Ashley distances herself from her Catholic mother's failed marriage by becoming a Wiccan, but things may be destined to come full circle; by R Christophe Ryber.
Ashley splashed into a stream and slowed, but not before her flip flops found the slick stones at the bottom. Her feet flew out from under her, and she landed hard on her broad bottom. The cold water seeped into her black ritual robe and left goosebumps on the plump, pasty flesh underneath. By the time she had gotten to her feet and slogged out of the freezing water, her blue lips were quivering. She swore at the ripped out flip flop dangling from her bruised foot.
Ashley frowned at her blurry toes. She swatted her face and the top of her head, then dropped down on all fours and felt around in the fallen leaves for her glasses. No luck. She eyed the frigid stream and took a deep breath through chattering teeth before wading back in, the arms of her robe wet up to her elbows as her rapidly numbing fingers dug around the slime covered stones. Nothing.
Great. Now I'm just like Velma. "My glasses! I can't see without my glasses!"
Ashley breathed easier after her chilly fingers checked the black vinyl purse hanging skewed over one shoulder. At least the photo was safe.
She glanced up sharply as a chill October breeze rustled a few brittle leaves still clinging to the branches of the oak behind her, then squinted at the fuzzy white crescent glowing above the unfamiliar tree tops.
She was lost.
Ashley pulled the black hood closer against the wind and clutched the silver pentacle around her neck, her only link to Wicca that had survived her marriage to Philip. When she had moved with him to Wilmington, her Book of Shadows and ritual dagger had gone into the yard sale along with the furniture from her old apartment in Syracuse.
Ashley wasn't always a Wiccan. Her mother was a cradle Catholic, though Ashley couldn't remember her ever going to church. But, Ashley's father was a staunch atheist. Ashley wasn't sure how or why her mother had come to be with her father. They had been like night and day - and had fought like it.
The inevitable divorce had happened right at the beginning of Ashley's freshman year at Syracuse University, as if her parents had just barely managed to keep some agreement to stay together until she was out of the house. Numb after the strangely unemotional phone call from her mother, Ashley had walked the uneven, leaf-covered sidewalks all Saturday afternoon before finally turning onto Comstock Avenue to head back to campus.
A warm, earthy breeze swirled a pile of brittle, orange leaves to life, and Ashley batted absent-mindedly at them as they landed in her wind-blown hair. She grabbed at the stray strands hanging in her eyes and paused outside a used bookstore to check her reflection.
Ashley smiled at the beaded curtains hanging in the window above stacks of black and purple t-shirts and wrinkled her nose at the gust of heady incense that poured out of the shop when the door opened. A tall biker chick with a blonde Mohawk paused in the doorway to light a cigarette. She peered down at Ashley over her mirrored sunglasses, raised an eyebrow, then sauntered over to a white Harley parked in front of a fire hydrant.
Ashley found herself pulling the door open.
A bell jingled as Ashley shut the door, and a bored Goth with a long black spike sticking out of his pierced lower lip glanced up briefly before staring vacantly back down at his cell phone. Ashley's fingers traced the ankhs and crescent moons on the spines of the oversized, dog-eared paperbacks with faded unicorns and fairies on their covers.
Then, a bright purple book wedged between a softball-sized geode and a quartz pyramid caught her eye. She picked it up and studied the silver pentagram on the cover for a moment before leafing through it. Her eyes widened as she read, and by the third page her heart was pounding in her chest. She set the book on the counter in front of the smirking Goth and with trembling fingers handed him the money she had been going to use on pizza.
When Sunday morning rolled around, she was still sitting at her desk with bleary, blood-shot eyes, her fingers caressing the pages as she pored over them. Wicca: A Solitary Practice had become her bible.
The first day of autumn came crisp and clear the following week, and Ashley celebrated her first ritual to the harvest moon under the big maple outside her dorm room. The altar was a milk crate with a black pillow case draped over it, and she used a plastic knife from the cafeteria as her ritual dagger. But, for the first time in years, she was happy.
The next weekend she performed the ritual in her book for finding a power animal. After fasting all day (that had been so hard) she drove out to Chittenango Falls State Park. When the sun finally set, she climbed onto a boulder below the falls and surrounded herself with bowls of billowing incense. After an hour of light-headed chanting, just as the swollen moon rose over the trees, she had seen it. There, along the bank - the yellow eye shined over the gray muzzle.
Everyone at English Lit had said it must have been a coy-dog, but Ashley knew better. And, when she breezed into the strange bookstore on Comstock Ave after class, there was a glint in her eye that hadn't been there before. She even winked at the sullen Goth as he rang up her wolf t-shirt. He smiled back.
Ashley changed into the shirt in the bathroom at Pizza Hut while waiting for her takeout order, then took the meat lover's pizza back to the dorm and devoured it while watching a National Geographic documentary on wolves.
She was too ecstatic to care much about the change in her mother's e-mails - the occasional mentions of some guy she had met after going back to Mass - so Ashley had decided to "come out of the broom closet" on Christmas break.
