“The Witches of Detroit” by Maureen Aitken
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her story “The Witches of Detroit” Maureen Aitken examines family tragedy and its aftermath from the perspective of two middle-school girls who form an unexpected bond.
The Witches of Detroit
by Maureen Aitken
When my mother ran out of excuses to keep me home from school—a cold, pneumonia, the flu—the principal told her I had to return or repeat the sixth grade. By then, two weeks of mourning had turned to three. By then, fall had slipped away, and the year’s first snowfall had grayed in the streets and formed an ice shell over the lawns.
“Fine,” my mother told the principal. “But if my daughter dies of respiratory failure, I’ll blame you.”
That first morning at school, when the bell rang for classes, the tan-tiled halls closed in so small, and the floor tilted so slightly. People I knew, Janice and Matt, talked to other people with dampened voices, as if their fists were cupped together around their mouths.
I sat in the same wood chair as before, saw Mr. Armstrong with his pocket protector, then walked the same Santa Maria Street toward home. One family didn’t shovel their sidewalks, so the snow turned to ice. I slipped, landing on my leg, then my hand, until all of me fell.
Above me, these huge tree limbs arced, bare, with fine younger limbs hanging in clusters. I’d never noticed how the branches reached above the sidewalk and over the street. A cardinal on a far limb flew away. The cold on my back, the sky above, and something about the utter collapse relaxed me. Someone walked around me.
The ice numbed the back of my head. I took a deep breath in, sensing where the cold met my lungs, where the chill seized my throat. When the beep of hospital monitors erupted in my brain, it froze instantly, hung there, arrested. My mother crying, my father’s face, my sadness. The memories barely whispered before they iced in mid-movement, filling me with such space, such release. I couldn’t think.
More people passed. Someone asked, “Walk much?” A boy chuckled at a high pitch, like a creaky seesaw. The numbness came as a relief. Mother Nature would ease my pain. I was about to close my eyes. More than that. Since he’d left, I saw this hole ripped in the day. Maybe it had been there all along. It could take anything. People. Cars. Mom. Me. It scared me, to feel what was there one day, gone the next. But lying on the ground, for the first time, I thought, I give up being scared of you.
Then from above, hair and a face started to arc over my sky like a moon. It took me a second to realize it was Lauren, a girl in the grade above me, who said, “I heard your dad died.”
“Yeah,” I said.
She nodded. “I lost mine, too.”
Lauren reached her hand out. I hesitated. Lauren was a year ahead of me, but she seemed twenty years older. She stood tall with big boobs and a little pudge, and she passed the halls without talking to anyone in particular, so people thought she was either cool or crazy. The school was a mix of races, with a few Filipino and Latina students. But Lauren? They couldn’t figure her out. When someone asked, she’d tell them to fuck off. People steered clear of her, and the way she leaned over me, she could have thought like a kid, and easily spit on me. But she didn’t. So I grabbed on.
We walked past the alley, the house with the red fence and the dog that long ago pushed his head through a screen, which flapped in the wind as we passed. The dog inside stared at us like we were steak on stilts, his nostrils smearing the window, his barks muffled by the glass.
People waved to Lauren as she talked about biology class and how we learned everything from the wolves. When they were sick, they went alone to die, she said, because they didn’t want to infect anyone or slow the pack down.
The rip in the sky, still there, felt less scary. “I like the writing classes, and literature. I just read A Catcher in the Rye.”
“Well, I’ve read stuff too,” Lauren said.
“Horror,” Lauren said. “I’m a big fan of guts.”
A paper turkey hung from a window of Jill Robinson’s old house. Jill and her family had moved away, like so many, in the summer, when few noticed. It was the time of Jimmy Carter, white flight, and stagnation, at least here. Every summer people moved away, with their absence not felt until fall. Jill Robinson’s old house now had another family there. The people next door had moved to California.
“Maybe you hit your head,” Lauren said. “I heard if you fall asleep, you might die.”
The street I’d known my entire life stretched out before us, the brick houses, slumping from neglect, some windows covered with sheets, the early Christmas lights, the Thanksgiving paper turkeys of brown, yellow, and orange.
At my house, with the missing bricks, we stood. I want to say I was sorry for her loss. Lauren had just started at the school, so I hadn’t known she’d lost her father.
But Lauren interrupted me. “If you trip again, don’t stay down.”
“It felt good,” I said. Mr. Johnson drove by with his shepherd running behind the car, in his version of walking his dog.
