“The line it is drawn, The curse it is cast. The slow one now will later be fast.”
Blink and you’ll miss it.
Ruby’s gaze drifted toward the smooth-cornered window as the small shuttle plane descended from the azure skies over Connecticut. The estuary below rolled along in a green-blue-brown blur, filling her heart with a particular ache she’d felt, yet not acknowledged, for two decades.
Home. Blink and you’ll miss twenty years of your life going by.
“Excuse me, Ma’am?”
Ruby turned to the flight attendant, struggling to keep a grimace off her face. Grimacing would give her wrinkles. Besides, the attendant didn’t deserve her ire. Ruby knew that, at the age of forty-one, she warranted the ‘ma’am’ designation. Still, it rankled.
“Yes, what is it? My tray table is up, and my seat is in the full upright position.”
“Yes, but you were informed of the airline’s pet policy. Your cats were to remain constrained inside of a carrier for the duration of the flight.”
“Airline’s policy?” I chuckled. “You have three shuttle planes, all props, no jets. Isn’t it kind of hubris for you to describe yourself as an ‘airline?’ I mean, really.”
The stewardess’s pretty young face screwed up into a carefully controlled scowl-smile. Her lips smiled, but, oh, how her eyes glared.
“Your cats are disturbing the pilots. Can you please retrieve them?”
Ruby sighed. “I’d love to, but the captain–” Ruby put emphasis on the word, which she considered an empty title. He wasn’t military. He was a pilot, not a captain. “—has turned on the fasten seatbelts light. It would be against airline policy for me to remove it, even to retrieve my wayward cats.”
“Ma’am, please, don’t be difficult.”
“Difficult?” Ruby was enjoying herself entirely too much, and she knew it. “Why, I’m confused. First you say I have to adhere to airline policy, and then you tell me I’m difficult for violating airline policy. I’m not sure you’re going to get five stars on Yelp from me…”
Ruby carefully checked her name tag.
“Genesis…wait, is your name really Genesis? Who names their kid Genesis?”
Ruby unbuckled her seatbelt, heaving a sigh. “Alright, I’ll go get my kitties.”
“You will?” Genesis blinked rapidly as Ruby stood, stretching, feeling a familiar ache in her lower back. She’d had to forgo her daily yoga session to get on the plane back in New York City, and she was suffering as a result.
Exercise for Ruby had become a carefully weighed choice. Did she want to hurt a lot for a little while, or hurt chronically with much less intensity all day? She preferred to hurt for a little while. The efforts showed on her figure; despite her years, she presented as many curves as the flight attendant half her age.
If only crow’s feet and spots were as easy to remedy with exercise. Oh well, that’s what cosmetics are for.
“Ma’am, if you don’t mind my asking, why did you decide to be nice about this?”
Ruby glanced over her shoulder at the attendant and grinned. “Simply put, I feel like you’ve had a bad enough break being named Genesis by obviously sadistic parents. I thought I’d throw you a bone. Now where are my kitties…”
Ruby raised her voice to parade ground levels. “Rumpus! Rufus! Stop being furry little menaces and come back to your carrier.”
She saw a furry head appear in the cockpit door. A big, furry head. Rumpus, her first familiar. Orange and black and white mantled fluff, nearly four feet long with his tail. Ruby overindulged him on treats, giving the cat a heavy paunch, which wriggled when he walked.
“Yes, I’m talking to you. Get back here this instant.”
Rumpus meowed, but to Ruby’s ears it came across as speech.
“But we’re about to land. You know I like to look out the front window.”
“We’re going to get tased and flash banged by homeland security when we land if you don’t behave. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be tased and flash banged.”
“I don’t want to get flash banged!” Rufus jumped off the co-pilot’s lap. The co-pilot didn’t seem happy that Rufus was leaving. “Don’t get us flash banged, Rumpus!”
Rufus was Ruby’s second familiar. Apparently, there had been a mix up at the celestial bureaucracy or whoever assigned familiars to witches. Rufus would have been sent back to limbo until a suitable witch could be found, so Ruby offered to let him stay until he was matched up. That had been several years ago.
Rufus was as cowardly as Rufus was brave. Often the older, heavier cat would tease or cajole Rufus into joining in on shenanigans.
“They wouldn’t flashbang us,” Rumpus said, leading Rufus out of the cockpit and down the aisle. “They never blame the cats.”
