck and curled her palm around the soft cheek. “There is no need to be this nervous,” Marma said, watching the woman’s eyes dilate. A thrill shot through Marma. Marma could do anything she wanted in this moment and the woman would not only obey, but would welcome even the most outlandish requests. “We are just turning the clock back, after all,” Marma said in her syrupy tone.
“Yes, Marma,” the woman agreed quickly. “Should we begin?”
Marma chuckled. “You are too impatient. But, I like that. I like my clients to be eager. It is your life. You should be eager to make it better.” Marma released the woman’s cheek, and the trance was broken. Marma watched this process with interest as well. Marma saw the moment the woman’s eyes focused again, the blood rushing back to the cheeks, the brow lowering slightly in confusion. Marma liked that, too.
She blinked quickly, her mind racing back from wherever it had just been. Marma was there, in all her terrifying glory. How had that happened? When had that happened? Did she let Marma in? Was there even a knock? She didn’t remember one. But wasn’t that the whole point? Wasn’t that the reason Marma was going to make her young again? She was losing things, losing herself, growing older and sorer and forgetful and…
“Stir your coffee,” Marma commanded, interrupting the woman’s racing thoughts. Marma watched with an inner glee as the woman obediently complied in spite of her obvious confusion. “Sip your coffee.” Marma smiled as the woman burned her mouth on a swig of the piping hot brew. Marma had to hold herself back from commanding the woman to take another sip. Marma could make the woman do anything. It was tempting to play some more.
Focus, Marma insisted of herself. There must be focus.
“It’s time,” Marma pronounced.
She swallowed the burning coffee, tears in her eyes, and turned to Marma. “I forgot what you said about age. It’s perception, experience, and…” Her voice trailed off, waiting for Marma’s response.
“And self control,” Marma said, guiding the woman into the other room. Marma heard a noise from upstairs, her mood quickly changing. “Who is here?”
She glanced up the stairs as they passed. “My family,” she admitted.
“I told you to be here alone,” Marma hissed, her fingernails digging into the woman’s soft flesh.
The little voice of warning sounded in her brain. It warned her to run, to call out, to do anything to get away from Marma. She did not listen. “My sister couldn’t take the kids after all, and my husband’s schedule got changed at the last minute.”
Marma knew then that there were outside influences trying to intervene. It had happened before. In most cases, Marma easily won. Instead of scaring Marma, it gave her an odd sense of power. For whatever reason, this pathetic woman held court with forces she probably never even realized were around her. It gave the morning a challenging twist, and Marma had to stop herself from laughing or rushing. Marma could not afford to do either. A laugh would do as the forces planned. The husband would wake. Perhaps a child. Either would cause the interference that would ruin it all.
Yet Marma couldn’t rush. Things had to be done in a certain order, at a set pace. One small change would make all the difference. Marma smiled an eerily familiar smile. “Then we’ll just have to be quiet,” Marma soothed. Marma placed a hand back on the woman’s face and watched the pupils go impossibly large. Marma never liked to control them for long. It made the process feel hollow if they weren’t completely willing on their own. However, sometimes control was unavoidable. This process had to happen, it had to happen today, and if a little personal elation was lost in the deal, so be it.
When Marma’s hand was on her cheek again, she suddenly wanted to lay on the couch. And so she did. She was vaguely aware of Marma’s hand caressing her cheek right before the urge to lift her shirt was too strong to ignore. She heard Marma begin to mumble words she didn’t understand, but since Marma had already explained the ritual, she knew to expect them. She felt detached as she became aware of a pain in her chest growing heavier and hotter, as if she was watching it happen to someone else. Her mind began to argue with itself.
“I told you we shouldn’t do this!” said the voice of warning.
“But this will make us young again,” she said as she became aware of Marma’s fingernail digging deeper into her breast.
“No it won’t, you fool! It’ll make her young again!”
She watched the scene below, above, around, a fish-eyed lens focusing on Marma from somewhere and everywhere. Indeed, the little voice of warning that had been screaming at her all night seemed to be right. The once soothing Marma had changed, her incantations revealing the inner hag.
And yet, she could do nothing about it.
In fact, even as she had the most important realization of the morning, she found she didn’t even want to do anything about it. She wanted whatever was going to happen to happen. She wanted Marma to receive the gift she sought, no matter the personal consequence to herself. She was a sacrifice. She knew it then, and instead of being frightening, she welcomed it. She was going to watch her own life bleed into Marma, and she felt a nearly euphoric sense of accomplishment and pride.
