It began when Tommy G decided we were going to emulate a wiccan ritual he found in one of those old books from his attic. We were kids; Suzanne, Reggie, Tommy G, Franco, and I. Reggie and Franco were the oldest at 14 while the rest of us were all still a year younger. This adventure was the product of a string of snow days after a blizzard. Without school to keep us busy for seven hours a day, our parents bundled us up and turned us loose on the winter world. There was a small tract of woods less than a mile from my house with a clearing you could get to if you knew where to find it. We agreed to meet there, each of us bringing a component of the ritual squirreled away somewhere in the multiple layers of our fleece and downy jackets. Suzanne brought a few candles. Reggie got his hands on a knife from his dad’s workshop. I brought a can of red spray paint and Franco brought a lighter. Tommy G, the ring leader, brought the sacrifice: his pet snake Sissy.
We gathered in the clearing later in the afternoon and Tommy G laid out the plan. We spray painted a ten-foot pentagram in the snow at the center of which sat an old stump. Suzanne put her candles around the base of the stump and Reggie struggled against the wind to keep them lit. At Tommy G’s instructions we all stood on the five points at the edge of the pentagram while he recited what he called “a holy incantation.” The ritual was supposed to let us see peoples’ guardian spirits. As the Biblical symbol of evil, the snake would allow us to see the otherwise invisible divines around us through its sacrifice.
I can’t tell you how cold that clearing felt. Sure, it was February on the tailend of a cold snap that buried our little Midwestern town in two feet of snow, but the chill I felt started from the inside and gnawed its way out. I was sweating under all of those layers, but my stomach felt like a block of ice. The wind whipped through the leafless trees and blew out one of the candles as Tommy G was finishing the last line of the incantation. Maybe that’s what went wrong. Or maybe it was all a fuck-up from the start. Either way, the five of us marched in unison from the edges of the pentagram to the stump at the center. Tommy G pulled an Aldi’s bag from somewhere out of the depths of his coat and set it atop the stump. I could see the agitated snake writhing inside its plastic sack prison. Reggie handed over the knife and Tommy G cut Sissy free and laid her atop the frozen stump.
We must have stood in silence for a solid minute just stealing nervous glances at one another. Tommy G pinned Sissy’s head to the stump. Sissy wriggled uncomfortably against the freezing wood. Finally, Reggie said that Tommy G wouldn’t do it and Tommy G responded by taking action. He pressed the knife’s edge down behind Sissy’s skull and smashed the blade down like he were chopping a carrot. Suzanne yelped. Sissy’s decapitated body twisted and rolled itself into knots before falling limp into the snow. A stream of blood leaked down the side of the stump and stained the snow bright red.
No one said anything for a while. Then Franco muttered “fuck” and went to dry heave in the woods. Suzanne sat down and began to cry. Reggie, Tommy G, and I just stood motionless around the stump, staring down at Sissy’s head.
“I-Is that all?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Tommy G said hollowly, “that’s all.”
No one mentioned that we weren’t seeing any spirits. We fled out of the pentagram and crowded together at the edge of the clearing. That ice block in my stomach had expanded into a certified glacier and I felt like I would vomit any moment. Reggie took his father’s knife back and frantically tried to rub away the blood with snow.
I guess after a while the awkward silence became too much for Franco because he wadded up a snowball in his gloves and chucked it at Reggie’s back. That seemed to break the spell because in no time we were all dashing around the edge of the trees, pelting each other with snowballs and ducking away from incoming fire. Eventually we began to laugh again and pushed the memory of the ritual out of our minds. Kids can do that somehow.
A heavy snow started just as the sun was going down. We had wanted to build a snowman but didn’t have the time so we decided we’d all make snow angels in the clearing instead. We spread out in a row so that all of our angels would line up like chorus dancers. Tommy G lay down, then Franco and Reggie, then Suzanne, and me at the end. We pushed the imprint of our bundled up bodies into the snow and waved our arms and legs. Just as I was finishing up mine, a surge of fear and coldness rushed through me, made me convulse where I lay. I turned my head to say something and, woven behind the sheet of falling snow that blasted down around us, I saw the faintest outline of a human-like figure glide by behind Tommy G. It was there and then it was gone. It was nothing really, but it was definitely something. A blur in the background. A slight smudge of the world hushing by just behind Tommy G.
