Burrbrook by Joseph Burns

Friday, August 2, 2019
In the small Canadian town of Burrbrook, Ashlee is starting a new life, Lynne runs an elitist daycare centre, and someone is burning down churches; by Joseph Burns.

She was lost
Now found, redeemed
Her paws splayed wide and nailed to the oak
Belly split, birthing entrails

He found her there
A night spent searching, vainly hoping
His flashlight passes her eyes
Glinting, unglinting
The oppressive presence of nothing

Below, white lines - chalk scraped on granite
A five-pointed star, encircled
A feeble concession to meaning
He heaves and one edge is erased in acid
Another offering

Her canine shell vacated,
He stands there, flesh upon bone
Under starlight unseeing
The smell of iron and bile
Just so much meat

Slabs of gray rock emerged from the rise and fall of the roadside, their primeval, rain-blunted faces wreathed by browning scrub grass. Perched atop them or crowded between were aging blueberry plants, nearly bare, their dry sockets long devoid of fruit. The treeline began to thicken here, where the balding maples and birches were outnumbered by their needled brethren - an ancient acquiescence by the keyed to the coned. The tall pines, though evergreen, were washed red by the setting sun.

Ashlee removed her sunglasses and dropped them on the dash. She rubbed her right eye and scratched absently at her nose. Her chipped purple fingernail found the spot where the bridge of the plastic shades pinched her skin. In the rear-view mirror she saw Zachary, very much awake but spellbound by the old smartphone he held in his tiny hands. He rocked gently in his car seat in time with the undulating road as their rusted sedan skittered northward.

"How ya doing, Zach?" she called back. A few silent seconds passed. She opened her mouth to speak again, but stopped herself. She knew what the answer would be, if she insisted.

"Good," he would say in a high drone, without looking up. And it was true enough, Ashlee thought. Even after so many hours in the car, he wasn't bored. They were still an hour away from Burrbrook, and her urge to interrupt him may have been born out of envy.

Instead, Ashlee turned on the radio. A classic rock song broke in, familiar yet too generic to name. She watched the painted lines of the highway zip beneath her headlights. It had all happened so fast. When she left North Bay, she was sure she was doing the right thing. There had been no time for rumination, and now all the usual specters of doubt came rushing to her, eager to make up for lost time. She felt the beginnings of a cold dread creeping in, and with a concerted effort she sighed the feeling away.

The song on the radio rolled over. A different song, but still familiar. Ashlee tensed her fingers against the steering wheel. The shadowy northern pines seemed to ripple over the crests of granite as she drove into the beginnings of darkness.

Expect a long-needed break from your stresses as quarrelsome Mars descends toward the horizon. The pressure is off: it's time to reap the rewards. Virgo and Pisces will share in your joy but be wary of jealous Scorpio.

Lynne laid the newspaper flat on the worn plastic card table. She lifted her cigarette from the nook of a yellowing ashtray and smoked it absently. A little wisp of hot ash pooled into the wrinkled knuckle of her middle finger. Lynne blinked and then slowly wiped her hand against the thigh of her heather gray pants.

She abandoned the horoscopes and flipped again to the story on the second page. A retired miner out on Sheffield Lane had found his old bloodhound, Rosalie, gutted and nailed to a tree. She glanced vacantly at the photo of the pentagram drawn near the roots and sighed aloud.

Things like this made people antsy. Soon another round of pearl clutchers would be banging down her door demanding she take in their unremarkable little shriekers. Mommy's little angel is different, he's exceptional. He knows all the provincial capitals. And the territories!

It was difficult enough to maintain her mother's standards under normal circumstances. Lynne had promised her mother in those last grueling days that she would continue her legacy, and that meant something. You can't really say no to a dying parent, Lynne thought, and she had given her word. She tried to convince herself that she might be able to find an alright kid in the new surge of rabble: someone worthy of the pedigree.

Lynne's mother had built a reputation on accepting only remarkable children: kids who had some compelling story in which the centre could play a role. If a little one had done some heartwarming feat of bravery, or had some tragic, challenging disease, that imbued them with the kind of character the centre wanted. These were the kind of moral prodigies that other parents wanted their kids to meet. The marketing effect was immense, though Lynne and her mother would never admit it publicly. Scarcity and prestige beget enormous demand, and they could only accept so many children if they were to maintain their unimpeachable standards of care.

The rejected parents were furious, of course, and eagerly complained to all who would listen about the crotchety bitch who expected the world from a three-year-old. The other parents listened sympathetically, raised their eyebrows when they were supposed to, and secretly assured themselves that their own kids would be good enough. Having a child at the centre became a status symbol in the small, stifling world of Burrbrook's parenting circles. And now none of those super mom busybodies are going to want to leave little Raelinn at any old place when there are devil worshipers or self-styled vampires or whatever roaming about.

Was this Mars's doing? Quarrelsome Mars? Lynne took a long drag and tried to remember the last time she picked a fight with a planet. After several minutes her self-indulgence was ruined by the first ring of the telephone.

"Here they are," she said aloud, "the rewards." She plucked the receiver from its cradle with her free hand and lifted it to her ear.

"Louisa Dannett Daycare Centre," she said.

Ashlee fidgeted in the driver's seat. She arched her back and pressed both hands into the base of her spine, sending her wild and long brown hair cascading over her shoulders. She had slept fitfully in the motel on the edge of town, though whether it was the poking springs beneath her or the tension in her neck, she wasn't sure.

The rosy sky she had woken with had shifted to a dull gray as the morning spun itself out. She sat now with Zachary parked outside a sandy-bricked low rise and listened to the ticking of the cooling engine. The moments seemed to pass slowly: the temporal malaise that comes with transitions and unfamiliar spaces. The onset of living one day at a time.

After some unknown stretch of time, Zachary spoke up. "Is this gonna be our new house?" he asked.

"It is," Ashlee replied. "We're on the third floor on the other side of the building. We can't see our window from here but it looks like those ones."

"It looks okay."

Ashlee laughed. She rolled her head against the seat back, suddenly more limber, and spotted the landlord's silver pickup turning into the lot. A small cloud of dust and autumn detritus kicked up behind its wheels before falling back to the gravel. Finally he arrived at the building and pulled level with Ashlee's car. He offered a half wave before getting out, disarmingly simple in his slightly frayed jeans and dark green tank. A small tangle of chest hair poked out below his neck, graying like his buzzcut that was starting to recede. On this signal Ashlee gathered Zachary from his car seat and led him over to the door of the building.

"Reese Hartford." the landlord said, offering his hand. "Sorry I'm late. Didn't mean to keep you waiting."

"No worries," Ashlee replied. "It's not like we had somewhere else to be."

"Well there was something at the office. Someone wanting to break their lease -" Reese started. He saw Ashlee's impish smile and realized she was joking. He grinned back. "Oh, I dunno. Maybe you were itching to visit Strauss Street Convenience. Or to check out the tubing course before the snow machines start. All the excitement Burrbrook has to offer a young person." He handed her a key ring, pinching the key to the outer door.

"Strauss Street Convenience, huh?" she asked as she tried the key. "That wasn't in the guidebook. Thanks for the tip."

"It's got the finest selection of Pepsi this side of Sudbury."

Ashlee smiled gently as she pushed the door open. Inside, the gray daylight spilled through two high, bare windows in the living room and reflected off wood-paneled walls that still smelled of varnish. Beige carpet sprawled across the living room into the single bedroom on the inside edge of the unit, stopping only at the reddish linoleum floor of the small kitchen. The space was empty save for a tall and narrow cabinet made of a darker and more stout wood than the paneling. As Ashlee approached it she realized it was a grandfather clock: subtle curved lines ran up the inside edge of its casing, ending at a relief carving of a single cherub above its face. The face itself was off-white, meant to resemble ivory, perhaps. The hands and numerals were cast in some brassy metal, slightly dulled with time. She watched its simple round pendulum swing back and forth and finally drew its gentle ticking sound from the pastiche of background noise.

"That was left by the previous tenants," Reese said. "I didn't know how to move it, without breaking it, I mean. They must not have known either, the uh, the couple that lived here before. They kinda left in a hurry, too." He rubbed his eye. "I figured I'd just leave it in here."

