Teen Witches on the Move! Read Hannah Abigail Clarke’s The Scapegracers
Author: Edit Team
September 1, 2020
The following is excerpted from The Scapegracers (Erewhon), the debut novel by Lambda Literary Fellow Hannah Abigail Clarke. The young adult novel follows an unpopular high school girl, Sideways Pike, who is introduced to the three most popular girls at a party. The unholy trinity wants to be her best friends, but there’s a catch…They are all witches and want Sideways in their coven. Meanwhile the fundamentalist witchfinders are lurking around the corner, ready to steal their powers.
BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUMBS
The punch was the color of my first and second knuckles and it tasted like lye. It singed off the surface of my tongue. Between sips, if I angled my wrist just right, I could make my reflection glint off the surface, and warped little me could stare up from the depths of my Solo cup like an overgrown jackdaw. Which, like. Yikes. I made myself look literally anywhere else and ground on a last bit of chalk.
My sigil was enormous, six feet wide, maybe more. I’d drawn the lines on bold and thick, but it was anything but elegant. It looked like an astrolabe that’d been hit by a truck. White lines spiraled, switchbacked, zigzagged back and forth in a cacophonous mess, and all the jaggedy lines only just managed to squeeze themselves inside my gigantic hand-drawn circle. The chalk looked rough against the concrete floor, weathered like a three-day-old game of hopscotch. I could’ve done better, but this was my second cup of jungle juice. So.
Parties are too fucking loud. Like, I understand the bass is heavy and we’re drunk and whatever, but that doesn’t make shrieked lyrics of nasty bubblegum bop any easier on my ears. I pulled my knees to my chest and toyed with the frets in the denim. Soon enough, the unholy trinity would meander over here, and we could start things. My throat itched from the lack of starting things. I soothed the itch with more booze and fought back the urge to retch.
This was the first weekend in October, and the township of Sycamore Gorge doesn’t fuck around where Halloween is concerned. This was the dawn of scare-party season. First weekend was pre-costumes but well within the realm of the macabre, and house parties had to thematically follow suit to garner any interest whatsoever. Three years back, a little ridiculousness with a Ouija board and some rounds of Bloody Mary might’ve sufficed, but that sort of thing reeked of amateur hour now. Jing and Yates and Daisy were the longest-standing monarchs our school had ever seen, and I couldn’t fathom them tarnishing their reputations with a mind-numbing three hours of sitting around in silence, shoving a flimsy plastic planchette back and forth in hopes that Elvis might shimmy in from beyond the veil and tell them what was up. They needed something real to stay relevant, something genuine. Something that couldn’t be purchased at Party City for under twenty bucks.
Jing and Yates and Daisy are a whole lot of things, but they aren’t stupid.
They’d paid me forty.
Fog machines frosted the crowd in a milky, dreamy haze, and bodies twisted together under the strobe lights like a great meaty knot. Torsos flickered and drifted, denim-clad pelvises clattered together, and countless long, glow-stick-spangled arms waved red cups like beacons through the fog. Worn sneakers scuffed the ground. The partygoers all looked a little smudged, a little sickly, like they were either going to keel over or float away any second, and when I let my eyes fall out of focus, the whole bopping crowd blurred together into one churning mass, like a monster’s four-chambered heart. To my right, a straight couple I didn’t recognize dipped their tongues down each other’s throats. To my left, a leggy girl tossed her head back, neck impossibly long like a goose, falsies fluttering up over the whites of her eyes like she had a Hollywood devil inside her. A dudebro slopped punch on her Vans.
Daisy Brink came out of the darkness. She was dressed something like a pleated Creamsicle, and her lip gloss looked so sticky under the seizing LEDs that I nearly forgot for a second why I shouldn’t tangle with girls like her, no matter how tempting the prospect might be. Daisy dropped, sat crisscross, and gnawed on her poison-colored Ring Pop. It stained her incisors blue. She lowered the Ring Pop, waggled her brows, and toyed with the glow-stick choker around her throat. I made myself stare intently at the chalk. Right. No. There’d be no straight girls for me.
Yates and Jing emerged from the same gap of darkness as Daisy and took spots beside her, marking the third and fourth points on the circle. Yates had black-eyed Susans tucked in the curls of her afro and Jing wore an oversized hoodie and not much else. They both had a glossy sheen of boredom around them, heavy eyed and languid. Jing rolled her shoulders and slid her hands out of her pockets, eased her glow-bracelet-bangled wrists to the ground, and traced her bitten-down nails over the chalk lines. “So. Sideways. When do we start this thing?”
I skimmed my tongue over my teeth. I’d drawn out a five-pointed sigil. Hard to tell, because it wasn’t exactly Ye Olde Average Pentagram, but it was still five pointed in an abstract sense. You know, for tradition’s sake, or whatever.
There were four of us.
I cleared my throat. “Yeah, so. We need a fifth person for the fifth point. Doesn’t matter who.”
“Couldn’t you have made a four-person spell?” Jing pulled a face and jerked one of her slash-straight eyebrows up into her hairline. “Whatever.” She smacked her lips. Her gaze whipped over my head and her pupils fixed on some lucky sucker behind me. She stabbed one of her fingers at whoever stood behind me, and her mouth curled up at the edges. “Hey. You. You like magic?”
