Excerpt: The Gift

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The Gift Prologue: The Ceremony

The knife’s silver blade caught the reflection of flame, and the light slid along the honed edge—a flare of orange-gold.

The children watched through wide eyes as the man slowly moved the blade over to his arm, inserting the point near the base of his hand. Katherine winced as he applied pressure and the sharp tip penetrated his flesh.

the-gift-cover-243x3003.jpgA single drop of blood squeezed through the tiny cut, running slowly back along the metal, painting it black-red. Papa had instructed them not to fear the man, but she couldn’t help being frightened. He was sinister, a tall, rail-thin figure with skin drawn so tightly his face seemed to be no more than a skull, especially with his deeply sunken eyes. He wore a crimson robe, and the deep red fabric made his flesh seem even more ghostly.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

Papa nodded and turned to Mama, whose arm stretched around Andrew’s shoulders. He was the eldest child, three years older than Katherine and cold toward her, jealous that when she had been born all of the focus had shifted from him. She had tried to change that, but he had never yielded.

Katherine squeezed her younger sister Elizabeth’s hand, hoping their mother might reject the notion, but Mama nodded. She was ready.

The nod brought fresh tears to Elizabeth’s eyes. She had been quivering since they had been summoned down the stairs.

The gaunt man smiled. “Then let us begin,” he said, his voice deep, accented from familiarity with a tongue Katherine had never heard. He was “from the Continent” the family had always said, though the country of his origin was never clear.

Katherine didn’t understand why this had to come when she was so close to starting her life. She had talked to Mama of possibly writing stories for newspapers, but now that was unlikely. Everything was unlikely.

Why did they have to take this route? It was so uncertain. Years might pass before they could be set free. She had always known her family was different, and from the time she had been able to speak she’d had the need for secrecy drilled into her, but this seemed drastic … especially since this-man Papa called Frederick could not guarantee what was about to transpire. He’d brought some musty old book with him called Spells and Rituals, and he’d warned that the ritual had not been tried in a century. She couldn’t understand how Papa could be so convinced, but he swore by this Frederick. They had known each other long ago.

He had been Papa’s teacher, not the one who had trained him to be a doctor but an instructor of another kind. He had trained Papa…

“Katherine!” Frederick called, extending his long, slender fingers toward her “Come forward please. You, firstborn daughter, lead the way.”

The summons seemed to please Andrew, who smiled for the first time. Katherine also caught an evil gleam in his eyes, something that more than just a reflection of the candlelight.

Tears glided down her cheeks then, and she felt muscles tingle and twitch. She had been repeatedly reassured by Papa, but she could not feel calm, not with the long knife and the flame in the brazier at his side.

“Are you ready?” he asked, the vowels stressed in strange ways

She shook her head, but her father pushed her forward and placed the doll in her hand, the doll in the blue dress with the rosy cheeks and the blond hair.

Beside Frederick was the dollhouse, the small structure that looked just like their townhouse.

Gently, Frederick placed a hand on her shoulder and tilted his head back. She could smell the mysterious oils he used on his skin, and her heart began to wrack thunder through her body as he spoke, aiming his voice toward the ceiling.

“On this night of solstice I sing to you, Jakin and Boas. I ask for your answers in this world of mystery.”

Katherine closed her eyes as he continued to chant and raise the knife high over her throat . . .

One

 

Spring Dance Blues

 

She never expected the night to break her heart.

Veronica Mallory had been looking forward to the spring dance for a month and a half, and she’d been getting ready for it the better part of two weeks.

She’d shopped every store in town before selecting the little black dress covered with rows of shimmering fringe. It looked great, she decided, as she tried a few twists and pivots in front of her bedroom mirror. The fringe seemed to glow in the lamplight. It would be dazzling in the dance-floor lights of the Pembrook Hotel’s ballroom, the place that had been selected for this year’s dance.

As the shimmers settled down, Veronica, or Ronnie as she was known to her friends, fingered the simple gold necklace at her throat. Finding the accessories for her outfit had also taken time and patience.

Earlier today, she’d had her hair done, asking Andre, her mom’s hairdresser, to take extra care with her long blond hair. The result was a carefully spun chignon with precisely formed ringlets framing her face.