Ashlee's gaze swept up and down the clock. She didn't reply.

"I can get rid of it, if you don't like it. I just haven't figured it out yet."

"No, no," Ashlee said. "It's beautiful." She delicately brushed the edge of the clock with her fingertips. She felt a sudden pang of some strange feeling, almost guilt, and then it was gone. Zachary toddled over to the clock and stood before it, staring. Ashlee reached down and gently tousled his hair.

In the week that followed, Ashlee found herself digging deeper into the piggy bank than originally planned. For the past year and a half she'd squirreled away what she could into an account Davis didn't know about. One at the little CIBC branch near the train yard back in North Bay. She paused, now, sitting on a second-hand office chair before her chunky laptop, and considered whether she knew all along. She thought she didn't have a purpose for that money, at the time. It was an impulse, some kind of guardian whim that she hadn't had before Zachary was born. To make her son dependent on Davis seemed wrong somehow. It was two and one, not three.

Her sad premonition meant that when Davis threw them out, she was ready. He wanted the usual histrionics. The tearful pleading, the rants about all that she owes him, the attention and the worshipful validation before he finally takes her back. This time was different; it was about Zachary.

Zachary had ruined his life, he said. But not in the usual "didn't wrap my dick so I got a fuckin' kid to feed" way. This time that little bastard had stuck his nose where it didn't belong and fucked everything over.

This time was different in another way too. This time she just left.

The emergency fund had paid for first and last at the apartment in Burrbrook and could cover groceries and incidentals for a while, at least. The latter part would have to stretch a bit, because Ashlee had gotten a call two days after they moved in. The restaurant where she had a job lined up was suddenly closing down. The owners sold it to a chain and were moving away. They were happy to put in a good word for her with the new restaurant, but it wouldn't be opening for months. That left her browsing job ads on kijiji and the classifieds on the Burrbrook Herald's website. She found a surprising abundance of postings on both, considering the size of the town, covering a wide range of service industry jobs. She fired off resumes to a few restaurants, a bar, and a grocery store before refreshing the page to see if there were any new prospects. A red banner loaded in at the top of the screen:

BREAKING NEWS: Fire at St. Bartholomew's Anglican Church

Ashlee clicked on an embedded video at the top of the page. The blank thumbnail gave way to a pixelated feed of some dark outdoor scene. Silhouettes of leafless bushes whisked past as the cameraman moved forward. An eerie orange glow lit the clouds from below.

"...approaching the scene at St. Bartholomew's church," said a woman's voice over the feed. A caption at the bottom of the screen identified her as Joanne Devoy, reporting from the Channel 4 station. "As Rick gets closer you'll see that the fire has eaten a hole through the roof and is about to engulf the steeple. The fire was first reported at 7:46 this evening and though it is too soon to conduct a formal investigation, police are treating this as a suspected arson which may be connected to the fire at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in August."

The camera stopped moving and focused unsteadily on a wide slab of sidewalk between the church and its parking lot. After many long seconds Ashlee noticed the vague outline of letters in some dark colour, brown or deep crimson, melding into the artifact-filled darkness of the camera feed.

"A cryptic message was left at the scene by the alleged perpetrators, reading -"

The bright halogen glare of the camera crew's lights revealed the words just as Joanne's restrained voice spoke them aloud:


Ashlee closed the feed reflexively. The living room fell quiet again, nearly silent save Ashlee's shuddering breath.

Beams ablaze, a rain of cinders
Shattering glass: icons of the chosen
This place is no longer theirs

Fly, vagrant ghosts!
Beloved whelps of the father and the son
Oh, see how they fly!

Ashlee had the unshakable sense that she had blown it. She knew when, but not how.

She'd had an interview that afternoon at Rosco's, a casual little Italian place downtown by city hall. She met with Jerry, the surprisingly old but perfectly friendly manager, and quickly went through the usual checkboxes of a waitress interview. For someone with Ashlee's history this was mostly a formality, as she had proven she could handle the pace and the environment of a serving job, and had yet to flip out on a customer.

The interview was perfunctory and familiar, at least until the end. Jerry's well-lined smile finally waned and he looked down into his folded hands.

"I have one more question that can be, um, a bit tricky, but I have to ask. With all that's going on, you know, I need to be sure we're getting the right people."

"Oh, well, okay," Ashlee replied. "Go ahead."

"It's got a bit of a story to it, so bear with me here."


Jerry opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated. He sighed slightly and tried again.

"There was, uh, a very special man a long time ago. Very long time. He had this really important mission to do." He stared into Ashlee intently. "He was born to do it, and he knew that, but the night before the mission he got a little scared. He started to doubt himself."

Ashlee's hands pressed unconsciously against her knees. She forced a polite half smile.

Jerry's forehead began to glisten as he continued. "He was unsure about the mission and he was scared. So he went into a garden with some of his friends." He paused for a moment, expectantly, then his smile flattened. "Can you... can you tell me what that garden was called?"

Ashlee felt her face flush. She didn't understand. Her eyes dropped from Jerry's and scanned uselessly over the desk as she tried to escape the question. The ticking of a simple plastic clock on the wall taunted her.

"Madison Square?" she finally replied with a tiny laugh.

She watched something fade from his eyes. Eventually he smiled, but it was different.

"Well," he said, "that's probably happened at Madison Square Garden, too. Thanks for coming in, Ashlee! We've got a few candidates coming in Wednesday and then we should have a decision by next week." He stood up and offered his hand. Ashlee shook it and quickly left the room, suddenly feeling a needle of coldness in her gut where none was before.

He never called.

Lynne eased herself down onto the padded green seat of her office chair. She set a dark green mug of coffee on a plain cork coaster atop the mahogany desk. She pinched a short, white hair - one of her own - from the surface of the desk and dropped it into a wastebasket at her side.

She sighed. Lynne didn't like to take appointments in the morning. Normally these ordeals took place in the afternoon once most of the kids had been picked up and Gail could handle the stragglers on her own. On those days she absorbed the warm smiles of appreciative parents and used them to steel herself for the hard-nosed schoolmarm routine that followed. Morning appointments, though, meant she had to start her day by being a huge disappointment before the caffeine even had a chance to work.

In other words, it was too early for this shit.

Dale Travers arrived at seven on the dot. He entered timidly, hunched slightly within his light brown jacket and leading his little girl Brandy by the hand. Lynne offered her a gentle wave. Mr. Travers approached the desk.

"Good morning, Mrs. - uh, Ms. Dannett," he said.

"Good morning, Mr. Travers. Please have a seat."

Dale unzipped his jacket as he carefully perched himself on the seat. He had missed the coat rack on the way in. Brandy stood beside the desk looking over the spread of Duplo blocks, baby dolls, and Matchbox cars Lynne had set out on the floor.

"Go ahead, hon," Lynne said. Brandy chose the Duplo.

"Thanks for, uh, thanks for meeting with me," Dale stammered. "I know you must be getting lots of calls. Especially now."

"We are," Lynne replied. "We're always in high demand -"

"I know. I know you are, it's just -"

Lynne looked at him blankly.

"Sorry. I'm sorry, go ahead."

"You know our reputation. We strive for the highest quality of care and education. Gail and I both maintain our early childhood education certifications and take courses to make sure we're up to date. Some people say, 'it's just preschool,' but there are a lot of important fundamentals established at this age. It's an important formative time."

"Yeah. Yeah of course." Dale narrowed his eyes in what he considered a thoughtful expression. Lynne didn't buy it.

"What I mean, Mr. Travers -"


Lynne's mouth froze in place. She blinked hard.

"Sorry," Dale said.

"What I mean, Dale, is that we do our best to set the kids up for a successful life. At this age they've got little personalities and little agendas." She laughed dryly. "I'm sure you've seen that in your Brandy."

Dale laughed too. He looked over at Brandy, who had a good start on building a tower or maybe a rocket. "Yeah, I have."

"They absorb everything," Lynne continued. "They'll notice how seriously their teachers approach education and how eagerly their peers participate. In the right environment, they'll internalize learning for the joy of it. That's something that you can't guarantee in a big group. Or just a poorly chosen one. One bad apple spoils the bunch."