Ruby corralled her wayward familiars into her pet carrier, a repurposed twin baby carriage. The accordion domes could fold down, but she didn’t bother. Rumpus and Rufus would usually stay put on their own. And, if they decided to get out, the clever felines would be able to do so unless she chained and padlocked the carriage shut. Possibly even then, they’d still escape to wreak havoc.
The little plane touched down at Sandpiper Airfield on one of its two runways. Normally tourism kept the small airfield in business, but Ruby had taken a red-eye flight to avoid interaction. She had enough on her mind as it was.
She carefully worked the carrier down the steps. Ruby bumped the carrier down hard on the last one, jostling her cats about roughly.
“Hey, not so rough. Precious cargo here,” Rumpus grumped.
Rufus thrust his inky black head out from the carrier, paws braced on the rim. His eyes narrowed as the breeze kicked up, carrying the scent of Long Island Sound with it.
“Wow, smells so much different than New York. I haven’t heard a car alarm or a honking horn since we touched down.”
“Fiddler Cove is a decent sized city, Rufus,” Ruby said as she pushed the carrier along the tarmac toward the laughably small Sandpiper terminal. “Just barely, that is. The population is just high enough that it can be called a city and not a village.”
“I never understood the difference,” Rumpus said. “When I hear the word ‘village,’ I think of, like, medieval peasants, torches, and pitchforks.”
“Well, they’re not going to run us out of town just because Ruby is a witch, right?” Rufus’s tail twitched in agitation. “This town is friendly to witches and fae folk, isn’t it?”
“The Underwyrd community is smaller than New York’s—a lot smaller—but there is a support network. No, no one’s going to light torches and drive us out of town. At least, not because I’m a witch.”
Rumpus’s ears went back. “Why are you acting like you’re the one who did something wrong by leaving? You’re the one who got dumped at the altar. I would think Roger is the one who—”
“Don’t speak his name,” Ruby hissed.
“Come on, what if he still lives in town? We’re going to have to deal with this sooner or later, Rubes.” Rumpus heaved a human-like sigh. “You’ve been running away from Roger, from your past, from everything for twenty years. Now, you can’t run anymore.”
Ruby sighed as they entered the terminal. The smell of fresh coffee reached her nostrils and she made a beeline for the small in-house café. “I just want to get the lighthouse settled, put it on the market, and get the heck back to where I belong.”
“I thought this was your hometown, Ruby,” Rufus said. “Isn’t this where you belong?”
“No,” Ruby snapped. “I like my parties, my socializing, my dance clubs and my motorcycle, thank you very much.”
“You mean, you like to pretend you’re still twenty-one years old instead of forty-one.”
“Mouthy kitties don’t get lactose-free fraps.”
“I’ll be good,” Rumpus said quickly.
Ruby bought the drinks and set up shop at one of the square tables. When a security guard approached—probably to tell her cats weren’t allowed in the terminal—she shot him an icy look. “Therapy pets. Mind your business.”
He stiffened up and walked away, face twisting into a sneer. Thanks to federal law, Ruby could bring her familiars just about anywhere by making the therapy pets claim. They weren’t going to cause trouble—okay, at least not too much trouble—so Ruby didn’t feel guilty. Besides, she hadn’t written the law, and would be a fool not to take advantage of it.
They finished their drinks, Ruby lingering over her own as the cats lapped up the child-sized frappes with their darting pink tongues. Ruby knew she was stalling. There was nothing left to do but actually drive back into town.
Once she secured a taxi, of course.
Ruby retrieved her one item of checked luggage and rolled it along behind her. The rest of her things were due to arrive in a few days, shipped from New York. Despite her bravado, Ruby knew she would likely be stuck in Fiddler Cove for weeks, if not months.
She had a plan. Ruby hoped to stay inside the lighthouse her Uncle had bequeathed her for the entire visit, letting no one know she was even back in town. That way she wouldn’t dig up old grudges or set old wounds to bleeding.
Ruby approached a taxi with a running light on. The air was crisp and warm for early Autumn, so the driver had his windows down to take advantage of the temperate weather. Ruby bent down to speak to him through the open passenger window.
“Hi, can you take me into…um, into town?”
Ruby realized, with chagrin, that she recognized this man. Hopefully he wouldn’t recognize her back.
The pale-skinned, short-haired man’s eyes narrowed. Hands with bony fingers ending in thick, slightly pointed nails curled around the steering wheel. Ruby could see the wheels turning in his head, and then his mouth flew open, displaying grayish teeth and allowing a gasp to escape.
“Ruby? Ruby Rivers? No way, is that you?”
“Hi Devlin,” Ruby said, cringing on the inside. “Long time, no see.”
“It’s been forever since high school,” he said. “Wow, you look great! I mean, really great.”
“Thanks, Devlin. You look…good, too.” For a ghoul, a pseudo-undead, that is.
Devlin shrugged. “Benefits of an undead physiology. Hop on in, we can catch up on the way back into town.”
Ruby resigned herself to her fate. She pushed the carrier over to the open rear window and her cats leaped out, first Rufus and then the heavier Rumpus. Ruby swore the suspension lowered on the taxi when it had to bear Rumpus’ weight.
Ruby stored her carrier in the trunk as Devlin insisted on getting her luggage. Ruby began to regret her clothing choice. The tight red tank top and hip hugging, ankle length black skirt might have shown off her yoga-hardened figure well, but, to men like Devlin, it was like a red flag to a bull. My fault for not dressing my age. Maybe Rumpus is right, and I am trying to pretend the last twenty years didn’t really happen.
“So, I heard about you and Roger,” Devlin said as they rolled along the undulating, grass-covered hills. The road they took crossed over many short bridges, each one spanning a flowing waterway. A flight of white gulls took off as they rumbled over a wooden bridge. Ruby got caught up in memories of going under that bridge as a teenager to sip wine pilfered from parental liquor cabinets. So much so, she missed what Devlin said.
“I’m sorry, Devlin. What was that?”
“I said, he was a total jerk for doing that to you. Dumping you at the altar? I mean, who does that?”
“Thanks, Devlin.” Ruby sighed. The last thing she wanted to do was think about that particular watershed event.
“Hey, no problem.”
They rolled around a bend in the road, and Fiddler’s Cove came into view. In many ways, the town appeared as your typical, cozy Connecticut coastal town. Similar to the others which dotted Long Island Sound. There was a robust fishing and lobster industry, seaside bed and breakfast inns, and a bustling downtown which benefited from the tourism trade.
Underneath that soft-edged exterior lay a viper’s nest of internecine warfare, old family feuds still festering long after anyone knew what sparked them in the first place, and the odd witch, warlock, or fae folk hiding in plain sight.
Ruby had more reasons to avoid interacting with the Fiddler Cove denizens than simply avoiding pain from her past.
“Looks like Joe’s got shut down,” Ruby lamented.
“Joe’s?” Devlin blinked in confusion. “Oh, wait, I remember. Joe’s House of Wine? Yeah, that closed down like ten years ago.”
“Looks like the marina is still the same. The yachting club banners don’t seem to have changed.”
“Yeah, some things are probably just the way you left them. Others, not so much. You remember Johnny Mumbles?”
“John Miller. Sat behind us in Algebra class, barely spoke.”
“And when he did, you couldn’t understand him. Too bad. He was kind of cute.”
Devlin cocked an eyebrow. “If you say so. Anyway, he’s done well for himself. He’s the chief of police now.”
“Really?” Ruby blinked in surprise. “Well, good for him, then.”
“Yeah, maybe not so much. He’s got his work cut out for him. With the fishing industry not quite what it used to be, the town’s fallen hard on tourism dollars to make ends meet. Tourism brings in crime, simple as that. There are parts of Fiddler’s Cove you don’t want to walk down at night.”
Ruby frowned. “That’s…distressing.” When she’d been a teen, no one had bothered locking their doors or even their cars. Clearly, times had changed.
Devlin drove them toward the coast, where Long Island Sound rolled in low, gentle waves toward the shore. They came upon a lone, red and white striped lighthouse on a rocky peninsula of its own. The jagged, rocky cliff formed a buttress against storm tossed waves, seeming like gigantic misshapen teeth about to swallow the lighthouse.
Devlin rolled to a stop on the gravel drive leading to the lighthouse. Ruby noted several spots where it had been worn away, resulting in deep, muddy ruts.
“Here we are.”
Ruby waved Devlin off when he tried to help with her luggage. “I’ve got it, thanks. Besides, I’m sure you have a lot to do.”
“Not really, no. Do you want to grab a cup of coffee or something?”
Ruby smiled politely. “Rain check, Devlin. My uncle had been hoarding things in here for the last twenty years. I have a ton of work ahead of me going through it.”
