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Short Story

  1. Once Upon

 

IN A MEDIUM-SIZED TOWN in the middle of the country lived a prosperous family named Semangeloff. The father, Mitchell, had inherited money, made money from that money by managing it well, and made new money by buying factories that made things people wanted to buy. His wife, Judy, kept her figure and joined charitable organizations. They lived in a large lovely house with their son and their daughter. The boy, Ian, liked books and computers, earned high grades, and had few friends. He was no trouble and his parents rarely thought about him.

The girl was different. She was seventeen and about to graduate from Continuum Academy only by the grace of her father, a school angel with deep pockets. Sydney wasn’t stupid, but she never opened a book. She spent little time at home except to nap, shower, and change clothes. She didn’t talk much, at least to Mitchell or Judy, who couldn’t tell what she wanted from life. Something motivated her; something looked out from behind her half-shut eyes when she lounged among her cushions, but they couldn’t put a name to it. They had no idea what Sydney meant to do after graduation. College would be a joke. Even Mitchell quailed at the number of zeroes on the check it would take to keep Sydney in college. Nor could he imagine putting her to work in any of his own enterprises, even as a buyer, which was the only thing she had experience doing. What did that leave? Marriage? The boys she ran with never even came to the house. Mitchell worried about fortune hunters. And he worried about burdening a decent man with someone like Sydney, even supposing that could be done. He assumed things would simply continue the way they were, except that instead of going to school, Sydney would lounge somewhere else for a few hours each day. He and Judy were afraid to ask questions. And they were afraid of something else, something that disturbed their sleep: whatever it was that looked out at them from behind their daughter’s eyes.

 

  1. Maimed Children

 

Every month, Judy and her friends went to the city for Girls’ Day Out: they had seaweed body wraps, saw their nutrition counselors, and hit the stores. It was during one of these expeditions that the idea for the ball came up. Most of Mitchell and Judy’s friends were Jewish, but they only went to temple on the high holidays, and even then they didn’t fast. Few of the children had bar or bat mitzvahs. So—as Judy’s friends sighed on the limo trip home—there weren’t any ceremonies to mark the major milestones before the kids left for good. That’s when someone wished aloud that debutantes weren’t extinct.

By the time they got home, they had the whole thing planned—they’d even elected a chair. They would revive the custom by holding a charity ball at which their daughters would be formally presented. Each of their husbands would write a check to a charity—they chose the Hospital for Maimed Children—and the amount raised would be announced at the ball, which would be held at the country club. One lady recalled a deb who’d had her party in a parking garage, with a different band playing on every level. Others wanted the girls to make their entrance in a hot-air balloon, or arrive like Cinderella in horse-drawn carriages, or rise like Venus from a revolving clamshell, but Lois Lipkind, the chair, firmly vetoed these ideas. This was to be a tasteful affair. It wasn’t so long ago that Jews in this town weren’t even permitted to visit the club, let alone join it. And after all, this was for charity. They had to think of the maimed children. These remarks made a big impression on Judy, who went home and talked it over with Mitchell. They decided to donate a new facility for the armless, all by themselves. Perhaps it would be named for them: the Semangeloff Armless Wing.

Under Lois Lipkind’s leadership, the debutante committee decided on white gowns and twelve-button gloves for the girls, white tie and tails for the fathers, and tuxedos for the escorts. The ball would begin with a father-daughter waltz; then the escorts would cut in. Each young man would dance with each debutante, then with her mother.

“This dancing thing,” Judy said in a worried voice.

“Lessons,” Lois said crisply. “Get the girls together and as many boys as we can.”

All the mothers nodded, relief written on their faces. Judy nodded too, but she couldn’t imagine Sydney waltzing any more than she could picture her in a white gown and gloves. They might just have to buy her a new car.

However, before the question of precisely what bribe Sydney would accept actually arose, everything changed. The world changed, the cosmos changed, and Sydney became a new person, if that is indeed the word.

 

  1. The Game

 

It happened because Ian was desperate for someone to play his new game with. He’d haunted Sydney for weeks, trespassing onto her floor, violating the sanctity of her closet, ignoring her insults, withstanding her rage, until finally she said: “All right, you little toad. Better study your cheat codes.”

