“What the hell did you do to your face?”
“I, uh… I cut it shaving.” A hand went up to hide the large gauze pad covering the stitches.
“Really, Wynnie? Since when do you have a beard to shave?” Tori arched a skeptical brow at her friend and waited. The story to come was sure to be a whopper if she knew her at all.
“Oh don’t make me tell you, Tor. It’ll only embarrass me again.” Gwyneth was already starting to turn a familiar shade of red.
“Fess up and I’ll buy you a milkshake.” She pointed across the parking lot to the ice cream shop.
“I hate that you know which of my weaknesses to exploit. It only confirms that your mother did indeed fuck Satan.” Wynnie’s eyes drifted unbidden to the temptation dangled right in front of her.
“Dad says hi, by the way. Now will you just tell me? My shoes are melting to the pavement.” Why did they decide to go window-shopping in the middle of a heat wave? Tori peeled the drenched back of her tank top away from her and sighed when a small breeze blew up her spine.
“Fine.” Wynnie snorted and headed towards salvation in the form of a strawberry milkshake. “I did it shaving my armpit.”
Tori stopped in her tracks. Her brain turned over that one little sentence until she had a headache. Every scenario it popped up with seemed a feat only a contortionist could manage. Despite her slim frame, Wynnie was anything but. She could barely touch her toes and hold the position. It was a hazard of being desk-bound six days a week.
“Stop staring at the back of my head. It’s starting to burn.”
Quick steps brought her side-to-side with her friend, who was now a shade of red reserved for fire engines and sports cars. “Sorry, but how the hell…”
“It just happened, okay? One second I was hacking at a couple days growth of pit hair. The next I watched a river of blood run down my tit.” The wound throbbed with the remembered pain. Each stitch seemed to have its own pulse and they pulled awfully when she talked. “Worst part was the ER doc thought I was lying. He made me show him how it happened three times. Every time I went to do it again there were more people there to watch.”
“Oh honey.” Tori managed to choke out before she doubled over. Her hands hit the bar on the door to the ice cream parlor. She held on tight while hysterical laughter shook her. The bells attached to the top of the door jingled with each burst of laughter.
Two-dozen sets of eyes turned to stare at the hysterical woman and her tomato-faced friend. Wynnie’s foot itched to kick Tori right in her big ass. Every time something bad happened, her friend was there for comfort and moral support. That was until she heard the unusual circumstances of some of the injuries. Then she was as useless as nipple on a male dog.
“Are you happy?” She hissed when Tori finally stopped long enough to get a word in edge-wise.
“If you were on the outside looking in on your life, you’d be laughing too.” Tori straightened to her full, towering height and dabbed at the tears shining in her eyes.
“I’m not cruel like you, Tor.”
“Don’t be mean. It’s only a few stitches. Not like last time where your hand was in a cast for two months.” She pushed the door open. As soon as they crossed the threshold all two-dozen eyes suddenly had more important things to study. Like the folds on a napkin or a cup full of plastic spoons.
“I’m cursed.” Gwyneth groaned quietly.
“No you’re not. Unlucky, maybe. Clumsy, totally. But you are not cursed any more than I am a Victoria’s Secret model.” Wynnie rolled her eyes at the lecture she’d heard countless times before. Usually after every trip to the ER.
“Just order the damn milkshakes.” She left Tori to place the order and snagged the last empty table.
They ate the bad day away in the form of delicious frozen goodness. As always Tori had an Oreo milkshake. Wynnie couldn’t understand why she insisted on ordering them when she bitched about the cookie chunks getting stuck in the straw. At one point she’d justified it by saying, “I like the frozen bits of cream”. It seemed easier to freeze the cookies than pop a vein sucking neurotically on a straw.
Tori looked up from her empty glass. “Does your mom know yet?” Leave it to Wynnie to forget to tell her about something potentially serious.
“No… and I’m not going to.” She jabbed the bottom of her glass with the straw and avoided the serious look coming across the table.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Gwyneth! You were in the hospital. If you aren’t the one to tell your mother she is going to flip her lid and hunt you down.” A wadded up napkin bounced off Wynnie’s forehead. “Do you want her coming into the office to make a fuss over you? Again?”