Ashley cracked open the front door a little and gave a light knock, feeling weird about just barging in after being gone since the end of summer. Her mother called out from the living room.
Ashley shucked off the worn second hand black fleece she had picked up at the Salvation Army, kicked off her snowy boots, and padded in her stocking feet to the living room. Her mother was sitting on a new burgundy couch, her once graying hair now styled shorter in a fresh shade of blonde. She muted the TV as Ashley walked in and jumped up with a white smile, wrapping the arms of her thick red sweater around Ashley. Ashley didn't miss the way her mother squeezed her arms before pulling away.
"You look - healthy, Honey."
Ashley sighed and smoothed her wolf T-shirt over the annoying roll that threatened to escape her too tight jeans. She frowned at the elderly nun rambling silently on the screen before sitting down on the matching love seat across from her mother. Ashley laid a shaky hand on the silver pentacle - the one she had bought from the book store on Comstock a few weeks ago - tucked safely away behind the snarling wolf on her shirt and swallowed against the dryness in her mouth.
"Mom, I've been doing a lot of reading, and this is going to sound a little crazy, but -"
"Honey, I'm going to marry Todd."
Ashley let her duffle bag slide off her lap and turned the name over in her head. Ashley's mother clicked the remote, and the spectacled nun vanished. She slid to the near end of the couch.
"Todd?" Ashley repeated. "Oh, the guy from church. Uh - congratulations, I guess."
"Thanks, Honey." Her mother smiled awkwardly. "I was hoping you'd be supportive since it's a little - complicated."
Ashley frowned. "Complicated? You and Dad signed the divorce papers at Thanksgiving."
Her mother reached out and took Ashley's hand. "The Church doesn't recognize civil divorces, Honey. If I'm to marry Todd, I have to get an annulment."
The diamond ring on her mother's finger dug into Ashley's skin as she pulled her hand away. "Annulled. You mean like it never happened?"
Ashley's mother bit her lip and inched closer. "Honey, it's just paperwork. You won't be involved."
Ashley stared at her mother, her brown eyes wide in disbelief. "Not involved? I'm here, aren't I?"
"Honey, it doesn't say anything about you."
Ashley paced in front of the coffee table. "Like hell it doesn't. It says I'm not legitimate."
Her mother stood up and reached over the table, but Ashley shrugged her off. Her mother sighed and sat back down. "Honey, I have to do this in order to marry Todd. If you would just come and talk to Father Mark -"
"So all the family photos - the Christmases, the birthdays, the summer vacations - do they just fade away?"
Her mother crossed her arms. "Ashley Marie, you're off in school. It's time for me to have a life now."
Ashley leaned over the coffee table. "How can I be legitimate if the marriage never happened?"
They held each other's gaze for a moment, then Ashley's mother turned and stormed down the hallway. The bedroom door slammed. Ashley glanced down at the duffle bag on the floor with its incriminating books, then glared up at the crucifix staring somberly down at her from the spot above the TV where the annual family Christmas photo usually hung.
Ashley reached down for her duffle bag, but jerked her hand back as the door to the bedroom opened. Her mother shuffled into the living room, red-eyed, a faded leather photo album clutched in her manicured fingers. Ashley's mother slid aside a vase of carnations with a note marked "Love, Todd" (her father had always gotten roses) and plunked the photo album down on the coffee table.
Her mother took a tissue from the pearlescent colored Kleenex box and dabbed at the corners of her eyes, then looked up at Ashley and patted the empty cushion beside her. Ashley stood her ground for a moment, but soon sighed and settled stiffly onto the new cushions. She turned the photo album around and squinted at the cover.
"Where'd you get this?"
Her mother opened the album and turned to a faded 8x10 photo. Ashley recognized the white ivy-covered gazebo and the rocky waterfall behind it - Chittenango Falls State Park. Her dad wore an olive green Army dress uniform and was actually skinny. Her mother had on a flower patterned sun dress. Beside them stood a graying man in a black robe holding a leather-bound book.
Then, Ashley spotted the pink bundle in her mother's arms.
Ashley glared in silence. Her mother grabbed another tissue and blew her nose, then stood up and walked over to look up at the crucifix above the television. She looked back over her shoulder at Ashley with red, bloodshot eyes.
"The Church isn't making you illegitimate, Honey. I did that."
Her mother turned and held out her hand, but Ashley had already slung her duffle bag over her shoulder. Her mother's bare feet slapped on the linoleum behind Ashley as she marched down the hallway.
"Oh, Honey -"
Ashley slammed the door behind her.
She didn't go home for spring break, and her mother's calls, strained as they were, came less and less frequent. When the fine linen envelope with exquisite gold calligraphy arrived during finals week, Ashley tossed it into the wastebasket unopened. She kept her dorm room for the summer by taking a job mowing lawns on campus.
