Live from the Serpent Room

Time and fondling had smeared the writing on the back of the goldenrod flyer, but the most important parts still stood out: “1599 Hayes Street,” and “magic.”

Tom drummed his fingers against his palm as he scrutinized the flyer, oblivious to the night-time fog settling into his dark curls.  His breath struggled to regulate itself, and his skin was still ruddy from climbing the near-vertical hill.  His eyes, however, were filled with a new energy at the sight of the paper tacked to weathered duplex’s front door.

The two flyers were almost identical, warm golden paper blazoned with a single, thick-lined rose, and the words “Those who would blossom, come to the Serpent Room.”  One glaring difference stood out: where the weathered sheet in his hand depicted an infant bulb, its petals barely curled at the tip, the rose on the door was in full bloom, revealing a sleeping baby at its center.  A bulleted list suggested that the Serpent Room would offer painting, sculpting, and yoga, but the words on the back of the paper suggested a very different curriculum.

A victorious smirk shot across Tom’s face, followed closely by trepidation.  He tried to ignore the soreness in his shoulder and back, occupying himself with scrutinizing the property.

The duplex was a simple, featureless stack of planks, set with flat roofs and capacious windows, all painted a rich coffee color that had gone black in the autumn rains.  Every window boasted the same black plastic curtain, dark against dark in the unlit house.  Tom hesitated, watching for motion inside, and trudged off into the unmanaged weeds that sufficed for a yard.

After a few seconds of staring at the windows, his smirk dissipated, becoming a wide-eyed, panicked look of desperation.  He swatted through a dense patch of calla-lilies, spun in place with his neck craned back to search the windows.  Still nothing, just curtains and the corner of a kitchen table.  The smirk returned as he slashed out into the clustering, dying grass, and looked up at the back of the house.  The leftmost of the three windows had its curtains at half-mast, admitting the dull light of a guttering black candle.  Tom clutched at the fabric of his shoulder bag, and jogged back to the front door, his fingers drumming a frenzied tattoo against his palm.

Rapping knuckles betrayed the thinness of the door, hollow and too yielding.  Tom winced as he knocked a second time, then gave up and tried the doorknob.  The door whined inward, spilling moonlight onto a garish burgundy throw rug.  A snake dominated the patterns of the rug, curled about to swallow its own tail.

“Great,” Tom muttered, eyebrows flicking upward.  “Not trite at all.”  He peered back at the driveway, and entered the house.

No lights flickered, no floorboards creaked as Tom ventured up the stairs, and the silence made him hesitate even more.  Each time there was a noise, a car ignition or the house settling in the night, his hand leaped to his shoulder bag, and squeezed until he felt the weight of the horseshoe; then he cursed at himself, and surged a few more steps up the careening staircase, until another distant noise dragged his fingers back to the bag.

His knees wobbled as he reached the top of the steps; his throat was suddenly dry, and a small, exultant noise stirred in the back of it.  He spun around on the cramped landing, and with a giddy lilt in his voice, called “Hello?”

No answer.  Tom gave an unconvincing shrug, and headed left down the hall, after marking the narrow band of light creeping beneath the rightmost door.  He passed over the first room—the door slightly open, light glinting off toilets—and stopped at the next, with a casual glance toward the parched houseplant crouching at the end of the hall.  Another joyous whine crawled free as he grabbed the doorknob.

The room was dark and bare, but for a full-length mirror and a plain, art-deco nightstand.  A tarnished silver candlestick sat atop the stand, along with a book of matches.

“Pay dirt,” the young man half-sang, and stuck the light in his mouth.  He turned his fraying attention to the shoulder bag, stirring the items within.

A lighter, a crumb-flecked Ziploc, a travel bottle of ibuprofen…the white candle had fallen to the bottom of his bag, marred by a hairline crack along its side.  Tom scuttled the candle upward with fingers tensed, wincing as he thudded it home in the candlestick, refusing to let go until he had squeezed and prodded enough to ensure that it wouldn’t break.  He frowned, and dug into his coat pocket for the flyer, reading the scrawled instructions with twitching, troubled eyes.  He read them a second time, sounding out the words, and shoved the paper back into the pocket of his trench coat.

