Fiction: The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad

The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad

Molly Tanzer

This story appears in the anthology She Walks in Shadows. Purchase it now.

Bible Camp was rad, Natalie! Coming together in God like that … at the end, we all made a pledge to live the Gospel after we went back into the world, where temptation and sin are everywhere. And you know what? I’m really going to try.” Veronica Waite tossed her mane of dark curls, revealing more of her new off-the-shoulder Esprit sweatshirt. “So, what did you do all summer?”

“I worked at the daycare at First Methodist,” mumbled Natalie, shoving her face into her faded Trapper Keeper. “I … wanted to earn some money.”

Veronica blushed. She should’ve remembered; her father had said something about Natalie working at the church.

Natalie’s family’s finances were often the subject of prayer meetings at First Methodist. Everyone talked about it. It was probably mortifying.

“How did that go?” Veronica asked, trying to sound encouraging. She and Natalie had been friends they were kids. True, they’d grown apart during their first two years of high school, but they’d still seen a lot of one another, both being flyers on the JV cheerleading squad. “I bet it was great, huh?”

Natalie shut her Trapper Keeper with more force than necessary. “The other aids were nice, but the kids were pretty rotten.”

“‘Suffer little children, for of such is the kingdom of heaven,’” quoted Veronica piously.

Natalie flushed. “I didn’t mean like that,” she snapped. “You weren’t there, all right? Cleaning up puke, and stopping them from fighting and whatever. It was just babysitting, even if it was in a church.”

“Take a chill pill.” Veronica rolled her eyes as she toyed with the cross that hung around her neck on a delicate chain of real gold. “What did you need the stupid money for, anyways? Prom’s not ‘til next year.”

“Well, Varsity cheerleaders have to travel and stuff,” said Natalie.

“Oh ….”

“What?” Natalie was getting super worked up; she looked like she might cry. “I’m a reserve, aren’t I? I’ll be coming to all the practices … I might have to sub, if someone gets injured.”

“I wasn’t thinking about that,” said Veronica quickly. Natalie hadn’t made Varsity, but Miss Van Helder was too kind to keep her on the JV squad. “You’re right.”

The bus slowed. Veronica craned her neck; this was her cousin Asenath’s stop. The doors opened with a squeal, then shut with another, but in between the two, Asenath didn’t get on.

“I hope Aseanth’s okay,” mused Veronica, grateful to have something to talk about besides cheerleading.

“Shouldn’t you know?” From her tone, it seemed Natalie was still sore.

“Daddy and Uncle Ephraim don’t talk much,” admitted Veronica. “I only see Asenath at school.”

“Well, whatever. I’m sure she just got a ride. We’ll see her at practice.”

True — Asenath wouldn’t miss cheerleading practice. She didn’t just love it; she was the best. She’d been the star of JV since their first week on the squad and would probably be Team Captain next year. And it wasn’t just because she was an amazing flyer in spite of her height. She worked hard, and made sure to be friendly and kind to everyone.

Privately, Veronica felt her cousin’s aspirations to popularity were a result of the rumors that haunted her family — her mother had left when she was just a girl and her father was a real weirdo. Some said Ephraim Waite was a Satanist; others said he was just a creep. Victoria’s daddy wouldn’t elaborate on any of it. He just said that Uncle Ephraim had ‘chosen his path,’ implying strongly it was one that led straight to Hell.

Which, of course, meant Uncle Ephraim wasn’t the kind of father who gave his daughter rides to school. Veronica fell into an uneasy silence until they pulled into the Miskatonic High parking lot.

There must really be a first time for everything, thought Veronica, for there was Uncle Ephraim’s blue BMW. It was strange, though — peering out the window, Veronica saw a boy and some dirty-looking punk girl with blue hair leaning on the driver’s side window, laughing and smoking cigarettes. The boy leaned in for a kiss.

“Oh, gross,” she said, disgusted. “Who are those losers? They shouldn’t be doing … that. I’m going to talk to them.”

“Suit yourself,” said Natalie, joining the throng of students clambering off the bus without a backwards glance. Veronica was surprised — she had no idea what the girl was so upset about.