Memories assaulted Wynnie’s brain, sending sharp stabbing pains to her frontal lobe until she wanted to call a truce. She’d mistakenly thought that not telling her mother about two of her ER visits would cut down on her stress levels. One of the nurses that’d become a family friend over the years and years of visits ratted her out both times. And both times her mother marched into the dentist’s office she worked at to berate her. Luckily her boss was a cool guy; otherwise she would have been filing for unemployment after the second intrusion.
But even Dr. Madison has his limits. A third episode would probably cost her the job.
“Fine.” She sighed and threw the straw down in the glass one last time.
“Good.” Tori flipped up her wrist. “Crap, I’ve got to go get ready for work.”
They said their goodbyes as they cleaned up the evidence that both had broken their diet. Again. It was impossible to keep on track when they were together. Someone always spotted a new restaurant to try out. Of course since it was summer milkshakes and ice cream sundaes took the place of well-balanced lunches. Why bother when you just sweated it out as soon as you stepped back into the oppressive summer heat?
Tori kissed Wynnie on the forehead and headed off towards her car. “Don’t forget to call your mother!”
Snickers and whispered comments from the crowd between them sent another blush shooting up Wynnie’s cheeks. Leave it to Tori to not only get the last word, but the last horribly embarrassing moment in too. She felt like they were in high school all over again.
Mortified down to her core, Gwyneth dropped her head and made a beeline for her car. Half way to sanctuary she wondered why the hell she parked so far away. Each step seemed to take her further away from the safety of her car. Damn Tori for being… well herself. Inside she knew her friend couldn’t help it. She was loud, opinionated, and worried over her like the sister she never had. That didn’t mean she couldn’t stand to take a few lessons on how to not embarrass her friends.
Up ahead the large parking structure squatted in the middle of what used to be an orchard only seven short years ago. At about that time the city exploded, leaking into rural areas. Most of the farms she remembered driving past were strip malls now. The effect on the economy was wonderful. The effect on her memories was downright depressing.
Her mind thoroughly clouded over by embarrassment with a dash of depression, Wynnie braced herself to make the call to her mother. For a moment she considered skipping the call and lying to Tori. That would never work. Tori would call her and compare notes on the story. She winced as the possible outcome of that conversation racked her brain. No, she had to tell her before someone else did.
In the shadows on the parking garage she leaned against the side of her light blue Ford Focus. The cool metal helped chase back some of the sweltering heat, but not enough for her liking. Summer could hurry up and end now, she thought while fishing her cell phone out of her purse.
“Please be out of the house, Mom.” She whispered and punched in the number.
One ring. Wynnie fought the urge to slam the cover of her phone shut. Two rings, so far so good. Three rings, she started to breathe a little easier. The answering machine was set to pick up after four. She could leave a quick message, shut off her cell phone and be done with it for the day.
The fourth ring started then cut off quickly. “Hello?”
Crap, shit, fuck! Of course she was home. She was always home.
“Hey Mom. Just calling to check up on you.” Wynnie smiled at the phone hoping it would radiate through and keep her mother calm.
“Don’t bullshit me, little girl. What’s happened now?”
Yeah, nice to hear you’re doing okay mom, she thought and rolled her eyes at the tone reaching through the phone to smack her upside her head. “Don’t worry. It was only four stitches. The doctor promises it won’t scar this time.”
Her mother sucked in a sharp breath at the news. Every time Wynnie went to the ER it was a big ordeal for her. Accidents that she couldn’t have foreseen or prevented were harder on her for some reason. It was like she blamed herself.
“Are you sure you are okay? I can come over and sit with you.” The eagerness in her voice was palpable.
“I’m not even at home. Tori took me shopping today.” The trip was supposed to help lift her mood. All she got from it was sweat stained clothes and a guilt trip.
“Dinner then.” Her mother never asked if she wanted to get together. The order was given all she had to do was drive over.
“Sure, I guess. Doc isn’t in the office until next week so I have the day off.”
“Pick something up from that one place you like so much. I’ll pay you back.”
Wynnie cringed. “You don’t have to do that, Mom.”
“I am not a charity case, Gwyneth. Do not treat me like one.” Stubborn pride carried very well over the phone.
“Fine. Wong’s it is. I’ll be over there at seven.”
“Please drive carefully, baby.” Her mom sounded almost afraid. Goosebumps chased down her arms.
“I always am, Mom. See you later.”
