Authors: Curtis Hox
He opens his eyes, probably expecting to see his wife.
…” He props himself up with his arms.
“Sorry about that. She thinks you’re doing her a favor.”
“She also thinks I have a headache.”
“I heard.” Josie leans toward the door to listen for anyone approaching. “You were convincing.” She scurries toward him. “Here, I brought you some tea.”
“You remembered … my favorite.” He smiles as he took a long sip.
They shared a moment, him looking over the glass, she nodding as if she is the only one in the entire world who knows how to take care of him. Since they were kids, Lennox has always had an iced tea with his lunch. The caffeine is part of it, sure, and the sugar, especially in the sort of sweet tea brewed around here. It’s usually as thick as molasses and has been known to make you want to jump up and do a few dance steps. Lennox used to drink three or four at lunch when they were in high school. Josie smiles, as she remembers a time when he was sick with a bad head cold. He was in the back of class, in misery, trying not to snot all over his desk. He looked like he needed a bed and warm blanket. She snuck out of class, crept into the cafeteria, and filched a tall sweet tea. Even better, she managed to return to class with it. She walked up to him as the bell rang and handed it to him. She’ll never forget the smile and what he said, “You’re a life saver, Josie Bran, a genuine, one-hundred percent, Life Saver.”
She kidded him about that more than once, as if bringing a simple glass of tea was worthy of such praise. “You’re a life saver” popped up like a private meme between the two of them. Whenever he wanted her to know how awesome she was, he’d say it. He once even left her a bag full of grape Life Savers candies when she ran interference on some cheerleader psycho who was after him. Josie can remember that girl’s name, but she can remember the fancy, pink bag with the bow. There must have been twenty packs of Life Savers in there. And the note? “Thanks for that sweet tea, and saving me. You’re a Life Saver. Again!”
“You seemed like you might need it.”
He sips. “Only you would think of bringing me tea right now.”
“You know why.”
“Yep, I sure do.” He winks, instead of saying it. He doesn’t need to. He’s said it to her so many times before. He bows his head, a proud thespian. “I aim to please.” His brow knits in a fashion only the gifted can muster. “You’re not here to cast a spell on me? A real one?”
“No … I just wanted to know how it’s going.”
“She’s buying it. I get relief … for a little while.”
“She still wants you back out west?”
“I have an offer for a high-paying serial. It would keep me there for six months out of the year—some thriller about police corruption. I’d play a dashing officer in love with the female lead.” Josie eyes him with enough grace not to smile like a fangirl. She would love to see him in such a role or anything where he’s the lead. Just not now. He continues. “I don’t want to go, though. I’m so over it. Over all of it.”
“That, and … the hiding in plain sight.”
Goosebumps stipple her arms. He’s shouldering a dangerous secret, and she guesses it has to do with banned witchcraft. If he’s a practicing male outside a coven, he’s a warlock. Each coven has at least one, and that witch is just a figurehead. It would make sense that he’s talented because his mother’s a powerful witch. He’s still not allowed to practice. In their coven, that duty falls to some bed-ridden man as elderly as Lady Birchall and as batty as a bee, as her grandmother used to say.
Josie thinks the ancient ways in which women suffered at the hands of men are over. Times have changed. Women have been integrated into all aspects of society. In the alternative society of pragmatic witchcraft they have a monopoly because they outnumber gifted males twenty to one. Something in the set of Lennox’s shoulders, though, makes her eager to see him in action. She can’t think of a better time …
“Show me,” Josie says, edging as close as she dare. Any closer and she might hop on his lap and ask him about that time he played a lonely poet stuck in a mountain cabin with—”Can you? Now?”
A change comes over him, like a shadow that moves of its own. She catches her breath, even though it lasts only a second.
“You want to see?”
The thrill of discussing something forbidden rushes through her. This isn’t two kids playing I’ll-show-you-if-you-show-me. This isn’t sneaking through your mother’s purse, or trying on her favorite dress. This isn’t even walking out of a liquor store with a stolen wine cooler. This is an experience she’s never had but always wondered about: seeing a young, attractive male witch practice his gifts. Could Lennox be a powerful one? Could men like him be the reason the final war happened and rebellious warlocks had to be put down? Fairy tales and legends meant to scare us, she tells herself. A male and a female witch aren’t that different … well, aren’t that fundamentally different.