"Oh yeah definitely," Dale replied. "And my Brandy, she's a good apple. Real good. Real smart, and just the most polite little thing. Quiet as a mouse. Sometimes I don't even notice when she leaves the room!" His face flushed instantly. "I mean, I don't - That's not -"

Lynne's raspy laugh came again. "I know what you mean, Dale. That's great. Those qualities are great in school, or in preschool. It's just that at our centre we're interested in the warriors, so to speak. Kids who were dealt a bad hand, or ones who have already had their mettle tested. They've got incredible resilience, and you usually see a desire for success that's well ahead of other kids their age."

"I hear you. I get it. That's why I'm here. See, Brandy's growing up without her mom. She, uh -" Dale leaned over the desk and lowered his voice. "She freaked out right after giving birth. Said she wasn't ready, she didn't want her. She left her here with me and then ran off to her parents' house in Timmins. Haven't heard from her since."

Dale saw Lynne subtly deflate. His pulse quickened in response.

"I'm really sorry to hear that, Dale," Lynne began. "That must be really difficult. It's just that Gail and I have our hands pretty full as it is -"

"She's sick, too!" Dale blurted. He turned to face Brandy, but she hadn't noticed. He leaned in to murmur again: "The docs don't know what it is. Something bad. Polio maybe."

Lynne stifled a smirk. "Polio," she said flatly.

"Yeah, er, I dunno. Something bad. I think she'll make it but it's going to be tough."

Lynne was silent for a moment. "Mr. Travers, I don't think this is going to be possible. We are considering opening a few slots, with the problems in the community and all, but we really need to maintain -"

"Problems in the community?" Dale shouted. "There's some fucking lunatics burning churches down and slicing up animals and shit!"

"Mr. Travers -"

"Where am I supposed to put her when I'm doing twelve hour shifts at the refinery? Anyone can open a daycare! I don't know these fucking people."

"Mr. Travers there are other -"

"Sorry. Sorry for swearing."

Lynne sighed. "The church burnings are awful, yes, and the thing with the dog. But I really think all this craziness is going to blow over. The police will find the guy and everything will be normal again."

Dale said nothing.

"And if I change how we do things here then my business won't survive the storm. You have to understand that. There are other places that would love to have Brandy. Now I appreciate that you thought of us, but I'm going to have to decline at this time."

Gail stood at the threshold of the office. She had come when she heard the yelling. A short and mousy woman with a single thick, brown braid, Gail's presence did little to intimidate, but she did help to defuse the tension. While the people of Burrbrook had whipped up Lynne's reputation into something resembling a Disney villain, the largely anonymous Gail still had that soothing grandmotherly presence.

Nothing else was said. Dale collapsed back into the meekness he had entered with. Brandy had stopped playing with the blocks and stared at him silently. His face flushed again as he took his daughter's hand and led her from the room.

Lynne closed her eyes and massaged her temples.

It was Gethsemane. Jerry was asking her about the agony in the garden, the final night Jesus spent on earth. Ashlee knew that, now. She also knew that religious discrimination was illegal in Ontario, and understood that that slimy prick wasn't nervous about offending her, but about being ambiguous enough to avoid having the Ministry of Labour drop the hammer on his ass. Still, with the way the wind was blowing in Burrbrook, Ashlee thought it wise to brush up on the basics of Christianity. She worked it into her job interview prep using Wikipedia and an online bible.

Jerry's little test had happened a couple weeks ago, but Ashlee found it hard to forget. She daydreamed a litigious revenge dream as she drove the rusty sedan to her new job at The Corner, a sports bar downtown. They'd offered her the barback position or the waitressing gig. She took the latter. No weird bible questions.

Up ahead she saw a police car stopped at the curb. She changed lanes and spotted the officer talking to a distraught woman who toyed with her silver bangles as she gave her statement. Just before Ashlee passed, she noticed the smashed window in the storefront behind her and the sign reading Earth Impulse Crystals & Books.

Ashlee frowned and continued up the road until she reached The Corner. Inside, she waved to Kristy at the bar and smiled at a couple regulars she recognized on her way to punch in.

"You were right!" Kristy called out as she pulled on a stubborn tap. A few strands of her blond hair fell over her narrow eyes.

"Me?" Ashlee asked.

"Yeah. About Danny. Last night he started crying like twenty minutes after I put him in the crib. So I just flipped his pillow like you said and he stopped right away."

Ashlee laughed. "The cool side!"

"Right? How the hell was I supposed to guess that?"

The beginnings of the evening were uneventful. It was busier than usual for a Wednesday; just enough to be lively, but not at all hectic. The hockey game displayed on most of the screens had become a blowout. Still, the silence that fell onto the bar about halfway through the night was, to Ashlee, eerie.

She looked across the room and saw nearly everyone was staring at their phone. She heard the occasional murmur that usually went unanswered. Finally, a fat man at the bar broke the silence.

"Hell yeah!" he shouted, "Let that asshole rot!"

The crowd erupted in a huge cheer. Curiosity drove Ashlee toward a regular at the bar, the guy who always wore the same navy blue trucker hat. She didn't know his name yet.

"What asshole?" she asked. The regular held out his phone. A mugshot of a young man: very pale with long black hair and striking black lips. His lower eyelids were smeared with eyeliner. It looked like he had been crying.

"Aiden Grimes," the regular said. "Some fucking freak. They booked him for the church burnings. I guess he said some weird shit on the internet and they put two and two together."

Kristy flicked two of the TV screens over to the local news. The whole bar watched Joanne Devoy try to contain her revulsion as she repeated the details of Aiden's arrest.

"Makes you wonder," Kristy said. "How does someone go so bad? Like, where were his mom and dad in all this?"

Ashlee stood transfixed by the image of the young man and felt in her chest a bothersome and secret disbelief.

Lynne wiped a washcloth over the far surface of her desk, suddenly self-conscious of how dusty it was. The brilliant lights of the Channel 4 news crew really exposed all those little blemishes that normally hid in the soft lighting. She had barely used the desk in the past week anyway: the arrest of Aiden Grimes had brought a reprieve from the hysteria.

"Are you sure I can't help with that?" Joanne asked. "If you start to sweat you'll ruin your makeup." She smiled slyly.

"No, no," Lynne replied, still working. "I've got it. Oh, is it running?" She raised a hand to her face, but stopped herself from touching it. She felt silly, like a little girl raiding Mommy's kit and caking it on. It had been so long.

"I'm kidding! You look great." Joanne was sincere, but Lynne couldn't make herself feel it. "Just try to relax."

"Okay." Lynne replied. She took an exaggerated deep breath and Joanne laughed. It was easier for her, Lynne thought. Joanne, with her lustrous cornsilk hair, felt natural in the foundation. Her subtle black mascara had just become part of her public face along with the modest swath of gray eye shadow that brought out the blue of her eyes. At that age, Lynne mused, the world is your oyster.

"Looks like the crew's almost ready," Joanne said. "You're going to be great!"

Lynne simpered uncertainly.

"I know it's weird at first, being on camera," Joanne said. "But once you get going you'll see it's really no big deal. Besides, this isn't live." She grinned. "You can screw up all you want and we'll just stitch it together in post."

Lynne laughed. "Okay, that sounds doable."

"Seriously, just let out a big ugly belch or something. It's freeing. There's always the next take."

Lynne felt her shoulders loosen a little as Joanne lifted a little clipboard to her lap. The cameraman counted them in from behind the tripod.

"We're here at Louisa Dannett Daycare Centre with its director, Lynne Dannett. Good evening, Lynne."

"Good evening, Joanne." It felt a little surreal, but it wasn't so bad.

"Now, Lynne, you've been the director at this centre for over forty years, and your centre is known for its excellent track record. So tell me, what's your take on the incident at Pine Gate Nursery School?"

"It's really... dreadful. I don't want to point fingers, and I understand the challenges of running a larger daycare centre, but this absolutely should not have been possible."