Marma placed the long fingernail of her other index finger into the hole the first one made in the soft breast. She watched with fascination, knowing full well what was about to happen. Perhaps Marma was letting her know. Perhaps she had known all along. Once the proper words were spoken, Marma would begin to pull. The fingernails would move in opposite directions until the tear in the skin was large enough for more fingers to fit inside. There would be a frenzied heightening of excitement from Marma as she pulled and ripped until she could fit her face in cavity.
She knew this. She knew everything that was coming. And she didn’t care. And the little voice screamed itself hoarse, and she knew damn well it was right. And she could not find it in herself to care or fight or do anything but accept the future with open arms.
Marma could feel the heart so close under her fingertips now. As it always did at this point in the ritual, Marma’s own heart began to pick up the pace. It called to the new sacrifice, beckoned to join with it and become something so much more. When Marma was younger, before the years of experience under her belt, this was the point that would have been her undoing. Like a teenage boy on his first intimate journey, Marma had frequently gone too fast, rushed ahead, ended the experience too soon in her excitement, rendering the whole thing pointless. How many had Marma lost that way?
Ah, but that was when Marma was young. Marma was no longer young. This was no longer a practice, as it had been all those years ago. This was necessary for Marma’s survival, and that knowledge kept Marma in check. Patience. Marma had to remember patience. Words fell from her lips, ancient and powerful, spoken in exact time with the progress of Marma’s fingers into the flesh of the sacrifice.
The body on the couch twitched and Marma paused the incantations to soothe. It always annoyed Marma that a sacrifice had to be calmed from time to time. “You’re doing well,” Marma promised the whimpering woman. “In a few minutes, it will be over, and you will be young again,” came the lie.
She knew it was a lie. Her head nodded anyway. The cold from the tears dampening the hair by her ears let her know she had been crying. Of course she had. Her chest was being ripped open. Her mind processed these things logically. Her mouth opened and a laugh came out. All of her signals were muddled, confused. And when Marma’s lips spread into a smile, the woman on the couch, knowing her fate full well by this time, laughed louder with an honest glee that shut the internal warning voice up for good.
“Quiet,” Marma commanded.
“Move your hands,” Marma snapped.
She became aware that her hands were trying to cover the now gaping wound. She didn’t mean for them to do any such thing. She didn’t mean to fight at all. She tried to move her hands, to do as Marma wished. She was there only for that singular purpose, wasn’t she?
“I said move them,” Marma ordered again, suddenly feeling a prickle of apprehension.
“I’m trying,” she insisted.
Indeed, she was. Marma watched a struggle taking place in front of her. The woman, she wanted to sacrifice herself. She wanted to give her life over to Marma. Of that, Marma was certain. There was a disappointed panic in the woman’s eyes that matched the wave Marma felt rolling through her own body. “Fight for me,” Marma hissed.
She tried. Oh, how she tried! Her hands wouldn’t obey. She tried to make them move to her side. They moved forward. She tried to fight her fingers from closing around Marma’s hands. They refused to listen. She truly, deeply, honestly did not want to pry Marma’s fingers from her chest. “I’m not doing this,” she whispered through fresh tears. “Finish it!”
Marma could not.
It was ruined.
If Marma kept fighting, the most that would happen would be that the woman before her would die. Though Marma didn’t have compassion, there was hope. This time the sacrifice was unsuccessful. But as Marma looked into the woman’s disappointed stare, it was clear that maybe there would be a next time.
“There will not.”
The voice sent and icy chill up Marma’s spine. Marma whipped around. A small boy stood at the base of the stairs, his eyes boring through Marma and making her shrink inside herself.
“You!” Marma hissed.
The boy’s lips twitched. He wasn’t scared. He knew this enemy and he would win. He took a step forward, doubting that he’d have to prove himself to her yet again but fully prepared in case his old adversary had grown foolish in her advanced age.
Marma’s head began to ring. A piercing light flashed through Marma’s brain and the hag withdrew her bloodied hands from the sacrifice to grab her hair, as if Marma could pull the agony away. The boy advanced. The pain increased, and a deafening squeal began to blot out all thought. Marma felt the hand of the sacrifice grip her elbow. Marma was vaguely aware of the woman’s pleas, knew the willing victim still begged Marma for completion. There was nothing Marma could do.
To their shared grief and anguish, there was simply nothing Marma could do.