The candle lit after two failed attempts, one the fault of the lighter and the other a product of a wick clipped too short.  Once it stayed ablaze a few seconds, Tom grabbed the bottom edge of the curtain and pulled, tugging once more at the halfway mark.  There was a vacant lot on the other side of the fence, a plain cement slab dotted with stray wisps of starving grass.  Two figures glanced up at the newly revealed window, their eyes pinpricks in the darkness, and then suddenly turned away.  Tom shot backward into the room, shivers dancing down the length of his body.

He shook his head, and whispered to himself, “It’s okay, ‘s okay…just, just do the damn spell…”  A giggle relieved the most serious of the shakes.  He sat crossed-legged before the mirror, licked his lips and began, reluctantly, to chant.

“My name is Tom Holkins…my name is Tom Holkins…”

He raised a finger each time he said it, forcing himself to focus on the mirror.  The words warped and flowed as he spoke them, the emphasis sliding toward the end of the statement.

“My name is Tom Holkins.”  Five.  “My name is Tom Holkins.”  Six.

At seven, he heard thrashing in the grass beneath him.  Tom blinked, grit his teeth, and soldiered onward.  Nine, Ten; the fingers of his left hand folded inward, popping up again; twelve, thirteen…

Tom opened his eyes, and stared for a long moment at his reflection.  His breath came in short, mewling gasps.  The noise was dimming, curving back around the side of the house.  Tom focused on his reflection, and continued, frowning as he did so.

“My…” he hesitated, winced, and carried on anyway.  “…name is not Tom Holkins.  My name is not Tom Holkins…”

The front door swung open; footsteps whisked onto the welcome mat.

“My name is not Tom Holkins, my name is not Tom Holkins…”

Wind slammed the door shut, just before the first footsteps barked against the stairs. Tom’s chant sped up, rose in pitch.  They were in the hallway, at least two men by the sound of their footsteps.  He had six repetitions to go.  They tried the doorknob—four more—opened it just a sliver; Tom started to crane his neck, but forced it rigid before his eyes could leave the mirror.  The door clapped shut, whispers scuffing against each other on the other side.

“My name is not Tom Holkins,” he blurted, and finally, “My name is not Tom Holkins.”

The mirror rocked backward on its swivel, splaying Tom’s reflection up toward the ceiling.  The picture pitched and wobbled, stretching into comical thinness the reflections of the two figures behind Tom, entering now that he was silent.

In front was a man with skin like burnt almonds, a wide and expressive face topping a powerful, barrel-chested body.  A single scar intruded upon the close-cropped hair on his temple, stark and pink against the graying curls.  Behind him came a pale woman, high cheekbones, arctic irises, hair blonde to the point of white.  Both wore faded green BDUs, their chest patches proclaiming them “July” and “Weaver,” respectively; the woman wore hers zipped to the neck, while the man’s was open to reveal a tab-collar shirt beneath.  They looked down at Tom, cross-legged on the floor, his trench coat pooling about his waist; the woman made no effort to hide a scoff.

“How did you find this place?” the black man demanded.

Tom gaped, his voice all but gone.  The black man squinted at him, approaching close, deep within Tom’s personal space.  Tom shifted away from the intruder.

“The flyers—”

“What flyers?”  He stepped closer, angry now.  “Who sent you a flyer?”

Tom screwed his eyes shut.  “The Owl Tree!” he quavered; then, with more confidence, “I…the bartender told me that if, if I spray-painted my address at the Sutro Baths—”

“How long ago was this?” the black man rumbled.

“A,” Tom pinched the bridge of his nose, “a week.”  His fingers released.  “The letter told me I had a week…”

“One week,” the woman remarked.  Her voice mixed the elongated vowels of Southern California with the blunted Rs of Eastern Europe. “Long enough to think we’d put you on?”