The fresh air of Miskatonic High’s parking lot was a welcome change from the stuffy school bus, but Veronica made a show of coughing and waving her hand in front of her face as she approached the hooligans practically grinding on one another, pressed against Uncle Ephraim’s car. The girl had at least seven rings in her left ear and was wearing a plaid skirt obviously from Goodwill. It was pilling and had some prep school’s crest close to the hem. The dark-haired guy was wearing a Members Only jacket and Wayfarers. When he finally came up for air, Veronica cleared her throat loudly.

“Do you know whose car that is?” She put as much distain into her voice as she possibly could.

“Yeah, mine,” said the boy, lowering his Wayfarers with one long, smooth finger. Then he laughed. “Oh, hey, Veronica.”

It couldn’t be — and yet, it was! Veronica had no words as she realized the boy was not actually a boy, but her cousin Asenath. Over the summer, she’d cut her hair and bought herself a new wardrobe, but it was definitely her.

Veronica felt heat rising to her cheeks. Asenath looked great. If she’d been a boy, Veronica would have called her a hunk — dreamy, even.

But she wasn’t a boy. And while the Bible might not be all that specific on this kind of issue, her camp counselors had made it clear there was no uncertainty about the matter whatsoever.

“Asenath, what gives?” asked Veronica, wrinkling her nose. “You look weird.”

“And I was just going to say how nicely you’d filled out over the summer.”

“Don’t be obscene. Were you kissing her?”

“Jealous?” Asenath winked at her as the bell rang. “Better run. Wouldn’t want to be late.”

“What about you?” Asenath had always been a perfect student.

“You only live once,” said Asenath and went back to sucking face.

Veronica was shocked, but the pair were ignoring her, so her only option was to retreat, embarrassed and furious. Who did Asenath think she was? What she was doing, it wasn’t right — socially, academically, or spiritually. Veronica felt a brief flash of guilt. Asenath had applied for the Bible Camp scholarship, as her father wouldn’t send her, but Veronica had told her father Dougie Smithers was a better fit. But Dougie Smithers had ignored her all summer, and now ….

Vexed, Veronica threw herself down into a random desk just as the late bell rang, barely paying attention to the teacher, who began calling roll. Her fingers snaked up to the chain around her neck. The cross felt hard and cold under her fingertips.

Her daddy always told her to pray at times of great confusion. Veronica asked Jesus to guide her, but no answer came.

***

Asenath was in Gifted, so Veronica hadn’t expected to see her during the school day — but it did surprise her when, after school, Ms. Van Helder came onto the field and told everyone that Asenath had quit the team.

“What? Why?” asked Beth Townsend, the Varsity captain. “Is she okay?”

“She’s taking on a different role this year, is all,” said Ms. Van Helder. The woman seemed amused by the team’s dismay. “Don’t worry. She’ll still be involved with school spirit. But enough chit-chat. Go warm up. Fifty jumping jacks, then get to stretching. The Warriors are playing Kingsport in a month!”

After its awkward beginning, practice actually went okay. Everyone was eager to get back to drills and to discuss routines during breaks. Beth agreed that Veronica’s idea of using “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble” would be totally fresh for a halftime performance and Ms. Van Helder said she’d consider it.

Towards the end, Ms. Van Helder had them try some basic stunting. Veronica was one of the more experienced JV flyers, so some of the veteran Varsity bases agreed to try an elevator with her. “One, Two, Three, Up!” they cried, pushing her skyward. As she rose, Veronica tensed her abs and thighs, sweating and trembling; keeping her focus and her balance, she lifted her hands, only to feel the spots wobble.

“Holy crap!” said one. Veronica felt her feet moving apart as the bases lost their concentration.

“Let me down!” she called, not enthusiastic about the prospect of an injury on literally her first day.

That got their attention and Veronica felt her feet touch solid ground without an incident. Once she was on the grass, she saw just what had caused the commotion.

It was Asenath.

Veronica’s cousin seemed determined to make a spectacle of herself this year. Instead of wearing Miskatonic’s green-and-black Varsity warm-ups, she had donned the school mascot’s uniform. Her dark hair was hidden by a Centurion’s galea, her chest behind a breastplate. She carried a shield and sword. Greaves glistened on her shins, but her long thighs were exposed — the segmented skirt, intended for a boy, was almost indecently short on her.

“She looks amazing,” observed Beth. To Veronica’s chagrin, the rest of the team seemed to agree, almost falling all over themselves in their haste to greet her.