In post-production, the editors and technicians at Channel 4 spliced in footage of the lobby of Pine Gate taken earlier that day. Between the racks of child-sized fall jackets stood the scorched cross from the steeple of St. Bartholomew's, erected and impaled through the body of a large animal. The producer at the station had made the call to show the animal unblurred: a sheep, likely a female, that had been shorn and then flayed. Its limbs and head splayed out toward the points of a pentagram drawn around it in red wax on the carpet. At each point of the star stood a black feather from an unknown bird embedded in the wax.

The voice of Lynne continued over the footage: "Security is of utmost importance when you're caring for children. It's just inconceivable that someone could have gained access to the building and spent so much time arranging... that without any staff member noticing."

The shot returned to Joanne and Lynne in the office. "Are you saying this might have been arranged by someone from the nursery school?" Joanne asked.

"No, no." Lynne shook her head abruptly. "That's not what I meant. I shouldn't say it's inconceivable. I'm just - it's a really unfortunate degree of negligence."

"Now I understand that this was discovered after the children's nap time. Is that not a relatively quiet time for the teachers as well?"

"It is." Lynne replied. "Though it's also a time when the kids aren't up and moving, so it's easy to watch them. I suppose someone might lapse on considering the security of the building when all of the kids are staying in your sight."

"But it's quiet. I mean, literally quiet, right? Would you not hear someone hauling in a huge wooden cross or an entire sheep?"

Lynne smirked bitterly. "From what I've seen of the layout of Pine Gate, I'd be surprised if you didn't. It's... it's really shocking."

"And with the kids all asleep one room over..." Joanne paused. "Now, we know that Aiden Grimes is still in police custody, so that raises the question of where this cross came from."


"And the message on the wall. It's in a different script from the one at St. Bartholomew's."

The image shifted again to Pine Gate's lobby, where crimson letters were streaked across its western wall:

Why do you hesitate?
Give yourselves to him
His teeth sink deeper into the throats of the reticent

"Right," Lynne said. "It's really grisly."

"So this wasn't Aiden. There are others," Joanne said gravely. "Either Aiden wasn't involved in the church burnings at all, or he has accomplices."

"Respectfully, I think that's a matter for the police, not me."

"Of course." Joanne reset her composure. The shot returned to the two of them. "So this... display at Pine Gate was quite elaborate. You've said that it's very unlikely that the staff wouldn't have heard anything."


"During nap time, when the staff are mostly unoccupied. A message in a different script -"

"Yes," Lynne interjected. "I understand what you're suggesting, but I think this was just an unfortunate lapse of vigilance. There's still no excuse, really, but I believe someone snuck in and did this. I mean, this hardly looks good on them. I don't think they would have called it in if it was their doing."

"Right..." Joanne said absently. Her eyes resharpened. "I think what our viewers would like me to ask is whether your centre plans to do anything in response to this."

Lynne furrowed her brow. "What do you mean? Our security measures are -"

"Are you going to accept any more kids?"

The question hung for a moment.

"There are legal limits to how many we can watch at a time."

"Yes, but you haven't reached those limits," Joanne replied. "I know you haven't." She tapped her clipboard.

"Well, no, not quite." Lynne squirmed under Joanne's gaze. "I suppose we could open some more slots."

Joanne smiled victoriously.

Ashlee sat back in her plain armchair as the video continued. She swept her hair off the back of her neck and pondered uncomfortably. It looked like she was right about Aiden Grimes after all, but this offered her little relief. It only meant that someone else was doing this, and they were still out there.

Despite herself, Ashlee thought, too, about Mrs. Mulholland, the sweet old lady who looked after Zachary when she was at work. She knew it was naive to assume that dangerous people would wear their deviancy like a banner, like the white foundation and black lipstick that Aiden wore. They could look like Reese, or like Kristy, or like Mrs. Mulholland. She felt suddenly and acutely alone in Burrbrook. She really was a stranger to this place. She resolved to make a change - for herself and for Zachary.

She sighed and looked out over the living room. She was startled by a figure standing in the hall. The cold fear subsided when she recognized little Zachary standing in front of the grandfather clock.

"Zach, you should go back to bed, buddy." She crossed to him and set her hands on his shoulders.

He remained silent, watching the pendulum.

"Zach?" she asked, then again more desperately.

Finally Zachary looked up at her. He smiled weakly. "Okay, Mom."

She rubbed his shoulders as she led him back to his room.

Lynne carefully peeled the plastic off a new pack of cigarettes. She stuffed the wrapper - all in one piece - into her small black purse and started walking toward her car. She looked up from the pack to see a large figure rushing toward her in the late autumn twilight. Suddenly she was paralyzed, breathing spasmodically as he approached.

"You got some fuckin' nerve," he said evenly and immediately grabbed the collar of her jacket. A scream seized in her throat as he lifted her and slammed her into the outer wall of the daycare.

"Maybe you'll take some more kids in?" he screamed. Lynne flinched and shut her eyes, then opened them to the enraged face of Dale Travers.

"These people are targeting kids! Fucking kids! You know, the people you're supposed to be protecting? And all you can worry about is your fucking reputation. Your fuckin' prestige or whatever when kids are gonna get killed!"

Lynne's heart pounded. Her eyes glistened. She couldn't speak.

"You got nothing to say? You heartless fucking bitch. You're just as good as the fucking Satanists. If any more shit goes down it'll be on your hands, you fucking cunt."

A pair of headlights swept across the building, then another. Dale turned to see two cars approaching the bend that met the front steps of the daycare.

"Let me give you a warning," he said. "If anything happens to my daughter - anything - you're gonna get it worse than that fucking dog out in the woods."

With this he released her. The two cars came and went. Lynne waited for the taillights of Dale's pickup to fade into the distance before she scooped up her cigarettes and continued to her car. She fumbled the key into the ignition and turned on the lights. She locked the doors and decided to sit for a few minutes until her hands stopped shaking.

"Brrrroooommm! Brrrroomm!" Zachary exclaimed as he pushed a red Matchbox car across the floor of Lynne's office. He chased after it with a greenish-yellow one and made raspberry motor sounds with his lips.

Lynne laughed. Ashlee smiled, too, and let herself sink back a little into the chair opposite Lynne's. Gail was seated at the side of the desk, too. This was a new change to their process. She would remain with Lynne at least until the verdict was given.

"That won't be a problem, Ms. Hale." Lynne said. "We understand that not everyone is in the same financial situation, and we offer a sliding scale."

"That's great," Ashlee replied, visibly relieved. "I'm getting good hours but the tips have slowed down lately. Less people going out, I guess." She looked at Gail, who smiled gently.

"Of course," Lynne said. "Everybody's on edge, I suppose. It's been rough for us, too." She paused for a moment, then continued. "Why don't you tell us a bit about Zachary?"

Ashlee took a deep breath, but tried to hide that she did. "Well, I guess I'll just lay it all out." She smiled wanly. "We're from North Bay. Zach was an easy baby. Healthy, not really that fussy. Just the usual little challenges you always read about on the blogs and stuff. We just moved here a few weeks ago. Really, uh, suddenly actually." She scratched her arm and looked up to Lynne, expecting her to comment. Lynne remained silent.

"It was... a domestic situation." Ashlee felt her face redden. "His dad - Zach's dad, I mean, was on probation for 'possession for the purpose of trafficking.' I wish I could say it happened before I met him, but," she shrugged.

Lynne nodded gravely. "Please, go on."

"His probation officer came for a home visit a few weeks ago. It was a standard thing. We had done a few of them already. I was at work for this one, so Davis - that's his dad - just met with the officer in the living room with Zach. And Zach, well, he's curious. He gets into everything." She laughed nervously. "Seriously, if he ends up going here make sure you lock up your cabinets."

Lynne and Gail smiled.

"So Zach wandered off and Davis didn't notice. I don't know how much time passed. Davis said it was two minutes but it was probably longer. But Zach came back out to the living room holding Davis's bong."

Lynne's eyes widened. Ashlee laughed gently, so Lynne let herself laugh too.

"He didn't get in trouble for weed, but in the terms of his probation he wasn't allowed to have anything. So Davis tried to hold it together until the officer had left, but then he called me at work and flipped out on me. He said, 'come get your fucking kid and then get the fuck out.'"

Lynne's hand came to her chest. "He threw you out?"

Ashlee nodded.

"I'm so sorry to hear that, Ms. Hale."