She pushes aside the philosophical argument as Lennox waits.
“Yes …” she says.
He begins mumbling under his breath a strange language that sounds foreign, almost like the Sanskrit or the Aramaic she once heard an old-world wizard speak—the sound of the blasphemous. Here in America, the acceptable kind of earth magic is spoken in English to keep it relevant and safe. The forgotten ways can then be rejuvenated with Modernity. However, when you don’t know what’s being said …
He stands, arms extended as if offering himself to the Goddess. The words continue to roll from his tongue, now a steady rhythm pirouetting in her gut ... and lower.
“Oh my god,” she says, “what are you doing …?”
A small, green bud appears on his desk, as if growing out of the wood itself. A stalk inches forward, a living thing searching for air. The bud opens, its flesh parting, to reveal a pristine, ivory flower with fire-red filaments. It grows to the size of a human palm, spreading itself open in dazzling beauty.
Lennox cups a petal. “It has no scientific name. I saw it in my dreams a few nights ago. I think it grows in the Amazon.”
Josie leans over the flower and smells a rich, dense aroma something close to cinnamon. “From your dreams …?”
He nods. “I have a spectacular garden at home. Stella keeps it at a minimum, of course. Imagine what I could do for Birchall.”
Josie can’t help from feeling excited, thrilled, fantastic. Lennox’s no dangerous necromancer, no summoner of black magics from the voids of space. He’s a beautiful practitioner of the most revered form of witchcraft: regenerative magic. The possibilities of what he can do are endless. For the image to come to him in a dream, then fall on his lips, then become real … he might be one of the most talented, undiscovered witches in the state.
“Can I have it?” Josie asks.
“Sure. It won’t survive long in here.”
“The winter garden.”
“Let’s go now.” He gently grabs the stem, coaxing it out of the durable wood. The roots retreat, as if needing freedom. They dangle, living things, eager for soil. “Let’s hurry.”
* * *
Josie checks the grand stair and the vestibule below. No sounds of anyone. She waves for him. They silently creep down the stairs and through the closed doors into the main hall. It’s deserted as well. She hears voices entering the drawing room, probably from the side corridor that connects it to the first-floor north wing. She waves him toward the winter garden.
“In there,” she says, pointing. “I’ll make sure no one comes.”
She returns to the vestibule and pretends to be interested in the front door (as if the restraining spell might not be working properly).
She hears Christine and Lady Birchall.
“Hey,” she says as she walks into the drawing room.
Christine has escorted Lady Birchall to her favorite chair. Lady Birchall’s walker is in the far corner, where she can get to it. The room she now sleeps in is probably only twenty feet away, if she needs a quick nap. Perfect for a bit of peace.
“Ah, Josie, just who I was hoping to see,” Christine says. “Tonight will be a special night.” Lady Birchall closes her eyes, her mouth hanging open; she appears to fall instantly asleep. Christine rounds her chair, careful not to nudge it. “Poor thing is exhausted by all the commotion.” Christine is still dressed for outdoor activity, maybe a late-afternoon walk around the grounds. “Alice is preparing something special. It should be delicious.” Christine places her hand on Josie’s shoulder, a sure sign by the priestess that this is important. “During the group session, make sure you’re firm with the men. We don’t need to rely on the talking cure. But if they want to unburden themselves, let it happen.”
“Probably not all of them.”
Josie thinks back to each encounter. “Not sure about true changes of heart, but behavior … that may adjust.”
“Good enough for me.”
“And the coven and Lady Dooley?”
“When they see the first money pouring in from these happy wives, they’ll come round.”
Josie and Christine hear an automobile drive up the gravel and park in the front lot.
“Ah, here she is,” Christine says. She moves to the bay window and peeks through. “Roxy’s been working hard for us.”