I jerked myself around, craned my neck. My heart hurled itself against my rib cage and stuck there.
She must be new or something. I didn’t know her.
She was lanky, probably taller than me. Long and narrow. There were Band-Aids on her shins. She wore high-waisted shorts and a satiny basketball jacket. The fitted cap she wore cast shadows under her brows, and on top of that cap was a woven glow-stick halo. It shimmered down on her shoulders with a ghostly violet glow. Her hair was velvety black, so black it glinted blueish under the LEDs, and it hung in two raggedy fishtails that swayed around her waist when she moved. They swung back a little when she rocked on her heels, which she did presently, jabbing an inquisitive finger at her chest. Me? She snapped her bubblegum between her teeth and gave us a slow nod. “I sure do.”
“What’s your name?” Jing leaned back, shook her hair out with one hand, and loosened up the other into a lazy come-hither motion. “You should hang with us. This here is Sideways Pike. She’s a real bona fide witch, and she’s gonna show us something special.”
“Dope,” said the stranger. “I’m Madeline.”
“Well then, Madeline.” Jing waved her hand over the blank space on the floor beside her. “Take a seat.”
I was on the other side of that blank space. Jing, me, blank space. Madeline would be sitting next to me. Fuck.
Madeline sat down and sprawled back, pulled one of her thighs toward her chest. She hugged her arms around it and rested her chin on her knee. “So. We’re playing witchcraft?” Her voice was slow, a little raw, and she looked at my seedy sigil like it was a stained-glass window. Something glinted deep in her sockets, but it was gone before I could place it. She sniffed, knotted her eyebrows. “I could fuck with that.”
I opened my jaws and felt myself almost say something awful and significantly gayer than I intended, but I drowned the words before they could slither out. The last of my punch scorched my esophagus and burned off the lining of my stomach. Very gross, very fruit-punch-y. Reality fell a little out of focus. My limbs felt vaguely numb. I licked the grime off my teeth and crunched the Solo cup in my fist, thrust it aside, shook out my wrists and my fingers. Gooseflesh bloomed down the length of my spine.
I felt it now. The world was starting to prickle. Slowly, steadily, the air started to fizzle, and the radio-static air vibrated louder and louder until every follicle on my head stood on end. The feeling seeped from my pores inward, thrummed into my capillaries, my spider veins, the very meat of me, and the feeling went pitter-pat, itched for a strike or a spark. My eyes swiveled up in my skull and my vision swam. I couldn’t see anything but the milky fog and strobe lights crashing above us. The air was pale, bruise-lavender blue. It pulsed like it was alive, and I couldn’t see the ceiling above it. I clawed at either side of me, felt around for hands and found them with a lurch. On my left, that was Madeline. Her fingers were dead cold and calloused, and she took me by my wrist and held me tight. Jing grabbed my right hand. She gave me a little squeeze.
This was it. It was the crackle before a storm. My lungs pinwheeled and my body quaked, and my fake leather jacket was suddenly three sizes too small for me. The sleeves were bindingly tight, tight enough to jeopardize my circulation, and strips of fabric clung to my back like wet papier-mâché. It was suffocatingly hot and there was no chance I could shuck off my jacket now. Once a spell starts, I’m not so good at stopping it. I’d warned the three of them before I got paid.
The space between the five of us felt thicker, and particles science hasn’t named yet went ricocheting infinitely fast in the vacuum between our kneecaps. I couldn’t peel my eyes off the ceiling, but I knew what was in front of me without having to look. There was a presence in this basement. The shapeless, electric something shimmered over the chalk.
“Do you feel that?” The words whistled through the gap between my front teeth before I could stop them. The incantation had been brewing in my throat since this started. Now it fluttered up in my jaws, and I was just keyed up enough to open wide, to let it pour out. “All that power, do you feel that? All that bristling? The Pop Rocks in your skin? That’s it. That’s the magic crawling in. It’s that slow and raw and buzzing thing. If your bones are aching, let them ache. Let all of this sizzle and fester.” The misty air was blooming red spots above our heads—or maybe that was the blood in my temples. Adrenaline rammed through my ribs. My pulse quickened, thickened, turned into something else.
There was an inscription imbedded in my sigil. The incantation. I’d only practiced it a few times, but I knew it like a reflex, like a Hexennacht Hail Mary. It dripped off my tongue without effort or intention, and I didn’t self-edit, didn’t think about how anything looked, anything sounded, anything seemed. The words bled out and I didn’t stop to breathe.
“We’re inviting the liquid night, the molten magic. We’re inviting the star-spiked darkness inside and calling it to this circle. Our hands entwined are a chalice. Flow through us and spill. All this dancing is in triumph and our booze is all libations. We’ve brought you beats and lights and glamour, we brought fresh meat, new blood, and booze, and in return, we want some chaos. We want havoc. Bring us hell.”
A sound tore the crowd down the middle. The sound was thin and itchy, like dead skin tearing, and something wet splashed the back of my hands. I jerked my head down, hissed a breath through my teeth. The glow sticks: all of them had snapped clean in half. Plastic tubes sprang off limbs and clattered to the floor, and dancers’ wrists splattered rat-poison blue and scalding pink liquid from wrists to elbows. Madeline’s glow halo split and fell. Lavender chemicals trickled down her temples like from a candied head wound. Acid green pooled above Daisy’s collarbone. Jing’s forearms splashed phosphorescence on the chalk.