Lauren folded her arms and shook her head. “You have to be strong. Otherwise, life’ll crush you.”
Mr. Johnson turned left. “It already has.”
Lauren’s breath plumed out in fogs into the cold and then gone. “Cool.” She turned and walked toward home without a goodbye and without looking back.
On Friday, I was walking with my friend Janice when Lauren stopped me in the hall and passed me a book. “Okay, read this. You’ll see.”
After Lauren walked away, Janice said, “She’s so cool.”
The book was Helter Skelter, about the Manson murders. At home, I made Mom a chicken sandwich and did my homework at the dining room table so she wouldn’t feel alone. For two hours, she sat on that couch under the living room window, gazing into some unknown land. It was her version of being in the cold, so I got it. I made her coffee. When I brought it to her and she took a sip, she choked.
“Well, that should wake me up,” she said. She took another sip. I watched her from the dining room table, and when my homework was done, I snuggled up next to her and thought of Lauren and her guts obsession and fell asleep.
I finished Helter Skelter by Sunday morning. I wanted to know if Lauren read books like this because of her father. Maybe he’d died in some brutal way. Or was it a way of fighting off the pain? Mom hadn’t gone to church since the funeral. I thought to walk the book over to Lauren’s house, even though I wasn’t completely sure where she lived.
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
“Where’re you going?” Mom asked. She reached her hand out to me.
“Just down the street to return this book,” I said. “I don’t have to go.”
“You go,” she said. “I’ll make lunch. We’ll eat in an hour.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
Four blocks over, past the barking Rottweilers, an abandoned house, and the one of stone and brick with the oboe player inside—I searched out the block where I’d seen Lauren raking leaves. The cold breeze and the snow felt crisp. A passing car with two parents and two kids in back made my heart hurt. I had to stop. I saw, then, a small rock above the snow, as if it were trying to run away. I put it in my pocket and walked slowly, searching for signs.
I heard yelling at one house and then the word “Lauren.” I stood in front of the house, trying to tell if the yelling had laughter in it or anger. Someone moved upstairs, and I thought to keep walking when Lauren opened the front door and said, “You finish it?”
She waved for me to come in, even though a woman’s yelling had grown stronger.
Lauren walked straight upstairs, and I followed. In the hallway was a picture of Mrs. Delaney, Lauren as a baby, and, apparently, Mr. Delaney. Mrs. Delaney was black. Mr. Delaney was white. But the weird thing was their faces. They didn’t match. Mrs. Delaney had saucer eyes, like Gladys Knight. Kind eyes. Mr. Delaney’s whole face was pinched, with little eyes and a mouth without lips, like a rat.
The yelling got louder. A slam of the phone.
“Is everything, like, okay?”
“Oh, that’s my Aunt Gloria with my mom.”
We were upstairs and in her room before she said, “Aunt Gloria’s a lawyer. She represents my mom.”
“For what?” I said. “Never mind. That was dumb.”
“Ask all you want,” Lauren said and sat down in the window box. “My stupid father cheated on my mom. Now they’re divorcing or trying to. Aunt Gloria said Mom will take him for everything.”
I froze. “What? I thought your father was dead.”
Lauren sprayed some Love’s Baby Soft on and sniffed her wrist. “Dead to me.”
She straightened her back. “Aunt Gloria found out the truth. He had an affair with someone five years older than me. Got her pregnant, too. That’s grounds.”
My brain tried to fix Lauren’s story, got stuck.
“He’s dead to me, too, and I haven’t even met him.”
I thought changing the conversation might help, so I said Helter Skelter was so scary, especially the parts about how crazy Charlie Manson controlled women.
“Yeah, and then they tried to take the baby out of Tate’s body.”
I put my hands over my ears. “Stop. Gross.”
Lauren nodded. “I told you I like guts. How sick or high do you have to be to do that? I’m supposed to be a doctor. So I should know. There goes Aunt Gloria.”
A woman in a blue dress walked out to her car. A quiet came over the house, and soon a gentle knock at the door.
“Lauren? Aunt Gloria said goodbye.”
Lauren’s mom opened the door slowly and then snuck into the room. She was tall, elegant, and thin in her crocheted short dress of bright colors, her hair pulled back in a bun.
“Mom this is Mary,” Lauren said. “Her dad just died.”
Mrs. Delaney sat up. “Oh, I am so sorry, Sweetie. I am so, so sorry.”