Tom looked at her, and fought for the power of speech.  “Yeah.  Um, two or three times.”  He looked at the floor, embarrassed.

“But you got the flyer,” the black man prompted, “and what did you do?”

Tom licked his lips, unsettled.  “I found another one at the student lounge, it was…plastered over something about a cancelled concert.”

The black man and his companion shared a look.

“So,” Tom twisted his fingers in his bag strap, “I went to that address, and there was another flyer, over this flyer about a Haunted SF tour.  S-so I went on that, and the guy mentioned that there’s supposed to be the ghost of an old witch here in this house.  So I came back on the next night he wasn’t doing a tour, uhhh…and here I am.”  Tom flared his arms wide, let them drop again.

The black man nodded.  “Here you are.”

A pregnant silence passed between the two of them.  The black man cocked his head, examining the lithe, gawky twenty-something.

“And you want to learn magic?”

Tom nodded.

The black man wiped his nose, tossed his scarf over his shoulder.  “Then I suppose we head to the Serpent Room.”

The black man turned, walking past his companion.

“Downstairs,” she said, and joined him.

The pair led Tom to the back of the house, through a kitchen and dining area bathed in dust but for a naked square around the spice rack.  They ended their march at the far side of the kitchen, staring at the blonde wood door next to the stove.  The black man paused, arms folded behind his back.

“After you,” he said, his tone a dark parody of decorum.

A shiver ran through Tom’s back as he opened the door.  There were stairs beyond, and a jagged node of wires where there should be an overhead lamp.  Something shifted in the darkness below.

“What’s down there?”

The black man looked to his companion for a response.

“First lesson,” she said evenly.  “Magic is about the discovery of mysteries.”  She simpered at him, and echoed the black man:  “After you.”

Tom shrugged, rolled his shoulders, and took the first step.  The air in the basement was cold and earthy, assaulting his lungs as he descended.

“How is it this cold down here?”

No response.  Tom took one step down, another; still, there was silence.

“Okay then…”  He looked down at the floor, a chocolate smear beyond the last step.  “Okay…”  He sucked in a deep breath, and stepped off the stairs.

Every hair on his body stood rigid.  A deep chill slammed against the excitement in his guts.  The air was moist and thick with static, wafting the tang of ozone into his nostrils.

“Okay!” Tom said once more, not meaning it.  He retreated to the banister.  “I’m officially freaked out!”

The black man decamped from the stairs, his wince a momentary flash of white teeth in the shadows.

“Slang term.  ‘Outie.’  A place of power.  Somewhere the veil between worlds is thin.  There aren’t many left in America.”  He cocked back his head, sniffed the air.  “San Francisco is lucky to have one to call its own.”

The pale woman stayed on the stairs, hands buried in her pockets.  She had unzipped her jacket, revealing concentric circles of necklaces laden with charms and pendants.  She watched the room with pensive, darting eyes.

“I’m going to guess,” Tom said, “judging by my lycanthropy impersonation, that this is the Serpent Room?”

The black man nodded.  “Named after Ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail.  A symbol of—”

“Padre,” the pale woman interjected.  “Will you stop with the thrice-great ranting and get on with it?”

The Padre huffed, but nevertheless let the sentence drop.  Tom watched as the black man strode over to the far end of the room, and tried not to let the shaking take hold of his body.

“Maybe,” the Padre uttered, “I should just show you?”

A pull-chain clacked; light stabbed into Tom’s eyes.  He blinked away the daze, and stood for a moment in absolute awe.

The single bulb at the room’s center hinted at a vast space, expanding out into the deep shadows beyond its illumination.  It had been floored in tile some decades ago, a tessellation of white turned brown with dust and use, but for the mosaic at the very center, beneath the swaying bulb.  Red chips, with a cluster of yellow to mark its eye: another snake, again swallowing its own tail, but this one’s body was a tangled mess, forming a symbol too dizzying to examine closely.  Tom was roused from his shock only by the sound of squeaking castors.