“Ah well, my number’s in the phone book.”
“Do they still have those?” Ruby cocked an eyebrow. “Nice talking to you, Devlin.”
“Same. Be careful.”
Devlin shook his head. “Weird stuff has been happening out at the lighthouse ever since your uncle died. Lights going on by themselves, strange noises, mysterious fogs with no source of origin.”
Ruby grinned. “Not to worry. Those kinds of things are just a matter of course when you’re a witch.”
Ruby rolled her luggage and the carrier up the worn stone ramp leading to the front entrance.
“Feels weird being back here again after so long,” Rumpus mused.
“I-it’s not haunted, is it?” Rufus asked.
“Oh, even if there is an apparition, it’s probably harmless.”
“If you say so…”
Ruby unlocked the front door and swung it open. To her surprise, the interior was clean and well-organized, despite being stacked to the gills with…stuff. Trading cards, crates of commemorative ceramic plates, and even a worn Indian motorcycle.
“Well, this place is kind of nice and cozy,” Rufus said.
GEEEEET OUUUUUUT groaned a horrid, otherworldly voice promising pain and a fate worse than death.
“Too bad we can’t stay!”
The haunting voice still reverberated in Ruby’s ears as she looked down to her smaller familiar.
“Rufus, it’s just an apparition. They’re mostly harmless.”
“See, it’s that use of the word ‘mostly’ that’s got me on edge.”
Rufus leaped out of the carriage and raced behind Ruby’s luggage. His yellow eyes peered out from behind the black vinyl case.
“If you’re going to be a familiar to a witch, Rufus, you can’t just cower in fear every time there’s a simple manifestation of an apparition.” Rumpus yawned and licked his paw smugly. “We’ll have it exorcised before lunch. Speaking of lunch, I’m famished.”
“You know the vet said you had to cut back on the Tender Vittles, Rumpus.”
“Ah, but I am wasting away! But skin and bone! Like a wraith, flesh stretched tight as a kite’s wing over my malnourished form.”
“Alright, fine, as soon as we exorcise this apparition.” Ruby set her luggage to rest against the safety rail and slipped the purse strap off her shoulder. She took a moment to run her fingers over the Gucci magenta leather satchel. It cost her more than two month’s rent, but so worth every cent.
Ruby snapped the purse open and rummaged around. “Let’s see…a little bit of quicksilver essence…”
She placed a glass vial on the ground, a silvery fluid sloshing around inside of it.
“Eye of newt…”
“I can’t bear to look!”
“Chillax, Rufus. It’s mustard seed, not actual eyeballs.”
“I think I won’t take my chances on that.”
Ruby gathered her components together and considered sitting cross legged on the sidewalk. Her knees, which were already protesting the change in climate, didn’t much care for that idea.
“Come on,” Ruby said, rolling her luggage onto the light house’s first floor. “I need to sit down to do this right.”
“There’s a place to sit down?” Rumpus moved into the first floor, his nose twitching. “Darn it. No rats.”
“That’s a bad thing?” Ruby glanced at the doorway and found Rufus barely peeking in, shivering like a leaf in the wind. “Rufus, it will be okay. My magic will protect us.”
“I can see fine from here, thank you.”
Ruby sighed, then decided to let the matter rest for the time being. “Alright, have it your way.”
“This place is fit to burst with junk,” Rumpus lamented, walking up to a crate and squinting at the label. “Non-sports related trading cards? Is that even a thing?”
“Believe it or not, there is actually a very nice living area hidden under this stuff. The lighthouse offers more square footage than my five-thousand-dollar-per-month apartment did in the big city.”
“Yes, but did those square footages involve hostile ghosts? I think not.” Rufus scoffed.
“Well, I’m taking care of that, aren’t I?”
“Are you going to exorcise it?”
“That’s a bit extreme. I’m going to try and summon it and see if there’s not some way I can appease it first.”
“Sure, most ghosts and apparitions haven’t completely let go of their former lives. You help them finish their unfinished business, and they go ahead and move on to the next plane of existence…some of the time.”
“Some of the time?”
“Well, in some cases, the ghost has an unachievable goal, or a malevolent one. And then there’s the stubborn ones who don’t believe they’re dead, or don’t want to. Those are a pain in the neck.”