“I don’t use cheat codes!” Ian said, stung.

“I’ll give you half an hour, in exchange for which you will not bother me—you will not speak to me—for a month. If you violate the agreement, you give me the game. Deal?”

Ian paled. “Give you the game? What would you do with it?”

“Cut it into bits and glue them to my mirror. Do we have a deal or not?”

Ian nodded. He could manage not to speak to Sydney for a month.

He hurried to lay out the gloves, visors, and wands that became a whole array of weapons to choose from. Whatever you did with your wand in this world was mimicked in that one, with deadlier consequences. The game was called Metatron. Populated by dark lords, wizards, warriors, and horned creatures with flaming wings, it was set in a collapsing city on the crumbling edge of an abyss. Ian chose to be an apprentice wizard, someone you’d scarcely notice, whose sole weapon was his staff. He knew Sydney would underestimate him. He’d lied about the cheat codes, of course—at this moment he was working on his Cheat Death code. If he managed it, he would win, the true lord would again occupy the throne, and Sydney would drop into the abyss to fall forever.

Sydney chose to be a rogue warrior. Her character wore a halter and loincloth of leather and mail. She lingered over the array of weapons—tridents, weighted nets, axes, studded flails, maces, swords, poisoned arrows—buckling some onto her belt and slinging others across her back. Then she paused over something Ian had only just discovered himself: a shiny helmet with the word JETTATORI engraved upon it. Merely lifting the visor would send rays of destruction with every glance, turning living creatures into smoking bones.

“You have to be careful with that,” he told her. “If you flip—”

“Do you want to play or talk me to death?”

Ian wanted to play. Sydney lowered the helmet onto her head, lingering before the polished mirror in the arming room, then stepped into the castle and vanished. Ian, following, was immediately charged by a squad of goblin soldiers. He used his staff to raise an inky, pixelated fog while searching frantically—there! He pressed the right stone and a secret door gave way. Now he groped down crumbling steps with only the glow of his staff to guide him. He had to lose the goblins. He had to restore the true lord. And he had to find Sydney before she found him.

A wolf pack, a zombie, and a chimera later, still under the spell of invisibility that had allowed him to dodge the chimera’s serpent-headed tongue, he spotted her. Her leather and mail were soaked with blood, her skin streaked with it, but Ian could tell from her exuberant pose that none of the blood was her own. She’d discarded all of the weapons except for the Jettatori, still on her head. And she was gazing again into a cracked and dusty mirror.

Ian realized she’d switched sides.

Then he realized she’d never been on any side except her own.

His spell had worn off. She spotted him in the mirror behind her. He knew she was smiling underneath the helmet. And she was lifting her hands to the visor.

“Syd! No!” he screamed.

She meant to aim the death vision at him. But she was so entranced by the sight of herself in blood and mail that she kept watching her reflection, and as she slid the visor up, Ian screamed again and the world blew up.

§

He found himself, eyes dazzled, scream still ringing in his ears, back in his chair, his glove and wand flung across the room. Sydney lay on the floor, and he thought maybe she’d been electrocuted—a blue light seemed to crackle along her skin.

“Syd?” He knelt beside her, afraid to touch.

“That was wack,” Sydney said, opening her eyes. Then she added: “Vos iz, boychick? You look like you just plotzed your pants. Vos tut zich?

Ian stared.

Sydney sat up. Her hair looked longer and blacker than he’d ever seen it, curling in every direction at once as if obeying a variety of magnetic poles. And her face seemed different: the nose broader, the mouth coarser, the skin pinker, as if more blood were pumping through her veins. Even her feet looked bigger, the toes popping through her socks. But most of all it was her expression: Sydney was looking at him with interest.

“Word up,” she said. “You’re an interesting little dude.”

Ian scrambled away from her until his back hit the wall.

Sydney laughed, but it wasn’t a Sydney laugh. It was a deep, rich chortle, like a baby’s.

“I am a baby,” she said. “In some ways.”

Ian found his voice. “What happened?”

“Last thing I remember, I was looking out of the mirror—”

“You mean into.”