The Padre slid into the circle of light, pushing a mirror out of the darkness.  Its frame was an unadorned iron rectangle, its glass clean and recently polished.  He swung the mirror back and forth on its castors, repositioning until it faced Tom fully.  A pale, exhilarated reflection gaped back at him.

“Do you have your instructions?” the Padre asked.

A rapid, muzzy-headed nod.  Tom reached into his pocket, excitement pricking at his fingertips.  He produced the wrinkled paper, pinched it apart, and looked up, pensive and alert for their response.

“Very good,” the Padre said without sincerity.  He leveled a finger at the mirror.  “Do it again.”

Tom’s brow furrowed.  “Do what again?”

The pale woman leaned over to him, pressing a brilliant yellow candle into his hand.  “All of it.”

Tom cocked an eyebrow.  The candle was softer than the one upstairs, with a disturbing porous quality.  “I’m just gonna do the same thing over again?”

The Padre shook his head, raised a finger.  “One difference.”

“What?” Tom joked, bending over the candle.  “This time I do the hokey-pokey?”  He flicked his lighter, striking only sparks.

The Padre tossed something onto the floor; it glittered as it danced to a halt at Tom’s feet.  A knife.

“Blood.”

Tom froze, the candle-flame a distant warmth between his hands.  The tingle of excitement had disappeared.

“Blood?”

“A necessary component.”  The Padre nodded toward the glass.

Tom took up the knife, examined its blade.  Quite sharp.  He laid it gingerly on his thigh, and regarded the black man standing over him.

“Why?”

“Oh good,” the pale woman said.  “This one will actually ask questions.”

The Padre did not acknowledge her statement.  “Spells are what, some words and a few gestures?”  He clucked his tongue.  “If it was that easy everyone would do it.”

“So…” Tom wrinkled his brow; disappointment flooded through his hands.  “You’re not teaching me magic?”

“Oh, I’m teaching you magic.”  The Padre gave a deep, affirmative nod.  “There’s magic everywhere.  You just need to wake it up.”

“And all I have to do is stick myself?”  Tom’s fascination dried out.  “Shit, sign me up.”

The Padre smirked without humor.  “Blood is only one way.  The quickest way, and maybe the most painful.  But if you can’t take it, then no-one is going to bother teaching you the more complicated methods.  No point if you’re not committed.  Now, are you going to cast the spell”—the black man nodded toward the weapon—”or are you going to leave in a huff, mewling about how paying for the secrets of the universe is unfair?”
Tom looked again at the knife.  His hands quivered.

“You don’t want to go on?” the Padre asked.

The relief hovering on the fringes of his voice was what brought the knife blade to Tom’s hand.  The wiry man grunted as flesh opened beneath metal. Cold stinging danced across his entire palm, irritated by the flow of warm blood.

“Now what?” he hissed through clenched teeth; he jerked his hand downward as he felt a rivulet sneak past his shirt cuff.

“On the mirror,” the Padre intoned.

With a great, nervous lash of his arm, Tom spattered his blood across the mirror. The flecks caught and ran down; one stray droplet shivered off the iron frame. He whipped his arm around once more, giving it a second dousing. The excitement had returned, but with it came nausea.

“My name…” Tom licked his lips, but his tongue had gone dry. “My name is Tom Holkins…My name is Tom Holkins…”

There was no sing-song this time, no playing with the words. Tom repeated himself with paranoid exactitude, shaping each syllable carefully before letting it escape his mouth.

After the thirteenth repetition, he drew a breath, and looked hard at the mirror.  Nothing had changed, though the nausea had blurred his perceptions somewhat.  He flexed his wounded hand, and continued.

“My name is not Tom Holkins…My name is not Tom Holkins.”

Something shifted in the mirror, a variation in the play of the shadows.  A lump swelled in Tom’s throat.