Her makeup had been applied with precision, just a hint of mascara to highlight her clear blue eyes and a touch of blush for her cheeks.

She wanted to be a knockout tonight. As she made another pass in front of the mirror for a total inspection, she decided she was as close to that as she could get. People told her she was beautiful, though she wasn’t comfortable with that assessment. When she looked at her reflection, she always spotted the imperfections, minor flaws others might not notice.

Because of that, most of the time she didn’t think about being attractive, though she made reasonable efforts to stay fit. She could’ve opted out of P.E. this semester since this was her senior year, but she’d decided to stick it out. She’d spent two years on the gymnastics team, and she didn’t want to give up the firm legs and taut abdomen those workouts had provided.

She liked being able to slip into a tight pair of jeans if she wanted, though often she went for baggy. She didn’t usually try to turn heads. Her first dating experience her freshman year had been a bad one, so she had gone out only sporadically over the last couple of years.

Going steady hadn’t been in her vocabulary.

It was only at her friend Betsy’s urging that she’d decided earlier this semester to work on Eric Green for a while, employing every weapon at her disposal to get him to notice her. She’d had a crush on him for a long time, even when he’d been dating other girls, and she’d almost given up. When she finally allowed herself to be pushed into going after him, she knew looks wouldn’t be enough since Eric was on the football squad and had cheerleaders flying kamikaze missions at him from all directions, all having their hopes dashed.

He was not only handsome with his curly brown hair and perpetual tan; he was also bright, being one of the candidates for valedictorian. Most important, however, he was hopelessly romantic. When he’d been dating Dolores Forbes in the fall, he’d picked her up for the homecoming dance in a hired car—and not just any hired cat It was a classic Rolls owned by a man who rented it out in order to finance the vehicle’s upkeep! He’d been able to swing a deal Eric could afford, and the gesture had wowed everyone at the dance.

Once she’d gained his notice, Ronnie had made a point of engaging him in conversations where she pretended to hang on his words. Whenever they sat in study hall, or when she ran into him in the hallway, she made a point of being overtly nice. And Betsy saw to it that her friend ran into him quite often. She plotted his schedule and arranged points where Ronnie could intersect.

She’d felt silly about it at first, but it had worked—he’d asked her out. As she adjusted her hemline by a fraction of a millimeter, Ronnie let herself fantasize about how he might arrive.

The Pembrook High Spring Dance held each year on the Friday before spring break was, after all, the major social occasion of the season, the biggest bash short of the prom. She wondered if he’d come along with a carriage, a beautiful white carriage drawn by a white horse.

She had to giggle and blush as she looked at herself in the mirror. The Spring Dance was such a big deal it affected even someone as studious as Veronica Mallory.

She didn’t often let herself give in to such indulgences. Everybody liked Ronnie, but they also knew she was the serious one, the one who’d often spurn invitations to fun events.

What they didn’t realize was that the seriousness was, at least in part, her shield against a shyness that ran deep. Since she was the first born, her parents had always sheltered her even though they’d let up some when her little sister had come along. The sheltering had contributed to the shyness, and they still thought she was a child.

Then she’d had that bad dating experience. She’d fallen for a guy so hard she’d been willing to do anything for him, only to wind up being dumped when he met someone a little cuter and a little wilder.

Now Ronnie tended to hit the books, pounding away until her grades were over the top. She knew that would pay off. She would get into a top college on scholarship. If she had the nerve to leave Pembrook. Sometimes she wondered if it might not be better to go to the junior college in nearby Statesville. Or if not better, at least a little less frightening. Leaving the environment where she felt secure was frightening—just like everything else.

In spite of her shyness, she wanted to be a television anchor, and she really wanted to study journalism at the University of Missouri, one of the most respected schools in that field. She knew it would still be there if she spent her first college year close to home, though she worried she might chicken out after that first year and decide on another safe year and another. Then she’d be earning some basic degree and looking for a job in dear old Pembrook.

She picked up a perfume bottle and squeezed the pump, as if the spray might whisk the worries out of her head. Tonight wasn’t the night to think about the future. She had to keep reminding herself that as she pulled back her bedroom curtain for the ninety-sixth time and looked down on the driveway for a sign of Eric.