I had to think fast not to burst out into tears. “Lauren was just saying she’s going to be a doctor.”
Mrs. Delaney smiled. “Yes, like her grandfather. What in God’s name are you reading?”
“Reading about the Tate murders,” Lauren said. “It has anatomy in it.”
Mrs. Delaney shook her head slowly, turned, and walked out without saying a word. Lauren smiled. “What’s—” I started to say but Lauren put her finger to her lips. She leaned forward, waiting for something.
Mrs. Delaney came back with five dollars. “Go buy some smart books. And I want to see what you buy. No horror or astrology, you hear me?”
We both said, “Yes. Ma’am” together. She restrained a smile and went to make more phone calls. Lauren and I walked to my house. When I unlocked the door, Mom was happy to see me, but then her face fell a little to see Lauren. I knew that face, the one where it was just us, and now others would arrive back into our lives.
“Mom, this is Lauren, from school.”
“Oh, hello,” she said, brightening again. We split my sandwich and convinced my mom to drive us up to the Library Bookstore, with used, cheaper books we could afford. A droop in her face, one of such sadness, came over her. “I guess it’s time to move on, right?”
It didn’t dawn on me that this was the first time she’d left the house in three weeks. She moved as though ghosts surrounded her. Lauren sensed this, I think, because when Mom stopped to let us out, Lauren said, “We all need to find something good.”
The small bookstore had a cooking section, and my mom stayed there, looking at the jackets with faint interest. I went over to the literature section and found a cheap Pride and Prejudice. I’d heard of it but didn’t understand the fuss over the first pages.
“What’s some dead British woman going to show us?” Lauren said.
We found two books that Lauren’s mother would like: me The Grapes of Wrath and Lauren found The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
We wandered around until we found a display table called “Witches and Warlocks,” with two shelves underneath. “The Book of Spells,” Lauren read. “Sweet.” We studied the back jackets as if they mattered.
We found Witchcraft. We did the math and bought three more books, but we were still twenty cents short.
“I’ll give it to you,” the owner said. “Good to see girls reading something valuable.”
“Yeah, I hear Steinbeck is great.”
The bookstore owner was framed by First Editions, the valuable stuff, on display at the center, and stacks running two feet over her head.
“No, dear. The witchcraft books. Changed. My. Life. But don’t tell people.”
“Why not?” I asked.
She looked at me like I was some kind of new dumbass.
“People fear witches. Besides, we just find each other.”
“Cool,” I said.
Mom came back from the cookbook section with one slim book on soups and studied our selections. “This is a bizarre fixation.” She pointed to our books. As we walked out into the cold air she said, “You girls happy?”
“Yes,” we said in unison. “Thank you.” She didn’t talk about the books again. We walked over to the cake shop, and Mom bought four items to go, chocolate cupcakes for us, a dark chocolate one for Mom, and a carrot-cake muffin. It was Dad’s favorite. I held my breath when I saw it.
In the middle of the bakery, she looked down at her selections and froze, knew just then that there was no husband at home waiting for this. Not only did she have to see her home again without him; she would have to see his absence anew at every errand and event until, years later, he would be rooted out of her life.
My mother nodded. “Yes, we’ll do that.”
Lauren and I ate the cupcakes in the back seat, stamping the pages of our books with icing fingerprints, our teeth stained with clumps of chocolate.
The next day Lauren rifled through the book of spells and found four incantations. I wanted to talk to my dead father, and Lauren wanted her father to move away; Lauren wanted a protection spell for her mother; then I wanted one for my mother. We wrote them down on the back of a receipt.
“But first we need to start with a test spell, something small,” Lauren said.
We sat facing the windows and said, “Great Mother, we offer these spells, in your honor.”
We read the spells several times, with the list of all four wishes and the dollar test.
“Now let’s burn the list,” Lauren said. She went to grab it.
“No way. We’re experimenting. We need to test the outcomes.”
We didn’t wait. My mom found us lifting up the couch cushions, pulling out lint balls, a tie, and change. She gave us a bag. “Put the lint in here.”
We found $1.23 in change in the couch and stared at each other, wide-eyed. “It works,” Lauren said.
Christmas was in a week. For Christmas we bought each other rabbits’ feet, mine in blue and Lauren picked green.