"It's... it's okay."

"Gail, why don't you go set up in the playroom? I think the early birds will be here soon."

Gail smiled knowingly, then stood up and left the room.

Lynne leaned back in her chair and breathed out. "You know, I grew up around kids. This is my mother's centre, so I had an endless supply of surrogate siblings, then nieces and nephews, substitute kids. I was lucky to have them around all the time, so I never felt the need to have any of my own. Gail, though, she always wanted them. It just never happened for her."

"Oh," Ashlee said, "That's a shame."

"I think she's happy enough, though. The kids we have here are great." Lynne paused. "And I think Zachary would be a wonderful addition to the group."

Ashlee beamed. The two of them worked through a short stack of paperwork, then Lynne explained the drop-off and pick-up periods. When they were finished, Lynne rose from her chair.

"Would you like to meet some of the kids? A few of them should be here by now."

"Definitely!" Ashlee replied. "Come on, Zach!" She took his hand and led him out of the office.

Lynne led them down the hall and into the long rectangular playroom. Deep blue carpeting ran the length of the room, except for a little library nook where it switched to bright red. Low cubbies ran along the walls neatly lined with toys and large-piece puzzles. One of the long walls was painted with a simple mural of a picnic at a grassy park, and the other with a beach scene. A printed trim ran around the room just below the ceiling, depicting a parade of cartoon animals.

Lynne led Ashlee and Zachary to the middle of the carpet, where a little girl was playing with a plush cat. Her bright pink blouse contrasted starkly against her dark skin.

"This is Amina," Lynne said. The little girl looked up and smiled shyly. "She's a sweetheart. She and her parents came over as refugees from South Sudan." Lynne lowered her voice. "They spent four months crossing through rebel territory, inching along until they could reach the Kenyan border. They had Amina with them, too. Can you imagine? They said she was quiet as a mouse. She never gave them away."

Lynne squatted down to Amina's height. "Her parents say she's the light of their life. She's what kept them going." Amina giggled.

Lynne led them next to the little library, where a pigtailed girl was wedging a picture book back into a shelf. "And this is Kayla. She's, well, she's a little like you, Zachary. Can you say hi?"

The two kids greeted each other and looked over the spines of the books. Lynne sidled up to Ashlee again and spoke in a low voice. "Her mom used to buy her all kinds of things when her dad was on work trips. One day Kayla mentioned it to her dad - casually, as kids do - and ended up revealing a huge shopping addiction. They're still together, those two. They're working on it, but Kayla feels like she did something wrong."

The playroom was otherwise empty. They looked back across it and only saw Gail helping Amina re-tie her shoelaces.

"Oh!" Lynne exclaimed. "Maybe I can ask Gail to show you our other little critters." She giggled. "Gail?" She waved her over.

Lynne stayed back with the other children as Gail led Ashlee and Zachary to a glass sliding door near one end of the room. Gail opened it to reveal a sizable wire pen lined with hay. A small lamb stood in the corner grazing, and a silvery gray goat lay deeper into the pen where it was covered from above. A lithe, orange cat with brown swirls throughout its fur bounded down from a raised resting area and slowly approached Zachary.

"Well that there's Tabby," Gail said, pointing to the cat. Her voice was soft and whistling. Ashlee tried to remember if she had even heard it before now. Zachary approached the cat. She recoiled once, then finally moved toward him again and brushed her head against his knees.

"The lamb's Sally," Gail continued, "and that's Brunhilde." She pointed to the goat. "Gavin must be hiding somewhere. He's another cat, gray like Brunhilde. He was a stray though so he's still kinda wild."

"This is incredible!" Ashlee said. "You've got your own little petting zoo."

Gail smiled. "We think it's good for the kids. They love them and they get to practice, you know, caring for an animal. Without all the responsibility. I don't like it like this, though. We have a big yard we normally let them run around in, but with what's going on we have to keep them penned up."

Zachary had lost Tabby's interest, so he toddled toward Sally. He was just a foot away when Sally finally noticed him. She sprang up suddenly and skittered away. Zachary looked back at his mother glumly.

"It's okay, buddy," Ashlee said. "She just doesn't know you yet. You'll be friends soon."

They left the pen and returned to the playroom. Lynne greeted them there with a playful shrug.

"Well, I guess that's all for now!" she said. "I'll see you tomorrow, Zachary!"

"See you!" he chimed back.

"Alright, let's go get your coat, bud," Ashlee said as they approached the door. When she turned around she nearly tripped over a duo of little boys bursting into the room.

"That would be Tanner and Jackson." Lynne said, "Boys, slow it down, okay? How about you come meet Ms. Hale and her son Zachary? He's going to be starting here tomorrow."

Both boys stopped in place. They were identical twins: fair skinned and mottled with freckles. They had the same auburn hair. One of them took a step toward Zachary. The other followed suit, and then they approached more eagerly.

"Hi," Zachary said. The twins returned the same, almost at the same time.

"They have the same congenital heart defect." Lynne said to Ashlee. "That's the thing with twins, huh? One genetic problem nails both of them."

Ashlee murmured in agreement.

"You wouldn't know it by looking at them," Lynne continued, "but they've had multiple surgeries already. Each one comforts the other like no one else can."

"That's amazing," Ashlee said. She looked upon the three boys for a moment as they got acquainted, waiting for a lull. Finally, she tapped Zachary's shoulder. "Alright, time to go!"

Grinning, Zachary waved goodbye to the twins and followed Ashlee to the car.

Behnam was so excited. His dad had packed away the costume in the trunk, but he let him play with the round plastic shield in the back seat on the way home. It had a glossy sheen that caught the light of the passing streetlights and the red and blue of a siren as it sped past.

He couldn't believe they had found such a great Captain America costume so close to Halloween. The racks were so picked over, even at the pop-up stores. His dad suggested they take a chance on the Shoppers at the southeast edge of town, the one that seemed way too big for the neighbourhood, and they had scored. Behnam had heard that one of the fourth graders had a genuine Spiderman costume, but everyone knew Captain America had him beat.

His mother turned around in the passenger seat and caught him marveling at the shield. Her seatbelt creased her black headscarf as she rapped the shield with her knuckles, then laughed.

"It won't really come back if I throw it, right? Behnam asked.

His mother laughed again. "I don't know, Behnam. You'll have to try it."

The car stopped abruptly. Behnam clutched the shield tightly. His father suddenly cried out, a loud and haunting sound.

A fire truck sat in front of their house. Its crew sprayed from a massive hose onto the pitted and blazing roof of their home. Thick black smoke rose into the dull moonlight.

Libras rejoice! Balance will be restored as Venus enters the house of Gemini. This added stability will support risky ventures and new pursuits. Embrace the growing pains and get out there!

A tiny laugh escaped Lynne's lips. It sounded manic to her: the end result of the mounting pressure. Wrung out, bombarded, and accused throughout this whole damned ordeal. And the thing with Dale Travers. But here was the light at the end of the tunnel: her intuition had told her the time was soon, and now it was written in the stars.

They hadn't gotten it completely right, though. This was hardly a new pursuit. Since her grandmother's ordination, the establishment of the centre, the years of unrelenting perfection, it had all been a struggle; a tribulation three generations deep to fulfill the mandate of Hecate.

Through force of will she and her mother had maintained the highest of standards. Across decades they had built a reputation - a legacy. They were exacting and severe in their selection, yet trusted to the highest degree. Louisa Dannett accepted only the best and provided care of the highest order.

This is why they offered up their young with such eagerness. When the world began to unravel in Burrbrook the flock came stampeding to her door. And Lynne could choose only those desired. Only those fit.

There were no children of ministers. None shielded by holy water. It was not without political difficulty that they had refused all sons of Abraham, but these had been rendered unsaleable by the Covenant of Isaac.

Lynne ashed her cigarette into the yellowing tray. She stood from the table and walked to the window. The nascent sun peeked above the rocky horizon and spread a gentle reddish glow that paled the night sky. Her heart fluttered as she spied the morning star in congress with the astral twins.

It was time to right old wrongs.

