Amelie had a secret. Not the little stone she held concealed in her jacket pocket, nor the secret about her grandfather she had kept for years, but a brand new one.
She sat in the back seat of their car while they drove to visit Grandfather in the hospital. Dad complained about the traffic while Mum said things like, "It's okay, dear," and "Just let it go."
The stone was egg-shaped and painted into the semblance of a black and orange striped cat, curled up asleep. She had found it this morning, in the attic. That was the secret!
While poking around the back of her closet for her Sunday dress she had discovered a ladder leading up to a trapdoor. In her whole nine years, she had never noticed either a ladder or a trapdoor there, so she just had to investigate.
The attic was full of the most wonderful things—colorful glass statuettes, ornamental teacups, carved wooden pipes, little animals made of beads . . . all littered over tables and chests and cabinets that were themselves gorgeously adorned.
She had only had a few minutes to take it in before she heard her mother's voice calling. Amelie had not mentioned her discovery to her mother. She was afraid that if she told anyone about it, it would disappear. It would not be the first time something like that had happened.
Aunt Callie was waiting for them in the lobby, her colorful skirt rumpled, her long, long hair tied haphazardly behind her. "Thanks so much for coming," she said. "I can't see him like this alone."
Dad only grunted.
Amelie felt certain that the attic was connected to her grandfather. It was such a magical place and her grandfather, she knew, could work magic. Not lame stuff like card tricks, but real magic. Once he had been visiting while Amelie's friend Katie was over with her yappy little Pomeranian. Grandfather had caught Amelie's eye and made a closing motion with his fingers. The annoying little creature's mouth clamped shut and all it could do for the rest of the visit was whimper. Amelie had giggled and Grandfather's eyes had twinkled.
There was no twinkle in Grandfather's eyes today. He was sitting up in a big bed with bars around it, peering about vacantly. When he saw Aunt Callie he said, "Alice?" and she made a little choking sound.
A man stood by the bed, and Amelie could tell he was a doctor by his white coat. He glanced at Amelie and then spoke to her parents in a hushed voice.
"He's experiencing severe dementia. Does he have a history of mental illness?"
Dad snorted and Aunt Callie nodded.
Amelie made a mental note to look up "dementia" when she got home.
"If you could provide the name of his regular doctor," the doctor continued, "we'll have his records sent over. It could be Alzheimer's, but there's some tests we can run. . . ."
Dad was nodding. "See? I told you."
"Can we talk to him?" Aunt Callie asked the doctor.
The doctor shrugged. "You can try. I can't guarantee he'll be lucid."
"What does 'lucid' mean?" Amelie asked.
Mum shushed her.
Aunt Callie pulled a chair up to the bedside.
Grandfather started at the sharp sound.
"Dad, it's me Callie," she said gently.
Grandfather only peered into her face. "Alice? Is that you?" Then he noticed the doctor and sat bolt upright. "No!" he bellowed. "No more drugs!" He held up a shaking hand toward the doctor and contorted it into a weird gesture.
Amelie giggled and her mother shushed her again.
"Don't worry, Dad, everything's going to be fine," Aunt Callie said.
"Why do you say that?" Dad grumbled. "You know he doesn't understand you."
"Jack. . . ." Mum chided.
"What? This is just like all the other times. . . ."
"He collapsed in his apartment yesterday," the doctor interrupted. "A woman was with him."
The grownups exchanged glances. Amelie knew what they were thinking: The Other Woman. She didn't know who The Other Woman was, but she knew that the family didn't care for her.
While the adults were talking, Amelie walked over to her grandfather. He looked much older than she remembered. His curly hair was grey and unkempt. His face was pinched, like he was trying to recall something. And there was drool on his lip.
There was something else too, like cobwebs clinging to his head, almost too fine to see. Amelie reached up to brush them away. They went taut, stretched a little, and then slid through her fingers.
Grandfather looked at her then, like he had just woken out of a trance. His mouth moved, but no sound came out. Taking care that no one else would see, she slowly took the little stone out of her pocket and showed it to him. He looked at it and smiled.
Soon the visit was over. Mum wanted to go the mall while they were in town. When they were there, she bought Amelie a book with pictures of prehistoric animals. Amelie already knew the difference between the Paleozoic and Mesozoic Eras.
By the time they got home, she was tired and decided to leave off exploring the attic until tomorrow. But when she went to bed, she put the cat stone under her pillow for safekeeping.
In the middle of the night, Amelie was awoken by a child's voice: "Mummy, Daddy, I had a bad dream."
"I'll take care of it," she mumbled to the sleeping head beside her. But the voice wasn't hers.