Sydney laughed her new laugh. “You want to answer your own questions? I can just watch—I’m used to that.”

“No. Go on.” Ian wished he had some orange juice. His throat was so dry it hurt.

“I haven’t had orange juice in ages!” Sydney exclaimed. “Can we go get some?”

“Cut that out!” Ian shouted. “You’re reading my mind! It’s not fair and it’s rude!”

Sydney looked contrite, another expression Ian had never seen on her face. The blue energy was fading, though her eyes still glowed and her hair swirled about her head as if floating in water. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not used to this. I won’t do it anymore.”

“How would I know whether you were doing it or not?”

She laughed again. “Such a gut kop! You’ll have to watch and decide for yourself. Just don’t blame me for my intuition—you don’t live as long as I have without developing great intuition.”

“How long is that?”

“Forever,” she replied, blinking her new eyes. “I was created on the sixth day.”

Ian took a deep breath. “Who are you? Where’s Sydney?”

“The last I saw Sydney she was looking into the mirror, getting ready to blast you to kingdom come. But she looked into my eyes instead, and wham! That’s all I know. I’m Igrat.” She extended her hand and Ian took it. He felt a slight buzz that subsided at once.

“But if you’re here, where’s she? And what are you?”

“Are you sure we can’t have some orange juice? This throat is so dry it hurts.”

As Ian left the room, Igrat called: “Maybe you ought to get Mitchell and Judy in here too. My intuition tells me they’re turning in the driveway right…now.”

 

  1. The Tales

 

The Semangeloffs stayed up all night while their guest went through quart after quart of orange juice (Mitchell made a grocery run at two am) and maintained that she—it—didn’t really know what had happened at the mirror. It was watching as Sydney raised the Jettatori visor, then: boom! Like Ian, Igrat found itself hurled out of the game.

“I don’t even know how I got into the game in the first place,” Igrat added. “Probably his idea of a joke.”

“Whose?” said Mitchell.

“Who do you think?”

“Oh my God!” Judy cried.

Igrat shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time. We’re all his instruments.”

“Are you saying you’re some kind of divine agent?” said Ian, flipping open his PowerBooks to take notes.

“Just as you are,” Igrat replied, adding: “That’s nicer than some of the things we’re called.”

“Who is this we?” Judy cried. “And what’s happened to Sydney?”

“I don’t know where Sydney is,” Igrat answered, and Ian looked up sharply. The answer didn’t exactly match the question. “As for us, we’ve been given many names, most of them slanderous.”

“Oh my God,” Judy said again.

Igrat brightened. “Perhaps I’m here to correct that disinformation. Perhaps it’s time to set the record straight.”

“What are you?” said Mitchell.

“We are Shedim Yehuda’im. We were created on the sixth day just like you, except that we didn’t get bodies—he ran out of time because the Sabbath was coming, so he left us as is. We’re unfinished business.”

“Are you—are you angels?” Judy whispered.

“No, Mom, they play for the other team,” Ian replied, and Judy shrieked.

Igrat held up both hands. “I know how you feel. It’s because you’ve been fed propaganda. They’ve said outrageous things about us—they said we snarl women’s hair and mat men’s beards. They blamed us for leprosy, heartburn, bad weather, stopped-up privies—you name it. They said I personally spend every Sabbath dancing on the roof with one hundred and eighty thousand evil spirits! One hundred and eighty thousand! That’s some mosh pit! How is it we don’t trample each other to death?”

“Because you can’t die?” Ian guessed.

“The point is, those guys were paranoid. There are only a few of us and always have been. They got a lot wrong. They thought I was female, for one thing, when really we’re all in between. They called us monsters. Take Ketev Meriri: they described him as an enormous bull with one revolving horn. Now, I know Ketev Meriri; Ketev Meriri is a friend of mine, and I can assure you: if he had an appearance, it would be nothing like that! Ketev Meriri is a nice guy!”

“You don’t hear much about good demons,” Mitchell ventured.

“No you don’t, thanks to the Sumerians, who gave us names like Child Devourer and Strangler of Lambs. The Sumerians, the Canaanites, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Babylonians—oy, don’t get me started on the Babylonians! They thought we weakened children by sucking on their thumbs—did you ever hear anything so twisted? And everyone thought we caused disease until Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope—”

“Actually, that was the Janssens,” said Ian. “Father and son.”