Tommy G saw me staring and asked what my deal was. I announced that I might have seen a guardian spirit. Reggie and Franco booed and jeered. None of them wanted to bring up the botched ritual. Tommy G looked like a kicked puppy because he had just remembered that he had killed his only pet. Tears were welling up in Suzanne’s eyes again. I told them I was just joking. I didn’t mean any harm. Nighttime was creeping over the world, so we all packed up and hiked back home.
That was on Friday. The weekend passed by and none of the five of us saw each other. I woke up on Monday morning feeling surprisingly refreshed. The sun was just rising outside my window. I was nestled into the warmth of my comforter with the gentle drone of the heat moaning in the vents. It was 8:30 in the morning and my mom had let me sleep in due to a two-hour delay. When the school bus picked me up, all of my classmates were chatting and running amok. Five days with no school had filled us with a rambunctiousness that could not be contained. We joked and laughed and took turns talking about how we wished another blizzard would come and bury the whole school in snow. The bus was so busy and chaotic that none of us even noticed Tommy G wasn’t there.
In fact, I didn’t notice myself until third period when I sat at an empty table in English class. Tommy G sat beside me and we’d usually spend the whole hour passing notes and dirty doodles back and forth. At lunch, I asked Franco and Reggie if they’d seen Tommy G, but no one had. He must have been home sick, the lucky bastard.
The day dragged by but eventually we all got dropped off on the corner and Reggie, Franco, Suzanne, and I stood on the sidewalk shivering. We decided we would head over to Tommy G’s place to give him a hard time about playing hooky. When we got to his house, the driveway and curb were both packed with cars. We figured his parents were having a party, but we’d stop by if only for a minute.
Standing on the slick porch, we rang the doorbell and waited. After a few minutes an older man we didn’t recognize answered and asked what we wanted. His eyes were puffy behind his glasses. We told him we had come by to see Tommy G and he ushered us into the foyer without a word. Inside, the mood was beyond solemn. People we didn’t recognize were milling about and talking in whispers.
“What’s going on?” Reggie asked.
“Well,” the man said, then paused to consider his words. He removed his glasses and wiped at his eyes. “I don’t know if I’m the one that should be telling you this.”
“Telling us what?” I asked.
The man stared at us for a few seconds, then seemed to accept the burden of delivering bad news. He said “Tommy’s family was in a bad car wreck.” He cast his eyes into the living room where all of the sad people were roaming about. “I… I’m afraid to say… well.” He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to say that, uh, Tommy didn’t…. survive.”
The four of us kids just stood there dumbfounded. We were waiting for something to tell us this was just a cruel joke. We hung in that surreal moment like flies encased in ice cubes. Suzanne’s face scrunched up into an awful grimace.
“Tommy and his family were killed,” the man said.
“H-how?” Franco mumbled.
“Tommy had a bad head injury,” the man said.
I stared into the living room at all the people glancing over at us. Just around the corner, I heard someone say “brain hemorrhaging” under their breath and the person they whispered it to gasped into their hand.
How can I put into words how empty we all felt walking down that driveway? We took turns looking at each other with blank faces and then tears began to stream down Suzanne’s cheeks. My eyes swelled up as well and I turned my head to wipe the tears away before they froze in the wind. None of us said a word. None of us could think of anything to say. We just split up and trudged home over the icy sidewalks.
When I got to my house I stopped and turned to gaze into the woods down the street. I couldn’t stand going into my house. I knew my parents would see the pained look on my face and start asking questions; if I told them about Tommy G I would absolutely break down. So before I had to face that, I wanted to return to the clearing. I wanted to stand in the place where I had last spoken to Tommy G. Where we had thrown snowballs at each other and laughed and trounced around in the snow.
The woods were dead silent. That harsh winter wind tore through the branches and whipped my cheeks beet red. I found Sissy’s headless body at the edge of the clearing where Tommy G had thrown it before going home. A light dusting of snow covered its black scales. It was frozen solid. The spraypainted pentagram had faded also and the candles were toppled over in the drift. On the opposite side of the clearing our five snow angels remained but I noticed something strange from a distance. I approached them slowly because in my mind I already knew what I had seen.
As I stood over the five snow angels I began to tremble uncontrollably because there, where Tommy G’s head had laid, the snow was stained bright red.