Yates balked. She tore her hands away from Jing and Daisy, yanked them to her chest with a force that propelled her backward, away from the circle. Her eyes stretched wide with terror.
I felt it like a smack.
The magic snapped back like a rubber band. It struck hard and all at once. I pitched forward, caught my hands on the concrete just in time to keep my head from cracking. My lungs slammed against my sternum and went ragged, and my nerves all twinged at once. My vision speckled like I’d stared at the sun. A jagged, painful pulse reverberated from my limbs to my core, and I heaved in a breath through my teeth, wheezed a cough. There was a whistling in my ears loud enough to rupture my skull. The crowd howled. People yelped and laughed, and someone was screaming, and it all blended into a single thorny cacophony. Voices had no definition. It was loud enough to cleave my brain into bits. I’d have covered my ears with my fists if I could, but I couldn’t seem to pull them off the concrete.
The world looked inverted and garish. I blinked a few times, tried to snap myself out of it, but all I could see were Jing’s teeth and how long and sharp they looked as she laughed. She jumped to her feet and out of sight, and she let out a triumphant cry just loud enough to cut through the ringing. “Fuck all of y’all. That was some magic.”
The room roared in response. Everybody eased up. Grimaces flipped into smiles . . . or most of them did, anyway. An out-of-sight DJ changed tracks, and the crowd sprang to life again. The glow on their splatted throats and arms made their already shadowy torsos look like voidspace. I couldn’t name the song that was playing, but I knew all the words, and so did everybody else, apparently. They all shouted along as they thrashed together, bobbing in the darkness, in the heat. The room sweltered and smelled like brine.
Magic doesn’t do well with being cut off early.
I wanted to throw up.
In the periphery of my vision, Jing shot finger guns my way and seized Daisy by the waist. She hauled her into the dancing throng. Yates scrambled close behind them, ducking between swaying couples in an attempt to match their pace. She didn’t bother making eye contact with me. Amid the waves of bodies, I thought I saw Austin Grass, whom I hated more than any other person who I knew in real life, put his arms around all three of them at once. Didn’t know you girls were into lezzie shit. Nice to have some hot ones around here with that East High piece, huh?
Usually, I’d be pissed, but fuck. It had worked. It actually worked. It worked with fucking witnesses.
I wiggled my fingertips against the floor, mostly to prove to myself that I still had fingers. My body felt pinched and cotton stuffed. Pins and needles shot down my shins and my body screamed stay down, stay down, but I didn’t. I put my feet underneath me, made myself crouch. My tongue felt thick between my teeth, and my cheeks felt raw. I forced my right hand off the ground and pressed it to my mouth, snagged the corner of my sleeve between my teeth.
Something dead cold and calloused locked around my wrist.
Madeline crouched in front of me. The strobe lights flashed on her eyes and her hair, and her whole body flickered like a phantom’s. If her hand wasn’t so icy, I’d think she was a dream. She wasn’t real enough to be real. Madeline ducked her head, forced herself into my line of sight, and her mouth twisted up into a grin. It was a weary half-grin, but a grin regardless. Teeth and everything. Her lips moved, but I couldn’t hear her. She didn’t let go of my wrist. The way my skin pinched, she must’ve gripped it tighter.
Dull pain bloomed around her fingers, and I cleared my throat, tried to fish my voice out of my stomach. “I can’t hear you,” I said. It sounded like a mouthful of gravel. I tried to smile, but my face hurt too much to do it properly. I landed somewhere around a grimace. The strobe lights felt like rapid-fire ice picks to my temples and looking at her dead-on was tricky. She shimmered too much. I felt like my soul was leaking out of my shoes.
Her mouth moved slower. The syllables were syrupy and distinct. Follow me. She rose to her feet and dragged me up with her, cast a glance over her shoulder as she moved. She pressed her back against the kissing couple, who didn’t notice, and then she turned in slow motion, took a bracing step through the crowd. She led me toward the stairs, and I let myself be leashed along, my feet moving faster than my head. My heart twisted itself to bits in my chest, and I had the notion that it’d be a useless fist of cells by the end of the night, too worn to go on beating, because I was going to have a panic attack if this girl—or, really, any girl—liked me. I wasn’t built for this kind of emotional wear, I swear to God. I was built for skulking under bridges. This was too much.
Madeline walked with a tired sort of swagger. She squared her shoulders, slid through the mess with a cool stride in her step, and the crowd just oozed apart for her. No shoulder checking, no getting clotheslined by random flailing limbs. The people she passed didn’t even look up, didn’t react; they just gravitated away. Their backs made a tunnel and she eased through the space with me tailing behind her like a leather kite. She didn’t look behind her when she reached the stairs, simply pulled me up with her, and I let myself stagger behind her two steps at a time. The music dulled as we got higher. She opened the door and I flinched.
