Go to Next Chapter -- Return to Contents/Writer's Den

 

Chapter Three

 

Witches’ Bane

 

 

 

            During these moments, in which India Crowley’s vengeance was taking place, many of Shadowbrook’s tenants had heard the commotion but had gone back to sleep.  For Sam Burns, Shadowbrook’s preacher-manager, Halloween had turned into the worst nightmare of his career.  After taking Alice home, he was afraid to get out of his car.  For the first time since his childhood, in fact, he was frightened of the dark.  India’s threats had sounded so genuine to him.  It was as if, after being artificial and phony all these years, she had finally gotten it right.  She was a witch!  He felt like Elijah in the Old Testament, who, after being a crusader for God, allowed Jezebel, a petty, small-minded queen, to drive him away.  Sam, who believed India was a charlatan, had been caught off guard.  Suddenly, he and Alice seemed to be confronted with the real thing: a Satanist and witch, who believed she had diabolical powers.  In spite of what had been an unshakable faith for him, he was afraid, and his confidence had been badly shaken.

            To play it safe for a while, he planned to hole up in his apartment, until the Halloween curse had passed.  Until India cooled off or came to her senses, he would feign illness and use his answering machine to filter out his calls.

            From what Sam viewed as her dance macabre, when India made her entrance and began pirouetting across the lawn, through her incantations over her cauldron, his anger had mounted.  At that moment, she represented all that was evil in his life.  As a student of the Bible, it was his duty to set things straight.  It had reached a flash point when India began summoning spirits from her pot.  After exiting the party in protest, he and Alice Wagnall, his fiancÚ, continued monitoring India’s behavior from his apartment nearby.  In the darkened room, they could look discreetly across the lawn and watch her every move.  In consideration for the other tenants, they had waited until the party was over before launching another attack…. It would have been better, he realized now, if they had minded their own business and just left India Crowley alone.

            Now, in the protection of his own apartment, Sam was having second thoughts about this ill-conceived and poorly timed attack.  India had chosen her path.  She was a lost cause.  Of all the tenants to sermonize to, why had he picked her?  Had he been showing off to his fiancÚ again?   Was he trying to prove what a hotshot minister he was going to be?  Just what was he trying to prove?  Earlier she had been humbled by their attacks.  He remembered seeing it in her face.  At that particular moment, however, it appeared as if India had been given by her benefactor, Lucifer, a second wind.  He had seen that in her face too.  When she erupted in demonic rage, he and Alice pretended to be amused, but they were, in fact, very disturbed,… especially him. 

            Because of Sam’s growing fear, he tried to barricade himself from the outside world.  To prevent another encounter with India Crowley, he would lay low tonight.  For the last hour, he let his answering machine filter all his calls.  If he heard a knock at the door, he would peek through the peephole, and if he spotted India in the porch light, pretend he wasn’t home.  He had received several protests at the party about her behavior from onlookers who had witnessed her one-woman show.  He had, as he dozed in his chair, received follow-up complaints from India’s next door neighbors about strange noises coming from her walls.  These callers reported sounds of ecstasy, anguish, or pain.  In the words of one of the male tenants “India sounded like she was getting laid.”  How could he respond to such complaints?  They wanted him to confront that deranged woman.  No way, he vowed to himself, would he step outside.  Unless it was Alice, his mother, or the police, he would let callers think he wasn’t home.  For the tenants insisting on making their complaints in person, he would tell them that he was ill and couldn’t come to the door.   

