Chapter XXXVI

It was close to ten o’clock in the morning when I finally left the sanctity of my bedroom and proceeded downstairs with a compelling desire for a cup of coffee. I glanced through the opened door of the guest room that Aunt Rachel had claimed, but found it empty. I remembered that she was usually an early riser and was hopefully already downstairs drinking a mug of hot coffee she had brewed. As I walked through the hallway I enjoyed the sensation of the cool hardwood pressing against the soles of my bare feet, it reassured me that I was grounded in reality and not trapped in the nightmare of yesterday. I paused at Mother’s Louis XV display case and peered through the glass at the porcelain figurines, contemplating the experience Aunt Rachel and I had the day before, but nothing about the cabinet’s contents seemed unusual or out of place.

I eagerly descended the main staircase anticipating a mug of the imagined coffee Aunt Rachel brewed. My imagined beverage became a reality as the aroma of Columbian Roast beaconed be from the kitchen. I was distracted by Aunt Rachel’s voice calling my name from the morning parlor. The mug of coffee I greatly desired would have to wait just a few more minutes.

Aunt Rachel was sitting alone on the beige Queen Anne sofa in the middle of the room. She brought a multi blue colored ceramic mug to her lips and sipped what I only imagined to be coffee as she gazed at an opened issue of ArtNews in her lap. The late morning sunlight filtered through the large windows in the parlor, Mother’s favorite space in the house, casting a warm glow over everything including my aunt, giving her an ethereal appearance. She looked up from her magazine and smiled at me as she motioned for me to join her. I was reluctant. The relentless, yet skillful, dodging that both she and Mr. Stokes did the night before as I questioned them about his relationship with our family was still prevalent in my mind; the memory pricked at my intellect as I entered the room and approached her.

She pointed to a mug sitting atop a coaster on the table positioned between the matching sofas. It matched the one in her hand and held steaming coffee. As I walked toward the mug, I felt my eyes widen and lips slowly turn up.

“Thank you,” I said, grasping the handle and bringing the hot coffee to my mouth. The liquid caffeine soothed my ragged psyche as I gratefully drank it. It tasted smooth and possessed a hint of hazelnut? No, not hazelnut. What was that? It was familiar to me, but not a flavor I expected to taste in the coffee. I sat down on the sofa opposite Aunt Rachel as I pondered the unusual flavor. “Is that cinnamon?”

“No,” she smirked as she took another sip from her own mug and flipped the page of her magazine.

I drank from the mug again, but this time I closed my eyes. As the liquid filled my mouth I felt my mind quickly search for the identity of the flavor my taste buds were experiencing. Slowly an image began to take form as I heard a whispered echo of my aunt’s voice inside my head.

I opened my eyes as I swallowed.

“Cacao,” I repeated the word her voice silently uttered to me.

“Yes!” she exclaimed with a giggle.

It was good to see and hear my aunt laugh. It was surreal to think that just forty-eight hours ago she hung suspended in a vortex that had materialized in our foyer just feet away from where we currently sat together drinking our morning coffee. How had my already peculiar life become even more bizarre? When did it metamorphous into a symphony of cacophony and discord? Even my usual psychosis seemed to be experiencing a disconnection from its usual perception of reality. How could I continue to discern what was reality and what was fantasy when reality seemed to be mimicking my schizophrenic hallucinations?

Aunt Rachel smiled and nodded. “I didn’t think you’d get it. I’m impressed.”

“It really wasn’t difficult to figure out,” I shrugged before enjoying another gulp of the coffee she had brewed for us.

“Yes, it was,” she argued, looking at me instead of the magazine. “It was tricky. Don’t underestimate yourself, Angie. Too many people already do. I don’t want to hear that you’re buying into their disbelief, especially when it comes to your skills and talents. You know yourself better than anyone else does. Anyone.”