Aiden Grimes was released from Burrbrook-Moorview Jail at 10:25am on October 28th. He had an alibi for the fire at Our Lady of Grace, and anything linking him to one at St. Bartholomew's was circumstantial. The Crown's lawyers knew they would lose if it went to trial. If their arguments proved he was guilty, then they proved anyone who was free and breathing that night could have done it. Or the judge, for that matter. The only real difference was that not everyone had gone online in extended-adolescence angst and made unwisely gleeful posts about the burning of St. Bartholomew's.

At 9:16pm the same day, he arrived at the Emergency Department with a cracked rib, a black eye, two broken teeth, and a bottle fragment embedded in his cheek.

Joanne closed the trunk of her SUV. Dressed in her favourite blue blazer and dark slacks she wheeled a small carry-on bag across the street and into Louisa Dannett Daycare Centre. Once inside, she ambled past Lynne's office and on toward the playroom.

Gail stood outside the doors waiting. She grinned when Joanne rounded the corner and ran toward her, her eyes bright and exuberant. Joanne released the handle of the roller bag and hugged Gail tightly. They squealed giddily and clasped each other's hands.

The doors of the playroom cracked slightly and Lynne stepped out, looking at them with a reproachful finger to her lips. Her eyes were smiling, though, and when the door had fully closed she giggled too.

"The day is upon us!" Lynne said with hushed glee. She hugged Joanne, too, then the three of them swept to the small kitchen tucked into the corner of the centre.

Nap time. The children were asleep. This was that free and magical hour - the witching hour, at Pine Gate at least. Joanne entered the kitchen first and admired the fine clay pots Gail had set up there and the vast array of dried herbs and roots strung along the shelves.

"This is incredible, Gail!" she said.

"Oh, I think it'll do," Gail replied, blushing.

"You don't give yourself enough credit." Joanne ran her fingers over a bump of mandrake root. She turned to Lynne. "Shall we get dressed?" she asked with a mischievous grin.

"Absolutely!" Lynne replied. They looked on each other brightly and with love. These three were sisters: not by blood, but in the craft. Each of them had heard the call of Hecate, goddess of magic, and pledged herself to the cause. They had found each other through fate, not by chance, and had performed their grand labour with pride. They had agents and allies in Burrbrook, too: those who had helped them with the altar at Pine Gate and the fires at the churches. But these allies were laypeople, not ordained like the three of them. Those people would await the coming reclamation and receive their dues then. They understood.

And Joanne's gambit at Pine Gate had worked: through it they had met Michael, the child of in vitro fertilization - a test tube baby. The product of burgeoning scientific measures and his parents' unfailing hope. He of virgin birth.

It had also brought them Zachary. He who, in righteousness, stole knowledge from his father and was cast out. Now they had everything they needed.

Joanne excused herself and returned to her roller bag in the hallway. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Lynne helped Gail into a loose forest green robe that bared most of her shoulders. In cinching it, Gail became Ceridwen, Welsh enchantress and mistress of potions. Lynne's eyes watered as she gazed upon her truest of friends.

Joanne reentered the kitchen in sacred garb of her own: a plunging white top suspended around the back of her neck, leaving her upper back and her midriff exposed. Below it was a belt of gilded hoops that fastened a knee-length white skirt, loose and flowing. In her hands she held a simple crown woven from manna grass and henbane. Upon lowering this onto her golden locks she invoked Ishtar, queen mother of the Levant and goddess of fertility. Lynne and Gail gasped in wonderment. Gail reached out and stroked Joanne's arm. Joanne smiled sheepishly and looked to the floor.

Finally, it was Lynne's turn, and she simply disrobed. Still, the others felt a palpable change as she became the aspect of Eve, mother of knowledge and first to obey the serpent. The three formed a tight circle, embracing each sister at her side, and laughed in mystical catharsis.

While the children slept, the sisters prepared their brew. Under Ceridwen's direction they created two distinct elixirs: one to bring release and the other, addling sleep. The first they dyed a bright pink-red, the colour of fruit punch. The second, which emerged a clear amber, they left untouched.

They ladled Ceridwen's potions into small paper cups and arranged them on separate trays. When the children woke, they would deliver the elixirs and prepare for the ritual.

Ashlee picked up the small pile of coins left on the table and put them in her tips pocket. She placed one empty beer glass into the other and carried them to the bar. She saw an image of the fire at the Farzan family's house on the TV nearest the bar: the one that was always tuned to the local news, at Ashlee's insistence.

"That's just awful," she said. "They're saying it's arson, too."

"Arson, yeah," said one of the regulars. Not the navy blue trucker hat, but the fat man. "But awful..." he shrugged. A smile played at the corner of his lips.

Ashlee set down the glasses and walked down the bar toward him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

He laughed stupidly. "Well, I mean, there were the ones at the churches too."

"Yeah," Ashlee said, glaring. "And those were awful too."

"Maybe those people didn't think the church burnings were so awful..." he giggled and looked at Kristy, who smiled and looked down.

"Why wouldn't they?" Ashlee felt her heart race. "You think that little family burned the churches?"

"They're from Iran," the regular replied. "Those people worship fire. Haven't you ever heard of Zoroastrianism?" He laboured each syllable.

Ashlee unconsciously pressed her hands to the bar and squared her shoulders.

"They're Muslim," she said. "It said on the news that they're staying at the mosque until their insurance finds them a rental."

The fat man scoffed. "They would say that. You wouldn't go around telling people about it if that's what you were gonna do. But think about it: our god is Jesus. Their god is fire. It's pretty straightforward. I mean, 'All will be his.' They want their god to defeat ours."

Ashlee's lips curled. "You f-" She caught herself. "You seem to know a lot about this, buddy. What's that... Zoroastra thing? You read that on a beer label?"

The man laughed and shook his head. "I don't know anything about it," he said. "But, I mean..." He giggled again. "My cousin and his boys might."

He tipped his beer back and finished it. Ashlee stared at him, distraught, then at Kristy. The man stamped his glass on the counter and spoke again.

"Look, Ash, I don't know how you did things in North Bay, but here in Burrbrook we take care of our problems."

Zachary awoke in agony. A searing pain ran bone-deep from the blades of his shoulders to his bleeding and swollen legs. The scene beyond his drooped and heavy eyelids swirled incomprehensibly: his drug-drunk brain tried and failed to draw patterns in the dark purple haze that climbed the walls and pooled at the ceiling. Anemically he tried to stand, but the weight of his legs was immovable.

He was seated in a hard metallic chair, brass or maybe gold. The high back of his makeshift throne was formed of three hollow loops. Through the left and right loops his wings protruded: jagged shafts of avian bone impaled below the boy's shoulders and matted with charred and blackened feathers. Crusts of dark congealed blood encircled the wounds and rose and fell with his racing breath.

Slowly his senses returned. The smell of the smoke - patchouli and sage, though he couldn't name them. Images along the wall by the ceiling: bears, rabbits, and turtles on parade, lit in flickering orange as if by firelight. He finally became aware of a weak and mewling sound at his side, and a dull but persistent vibration at his left foot.

He looked down, terrified and uncomprehending, at the pallid face of Tanner. The boy knelt beside the chair, whimpering, shuddering, impaled through his core by a thick iron bar. The bar continued through Zachary's lower legs, carefully threaded between the bones, and through the abdomen of the second twin on the other side: this was Jackson, limp and lightless. And so the twins were bound at the feet of the Shining One, reflecting the promise in the stars. As above, so below.

"Lucifer!" Lynne crooned airily. "Oh, my dear, exalted Lucifer. Welcome to our grand celebration." She cradled Zachary's face in her hand and spoke beyond him. "This is all for you, my dear king. For your restoration." She smiled broadly and whisked her hands outward. Behind her stood her sisters: Ceridwen and woven-crowned Ishtar. They stood before a circle of round stones and a small wooden cross, inverted and stabilized with a hollow tripod. A long, velvety rope hung threaded over a crossbeam, emerging twice from a hole in the drop ceiling. Candles and burning incense lined the walls of the playroom, collectively engulfing the room with haze.

"You see, dear king, that many have already passed. They will bear witness to your liberation. They will empower us in the unbinding."

Arranged in two rows on either side of the throne were the serene and lifeless bodies of those who had received the red brew. The killing poison.