Wrenching away, Marma moved as far away from the couch as the boy would allow. Marma would have left if he released her. But he wouldn’t do that, not until he was ready. Marma would be forced to watch her failure and his success. The pain and light and noise subsided to a dull throbbing hum and Marma suddenly felt every single one of her hundreds of years weighing down upon her. Marma turned her bleary eyes to the couch.
The boy approached the sacrifice. He shook his head at her tear-streaked face. He was disappointed in her, but only as a residual symptom of his current form. He ran a hand down her cheek and saw the anguish in her eyes change to hope once again. For her, there was hope. For her, there was still a promise to be useful.
Marma watched as the boy so easily turned the woman. Bitter rage roiled in her belly. “How?” Marma croaked through her anger and pain.
The boy turned his head toward Marma and leveled his unflinching stare at her. “I have always been better than you,” he stated with cold accuracy. “Now leave.”
“She’s mine!” Marma shouted in her desperation. “Do you know how long I groomed her? How difficult it is to get one these days? Look at you! You’re young again. You’ve got ages to find one and…”
The word held every possible threat, and Marma knew none of them were hollow. Marma allowed herself the torture of one last look at the open breast of the sacrifice, so willing, so ready, so…
“I said leave.” It was his last warning and they both knew it. In fairness, Marma understood that it was probably more than she deserved. Marma had the inkling of an urge to fight, but knew it would be futile. Time was running out. They both knew it, and while he laughed, Marma left, desperate to find another before it was too late.
The boy knew the instant Marma was gone. If there was one thing he could count on, it was Marma’s predictability. She just didn’t have it in her to fight him. She was weak. And that’s why she had never figured out the secret.
The woman on the couch moaned. The boy remembered his task and slowly drew his hand over the wound. It closed. He pulled the shirt down to cover her up, then pulled a blanket over her to tuck her in.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
“Shh.” He placed his hand on her forehead.
“I was so ready,” she said on a sob, feeling a sense of loss and exhaustion wash over her.
“And you will be again,” he promised. “But for now, go to sleep.”
She bolted awake with a start, her heart pounding in her chest and the vague feeling of a nightmare tingling the hairs on her neck. She looked around quickly, feeling an overwhelming disorientation as she realized she was not in her bedroom. A blooping sound from the television drew her attention, and it took a second to register the video game on the screen. She turned and saw her son sitting at the end of the couch.
The boy turned his head and he made himself smile at his current mother. “Mornin’ Mum,” he said cheerfully. “You fell back asleep in the couch so I covered you up.”
She blinked, then blinked again. Everything was confusing and muddled. There was a nagging feeling of dread and disappointment and an underlying fear that something had gone wrong, or that she slept too late, or that she missed out on something. She sat up slowly, her bleary eyes seeking out the clock on the mantel. “I think I’m late,” she mumbled, her brow set deep in a frown as she tried to hold on to a memory that was just outside her grasp.
“Late for what?” her son asked, twisting his body in response to the action happening on the screen.
“I don’t know,” she said quietly.
Unsettled for no discernible reason, she rose from the couch and winced as her knee popped. A desire to turn back the clock and be younger rolled through her as it always did as she made her way into the kitchen for some coffee. There was an ache in her chest and she rubbed at it absently as she stirred sugar into her cup. She took a sip, then padded back to the living room.
She sat on the couch and watched the television screen without really seeing any of it, the sense of dread and loss holding her captive.
“It’s okay, Mum,” her son said. “It’ll work out next time.”
She whipped her head around to look at her son, his words panicking her, yet, soothing something somehow. “What did you say?”
He mashed the buttons on his game, making certain to keep his knowing smile to himself. “Aw look at that!” he said, pointing to the screen.
She wanted to ask him what he had meant, but she couldn’t say the words. She wanted to ask him what he knew, but she couldn’t speak. He meant something, he knew something, he was the key to the vague upset that still hovered at the edges of her consciousness. She was certain of it. He had answers for the questions she was quickly forgetting how to ask.
Her son turned. His eyes bore through her as he held her captive with his gaze. “Watch the screen, Mum,” he said in a voice that sent shivers up her spine.
“Yes,” she said, unable to force herself to do anything else. Her son released her, shifting his concentration back to his game.
She turned her face to the screen. The clock on the mantle ticked. The sound of her husband stirring drifted down the stairs. The ache in her chest faded. Everything seemed like a normal Saturday morning.
And the little voice of warning in her head began to scream.
Thus concludes a spoooooky tale of terror for Halloween 2015. I’m off to create a scythe for my little trick or treater. Let’s hope he doesn’t use it on me… MUA-HA-HAAAAHHHH