Josie peeks through the window. She watches the voluptuous, big-haired, loud mouth dab her lips as she sauntered up the drive. Roxy carries a leopard-print purse on one forearm as if it houses the Crown Jewels. She hides behind sun glasses so large they cover half her face. Compared to Stella, Roxy’s a wannabe who’ll never be. She barely manages the gravel in her heels. To her obvious dismay, Birchall doesn’t have a man-in-waiting, a butler, or anything that would greet you at the door. Not yet, Josie thinks.
Christine greets Roxy in the vestibule. Josie lets them chatter away. She wonders what Lennox is doing. Maybe digging into some of the good soil in one of the pots with his hands, dropping in the roots, easing the flower into its new home. She imagines him running his fingers along the stems and petals of the other plants, bringing them to life. With Lennox taking care of the winter garden it might flourish like it once did.
Christine offers to show Roxy to her room for the evening. She’ll be staying, of course.
Josie waits until the ladies ascend the grand stair; then she hurries back down the main hall to the winter garden. Lennox is sitting on a bench, staring at the flower he’s just planted in a pottery vase. It’s hidden behind a few ferns but positioned to get the right amount of light.
“All clear?” he asks.
“So …” Josie says and sits next to him. She’s careful to keep her distance. Today, in the mid-day light she sees all the details underneath the ratty tee-shirt that does nothing to diminish his sex appeal. He looks like he might go work on a car in a garage, but he’s shaven and groomed. She leans in, just a tad. He even smells fantastic, some unique aroma of clean skin and … pheromones. “Lennox Cruz, the warlock.”
“Don’t call me that.”
Josie grins like it’s nothing. She lets one hand inch toward him, like a lover who might run her nails along the back of his neck. “Whatever. It’s just a label. We’re all the same, aren’t we?”
“We are, except men are persecuted.”
“It’s bullshit. I know. Sorry.”
“Not your fault.”
He glances at his fine creation. Josie can’t help but stare in wonder. His skill is one in a million. Having that sort of vitalistic power means he’s either the most naturally talented witch she’s ever met, or he has access to craft unheard of in these parts. His mother, Lady Cruz of the Night, is as accomplished as they come, but her solid understanding of elemental magic is nothing in comparison to her son’s capabilities. Yeah, she can call a tornado to do her bidding, but destruction is much easier than generation. Lennox can make things grow. What more can he do?
“How long … have you …?”
“Since I was a boy,” he says, still staring at the flower. “I could always just touch things and heal them, or make them flourish.” He back pedals with a wave. “I can’t raise the dead, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m no necromancer. I can … touch things and make them better.” He slides closer. “I have to be honest. I’m here because I need help getting away from Stella. She uses my acting career to … uh, to get rich. I … heal people in California, wealthy people. The acting is something I do as a cover. I make ten times more with my skills than with my acting.”
“People …?” Josie asks, playing coy. “You heal people?”
“Yes.” He glances at her hand, the back of which is marred by a slight scratch. Lady Birchall’s house cat, Betsy, did it yesterday. The wound is a long red curve from her middle knuckle to her wrist. “May I?”
He grabs her hand. With his thumb he begins to rub on the scratch. The entire time, she can’t take her eyes from him. In fact, she feels her entire body fall into a soporific trance, as if she flows out of herself. She is enthralled, but she doesn’t care. She gave him permission when she offered him her hand.
I did, and I am so glad I did, because this feels amazing
. As if in slow motion she moves her gaze from his beaming face to her hand. It’s such a delicate thing in his with that thumb that keeps making circles, and circles, and circles …
She isn’t sure how long, but he stops and lets go. The mundane world around her rushes back.
“There …” he says. “As good as new.”
She’s not surprised to see that the ugly scratch is gone. She rubs the pristine skin, sad the connection is fading.
She almost grabs his hand and demands he continue.
“A healer …” she says, more to herself.
“I guess so.”
Her eyes well, her chest heaves. Tears of joy threaten to fall down her face. She snaps her lips shut, biting down as hard as she can.
Don’t cry, don’t cry don’t cry cry cry