Upstairs and downstairs were different dimensions, because in a past life, Jing’s house just might have been a yacht. It was a chrome-and-cream magazine photoshoot, all brocade drapes and matching pillows. Black-and-white balloons polka-dotted the Persian rug. A strung-out redhead was spinning in the corner, singing a song that was popular when we were little. It wasn’t the song playing downstairs. A couple across from her smoked weed and hacked like consumption victims, and, as we passed, they stopped their story swapping to look up at her and clap. Normally I’d stick around for a little while to eavesdrop. Stoner hearsay is usually true.
Madeline didn’t seem keen on stopping for hearsay.
Her sneakers stopped in front of a set of French doors that served as the living room’s back wall. These doors were the only barrier of separation between the inside’s warmth and the outside’s frigidness. She coiled her fingers around the gilded knob and twisted. The night air blew inward, ruffled her braids, and the two of us stepped into the dark.
The night was clean and dark and scalpel sharp. It cut deep, slid through my jacket and my scissor-cropped t-shirt to my stomach. As soon as both of my feet landed on the deck, the doors closed tight behind me and clicked. I zipped up my jacket and mouthed a cussy prayer that my vegan leather might suddenly be warmer than it was, but it wasn’t, because of course it fucking wasn’t. I crossed my arms over my chest and tried not to shiver like a fucking baby.
The seafoam corpse of Jing’s pool was eerie in the moonlight. It was long, vaguely elliptical, about twenty feet back from the deck. The pool lights were on, but without thousands of gallons of water to coat them, they looked as harsh and bleak as surgical lamps. Dead leaves heaped like plague bodies along the pool’s edge. A family of pale deer grazed between a set of lemony lawn chairs and odd jutting pink plastic flamingos. I rocked back and sucked on my teeth.
“So. How did you do it? Explain it to me.” Madeline didn’t look cold. On the contrary, the way she leaned her forearms against the deck railing looked as breezy as a June afternoon. Not a single shiver in sight. Her basketball jacket remained unzipped and drifted like a flag around her waist. The moonlight washed her out, made her corpsey. She looked at me unblinking and drummed her fingers on the rail.
“You saw how I did it. You were there.” My tongue was clumsy in my mouth. Lips moved oddly. I didn’t mean to sound snide, but I did, because I guess I can’t even scrape the bitter off my tone for a cute girl. My insides felt gooey and raw. The chill was weirdly abrasive after party heat. I wrapped my arms around my rib cage and tried to hold my body together with my fists, because I had caved and was now shivering so hard I thought bits of me might shake off and fly over the deck. “I don’t know how to explain it in shorthand. It’s complicated.” I jammed my stupid tongue in my stupid cheek. I mean, that wasn’t a lie, by any stretch. It was genuinely hard to explain. It was like explaining how to fall in love with something: There wasn’t a way to do it that didn’t sound like flowery bullshit, and even if you half managed it, the explanation wouldn’t make it any easier to do. It wasn’t a checklist sort of affair. My spell book was good, but brief, it was not.
“Can you show me?” Madeline slipped her fingers through the frets of her braid and poked them out the other side. The knuckles caught inside the braid vanished for a moment, like she’d dipped her hand through dark water. Her fingertips were hypnotic. I scratched at my jacket seams and chewed on my tongue. Madeline watching me was a physical thing. I felt it like an X-ray, like she was mapping my skull for craters.
“Huh.” I looked out over the yard and tried to seem significantly cooler than I am. It’s cool when people give the yard a casual, devil-may-care surveying gaze because eye contact freaks them out, yeah? The dizziness from the spell getting yanked earlier still tasted sour in the back of my throat. Or maybe that was the jungle juice. Probably equal parts spell and juice. Madeline was curious. She was genuinely curious and had pulled us somewhere we could be alone, and opportunities like this don’t just happen. If I’m attention-starved enough to show off my magic at a fucking Jing/Daisy/Yates party, surely I’m thirsty enough to show a gorgeous stranger something killer. She wanted some magic. I had magic. I fought the urge to retch. “I could potentially show you a trick or two, yeah.”
“No tricks. I want the real magic, flesh-and-blood magic, like you did down there. They said you’re legit, and you are. What you did down there, there’s no way you could have faked that,” she said. She pulled her hand out of her hair, shoved herself off the deck rail and tossed that hand in my direction. “I’m Madeline Kline. Let’s start with that. East High. I’m a senior. Your name is Sideways? ”
“They call me that, yeah. Sideways Pike. West High. Also a senior.” I reached for her hand and clapped it. It shocked me, like jumping the wrong kind of fence. Pain zapped down my fingers toward my palm and I jumped, jerked back, shook my hand at the wrist.
“What happened? You alright?” Madeline scrunched her brows into a V. She looked between my hand and my face and back again.
“Fine. You just shocked me. I’ll live.” A thin, nervous cackle creaked out of me. I pressed my hand up against my stomach under my shirt. My fingertips throbbed, but the throbbing simmered down to a tingling. My palm itched.
My heartbeat crashed faster. The tingling washed up my arm and into my chest, and the dead energy zapped back to life in my gut. Every single synapse twinged at once. Lightning marrow deep. I hitched a breath and swayed against the railing, braced myself with my free hand. My vision bruised. Madeline gripped my shoulder, sank her nails into my jacket to keep me from falling off the rail. Her touch was fire. It shocked through the fake leather, through vinyl and cotton and sinew, and I felt it soak into my bloodstream like a drug. My ribs contracted, and every breath was bigger than the last. The world was seizing up on me. The night was speckled red.