For the time being, unless he turned off the machine, he felt duty-bound to at listen.  Tomorrow, he reasoned, in broad daylight, when matters, died down, he would answer their complaints.  Not now, he shuddered.  India was out there, lurking in the shadows.  The other tenants hadn’t seen that look on her twisted face or suffered those piercing green eyes.  They didn’t share his uncanny feeling that he had been cursed, and something dreadful might happen tonight.  As he fell into a fitful, troubled sleep, he could hear their annoying voices over the answering machine.  It was becoming redundant and frightfully annoying to hear the same complaints again and again.  Why didn’t they just give up and let him be?  Finally, as his eyelids registered REM, Penny Gruber, India’s next-door neighbor, gave her testimony on his answering machine that India was a witch.  What else is new?  He thought fleetingly.  Everyone at Shadowbrook Arms knew that by now.  While in the throes of a dream, he found himself fleeing the Shadowbrook Witch, until Penny’s voice rescued him from his dream.

            The gist of her complaints, spoken in a loud, whiny, and petulant little voice, seemed almost dream-like, as his eyelids fluttered open, and he sat there staring at the machine.  What he didn’t grasp yet was the fact that he had unwittingly lifted his phone off its cradle and held it to his ear.  Hearing his groggy reply, Penny Gruber summarized India’s nefarious activities tonight.  It was a summary of all the other calls.  After listening to her living room wall, she had, as the other callers, heard eerie sounds on the other side.  She also claimed to have heard a strange voice inside India’s apartment: a whispery series of utterances barely detectable as she strained her ear.  It was, however, what Penny claimed to have seen outside her apartment that gave Sam pause.  According to the young spinster, India had threatened to have a small black cat, that had ran by her apartment, stuffed.  This had made no sense at all to Penny or Sam.  At first her behavior seemed psychotic more than diabolical, but then, as Buck and his gang arrived on the scene, India grew calm and crafty.  It was, Penny confessed, an India she had never seen before.

            At this point, his subconscious mind, having registered this report, was prickled with both irritation and nagging concern.  For a few seconds more, as she talked, Sam studied the receiver in his hand.  His encounter with India, voices from the answering machine, brief nightmare, and the current voice in his ear seemed surreal, parts of the same silly dream.

            “. . . A few seconds later,” Penny was explaining “as India confronted the men, I heard her say ‘by the power within me and the powers that be, rats you once were and cats you now be.”  “. . . All I saw after that,” she added after a pause, “was India waving her hands at them and suddenly seeing five cats!

            “I thought I was dreaming?” he muttered under his breath. “Are you part of my nightmare? . . . I don’t remember cats in my dream.”

            “It’s a nightmare all right,” Penny shot back, “but it’s not a dream!

            “What’re you driving at Penny?” he asked, glancing at the clock. “Are you saying that India turned those men into cats?”

            “I know this sounds strange, but I know what I saw!” she spat into the phone. “You’ve got to do something Sam!  You’re the manager.  It’s you’re job!

            “Call the police.” he replied lamely. “I can’t help you tonight.”

            “I’ve already called them,” she said through clinched teeth. “but that was half an hour ago.  I don’t think they took me seriously, Sam.  You, as apartment manager, should’ve called them hours ago!” 

            “I’ve been sick,” he lied.

            “You were okay last night,” she challenged. “I saw you and Alice at the party.  You were a firebrand then!”  “Come on, Sam,” she blared into the receiver, “everyone knows your not sick.  You just haven’t been answering your phone!”

 

                                                                       ******

            It was two a.m., Sam thought grimly, November first, Sunday morning.  Halloween was over, but a curse now hung over Shadowbrook Arms.  After listening to Penny admonish him about his duties as manager of the apartments, he found himself consenting to her demands but without Christian charity or a sense of duty.  She had prickled his conscience.  He just wanted her to leave him alone.

            “All right, Penny,” he said quietly into the phone, “calm down, “I’ll check it out.  What you’re asking me to do is very difficult, but I’ll do what I can.”

            Shutting his eyes, he ran a trembling hand through his dark brown hair.  Without saying goodbye, he hung up the phone and rose shakily to his feet.

            “The jig is up!” he said aloud. “…. That stupid meddling bitch!