Reggie took Tommy G’s death the hardest. The two had been inseparable. Reggie grew up poor and in a pretty rough household, so Tommy G’s place was where Reggie went to escape when his parents argued and screamed. He wasn’t at school the next few days and we understood why.
That Friday night, we all met up again. Reggie, Franco, Suzanne, and me. Franco had a little clubhouse in his backyard that his father had built for him and his brothers. It was still so cold that we sat for a while in silence, watching our breath hang in the air.
I wanted to tell everyone about what I had seen in the clearing. I wanted to say the words “brain hemorrhaging,” like I had overheard them at Tommy G’s wake and then show them the red snow that stained the head of Tommy G’s snow angel. But I thought it was stupid. The red color could have come from anywhere. Maybe it had gotten on the hood of Tommy G’s coat after he decapitated the snake and I just hadn’t noticed it when we first made the snow angels.
I don’t remember what we even talked about. We were pre-teens that had just lost a close friend, how could our young minds express what we were feeling? But I do remember when the night ended. Reggie was headed back to his apartment, the opposite direction as me and Suzanne. Maybe that’s why Suzanne decided to tell me, because it was the first convenience of being alone with one of us.
“I saw something,” Suzanne said out of nowhere.
“What do you mean?” I asked. There was about half a mile of sidewalk between us and our houses. We would have to pass the forest on the way.
“In the clubhouse. I saw…” she was staring down at her feet as she spoke. She clamped her arms tight to her sides and drove her hands deep into her pockets. “Something, is all.”
“Well, what was it?” I asked.
“What do you think of that ritual we did, Andrew?” she asked.
The image of the blood-stained snow angel’s head flashed in my mind. I didn’t say anything.
She asked “Do you think it worked?”
I remembered then what I had seen in the clearing that Friday. The blur of movement that wisped by behind Tommy G through the wind-driven snow. I wished desperately that that memory was more vivid. Even at the time, I couldn’t say I really saw a person. It was just a… well, a hollowness in the air. Yet somehow, I recognized it as a being. Something that moved with purpose.
When I didn’t answer, she asked again. “Did the ritual work?”
“Have you seen any spirits?” I spat, sharply. I didn’t want to tell her what I knew. Suzanne was touchy and prone to crying. I wasn’t going to be the person that set her off.
“Maybe,” she said, “I… I don’t know.”
I stopped walking and stared at her. After a few steps, she turned and met my eyes. I asked “What do you mean maybe?”
“Back in the clubhouse. I think I-I… I saw something,” she said.
“What did you see?” I asked. She shrank back a bit because I had become suddenly animated. I think between us we knew there was something not right going on.
“It was nothing,” she whined. But there were tears starting to form in her eyes and I knew she wanted to say something.
I whispered “Suzanne.”
“It was just like… a shadow. Well, no, not a shadow. It wasn’t dark. It was clear,” she said.
“Where?” I pried.
“Just as we were leaving the clubhouse. You and I were still inside and Franco was heading up to his back porch and I saw Reggie going around the side of the house. And it just flew right past him.”
“Like… like steam? Or like a piece of glass?” I asked. She was beginning to tremble because she could see that I was nervous.
“Yeah, like steam. It was just-” she sawed the sleeve of her jacket across her running nose. “She was hollow.”
“She?” I asked. A knot had worked its way up my throat.
“Yeah, it’s stupid. I just, I felt like it was a woman,” Suzanne said.
“I went back to the clearing. After we found out Tommy G died,” I said.
“Yeah? So?” she said.
“I saw something there,” I said. I turned and looked off towards the woods. The sun was beginning to set and it was too late for us to venture off to the clearing and back before it grew dark. I must have been staring too long without saying anything because Suzanne stomped her foot on the icy pavement to get my attention.
“Tell me,” she demanded.
“I don’t want to tell you. I think I should show you,” I said.
“Then show me.”
“It’s too late tonight. We can go tomorrow. Meet me at my house and I’ll take you out to the clearing.”
“Should we tell Reggie and Franco?” she asked.
“They’ll think we’re nuts. And I don’t think we should be bringing up Tommy G around Reggie right now,” I said. “Just you and I.”