She took the hand of the little boy in the tiger-striped pajamas and floated downstairs. The kitchen for some reason had shrunk to half its normal size. Undeterred, she lit the stove and put on the kettle and made white tea. The little boy sipped the warm, sweet drink contentedly until his eyes began to droop. Then she downed the rest of her beer and carried him gently back to his room where he curled up asleep like a cat.
"What a peculiar dream," Amelie said when she awoke the next morning, pleased at the opportunity to use the word "peculiar" in a sentence. She retrieved the cat stone from under her pillow and looked at it. Could it have had something to do with her dream? Dreams had always been terribly important in the storybooks that she had read.
It was Saturday, so she pondered this while she ate Rice Krispies and watched He-Man and Transformers—girl cartoons were so patronizing! She had been a different person in the dream. But who? Grandfather? How could she find out?
When the show was over she went to look for the photo albums. She perused them while she finished off her breakfast with an apple.
There! A little boy in the tiger-striped pajamas! She turned it over and read Jack Christmas '52. Jack was Dad's grown-up name.
If the little boy had been Dad, then that meant she had been Grandfather. Somehow the cat stone had placed one of Grandfather's memories in her mind while she slept. Did that mean all the ornaments in the attic contained memories?
Amelie padded upstairs to her room. After making sure no one was looking, she slipped into the closet and behind the hanging clothes. Yes, it was still there—the ladder made of planks nailed into the wall leading up to the trapdoor.
She climbed the ladder and undid the latch. On the other side of the trapdoor was a little room with inward-leaning walls, barely large enough for an adult to stand up in but quite cozy for Amelie. Lazy morning light slanted in through an octagonal stained-glass window. A large dreamcatcher turned gently overhead; in it were set tiny pieces of colored glass that sent beads of light wandering about the landscape of trinkets, ornaments, and mementos that filled the room.
They sat on decorated tables, boxes, and chests—too many of them to count. There was a small hand mirror, painted in the semblance of a fish, its tail the handle. There was a drinking bird. There were numerous figurines and statuettes, ornamental ashtrays, decorated mugs, cups, and saucers.
She opened a drawer to find it, too, crammed with toy soldiers and souvenir pens.
Were these all Grandfather's memories? Was that why he was sick? Had something emptied out his head and unloaded the contents here? Amelie imagined him in some sort of wizardly duel, like The Sword in the Stone.
She picked up a soapstone statuette of a man in shabby clothes, his hand held out for change, his features warped in a cartoonish frown. If these were Grandfather's memories, was there some way of getting them back into his head?
"Amy!" her mother's voice came up through the open trapdoor. "We're going out!"
Quickly Amelie scrambled down the ladder, shutting the trapdoor behind her. "Okay, Mum, thank you!" She had a feeling this wasn't something she wanted to involve adults in, at least until she had a better idea of what to do.
"Bye, dear!" said Mum.
It was too early to go back to bed and test her theory on another trinket. In the meantime, there were evil robots to defeat and alien worlds to explore. It was a fine sunny day, so Amelie went out to the parkette at the end of her street. Here could be found swings, a sandbox, and a few reasonably climbable trees. She liked to play there when other kids weren't around.
But today she found herself distracted from her intergalactic adventures. There were all these birds hopping about. In itself this was nothing unusual, but she could not escape the impression that they were watching her. They just hopped about, pretending to be busy, turning their empty little eyes toward her.
And there was something else about them. They were all different kinds, though still the sort that sat in trees and went tweet, tweet. But each one seemed to be carrying something in its mouth. It was not quite invisible—if you stared long enough you could catch a glimpse of a silver thread, impossibly thin, glimmering in the sunlight.
Amelie reached into her pocket and took out the cat-shaped stone. Holding it up to the light, she could see the faintest of glimmerings, stretching off into the distance. When she looked away again, she noticed the birds staring at her intently, and they were closer than before. Unnerved, she replaced the stone and hurried back to the house.
Grandfather's apartment had been broken into!
So Amelie overhead her mother telling Aunt Callie on the phone when she returned. When Mum and Dad had gone out earlier, they went to Grandfather's apartment to pick up some clothes and found the place ransacked. Amelie wished she had been there—she might have seen some clue. Did the burglary have something to do with what was going on with Grandfather and the attic? Did it have something to do with the birds? Amelie imagined a flock of colorful cartoon birds rummaging through Grandfather's closet.
She passed the evening perusing a book on songbirds. The house was full of books, although her parents never read any. It appeared that neither housebreaking nor carrying gossamer threads were part of their normal behavior. She was, however, able to determine that the group of birds she had seen included a Northern Cardinal, a White-Breasted Nuthatch, and several Blue Grosbeaks.
Amelie asked her mother to make her a cup of warm milk before bed. She sipped it while listening to Dad complain about how hard it was to unlock the old man's money and how they were going to have to pick up the pieces, again.
Then it was off to the attic to find another ornament. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but it seemed to her that not everything was in the same place she left it. For one thing, she bumped her knee on a table that most certainly was not there earlier. Amelie grabbed something of suitable size and shape and examined it when she returned to her bedroom. It was a crab made out of multicolored beads. She tucked it under her pillow and turned out the light.
Mercy Hospital, going on midnight. The emergency room is open and the night nurse's eyes slide past me as if I were begging for change on Bay Street. There's a map on the wall and I'll be able to find the palliative care ward without too much difficulty. I'm pretty familiar with hospitals after all.
On the way I pass the pharmacy. Waste not. . . . At a whispered word, the lock withdraws its bolt like a tongue and I am in. I grab a few bottles of Valium and Ritalin and some uppers I've heard of but never tried. I slip out and while I'm shutting the door behind me an orderly steps around me without noticing that I'm there. The words of the Disregard spell continue to turn over in my mind, happy for the exercise.
At the door to her room I hesitate. So many feelings well up inside, like whispering voices. Well, I'm used to voices in my head, aren't I? The door is not locked; I go in.
It's dark inside; just a pale glow from the windows and the red eyes of the machinery. I open the blinds but don't turn on the light. After a moment I can see her face, gaunt and seamed, grey in the diffuse streetlamp glow.
She is sleeping but it is not the face of sleep. Fear and pain, and fear of pain, rob this face of the repose of sleep. This is not the face I married. I repress an urge to leave now, to leave her to her deathbed. To leave . . . a chuckle escapes my lips and her eyes open.
"Who's there?" she whispers sharply.
"It's me." I take a step forward into the light. Speaking breaks the Disregard spell.
"Joe?" Her voice cracks.
For a moment I don't answer. "Yes," I say at last.
Another pause. "I didn't know if you would come."
"I didn't know you wanted me to come until I got the message from Callie."
"Oh, Joe, I never wanted to shut you out. That was Jack. I just . . . didn't have the energy to fight him."
"Jack's an asshole." I grin. "Takes after his father, I guess."
"Joe, you know that's not true. He hardly knew you."
"So . . . how long?"
"Weeks. Maybe a month or two, with the chemo."
I find a chair and sit down. Reflexively, I reach into my pocket for a smoke, then think better of it. "I'm . . . sorry. There isn't anything I can do. You know . . . with the magic."
"Actually, there is."
"Alice, I . . ." I say, holding up my hand. Then I pull out a cigarette and light it up anyway. "I thought that might be what this is about."
"Look, Joe, I wanted to see you before the end, of course I did, but you're the only one who can do this for me."
"Anybody can do it, honey, I'm just the only one who can get away with it." I suck at the butt and hunt about overhead for the smoke detector. Then I speak a word to it and the indicator light winks out.
"Please, Joe. . . ."
"I'm not saying I won't do it. Why wouldn't I? I've seen lots o' folks who needed to be put out of their misery. Happy to help. To do my part for, y'know, humanity."
"Okay." She takes a long breath. "Thank you. Really . . . thank you. I'm just tired. So tired."
I shrug. "'Course. Who could blame you?"
"Now you're going to have to take on more of a role in the kids' lives."
I shrug again. "If they'll let me."
"They will. There's grandchildren now, they'll need it."
"You know how I love kids."
Her eyes flick to me suspiciously.
"Come on!" I cry, spreading my hands. "I like kids! What did you think—"
"I don't know what to think with you, Joe. The people you've spent your life with, the things I've seen you do. . . ."
"What do you want? I was crazy!"
"I don't mean that. I mean this." She waves her hand vaguely.
"Oh, the magic. Don't worry, sweetie. It's just words. You say the words, shit happens. There's no sacrificing of virgins. Well, if there is, it's 'cause they're crazy, not because . . ."
"Okay. Let's not talk about it, okay?"
"Just like old times."
I blow a cloud of smoke into the air, watch it furl in the light from the window.
"So," I say after a while. "I guess this is the last time we'll be seeing each other. Is there anything, y'know, you wanna know?"
"Joe . . ."
"No, really. Think about it. This is it. If there's anything you, y'know, wanna say, now's the time."
"Why did you leave, Joe?"
"You know why I left. I went crazy. Batshit paranoid schizophrenic."
"There were drugs. They were working."
I take a long draw on my cig. "Okay, sure. I could've taken my pills like a good boy. I could've played the loving husband and father. Why not? But knowing what was out there? All those powers? All those secrets?" I shake my head. "I couldn't turn my back on that. There's no way."
"I see." She pauses, and I see a twitch of pain run across her face. "Did you love me?"
I swallow. "O'course. I still do."
"Then prove it."
I hesitate. "You mean . . ."
"Please, Joe. Do it now. It has to be now."
My mouth is dry. I move to the bed, take her hand. "This will hurt, but, y'know, not for very long."
She nods. I utter a word that crawls out of my throat like a cockroach, and thrust my other hand into my wife's chest. I can feel her heart pulsing like the current of a stream. It's very fast. I close my eyes and squeeze. She convulses, her fingers digging into my hand, and then—nothing. She's gone.
Light fills the room as the crash team charges in. I retreat to a corner, huddling against the wall. My head is full of noise. Maybe it's the alarm. Or the mob of voices trying to claw their way out of my skull. Blue scrubs and white lab coats dance their tarantella before my unseeing eyes.
Before anyone has a chance to notice me, I remember the Disregard spell. Eventually, they call the time and file out, one by one. I curl up and wait for the sunrise.
Amelie stared at her bedroom ceiling for a long time. So that's what had happened to Grandma. She thought it was very brave of Grandfather to do what he had done. And quite sensible, too.
Now he was the one who needed help.
Clearly she needed to get Grandfather's memories back inside his head. But how was she supposed to do that?
The first thing she did was return to the attic in the bright light of day. Now she felt certain that the contents had moved about since her last visit. But that didn't concern her right now. Instead she squinted her eyes and attempted to focus on the space between the objects. She moved around to change her angle, trying to catch a glimpse of minute gossamer threads hanging upon the air.
Yes! There they were.
Sometimes the rays of light reflected from the dreamcatcher caught them and lit them up like toy lightning.
She tried to catch them with her fingers. Just like at the hospital, the threads stretched until they ought to snap, but then slipped past her fingers and sprung back into place. She felt nothing. What were they made of? Did they stretch from here all the way into the city where the hospital was?
Amelie heard her name. It was time to go to church.
On the way there, she asked if they could visit Grandfather after. Her mother looked cautiously at her father, who shrugged. Amelie smiled and touched the cat stone in her pocket.
The monotony of the service seemed to go on even longer than usual. On the way out, Amelie offered a prayer for Grandfather just in case. Then they went to the hospital. Perhaps God was listening after all, because Grandfather was asleep. Amelie waited till no one was looking and slipped the ornament under his pillow.
Then she sat cross-legged on the floor with the bird book in her lap, listening to her parents argue. This time it was over her sister Carlie and why she hadn't come to visit yet. Carlie had met a boy at college and taken a summer job close to him. Amelie regarded boys only with scientific curiosity.
Mum was saying, "Oh, dear, maybe we can come back tomorrow," when Grandfather began to stir. Then he smiled at Dad and said, "Drink up, m'boy. Don't tell your mother, but I put a magic powder in there that makes bad dreams go away."
Barely audible, Dad whispered, "Dad?"
"Back to bed now," Grandfather said dreamily, and his eyes drifted shut.
Dad sat staring at his sleeping form for a long time.
Amelie was pleased with the success of her plan, but was doubtful about it being a solution. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of trinkets in that attic. Putting them back into Grandfather's head one at a time could take years. And in the meantime there was a gang of felonious songbirds on the loose. But what was the alternative? She figured the memories must contain something useful.
Back in the attic, she selected the statuette of the woebegone hobo. Not so woebegone as she remembered, it grinned at her hopefully.
Sleep was reluctant to come this time. She kept hearing voices from downstairs. Then the voice was whispering in her ear and it seemed she could feel it against her skin, like an insect walking across her face. The sounds it made were not words exactly, but they had a certain rhythm, even a kind of catchiness, and Amelie felt that she had heard them somewhere before.
The voice grew more insistent, and suddenly Amelie could feel it crawling into her ear and she wanted to get up, tear it away, run out of the room, but she couldn't move. Don't worry, it whispered. We are friends now.
When Amelie awoke, she tossed aside her pillow and reached for the statuette. But it was gone. She searched around her bed with no results. Had the thing come to life and crawled inside her head? Was that why she still heard it whispering? She rubbed at her ear as if she could dislodge it.
Now that she was awake, Amelie recalled where she had heard the words before. In another dream. They were the words of the spell that Grandfather had used to avoid being noticed. Did this mean that the hobo statuette contained not a memory, but a magic spell?
It was still early, and Mum would not be making breakfast for a couple of hours, so Amelie went to the attic.
If some of the ornaments were regular memories, and some of them were magic spells, how could she tell which was which? She certainly didn't want to get another one of those things inside her head. Then she recalled that the little hobo had been sad the first time she saw it, but smiling the next time. At first she thought she must have misremembered, but now she suspected that the thing actually could move.
But so many of the trinkets were the sort of thing that could move. On impulse, Amelie snatched a teacup with an image of a child playing with a dog and held it to her ear. Nothing. Then she grabbed the drinking bird and did the same thing. On her third try—a plaque depicting a man changing a light bulb—she heard the same feathery whispering.
A couple of hours later the clinking of plates was drifting up from downstairs and Amelie had before her on the floor a pile of three or four dozen ornaments. So, these were Grandfather's magic spells. She could take them all into her head one by one and have a bunch of magic powers. But each one of them was like a little monster to her. She wanted to smash the horrible things. She felt sick inside her head and she was no closer to helping Grandfather.
Amelie heard Mum calling her name. "Oh, Grandfather, why?" She sighed, and went downstairs to breakfast.
Later that day, she was alone while Mum was out showing a house. Amelie was alone pretty often, which suited her fine. People were such nuisances. She spent the time trying to nap. But every time she was about to drift off, she was awoken by a tickling inside her head. She was also annoyed to discover that she had developed a tic. Every now and then she found herself involuntarily clicking her tongue. Magic, she decided, was not nearly as much fun as in the storybooks.
Then a movement caught her eye. A bird stood on the ledge outside her window, peering into the room.
Amelie froze—it didn't appear to have spotted her yet. While she wondered what to do next, the words of the spell rose to the forefront of her mind. Before she knew she was doing it, she found her lips whispering the feathery syllables. Slowly, continuing to mouth the words, she got up and moved to the door.
A second bird was at the hallway window. A White-Breasted Nuthatch, if she was not mistaken.
Amelie darted into her parents' room. Yes, a bird—this one, a robin—was at that window too.
Was there one at every window? What was going on?
Then she heard a bumping and clunking from downstairs. A thrill of fear went up her spine—she was supposed to be alone in the house.
Continuing to mouth the spell, she started down the stairs. From here she could see into the kitchen where cupboards and drawers hung open. In the living room, the couch cushions flew off one by one.
Then the doors of the cabinet where Mum kept the fine china swung open. Amelie heard the clinking of the china being shoved around; a cup fell onto the carpet.
Next the drawer of the coffee table opened.
It was like an invisible force was moving through the room, searching for something.
She looked at the living room window. Three—no, four—birds were peering in, outlined by the bright sunlight. Were they doing this?
Then something moved into the pool of light from the window and Amelie saw it—the outline of a woman, made of floating motes of dust. The woman had long, full hair, well-defined features, and ample curves.
The dust-woman looked up at her—and then she was gone. The floating motes of dust resumed their random trajectories and the figure slowly came apart.
When Amelie glanced at the window the birds were gone too.
She cleaned up the mess before her parents got home. At supper, she brooded over her Hamburger Helper while her parents conversed.
"I have to hand it to the old man." Dad shook his head. "How does a man who spent half his life on the street make that much money? I mean, where did it come from?"
"Probably . . . you know." Mum mimed sniffing something up her right nostril.
Dad picked at his food. "You know . . . I always wondered how Mom managed to pay for college for Callie and me."
"Jack, your mother wouldn't keep something like that from you."
Involuntarily, Amelie clicked her tongue. Her mother looked at her and she mumbled an apology. She recalled seeing a diploma-shaped ornament in the attic and reflected that she could probably answer Dad's question for him. But she had more urgent things on her mind right now. Was that woman the same person who had broken into Grandfather's apartment? Was she looking for the things in the attic? Could she be responsible for Grandfather's condition?
She was some kind of witch, that much was obvious. She looked a bit witchy, although more Sleeping Beauty witchy than Wizard of Oz witchy. Was she after Grandfather's spells? If she was, how was Amelie supposed to stop her?
After supper, Amelie went to the attic to plan her next move. The woman seemed to have some connection with birds, so she selected the drinking bird for her next memory.
After last night, she was a little afraid to sleep. But now more than ever, it was clear that Grandfather needed her help. And besides, maybe if she kept looking, she'd find a way to get this thing out of her head. For now she tried to imagine its whispering was a lullaby. . . .
The apartment is small without being cramped, a few pieces of stylish furniture neatly filling out the space. Very modern, muted colors, lots of metal. Not what I would have expected at all.
We're seated on the gray futon couch, sipping cheap wine. I'm telling Elena some story of my boxcar days, she laughs at all the right moments. Then she puts her hand on my knee and says, "Teach me how to do the magic."
Here we go. "Oh baby, you don't know what you're getting yourself into."
"Come on!" she implores. "You promised!"
I hold up my hand in a conciliatory gesture while I drain my glass. "What you need to understand is the words . . . they're not ordinary words. Once you get them inside your head, you can't get them out again. No matter how much you want to. You hear them whispering in there." My neck twitches and I slap my hand against it like I'm swatting a mosquito. "Sometimes . . . sometimes you can feel them moving around, like your head is infested with roaches."
She grins. "You're just trying to scare me! Words aren't alive." Her eyes are large, dark, sultry.
I shrug, and experimentally place a hand on her thigh.
She keeps the grin and reaches for the wine bottle. It's empty. "Hold that thought," she says and heads for the kitchen.
I crane my neck to enjoy the view. Big ass. Nobody appreciates big asses anymore.
"Isn't this stuff bad for your meds?"
"Oh come on," she pouts theatrically. "I can't be a good girl all the time."
I know what she's doing. This apartment, no way a mental patient like her is footing the bill. I doubt she even works. I'm thinking alimony. She's trying to play me just like she played her ex. Well, that's fine by me so long as I get what I want too.
Then she's back and hands are roaming and I'm enjoying myself immensely. "Nobody knows where the spells come from. There are a lot of stories, just like you'd expect from a pack of head cases. They came from demons, or they came from aliens, or they're aliens themselves, some sort of weird parasites that live inside your mind. One thing I can tell you for sure . . . they only work when you're crazy. If you take the meds—and they, y'know, work—the words go away. You can't remember them anymore and you sure as hell can't say them, even if you heard them just now."
"Don't worry, I never remember to take my meds anyway."
"So just imagine, magic words handed down from nutcase to nutcase, half o' them not even knowing what they are, the keys to the universe entrusted to those least able to exploit them. I spent decades in train yards, flophouses, and institutions, traveling around the country, trying to learn them all. The more coherent guys'll, y'know, trade you for them. The most disturbed'll tell them to you for free, thinking that'll get them out of their own heads. I managed to find more than anybody I've ever met."
"How many do you know?"
"Three or four dozen. You can't count them; they keep skittering around." I suppress a twitch.
"It must be . . . wonderful."
"It's pretty hard keeping them under control, actually. They like to say themselves. I had to learn a bunch o' meditation techniques, plus, y'know, I'm pretty stoned most of the time."
"Teach me!" she implores, staring into my eyes, her lips pursed in a perfect pout.
I pat my thigh and with a smile she slips into my lap. "Okay, here's an easy one. You might find it useful–it makes people forget the past couple of minutes."
I feel around in the back of my mind until I find the spell I'm looking for. Then I open up the cage and it skitters out. I feel a sense of foreboding as the syllables claw their way painfully up my throat. Elena's startled by the change in my voice.
She holds up a finger while she drains her glass. Her face contorts as guttural sounds come out of her mouth.
The next thing I know she's thrashing on the floor—her head bangs against the coffee table—and strangled sounds are coming out of her throat. I wonder if she's having a flashback or a seizure as I thrust my hand into my pocket, seeing if I can find a sedative—and then she's laughing hysterically. I stare at her in disbelief and then I start to laugh too. We're both laughing, tears are streaming down my face, and then the lessons continue.
So it was The Other Woman.
Amelie knew what that phrase meant now. Grownups were so odd.
It was a nice day, so her mother shooed her outside to play. Reluctantly, she returned to the parkette. Here she eyed birds for signs of suspicious behavior until a shiny red car arrived and a familiar-looking woman stepped out.
Her high heels clicked on the sidewalk while she strode purposefully in Amelie's direction. She had on a colorful dress that was clearly a couple of sizes too small for her and the kind of big, poofy hair that Amelie had only seen on TV. It was her—the woman from the dream!
She jumped up but the woman waved at her with a smile.
"Hi there, little angel," Elena cooed, earning Amelie's instant disdain. "I bet you live in that house over there."
Amelie only glowered silently up at her.
"Don't be scared, sweetie. I'm a friend of your grandfather's. He left something for me in your house. If you get it for me, I'll show you a magic trick!"
"M'not supposed to talk to strangers," she mumbled.
"But I'm not a stranger," the strange woman smiled. "I'm a friend of your grandfather's. Why, I'm practically family."
Yeah, right, Amelie thought, remembering some of the things she had overheard about The Other Woman. What did "painted whore" mean, anyway?
A flicker of annoyance passed across The Other Woman's face and she emitted a little humming sound. "How about this. I'll tell you a really big secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone else, okay? I'm . . . a witch!"
Elena stepped over to the sandbox. "Here, let me show you. . . ." She pointed her finger at a corner of the sandbox and whispered some words. Grains of sand began to flow together into a little pile. She wove her finger in an intricate dance, making that annoying humming sound again, and the sand shaped itself into a cartoon kitten. The thing batted its sandy eyelashes at Amelie and leapt after some imagined prey.
"Not bad," Amelie conceded. "What sort of thing are you looking for?"
The Other Woman pursed her red lips. "I'm not really sure. . . . He said it was going to be a surprise. You know, like on your birthday? It could be a chest of drawers or a box maybe. . . . Something that wasn't there before."
So she didn't even know what she was looking for! Amelie felt a little less frightened. "Maybe. . . . What do you want it for?"
The woman made the humming sound again. "I just want it, okay? Why do you keep asking all these questions? Didn't your parents teach you any manners?"
"I only asked two questions. . . ."
Elena forced a smile. "Sweetie, help me out and I'll teach you how to do magic. Won't that be nice?"
I already know how to do magic, so there! Amelie didn't say. "I, um, I haven't seen anything like that, sorry."
"Oh no?" Elena leaned closer and her smile now reminded Amelie of the Big Bad Wolf. "Then where did you get that little stone?"
Amelie wanted to run. Involuntarily, she clicked her tongue. "Wh-what stone?"
"Don't fuck with me, you little squirt of jism!" Elena's beauty split into a mask of rage. "You bring me those spells or I'll turn your family into roaches and stomp on them!"
Amelie was too terrified to run away. But then a feathery voice took control of her lips and a confused look came over The Other Woman's face. The Disregard spell! Amelie thought, and now she could run.
"I'll be here tomorrow afternoon!" the woman shouted after her. "You'd better bring them!"
That witch was crazy!
Amelie paced her room, her tongue clicking frantically. Now she was more certain than ever that The Other Woman was responsible for Grandfather's condition.
Elena had tried to . . . suck his spells out of his head somehow and they had ended up in Amelie's closet instead. But why there? Had Elena screwed up somehow? Or was it Grandfather's plan all along? He hadn't trusted her, that much was clear. Was the attic some sort of . . . failsafe set up in advance?
If only Amelie could ask him!
Years ago, Grandfather had entrusted Amelie with the secret that he was a magician. Was he now entrusting her with his memories? Did he seriously expect her to save him? She was just a kid!
A kid who could work magic. . . . Where had that thought come from? She remembered the horrible scritching thing and pushed the question away. Did Grandfather know that she could work magic? How? Was that why he had sucked her into this? Because she was the only one who could fight The Other Woman?
. . . every one of those little trinkets was a weapon . . .
Suddenly her path was clear. Amelie ascended to the attic. Here she donned the witch's hat from atop the hatrack, where she knew it would be. She drew forth her grandfather's dueling wand from its hidden drawer in the ornate desk. And she wrapped his runed blue cloak about her shoulders while the theme from Rocky pounded in the background. . . .
No. That wasn't real. That was a TV kind of thing. Amelie remembered how much trouble she could get into when she confused TV things with reality. . . .
Besides, fighting Elena wouldn't do any good, no matter how awful she was. That was TV thinking too. She needed to help her grandfather, and that meant getting all those trinkets back inside his head.
Huh. When she looked at it that way, the plan was obvious. Good thing tomorrow was a Tuesday.
Mom went to the office on Tuesdays, entrusting Amelie to the care of the neighbor's daughter, a frizzy-haired, bespectacled girl of around fourteen. The girl didn't talk much; Amelie suspected she was intimidated by Amelie's vocabulary. Mostly she just watched TV. Amelie didn't even bother to tell her she was going out.
She clucked and fidgeted while she waited for The Other Woman to show up. She had hardly slept last night. The pen with the image of the bikini-clad woman would keep its secrets for now. She wasn't afraid, exactly. In her experience, when a little girl went up against a witch the smart money was on the little girl. But she was worried about executing her plan properly. Her grandfather was counting on her.
After an interminable interval—Amelie had come across this phrase in a book and had been dying for an opportunity to use it in a sentence—the shiny red car screeched to a halt next to the playground and The Other Woman tottered out. She was dressed much like before, but this time she carried a leather satchel slung over one shoulder.
Amelie stood her ground while the witch strode up to her and regarded her with a sly smile.
"I'll take you to . . . to what you're looking for."
A triumphant smile started across Elena's face.
"But . . . first you have to tell me how to fix my grandfather."
Elena's smile was ambushed by a scowl. The two expressions fought briefly, with the smile settling into her red lips and the scowl taking the high ground of her eyes.
"Of course, sweetie. Just take me there and I'll show you."
"No. Tell me now."
Again Elena's face became a battlefield of emotion, but she quickly recovered her composure. "I can do that," she said through her frozen smile. "It's easy. All you have to do is say his name three times in front of the memory cache. His full name, mind you—you can't just call him 'Grandfather.' "
"Okay. . . ." That sounded too easy to Amelie, but who was she to say? "Come on."
Amelie didn't expect any trouble sneaking her past the babysitter, but the stupid girl got up to go to the refrigerator at just the wrong moment. While she stammered and tried to remember the girl's name, a stream of guttural syllables erupted from the Other Woman's throat and the babysitter froze with a stunned look on her face. Amelie remembered the forgetting spell from the drinking bird dream and darted up the stairs with the witch in tow.
Inside her room, she pointed to the attic and said, "In there."