For reasons he could still not fathom, he believed India’s threat.  Penny’s anxiety mirrored his own fear.  He believed everything she had said, and yet he felt ridiculous for being afraid.  He had seen India as a pathetic shadow of a woman.  He had rebuked her often, not just last night.  Where was his faith?  How could he allow her to effect him this way?  For that matter, where was his Christian charity toward poor Penny?  She had been absolutely right: it was his job.  He was the apartment manager!  It was his job to protect the tenants.  Why was he such a coward?  Where was his faith?

            “Stupid meddling bitch!” he nevertheless repeated as he looked down at the phone.

            Adding a silent curse, which should have been a prayer, Sam felt ashamed as he picked up his coat and slowly put it on.  Deeply afraid, at this point, he unlocked the door, threw back the deadbolt, opened his living room door, and slowly walked across the lawn, onto the patio, and then up the staircase, at a slow and measured pace.

            He dare not ask himself what all this meant.  Either India Crowley was insane or playing a sick joke.  She could not possibly be a witch!  Several people had complained of hearing strange noises.  Penny Gruber, however, had been the first tenant to officially report witchcraft at Shadowbrook Arms.  Of course Penny had seen things before.  As he gripped his flashlight in his hand, he remembered another early morning tale.  That particular time, though, Penny reported seeing her father’s ghost.  The old man, she explained to Sam, had treated her horribly when she was a child.  After several beatings, she and her mother had escaped to start a new life.  Upon her father’s death during a bank robbery, he ceased to be a threat in her life, until last week, when Penny reported seeing him in her room.

            “And why not?”, Sam asked himself bitterly now. “If there can be witches, there can be ghosts. . . There can also be zombies, vampires, and little green men!

            As he approached India’s apartment, he found it dark, foreboding, and deathly silent.  Obviously the witch was not home, he reasoned shakily, as he contemplated her front door.  After knocking so faintly he barely made a noise, he backed away from the spooky apartment and quickly trotted away. 

            “Oh well,” he told himself, scanning the darkness ahead, “India’s not home.  Maybe she’s riding her broom somewhere, flying around like a ghost.  She’s probably over some graveyard right now, looking for Penny’s old man!”

            Laughing hysterically to himself, Sam put distance between himself and India’s address.  He imagined he heard footsteps following him downstairs, but, when he turned to look back, he saw only a large yellow cat running past.

            “Here kitty-kitty,” he called light-headedly. “Don’t be afraid.  That mean old witch can’t hurt you!  You’re already a cat.  Maybe she’ll turn you into a person now.”  “. . . unless,” his smile faded, “. . . you were one of us!

            “I’m right here,” he heard her whisper now.

            “What?  Who said that?” He froze in his tracks.

            “Over here,” she giggled.

            “Where?  I don’t see anything,” he slowly looked around.

            “Here!” The whisper grew louder as he rotated his head. “No here! . .  Over here! . . . No, right here!

            Gripped with hysteria now, Sam knew she was close.  He wanted to run and call for help, but his vocal chords seemed paralyzed, and for some reason he couldn’t move.  So he did the logical thing in his frame of mind: he prayed.  Unlike Irma, who quoted the Twenty-third Psalm, Sam made up his own prayer, uttering it in an almost mute whisper India could not hear:

           

Lord, suffer ye not a witch. 

In thy name, I ask for protection against

India Crowley, the Shadowbrook Witch.

            Send her into eternal damnation where she belongs.

            Protect me, your faithful servant Sam Burns

            against the powers of darkness,

          so I may continue to serve you on earth.

 

            “Sam Burns,” India cooed, emerging from the shadows, “are you calling upon God?”

            “Uh huh,” he nodded, petrified with fear.

            “You pompous, overbearing son of a bitch!” She cackled. “It won’t do you any good!”

            Although his eyes were wild with terror, and he could barely talk, Sam tried to sound brave.  “I-I’m n-not afraid of you!” He forced out the words. 

            “Yes, you are,” she taunted, “I saw it in your eyes last.  You and Alice were both afraid.  I see it now—the cold breath of fear.”  “By the way,” she smirked, “where is the bitch?”