I was so happy I could sing.
“Sideways? What’s up?” One of Madeline’s braids swung forward and dangled by my cheek. Her voice was low, measured. Moderately concerned. The hand on my shoulder moved to my back, just below my neck. I wasn’t cold anymore. I was starting to sweat. Something was blooming in my throat, and if I didn’t open my mouth, it might strangle me from the inside out.
“You want to see some magic?” I panted. I eyeballed her with a little twitch at the corners of my mouth. It felt like telling the most spectacular secret. My mind blazed. I wanted to scream.
She dimpled when she smiled.
I took her by the wrists and yanked her downward until we were both kneeling, shins on the cold, crispy deck. Wind picked up and tossed our hair, and it felt like celestial validation, like the entire night was primed for whatever I was going to do. Wreak havoc, said Nature. Raise hell. Our hands vibrated where they touched. This didn’t feel like a liquor-dusted parlor trick; this was ancient, opulent, invincible. It was the realest thing in the world. I clawed around my memory for the circle in the basement, but I didn’t need to dig for long. The image floated to mind. Long chalk lines, glow splattered but still unbreakably looped. I pictured it so vividly that the circle superimposed itself in our laps, not tangibly, but in a way that was undeniably real, and the words summoned themselves up to finish it off. “I call the chill in the air. I call down the lightning, the star fire, the dead summer sun. I call down the screaming cosmos and I cry for chaos. We want something impossible. We want something the papers can’t explain, something so wild and gorgeous that nothing could doubt it, not ever. Douse our revelry with magic. Change the way we are.”
The wind swept circles around us. Leaves whipped around our waists. A strange, desperate smile flooded Madeline’s face. She opened her mouth to laugh, but there were only straight teeth and blackness stretching all the way down. No sound. Her hair pulled free of its braids and tumbled loose around her jaw. Something glistened in my ribs. My pulse hurtled forward. I squeezed her wrists so hard my knuckles popped.
“Give us decadence!” I threw back my head and addressed the stars directly, heartbeat heavy in my ears. A laugh broke out of me, gutted me from throat to belt, and I couldn’t stop to swallow, couldn’t stop to breathe. I was practically screaming. The words flew out of their own accord. “Give us something obscene! Give us something to sink our teeth into! We demand magic! Fuck you, reality! Tonight is a dream!”
My skull hit the deck with a smack.
Something had me by the wrists.
I don’t know who was dragging me, not specifically. But whoever they were, they clamped hard and their palms were warm, and they dragged me over something that scraped against my spine, something blunt and metallic. Something like a door track. It hurt like a mother. I squirmed myself awake.
A ceiling rolled above me. There was a wooden fan that spun in slow, psychedelic circles, and everything was scaldingly bright. I winced, scrunched up my face. Daylight slapped me like I was goddamned Dracula.
Morning. Daylight meant it was morning. How the hell? Discordant birdsong hammered at my temples. I heaved in a breath and wheezed.
“God, she’s awake!” It was a feminine voice, a familiar one.
My arms hit the floor with a thud.
I spat, swore, and lugged myself into a sitting position. Every isolated muscle twitch weighed one billion pounds. I shrunk in on myself, winced away from lights and sounds and everything within ten feet. Covered my head with my arms. My entire body felt like a gigantic bruise. My skin was probably purple. All of it. I wasn’t a girl anymore. I was a human welt. I curled my knees to my chest.
“Sideways. Sideways Pike, I swear to God.” A different voice. Also a girl’s. Also familiar. Why wasn’t I connecting names to voices? I splayed my fingers across my face and peeked between them. There, looking supremely pissed, was Jing. Or her knees, anyway. I was eye level with her knees, and something told me that looking up was going to be a bad idea, because I didn’t need to look up to understand the level of pissed she was. It radiated off her in waves. She was the Chernobyl of being pissed.
I furrowed my brows. “What the fuck? ” Speaking felt slimy. I licked the inside of my shirt to scrape the sleep-film off my tongue.
“Good question.” Jing tapped her foot. “Care to explain what the hell you did?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I groaned, scowling into my sleeve. I was way too tired for tact. Besides. Fuck ’em for dragging me. Bastards.
“Cute. Sorry, no. You’re explaining now, and I mean now,” hissed Jing as she knelt in front of my face. She lowered her cheek until it rested on the cherrywood floors, angling herself so that I couldn’t avoid eye contact. Her gaze locked on mine. I could just make out my scraggly reflection across her blackboard irises.
“By the way, Sideways, I don’t know how you pulled all that off, but color me impressed.” It was the first voice. Daisy. I had zero doubts. Only Daisy would be so smug in overriding Jing’s authority like that. Also, her voice was way more nasal than Yates’, who was the only other member of the Jing triumvirate I could think of in my state of groggy semiconsciousness. Wait, “triumvirate” meant three. That was all three of them. So yeah, definitely Daisy. What the fuck.
I pressed the heels of my hands against my temples and swore.
“Listen. I swear to God. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know what you put in that punch, Daisy, but whatever it was really beat the ever-loving shit out of me. I must have been blitzed. I don’t remember anything post hanging with that East High girl.” Madeline. Where was Madeline? What had happened there? I silently prayed that Sideways didn’t screw everything up for me. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Damn it,” said Jing. She looked me over, scowled, and stood up. “Goddamn it. You really don’t remember.”
“Where’s Yates?” I rubbed my temples and looked over at Daisy, who had tossed herself across a studded leather armchair and was currently scrolling some blog on her phone. Her pleated Creamsicle was creased in odd places and her hair, which currently resembled a tumbleweed, was twisted into a ratty bun. One sock on, the other sock in the void, probably.
Daisy wrinkled her nose and huffed. “God, I’m not Yates’ babysitter. She left. I don’t know where. She’s a big girl now.” There was a waver in her voice that suggested she wasn’t entirely sober yet.
That was how she normally sounded.
“You freaked her out. She went home,” Jing corrected. She clicked her tongue. “Okay. Up. If you don’t remember, I’ll give you a little tour of the disaster zone. See if that clears some of those cobwebs.” Jing didn’t wait for me to stand on my own. Her hands found my shoulders, gripped fistfuls of faux cow hide, and jerked me to my feet.
“Jesus, ease up on me, alright?” I rubbed my left shoulder with a scowl.
She gave me a once-over and spun on her heel, and for some godforsaken reason, I followed her. There was a snicker from my left, so Daisy must have tagged along. Man. Something about this was making my flesh crawl, and it was too early for anything as uncomfortable as that.
The house, all things considered, wasn’t in terrible shape. A few crushed cups, some popped balloons, a disembodied bra, and trampled confetti, but nothing impossible to clean up before the folks came home. The yachty living room still looked yachty. There was no vomit on the floor, which was a step above most party venues come morning. Jing picked up her pace and so did I. She stopped at the threshold between the hallway and the staircase to hell, aka the basement door.
Something flickered in Jing’s expression, something that made Daisy stiffen behind me. I couldn’t parse it. Jing flared her nostrils, pushed the door wide, and descended the staircase two steps at a time, and Daisy and I followed suit.
The walls were dripping with chalk.
Matrixes of spindly lines crisscrossed the floor, the ceiling, every inch of concrete in sight. Sigils, spirals, all varieties of rune and glyph. Sketchy symbols tattooed overtop of posters and streamers. None of them matched. Every mark had a different size, different shape, different level of intricacy. In the upper right corner of the room, there was something vaguely like an esoteric alchemical array, only it didn’t match any array I’d ever read about. Across from it was a distinctly Crowley-ish set of stars, which bordered a random smattering of Enochian letters and something that looked like stupid failed cuneiform. And then there were the scribbles. Jagged, careless scribbles, the sort of absent doodling a loser goth might give their homework margins. Layered Xs, eyeballs, flowers. A heart punctured by twenty-something arrows.
The only commonality to the sigils was their orientation, the slight slanting they all had toward the center of the room. They were pointing toward the circle. The circle was pristine.
“It was about midnight, maybe after. I was damn sure you’d gone upstairs. It was after the glow-stick thing,” said Jing. She put her hands on her hips. “We were screwing around, having fun. I’ll give you this, the glow-stick thing was rad. Everyone was majorly impressed. But then the chalk started. No one drew the shapes. They appeared on their own. I’m not screwing with you. All the drawings just showed up under our feet. Then the music got louder. Painfully loud. I had Alexis DJ for us, and it busted her speakers, it was so loud. It wasn’t her music, either. It switched mid-song. It was this freaky retro doo-wop. It was damned weird, Sideways.”
“I think it was the Chordettes,” said Daisy.
“It was not the Chordettes,” said Jing. “So, we’re all wincing and cussing, and the lights cut out. All of them. But it wasn’t the power, because the music kept playing and there was light under the door upstairs.”
“You could only see people’s hands. The broken glow bracelets, you know? It was wicked cool. Hands down, best scare party ever. I can’t wait until next weekend. Costumes won’t be tacky by then.” Daisy, impervious to Jing’s acid glare, looked monstrously pleased with herself. “The chalk drawings glowed, too. It was spooky as hell. I’m sure that Austin Grass pissed himself, he was so scared. Serves the bastard right for dumping Alexis like that.”
“I filmed it.” Jing flared her nostrils. Last night’s mascara had flaked under her eyes, and the smudges reminded me of kiddy skeleton face paint. She pursed her lips. “People are still posting about it. It’s a pretty big deal. Speculation abounds. You’d be surprised how many people are trying to write it off as some trick you learned in Drama, Sideways. As if the ragtag Drama Club could pull off a stunt like this.”
“Watch it. That’s my ragtag Drama Club you’re talking about,” I grumbled into the back of my wrist. The Sycamore Gorge West High Drama Club was the most the school had to offer, thanks. I loved it even if it was shitty and poorly directed and none of the folks involved were talking to me anymore. I scratched the back of my neck and took a step closer to the wall. A chalk drawing comprised of Vs and Cs loomed inches from my nose. Lines drawn on thick. Angles sharp. Curves heavy. “Holy hell. This is my handwriting.”
“Yeah. I figured.” Jing crossed her arms. “Explain how the hell you did it.”