And this was the intrinsic essence of who Aunt Rachel had always been to me. Her compassion and unwavering belief in who I was and what I could accomplish gave me such inner strength and confidence; sadly it was the same support that I constantly sought from my own parents, but was unable to find. I silently hoped that my parents would never return from the Bahamas. Maybe then I would no longer doubt my experiences and my life would become something valuable and worth living. I was certain that with Aunt Rachel’s constant presence in my daily life I would be able to piece together the disjointed perception of reality that my parents and Dr. Worth considered my mental illness and once my awareness had been realigned I could concentrate on my reconciliation with Syn, the Norse goddess of my bloodline; the bloodline that Abigail Williams, the infamous witch of Salem begat back hundreds of years ago. My unapologetic defiance of the vow I made to her needed to be atoned for, but I had faith that I would be able to reclaim my position as her Valkyrie, here, in Midgard. Perhaps in the process I could help Aunt Rachel with whatever it was that drove the Ancestors to target her to begin with. I knew that I had the power within me to help her and I wanted to support her as she did me. It was only a matter of time before the Ancestors had raised enough energy to attempt to grab her again.

I studied her face, attempting to determine how much she actually knew about the skills and talents that she was actively encouraging me to have confidence about. Did she realize that being blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, she held the same power within herself that I did? Maybe it hadn’t been revealed to her yet or maybe she knew that she was different, but didn’t know how to effectively harness the power.

“Jerr… ald, I mean Mr. Stokes,” she blushed, stumbling over her words, “wanted me to tell you that he’d be here Monday at the usual time for lessons and that you should just take today to rest and relax, spend time just enjoying yourself with something fun,” she explained closing the magazine and placing it on the table between us. “So I was thinking –”

The chime of the doorbell echoed throughout the house like an unwelcomed scream. Aunt Rachel and I looked at each other, waiting to see which of us would volunteer to greet our unexpected visitor. I don’t know who or what we were afraid of, but our fear was undeniable, hanging in the room like a specter. Reluctantly I took the initiative and stood from my seat as Aunt Rachel watched wide-eyed and on the verge of hyperventilating.

“I’ll get it,” I offered, breathing deeply in an attempt to calm myself. This is ridiculous. Why am I anxious? The Ancestors wouldn’t ring the doorbell. Anything that I should be concerned about wouldn’t be so damn polite.

I walked through the foyer, passing the side table that held Mother’s house plants and forgotten mail. The afternoon sunlight filtered through the sidelights and fanlight above the attractively carved wooden door casting shadows on the Oriental rug. The doorbell chimed an additional two times before I reached the entranceway and pulled it open without first looking through the peephole, a practice Mother would have lectured me on if she had been aware of it. Her persistent discourse about the growing number of deranged men with malicious intentions towards trusting vulnerable females was nauseating. Whenever she was nearby I would mimic peeking through the hole before opening, but if she wasn’t around I lived perilously and took my chances. In all sincerity, you and I both know that I am neither trusting nor vulnerable, so unless our unexpected guest had a gun cocked and aimed at the door in preparation to shoot me, he is the one with the greatest disadvantage.

As I opened the door for our uninvited guest, I was genuinely surprised to discover Chloe Putnam, who I hadn’t seen in several weeks, standing before me. After sneaking out of my house that influential night in September and meeting Chloe, she and I would spend most Sunday afternoons hanging out. Sometimes she would come over to watch movies or listen to music with me and other times we would just casually stroll around the neighborhood or hang at the park where we first met, smoking cigarettes and complaining about the unfairness of our lives. My Dad’s unyielding encouragement about my friendship with her would sometimes leave me ambivalent about continuing it, but Mother’s distain for Chloe’s unconventional style and “fuck-you” attitude urged me to sustain the friendship.

Our Saturday routine continued for years, but eventually dwindled as I spent more of my leisure time exploring the occult books shelved within the public library. As I gained the courage to earnestly explore my own spirituality without guilt or fear, the friendship with Chloe seemed less important to me. Frankly, how could she be expected to understand who and what I was, when even I found it to be confusing and daunting at times?

“Hey!” I smiled, bewildered by her unexpected visit. “How’s it going?”

“Okay.” She gestured to me. “What about you? It’s been like a minute since we hung out. How come you haven’t returned any of my texts or voice mails? Did I do something wrong? Are you mad at me?”