Nothing was quite as soothing as the smell of orange chicken and fried rice. At least that was the way Wynnie felt on the drive to her mother’s house. The passenger seat was full to overflowing with bags of boxes of food. She intentionally overbought to make sure there were leftovers for her mom to take to work. The woman would go without eating if people didn’t remind her to. It wasn’t vanity. She’d much rather set the extra money aside in a rainy day fund. It was also known as the “Save Wynnie’s ass” fund, but the last time they’d had to dip into it was years ago. Back before she started working for Dr. Madison.
She pulled in behind her mother’s Jetta and parked. Wynnie took a deep breath and savored the uncomplicated joy of the food in the seat next to her. As soon as she walked into the house it would become guilt food. She’d eat her weight in rice while her mother railed about how important it was to be safe. Her entire life could be measured in the number of times she’d heard that same lecture.
“Maybe tonight will be different.” She sighed.
Bags in hand, Wynnie braced herself and raised a hand to knock on the door. Knuckles failed to meet wood when her mother opened it wide, nearly causing her to topple over on top of the smaller woman. “I hate when you do that, Mom.”
“I didn’t need the gift to see you sitting out in your car. What kind of whack job sits in their car in this heat?” She relieved Wynnie of the bags. Visibly working to not stare at the gauze on her face. “Not any child I raised. You know better, Gwyneth. Heat stroke is nothing to toy with.”
“Whack job? Where did you pick that one up?”
“Some ridiculous show about police men and their obsession with profanity. Go grab some plates.” A frail hand waved back towards the kitchen.
Wynnie didn’t even bother with her usual protest that Chinese food tasted better when eaten straight out of the carton. Her mother was in a mood, a foul one at that. For both of their sake it was simply easier to do as she said.
The plates were covered in happy woodland creatures, almost freakishly happy woodland creatures. Her mom said they had good “energy”; the default excuse she used whenever she bought something borderline ugly. Those chubby chipmunks had haunted her dreams for years now. For Yule she was finally going to buy her mom some plates to replace these.
“Don’t even think about it.” Her mother came across the living room to snatch the plates and silverware from her hands.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything you didn’t already know.” Five minutes in the house and she felt twelve again.
“You waste money trying to replace things I like. Its foolish, Gwyneth. I didn’t…”
“You didn’t raise a fool, yes I’ve heard this before, Mom. Please let me do something nice for you just once?” She flopped down on to the big fluffy couch with a sigh and fought not to rub the ache in her cheek.
With a frown her mother studied the food laid out on the coffee table. Disapproval radiated off her hunched shoulders before she straightened them and began dishing out modest portions from each carton. It was so ridiculous. Both of them would go back for seconds or even thirds if something was really good. Somewhere in her brain starting with smaller portions meant they were saving money and food. It was yet another argument she’d simply learned to leave alone. Years of living hand to mouth trained her mother to pinch copper from a penny. Nothing short of a miracle would change it.
“It wasn’t an animal this time.” Another statement. Sometimes dealing with her mother was more exhausting than the trip to the ER.
“No, a shower accident.” Wynnie refused to meet her mother’s curious gaze as she grabbed the offered plate.
“It’s gotten worse if you are attacked in water.”
“Excuse me?” She asked around her first wonderful bite of orange chicken.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, young lady.” Suddenly a fork seemed really threatening even in the hands of such a small woman.
Wynnie gulped down the bite, wishing she could savor the flavor for just a little longer. However she knew better than to glance over something her mother says in that tone. Every mother had that tone. It meant they were telling you something they should have years ago. Usually it ended up being huge, life-altering news. Something like, “Oh, I ran over your cat” or “Your father is actually the nice postman that brings us cookies every Christmas”. Unfortunately her mother was never that mundane. Her secrets had teeth.
“You said attack. No one attacked me, Mom. The razor slipped while I was shaving. It could have happened to any one at any time.”
Her mother took a deep breath and calmly finished the bite of chow mein she’d taken. “How many accidents have you had just this year?”
She frowned and thought hard. How many times had she gone into the ER during the last six months? There was at least one incident a month, so around six. That didn’t count the small mishaps she could clean up or tend to herself.
“Oh hell, I don’t know. A lot. I’m a klutz.” She refused to think any deeper about it.
“No, you are cursed.”