“As I said, Asenath will still be promoting school spirit this year,” said Ms. Van Helder. “Since Ernie graduated, the position was open, and Asenath’s enthusiasm and athletic ability made her application most impressive.”

“Thanks!” said Asenath. “Should be fun, everyone. Miz V and I already talked about how it might be cool if I did some stunts in this getup. What do you think?”

“That would be super!” enthused Amanda Slider.

“Awesome!” agreed Natalie. That bitch needed to shut up. She wasn’t even on the Varsity team.

“I don’t know,” said Veronica, raising her voice a little. The squad quieted down, surprised. “If she’s not coming to practice, stunting could be a safety issue.”

“Ms. Van Helder thinks it’s fine.” Asenath’s cool tone just further stoked the flames of Veronica’s temper.

“Ms. Van Helder won’t be lifting you,” she snapped.

“What’s your deal, Veronica?” asked Asenath.

“What’s your deal?” she shrieked. “What on earth happened to you over the summer? You’ve changed — and not for the better.”

A hideous sound coming from the direction of the bleachers distracted them all. Veronica turned and saw an old man sitting in the stands, doubled over laughing. Though the day was warm, he was dressed in a heavy overcoat and he clutched a Miskatonic High pennant in his withered hand.

“Shit,” swore Asenath. “Sorry … I told Dad he could come if he kept quiet.”

Veronica took a second look, shocked — her uncle was unrecognizable. She’d never have known it was him; he looked as though he’d aged years over just a few months, or as if he’d suffered some terrible illness. “I’d better ….”

“Do what you need to do,” said Ms. Van Helder, glaring at Veronica for some reason. Asenath took off toward the bleachers, her long legs covering the ground within moments. She confronted the old man, then led him away.

“Let’s call it a day,” said Ms. Van Helder. “Back to work tomorrow. And Veronica?”

“Yes?” Veronica lagged behind the others.

“Try to be patient with Asenath? She’s been having … family troubles.”

In Veronica’s opinion, that didn’t excuse anything. Asenath had never not had family troubles. Just the same, she nodded.

With a heavy heart Veronica changed and went out to wait for her mother by the front doors of Miskatonic High. Asenath was in the parking lot, bundling her uncle into her car, clearly having words with him. She’d changed back into her outfit from that morning; she looked ferocious and intimidating as she shoved the old creep into the passenger’s side seat.

“Not unless you can control yourself!” she shouted angrily, slamming the door in his face after he whined something at her that Veronica couldn’t hear.

Then Asenath noticed her cousin sitting there as she came around to the driver’s side. Veronica, remembering Ms. Van Helder’s admonition, timidly raised her hand in a greeting. Asenath laughed, blew her a kiss as she slid into the driver’s seat. She pulled away just as Veronica’s mother drove up.

“How was your first day?” her mother called out the window.

“Great, Mom,” lied Veronica. “Really great.”

***

Veronica, mindful of her Bible Camp pledge, tried to forgive Asenath for her antics — she really did — but it became increasingly difficult, given how her cousin seemed to want nothing more than to shock the whole school. Every day, she came in wearing a different appalling outfit — tweed blazers and slacks, Hawaiian shirts and brightly-colored shorts, leather jackets and jeans — and with some new girl on her arm, inevitably giggling like it wasn’t social and spiritual suicide for her to go out with a woman. Veronica was mortified, and the worst part was, she didn’t even have cheering as a respite. Whenever Asenath showed up in her mascot’s outfit to practice, the girls went crazy, mobbing her like she was the captain of the football team. Veronica thought that was sick, but she couldn’t say anything — Beth, the team captain, had gone out with Asenath a few times. “She’s the best-looking boy in school,” was her only comment when Veronica remarked on the queerness of it all.

Interestingly enough, for once, the cheerleaders were in the minority in terms of popular opinion; they might coo over Asenath, but the rest of Miskatonic High did not. Girls whispered whenever she walked by; guys shouted epithets. Veronica sensed Asenath was enjoying the attention and would have been more than happy to let Asenath reap what she sowed, just like in Galatians … except Asenath’s refusal to act normally began to reflect poorly on her.

“You a dyke, too, Veronica?” shouted Dougie Smithers. The entire lunchroom heard him, given the laughter this sparkling wit produced. Veronica pushed away her half-finished pack of Handi-Snacks, the yellow cheese and buttery crackers now sawdust in her mouth. “Is it true that this Saturday, you’re gonna go cruising for chicks together?”