“No, no,” I shook my head. “I’m not mad. You didn’t do anything.”

I was intrigued by the disappointment on Chloe’s face and realized that I missed spending time with her and as much as I told myself that our friendship wasn’t important to me, I could feel that I had been lying to myself.

Chloe was the only child of Jeffery and Faye (Tucker) Putnam. Her Dad was a Professor of English Literature at RISD and her Mom had been a kindergarten teacher. She was a few years older than me, but had been retained in school twice due to the multiple traumas she experienced prior to moving to Rhode Island, one of which was the death of her Mom in some sort of accident that Chloe never went into detail about and which I didn’t pry. I assumed that her appearance was the way in which she dealt with the pain she had experienced in her life, a rebellion against the shallowness and normalcy that society tried to maintain, especially in our town, even though life itself was a true complex mixture of profound chaotic energies. She always had her hair cut short and dyed some shade of blue, though I noticed it was longer now than I remembered ever seeing it.

“I like the new length,” I commented with a smile. “It’s cute.”

Chloe shyly reached up and touched the hair at the base of her neck. “Thanks. Do you like the color? The girl at the salon called it ‘mermaid’.”

“Yeah, I do. It’s a nice subtle change for you. It works.”

She nodded, dropping her arm. “I thought so, too.”

We stood in silence. It wasn’t awkward; it was our usual comfortable silence and I missed it. There was no one else, other than my Aunt Rachel up to the last days’ events, whom I could be in that quiet space with. I leaned against the door frame and watched Chloe reach into the pocket of her hoodie and remove a gold colored pack of Benson and Hedges. She lit a cigarette with a red plastic lighter and took a slow drag. She flicked the spent match onto the cement walkway that lead to the driveway where Aunt Rachel’s red Nissan was parked.

“So, what have you been up to, Angie?” she asked as she exhaled; the smoke of her cigarette lingered in the air between us and briefly formed into a cloud that resembled the face of Mr. Morrell.

I shrugged and waved my hand, dispersing the uncomfortable smoke apparition. “The usual.”

She flicked the ashes of her cigarette onto the porch and passed the butt to me. “Same. Any more with the Josh thing? “

“No. Nothing. Have you heard anything?” I inquired, glancing over my shoulder for Aunt Rachel before placing the cigarette between my own lips when I was confident she hadn’t entered the foyer.

I was curious about the investigation, but whenever I asked, Mother claimed not to have any new information; I knew she was lying to me, most likely with the misguided belief that in keeping the details from me, she was protecting me from the ugly truth about the world and would prevent me from experiencing a psychotic episode. Even the internet searches I did revealed no new information. It appeared to me that the investigation had reached a dead end.

Chloe accepted the cigarette from me and took a drag. “My Dad said something about the police being convinced that Josh had run away from the hospital.”

“Weird.”

“I know, right? The whole fucking thing is kinda sketchy. I mean if he was really in a coma,” she inhaled a lungful of smoke and exhaled as she continued speaking, “how did he leave the hospital without anyone seeing anything? I mean someone would’ve had to move him in his bed or something. Right?”

“Well, yeah,” I said in agreement though my thoughts drifted to my MP3 player sitting on my bedside table upstairs.

She offered me the cigarette again, but I waved it off. She shrugged and took another drag as she looked directly at me. “Brittany’s been talking shit about the day she saw you at the hospital. She’s been throwing some serious shade, Angie.”

“I’m not surprised,” I said dismissively, recalling the betrayal that skulked into the cantata that she and I once sang and what my actions were in response to it. “Did you know they were fucking? Josh and her?”

“No. Wow. That’s really messed up.” She shook her head. “Someone really should put that bitch in her place. She’s always acting as if she’s better than everyone else when she’s just not. You know? And I have tried to be nice to her for you because I know you are … or were close to her, but every time she looks at me I can see what she’s thinking. And it seriously pisses me off. I just want to wipe that smug look off her face.”

“No need to hold back on my account,” I offered. “I hope she gets everything she deserves.”

Chloe dropped the butt of her cigarette on the porch and crushed it violently with her boot.

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