            “She’s out of town.” Sam shot back. “You leave her alone!”

            “I’ll get her,” India promised. “It’s just a matter of time!”

            “What do you mean get her?” he asked in a strangled whisper.  “What exactly are you going to do?”

            “You already know Sam.” her normally pale face seemed phosphorescent in the dark. “You saw one just pass.  I haven’t been able to catch any of them yet.  But there’s no hurry.  They have to return sometime to their apartments, unless they plan on becoming strays.”

            “You’re insane!” he managed to utter. “You’re stark raving mad!”

            “You wish!” she snarled.  “No,” she took a condescending tone, “I’m not mad Sammy; I’m quite sane.  I know exactly what I’m going to do.”

            “Then you’re evil!” he pointed a shaky finger.

            “Wrong again Sammy.  I’m not evil,” she shook her head. “I’m pragmatic.  I know a good thing when I see it.”

            Expecting to be stabbed, clawed, or chewed, Sam held his flashlight in a defensive posture and began backing away.

            “Back off, you devil-worshiper!” he spat. “You try to sink those claws into me and I’ll knock you on your ass!”

            “I’m not going to scratch you my pretty,” she cackled softly. “In fact, I’m not going to touch a hair on your head!”

            As she moved in what seemed like Karate motions, he noticed a strange ethereal light in her eyes and that peculiar glow increasing on her skin.  Now that she was completely out of the shadows, he wondered fleetingly where she had been.  What mischief had India done?  Perhaps she had been out riding her broom?  “Truly,” he admitted giddily to himself “this woman is a witch. . . a bona fide, cauldron stirring witch!

            “By the power within in and the powers that be, a rat you once were and cat you now be!”

 

                                                                       ******

            As she cast her spell, Sam braced himself for its effect.  Irma, who had been intoxicated already, did not experience the full effects of the spell that Sam felt now.  A strange yet ominous peace filled him as he reviewed his life.

            He had failed the Lord.  He had demonstrated to the tenants at Shadowbrook Arms his cowardice and unfitness for his job.  A feeling of shame filled him as his body began its incredible change.  He had many God-given gifts: he was intelligent, he had a sharp memory, and quick tongue.  But he lacked courage, and he lacked Christian resolve.  During his last hours as a mortal man, he had also demonstrated his characteristic small-mindedness toward others.  He had been, as Saint Paul called it “a sounding brass or tinkling cymbal”, yet he had lacked Christian charity and love.  He had been a firebrand, as Penny had put it, but a bogus facsimile, ready to turn tail and run when wicked Jezebel appeared.  Nevertheless, through it all, as her magic took effect, he thanked God that a worse misfortune had not visited him.  Until hearing her incantation, he expected something terrible.  It would have been much worse to be turned into a frog or toad.

            He had always loved cats.  He had, during his “pagan days” in college, even written a poem about them.  As he began shrinking, however, and plunging downward into the darkness of his own clothes, Sam was again gripped with fear.  He felt more helpless than at any other time in his life.  He had no idea what India had in store for him next.  When the phenomena ceased, he felt a continuous outgrowth of hairs all over his skin, indicating immediately what was.  India’s spell had worked.  In an eerie glint of light, he could see that his fur matched the dark brown hair of his head.  Shock, dismay, hope, and relief mingled as oil and water in his mind.  Aside from his disorientation and light-headedness, however, he felt no different than before.  He was still Sam Burns, he reminded himself shakily.  It was as if he was wearing a fur coat all over his body, including his face, and he now had four legs instead of two, yet still had a heart, soul, and mind.  In spite of his feline body, he was still a man!

            “My name’s Samuel Isaiah Burns!” he reminded himself, as he felt her probe inside his clothes. “I’m still a man!

            “If you try to escape,” he heard her say, “I’ll strangle you and have you stuffed!”