Veronica refused to acknowledge him, but in her heart, she was seething. It shouldn’t be like this. She was certain no other Varsity cheerleader had ever dealt with such scorn from her peers. Pretending to ignore Dougie and the rest, she put on her Walkman and grabbed her notebook. The rhymes of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince became her world as she scribbled down some ideas for the new Varsity routine. Then, the notes blurred before her eyes when she had a sudden vision of her cousin prancing onto the field in her costume, proudly flaunting the inevitable catcalls and boos to stunt alongside the real cheerleaders.

She’d tried to forgive. She’d tried to forget. She’d been cordial to her, offering to let Asenath borrow her more feminine clothes if she needed to, and prayed for her in church, in the hopes that God would touch Asenath’s heart and help her return to the fold. But nothing had worked. Something had caused Asenath to give up everything — her popularity, her straight A average, her faith, the cheerleading squad — and Veronica couldn’t imagine what it could be.

Dougie slid onto the bench beside her, grabbing a cracker out of her Handi-Snack.

“Hey,” he said, grabbing Veronica’s headphones. “When you lick it, does it look like this?” And he pantomimed something obscene.

“Beware, ladies — he’s clearly no expert.” Asenath grabbed the boy by the collar and slung him off the bench. Dougie landed hard on his tailbone on the linoleum floor of the cafeteria with a thump and then a howl. The laughter was more sporadic than before. Veronica did not take part in it. “Sorry if he was bothering you, Veronica, but everyone knows I don’t cruise for chicks — they come cruising for me.”

“You’re disgusting.” For some reason, Veronica was angrier with Asenath than Dougie. She shoved her notebook into her backpack, snatched her headphones away from the boy still writhing on the ground, and stalked out of the lunchroom.

Once the door slammed behind her, Veronica totally lost it. She slumped against the lockers, tears running down her face. When the school board had announced their decision to integrate sex ed into the health curriculum last year, her daddy had threatened to put her in private school. Veronica had begged and pleaded to remain at Miskatonic because of her friends, because of cheering. Maybe this was her punishment for not being obedient to her father’s will.

“Hey.”

It was Asenath. Veronica dashed the tears from her eyes.

“What do you want?”

“To talk to you.” Asenath came closer. Today, she was wearing a button-down men’s Oxford tucked into high-waisted Guess jeans that somehow made her long legs look longer. “I’m sorry about what happened back there. Dougie’s a real jerk. But —”

“You’re sorry?” snarled Veronica. “Oh, great! I’m super-excited that you’re sorry for ruining my life, Asenath!”

“What?”

“People tease me all the time about … about being like you.” As she said it, Veronica knew how petty she sounded, but that just made her angrier. “And you’ve ruined cheering, too, prancing around in that stupid costume. They’ll shout us off the field the moment they see you!”

Asenath laughed in her face. “That’s all it takes to ruin your life?”

“What happened to you, Asenath? You used to be so nice. You used to care about important things, like school and cheering — and what people thought about you.” Veronica shook her head. “Now … it’s like … you just can’t be bothered.”

“What happened to me?” Asenath grinned mirthlessly. “Life happened. The real world intruded on the fantastical dream-lie that is high school. Sorry if that’s inconveniencing you, Veronica. Me? I’m having a great time.”

Veronica rolled her eyes. “So, what — you’re Laura Palmer now?”

“Maybe Bobby Briggs.” Asenath lowered her voice. “I wasn’t the one who went looking for darkness. Somebody … showed it to me.” The taller girl leaned in closer, planting her hand on the lockers behind Veronica, bracing herself on them, looming over her cousin. She smelled like cigarette smoke and peppermint gum. “You don’t know what’s out there, Veronica — the sad thing is, you don’t even know what’s here, in Arkham. You went to Bible Camp, just like your daddy wanted you to … sang your little songs, prayed your little prayers. Well, baby-girl, sing and pray all you want, because it doesn’t fucking matter.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll tell you what I did on my summer vacation.” Her cousin’s intensity was startling. Her prominent brown eyes were shining like stars as her lips pulled back from her white teeth. Veronica couldn’t help but compare her to the mild-mannered, sweet-tempered girl she had once been. “I looked into a well of absolute darkness, a well without a bottom, full to the brim with writhing whispers blacker than the darkness. I looked — and I listened.”