That was it. “You’ve lost your mind. I’m not going to sit here and listen to this. Its bad enough you have me eating up this witchcraft nonsense, but a curse?” Wynnie laughed, she couldn’t help it. All the years of good energy bullshit had done a serious number on her psyche.
Green eyes narrowed at her. For a second something flashed through them. Lights from a passing car, probably, but the effect was eerie. The happy chipmunk plate settled on the coffee table with a soft clank. Restraint shook her mother’s hands as she reached up to smooth her short hair back from her face. It was a stalling tactic she used when she needed more time to think. Shit, this was going to be bad.
Finally she sighed, a hand gently rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Humor an old lady just this once, Gwyneth. Stay the night. Let me do a cleansing. What’s the worse that could happen?”
This reasonable request had to be a trap. Wynnie watched as her mother simply sat there waiting for an answer. Where was the fight? Her heart realized they weren’t in for a showdown and began to slow down a little bit. She could deal with this reasonable person.
“What happens during a cleansing?”
“You take a bath.” A smile radiated across the couch.
“That’s it? I can bathe at home, Mom.”
“Do you think magic is easy? The bath is your part. I will be doing the incantation and application of cleansing herbs.” Wynnie could see the wheels in her mother’s mind turning as she got up. The list of herbs was nearly spilling out of her ears by the time she reached the pantry.
Normal mothers kept cans of beans or jars of preserves in their pantry. Hers stored a vast variety of herbs, oils, charms, and anything else she may need in her quest to bring white magic down to earth to help heal it and its peoples. When she was little, the pantry was off limits. Some of the herbs were toxic if ingested. Not to mention her mother’s belief in them made even innocent seeming herbs dangerous in the right, or rather wrong combination.
“I haven’t agreed to doing this.” She called after her mother when she disappeared into the pantry.
“You will.” There was no doubt hanging in those two words. She was certain that Wynnie would change her mind and stay for the cleansing.
“Foresight or are you claiming to know me that well?” Wynnie leaned against the doorframe and poked her head into the rather fragrant room.
A bundle of dried lavender buds came at her, gently batting against her forehead. “You’re my only child. My life has been spent observing and making sure you make the right decisions. A mother does not need to have even an ounce of intuition to know what her baby is going to do.”
“But, you are the most hard-headed offspring ever given the gift of breath. I’m counting on my faith in you that you will let me help.”
Arms loaded with bottles, candles, and bundles, her mother edged past her and turned into the hallway. Wynnie closed the pantry door out of habit and followed. Damn her mother. She was a professional at guilt trips. If she ever needed a new calling she could sell her secrets to harried mothers across the globe.
“How long will it take?”
“As long as it needs to. You should know that already, Wynnie.” Her mother looked up from the white candle she was busy placing in just the right spot. “Well, what are you waiting for? Strip. You can’t very well bathe in your clothes!”
“I can’t believe I’m letting you talk me into this.” Wynnie sighed and began stripping in the doorway of the bathroom.
“Everything off. Keep your charm though. It needs to be cleansed as well if it has failed to keep you safe.”
The silver pendant caught the light of the first flickering candle, bringing her attention down to it. It had been a sweet sixteen present, but she never thought to ask what significance it had. Lifting it up into view by the chain, Wynnie studied the intricate knotwork bundled between each of the four points on a modified cross. The points were capped off by gems, different gems for different elements she supposed. In the middle of them sat a larger stone. Her fingers slid down the chain to rub around the curved edge of the pendant. It was still warm from her skin, though her imagination wanted to say that power heated it.
She’d been around her mother too long if her brain was going there already.
“Now what?” The charm dropped back to its place between her breasts.
Billows of smoke filled the bathroom. Sage wafted through the air, instantly relaxing her. The scent always brought her to calmer times when it was just her and her mother living alone and making the rough world work for them.
The lit bundle of sage went into an abalone shell while her mother turned to the large bathtub and began to fill it. Jars of herbs sat on the counter around the tub. Out of the houses they’d looked at for her mother to rent, this one won hands down. All because of the bathtub. Foolishly Wynnie thought it was because her mother liked to soak. Now she understood that a large tub meant spells like this were more comfortable and easier to put together.
Kneeling next to her mother, she gestured to the jars. “Show me how to do this.”