The Sunday after her mother and Todd had left for their honeymoon in Cancun, Ashley sat outside a coffee shop off of Armory Square, jotting down notes for a Midsummer's Eve ritual in her Book of Shadows with the heavy, black marble fountain pen she had treated herself to at Barnes & Noble. The book was one of those leather-bound journals filled with blank pages just screaming to be written on that Ashley had loved to leaf through but never felt like she had anything worth writing down.
A thunderstorm had rumbled through the day before, and now the sun shone bright but cool in the blue sky over the Syracuse skyline, dominated by the white Carrier Dome and the glass skylights of Destiny Mall. Ashley had settled in at one of the round, wrought iron tables on the sidewalk outside a café not far from campus, planning on spending the rest of the morning sipping lattes and nibbling at her chocolate chip scone while she wrote.
A shadow fell over Ashley's journal. She slapped the cover shut as a wave of guilt washed over her. She cast an annoyed look up at the rugged, angular face with a recently broken nose grinning from the chair opposite her.
Ashley's look softened. She nodded and gave the friendly "Hey!" she saved for people whose name she couldn't quite remember. He had sat next to her in last fall's Freshman Composition class - a computer science major and rugby player (the nose jogged her memory)- but they had never really talked. Philip - something. Ashley ran her eyes over the blue blazer and paisley tie, held fast against a starched white shirt by a gold clip.
"All dressed up on a Sunday?"
Philip waved down the server and ordered an Earl Grey before jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at the twisted gothic spire jutting up out of the skyline behind him.
"I just came from St. Peter's." His eyes wandered to the silver pentacle resting on Ashley's wolf t-shirt.
They went to the Sunday matinee together - Philip in his suit and Ashley in her wolf t-shirt and cargo shorts. He walked her back to her dorm, and when he asked her about dinner next Saturday, Ashley said yes. By the end of July, they were a thing.
Then, one Saturday in August, an hour before their date, Ashley's cell rang.
"Hey, I can't do dinner tonight."
Ashley's gut tightened. The hiss of dead air filled the cell phone receiver.
"Don't get me wrong." Philip's voice crackled over the static. "It's a holy day of obligation - Feast of the Assumption. I forgot all about it."
Ashley rolled her brown eyes.
"You can't miss it?"
"No can do, babe." There was an awkward silence. "Hey. Come with me."
"Philip, you know I -"
"It'd be a shame to miss the whole afternoon with you." Philip's voice lowered into a sexier octave. "I've kinda got a thing for you, in case you haven't noticed."
Ashley smiled despite herself. "Yeah."
"Come on, Ash - keep me company. Then we can go out after."
Ashley bit her lip. "Delmonico's Steak House?"
"There's my girl. I'll pick you up in a few."
Ashley shucked off her cargo shorts and scrambled to find a dress that wasn't too tight. She was slipping on some worn flats when Philip's Toyota pulled up out front and beeped.
Ashley smiled at the way he dashed to the passenger side and held the door for her. But, the smile faded as Philip's eyes narrowed.
"What?" Ashley sucked in her stomach and tugged the elastic waistline a little lower. "I've been meaning to get to Lane Bryant and pick up something nicer -"
"No, no - you're great. But, if you could, um -" Philip coughed and nodded at the pentacle dangling around Ashley's neck.
"Oh." Ashley lifted the chain. The silver star spun slowly in the afternoon sun.
It's only an hour.
She dropped the pentacle inside her dress, like she did when she visited her mom. But, Philip shook his head.
"What if it pops out?"
He stepped forward and gave Ashley a slow, lingering kiss while his fingers fumbled with the clasp at the back of her neck. She sighed as he pulled away. He turned her palm up and dropped the necklace into it before wiping his hands on his dress slacks. Ashley slipped the pentacle in her purse and rubbed the back of her naked neck.
When Philip asked Ashley to go to Mass with him the following Sunday, Ashley just snickered.
"Besides, I promised Mom I'd visit this afternoon."
"Todd's company is opening a new office in Greensboro."
"Where the hell is Greensboro?" Ashley asked as she stood in the attic doorway, watching her mother rummage through cardboard boxes. They had been getting on slightly better since her mother had returned from Cancun, and Ashley had even managed a cheerful "Hi - good to see you!" to Todd before he left for the golf course.
"What? But Dad is moving to Boston with what's her name."
Ashley's mother stood up and brushed the dust off her jeans. She put a hand on Ashley's arm and squeezed.
"You're all grown up, Ashley Marie." Ashley gritted her teeth as her mother kissed her forehead. "I'll come back for graduation."
When Ashley saw Philip back at campus, and he brought up "hanging out with him on Sunday" again, she agreed.
Ashley left the pentacle in her jewelry box - just on Sunday mornings. The Christmas of their senior year, instead of going to her mother's and Todd's new place down South, she went home with Philip to Wilmington. As they got out of the car, Ashley looked up at the stately slate gray Victorian, trimmed with white Christmas lights, and then at the two BMWs in the driveway. Philip's dad was genial, but Philip's mom wrapped her warm arms around Ashley's bare neck and practically smothered her with hugs.