“My name, is not Tom Holkins…My name is not Tom Holkins…”

There was definitely movement; one of the shadows was out of synch with the others, moving against the swinging of the bulb. The temperature plummeted as Tom came around to the seventh repetition.

“My name is not Tom Holkins…My name is not Tom Holkins…”

It lurked behind the shoulder of his reflection. It had hands, hair, frayed edges on a mass of shadow. Its hair had a familiar curl that brought new ice to Tom’s stomach.

“My name is not Tom Holkins.”

It crept closer.

“My name is not Tom Holkins.”

The shadow-thing reared up, a poisonous yellow light incandescent on its trunk.

“My name is not Tom Holkins.”

Wings of darkness spread behind Tom’s reflection.

“My name is not Tom Holkins.”

The thing pounced.

Tom fell backward, stunned, his peripheral vision registering some violent spasm rocking the world of the mirror. He clambered up to his elbows, staring at his own sprawled, bloodless reflection, free of shadows or nightmares. Tom watched himself for several seconds, mouth slack.  Then the reflection grinned.

“Fuck!” Tom whooped, pushing backward with elbows and feet. The mosaic gouged at his arms.

The Padre stepped forward, halting at the far edge of the serpent’s coils. He held a piece of notebook paper out to Tom.

“Step Two,” he rumbled, and the ghost of a grin found his face.

Tom took the paper, turning it over a few times before unfolding it. The words were plain English, more recipe than arcane instructions.

“A—” Tom balked, giving his reflection a long appraisal. It waited a few seconds before cocking its head and waving, driving Tom’s eyes back to the paper.  “As rust conquers metal and rain devours stone, the barrier grows frail before my words. Creature of hunger and…memories,” he stumbled over the word, “I call you into the world of flesh. With this vision I give you a gate.”

Point at the mirror with your left hand,” the paper instructed; Tom complied.

“With my blood I give you motive. With my words I give you entrance. Glass, blood, and will; spirit, you are freed. As I will it, so…mote it be?”

A gust of wind; the melodic blast of breaking glass; Tom was on the floor, breathless, swatting at his clothes and neck and face. Logic seeped through the panic, and his hands froze, instead fingering a face that was mercifully dry of blood. The skinny youth swung up to a sitting position, and regarded what remained of the mirror. Through the spider-web he saw a reflection just as dazed, sweaty, and speckled with glass as he was. Tom’s lips pursed at the sight.

“But I thought I—”

There was no substance to the force which struck his stomach, no matter, only the sensation of pressure, blossoming into a void of pins and needles across his chest.  He slammed onto his back, hair splaying out as his head cracked against the serpent’s eye. Tom whooped out a breath, staring down his chest at a nothing that should be something.

“I thought the spell was—” Tom bucked as ice stabbed into his left leg, robbing it of sensation “supposed to—”

“Your reflection was a focus to call it up,” the Padre conceded. “But you can’t see a spirit with the naked eye.” A smile lurked behind the Padre’s words, more derisive than friendly.

A tendril of shivers danced up Tom’s torso, curling toward his sternum. Tom’s arms shot out, and met resistance. Teeth gritted against the frostbite on his palms, Tom pushed up and away. The chill peeled off his body, leaving a now-familiar numbness; needle-teeth dug into the flesh of his thumb, and the entire hand went dull and stupid, a pervasive anti-itch creeping along his fingers and wrist.

“How the fuck do I stop it?” Tom looked at the Padre, eyes wild.

The black man took a step backward, vanishing into the long shadows cast by the bulb.  “Why did you write your name on the baths?”

What?!

“You heard me. Why you want to learn magic?”

“Because I like my skin where it fucking is, thank you very fucking much!”

The pale woman shook her head. “Your skin will be fine. It’s everything but the meat you need to be worried about.”

More tiny teeth crinkled and tore at Tom’s shirt; a circle of red dots glistened on the exposed skin, already gone clammy.