“You’re not overwhelming me with confidence,” Rufus said, staring about in a near panic. “There’s nowhere to hide except in the haunted lighthouse. Oh, what a revolting development!”
“You’re an embarrassment to all feline kind, and familiars in general.” Rumpus sighed. “You’re the reason a lot of witches are switching to toad familiars.”
“Rumpus, be nice. You mewled like a kitten the first time I summoned an apparition.”
“He did?” Rufus seemed to take delight in the concept.
“Of course not,” Rumpus huffed. “She’s exaggerating, as usual.”
Ruby chuckled as she dragged a cylindrical padded footstool over to the center of the polished floorboards. She sat on the stool and used a piece of chalk to draw a pentagram. The chalk scraping over the timbers mingled with the gently lapping waves and the calls of gulls. Something akin to nostalgia and long-put-off homesickness roiled in Ruby’s belly.
I guess…in some ways it’s nice to be back in Fiddler Cove.
She stood up, nudging the footstool back with her heel. Rumpus claimed it immediately upon her vacation. He appeared like an ice cream cone, with his fluffy form ballooning off the edge.
Ruby allowed her vision to switch into the eldritch spectrum. Instantly, the room, the lighthouse, the entire world became overlaid with shimmering auras and patterns. A bright, pulsing, jagged line throbbed in the skies above the lighthouse, like frozen lightning.
Ruby tapped into the ley line, so as not to deplete her own reservoir of magical power. She chanted the arcane words of the summoning spell, weaving in a subtext of binding to the pentagram.
Her chanting reached a crescendo, and then she threw a little bit of powdered silver into the air over the pentagram. Where the fine particles hit, they ignited blue lines which sizzled through the air like lit fuses. The lines formed the contours of a translucent human body.
“Look at that silly hat, and that long coat,” Rumpus quipped. “This guy died a loooong time ago.”
“He doesn’t look very happy,” Rufus said, trembling at the doorway.
“No, he does not,” Ruby frowned up at the grimacing apparition. He appeared as a middle-aged man in early American colonial dress. “Ahem. Greetings, oh traveling spirit. You seem to have become trapped in my home—”
“Trapped?” A skeletal, glowing finger thrust down at her as the spirit swelled into a ten-foot monstrosity. “Nay! ‘Tis thou who art trapped. Thou and all witches will burn!”
Rufus yelped. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to convince him to leave peacefully.”
“Or perform his final task, since it would involve suicide.” Ruby sighed. “Alright, Mr. bigoted witch hater. Time to pass on to the next stage of being.”
“Nay, I’ll not be driven away by the devil’s magic. The light of the lord protects me.”
“Yeah, that’s what they all say,” Ruby muttered, not really paying attention. She rummaged through her purse and extracted a small leather-bound diary. “Turn to basic exorcism of an apparition.”
The little tome expanded into a full-sized grimoire, opening itself and flipping to the correct page. It hovered at a convenient reading height. As Ruby stood up, it moved with her, always floating to the appropriate eye level for easy perusal.
Ruby chanted the harsh arcane syllables, words which could never be remembered by a mundane. Any attempt would result in the words sizzling away from their minds like water on a hot grill.
The apparition screamed as if in agony. Its light died down, fading into a low glow as it deformed into a pitiful puddled mockery of its former glory.
“Goodbye,” Ruby said, and snapped her fingers.
The apparition screamed, its hands pressing against the tubular cylinder of light trapping it in the pentagram. Ruby gaped in astonishment as it seemed to break free. Light brighter than a thousand suns surged through the room, penetrating the ceiling and striking the lens at the top of the lighthouse.
“We got flash banged after all,” Rufus said. “Such is life.”
“That wasn’t supposed to happen, was it?” Rufus asked.
“No, it was not.” Ruby frowned as she looked about. “I don’t feel its presence anymore, though.”
“Then the banishment was successful?”
“I don’t know,” Ruby said, shaking her head. “I do know that it’s gone, for the time being, at least.”
“The time being?” Rufus paused, one foot still dangling over the lighthouse floor.
Ruby smiled, then walked over to him and picked up the shaking cat. “It’s alright, Rufus. I won’t let him hurt you.”
“He acts like a pansy, and then you baby him. You’re the reason he’s like this.”
“Hush, Rumpus, or no catnip treats.”
Ruby looked around at the great stacks of goods hoarded by her uncle and blew out a long sigh.
“Well, this is home now, at least for a while. Let’s get to work.”