Two months later, on Valentine's Day, Philip took Ashley to the small I where they had first met. After ordering for them both - a cappuccino for him and a coffee with Splenda for her - he looked out the window of the booth they were in and frowned at the three foot snowbank that buried the sidewalk.
"I really wanted to do this at the same table we sat at that first summer."
"I love you, Ash." Philip took her hands in his. "But, we have a problem. Disparity of cult."
Ashley frowned in confusion, but Philip just smiled sadly.
"That's what the Church calls two people with different religions."
He fished in his right jacket pocket, then leaned over the table. Ashley's eyes widened at the black velvet box in his hands.
"I'm going back to Wilmington after graduation, Ash. My dad knows people in the IT department at Vale Corp. I can start as soon as I have my degree."
Philip opened the box. "Ash, I want you to come with me."
The tears in Ashley's eyes made the diamond glisten. She blinked furiously and looked up at Philip. He brushed her wet cheek with the back of his hand.
"But you - we - will have to make some changes."
Ashley looked back down at the ring, then reached up and undid the clasp on her necklace. Her right hand slid the pentacle into her purse while Philip slid the ring onto her left hand. Then, Philip leaned across the table and kissed her.
"There's my girl." He sat back and dropped the cloth napkin into his lap before picking up his scone.
"We'll have to enroll you in adult catechism class and get you baptized. Mom wants a full Mass at the wedding." Philip smiled wryly. "She has a whole board of gowns on Pinterest and some recipes for you to try - something healthier."
They graduated in May and moved to Wilmington. Philip worked on getting an apartment furnished on Dorchester Street, but Philip's mother insisted Ashley stay with them until the wedding in September.
"A summer of my cooking and you'll be just gorgeous in your wedding gown." She patted Ashley's arm and gave it a squeeze.
Ashley's mother even flew up from South Carolina for the wedding. She hugged both Ashley and Philip fiercely at the airport and nodded approvingly when Philip's mother told her that Ashley was taking adult catechism classes. Philip's father got him into Vale Corp. as promised, while Ashley accepted a teaching position at Wilmington Elementary School.
"You won't be working long, dear." Philip's mother flashed a knowing wink toward Ashley's mother (they were getting on like old friends). "Philip's always wanted a large family."
The wedding was a high Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and it was everything Philip's mother had hoped it would be. But, it was all over so soon, and two years later, Ashley and Philip were still living in the apartment on Dorchester Street - alone. Whenever Ashley mentioned buying a house, Philip always put her off.
"Relax. It's a buyers' market. We've got plenty of time." Philip glanced at Ashley's stomach, which had been growing since the wedding for all the wrong reasons. "And it's not like we need the room." By the time Ashley had failed her fertility test, Philip had begun working late and "checking in" on his days off.
A few days before their second anniversary, just as the buses of leaf peepers were starting to show up for the fall foliage, Ashley came home to a dark apartment. At first, she just frowned at the missing clutter of rugby trophies and statues of saints on Phillip's dresser. As she opened each of the empty drawers, her eyes watered more and more. Finally, when she turned away from the dresser to see the bare bookshelves, she sank down onto the floor next to the bed, burying her head in her knees.
Later that evening, Ashley was sitting cross-legged on the bedroom floor, photo albums strewn on the carpet next to a half empty pizza box and a torn bag of chips when the doorbell rang. She blew her nose before opening the door.
She stared up at the sheriff with confused, bleary eyes. He coughed uncomfortably and handed Ashley a clipboard. She sniffed back her running nose while she flipped through the papers - it was a summons to family court.
The sheriff jabbed a hairy finger at the yellow highlighted line at the bottom and handed her a pen. The pen didn't seem to want to work at first, but Ashley managed a messy scrawl. The sheriff took the pen and the clipboard out of her numb fingers and touched the rim of his hat. A cold breeze sucked the heat out of the apartment as he stepped back out into the street. Ashley stood there for a while in the chilly entryway until the smell of pepperoni broke her stupor.
That Sunday, Ashley was sitting on the couch next to another pizza box with her cell phone in her hand, trying to conjure the courage to call her mother, when there was another knock at the door.
She glared at Philip, but he just stood there, staring at his loafers and holding out a manila envelope. Ashley snatched the envelope from his hand. It was marked with a cross and the seal of the Diocese of Wilmington. While she rifled through the papers, she strolled casually over to the window to peek at the sun glassed blonde sitting in a new metallic blue Lexus.
"An annulment - the divorce isn't enough? Was this blondie's idea or your mother's?"
"Please, Ash. Let's not start."
"At least you grew enough balls to deliver it in person. Oh, and I see it's all my fault - 'spousal infertility'. No mention of adultery with what's her name."
"You know the Church's teaching, Ash. Marriage is for procreation."