“Get this thing off me!” Tom shrieked.

The black man stood impassive. “Answer my question.”

“You—” Something swatted at Tom’s neck; a migraine throbbed its opening beats in his temples. “Power!” he screamed, face screwed shut from the pain.

The Padre scoffed. “Tell me something I don’t know. We all wanted power when we started.”

“Most of us want power now,” the pale woman noted.

The Padre gestured for her to be silent. “But you could have bought a gun, bribed your way into office,” he shrugged, “beat your girlfriend…People find ways to get power without digging around for magic. What’s the real reason?”

“Nggh.” The world was a blur before Tom’s vision.  The thing in his hands was a mass of mouths and arms and teeth, thrashing, biting, drinking all his energy. He couldn’t feel his limbs; his torso was reduced to random patches of sensation; and behind it all was the dense, bone-deep weight of overwhelming fatigue. An invisible arm wrapped about his throat, turning his voice to a shrill croak.

“This is insane, Padre, this is insane…”

“It’s magic,” he countered.  “What’s the truth, why did you come?”

Tom blinked back tears. His mouth strained with effort, half of it shocked by a quick slap from his attacker. “My niche.”

The Padre cocked his head. “What?”

“I…” Tom swung a hand up to his face, punching himself hard in the cheek. He dragged the extremity down to his neck and managed to hook bloated, blurry-edged fingers around the tendril there. “I don’t have any friends, I don’t know what I’m doing with my degree, I speak three languages and my life is going nowhere!”  The last came out in a desperate scream, saliva spiraling away from his mouth.  “I don’t…I can’t…”  He pushed again, and the tendril gave way. “The bartender at the Owl Tree, she said…she said if I wanted something worth studying…”

“Her name’s Sammy.  The Opener if you want to get formal.” The Padre sat down on the bottom stair, rubbing at his chin.  “So you wanted magic to give you purpose in life? Something to do with yourself?”

Tom nodded desperately.  The world had shrunk to a tunnel of red.

The Padre shrugged. “Better than some I’ve heard. Mercy, if you would.”

The pale woman vaulted over her associate, and rushed onto the mosaic, kneeling next to Tom. A switchblade was a blur in her hand; she dug the point into the ball of her thumb, smearing the resulting blood about her palm.  Tom’s headache ebbed a little; the pressure on his stomach began to lessen.

Mercy reached into one of her many pockets, producing an iron nail and an airline-sized vodka bottle. A brackish pink liquid swirled in the glass.

“Iron to anchor you.” She squeezed the nail in her palm, smearing it with blood.  “Glass to imprison you.”  She threw out her hand, adding her own blood to the mess on the mirror.  “Primrose to drive you back into shadow.” She let out a low hiss as she poured the bottle’s contents onto her wound.  “Blood,” a gasp,” to awaken the hidden power.”  She threw up her left arm in defense, and it fell away as if struck.  “Away from me spirit; my touch is your bane. As I will it,” her hand twitched back from some unseen contact, “so mote it be.”

Mercy lashed out with the nail, stabbing at the air above Tom. The nail caught and held fast; there was a low, batrachian screech, and the air exploded into oppressive humidity.  The pressure subsided, but the headache and needles remained as a memento.

Tom groaned, and rolled onto his side, gasping for breath. The two magi waited, Mercy bandaging her hand, the Padre just sitting, watching as Tom struggled to his knees, then finally to his feet. The skinny youth stood, hunched over, his hair a stringy curtain before his face. He regarded the Padre with mounting anger and the distant shiver of fear.

“What,” Tom demanded, “the fuck was that about?”

The Padre stood. “Sammy can’t exactly hold a formal interview for every punk and drop-out that wants to worm his way into the mysteries.” A smile played across his face. “So we’re here to test you out.”

“That thing,” his finger wobbled in the direction of the mirror, “could have killed me.”

“Mercy would have prevented that.”