“Let’s call it a group effort. One of us lent an unseen hand in that matter, but did we seek credit? We were only thankful not to be blamed for typhus and cholera anymore. Let me tell you, when mankind learned to wash its hands, a billion demons bit the dust! But people said such hateful things. They thought we could spin our heads completely around like that girl in The Exorcist—a movie which scared the pants off us, incidentally. They said we tried to steal human souls, that we murdered babies, that we couldn’t speak the name of God: Shema Yisroel Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad—there, I’m as Jewish as you are! I’m not claiming we were saints. We poked fun at humans—misled them, sent them confusing dreams, tossed a few pots and pans around the house. Just to ease the tension—it’s hard being cast as the bad guys. Especially when we’ve seen so much. I knew all your ancestors.”

Mitchell and Judy seemed stunned. They gazed at Igrat, scarcely blinking. Finally Mitchell said: “But I’m afraid we don’t quite understand what you want.”

Igrat gave a heavy sigh. “I want to be looked at, see my reflection, cast a shadow; I want to take a bath, blow my nose, walk across the lawn in bare feet—I want to be material! But I didn’t do this, don’t you understand? Who knows what he’s got in mind?”

Judy said faintly: “Not…you don’t mean…Satan?”

“Oh please!” Igrat flapped a hand. “An allegory, and a Christian one at that—you are assimilated, aren’t you? All that Satan stuff in Job was just him talking to himself. Who else has he got to play chess with?”

Ian typed: Read Genesis. Read Job. Look up Ketev Meriri.

Mitchell cleared his throat. “When you said you knew our ancestors, did you mean in general? Or…specifically ours?

“Let me tell you a story,” said Igrat. “During one of the Chmielnicki pogroms, a Cossack carried off a Jewish maiden who snatched the mezuzah from the door of her house as they passed. She offered it to him as an amulet. No one can harm you when you wear this, she told him. Go ahead, test it—shoot me. You cannot harm me. She tucked the mezuzah into her bosom, the idiot Cossack fired, and of course she fell dead, a fate she preferred to what he had in mind.” Igrat smiled modestly. “And who do you think whispered the suggestion in her ear?” Igrat looked at Mitchell. “She was the sister of your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. Your aunt. So you see, I’ve always felt a connection to this family.”

Mitchell cleared his throat again. For some reason he felt deeply embarrassed. “Who else did you know?” he managed to ask.

“Let’s see. On your side, there was Shifra the midwife, famous because she never lost a mother or child, an amazing feat in those times. And there was Mendelssohn, philosopher and wit—one day when he was walking down a street in Berlin, a Prussian officer hissed ‘Swine!’ at him; without missing a beat, he inclined his head and said ‘Mendelssohn,’ and kept right on going. We were in stitches! And there was Haminah, who could tell fortunes; Meir, a goldsmith employed by royalty; and Dvorah, who bore nineteen children, all red haired, all boys.”

Everyone stared at Mitchell’s thinning reddish hair with something like awe.

“On Judy’s side,” Igrat continued, “there was Yankel, who was born circumcised—a miracle not seen since the days of Moses; poor little Raizel who lost her mind at sixteen—kept imagining she’d given birth to a child and dropped it in the pickle barrel; and Yitzhak, a rabbi who secretly taught Talmud to a bishop. Oh, and Dov the coffin maker, who kept using his wood to make violins, something his wife nearly divorced him for. Good thing she didn’t, or Judy wouldn’t be here.”

Now everyone stared at Judy.

“But the one I remember best is young Feivel, because what happened to him amazed even us. One night he and two friends were taking a shortcut through the woods when they stumbled across a finger sticking out of the ground. They’d had a bit to drink, so instead of being frightened, they made jokes. Feivel took off his ring and slipped it on the finger and pronounced the betrothal vow three times, with his friends as witnesses. No sooner did the last syllable leave his mouth than the earth began to rumble and shudder and split—and out pops the moldering corpse crying: My bridegroom! Those boys took off with the corpse pursuing them all the way back to the village. It took a rabbinic court to set things straight, with the corpse testifying on her own behalf. Luckily, the boy’s father had betrothed him as a child to the daughter of his business partner, and the rabbis ruled that this took precedence over his more recent engagement.”