The Other Woman shoved her aside and scrambled up the ladder.
Amelie watched her squeeze her ample posterior through the trapdoor while she reached into her pocket and retrieved the padlock she had hidden there earlier. Then she swiftly ascended the ladder, reached through the opening to pull the trapdoor shut from below, and slapped the padlock onto the latch.
Breathless, she squeezed her eyes shut and said, in as clear a voice as she could manage, "Joseph Peter Fineman, Joseph Peter Fineman, Joseph Peter Fineman."
Amelie wasn't sure what she expected to happen next. Maybe some sort of whirlpool effect, or a big whooshing sound as the attic vanished and all its contents were sucked back into Grandfather's head. What she wasn't expecting, however, was nothing at all. So she tried again, louder this time. All she got was the witch yelling at her to open the trapdoor. So she thought a moment, then ran back down the ladder and into her parents' bedroom.
A screaming and banging came from her room while she snatched up the phone, dialed 911, and cried into the receiver, "Help! I've got a witch trapped in my attic!"
The babysitter, it turned out, was named Michelle. This, and little else, she was able to explain to the two police officers who responded to Amelie's call. When they questioned her, Amelie told them the truth, which they conveniently refused to believe. The Other Woman only glowered at Amelie while they cuffed her and took her to the squad car.
After they left, Amelie returned to the attic and regarded the overturned bag of whispering trinkets on the floor. Evidently Elena was not much of a witch after all. Amelie was not sure if she was relieved or disappointed.
Through the open trapdoor she could hear Michelle talking rapidly on the phone. Birdsong wafted faintly through her bedroom window. The question hung in the air like a spider suspended from a thread—What now?
Ding-dong the witch was gone, but she was also Amelie's best hope for restoring her grandfather. She would rather deal with Elena than stick more of those scritchy things in her head.
The birds were chattering much louder now. Amelie wondered abruptly if she had left her window open. She moved toward the trapdoor—
—and a torrent of birds erupted through it. Shrieking, scratching, and biting, they streamed past her like a rainbow blizzard. Blindly she fought past them to reach the trapdoor, but they were still coming, so furiously that she couldn't get the hatch shut.
She fell backwards, her arms and face covered with nicks and scratches. The birds didn't pursue her, but were gathering into a feathered cyclone in the middle of the room. Something was taking shape in the eye of that storm, something or . . .
Realizing what was happening, Amelie got to her feet and leapt onto the bag of trinkets. She kicked, stomped, and jumped while the storm of birds condensed into a raven-haired woman in a colorful dress. By the time the last sparrow dissolved into turquoise eyeshadow and Elena opened her eyes, nothing but shards of plastic and ceramic remained.
"What . . . did . . . you . . ." The witch fell to her knees and shook the shattered contents out of the bag. Desperately she sifted through them with her polished nails, but there was nothing, nothing.
She rose to her feet, her eyes brimming with tears, her head bumping against the dreamcatcher hanging from the ceiling. "What's the matter with you, you stupid child? Don't you understand . . . the waste. . . ."
"I don't care." Amelie pouted up at her. "They're horrible things."
Elena's face shook while a sound halfway between a shriek and a growl built in her throat. Amelie cringed, but the older woman only screamed, "Your grandfather will rot in that bed!"
Elena tore down the dreamcatcher and stomped on it. Glass shattered beneath her heel. Then she exploded into a flock of birds, which surged away through the trapdoor.
Amelie's breathing slowed, and she picked up the broken dreamcatcher. It hung limply in her hand.
Downstairs the door opened, and her mother called her name urgently.
Where was a little magic when you needed it?
That night, Amelie dreamed. . . .
She was working alone in a little workshop illuminated by a small, stained-glass window. When she was done she held up a beautiful dreamcatcher, cunningly woven of twigs and feathers and hair and glittering with little colored shards of glass. She hung it in the window and the light caught the pieces of glass, dazzling her eyes until they filled with tears. Then she set it spinning and it slowly contracted until it was edge-on—and then it was gone.
Amelie rose from her bed and went to the attic.
Silver moonlight turned the gossamer threads to an intricate architecture of shining lines. She caught the threads with her fingertips and began to weave them. The night streamed on while her fingers worked this invisible loom.
At last, she stepped back and regarded her work. A vast spiral web now spanned the room. In its warp and woof she glimpsed, like a constellation, an old man's lined face, one eye twinkling mischievously in the moonlight.
The next morning the phone rang while Amelie was eating her cereal. Her mother answered, and after an exchange that she could not hear clearly, called out breathlessly, "Jack, it's your father! He's awake and he wants us to bring Amelie to see him!"
When she finished her breakfast, she went to her bedroom closet. Here she was not at all surprised to find that the attic had disappeared, as if it had never existed.