“And I believe that…why?” Tom gestured widely. “Your vast and frequent displays of conscience and humanitarian effort? There a Nobel Peace Prize you want to show me?”

The Padre slipped his hands into his pockets, and turned to Mercy with a smirk. “He’ll do just fine, I think.”

“What if I don’t want to do just fine?!” Tom spat, cutting off Mercy’s reply. “Color me crazy, but I’m starting to think that maybe magic isn’t the wisest career choice.”

“You loved it,” Mercy replied, snide.

Tom stopped cold.  He goggled at the pale woman.

“What?”

Mercy swept her hair back from her face.  “You said it yourself.”  She took a step toward him, her body language mocking and insouciant.  “You’ve got no goal, no forward drive.  Nothing.”  She hissed the word.  “Just looking forward to more days spent at the computer, another few hours treading water before you climb out of the pool and sleep.  I’ve been there, Tom,” she admitted with a nod.  “And now,” she spread her arms wide, taking in the whole of the room, “we peel back a layer of reality, get your adrenal gland working for the first time in your life, and you say ‘Fuck this, where are the Cheetos?’”  She gave her head a derisive shake.  “You feel like a million bucks right now.  I’d bet my Seal of Solomon on it.”

“I nearly died.”

“And you learned a spells in the process,” the Padre remarked.  “Two if you were paying attention.  Nothing’s free, and magic least of all.”

The skinny youth had no comeback.

“Nothing says you have to study magic,” the black man continued.  “But I’m guessing you’ll be out looking for more spells come next week.  I could be wrong”—he shrugged, lips tight—“but I’m probably not.”

Tom sneered.  “Where would I even find spells, anyway?  Crazy Gandalf’s House of Wands?”

A smile cracked Mercy’s cold mask.  “I’d start on Market Street, down near Castro.  Look for a blonde guy claiming he’s an HIV-positive Vietnam vet.”

“He’s easy to spot,” the Padre purred.  “He’ll be clean.”

Tom’s gaze bobbed down to his shoes.

“We’ll be leaving now,” the Padre said.  His grin glinted in the bulb-light.  “Be seeing you?”

“Get cancer,” Tom spat.  “Please.”

The Padre chortled; both magi mounted the stairs, and were gone, nothing but rattling footsteps above Tom’s head.  The skinny youth hung back, skin gone cold, hair matted with sweat, listening until he heard the bang of a closing front door. He went to the stairs, swinging his arms with defiant anger, and paused.  His deadened nerves singing, he turned, and looked into the mirror.

Its spider-webs reflected an emaciated network of rainbows, and behind them was his reflection.  Tom raised his arm; the mirror-Tom did the same.

For several seconds, all Tom could do was chuckle, a diseased laugh born of stress and fatigue.  When the urge died out, Tom found he had been crying.

He wiped away the tears, and directed his attention to the floor in front of the mirror.  The paper the Padre had given him sat at the very center of the serpent’s coils, creased and buckled by humidity.

Tom looked up at the door.  He pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing until his lingering headache disappeared beneath the pressure.  He let his fingers drop, and regarded the paper.

“Shit.”

Tom chopped his way down the steps, swept up the paper, and examined it.  The ink was blue, the same blocky cursive which graced the back of his flyer.  Tom tilted the page, smoothed it against his palm, and took a pen from his bag.

“To Summon A Spirit,” Tom wrote, adding his own smooth print above the Padre’s scratching.  He folded the paper, and put it in his bag, trading it for a blank sheet on which he wrote “To Banish A Spirit.”

Tom mumbled as he walked up the stairs, reciting Mercy’s incantation beneath his breath, recording the items she had used.  His writing grew larger, more frantic, as he approached the front door; Tom paused there on the threshold, writing “primrose juice?” in the scant space above the incantation itself.  Tom folded the paper into his bag, and stepped out onto the street.

“Nothing up my sleeve…” he said, and wiggled his wounded hand.

With dark amusement etched on his face, Tom descended the hill, marching toward Market Street.

The End