“Wait.” Ian looked up from his PowerBook. “Midwives and goldsmiths and Cossacks, okay. But corpses who testify? Are you making this up?”

“No, little brother,” Igrat said gravely. “The Yenne Velt—the Other World—is as close as the other side of the mirror.”

 

  1. Sages

 

The first thing they did was find a doctor—not on their health plan, not even in Continuum. They used pseudonyms. They felt like spies. It was not a wholly unpleasant sensation.

The new doctor gave “Cindy” a complete workup. It took several days for all the results to come in—the Semangeloffs stayed in a motel, girls in one room, boys in the other. Judy and Igrat stayed up late watching Pretty Woman and Charlie’s Angels and doing each other’s hair—Sydney hadn’t let Judy touch her hair since second grade. Judy demonstrated French braiding and they experimented with beads.

The doctor was puzzled. Nothing at all wrong with young Cindy, he said, when they crowded into his office for the verdict—perfectly normal young lady, aside from the dextroposition of the heart, which could hardly be news to them—ha ha!

Ha ha! they laughed back. He wished them best of luck. Mitchell paid in cash.

Ian looked it up the moment they got back to the motel. No wonder the doctor seemed puzzled. It was extremely rare. He probably couldn’t figure out why they hadn’t mentioned it.

“What is it, Ian?” Judy said in a scared voice.

“Displacement of the heart. Instead of on the left, it’s on the right. Like a mirror image.”

They all looked at Igrat, who threw up both hands and said: “Think of me as Sydney with a change of heart!”

They talked all the way home—Judy couldn’t remember the last time a family trip had been so lively. The topic was: what should we do? Igrat said that what had happened was more like a blind date than a case of possession.

Judy gathered her courage. “Igrat, is—is Sydney still here?”

Igrat considered. “I don’t think so. I don’t feel anything. I could look, but it might be dangerous.”

“Oh,” said Judy. “Well, maybe not. If it’s dangerous.”

“Dangerous how?” asked Ian.

Igrat explained that because of the way it had bounced into Sydney’s body without forming any intention to do so, this whole transaction might be divine will; thus to try to disengage could prove fatal.

“Fatal?” Judy said sharply.

“To Sydney. Not to me.” Then Igrat’s eyes glowed. “Maybe that’s it! Maybe he wants us to die, but to have a life first—a real life, a human life! Maybe he’s taking care of unfinished business!”

“Christ on a stick!” Mitchell groaned. “What are we supposed to do?”

“Seek to know his will,” Igrat said. “That’s what I told Job.”

§

There was no way they could talk to Rabbi Bagel, not just because he wouldn’t believe it but because he was a modern, enlightened, progressive rabbi and therefore needed protecting. He knew from food banks and congressmen and black-tie bar mitzvahs, this rabbi, not from demonic possession and the Yenne Velt. It would be a huge shock. And besides, if the least word got out, the tabloids and Connie Chung would be camped out in the front yard tomorrow, and who knew what the stock market might do?

No, they couldn’t tell anyone. But they needed information, so Ian got on the net and began looking. There weren’t many full-text databases on Jewish demonic possession, and the citations were in books no library in town owned. But he did make contacts. There were such things as Talmudic chat rooms, he discovered, and this led to Kabbalah discussion lists, which led to private conversations, which led to an appointment.

“Dad, you want to take a ride?” he asked one Saturday morning.

“Where to? The Yenne Velt?

“Closest thing, apparently. If we start now, we should get there by sundown.”

“Ian, where are we going?”

“To see a sage. And bring your checkbook, because they don’t take American Express.”

§

It turned out to be three sages, two brothers and a son, all of whom looked ancient in long black coats and rippling beards. Ian had timed it precisely—they arrived just after havdalah: the Sabbath was over, and the rabbis were ready to go back to work.