We met early that Saturday morning. It had snowed a little overnight and I was afraid the snow angels would be buried. Suzanne dressed light for the weather in a powder blue sweater and tight jeans. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she had a blue headband that covered her ears and most of her forehead. It dawned on me for the first time that Suzanne was cute. She was the sporty type. Not quite a tomboy, but not exactly a girly-girl either. I wondered why I had never noticed the faint freckles that spanned the bridge of her nose.
The forest was silent as we hiked towards the clearing. The trip took about ten minutes maximum, but I recall that I never heard a single bird or squirrel the whole way there. I heard our heavy breathing, with the vapors of our exhalations billowing up into the dead branches. Now and then some snow would crash down to the ground somewhere in the distance. But all in all, this little tract of woods seemed lifeless.
Surprisingly, the clearing looked like it hadn’t gotten even a dusting of snow. Sissy’s headless body still lay frozen on the edge of the clearing. The blood that ran down the sides of the old stump had darkened to a sick brown hue and the spraypaint of the pentagram was still visible on the snow.
I grabbed Suzanne’s wrist and lead her across the clearing. There laid our five snow angels all in a row: Tommy G’s, then Reggies, then Francos, and Suzanne’s, and my own at the end.
“What is that?” Suzanne squealed. I had lead her to Tommy G’s snow angel and she was staring down where Tommy G’s head had laid and it was still dyed bright red.
“I think,” my breath shivered out between my chapped lips and I glanced over at Suzanne’s face. “I think it’s blood.”
“Oh, no,” she moaned. She covered her face with her black gloved hands. “No, no, no.” She took a step away from the snow angel with each utterance of the word. “Where did it come from? Whose blood?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I came here right after we left Tommy G’s house on Monday and it was here. I didn’t tell anyone, because…” I didn’t bother finishing my sentence.
“Do you think it has anything to do with?” Neither did she. We both turned towards the old stump and Sissy’s severed head.
“That’s what I wanted to tell you. About the thing you saw yesterday,” I said. I sat down in the snow and pulled my legs up against my chest. “I saw it too.”
“You saw it?”
“Yes. Well. No,” I said. “I saw one here. In the clearing. When we were making these,” I jerked my head towards the five snow angels. “It was snowing really hard. And windy. And something just floated by.” Suzanne and I were staring into each other’s eyes. It was a serious stare, the depths of which we were just sussing out between us. “Behind Tommy G.”
We both mulled it all over in our heads for a few minutes. Then Suzanne walked back to Tommy G’s snow angel and stared down at the red stain again. Then she began to cry and she was trying to keep it quiet, so I pretended I didn’t notice. An immense emptiness flooded my insides. It was helplessness. I felt like a balloon whose air had all been squeezed out of him by the pressing cold and I was left sagging there atop the snow, waiting to fully deflate and be buried by the next blizzard.
“What the hell is this?” Suzanne asked.
It snapped me out of my trance and I looked over. She had moved from Tommy G’s snow angel and was staring down into Reggie’s. I stood up and trudged my way over to her side. I couldn’t figure out what I was seeing either.
“It’s-” Suzanne got down on one knee and pressed her fingers into Reggie’s snow angel. “It’s ice.”
She was right. A solid sheet of ice had formed inside of Reggie’s angel. As if someone had filled the imprint halfway with water and let it freeze overnight. We looked to our left and right. Franco, Suzanne, and my angels were untouched and Tommy G’s still had that wicked red stain on its head.
“What… what do you think it is?” Suzanne asked.
“I think we better leave,” I said.
The return trip through the woods was just as eerily silent as the first had been. Now and then, one of us would snap a twig hidden somewhere under the snow, but even the wind was mute as we trekked towards home. Neither of us could think of anything to say.
When we got back, Franco was waiting for us on my porch. He was staring at the ground and when he heard us coming, he looked up with an expression that read nothing but pain.
“It’s Reggie,” he said.
Here’s the account of Reggie’s death the way I heard it.
His parents were out drinking that Friday night and left him home with his two cousins. His cousins were 17 and 16. The winter had given them all cabin fever and so they decided to roam around Reggie’s complex.
There’s a big man-made lake out behind Reggie’s apartment and it had been frozen over for weeks. They were a band of reckless kids and decided to see if they could walk out to the middle of it. The oldest cousin was up front, then the younger one, and Reggie trailed along a few yards behind. Reggie’s cousins are big. Not just tall, but heavy too. They must have both had a hundred pounds on Reggie. But it wasn’t the largest one who was leading the column towards the center of the lake. It wasn’t the younger one who was shuffling along a couple steps behind. It was Reggie–the young one, the skinny one–whose weight broke through the icy surface of the water.