            As shadowy fingers moved through his jacket and then his shirt, he was ready to bite and scratch her hand.  But it would take a miracle to save him now.  This time India was wearing a pair of gloves as she gripped the back of his neck and lifted him out.

            “You are,” she cooed to him, “my finest specimen and greatest triumph.  You’re the loveliest brown cat I’ve ever seen!”

            Although he spat, clawed, and hissed, Sam found himself being carried in this humiliating fashion down the hall toward India’s apartment and an awful fate as either her pet or sacrifice in one of her pagan rites.  Just when he thought he would never see daylight again, though, he noticed, with his greatly improved vision, a distant patch of yellow charging their way.  Something remarkable if not miraculous began happening that would ultimately set him free.

            The great yellow cat that had been skirting the shadows now appeared directly ahead, running toward India, as if he was going to attack.

            “It’s him, that troublesome Buck,” she made kicking motions with her foot. “Oh, if only I had a club or a net.”  “I’ll get you, you little bastard,” she warned him, holding her prize higher and higher in the air. “I’ll find a big net, catch you, then have you mounted on my wall.”

            In spite of her warning, Buck was characteristically fearless.  In an effort to defend Ed, his Hispanic friend, the big blond athlete was credited with battering three hoodlums half to death.  For the first time in their relationship at Shadowbrook Arms, Sam was glad to see him.  The hope he felt during his metamorphosis now seemed justified, as the large feline began his assault.  In one great lunge, Sam would always remember, he leaped onto her hand, bit down savagely into the glove, and hung their patiently with Sam, as she howled in pain.  Afterwards, when she had released his neck, Sam hit the deck running.  Without looking back, he and Buck fled the Shadowbrook Witch, scampering down the staircase, through the complex, and into the buildings next door.

 

                                                                       ******

            On their way through what appeared to be a maze of skyscrapers and Jack-in-the-Beanstalk trees, they were bound by a common plight.  As humans, they had barely spoken to each other.  Buck had, in fact, hated the self-righteous preacher and warned him on several occasions to shut his pious, Bible-thumping mouth.  With Sam’s deep convictions as a born-again Christian and Buck’s hedonistic attitude on life, they were complete opposites in almost every way.  But that was last night, Sam reminded himself, in another time and age: a world of giants and shadows, now ruled by the Shadowbrook Witch.  Into this new kingdom of cats he now entered, with Buck Logan, his rescuer, leading the way.

            On agile paws in place of clumsy feet and with the ability to see the most minute details in the dark, Buck and his new friend flew through another apartment complex, across its parking lot and passed a dreamscape of monstrous structures and trees, until reaching a shadowy field across the road.  When they had scampered to the center of the field and into the middle of a foreboding stand of trees, Sam was greeted by Buck’s circle of friends.  He knew at once who they were.  It was, of course, those other reprobate tenants Jim, Tom, Ed, and Drew.

            Just as first light was brimming the distant hills, Buck’s great yellow body leaped lithely onto a nearby stump.  He seemed to enjoy his newly changed shape.  He was, of course, as he had been as a human, their leader now.  They could not communicate, as they once had.  They could only rub against each other, as cats often do, and make that familiar rumbling purr deep within their throats.  And yet they all looked quietly up to Buck now, wondering what he was going to do, joined together the morning after Halloween by the same witch’s spell.

            In spite of his gratitude for being rescued, Sam wasn’t encouraged by this scene.  Instead of acting like men who had been turned into cats, Buck and his friends did not seem to be acting at all.  They really were felines: a collection of stray cats gathered together into a pack.

            Quick to sum up his options, though, Sam realized that, unless he struck out on his own, there was no where else to go.  These were, however strange it seemed to him now, his people.  He was in a new kingdom that was governed by new laws.  The very notion of leaving it seemed unthinkable to him as he closed ranks with the others into a fellowship that needed no symbols or words.

 

Go to Next Chapter -- Return to Contents/Writer's Den