“I don’t know.” A smile broke over my face. My heartbeat rammed faster. I reached out and brushed the marks with my fingertips, brushed them as softly as I might stroke a cat. The swirling line work felt cool against my fingertips. Lovely, delicate lines, tangled and stretched tight atop the bricks. “God, this is so cool. I did this. I am so cool.”
“Right,” said Daisy.
“Look. Sideways.” Jing struck a pose like she was praying: fingertips pressed together, palms parallel, expression hard as the walls or the floor. Her voice was sweet and buttery. “When I invited you to do your witch thing, I was expecting something small. I was going to let you wiggle your fingers and say something rhymey and weird. Hell. I thought it wouldn’t work, but you’re creepy and I figured just having you here would put people in the Halloween mood. This. I was not expecting all of this.”
“Is that your way of saying that I’m banned from your house parties?” I leaned against the wall, shoulder to my accidental masterpiece. The stupid, giddy grin was here to stay. My face kind of hurt from smiling this hard. Good.
Jing looked me in the face, her gaze lasering through my skull. She grinned with teeth. “Are you kidding? I nearly got my scare party trending, and it’s only the third. Everyone is talking about it. Conversation Monday morning will be strictly about the baddest haunted house ever.”
I cocked a brow. “You’re giving me whiplash, Jing.”
“Look. I’m pissed because there’s chalk all over my goddamn basement. You’re staying the night and helping me clean up. My parents come home on Tuesday, and it needs to be spotless by then. I’m not pissed because of the magic. I just want to know how you did it. I want in.”
My mind flashed to Madeline again. My smile slipped a little. If the casting worked, then what had happened with Madeline? I shoved my hands into my pockets and stared at my shoes. There was a crumpled leaf stuck in the laces. The gap from midnight ’til now was starting to leave a strange taste in my mouth. “Did you see Madeline, by any chance?”
“Madeline? Like, the extra chick on the circle? No.” Jing snaked her hand through her hair. “Why?”
“She wanted to see how it worked, too. She dragged me upstairs and we sat on the deck, and she was insistent about it. Not that I minded. I like showing off. Something struck me when we were out there, and I felt this sort of zinging queasiness, the sort that always comes with magic. So, I maybe recklessly jumped into it. It was a huge rush, but I blamed the alcohol for that. I didn’t think about it. I mean, it shouldn’t have worked. I drew a five-pointed circle, and Yates broke the circle, so the spell should have died. I don’t know how the two of us could have done all this. I really don’t remember.” I jammed my tongue in my cheek. I tried to rewind the tapes in my head, but it was like there wasn’t a gap at all. Inhale at midnight, exhale at noon.
“We found you on the deck. Just you, though. Madeline must have left,” Jing said.
“Do you have her number?”
Daisy yowled and clapped her hands.
“Not like that.” I rolled my eyes so hard that they nearly fell out of my head. “I’m just saying that she might know what happened. I’m plenty curious myself, believe it or not.”
Admittedly, the Daisy line of thought was also appealing. A significant part of me wanted to buy Madeline coffee. All the coffee in the damned world. Even if she had left me on a freezing deck. Wait. Maybe not, then. Goddamn it. I clawed the hair off my forehead and cringed at how stringy it felt.
“I don’t. I barely know her. She came with someone else.” Jing stood beside me and rocked back against the wall. Her hair, tousled and bleached, fell in a jagged fringe across her forehead, and the way it frayed around her collarbone was the stuff of daydreams. If she told me that she’d spent the morning at the beach, I’d have believed her.
“Random,” I said mostly to myself, “but your hair looks mega-kickass. Thought you should know.” I scuffed the sole of my boot across the cement. “When I do the messy hair thing, I look like a junkie.”
“Thanks,” said Jing. She blinked, and something like a smile twitched on her cheeks. “And you always look like a junkie. It just kind of works on you.”
Right. I took a cursory scan of the room and cleared my throat. “I have no idea what any of these lines mean. Like, any of them. It makes zero sense.”
“I can’t believe I’m asking this, but what did the actual spell do? Like, what were you trying to do when we were all holding hands?” Daisy was sizing up the St. Sebastian heart doodle. “Because I’ve seen The Craft like six times, and they never drew hearts on stuff.”
“I don’t really know what I was trying to do. I just kind of did it. I don’t normally draw hearts and shit, but it doesn’t matter so much what you draw, so long as you believe it. I mean, there’s got to be a circle, but you can scribble like a five-year-old with lipstick on a wall, and it’ll still work as long as your incantation doesn’t suck.”
Actually, no. It barely ever works, and when it does, it can usually be debunked by killjoy skeptics on the internet, and that’s when I’m following spell book advice to the letter. This was absurd. I didn’t draw any of these on purpose, so there wasn’t any intention to drive them. And it wasn’t like I had a hell of a lot of intention in the first place. I was trying to make the lights flicker. Something simple, flashy, manageable. These sigils shouldn’t have been capable of this.
I cracked my knuckles, click-click-click, but my left ring finger was stuck un-cracked, and it took a substantial amount of willpower not to snap it trying. My mood rings smudged green. Thinking hurt. “Hey. Jing. Can I see that video you took? There’s gotta be something in there.”