His cousins say they heard the loud snap of the shattering surface, but by the time they turned around, Reggie had vanished. Where he stood was a jagged hole clogged with chunks of ice. There wasn’t any thrashing or screams for help. Reggie was there, then he was gone. They swept the snow away with their gloves to see if they could spot him struggling down below, but there was nothing in the murky black. The oldest cousin thrust his arm down into the hole up to the shoulder and fished all around, but there was nothing to pull up.
The police brought in a diving team and they plunged down into the hole one after another. When they pulled Reggie up half an hour later, his skin was completely blue and his arms were frozen stiff around his chest.
Franco was sick to his stomach when Suzanne and I told him about the snow angels, about the brief apparitions that both of us had seen just before Tommy G and Reggie died. He traversed the whole spectrum of emotions: anger that we had kept it secret, unabashed sobbing when the guilt of his taking part in the ritual surfaced, and then terror that his own snow angel laid right next to Reggie’s. At that revelation, something in him broke and he began to laugh. We thought he was crying again at first but then he tossed his head back and guffawed and slapped his knee and sighed in a relieved way.
Franco didn’t have a death wish. Something had gone wrong in his head and we should have been more proactive because Suzanne and I both knew it. Franco was the kind of kid that always had things go his way. His parents spoiled the hell out of him. He was handsome and charming and was graced with beautiful blue eyes. He was a teenage heart throb just a few years short of blooming. And now, suddenly, he was just the next in line.
Some time passed. A couple weeks. We were in the first days of March and, while it hadn’t snowed much, freezing temperatures kept the grounds covered. We hadn’t been back to the clearing since Reggie fell through the ice. I couldn’t stomach to see the red stain on the head of Tommy G’s snow angel or the two-inch sheet of ice pooled up in Reggie’s. What none of us said, though, was the real reason we were avoiding the clearing. No one wanted to see if there was something on Franco’s. We just ignored it. The three of us tried to go through the motions at school. But even school had become a grim place. Two students died in the blink of an eye. The teachers carried on as if everything was normal, but their heart wasn’t in it. The students still chatted and joked and passed notes, but even our laughter was the guilty, hollow kind. Everyone treated Franco, Suzanne, and I different. We could do no wrong. There were offers of assistance for every mundane task we came across. I caught peoples’ glances in the cafeteria when the three of us sat together, none of us eating much, none of us talking much.
Franco was especially quiet. He just sat doodling most of the time and none of the teachers said anything about it. He didn’t turn in homework; he half-heartedly scribbled answers on exams. Franco was a different person. There was Franco in the hallway with mismatching shoes. There was Franco in the cafeteria flooding his lunch tray with ranch because he forgot to let off the pump. There was Franco sitting in his front yard, jamming a stick into the mud. I felt bad for him.
One day I pulled Suzanne aside and told her we had to do something. Sure, we were still pretty messed up about Tommy G and Reggie too, but Franco was facing something we couldn’t understand. Maybe we were just making assumptions about the nature of this ritual we botched, but empirical evidence suggested that our punishment was moving in a definite order and in that order, Franco’s death was the next stepping stone.
We showed up to his house with a cake. Yes, this was the best that our pre-teen brainstorming could come up with. Surely, we thought, some fucking sweets would turn things around. His parents ushered us into the house, smiling hard because they worried about what their son had become and were glad to have help from his friends. We found Franco in his room, just sitting there. No music turned on, no magazine in front of him. He conducted himself as if he were in death’s waiting room.
We circled around him then joined him on the floor. Setting the cake in front of him, Franco just sort of nodded and then returned his gaze to the wall. Franco’s parents had given us paper plates and some plastic forks and Suzanne held the knife out to Franco and asked if he wanted to cut the cake and at the sight of it Franco lunged like a cat against the wall. He tripped over half his belongings scrambling around the room. I shot my hand out to Suzanne’s and pushed the knife down to the carpet. Franco was nearly hyperventilating. We just stared. It was quiet like that for a minute or two, then all three of us laughed. And we laughed hard. Franco got the best chuckle of us all and cracked jokes at his own expense, pretending to claw his way up the wall and making hissing sounds.