"And your parents don't want a bastard grandchild." Ashley held her hand up against the glare from the window and squinted. "How far along is she?"
Philip slammed his hand on the door frame. "Damn it, Ash -"
Ashley tossed the papers into the hallway, unsigned. Philip was still swearing under his breath and picking the loose sheets off the WELCOME mat when she slammed and bolted the door. She curled up on the couch and buried her head in a pillow, ignoring the knocks - punctuated by the occasional "Ash!"
The pounding at the door finally stopped, and tires squealed outside. Ashley pulled herself off the couch and dabbed at her ruined mascara with another tissue. Then, she grabbed another slice of pizza and drove over to the storage unit. She was pulling some pictures from the wedding out of a cardboard box and stuffing them into a garbage bag when she found the silver pentacle.
A soft September breeze stirred the ends of Ashley's hair, and she looked up. The storage unit stood on a back street on College Hill, and the south side of Wilmington rolled out before her down into the valley before it began the slow rise up toward the ridge of mountains dominated by Catamount Peak. The late afternoon sun illuminated bright clumps of hardwoods that dotted the mountains with splotches of red, yellow and orange. The air had that warm, earthy smell - just like it did that autumn she had stumbled into the Wiccan bookstore in Syracuse.
Ashley reached up and grabbed the gold crucifix around her neck, the one that Todd's mother had given her as a wedding gift. With one pull she snapped the chain and tossed it into the garbage bag with the photos. Her shaky fingers, slippery with pizza grease, fumbled with the clasp, but she managed to get the pentacle fastened around her neck.
Ashley was still studying the pentacle in the teacher's lounge at Wilmington Elementary on Monday, keeping it hidden in her palm away from the pot-bellied gym teacher and the graying librarian huddled at the table in the corner by the coffee pot (everybody assumed they were having an affair). The door banged open, and Ashley dropped the pentacle back into her sweater.
"Hello, lovely people!"
Jill, a para-educator, stood there in khaki shorts and Birkenstocks. The other two teachers rolled their eyes and went back to eyeing each other over their coffee, but Ashley ignored them and waved Jill over.
Jill worked mornings with Francis, the autistic boy in Ashley's classroom. Two other para-educators had cycled through - spent a few weeks trying to get the boy to stop spinning in the corner and humming to himself before finally throwing up their hands. But, Ashley had watched Jill bring Francis from counting with blocks to adding double digits. So, despite the whispered warnings from other teachers, Ashley had started taking lunch with the dreadlocked, patchouli-scented young woman before Jill left for her afternoon nursing classes at Greenfield Tech.
Jill plopped herself down and ran a finger over the arm of Ashley's new black sweater. "All dark and mysterious today."
Then, Jill raised an eyebrow, and a smile crept across her lips. She hooked the silver chain out of Ashley's cleavage with her multi-ringed forefinger. The pentacle dangled in the air between them, twirling slowly under the yellow fluorescent lights.
"I thought so. Cool. You practicing again now that Philip is out of the picture?"
The heat rose in Ashley's cheeks. She grabbed the pentacle and slipped it back into her blouse as she glanced around the teachers' lounge.
"I was thinking about it."
Jill's eyes narrowed. "Is he out of the picture?"
Ashley picked up a plastic spoon and stirred forcefully. She studied the clumps of creamer swirling in her lukewarm coffee.
"Then why does he keep texting me about you?"
The spoon snapped in Ashley's fingers. "He's what? That son of a -"
She clamped her lips shut as the gym teacher and the librarian looked over. Ashley waited until they had resumed their mutual eye-gazing before whispering through gritted teeth.
"He keeps coming to the apartment with papers to sign. Papers from the diocese." She took a deep, ragged breath. "I -"
The dark screen on Jill's phone came to life. It rattled and buzzed on the table. Jill jabbed the touch screen and growled as she turned it toward Ashley.
Ashley's cheeks burned red as she saw the name.
"What an ass."She remembered to whisper it this time.
Jill slipped the phone into her canvas bag. "Sign the papers and move on."
"I'm so sorry, Jill. I -"
Ashley blinked furiously. She turned to fish in her purse for a tissue, but Jill's hand squeezed her shoulder.
"Hey, girl - people get divorced all the time."
Ashley dabbed at her eyes with the back of her finger and gritted her teeth.
"He's making it out like it was my fault that he..."
Jill took Ashley's free hand in her own and patted it. Then, her eyes lit up.
"Hey, Ash - I know this guy in my nursing program - Carl. He runs a coven near Greenfield, and he invited me to a harvest ritual this Saturday. Wanna tag along?"
Ashley swore at the black mascara marks on the back of her finger. "I'm not driving all the way down to Greenfield."
Jill smiled triumphantly. "You're right. You're not. Mom floated me a loan, and I finally got the Jeep inspected."
Ashley paused. She had done plenty of rituals as a Solitary, but in a group? She had read - things. Didn't really matter, though. Chances were Jill would either forget or find another distraction before then.