Everything remained still outside. Things were even still in Larry Long’s driveway next door, and he was almost always around working on his old Chevy.

She let the curtain fall back into place and paced back to her bed where she sat at the foot and crossed her legs, her stockings making a crisp sound as they rubbed. He was going to hate missing her legs if he didn’t show up, she thought.

That wave of confidence faded, replaced by her more typical self-consciousness as she began to wonder what was keeping him.

The clock by her bed indicated that 7:45 was a number turn away, and he’d been due at 7:30. She hoped nothing had gone wrong. She didn’t even want to consider flashing lights and traffic accidents. She wanted to think about the music, about walking onto the dance floor with her hand in Eric’s and then sliding into his arms as they began to sway to a slow dance.

The notion of being close to him made butterflies, that had already taken wing inside her, spin even more rapidly. What a night this was going to be. She closed her eyes and pictured Eric’s perfect smile, and she wondered where he’d be taking her for dinner. Pembrook had some really nice restaurants, but she was hoping he’d take her to the new place downtown, the Marquis. It was in a refurbished building, and everybody was talking about it.

Many of the girls in her crowd would be there, and she couldn’t wait to walk in with her hand on Eric’s arm. They’d all turn and look; they’d notice. She’d already practiced her response—a coy smile that would convey her happiness to all.

She could imagine the moment, could form an image in her mind almost as real as if she were watching it. The purr of the telephone wiped it away.

With a heavy sigh, she got up and walked around the bed to the night table where her phone waited.

As she lifted it, she heard her sister Caroline’s voice. “Hello.”

“Is, uh, Ronnie there?” It was Eric’s voice.

“I’m here,” Ronnie said before Caroline could reply. “I’ll take it, Caroline.”

“All yours,” Caroline quipped. She was a sophomore this year and had little interest in the dance, at least that she was showing.

“Hi,” Eric said.

“Hey. I’ve been watching the window. I thought—” His words cut her off.

“I ah, ah .. .”

“What is it, Eric?” The butterflies swarmed, spinning into a mad frenzy.

She heard him swallow nervously. “I won’t be able to make it.”

The butterflies crashed and burned like downed fighter planes. Agony replaced nervous anticipation. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Are you sick?”

“Well . . .”

She felt her lungs tightening. Something was wrong. He was having too hard a time with his words. Eric was never at a loss for words.

“Dolores and I have sort of made up,” he said.

She squeezed the t handset so hard she thought she was about to snap it in two.

“What!”

“She . . . I ran into her—”

“You told me she was dating two other guys when you two were together. You said—”

“I ran into her in town today, and we started talking, and I think it will be different. I wish I’d known this was going to happen, but I didn’t have any way of predicting it. All I know is that I have to see what’s going to happen. Please tell me you understand.”

UNDERSTAND!

She wanted to throw the telephone across the room. She wanted to break the lamp. She understood all right. He met her while he was in town picking up flowers for me, she thought.

And he considered it a coincidence. That was the problem with sensitive guys. They were so naive! As bright as Eric was, he just couldn’t see that Dolores didn’t just happen to do anything.

Obviously whoever she’d had on her agenda for tonight had stood her up, and so she’d headed for Eric because he was a sure thing. She knew she could wrap him around her finger.

Did he think she just happened to want to go to the dance with him? Where did he think she was getting her dress? That couldn’t be done on an afternoon’s notice!

Dolores would probably ditch him again as soon as the last song played.

Biting her lip, Ronnie managed to keep the anger from erupting. If he couldn’t see what was going on, that was his bad luck, and if he came crawling back tomorrow, too bad. She didn’t need a boyfriend.

She really shouldn’t have let herself get so into things. It was all silliness, and she wasn’t going to let it hurt.

“I’ll . . . I’ll be okay,” she said, fighting to keep her throat from betraying her as it tried to close. She didn’t want him to think she’d actually be devastated.

“I’m really, really sorry,” he said.

“Sure, sure. Just go ahead.”

“Are you mad?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just go ahead. Do what you have to.”

Then she placed the phone down without saying goodbye. She had to. If she’d waited another second, he would have heard her bursting into tears.

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