It seemed like everything was back to normal. But then Franco started talking about some weird thing lemurs did that he read about in National Geographic and he stopped mid-sentence because Suzanne was staring at him with her eyes as wide as headlights and her lower lip quivering. And I looked up where she was looking and saw it. Something between a cloud of vapors and a woman was kneeling behind Franco. There was no face to make out or clothes that I can describe. It was just as if a human had been painted in those squiggly lines you see in the air above hot pavement on a summer day. Franco was asking us what our deal was when the spirit unfurled a pair of wings the width of a truck from behind her back and hugged her ethereal arms around Franco’s shoulders. Franco said we were giving him goosebumps all of a sudden.
“Franco,” Suzanne whimpered, “it’s here.”
Guardian angels are a legend that says when people are in trouble, divine spirits will intervene on their behalf. It was supposed to be a sign that a person’s time hadn’t yet come. The ritual with the snake and the pentagram and the candles and the incantations–that was supposed to let us see guardian angels. But we were seeing them all wrong. The spirits, these wisps, these mirages, they weren’t guarding anybody. They were announcing death. No, worse yet, they were setting death in motion. Would Tommy G have been in that car crash if there was no ritual? Would Reggie have fallen through the ice if no one had lopped off Sissy’s head? If we weren’t such gullible and reckless children, would Suzanne and I have seen Franco innocently shivering in this evil spirit’s embrace?
Franco was in bad shape. He was shaking like a leaf in a tree. He was pale. He was fighting back tears and he kicked the cake across his room and he took the knife we were using to cut the cake with and he threw it out the window. Franco marched into the bathroom down the hall. From behind the locked door he gave us instructions. We had to go to the clearing and see what had become of his snow angel. He was too scared to join us. It was safer if he just locked himself up in the bathroom and did nothing, not a single thing. He was sobbing so hard we could barely make out the words. Now and then he would lash out with screaming and cursing and beat his fists against the counters.
Suzanne and I left in a hurry, not bothering to tell his parents what was going on. Franco’s house was the furthest of all of us from the clearing. I grabbed Suzanne by the elbow and the two of us jogged our way towards the woods. Twice Suzanne collapsed mid-step and sat shivering on the pavement. I wiped the tears from her eyes. I told her we didn’t have time to cry yet.
It took us fifteen minutes to get to the entrance of the woods. It took another ten to find the clearing. And when we did, there lay Franco’s snow angel, the third in line, and it was a sickening sight. A pile of brackish green bile was freezing in the center of the snow angel. Neither of us could tell what this ugly goop was, but it gave off a putrid chemical smell and there were little powdery chunks of something mixed in. I got a stick and churned up the slimy puddle. It was stringy and sticky like mucus. When I disturbed it, that god awful smell become overpowering. Suzanne and I had to walk away and collapse in the snow to catch our breath.
“What is it?” Suzanne pleaded. “What does it mean?”
“I don’t know!” I yelled. I was furious.
“Is Franco going to die?” Suzanne asked, her voice cracking.
I beat my fists into the snow and began to rock back and forth on my knees. A headache pounded inside my skull. “I don’t know,” I said. I grit my teeth and scrunched up my face and groaned, as if terror were a physical wound stinging in my chest. “I don’t know.”
What Suzanne and I did know was that we didn’t really know anything. In the realest sense of the cliche, we were messing with forces we did not understand. What good did it do for the two of us to come to the clearing? What good would it do to know that Franco’s death was imminent when we didn’t know how or why or when it was coming. We must have sat there in the clearing for twenty minutes, each of us just silent with our thoughts. After a while I pulled Suzanne up to her feet.
“We’ve got to go tell him,” I said.
“Would you want to be told?” Suzanne asked.
“I don’t know.”
We didn’t get a chance, either way. By the time we got back to the house, Franco was being loaded into the back of an ambulance. His dad hugged his arms around Franco’s wailing mother. She looked up at us with tears running all over her red face, but didn’t say anything before they climbed into the ambulance with their son.