"Okay. Saturday then."
But, Jill actually showed up Saturday afternoon, right on time - with a gift.
Ashley turned the silver wolf's head ring over in her hand. Eyes of faceted red glass glared up at her, and the fanged mouth hung open in a leering snarl.
"What's this for?"
"You said your power animal is a wolf, right?"
Ashley slid the ring onto her finger, but it jammed at the second knuckle. She raised an eyebrow at Jill.
"This came off your skinny little granola fingers, didn't it?"
Jill just shrugged. Ashley tried her pinky and it fit - barely.
Ashley was still twirling the wolf ring on her pinky while Jill's Jeep crawled past the quaint, Bavarian shops filled with souvenirs and antiques on Greenfield's Main Street, the red brick road jammed with tour buses and leaf peepers from New York and Massachusetts. The Jeep backfired and stalled on the covered bridge at the end of the street. But, Jill soon found the right gear, and they began the long climb up Mountain Road.
Carl's log cabin sat at the end of one of the dirt roads that branched off and wound their way around the pine covered shoulders of Buffalo Ridge. "Road" was actually a generous description, Ashley thought - it was barely more than a logging trail - and she had to grab the roll bar whenever Jill's absent minded driving dipped the Jeep into a rut. Finally, the Jeep lurched to a halt and stalled in the cabin's gravel driveway as Jill let off the clutch too early.
Carl was a tall, rugged, red-bearded man in a hemp shirt, sweat-stained from chopping wood. He dropped his axe and pulled the shirt off to wipe casually at the sweat-sheen on his chest and arms, heavily tattooed with blue Celtic swirls.
Ashley put a hand on Jill's arm.
"Oh my God - he's a Viking."
Jill just winked at her and sprang out of the Jeep. Carl hung the shirt on his axe before hugging Jill fiercely with one arm, the Sam Adams in his other hand sloshing a bit as it brushed against her buttocks. He flashed Ashley a white smile over Jill's shoulder.
Jill disentangled herself and put an arm around Ashley as she climbed out of the Jeep.
"Ash here is an old hand, but hasn't practiced for a while."
Carl swigged from his bottle, burped through his red braided beard, and shrugged.
"No biggie. I've got extra robes." He winked at Ash. "We usually go skyclad, but we're not private tonight." He threw a glance at the cabin before heading down to the bonfire, where a motley group of hippies, crunchies and Goths were bundling sticks of brush into an oversized scarecrow, complete with a jack-o-lantern head.
"He means his wife, Kim." Jill pointed at the green all-wheel drive Nissan with SHAMBALA YOGA decaled on the back window. "She usually does a beginner's class on Saturdays." Jill frowned. "Wonder what's up." She grabbed Ashley's hand and started to follow Carl down to the bonfire.
Ashley almost crushed Jill's fingers as she pulled her up short. "Skyclad, Jill?" she whispered through clenched teeth. "I'm not getting naked in front of anybody. Especially Thor over there."
Jill yanked her fingers out of Ashley's grip and leaned in close. "Chill, girl," she hissed. Jill frowned over Ashley's shoulder at the log cabin. "Like Carl said, wifey is home, so we all gotta behave." Just then, Jill's phone chirped.
"Shit." Jill pulled her cell out of her canvas bag. "Carl will have a fit if this goes off during the ritual." She gave Ashley a soft but firm shove. "Go mingle. I gotta fix this."
Ashley glared, but trudged off through the freshly mown grass, the plastic straps on her flip flops biting between her toes as she scuffed down the hill. A whoop went up as she entered the circle of benches around the bonfire. The Harvest God stood tall now, sporting a pair of antlers, arms outstretched in benediction as its pumpkin face leered down at the worshippers.
Carl sat back on a massive wooden throne on the far side of the crowd, swigging his Sam Adams while he supervised a couple of raven-haired Goth girls, their moon white arms and thighs slipping in and out of their loosely tied black robes as they heaped the last bundles of firewood around the Harvest God's legs. He waved at Ashley and held up a black robe.
The crescent moon slipped above the treetops, and somewhere in the growing darkness a Celtic drum started beating. Carl rose from his throne and tossed a burning torch at the Harvest God's feet. Beer fueled voices rose in a chant -
"Horned one, Mother's son, leaper in the corn! Deep within the Goddess, die and be reborn!"
Ashley mouthed the familiar words as she shrugged the impossibly tight black polyester robe over her head. After some frantic twisting and tugging, her head emerged, and she pulled the hood out of her face. She found herself looking back up at the log cabin.
There, in the picture window, stood a tall, chiseled red-head in yoga pants and a sports bra, her muscular arms crossed. The woman glanced down at Ashley, and for a moment, Ashley looked into her freckled, stony face. Then, the woman's pink lips twisted into a sneer, and she reached off to the side. Heavy green drapes marked with Celtic trefoils closed over the window.