The house, like the streets, was dark, narrow, and crooked. Ian and Mitchell were admitted under the suspicious gaze of disciples who lined the walls and filled every piece of furniture. Ian’s contact had told him what to say to the burly scholars manning the door, and he was careful to kiss his fingers and touch the mezuzah as he passed. It wasn’t something he’d ever done before, but it didn’t seem entirely unfamiliar.

When they were finally alone with the sages, the youngest—his beard more gray than white—leaned forward. “We were told you have been asking about demons.”

“We have a friend,” Mitchell blurted out.

The sages exchanged a richly textured glance.

“What do you wish to know?” said the oldest. His voice sounded like dried leaves scraping cement.

Ian opened his PowerBook. “Could a demon take possession of a human body without intending to?”

The rabbis’ lips seemed to twitch beneath their beards. “Without intending to? You mean, by accident?”

“Sort of. Could it be—” Ian swallowed. “Could it be God’s will?”

“God’s will to pollute a child? These sound like demon lies.”

Ian, recording the sages’ response, suddenly found himself typing Igrat’s rebuttal as well: Demons lie sometimes. And rabbis don’t always know what they profess. All that adulation, disciples hanging on their every word—it can have a corrupting effect. How much can you trust their judgment? Look at them, still affecting the dress of the medieval Polish aristocracy—an aristocracy that was only too eager to slaughter them by the villageful.

The eldest spoke again: “The danger is very great. An unclean spirit—”

“But is it—” Ian stopped himself, horrified. He had interrupted, something he had specifically been warned against.

The rabbis conferred briefly.

“Though boys who have not yet been called to Torah do not usually speak here, you come with unusually high recommendations,” said the youngest. “Therefore proceed.”

“Is it possible,” said Ian, “that this could be a clean spirit?”

“What would a clean spirit want with your sister’s body?”

Ian, remembering what Igrat had said about unfinished business, didn’t reply.

“An unclean spirit could annihilate the memory and destroy anything it looks at with a single glance,” added the brother.

Ian’s fingers numbly typed: jettatori.

The youngest held up a hand. “We’re ahead of ourselves. The first issue must be whether the three proofs have been satisfied. First: tradition?”

The others merely smiled. Oh yes, certainly the tradition of envious demons interfering with human life was well established.

“Second: reason?”

The three conferred again; then the brother announced that, given what Mitchell and Ian seemed to know—they being scarcely Jewish enough to recognize a mezuzah, look at them—there was sufficient cause to believe that a supernatural event had taken place.

“Third: the senses?”

Here the sages were less certain. If they could see the girl for themselves, quiz the thing inside her…. They asked for more physical detail. Mitchell described the big feet, the flushed cheeks, the displaced heart, but when he mentioned the new swirling, floating quality of her hair, the rabbis’ gaze sharpened.

“Why does the hair matter?” asked Ian.

The youngest took a book from the shelf, found a page, and handed it to him. It showed a woodcut of a taloned creature flying through the night sky, her hair a flowing, wind-tangled cape streaming around her. The caption read: Lilith, Queen of Demons. But the malice on this being’s face matched nothing he had seen on Igrat’s.

“So we agree,” said the brother. “There is sufficient evidence to assume demonic possession.”

Mitchell leaned forward. “What do we do about it?”

The sages began pulling books from the shelves and paging through them, murmuring as they went, Ian taking frantic notes.

“Human saliva, especially that of a fasting, celibate man,” one mused.

“Blow the shofar in her ear until the demon flees…”

Here one of them murmured something in Yiddish and all three laughed. Ian thought he caught the word Noriega.

“Recite the incantations seven times, beat her with rods made from seven kinds of wood….”

“Excuse me?” said Mitchell. “Beat her?”