Turns out, Franco couldn’t handle the potential of his own death and so he took matters into his own hands. He was locked up in the bathroom and, shortly after we left for the clearing, Franco just started swallowing down whatever cleaners and solvents and pills he could find in the cabinets. His dad kicked down the door when Franco didn’t respond and found him on the floor surrounded in empty bottles of Drano and sleeping pills and toilet bowl cleaner. At the hospital they pumped his stomach, but it didn’t help. He was in a coma for a couple hours and then all his organs failed in a hurry. Just like Tommy G and Reggie, he was there one minute, and then he was gone.
Suzanne broke down and told her parents everything. Then all Hell broke loose in our little town. The local papers printed headlines about five teenagers performing black magic and sacrifices in the woods. The nightly news instructed parents on how to spot signs of Satan worship. I was ostracized at school when I eventually returned to classes. No one sat with me at lunch or spoke to me in the halls. The teachers regarded me like an ugly stain in their classrooms. Suzanne was pulled out of school and sent to live with her grandparents in New England. I never got a chance to say goodbye to her between Franco’s death and her departure. I watched from my bedroom window as her family’s SUV, packed to the brim with luggage, pulled out of the driveway and sped off to the airport.
I was grounded indefinitely, but that was fine, because I had no where to go. My friends were all dead. No one in town would acknowledge me. On grocery trips I would follow along at my parents’ heels, trying to ignore all the people staring at me from down the aisle.
I heard that Suzanne was in therapy and I was glad, because that meant she was alive and the spirit hadn’t checked off the next name on its list. My parents eschewed the need for a psychiatrist and took me straight to a priest instead. He pried for details of the ritual and everything that happened after. He prayed with me for hours. It was funny to me because even after explaining what happened to Tommy G and Reggie and Franco, no one actually believed it was black magic or spirits that had brought about their death. Tommy G and Reggie were victims of accidents, they said. And Franco had killed himself because he was frightened and depressed and didn’t know better. Strange that no one actually believed in the ritual’s power, but I was still punished as if it were our fault.
It was early April by the time I was finally able to leave the house on my own again. Even then, I had to check in with my parents every half hour and provide a detailed itinerary of everything I was up to. Spring was just around the corner and the snow was melting anywhere that received steady sunlight.
I got an email from Suzanne late one night. She was coming home to visit her parents for the weekend. She wasn’t allowed to see me, but she wanted to sneak out anyway so that we could talk. She said she was doing well and that therapy was helping her cope. She hadn’t seen any more spirits. She had spent those first weeks after Franco’s passing terrified that her own death was hiding in every shadow, but when it didn’t come, her fear began to fade. She seemed optimistic in her email. That made me feel better, too. She asked me to go to the clearing again and see if our snow angels had melted. If they were gone, she wrote, then she could finally feel safe.
I didn’t tell my parents about the email, but Suzanne’s parents must have tipped them off because they kept a tight leash on me all that week. Once again I was confined to the house and my desire to return to that clearing one last time burned like a raging fire in my gut.
Finally, the day of Suzanne’s flight, I managed to persuade my parents to let me walk to the dollar store. I told them I had a project for school and needed to grab a few craft supplies. I would go straight there and hurry back, I promised. And they agreed.
The neighborhood was wet and bleak with only a few piles of dirty snow still lining the streets. As soon as I was out of sight of my house, I headed for the woods. Buds were forming in the branches and the sound of birds and barking squirrels had returned. The ground was black with mud as I walked among the trees. Now and then I stopped to look up towards the sky where, somewhere inside those billowing gray clouds, Suzanne was barreling across the world on a commercial airliner. I smiled. Seeing Suzanne after so long would give me the first inkling of closure that I needed. I was sure of it.
In the clearing, the shade of the trees had preserved a patchy blanket of snow. The pentagram had melted away. Sissy’s dried-up brown blood had faded into the stump. A long tract of snow remained where our snow angels had been made on that terrible Friday, but the snow angels themselves had melted away and I could only make out a rough outline of them composed of mud and standing water. I stood at the foot of Suzanne’s snow angel and stared up at the sky in hopes that I would catch a glimpse of her plane flying by and I took a deep breath before kneeling down to check the snow angel for any blemishes. There was no blood, no bile, no ice. Nothing. I let out a sigh of relief. I closed my eyes tight and smiled. It was over.
I opened my eyes. Then, thump. Like a hammer from the sky, a black bird plummeted out of the thin air and slammed into the ground, right where Suzanne’s snow angel had laid.