Ashley turned back to the bonfire, one hand still smoothing over the bulges under the robe. Flames flickered hypnotically in the orange eyes of the Harvest God. Its burning stare bore into Ashley as the incessant drumbeat dragged her deeper into its rhythm. The treetops whispered as a crisp autumn wind swirled thick, gray smoke around the hem of Ashley's black robe.
One by one, the worshippers tossed their offerings into the flames at the Harvest God's wicker feet - eagle feathers, clay goddesses with swollen breasts and bellies, love letters from ex-boyfriends written in faded blue ink on yellowed notebook paper.
When it was her turn, Ashley's fingers slipped into the vinyl purse hanging at her waist, trembling as they brushed the glossy wedding photo that Philip's mother had taken outside the cathedral. The pounding in her chest matched the drumbeat, and the flames grew blurry. When her hand slipped back out of the purse, the photo stayed behind.
Ashley plopped herself down on a roughhewn bench at the edge of the circle. She clutched her pentacle in her hand and squeezed hard, rocking back and forth, her lips mouthing a desperate prayer as tears streamed down her cheeks.
"There he goes!"
Ashley eyes popped open. She pulled her hood closer, wondering if anyone had seen her lose it. The Harvest God settled again on its burning legs, shuddered, and collapsed into the fire. Hoots and howls rose up into the darkening sky with the leaping flames.
The burning orange head fell out of the fire, spitting embers out of its grin as it rolled across the lawn to stop at Ashley's feet. She gazed wide-eyed at its withered, leering stare as the smell of burnt pumpkin filled her nostrils.
Just as quickly, the flames died back down, and the shadows crept back out of the tree line toward the pile of dying red embers. A few silhouettes paired off in the growing darkness.
Jill, who had been lounging on the arm of Carl's throne, slipped an arm around his neck. Carl tossed his empty bottle into the fire and allowed Jill to pull him down behind the throne's high back. Ashley rolled her eyes and cast a nervous glance toward the cabin on the hill, but the picture window with its Celtic drapes remained empty and dark.
Outside the dying circle of firelight, the Celtic drum pounded on, slowly now, more like a heartbeat. Ashley pulled her robe closer against the cold bite in the wind. At her feet, the pumpkin's leering orange grin flickered out, leaving only the dull red circle of the bonfire's coals to hold off the night.
Then she saw it.
In a dark clump of ferns at the edge of the wood, a pair of yellow eyes regarded her over a long canine snout. Ashley caught her breath. The eyes narrowed. For a long moment, Ashley just stared back, not daring to breathe.
The yellow eyes blinked - and were gone.
Ashely found herself striding across the dew covered grass, an ecstatic smile spreading across her lips as she stretched out her hand - the one with the wolf ring on it - toward the shadows under the trees. Out of all the posers in the circle, the Goddess had found her worthy! As soon as Ashley stepped out of the firelight, she broke into a run.
Now, Ashley stood by the frigid mountain stream, half blind and soaking wet. A cold breeze blew out of the shadows between the naked trees, bringing goosebumps to her pale skin. Ashley shivered, suddenly aware of how alone she was out here in the darkening wood. She turned on her one good flip flop to trudge back up the mountain.
Then, she spotted it again, a blurry shadow flitting through the trees, in and out of the moonlight. Her heart pounded in her chest. Without another thought, she shucked off the last flip flop and careened down the mountain after it.
Twigs snapped under her bare soles, but the frigid stream had left her feet numb, and Ashley felt nothing but the rush of cool air on her flushed cheeks. The canine form lunged through a thicket of blackberries. Ashley plunged after, unheedful of the thorns, wild like her power animal.
In her ecstasy, she didn't see the jagged chunk of granite inside the thicket until her toes on her right foot cracked. She cried out. Thorns dragged and scratched at her arms as she fell out of the blackberry patch.
She landed in a circle of white halogen light. The smell of recently mowed grass flooded her nostrils. Angry, red scratch marks burned on Ashley's bare arms, and her foot was on fire. She sat up, shielding her blurred eyes from the blinding headlights of a pickup. A campfire flickered orange near a lawn chair with a Heineken in the cup holder. A black Labrador, panting and lolling its tongue, sniffed the can with its wet nose.
Ashley stood up, then cried out as shards of jagged bone rubbed together in her right foot. She bit her lip against the pain and sank back down on the grass. A pair of work boots and faded jeans now blocked the headlights.
"Well, well. Skitter's brought back a lot of game out of the woods, but you're the prettiest."
Ashley slid back. The boots followed.
"Must be one of them Wicker people from up the road. You're one of Carl's friends, ain't ya?"
Ashley shook her head, then nodded. "No. Well, sort of."
"You're a bit off the reservation then."
"Look, I'm sorry. I got turned around in the woods."
"Find water and follow it downstream. Sooner or later you'll run across help." The man knelt down, and a weathered, tanned face came into focus. "Which I guess is me in this case." The man stuck out his hand.