“It’s the demon you’re beating,” said the youngest, flipping pages. “Here’s a Babylonian formula, very ancient. It’s not something we can say aloud, but you can read it.” He brought the small, dry, cracked book over and showed them the page. The print was tiny:

 

HERE IS AN ACT OF DIVORCEMENT AGAINST THE DEMONS ASMODEUS,
ZARIAH, KETEV MERIRI, LILITH, AND AGARAT. MAY THEY VANISH FROM
THE LOCALITY OF [VILLAGE] AND FROM THE HOUSE OF [FAMILY]
ALTOGETHER. SHATTERED BE THE KING OF DREAMS AND EMONS,
LOCKED OUT, CURSED AND BANISHED! I ABJURE THEE, LILITH,
CHILDREN OF LILITH, DEPART! I COMMAND
IN THE NAME OF METATRON, ANGEL OF THE
PRESENCE, IN THE NAME OF RAPHAEL,
THE ANGEL OF THE HOUR AND THE STAR,
IN THE NAME OF THE GOD WHO RESTS
UPON THE CHERUBS, BE GONE!
GO TO DARKNESS BEFORE
THE MIGHTY ARM!
HIS WILL BE DONE!
AMEN, AMEN, AMEN!

 

Ian glanced at the facing page, distracted by the pentagrams and spirals. When he looked back, he almost fell out of his chair. The page he’d been copying was in Hebrew. He stared at the tiny script. He couldn’t read Hebrew.

“The demon will probably exit through the little finger or toe,” said the rabbi, closing the book and replacing it on the highest shelf. “You’ll see a spot of blood. Nothing much. She might need a Band-Aid.”

They stood to leave, but the top sage held up his hand. “A warning,” he said in his faint raspy voice. “Such things should not be undertaken except by the pure of heart.”

Then they were in the hall, engulfed by the black-coats who moved them toward the door. It was as if the disciples feared they would try to pocket something—some trinket or souvenir, like in fairy tales where the hero is told to take nothing from the magic treasure room, but can’t resist and is destroyed by his greed.

No one waved as they drove away. It was dark and raining, there were hardly any streetlights, and Mitchell hunched over the wheel, trying to find the way out. Ian, brooding over the spell—had it really said Metatron?—flipped open his PowerBook and found a blank screen. The document was gone. The whole file was gone. Yet he’d saved a million times; he always did—he could remember saving.

“Dad, turn around!”

“What?” Mitchell stomped on the brake.

“We’ve got to go back: I’ve lost all of it—the incantation, everything.” Ian twisted in his seat. “Can you backtrack?”

Both of them peered into the rainy darkness. There were no lights, no signs, and none of the streets seemed to be based on the principle of right angles. Mitchell executed a three-point turn and began creeping back the way they’d come. Nothing looked familiar. Ian couldn’t spot any of the modest landmarks he’d noted before: no kosher butcher shop with Hebrew letters on the window, no park, no ornate iron fence.

Mitchell kept trying. “I don’t understand,” he said. “How did we find it the first time?” Finally, down yet another dead end, he let the car slow to a stop. This time it felt final.

Ian too was well aware of what stopping meant. And he remembered something Igrat once whispered when Mitchell and Judy were out of the room: “Go introduce yourself to them, Ian. It’s your turn!”

Ian suspected that if Sydney still existed at all, she was in the game. He had not touched it since that night. To bring her back, perhaps all they needed was for Igrat to repeat Sydney’s steps: wear the Jettatori, lift the visor, look into the mirror. It was probably that simple.

“What you did, son,” Mitchell said suddenly, “getting us here and all—that was so smart. And you were braver than I was. The thing about the friend was pretty lame. But you kept your head. You really did.” There was admiration in his voice—not the automatic kind from bringing home high grades, but the frank kind that exists between equals.

Ian remembered the old sage’s warning: Such things should not be undertaken except by the pure of heart.

He stretched, gently dropping his PowerBook onto the back seat. “If you turn right at the corner, I bet it’ll take us to the interstate,” he said, and so it did, as if the very streets had unknotted to speed them on their way.

“Depart,” Mitchell muttered.

“Be gone,” said Ian after a moment.

“Banished.”

“Locked out.”

“Cursed.”

“Shattered.” Ian snorted a little, and by the time they found the highway they were laughing out loud.

 

  1. Coming Out

 

The last weeks before the ball were crammed with preparations: meetings for the mothers, dancing lessons for the daughters—there weren’t enough boys, but Ian filled in—gown fittings, and even sleepovers, a novel event in the Semangeloff household. Sydney had never shown the slightest interest in her classmates, but Igrat was friends with everyone. They stayed up late, making the kind of buzz Judy had always longed to hear in the house. Sometimes they let Ian stay with them as a mascot and painted his toenails blue.