"Their souls were pure. I pray they will sate the hunger you feel upon awakening," Lynne continued. "Now we will begin with the emancipation of the lesser beasts. Ceridwen?"

Gail disappeared into the haze beyond Zachary's vision. She returned leading Sally and Brunhilde on thin leather leashes. Sally let out a cough as they entered the plume of smoke and walked toward the throne along a line draw in salt. Brunhilde dug in her hooves, once, then bleated weakly in protest as Gail urged her along.

In the meantime Joanne produced a ceremonial knife. Its broad tip flowed into a serpentine bend before joining the stout ebony handle. The bronzed blade glinted red in the firelight as Joanne held it piously aloft.

"For too long the ignorant ones have shielded themselves with the tyrant's dicta, secure in their self-righteousness and sanctimony," Lynne declared. "The teachings of the so-called Lamb of God, twisted ever more throughout the ages to maintain a conspiracy of oppression. Today begins the unbinding: our liberation from the chains of the sadist king and his incinerating, excoriating light."

Gail offered Brunhilde's leash to Joanne, then led Sally onto a brownish stone slab set on the floor before the throne.

"Agnes," Lynne said, "the Lamb of God who is said to take away the sins of the world." She stroked the side of Sally's head gently. "She is the ignorance of our age and the purveyor of lies. We will free her from shame and silence her maledictions."

Joanne placed the knife in Lynne's waiting hand. Zachary flinched, but the knife didn't move. Instead, Joanne unhooked Brunhilde's leash and lifted her into her arms. She stood before Lynne at the stone altar and bowed her head solemnly.

"Capricorn." Lynne daintily touched the short beard on the goat's chin. "The wild beast. The sensual spirit of life and pleasure relegated to the dark woods of legend. The fauns, the satyrs, wicked things that played and sang and loved, free from the pinning nails of the crucifix. It is she who understands the love of our master." Lynne smiled broadly. "We free her, now, from the constraints of mortality; the injustice of confining the spirit of freedom within mere flesh."

In silence, Lynne raised the blade. She guided its tip delicately to the base of Brunhilde's neck, then slashed across it in one motion. Dark blood erupted from the wound and splashed the stone below, catching in small flecks on Sally's wool. Gail knelt on the floor and grasped Sally's hind legs firmly. Lynne lowered herself and secured the lamb's front hooves. Joanne reverently lowered the bleeding goat to level its trickling wound with Sally's snout.

"Praise to the Shining One," Joanne uttered.

"Praise!" replied Lynne, then Gail.

Joanne thrust Brunhilde's neck hard into Sally's face, enveloping the lamb's mouth and nose in the deluge of blood. The three sisters bore their weight against the kicks and convulsions until there were no more. They lay the two animals, hollow and still, at the base of the throne and genuflected.

That was when, through the cloud of his delirium, Zachary heard the voices of children crying beyond the smoke.

In Burrbrook they take care of their problems.

Ashlee dropped her cash apron in the office of The Corner and walked out. She climbed into her car and sped away from the downtown, willing herself to forget the landmarks. This would be the last time. She and her son would escape this hideous festering wound gouged into the Canadian Shield.

She called Reese, the landlord, on speakerphone and tossed her phone onto the passenger seat.

The blood of the goat was still warm when they finished lashing Michael to the cross. His medicine trance, like Zachary's, was waning. The three had clad him in an off-white swaddle and suspended him upside down on the inverted cross. He cried out weakly in lucid moments of terror.

Zachary watched as Gail led Kayla to Michael's cross. The little girl sobbed and quivered. Lynne stooped down to say something to her that Zachary couldn't hear. Then Lynne stood again and the three sisters turned in unison to face the throne. Lynne addressed Zachary.

"We will now recognize the imperfect sacrifice of Judas. He who, in his prescience, foresaw the coming of the age of oppression and dared to stop it." She ran her fingers over Kayla's hair, but kept her eyes on Zachary. "Like you, dear Lucifer, he was called betrayer. Through your selfless example he found the strength to defy the tyrant and condemn himself in the eyes of the ignorant. In destroying the Son of Man he had hoped to prevent his dominion. But he was human, Lucifer, and we were so far from you then."

With this, tears came to Lynne's eyes, and she stifled a sob. She continued.

"He didn't know. The cruel trickery of the tyrant was beyond his comprehension. He didn't know that the death of Yeshua would mean his resurrection. And so Judas fell into the trap as we did in Eden and in Sodom. Again, a punishment for our freedom of will. Those who belong to him say that the tyrant gives this freedom even as he rages against its use. But we know, Lucifer. We know that this freedom comes only from you, and this is why he hates it so. You were the serpent in the garden."

She paused. Joanne lifted the curved knife from its black cushion and slowly walked toward Kayla as Lynne continued.

"Yeshua, son of the tyrant, secured the allegiance of the masses in his resurrection. He promised love and peace that never came. He vowed to return, and never did. Still they wait, fearful of the father's wrath, for their lesser prince of lies."

Joanne reached Kayla, knife in hand. She stooped down and gently pressed the ebony handle into the girl's hand. Her tiny fingers closed reflexively around it.

"They have forgotten Judas," Lynne said. "He who sought to spare them heartbreak and set them free. They turned away from him, and his grief overcame him. But his efforts will not be in vain."

Gail joined Joanne at Kayla's side. The two of them led the girl to stand before the crucified Michael.

"We remember. The betrayer, ever benevolent, destroys the son of the tyrant," Lynne declared.

Gail and Joanne guided Kayla's hand to rest the point of the knife on the side of Michael's abdomen. They demonstrated to her using their empty hands. Kayla only stood there, shaking. Finally, smiling warmly, the two of them grasped the child's hand and plunged the blade into Michael's side. A muted cry erupted from below as they withdrew the knife and, still clasping the girl's hand to the handle, plunged it into his heart. His cries stopped shortly after.

"His work completed and his heart heavy, the betrayer escaped from the world of the blind. We recognize now his martyrdom."

As Kayla stood crying, Gail and Joanne carefully tied the velvety rope around her neck. When they were finished, they hoisted Judas the betrayer high so that he could be exalted.

Reese let her out of the lease. He said he'd have to charge her for November, but otherwise she was free. Ashlee wondered what a nice guy like him was doing in Burrbook, then stopped herself. She didn't really want to know what awful and small-minded secret he was hiding that kept him in this shit hole.

She didn't know where she'd take Zachary next. She convinced herself, again, that leaving North Bay had been the right choice, and there was no way the next city would be this bad. The storm would last a little longer, but then the calm would come.

She turned onto the parkway that would eventually take her to Louisa Dannett.

Tanner had died. Zachary didn't notice immediately, transfixed as he was by the gruesome ends of Michael and Kayla. A surreal numbness had washed across his body and threatened to close his throat. It dulled the pain of his bindings and his makeshift wings.

"Ah, the time is drawing near, dear Lucifer," Lynne said to him. "Did you dream of the reclamation?" She stroked Zachary's chin lightly with her thumb. "I so hope that you did."

Behind her, Gail and Joanne led Amina toward the circle of stones. She was heavily sedated - more so than the other children. Her tight braids bounced with the limp bobbing of her head as she crossed the playroom. The two sisters coaxed her into sitting inside the narrow circle, its edge nearly touching her on all sides.

"Lucifer, Shining One, you know of the pretender. The wrathful tyrant who claims to be the source of all light. He who cast you out. He who hungers for endless praise and adulation. For thousands of deaths in his name. He who jealously guards the throne of heaven while his earthly playthings suffer. The villain who has kept you in bondage for millennia, not content with having defeated you."

Gail opened a cabinet near the door and retrieved two brown clay urns and an eyedropper. She returned solemnly to the circle of stones.

"He said, in the beginning, 'Let there be light.'" Lynne smirked. "As though it could only exist if he allowed it. He created Sol, the sun, around which our world revolves. A symbol of his arrogance and his insatiable need for worship. But even in their scriptures, his followers admit it: there was light before the sun. Sol is not the only one who can light the way. He himself is an instrument of enslavement."

Joanne cradled Amina's head in her right hand and tilted it backward. With her other hand she carefully spread the lids of the young girl's left eye.