“What … what was in the well?”

“Laughter. It laughed at me. The darkness, I mean. A hole full of nothing, absolute nothing, and it laughed at me.”

“What did you do?”

Asenath stood up, looking around as if to see if anyone had witnessed her losing her cool. “Doesn’t matter. But I tell you what … after that, I decided to live every day like it was my last, and I advise you to do the same. There’s no heaven. There’s no hell. There’s only you, me and this.” She gestured to the hallway. “The things beyond this world don’t give a shit what you do — if you pray, if you’re good, or if you’re bad, according to some outdated notions of propriety.”

“You don’t sound like yourself,” said Veronica.

Asenath shook her head. “I’ve always been this way. The only thing that’s changed is that I know it’s not worth hiding it.”

The bell rang, and students poured out of the cafeteria. Veronica flinched away from Asenath, instinctively, which made the other girl laugh.

“See you around, Veronica,” she said.

***

Veronica barely paid attention to her classes the rest of the day. Asenath’s speech had shaken her. What she really needed was a good, hard practice to drive everything from her mind, but of course, Asenath showed up, to everyone’s delight but hers.

Asenath seemed full of a savage fury that day. Her jumps were high, her kicks, higher. The term, ‘flyer,’ had never been so apropos. She seemed to hover above everyone when she was lifted and hang in the air for an unnaturally long time on the dismounts. Ms. Van Helder was so enthusiastic about her prospects toward the end of practice, she suggested Asenath try a scorpion instead of a full liberty after being popped up.

As Asenath executed the move perfectly, Veronica turned away, reminding herself that jealousy was a sin. Uncle Ephraim was sitting on the lowest bleacher. He was always in attendance when Asenath came to practice, gaunt and horrible in his big weird coat, a Miskatonic pennant clutched in his clawlike hands.

After his outburst the first day, he had remained largely silent, hunched into himself and watching them all with unwavering attention, but today, he seemed agitated. He shifted on his seat, twitching. The sight of Asenath in a scorpion further perturbed him. When she fell into the basketed hands of her fellow cheerleaders, he uttered a grotesque, bubbling cry.

Veronica was the only one who heard him, so she was the only one unsurprised when he began to holler and snort as Asenath tried the move a second time. Asenath wobbled and fell; her cohorts caught her, but there was no saving her from the old man’s wrath.

“Thief!” he cried, staggering toward her. “Mine! It’s mine!

“Asenath,” said Ms. Van Helder, as Asenath stood unsteadily, “are you — is he —”

“It’s fine,” said Asenath, through gritted teeth.

“Thief! Wolf in sheep’s clothing!” The old man drew nearer, but Asenath wasn’t waiting around — she began to advance on him. “Give it back — it’s mine!”

“Shut up!” she snapped, grabbing his arm.

“Mine!” he cried, running his crabbed hand down her smooth arm.

“Maybe it was, but not anymore!” she shouted in his face.

“Asenath, your father’s not well,” said Ms. Van Helder, putting her hand on the girl’s other arm. “You should —”

“Don’t touch me!” cried Asenath, wrenching herself free of both their grasps. Her father, unsteady on his feet, fell to the ground with a heart-wrenching yelp.

“Asenath!” Ms. Van Helder was shocked.

“None of you have any idea about anything!” she screamed, and took off running toward the locker room.

A moment passed where they waited to see if Asenath would return. She did not. “Come on, Mr. Waite, let’s get you home,” said Ms. Van Helder, helping Ephraim to his feet. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten into her.”

“She stole it,” he mewed. “She’s a thief.”

“Ms. Van Helder … I could take him home.” Veronica felt bad for her uncle, the latest victim of Asenath’s troubling metamorphosis. Perhaps, if she got him alone, she could talk to him. Maybe he needed help from the Church, or from her father, to deal with his wayward daughter.

“Do you have a car?”

“No, but it’s not far. Maybe a mile. I mean, he walked here, didn’t he?” Veronica took the man’s hand. “Can you walk home with me? Are you strong enough, Uncle Ephraim?”

At first, he shook his head no, then something about his expression changed — brightened, maybe.

“Not far,” he whispered, apparently agreeing with her.

The sound of a car peeling out of the parking lot made them all look to see Asenath’s dramatic departure. She wasn’t heading in the direction of her house.