Christmas arrived. Mom and I had gone to buy a tree, but that had been Dad’s job, so we bought one too late, and too small. We had four gifts, which we’d wrapped together, so the surprise was gone. Some aunts and a few cousins would come over today at three. But I made a fire and we sat there, Mom and me, in the early morning, listening to the fire crackle, watching the wood burn hard and full.
“Thank you,” I said. “For the gifts.”
Mom nudged me. “This is just one of those holidays we get through.”
I hugged her tight then, as if she might fall through the floor. I felt something on my cheek. It was a tear that had dropped from her face. Then we both cried, for a long time, just like that.
Lauren and I talked on the phone that day, and I told her I’d like us to create a potion or a spell that could take away so much death, that could pull out the grief.
She stopped by, and we walked to a nearby park, swiped the snow off the swing seats, revealing the wood with chipped green paint, with names and words scored with knives. We sat down, and she understood my sadness.
Lauren said we would remember these days when we were in high school together.
“These are the days where everything starts.”
“My dad’s dying wish was that I would go to this dumb school, out in the burbs.”
“We’ll see,” she said. “Let’s make a spell for it.”
I pushed back a little on the seat, and then forward. “A spell to be friends forever.”
She said, without even asking, “Eternal Mother, we vow to be friends forever, to right the wrongs. Send us the signs we need to know.”
Curtains moved at the house next to the park. It must have been Crazy Ethel, watching us.
“We don’t want signs,” I said. “Take that back.”
“Signs are dangerous. Great Mother, heal my mother of her grief. We vow to be friends forever, but forget what Lauren just said about signs.”
“You can’t take back a spell,” Lauren said.
“I just did.”
“It’s in all the books.”
“Still did it,” I said.
I thought of Lauren’s spell two days later, as Mom and I watched the news in the den. A picture of Jill Robinson’s face came up, the girl from grade school who’d moved away. The picture was the one taken at our school. We had a black-and-white television, so it was all hard to see.
“Mom,” I said. “I knew her.”
“Yeah, she moved last summer.”
The reporter said Jill had been shot in the face. Her body had been dumped on the side of the freeway.
The reporter stood on the side of I-75, the part in the good, rich suburb, and said, “They dumped her body here.”
“That’s horrible,” Mom said.
I saw a spot in the snow. It was gray. I couldn’t imagine Jill going with any guy. She was too shy. She’d have run. Did the man cast a spell on her? It wasn’t fair. She was the nicest person I knew.
I leaned in, trying to make out the stain.
“That’s awful,” Mom said. “But they’ll find who did it.”
“Is that blood?” I asked. Mom leaned forward, too.
“No, that’s just dirt. It’s the freeway.”
“Whoever did this moved her,” she said. “We’ll pray for Jill. Jill Robinson.”
“I’ll pray that whoever killed her rots in hell,” I said. I had done, I thought then, all the wrong spells. I’d cast a spell for a dollar when I should have cast one to protect Jill’s life.
Mom turned to me, as if shaken from a trance. “You and Lauren need to be more careful.”
“Don’t worry, Mom,” I said. “We have special powers.”
“Yes,” I said.
Mom stared at the television, even the corny car ads. I wanted to grab her hand, go get ice cream. She was in a daze, but I couldn’t let her go, not to my father, and not to the rip in the sky that made us all so vulnerable, that could swallow us whole.
“Maybe all the energies of this world protect you,” I said. I held her hand.
She couldn’t take her eyes away from the television. I didn’t blame her. I, too, longed for the numbness, for the cold, for grief to freeze midair. But if we went, all that would be left were the child killers, the doctors who didn’t cure cancer, the husbands who cheated on their wives. The Charles Mansons of the world would take over.
I went into the kitchen and took my father’s carrot-cake muffin, cut it in half, and brought it back to the couch. I picked up my half, “Here’s to the ones who protect us from the other side. Who show us the way to happier days.”
“Amen to that,” she said, and picked up her half. She bit into the cream-cheese frosting, the orange carrot center. It tasted so good, as if these bites conjured autumn in the rain, sweet roots fresh from the soil, as if right then the seasons promised to encircle us with wonder after wonder, in the days of our lament.
Maureen Aitken’s short-story collection, The Patron Saint of Lost Girls, won the Nilsen Prize, the Foreword Review INDIE Prize (Top Prize for General Fiction), and was listed as one of the Kirkus Best Indie Books of the Year. The collection also received a Kirkus Star and a Foreword Star. Her stories have been widely published and twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She grew up in Detroit and teaches writing at the University of Minnesota.