Ashley studied the smile under the salt and pepper beard for a moment, then made her decision. She grabbed the hand and clutched at the sleeve on Randall's weathered army jacket as he hauled her up onto her good foot.
Randall wrapped his calloused fingers around Ashley's forearm to steady her and frowned at the goose pimpled flesh.
"You're freezing. Hop into my rig, and I'll take you back up to Carl's."
Randall's thumb mashed the button to the rusty door handle on the olive green Ford. He chucked an empty McDonald's bag into the back and brushed the seat off with his hand.
Ashley slid butt first into the pickup, then gingerly lifted her bad foot in.
"How do you know Carl?"
"I've plowed Carl's driveway for years, long before he got into all that Wicker nonsense."
Randall closed Ashley's door, then slid into the driver's side and fired up the engine. It knocked for a second, but soon the deep treaded tires were biting into the steep logging trail, spraying a fresh coat of mud along the side of the pickup. Ashley rolled up her window and tried to ignore the trees bouncing sickeningly in and out of the headlights.
"Did you find what you were lookin' for?"
Ashley started at the question and looked over at Randall - noticed his eyes flickering to the pentacle resting in her cleavage. He looked back at the windshield and grunted.
"Figure people try that spell casting shit because they're lookin' for something." Randall frowned as Carl's cabin loomed ahead. "Looks like tonight it's drama."
The pickup turned into the driveway, its twin beams like stage lights on the front porch of the log cabin. Ashley squinted. The woman in the yoga pants screamed at Carl while pointing a finger at Jill, who was careful to yell back from over Carl's shoulder. People in black robes and street clothes milled around an idling car. Blurred as her vision was, Ashley recognized the new Lexus.
Randall opened the door for Ashley. She clutched at his jacket again as she eased herself out of the truck, then glared at Philip as he and the blonde from outside the apartment walked over.
"Philip, what the hell are you doing here?" Ashley practically spat the words.
Philip glanced over at Randall, then looked Ashley up and down, his eyes narrowing at the pentacle gleaming in the truck's dome light. "My God! You kept that thing the whole time?" The blonde elbowed him, and he continued. "Look, Ash. Jill gives shitty directions, and I've been driving on these back roads for hours. I need those papers signed."
"Jill gave you directions?" Ashley glared up at the cabin, but Jill was busy screaming while Carl tried to disentangle her hair from his wife's clenched fingers.
The blonde nudged Philip out of the way and dug into her Isabella Fiore purse. She pulled out a stack of papers and a pen and stuck a hand out at Ashley.
Ashley raised an eyebrow, but took Brittany's hand. Brittany turned Ashley's hand over to inspect her wolf ring before letting go.
"Look. I don't know you and you don't know me. I'm probably not your favorite person in the world, but I'm trying to do what's right for whoever this is." Brittany rested a protective hand on the bump under her dress. "Please."
Ashley bit her lip and looked around - at Brittany and the bump in her belly, at Philip, at the eavesdropping strangers she never was introduced to. Brittany held out the papers. They rustled as she waved them.
Ashley took the pen from Brittany's manicured hand and spread the papers out on the hood of Randall's truck. She took a deep breath and scribbled in the yellow, highlighted spaces.
Brittany snatched the papers and marched back to the Subaru. Ashley fought to keep her eyes dry as she returned Philip's narrow stare. He opened his mouth, but the horn beeped. He smirked over his shoulder as he walked back to the car. A door slammed in the darkness behind the headlights, then the Subaru's tires spun hard as it veered onto the logging road, pinging Randall's dented tailgate with gravel.
A loud knocking made her look back up at the cabin. The windows were dark now, and Carl was banging on the locked front door. Jill sat on the porch swing rubbing her head. She looked up and shrugged as she mouthed a "sorry" to Ashley. Then, Jill's eyes lit up. She smiled and waved at Randall. Randall grunted and nodded back, but pulled his Red Sox cap down lower.
"Jesus - you here with Jill? She looks - busy. I could give you a lift."
Ashley hobbled over to the door of the pickup and squinted up the dirt road. As the last red glimmer of the tail lights disappeared into the trees, Ashley blew out a long, ragged breath. Work boots crunched in the gravel behind her.
Ashley turned and looked up at Randall.
"Hey, you got a light?"
Randall fished in his front jeans pocket and pulled out a camo patterned Bic. Ashley opened her purse and pulled out the wedding photo. She had been 40 pounds lighter then, in the white dress and gold crucifix Philip's mom had given her.
Ashley turned and looked in the side mirror of Randall's pickup - gathered up the long black sleeve of her robe and wiped at the mascara streaks on her cheeks. She held up the photo next to the plump, round cheeked lady in the mirror in her black robe with her silver pentacle dangling from her neck. At least now she was legitimate.
Ashley's thumb flicked the lighter, and the photo flared up. The flames lit up the dark spaces between the trees, and in the mirror Ashley caught the sheen of a pair of yellow eyes behind her in the undergrowth.