“Better get him home,” said Ms. Van Helder.

Uncle Ephraim nodded his enthusiasm.

***

Veronica had never been a regular visitor at Asenath’s house; not only did her daddy think she should “limit her contact” with her cousin and uncle, the place was just spooky, with its peeling paint and sagging roof. Her father also said the only reason their neighborhood’s homeowner’s association hadn’t served Ephraim a notice was because of his intervention.

Uncle Ephraim had a key hidden somewhere in the deep pockets of his coat. Veronica got the door open and helped him inside.

“Can I get you something to drink?” she said, taking off his coat. It was very warm in the house, and dark; the blinds were all shut and the golden bars of afternoon sunlight that fell over the carpet through the slats didn’t so much brighten the room as they showed the dust motes swirling in the air.

He nodded and shuffled toward a chair in the living room that shared his shabby, ill-used appearance. “Please,” he mumbled. “Water.”

There were no clean cups, so Veronica rinsed out a glass and got him some water with ice. She brought it into the living room and set it beside his elbow on a little tray table.

“I’ll leave my number,” she said uncertainly, “in case she doesn’t — I mean, I’m sure Asenath will be home soon.”

Asenath ….”

“She drove away,” said Veronica. “But she was just angry. She’ll be back.”

“Stay.” Uncle Ephraim pointed to the couch. “Please.”

Veronica really, really didn’t want to stay, but didn’t feel like she had much of a choice. “Okay,” she said. “Should I … turn on the TV?”

“Read to me.” The suggestion of a whine in his unsteady voice stopped Veronica’s protest in her throat.

“What should I read?”

“Upstairs,” he said. “Secrets. Under Asenath’s mattress.”

“I shouldn’t ….”

“I hid it there.”

Veronica’s skin prickled as she wondered just what in the world Uncle Ephraim had stashed under his daughter’s mattress. What if it was a girlie mag, or something even more disgusting? She decided she might as well do as he said. If it was really bad, she’d give it to Asenath and tell her to get rid of it.

The stairs were dark and cramped. Veronica took them two at a time, but she hesitated before grabbing the knob of Asenath’s bedroom, unsure what she might find inside.

Like Asenath, the room was … different. The antique vanity Veronica had always coveted was still there, but Asenath’s beloved Kaboodle full of makeup no longer sat upon it, nor did the shelves hold the toys and dolls she had brought over to Veronica’s when they were younger. The strange thing was, nothing had replaced the missing items. It felt bare in there, denuded, stripped of its essence as if it had been bleached.

Veronica shut the door open behind her, unsure what she was feeling. Sadness over the loss of a friend, yes, but there was anger, too. They hadn’t just grown apart naturally, she and her cousin. Asenath had chosen this path, no matter what she said.

It made her uncomfortable, being in Asenath’s private space, so Veronica screwed up her courage and plunged her arm between his mattress and the bedspring. She rooted around until her hands closed on a slender volume.

Hieron Aigypton,” she read slowly, running her fingers over the tooled leather of the cover. “By Ana … Anacharsis.” She’d never heard of it. It looked very old.

She opened it to the first page, curious to see what it was Uncle Ephraim wanted her to read to him. “Hieron Aigypton, or Egyptian Rites,” she read. “Being an unflinching translation of the dreaded rituals detailed by Anacharsis, who was born a woman, lived as a man, and died neither.” She flipped another page. “Weird.”

Veronica knew that “rituals” were nothing her daddy would approve of, but just the same, Uncle Ephraim had requested this book …. Veronica pursed her lips, but went back downstairs with it.

“Let us rejoice in the true story of one called Narcissus, whose will was stronger than any alchemy,” she read aloud, after Uncle Ephraim requested she read from the first chapter. After that first line, it became a story — one she vaguely remembered from school, about a beautiful boy who became a flower and the nymph who loved him until she became only an echo.

“I, Anacharis, went to that glen, where the first narcissus sprouted. There I found Echo, who told me his final words. These were they ….”

The language was strange to her. As Veronica mumbled her way through the stanzas, her vision began to blur. At first, she thought it was just the warmth of the room — she was sweating through her warmups — but then her eyes focused and saw only blackness.

She was somewhere that was nowhere, standing at the edge of something that was nothing. Inside the nothing was more nothing, but a denser nothing that writhed — and laughed.