The girls were not shy about remarking on the changes in Sydney’s personality—“Blame it on Prozac!” she cried—and they were equally vocal about loving her uninhibited new hair. They spent much of the night trying to reproduce the same effect on their own.

“Why do you call her Igrat?” one girl asked Ian, pausing with perm rod in hand one especially hilarious night.

Ian froze, but Igrat just said: “Baby name. What he called me before he could really talk.”

So radiant was her face that no one stopped to puzzle over how “Sydney” could come out as “Igrat” even in baby talk. Instead they were charmed, and soon everyone was using the name. The more daring made it “Ratty.”

The girls gathered at the house for group fittings, where the dressmaker treated them like royalty. Miss Constance Allwyn came to the house for dancing and curtsy lessons, though—unlike the dressmaker—she gave the impression of doing them a favor. She belonged to one of Continuum’s oldest, though almost extinct, first families, a fact that made Judy feel awkward about paying her, until Igrat said: “Anyone who denies they come from humble origins only shows they haven’t finished their historical research. Believe me, I know.” Judy felt better after that. At the final lesson, the day before the ball, Miss Allwyn pronounced the girls passable and accepted her last envelope with something like complacence. Over iced orange juice—all the girls drank it now, the kind fortified with calcium—Igrat whispered to Ian: “I don’t know any nicer boys than you. Will you be my escort?” And Ian, who would be starting bar mitzvah lessons right after the family trip to Disney World, gallantly agreed.

On the big day, the girls gathered at the Semangeloff house to get dressed together.

“It’s like a huge wedding,” someone said.

“Only we’re marrying ourselves,” Igrat added, and they all laughed.

Judy’s hairdresser, Mr. Freddy, spent the afternoon constructing the girls’ upswept ’dos. Igrat’s hair presented the challenge of his career. In the end he just pinned flowers to it and left it alone, which everyone said was brilliant. The day after the ball, his prices went up.

 

The club looked magical, its hundreds of plain white bulbs replaced for the evening with pink ones—one idea that had been slipped past Lois Lipkind. Even the fountain in front seemed to spew pink lemonade. The ballroom, too, was all pink, mirrors, and gold, with flowers everywhere and a screen of greens behind the musicians. The girls in their white gowns waited upstairs, checking hair and makeup, sneaking peeks at the reception line, groaning about the band, and fingering the pearl chokers their parents had presented them with. Igrat’s choker dangled a red ruby heart on the right side—a family joke, she told the others.

They crowded near the top of the stairs to hear the Maimed Children fundraising chair thank everyone who donated “for proving that angels do exist.” There was well-modulated laughter; then the music started to build. The girls tensed.

Their fathers appeared, holding out their elbows as Lois Lipkind began calling out names. You could judge the size of each family’s donation by the degree of warmth in Lois’s voice. Stepping carefully in her Vera Wang knock-off and enormous silk pumps, hand floating on Mitchell’s arm as Miss Allwyn had prescribed, black hair twisting and seeking in all directions, Igrat made her debut. Mitchell beamed proudly; Judy dabbed her eyes. As the orchestra swung into “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” and the couples formed a grand circle for the father-daughter dance—fathers holding in their stomachs, daughters tipping forward in their high heels—Igrat exclaimed: “I feel just like Miss America!” And the others all nodded and smiled, because they knew exactly what she meant.

AND SO, AS EACH SMALL CIRCLE SPUN WITHIN THE LARGER LIKE PLANETS
PERFORMING THEIR COSMIC WALTZ, AGARAT THE DEMON LOOKED
INTO THE FUTURE AND SAW THAT SHE WOULD LIVE A  HUNDRED
YEARS, WITH MANY CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN TO
HONOR AND COMFORT HER, BEFORE SHE FINALLY
WENT TO DARKNESS BEFORE THE MIGHTY
ARM. MAY THE SAME HAPPEN TO
US ALL! HIS WILL BE DONE!
AMEN, AMEN,
AMEN!

 


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