“Yeah.” Jing pulled the latest iPhone out of nowhere and fluttered her fingertips across the screen. She gave me a tight little smirk and thrust it in my direction.
The quality, for a shitty phone recording, was remarkable. The bass was distorted, but the laughter and off-key singing sounded genuine. Glow-splotchy bodies writhed in on themselves. Then the chalk drawings rippled into existence, floating like bodies to the brick wall’s surface. The music cut out, then skidded back with an old vinyl crackle. A scream tore through the crowd, and dark shadows, only people-shaped where the neon splatters lit them up, threw themselves on top of each other as they scrambled toward the stairs. Jing’s voice, jagged as glass, carved through the crowd: Bet you losers thought we couldn’t scare you! The angle fell crooked and blacked out.
I watched it three times.
“I have no idea what I did,” I said. “But, holy hell, I did a damn good job of it.”
“I’d say.” Daisy yawned, stretched on relevé. She folded her arms behind her head. “You should come to our parties more often. Jing, I’m inviting Sideways to all our parties. Na-na na na-na. Nothing you can do about it. Sideways Pike at all our parties. Can you imagine?”
Yikes. Alright. My crooked, stupid smile fell right off, but I crossed my arms, made like I hadn’t heard her. I’d just materialized magic chicken scratch on Jing Gao’s walls without trying to. Daisy would have to rack up a lot more nasty to faze me at this point.
“Give my phone back.”
I uncrossed my arms long enough to hand it over and promptly resumed my stance.
“Right,” said Jing as she pocketed her phone and rocked back on her heels. “Whatever.”
“Look.” I wasn’t sure what point I was trying to make, but a nagging voice in my head said it was the wrong one. I cleared my throat. “I can try to revamp that spell, reverse engineer it or something. I can show you how I did it in the first place. Us plus Yates and Madeline pack quite the supernatural punch. No way we couldn’t re-create this. Hell, we could make it bigger. I wager we could do a lot more than party tricks. We could do something really cool.”
Something cool. A horrible, tantalizing fantasy swam up in my mind’s eye: the four of us in a clique, strutting meanly in lockstep in matching jackets, our nails sharp, our lips dark, our heels clacking in tandem with our heartbeats. The unholy trinity alchemizing into a quartet. I imagined us shocking people speechless. They’d look at us like we were teenage Erinyes. Like we were untouchable. I felt ill and giddy imagining it, imagining Yates and Jing and Daisy wanting to be near me, wanting to talk to me and be close to me. Best friends like the movies.
Jing’s phone exploded. Her phone was at its peak volume, and the ringing was so jarring that I jumped. She sighed, rolled her eyes, and declined the call. “It was just Yates,” she said to Daisy. She flickered her focus back to me. “So. If you think we can do that again, I’m in. Nothing is cool in this town, and that was cool. Bring it. We can—goddamn it,” she spat. Her phone lit up again. The ringer blasted. Jing scowled, swiped, and cradled it to her ear.
Daisy and I exchanged silent question marks.
“What the fuck. Slow down. Start over.”
Someone was sobbing on the other side.
“I can’t understand you, babe. What’s wrong?”
The sobbing grew louder.
“What do you mean, in the pool? You’re talking nonsense. Okay. Okay, I get it. I’ll come see the pool. Hush, I know.”
“The pool?” Daisy looked ravenous. “Like, as in your pool?”
Jing shot a seething glance in Daisy’s direction, but she nodded nonetheless.
Daisy looked lupine. She grabbed me by the wrist and bounced from foot to foot. “Come on, Sideways. If it’s gremlins, you can witch them to death.” She dragged me back toward the stairs.
Daisy held my hand differently than Madeline had. Tighter grip, almond nails poised to prick. Her hands were softer. Even so, the similarity made me roil. Cold sweat on the back of my neck. I let her pull me across the threshold. I heard Jing, still whispering into her phone, at our heels.
We trekked through the party ruins, through the black balloons, through the deck door, past the place where my skull had smacked, down the rickety stairs. We crossed the lawn and weaved between flamingos.
We stopped precariously close to the edge of the pool, toes on the rim, and peered over the edge at the cavernous turquoise hole below. It went down and down and down.
My stomach flipped.
There were bodies at the bottom.
Four slender bodies, two does and a fawn, lay dead in the deep end of the pool. Necks stretched. Eyes dull. Their legs stuck out at stiff angles. There were no bullet holes or cherry splatters. Their insides were not out. It was just the stillness, the inexplicable sickening stillness. Their bodies were arranged in neat rows. The bottom doe, the bigger of the two, had her head to the left and her tail to the right, and the middle doe was arranged in the opposite fashion. The fawn, still milky-speckled, was stretched like the first doe, left to right.
The fourth body, curled up right next to the fawn, was Yates, her phone cradled to her cheek.
From The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke (Erewhon 2020). Copyright © 2020 by Hannah Abigail Clarke. Reprinted with permission from Erewhon.
Hannah Abigail Clarke is here and queer, etc. They have been published in Lunch Ticket, PRISM international, Dream Pop Press, Portland Review, Gothic Nature Journal, Eidolon, and Chaleur Magazine. They were a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Young Adult Fiction and a Pushcart nominee. They currently research queerness, labor, and monstrosity in grad school. The Scapegracers is their first novel.