"Sol, pride of the tyrant, leads no one." Lynne continued. "He illuminates nothing. He is the blind who leads the blind. Ceridwen, please."

Gail drew up a clear liquid from one of the urns and dropped it into Amina's eye. The girl let out a muddled scream and writhed against Joanne's grasp as the caustic liquid seared away her vision. When Joanne had wrestled her back into position, Gail was ready to treat the second eye. Zachary heard a faint sizzle and Amina screamed again.

"The cosmic balance is shifting," Lynne said. "No more will Sol be its centre. His hegemony has ended; he is obsolete. It is time for him to burn out."

Gail began to sprinkle Amina with a liquid from the second urn. In her agony, Amina tried to crawl away, but Joanne shoved her back into the circle.

"Lucifer," Lynne said, "you are the morning star. We beg you to light our way at the end of this longest of nights."

Gail lifted a candle and held it to Amina's acetone-soaked hair. It ignited immediately and the flames spread across her small body in seconds. Joanne stood beside the circle of stones holding a two-pronged cast iron fork.

Amina's screams were soon muffled by the crackling of her immolation. Finally she collapsed over the edge of the stones, prompting Joanne to hastily prod her remains back inside the circle. Then, despite the heat of the fire and the candles, gooseflesh crawled across Lynne's naked body. Some thrilling emanation rode through her. She cried out in ecstasy and approached the throne once more.

"Yes! Yes, my dear Lucifer," Lynne said. "You are upon us. The moment has come." Joanne came to her left side, her eyes wet with jubilant tears. Gail approached from the other, then the three of them arranged themselves back-to-back to form a triangle. Gail and Joanne raised their arms into the air. Lynne lifted only the ceremonial knife in her right hand. Zachary watched, enveloped by the calming numbness, as if observing himself from somewhere without. Lynne, who alone faced the throne, spoke.

"We, the agents of Hecate, queen of the craft and ally to the Shining One, welcome you, Lucifer, to the world that is rightly yours. We beseech you: awaken now so that you may be reborn."

The curved blade plunged through the smoke and into Zachary's heart.

Immediately the line of salt began to glow from below with an unearthly pale blue. Gail and Joanne laughed in muted awe as the salt and smoke began to swirl around an unseen axis in the middle of the room.

"Eve!" Joanne cried. Lynne broke from their formation and turned to view the maelstrom. Then with the potent scent of sulfur came a column of pulsating orange light at its centre. The light grew and warped until it carved an oblong oval nearly the height of the room. The three sisters smiled at each other and then approached it in single file: Eve first, then Ceridwen and finally Ishtar.

Ishtar's grass crown burned away when she arrived on the other side of the portal.

The three found themselves in a fathoms-deep and impossibly hot well hewn into granite and basalt. That same orange light emanated from magma flows visible a short distance beneath them through cracks in the rock. It lit the small clearing in which they stood before vanishing in the distance above.

And there he was: Lucifer, the Shining One, as the tyrant had entombed him. He sat in a dull seat carved from the wall - a throne heinously unfit for him. His once glorious angel wings were splayed behind him, blackened and ancient. Each was pinned to the floor of the cave with a huge octagonal stone, something lustrous and dark. A majestic sweep of blond-white hair flowed from Lucifer's head and fell to the middle of his chest, which rose and fell gently. He was sleeping, still. His beautiful and delicate face was serene; his eyes, closed.

His bare arms lay along the stone rests and ended in dark wrists, gnarled and scabrous where he had struggled against his bonds. A wide band of obsidian glass encircled each wrist, linked to a chain that stretched taut to the stone floor. Shackled, too, were his grand and powerful capriform legs: larger bands of obsidian encircled his hooves and dug into thick brown fur. These chains ran not immediately to the floor, but first around the necks of two stone gargoyles placed at Lucifer's feet. The small, monstrous figures, imp-like with long, pointed noses, represented Erebus and Asmodeus: the infernal twins of wrath and want.

The sisters dared not speak. Ceridwen reached over and stroked Eve's arm in excitement. But Ishtar's joy had been tinged with anxiety at the sight of the still-sleeping Lucifer. Had she allowed Sol to stray too far from his cosmic station?

Her relief was immediate. She gasped with ravishment, painlessly breathing the volcanic air, as bright purple lines appeared on the obsidian bonds. The unholy light crisscrossed the chains and shattered them. The lines ran, too, over the stone surface of the gargoyles, lighting cracks that soon rumbled and shook. Pieces of stone rained to the floor as the scaled, midnight blue head of Erebus emerged from his prison. He crawled out of the husk of the statue and unfurled his fey wings. He glanced fleetingly at the sisters then flitted with much excitement to the crumbling tomb of Asmodeus. With tiny clawed hands he brushed aside the fragments of rock and reached in to grasp his brother's head. Asmodeus swatted his hand aside playfully, then emerged from the headless statue. Once both twins were airborne, Erebus motioned toward the sisters. Asmodeus surveyed them, nodded once, then the two of them flew to the octagonal stone pinning Lucifer's right wing. Eve was suddenly overcome. She grasped Ceridwen's hand as they watched the infernal twins lifting the stone. Their strength was otherworldly, but still the demons strained with the effort. They dropped it unceremoniously against the wall and flew toward the second stone. If sleeping Lucifer had felt himself unburdened, he gave no sign, but the sisters were now certain in their work.

The second stone was lifted, and the feathered wings drew inward. That was when the angel's eyes opened: timeless, piercing gray. He looked upon the sisters and understood what they had done. He rose slowly from his seat as they lowered themselves to their knees. He approached Ceridwen first, and, taking her hand, invited her to rise. An electric feeling rushed through her when her eyes met his. He drew her in with a firm and gentle strength and kissed her deeply. Ceridwen felt his forked tongue raking her throat and a sacred heat nestling into her loins. Her breasts engorged with an unnatural warmth, and she knew herself gravid with the demon seed. Tears of ecstasy escaped her eyes and instantly evaporated away.

Lucifer next bid Eve to rise, and he did with her the same. Ceridwen, meanwhile, felt something roiling beneath her skin just below her shoulder blades. The skin stretched and then painlessly tore, allowing a pair of tan, leathery wings to emerge and unfurl. She turned to look at them, laughing incredulously. She caught the adoring eyes of the still-kneeling Ishtar and returned a broad smile.

Once Lucifer had thus blessed the three of them, he raised his arm deliberately and looked upward. He motioned to the abyss above with a flick of his wrist and took off into the searing updraft. The demon twins followed, then Eve, Ceridwen, and Ishtar, eager to aid the Shining One in reclaiming that which was his.

Ashlee rushed out of her car and into the daycare centre. She stopped herself just inside the door and took a moment to calm her breathing. She whisked some errant strands of hair off her face. She didn't want to scare Zachary; the move would be stressful enough.

She tried to calm herself, too, as she rounded the corner that led to the playroom. Instead, a preternatural dread gripped her. At the edges of the playroom door the air seemed to bend and warp, and thin tendrils of purplish smoke slipped through the frame. Through it came an unnatural heat, along with the twin acrid scents of sulfur and singed carpet.

She hastened her step, quickened her breath, and opened the door.


  1. Dark, dark, dark. Not a tale for the squeamish. Very well written, starts off slow but picks up speed, very suspenseful throughout. Contains some of the most disturbing subject matter / sequences / imagery I've ever encountered. Left me horrified and deeply unsettled.

    1. Thank you! I was going to say, "I'm glad you enjoyed it," but maybe that's not quite the right word. Thanks for reading.

    2. Joseph - Don't take me wrong, I enjoyed the story immensely! To invoke such a response in the reader is exactly what good horror should do IMO. What I meant was "...horrified and deeply unsettled...in a good way, because I was so invested in the tale that I hoped for a different outcome for those poor victims." ;)

    3. Excellent, that's great to hear! Thanks Ron.

  2. Remind me not send my kids to a day care facility any time soon. Witches aren't so benign here. A bit like "rosemary's baby" or a bad acid trip with the unfortunate Ashley playing the part of an innocent about to view her worst nightmare. The world is such an awful place now hes come kinda late to the party.