“Asenath,” she whispered, horrified. She couldn’t tear her eyes from the abyss. Her cousin hadn’t been lying! Did that mean she had read this book? Seen the sights it offered? Horrified, Veronica regretted all the cruel things she had said to Asenath, all the comments she’d made behind her cousin’s back. It was no wonder the girl had turned away from God — they said He was all-powerful, but Veronica couldn’t believe He had ever been here, at the edge of wherever she was. She wept, knowing He was less than she had believed, if He existed at all.

Asenath said she had turned away, backed away — Veronica needed to find the will to do the same. But try as she might, she could not tear her eyes from the sight. She felt her foot move. It was no longer her foot. She took a step forward, not back. The laughter became louder, and when she went over the edge, it consumed her.

***

When Veronica awoke, she felt sore and nauseated. She groaned, dry-mouthed and cold, and realized she lying was on the floor.

“You’re awake.” A woman spoke to her. Veronica opened her eyes, hoping Asenath had come home. But it wasn’t Asenath.

It was her. Veronica Waite was standing there in her black-and-green skirt and Miskatonic warmup jacket, staring at her.

“What?” she mumbled, not in her own voice but Uncle Ephraim’s.

“You’re weaker than your cousin,” she said, or rather, someone said with her voice, as she helped herself up and into a chair. “Asenath resisted all my arts. I couldn’t take her body. She wouldn’t let me, even though I raised it, fed it, clothed it, for seventeen long years! It was mine. The little thief stole it and after she saw what I was about, she made it nearly impossible for me to try again with someone else. But I managed to hide the book, just in case. Good thing you came along, my little niece, or I might have been trapped in that awful body for the rest of my days.”

“Uncle?” Veronica was so confused; it was so difficult to do anything, even speak. Her jaws were made of lead. “How ….”

“Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to know,” he said coolly, out of her own lips. “Thank you, Veronica. You always were such a sweetheart.”

The sound of a key in the lock silenced them. Asenath came through the front door, looking sheepish. The smell of food wafted into the living room.

“Sorry I took off like — oh, hi Veronica,” said Asenath. She was carrying takeout from somewhere in her arms. “Ms. V said you took Dad home for me … thanks.”

“No worries,” said Veronica brightly, as Veronica watched in mute horror. “It was the least I could do. I’ve been such a bitch. Can you forgive me?”

“Of course,” said Asenath instantly. “Veronica … I’m so sorry I’ve been making trouble for you at school. But you have to understand ….”

“You don’t owe me any explanations,” said Veronica warmly. “I’m just glad we’re friends again.

“I brought home dinner. Can you stay?”

“No,” said Veronica. “Mommy and Daddy want me home, I’m sure. Maybe next week?”

“Sounds good,” said Asenath. “Hey — this was really cool of you. Dad and I … after his … his stroke, he ….”

“It’s okay.” Veronica leaned in and hugged Asenath tightly. “See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” said Asenath. “Tomorrow.”

Veronica tossed her hair and strode out of the house, waving once before walking down the street toward her home. Veronica watched her go, barely able to make her mouth move.

“Thief,” she muttered, hoping Asenath would understand.

“Shut up, Dad,” said Asenath, throwing dinner on the table. “You’ve already lost TV privileges with that little display you put on at practice today. Don’t make it worse for yourself.” She crossed her arms. “You know damn well what I’m capable of.”

“Stolen ….” Veronica tried to swallow the spit pooling in her mouth, but just dribbled all over herself.

“No more cheer practice for you,” said Asenath. “And if you keep that up, I’ll tell our home care worker you’re just too much for a teenage girl to manage — understand? Ugh, stop crying.” She made a disgusted sound in the back of her throat. “You and I both know you brought this on yourself.”


Molly Tanzer is the author of the Weird Western, Vermilion, and the forthcoming historical novel, The Pleasure Merchant. Her debut collection, A Pretty Mouth, was nominated for a Sydney J. Bounds and a Wonderland Book Award. Her short fiction has appeared in other Innsmouth titles such as Historical Lovecraft and Fungi, as well as other venues such as The Book(s) of Cthulhu, The Book of the Dead, and Children of Old Leech. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and a very bad cat. When not writing, she enjoys mixing cocktails, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and experimenting with Korean cooking. She tweets @molly_the_tanz, and blogs — infrequently — at http://mollytanzer.com

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