Shocked eyes stared at her from less than a foot away. Confusion chased through those shocked eyes before relief finally pulled to the surface and stayed. She knew then that her mother had been waiting a long time for her to take interest in her beliefs. While she couldn’t promise to follow them to the T or even understand them, she had to know why it appealed to her mother so much.
“We start with the salt. Sea salt, actually.” The jar upended, dumping all of its contents into the gurgling waters.
“That much? Are you trying to pickle me, Mom?”
“It is how it is done. Do you want to learn or not?” Next she grabbed the bundle of dried lavender and pinched off a palm full of the sweet-smelling flowers. “Rub them gently between your palms then drop them in the water.”
Several other herbs were thrown into the tub. Sage, chamomile, rosemary, and lavender joined the aroma party in the bathroom’s damp air. Wynnie knelt at the side of the tub next to her mother and simply breathed. Her mother was deep in thought; preparing herself mentally to call on whatever forces she would for the spell. She let her think and enjoyed the scents surrounding them.
“Hop in.” Her mother ordered. As soon as she moved to comply, her mother took her spot.
“How far in should I go?”
“To your shoulders. We will wet your hair in a moment. Now be quiet and relax.”
Wynnie settled back against the side of the tub. Hot water climbed up over her shoulders, tickling the lobe of her ears as it sloshed. The hot water coaxed the fragrant oils from the herbs. She could feel the lavender and chamomile working to relax her. It was what they did best. Even outside of her mother’s influence those herbs remained her favorite. Gently her mother cleared her throat and held her arms out, palms up.
“We call upon the blessed Goddess of the Moon, Spirit of the Water, and of the Earth.
Come forth; cleanse this soul of vile curse.
Free her of enchantments poised to befoul.
Send evil deeds back whence they do hail.
Give us strength to see it through.
For this we humbly give thanks unto you.”
With each phrase her mother dipped her cupped hands into the salty water and carried it over to dump onto her head. Wynnie fought not to curse and sputter after the first time. She managed to get her eyes closed before the water dribbled down into them. It soaked into the gauze, though. Salt burns. Badly. Just once in the ocean with a scratch on your leg will teach anyone that important lesson.
“Stay in there until the water is cool.” Energy ran through her mother’s voice. She loved doing her work. It seemed to be doubly important since it was for her daughter. An ache settled in Wynnie’s chest from the force of the love building up. It almost distracted her from the pain in her face. Almost.
They sat in silence. Wynnie relaxed into the water. Her mother sat by the tub, brows creased. Apparently her part of the spell was not through with. Finally the water cooled to the point where she was starting to get cold.
“I’m getting cold, Mom.”
“Stay put.” She ordered and reached in to pull the stopper.
The water flowed down the drain, leaving Wynnie sitting there with bits of lavender clinging to her damp skin. She felt well and truly preserved and hoped like hell part of the ritual involved a shower. Salt had already dried on her ears. They felt crusty, disgusting.
“Yes I know, dear. Stand up and you can rinse off. No soap, but make sure you get all of the salt off. Your cat may mistake you for a saltlick tomorrow otherwise.”
“It’s not as funny when you’re the pickle, Mother.” She snapped and flipped on the showerhead. Rinsing off the remnants of the bath water felt wonderful. Bliss settled down in her bones as the hot water warmed her through again. The gauze pad fell off and she carefully cupped water up to the stitches to clean the wound.
Gentle hands wrapped a fluffy white towel around her shoulders when the shower cut off. Wynnie gratefully accepted it and smiled at her mother. She couldn’t help it. The woman worked hard to not be a burden. If all it took was a couple hours of paying attention to the things she liked to make her happy, maybe she should. They could make a weekly thing of it. Almost like a pagan church service in her mother’s living room.
“The spare room is all ready for you. You must sleep in order to ensure the cleansing takes. We won’t know until morning if it’s worked.”
Wynnie took a few moments to put a new gauze pad over her stitches. They throbbed in protest of the handling, forcing her to grind her teeth until the last strip of tape finally behaved itself and stuck in place.
“Goodnight, Mom.” She called before padding off down the hall.
Maybe, just maybe her mother’s ritual would be successful. As Gwyneth laid her head down on the pillow she sent a thought up to whatever spirits aided her mother and asked them to ensure her mother’s spell worked. She’d be happy to know that her spell worked.