A confrontation at a funeral
|Cathy’s Aunt Tracey had always taken every opportunity to steal the spotlight; her death proved to be no exception. Within forty-eight hours of her stellar demise, Cathy had been accosted with reporters from at least a dozen newspapers and talk shows, all desperate to have the niece of the late and great Tracey Saylor appear and discuss the ‘event’ to their respective media outlet. She’d threatened to punch one particularly dog-like reporter who had refused to take “Hell no” for an answer. When that encounter had ended with a broken camera lens and a threat to sue for harassment, the reporter decided that this particular bereaved young lady was simply not in her right mind to be able to conduct a sensible interview. At least, that’s how the evening paper had read.
Cathy snorted in disgust. Her gaze flickered to the newspaper sitting on the coffee table under her feet. It was folded back to reveal an article entitled “Dead Dancer’s Niece Deranged?” Various grammatical errors and awkward constructions were circled in red pen, with possible revisions scribbled in margins. It was a habit, one that had driven Aunt Tracy absolutely bonkers in life.
She smiled faintly. Her aunt would pick up the newspaper on Sunday to read the funnies and find that Cathy had already gotten to it with the red pen. “Funnies aren’t supposed to be right!” her aunt would rage. “They’re supposed to be funny!”
She was really going to miss those moments.
The phone rang for what seemed like the twentieth time that hour, and Cathy’s smile fell into a grimace. Briefly, she considered simply yanking the phone jack out of the wall and never answering the damn thing again. Its strident ring, however, pierced the thick cloud of silence and apathy in the room, forcing Cathy to actually lift up the earpiece, if only to shut it up so she could go back to brooding.
“Cathy? Cathy, is that you?” a shrill voice squawked into Cathy’s ear. Cathy winced. “Where are you?”
“Well, you called the home number, didn’t you?”
Cathy could almost see the old woman pursing her wrinkly old lips. “There’s no time for your smartass comments! You need to be here, now! You were supposed to be here twenty minutes ago.”
“’Here’?” Cathy echoed. “Where is ‘here’? Or ‘there’? Aren’t I ‘here’ already?”
Her absentminded philosophical musings were rather rudely interrupted by the woman on the other end. “Enough! Get down to the funeral home right now, young lady, or we’ll start the procession without you.”
Cathy’s dark eyes narrowed. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Now, Catherine,” she said, and hung up.
Cathy stared at the phone in her hand before placing the receiver back on the cradle.
It was said entirely without any heat, any passion—a mere statement of fact. It was an icy word, one that would have frozen her tongue and numbed her lips if she’d been able to feel anything at all. Even sniping at the bat on the other end had been automatic and entirely conducted without care, unlike those impassioned discussions she’d had with her aunt every day.
But her aunt was dead. She’d never have those discussions again. They were dead, too. Maybe everything was. Maybe this wasn’t just a funeral for Aunt Tracey—maybe this was a funeral for life.
How melodramatic. And stupid. Cathy snorted again, blowing a snot bubble. ‘Funeral for life.’ Right.
Cathy pushed herself out of the chair, leaving an indentation in the cushion and a gloom that seemed to settle wherever Cathy was these days. The keys to her aunt’s car—now hers—hung on the hook in the cupboard. She slipped them into her coat pocket where she wouldn’t have to hear their cheerful jingle and eased the back screen door open. She crouched behind the screen, plotting her route to the car sitting in the side driveway. There was no way she was going to deal with reporters on the way to her aunt’s funeral. The next headline might read “Dead Dancer’s Niece Goes On Killing Spree, Murdering All Available Reporters.” (Not particularly catchy, but certainly blunt enough.) Taking a deep breath, Cathy squared her shoulders—
—and burst out of the house, yanking the car door open and jamming the key into the steering column in thirty seconds flat. With a hideous screech of tires that would’ve made her wince and her aunt cackle on a different day, Cathy was out of the drive and on the road before the reporters camped on her front lawn could focus their lenses.
Yes, blunt suited her mood perfectly.
“So sorry for your loss, Catherine.”
“We were so surprised to hear of her passing.”
“Our deepest sympathies.”
“Our prayers are with you and your family.”
Cathy forced herself to stand in line with the rest of the Saylor clan, accepting condolences from complete strangers. At least she didn’t have to smile: she was in mourning, after all. Smiling would hardly be appropriate.
Or was it? Cathy pondered the question as she numbly shook another woman’s hand. Her mind barely registered the squeeze. Maybe that was why her Great-Aunt Muriel was glaring at her. Or maybe she was just still mad from the phone call earlier. Cathy turned her eyes to stare at the next guest. Well, if Muriel was still annoyed, she could just get over herself. The stranger moved on.
The next hand to grip hers was strong. Strong enough, in fact, to break through Cathy’s vacant gaze and force her to see the woman in front of her. She was the last of the line of strangers, the other stragglers already drifting towards the exit. Dressed all in black, her silvery grey hair was swept back in an elegant twist of some sort that Cathy would never be able to wear without having hair popping out all over the place. Her mouth was arranged into a sympathetic half-smile, but her eyes were hard and calculating. Cold, even.
“Catherine Rose Saylor.”
It was a statement, not a question.
Cathy stared blankly. The woman’s smile tightened.
“I am Mrs. Acacia Saylor.”
Her sullen mind worked slowly. It was a full beat later that Cathy realized that the matriarch of her family—the one who never descended from her office in some skyscraper in New York—was addressing her by name.
“I am sorry for the loss of our Tracey,” Mrs. Saylor said.
“Thank you,” Cathy said automatically, her brain still reeling from the realization. Great-Aunt Muriel smirked. What was Mrs. Saylor doing here, of all places?
“She was your instructor, was she not?” Mrs. Saylor arched one perfectly plucked eyebrow. Cathy narrowed her eyes. Why was she asking such a stupid question? Cathy’d been living with Aunt Tracey, after all.
Both eyebrows rose at Cathy’s brusque response, but the lady made no comment. “Your new instructor will be Ms. Hannah Moretson.”
Cathy’s hand tightened in Mrs. Saylor’s grip. “What are you talking about?”
“You will move to Hornsbeck in a week,” Mrs. Saylor continued, ignoring the interruption. “You are already enrolled in the local high school.”
“Like hell I—!”
Cathy never saw it coming. Mrs. Saylor’s free hand whipped through the air, connecting with the side of Cathy’s head with an audible slap of flesh against the metal rings. “You will address your elders with respect, Apprentice Saylor. And you will go to Hornsbeck, and you will continue your studies under Ms. Moretson. Am I understood?”
Mrs. Saylor paused to look at the young girl. Cathy held a hand to her cheek, pressed against the throbbing. She said nothing, though her tilted chin and glare spoke without the need for further words.
Mrs. Saylor nodded. She strode away from Cathy, the crowd of distantly related Saylors parting before her like Moses and the Red Sea. At the door, Mrs. Saylor paused. “And Catherine? I don’t want to hear of you writing anymore. It’s taking time away from your studies.”
She disappeared from the room. What few family members remained slowly began to pick up the pieces of the reception, clearing away plates and folding table cloths. Cathy could not move from her spot. She was frozen, paralyzed, stunned with shock…
A single word bounced through her mind, ricocheting off the hard edges of her unmoving thoughts. It echoed in her ears until her blood pounded a new rhythm with its syllables, grinding out a fast new tempo that burned away the numbness that had paralyzed her since she’d heard of the death of her mentor and friend. Her lips caressed the word as it slipped out to float in the stagnant, dead air in front of the young witch: