A magic romance FREE to download

For Valentine's Day 2012, here is a new chapter in the novel The Mandrake Ruse, which introduces Matt, the Anti-Magician. This is a follow-up to my previous free story, Dark Clouds, the first chapter of novel.

Lovers, enjoy!

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The Witch’s Son:

The Mandrake Ruse

What made me love you?
A Valentine’s story by Scott Bury

Copyright © 2012 by Scott Bury. All rights reserved

For Roxanne

“What made me love you?”

Do I have everything? Flowers, card, chocolate in a heart-shaped box, present.

He looked at the gift box. So small. Too small. But it’s all I can afford.

Matt took a deep breath and pulled on his jacket. Outside, the sun was getting lower. The days were getting noticeably longer again, but in mid-February, the sun set by 5:30.

Matt signed the card and looked at the sweet message. “What made me love you?”

Her smile. The way she held her tongue behind her teeth and looked up at him with those big green eyes.

Those eyes. Big, green, like gems.

Big, clear, beautiful green eyes. A wide, bright smile.

Those were not the first things that Matt noticed about her. He saw her back, first: shoulder-length brown hair, a curve under a corduroy jacket. Something about her ...

He stood beside her and looked at the same sign she was studying. He knew where he was going: the lecture theatre at the bottom of the staircase. But he said “Are you looking for Theatre A?”

“No, Theatre B.”

“Oh, me too,” Matt lied. First class, first day of university? Can I really miss that? “It’s across the hall.” He turned and looked at her profile: long nose, a perfect chin, a soft cheek that made him want to lean in close...

“So why are you looking at this sign?” she asked and turned to look him in the eye.

Those big, green eyes.

“Uh, I―I’m just checking. Double-checking.” Breathe. In, out. Slowly.

“So, what year are you in?” she asked.

“Uh, first year.”

“You taking Mass Comm, too?” She started across the hall, dodging streams of students. Matt followed. He saw Ricky from the dorm, heading toward Theatre A’s opening journalism lecture. Ricky saw him chatting up the girl in the corduroy jacket and flashed him a quick thumb-up. Fortunately, the girl didn’t see it.

“What’s your name?” he asked, shouldering into Theatre B.

“Teri.” She turned away from him, looking for a seat. Young people were settling in all over. Matt felt a small panic. He walked four steps lower, toward the lectern where there were two empty seats at the end of a row. He sidled into one, and felt immense relief and gratitude when Teri settled into the other. “So, what do you think this ‘Mass Communications’ is going to be all about?” he asked.

“‘The role of communications in contemporary society,’ is what the course description says.” She wasn’t looking at him, but seemed to be concentrating on opening a notebook and finding a pen. Please, let me see those eyes again.

“Well, yeah, but what does that really mean?” Oh, god, don’t be so lame, Matt!

She looked up at him again, at last, and smiled again. Oh, that smile!

She was looking at him, her eyes going from expectant to confused. What did she say? “Yeah,” he blurted out, hoping for some clue. It was his turn to speak. What to say?

“So, where are you from?”

“The West Island,” she said. “You?”

“Winnipeg,” he stammered. “Sorry―west island? Where’s that?”

She laughed. “Sorry. It’s Montreal. Living on the West Island means I’m an Anglo.”

“Ah.” Matt had no idea what she was talking about.

The lecture hall’s lights flicked off and on, twice. The surf of student voices trailed off and hundreds of heads swivelled to the front. A portly man with a beard took his hand from the light switches and stepped to the lectern. “Good morning, students. Welcome to Carleton University and the Mass Communications program!” He turned and wrote his name in huge, but nearly illegible letters on a white-board.

I’m not supposed to be here, Matt thought. But he opened his notebook, balanced it on his knee and clicked his pen open. For lack of anything to do with his hands, he wrote across the top of the sheet: Mass Comm 101.

“Do you think you’re learning a lot?”

Matt glanced at Ricky’s soft red beard, then had to turn his eyes forward again and dodge another student who was running downhill. “Well, I guess, but the term’s just started.”

“No, I mean about life. And people.”

Matt looked up the hill, squinting into the morning sun. “Sure. And about myself.” He wondered if he sounded as inane as Ricky did, then felt guilty for thinking that.

Ricky prattled on, but Matt was not listening. In the crowd that was slowly draining into the Lecture Theatre B, he saw the same corduroy jacket under the same shoulder-length brown hair. He tried to call out, then remembered to breathe, first.


To his relief, she turned. And when her eyes met Matt’s, she smiled. She actually smiled. He pushed through the crowd until he was standing beside her. What do I say, now? “How are you doing?” God, I am inane.

“Fine. How are you?” Her voice is like music.

“Great!” He realized that he had left Ricky well behind him. Teri and Matt took little steps to follow the crowd into the lecture theatre. “I wonder what the professor’s going to talk about today?”

“It’s not going to be the same professor as last week,” she said as she made her way to an empty seat. “For the first few weeks, it’s a rotation of lecturers. Today is Professor Raven.”

Matt shivered when she said that name.

“Who’s your friend?” Matt jumped, but it was just Ricky and his red beard. He had a goofy smile.

“This is Teri. We met at last week’s class.”

“Well, I’m very pleased to meet you, Teri,” Ricky said in his most sincere phoney grown-up voice.

“Nice to meet you, too,” Teri said with her sunny smile.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in the journalism lecture in Theatre A?” Ricky asked.

“Shut up,” Matt said softly, leaning close to Ricky.

Matt sat between Teri and Ricky. When the lecture ended, he fumbled with his notebook long enough for Ricky to step into the aisle and the stream of departing students. “Do you have another class right away?”

“No, I have two hours until Sociology.” Teri rolled her eyes. “It’s so boring.”

“So, you want to get a coffee? I’ve got a break, too.” Am I sweating?

She smiled again, that wonderful smile, the kind of smile he had never before seen directed straight at him. “Sure. Where?”

“The Loeb building has a great spot with a view of the river,” said Ricky, smiling his goofy smile. At that moment, Matt hated everything about Ricky, from the hair-part in the middle of his head to his red beard to his cheap t-shirt to his well-worn shoes to his slumping posture.

“Sounds great!” Teri said, stepping out of the theatre and following Ricky.

“Yah. Great,” said Matt.

Her laugh.

Matt took weeks to get enough nerve to ask Teri out. He waited until the end of the lecture, when Ricky was distracted enough to let Matt get away.

Matt took a deep breath. This would be the third time in his life he had asked a girl out. “Hey, you wanna go for—for a meal? Sometime?”

Teri gave him just a little smile, looking up from under the swoop of her hair. “What do you mean? Lunch in the caf?”

This is a test. “W-w-well, I was kind of thinking, um, somewhere else?”

“Is that a question, or a statement?”

“No, a statement.”

“So, what were you thinking?”

Why is this so hard? I’m asking her if she wants to eat. Everybody has to eat! “I was thinking someplace good.”

She laughed at that.

That Friday, they walked to a tiny Mexican restaurant, a mile from the campus. Matt was nervous on several counts. He had worn the best clothes he had at university. Teri laughed when she saw him.

“Where did you get those shoes?”

“Winnipeg. Don’t you like them? These are my dress shoes.”

“What do you call that colour? Baby shit?”

“My mom picked these out!”

“I can tell.”

And, it was the first time he had ever eaten Mexican food.

He tried to look cool, and Teri pretended not to notice the sweat on his forehead. He could see her, biting her bottom lip, holding in a smile as he washed down his chicken wings with gulps of beer.

She managed not to laugh.

The way she looked down, smiled and hopped when she got an A on her essay. The way she jumped to him and wrapped her arms around him and kissed his lips, then jumped away again.

During the week before Hallowe’en, a club at the university screened the original Night of the Living Dead. “Let’s go,” said Matt.

“Why?” Teri asked.

It’s cheap. But he said: “It’s a classic.”

Teri was disappointed, at first, that the “classic” was in black-and-white; soon, she was glad of the lack of colour as the zombies began tearing their victims apart. When a zombie dangled the entrails of a victim from its hand, Teri said “Take me out of here.”

“But it’s not even half-over!” Matt whispered.

“I don’t care. This is disgusting.” She left the hall that was doubling as a movie theatre. Matt picked up his jacket and stumbled after her.

She had already stepped out of the building. Matt touched the back of her neck and in a low, creaky voice said “Braaaiiinnns.”

Teri screamed and spun around. “Don’t do that! Oh, sure, go ahead and laugh. Ha ha ha.”

Matt continued to tease Teri, and she teased him back until they reached her door. They kissed her quietly, and Matt walked across the quad alone, under the light of a full moon peeking fitfully from behind ragged clouds that ran ahead of a chill wind.

Something moaned behind him. On the other side, a branch snapped.

Matt was not worried. One thought filled his mind as he slid into his own bed: her soft, gentle kisses.

She’s not fooled by fools.

Professor Frane was only five minutes into his lecture when Teri said “let’s go.”

“But we’ll miss this lecture!” Matt murmured back. On his other side, Ricky was scribbling down every slurred word that Frane uttered.

“It doesn’t matter,” Teri said as she slid her notebook into her backpack. “He’s hammered again.” She walked out of the lecture theatre. Matt scrambled after her, leaving Ricky to write down everything the drunken professor said.

“Why don’t you stay an extra day here before flying back home?” Teri asked the night before the big essay was due. There were working together on separate projects—they were in separate tutorial sessions with different TAs, so they could work on essays that were largely the same, if not identical.

It was the question he had been hoping for and dreading at the same time. He looked at the curving swoop of her hair, lit against the shadow of the winter evening by her desk lamp. She was bent over a thick textbook, holding a highlighter marker in one hand and a blue pen in the other.

Her green eyes seemed to shine in the dark. Matt’s mouth felt dry. “Oh, uh, I’ve already made my travel plans.”

The eyes narrowed just a little. “You’ve already made plans? Your flight’s nearly a month away, and you’ve made plans?”

Matt sipped tepid coffee. It was awful. “Well, yeah. I promised my Mom I’d be back before the 21st.”

“Coincidentally, one day after your last exam, right?” She leaned close and opened her eyes wider. Matt hadn’t thought it was possible for human eyes to be so big, so green, so … perfect. “Wouldn’t you like to spend one more day with me? One more night?” She closed her eyes and smiled. “We’ll be all alone. My roommate told me she’s leaving on the 19th.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek and Matt’s face got hot.

“That would be great,” he said, softly.

“So, can you change your plans?” Her voice was still soft and low, but to Matt it sounded like a fire alarm. He sat up and pulled back. Startled, Teri sat up, too.

“Oh, that … geez, I’m really sorry, Teri. I just … can’t change those plans.”

Her eyes seemed to get harder. “Why the hell not?”

Think, Matt! You should have thought of this before! “Oh, you know airlines … once you make your booking, they won’t let you change.”

“Oh, come on, people change reservations all the time. Anyway, I though you said you were flying standby.”

Did I say that? Matt grasped for inspiration. “Well, I thought I would, but then my Mom booked it for me.”

“And you’re too afraid of Mommy to ask her to change her plan.” Teri straightened in her chair.

“My mom can be pretty scary.” When she didn’t smile, he made the situation even worse. “Well, it’s just that the 21st is a very big day to her …”

“Don’t worry, I get it,” Teri said. She typed another paragraph, then closed her laptop and gathered her books. “See you tomorrow. No, don’t bother walking me back to my room.”

Matt stared at the door of the study hall for a long time, as if the after-image of Teri’s back could tell him what to do now.

She made him take her shopping for Christmas presents, even though “taking her” meant riding on the same bus. She was disappointed in the biggest department store in Ottawa. “Not much choice, is there?”

“What do you want? Look at all the stuff in here.”

She just shook her head a little.

As they were walking out of the department store to the mall, Teri stopped at a display of stuffed animals. She picked up a fluffy pink elephant that was holding up its front legs like a baby that wanted to be picked up. Teri held it close to her face. “Oh, isn’t this adorable?” She looked at him, smiling her smile, her green eyes shining.

“You like that?”

“Who wouldn’t?” She squeezed it one more time, put it back on the display and patted its head before walking out of the store.

Teri would not let the idea of delaying Matt’s departure for Winnipeg go. She didn’t nag about it, but raised the issue at least once a day. And every time, Matt pulse raced. He felt like he could not breathe.

Maybe I should explain the whole situation to her. And maybe I should try drinking battery acid instead of coffee.

On December 20, Teri and Matt walked back to his room from the exam hall—actually, the main gymnasium. Teri felt drained after writing essay answers for three hours, and Matt’s wrist was sore. But all he could think about was how to get away from Teri without hurting her feelings.

They ate supper together, as they usually did, now, in the cafeteria. Neither of them spoke much. Both were distracted. Matt returned to his room, alone, to pack. His roommate, Rob—they detested each other—said a phoney “Merry Christmas” as Matt finished packing.

Shortest day of the year, Matt reminded himself as he carried his backpack across the quad to the girls’ dorm. He hesitated before knocking on Teri’s door, and she opened it as if she knew he was there. She glared at him through her oversized glasses.

“Well?” she asked, crossing her arms.

Matt did not know what to say. “Well, I’m leaving now,” he stammered.

“What are you doing here? Don’t you have a plane to catch?”

Matt looked left and right, up and down the hallway, for help. All he saw was Pat, a homely girl who, it turned out, was from Winnipeg, too. She was wearing a parka and carrying a small suitcase. “I’m sharing a cab with Pat, here.”

“You are?” Pat asked, stopping beside Teri’s door.

“Did you forget?” he asked Pat.

She shrugged. “Guess so.”

“Just though I’d say ‘goodbye,’” he said to Teri.

“You already said goodbye.” But she didn’t draw back as he leaned in and kissed her lightly on the lips. Then she closed the door.

“I was going to take the bus to the airport,” said Pat.

Matt endured Pat’s conversation until the overheated bus was growling through the dark forest that separated Ottawa from its airport. What a strange place to put an airport, he thought. He sprang up as Pat was in mid-word, describing her mother’s Christmas pudding. “I forgot something!” He pulled frantically on the cord, ringing the bell repeatedly. He ran to the driver. “Let me off here!” The driver looked at Matt as if he were insane, but pulled over. “Thanks.” He jumped into snow that immediately got inside his boots.

The bus growled away. Matt pushed through the snow drifts until he was among the trees and the airport parkway was out of sight. He continued, slipping and tripping until he reached a clearing. This is exactly the kind of place Mom likes. He fumbled in his jacket and pulled out the special matches she had given him in September, just for this occasion. He lit one, held it up and put the pack carefully back in his jacket pocket.

The little flame sputtered in the cold air, but did not go out; it burned with an odd, greenish cast for a long time. Matt held it up, shivering, until he heard a distant call, a harsh, high-pitched squawk. He blew the match out and waited.

In a few minutes, he heard flapping. A huge shadow settled in the centre of the clearing, blowing twigs and snow into his face. When he opened his eyes, he saw an immense black bird, a monstrous crow in front of him. It looked at him with its blank black eyes.

It opened its beak and Matt heard his mother’s voice. “You’re late.”

“The bus was slow.” It wasn’t a lie.

“Don’t make excuses, Matthew.” He had never realized before how much his mother’s voice sounded like a crow’s. “Get on. I don’t have all night to wait for you.” He cinched his backpack a little tighter, grabbed some feathers and pulled himself onto the raven’s smooth back. “Hold on tight, sweetie,” said the bird in his mother’s voice, and then they were aloft.

Matt squinted, shivering in the freezing wind the bird made. It climbed higher but he didn’t dare lean over to look at the lights of the city below. His hands were getting sore. The freezing wash of air penetrated even his thickest gloves. Not much longer, now, he knew. Ahead, he thought he could see a circular swirl of snow. The vortex complete, the bird flew dead ahead. Just before it entered the portal his mother made, he heard her laugh, “No need to travel as the crow flies ...”

Winnipeg was clear and, as usual in December, deeply frozen. The wind had polished the snow over the prairie to a smooth sheen. Matt could only admire its gleaming in the starlight for a few seconds, though, before he had to get inside his mother’s house or freeze to death. The bird croaked, flapped and disappeared.

“Matt, my baby!” his mother cried, running for the door. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him wetly on the cheek. “Oh, I’ve missed you so much! You’re so thin! Come on, we have to fatten you up!”

Matt hugged his mother. He was shivering, but Helen hadn’t noticed. He noticed, though, that his mother had exceeded her usual efforts in Yule decorations. The tree in the corner was decorated in real candles that filled the house with a waxy odour, pine boughs arched over every doorway and mistletoe not only hung from the ceiling, it filled vases and decorated the occasional tables in the living room.

“Come into the kitchen, there’s someone I want you to meet. And have some egg-nog.”

Matt hung up his coat and groaned. He hated his mother’s home-made egg nog. It was always too watery, as if she were trying to stretch the amount of egg in it.

“Matt, meet Loretta.” Beside the rickety table sat a thin young woman with way too much curly brown hair. Matt guessed she was his age. She smiled and held out her hand. On impulse, Matt bowed and kissed the back of her hand. She giggled.

“Loretta works for Suzie,” said Helen as she passed Matt a glass filled with a cloudy white liquid.

“Suzie?” Matt sipped. The nog was better than usual, but it had a different flavour than usual—almost smoky. “Are you using scotch in this now, Mom?”

Helen reached up to tousle Matt’s hair. “Silly boy. You need a haircut. Don’t they have hairdressers in Ottawa? I’ll take you to Suzie’s tomorrow. Maybe Loretta can cut your hair. How about that, Loretta?” She smiled. Matt shivered. Loretta giggled.

Helen’s black cat stepped into the kitchen. “Oh, Nero. Are you hungry?” Helen stroked the cat and disappeared somewhere to feed it. Matt was alone with Loretta.

“So, you go to university?” she asked. She sipped her nog, leaving a white moustache.

Matt tried to ignore it. “Yeah.” He sipped his own egg nog. What’s in this?

“Where? Where do you go, I mean.”

“Carleton.” Do I have to talk to this girl? He stretched out his legs just in time to trip his mother as she returned to the kitchen.

“Where is that? In Ottawa?” Loretta went on, not noticing how Helen stumbled, swore under her breath and pushed herself back up without ever touching the floor.

“Ottawa, yeah. So, what do you do?”

“I work at the hair salon. Mostly I clean up or answer the phone, but Suzie’s letting me wash hair and cut sometimes, too, if it’s an easy client.”

“What’s an easy client?”

“Oh, mostly young people, girls with straight hair or boys.”

“Really? I would have thought that old women’s hair would be easy. It’s short, curly. Not much to it.”

Loretta shook her head vigorously. Masses of curls wobbled. “No, old ladies are really picky. It has to be just perfect. The curls can’t be too big or too small, the hair dryers can’t be too hot or too cold and your chair has to be perfectly clean. Plus, they’re terrible tippers. Not you, of course, Mrs. Morgan.”

“Oh, sweetie, I’m not old!” Helen cackled. The ceiling lamp flickered.

“Oh, no, that’s not what I mean! I just mean, you’re a good tipper!” She drank the rest of her egg nog.

Helen refilled the cup. “Don’t worry, you two. I know you’re probably getting hungry by now, so why don’t you two go sit in the living room and get to know each other while I go get supper.”

“What do you mean, ‘go get supper’?” Matt asked.

Helen pulled on her fur coat and pushed the young people to the over-formal living room. “I’ve ordered something special. Your favourite, Matt!” And she swept out the door before Matt could ask her what she thought his favourite meal was.

He wondered if Loretta noticed that they didn’t hear a car start. Probably not.

Loretta settled on the sofa. Matt sat down in an French-provincial style chair that his mother hadn’t let him use until he was 16. She sipped more egg nog and wiped her lip this time. “So, what are you studying?”

“Mass communications. I started in journalism, but then I switched.”

“Oh? Why?”

“I met someone who was taking mass comm.” He wondered how he would tell his mother that. Maybe Loretta will tell her.

“You met someone?”

“Her name’s Teri.”

“Oh.” They were quiet for a while. Loretta looked out the window. The street light reflected off the hard-packed ice on the road. “So, this Teri is, like, your girlfriend? Helen never said you had a girlfriend.”

“My mother doesn’t talk about things she doesn’t like to think about,” Matt answered. He finished his egg nog and went to the kitchen for a refill. There’s definitely something strange in this. He put the glass into the sink and searched in the fridge for a beer. No beer. And the store’s closed by now. He slammed the fridge unnecessarily hard and poured a glass of water.

Loretta was on her third egg nog and seemed a little unsteady. He made sure she was settled back on the sofa, safe. “I think I’ll take a shower while Mom’s getting supper, whatever it is. It was a long flight. You make yourself at home.”

He felt a little guilty about leaving a guest alone in the living room, but he knew he did not smell very good after the flight. Not much to talk about with her, anyway. Nice girl, just a little dumb.

No, that’s not fair. I’m sure she’s a talented hairdresser. She just hasn’t had the opportunities that I have.

Matt was lathering his hair when the shower curtain moved and a naked Loretta stepped shakily into the tub. Before he could say a word, she grabbed his head and mashed her mouth against his. She pressed her breasts against him as shampoo ran into Matt’s eyes. He pulled back and the faucet dug into his back. He nearly slipped and had to grab Loretta’s shoulder. “What are you doing?”

Her eyes were glassy. She giggled and took his cock in her hands, rubbing shampoo bubbles along its length. He began to get hard and tried to pull away from her. “Stop it!” he said. “My mother’s going to be back any minute.”

“Don’t worry,” Loretta said and dropped to her knees. “She’s already here.”

Matt nearly jumped out of the tub and wrapped a towel around himself. He turned off the water and gave her another towel.

“Matt, what’s wrong?” She was pretty, he had to admit, even with her over-voluminous hair weighed down with water. Her pale skin was perfect, her lips full. Matt felt his mouth go dry. His penis was hard, despite his wishes.

“Seriously, Loretta, my mother’ll flip if she hears you in here. Where are you clothes, anyway?”

Loretta just smiled and stepped close again, running a finger down his lips. “Don’t you worry about that, honey. Mommy won’t mind.” She planted another kiss on his lips and then slithered down his body again.

Matt scrambled out of the bathroom , into his bedroom and threw on clothes as quickly as he could. His old clothes, in his drawers since September, felt unfamiliar. Dressed, he listened from behind his closed door. He heard voices, laughter, clinking of glass and ceramic. He looked at his clock: nearly midnight. The Yule celebration had begun.

The house was filled with Helen’s usual friends, mostly women with too much hair. They were all wearing black; sometimes they decorated their shawls or dresses with bit of poinsettia or mistletoe. Several of the women smiled at Matt, patted his cheek, asked how he had been.

He found his mother with Loretta in the kitchen, laughing. Loretta was wearing only a short, black robe that showed off her bare legs. Helen had her favourite cocktail, a bloody mary. “Well, you certainly didn’t take long. Young men, eh, Loretta?” She cackled.

“Nothing happened, Mom. What’s going on?”

“Nothing? Too bad. I thought you would love Loretta.” Loretta giggled.

“I have a girlfriend, Mom. You know that. I told you about Teri.”

Helen’s smile froze. “Teri. Yes, I remember her name. So, is it serious?”

“Serious enough. So, you put her up to climbing into the shower with me?”

Helen lost her smile, but tried to keep her voice cheerful. “No, of course not. But Loretta is a very friendly girl. I thought you two should get to know each other.”

“Shit, Mom! You flipped out the last time I brought a girl home! Remember Jackie?”

“Let’s not bring her up. She wasn’t good enough for you. If you’re too tired right now, why don’t we sit down to a nice dinner. I got your favourite: tourtiere.”

“That’s not my favourite. Anyway, I’m not hungry. I’m going to Don’s house.”

But his coat and boots were gone. Two of Helen’s girlfriends blocked the front door and smiled at him. Two more were at the back door.

He looked out the window. The monstrous raven looked back at him.

Helen had set up a little buffet in the dining room. Her friends drifted in and out, putting morsels onto wooden plates, pouring red wine down their throats. In the centre of the table was a pie, cut into pieces but otherwise untouched. Helen put a piece onto a plate for Matt. “Eat up.”

Matt took a forkful. He recognized it as Mrs. Beaudry’s. He had always liked Mrs. Beaudry. Helen often paid her to cook for her, but she never invited her to her parties. Matt took another bite. Helen gave a piece of pie to Loretta, who stood directly in front of Matt and ate at the same time he did. Matt cut a mouthful with his fork; so did Loretta. He put his fork in his mouth, and Loretta mimicked him. Bite after bite, Loretta did her best to eat at the same moments Matt did, staring into his eyes the whole time.

He raised the last forkful, then put it back down without eating it. He put the plate on the table. Loretta looked disappointed.

“It’s going to be a cold Christmas holiday,” Matt said.

“Don’t call it ‘Christmas.’ Lots of religions have celebrations at this time of year,” Helen said as she gave Matt a snifter. “Drink some special brandy.”

Matt drained the glass in one gulp and went back to his bedroom. All he could see from the window was the raven’s black eye looking back in. He pulled the curtain shut and slid into his old bed.

He woke up from a dream about Teri; Loretta was beside his bed, naked again. She pulled back the blanket. Matt clutched it to his chest. “Get the fuck out of here!”

She looked puzzled. She opened her hand over his face and dropped dust onto his face. He wiped it away angrily, which gave Loretta the chance to pull the blanket away. “I was hoping you’d sleep naked,”she said. She slithered into the bed. Matt got out. She reached for him, so he backed away. Now, she looked distressed. “What’s wrong? Why don’t you like me?”

“It doesn’t matter what my mother puts in the food or the drinks, or what she gets you to sprinkle on me. Her spells don’t work on me.” He wondered if her tears were real. Don’t be cruel. He pulled an old sweatsuit out of a drawer and tossed it to the naked girl. “Put this on so you don’t get cold.” He pulled newer sweats from his suitcase, took a pillow from his bed and an extra blanket from the closet and lay down on the floor. “You can stay here tonight, but be gone by sunrise.”

He was too angry to sleep.

Everything on Valentine’s Day is so expensive. Matt tried not to crush the heart-shaped box he held under his arm. The jewel box in his pocket dug into his thigh. Why is such a small ring in such a big box?

He took a deep breath and pushed the button for “Other Account.” The account he was only to use in emergency. His mother’s account. He shoved the three 20-dollar bills into his front pocket and went to the florist, where he found how little 60 dollars buys on Valentine’s Day.

Crossing the frozen soccer field on the way back to campus, he felt a sudden draft cross the wind’s path. He heard a croak, and then his mother stood in front of him, wearing a fur coat. The wind ruffled her hair. “What are you doing?”

Matt pushed past her, hoping the roses would not freeze. “I’m going on a Valentine’s date.”

Helen raised her hands like a traffic cop commanding a car to stop, but Matt kept going.

“Why did you take money from my bank account?”

Matt looked over his shoulder, but kept walking. “That’s what brought you here? What, do you watch your accounts every second, or something?”

“A mother likes to keep an eye on her son. For his safety.”

“You just can’t see me from a distance, and it drives you crazy. So the first time you get a signal that I’m doing something you don’t know about, you have to come here.”

“Are the roses for your little girlfriend? So you took my money to buy roses for her?”

“Geez, Mom, forty bucks.”

“What is it about her?”

Matt stopped at that. He knew the answer would only make Helen angrier. I can’t avoid confrontation forever. “I love her.”

Helen’s nostrils flared. She seemed to grow bigger in the dark. Matt stepped back, then remembered. He held his ground.

Matt clutched the roses closer so the wind would not break the stems. Helen’s hair stood up straight from her head and waved like snakes. A dull red light grew behind her. The wind stopped and the light flared as Helen shouted “Forget her!”

Matt shook his head. “Go home, Mom.”

“Where are you going?”

“To see Teri!”

“Why won’t you forget her? Why won’t my spells work?” she screamed.

“You don’t know anything about me,” says Matt. He walked to his room.

5:30! She’ll be back from class any minute! Matt scooped everything he needed into a big shopping bag and dashed across the quad.

Teri opened her door and her smile opened her mouth when she saw the roses. “Oh, they’re beautiful.”

She opened the card first. “Did you make it yourself? Oh, Matt, you’re so sweet.”

Next, she opened the tiny jewelry box. “Oh, how cute!” The ring, with its tiny bit of amber, looked just right for Teri’s delicate hand, Matt thought. Maybe I could have spent a little more on a bigger stone. But then, I wouldn’t have enough for chocolates and dinner. He stopped thinking when she kissed him.

Those soft, warm kisses. “Put on your jacket. We’ll have the chocolates for dessert.”

“Dinner! You’re taking me out to a restaurant and you got me all these presents?”

“I have just enough money for two medium plates at the Rib Shack.”

Teri bundled up against the cold in her stylish leather jacket and her cute hat. “Don’t you have anything warmer?” Matt asked.

“I’m not going out for Valentine’s Day in a ski suit,” she said.

“Why not? I am.”

“There’s nothing I can do about the way you dress. Not yet, anyway.”

Going to the Rib Shack meant walking across the field between the campus and the city again. They were beneath an oak tree when Matt felt the cross-wind and heard the raven croak again. Teri jumped. “What was that?”

“My mother,” Matt groaned. He turned to see Helen, with Loretta this time. Behind them, the raven glared at him.

Teri did not say anything, but moved behind him.

“So, this is little Teri?” Helen said.

“I really wish you hadn’t picked this way to meet, Mom.”

“She’s pretty. But she’s not the right one for you.”

“And you know who’s right for me?”

Loretta stepped forward, staring into Matt’s eyes. Helen raised her hand and Loretta’s clothes vanished. She stood nude, beautiful, red hair cascading over her shoulders, ankle-deep in February slush. Matt noticed the snow around Helen was melting fast.

“I know this is what all young men want.”

“Fuck off, Mom.”

Teri pulled on his jacket. “Let’s get out of here!”

“No. I have to tell her ...”

Helen shrieked an incoherent wail. She stomped her foot into the mud, raised her hands and spoke in a language that Matt had heard before, but did not understand. She back-handed Loretta across the face, and as she stumbled into the melting mud, Loretta disappeared in a puff of black smoke. “Useless!” Helen growled.

A branch snapped off the tree and swung toward Teri. Matt pulled her down and the branch crashed into the snow only inches away.

Helen cried again and red flame leaped toward Teri. He threw himself in front of her; the flame curled around his back and disappeared. Helen flung the flame toward him twice more, and each time it snuffed out at Matt’s body.

“Haven’t you figured it out yet, Mom?” He helped Teri to her feet. “You can’t do anything to me.” He dropped to one knee and took Teri’s hand between both of his. Going to put on a good show for you, Mom. “Teri, I love you. Will you marry me?”

It did not go as Matt had rehearsed in his mind so many times. Teri did not smile, did not fall onto his face to kiss him over and over. Instead, she looked at Matt, then up at Helen. Her expression changed from terror to recognition to determination.

Helen screamed incoherently again. The oak tree whipped like a sapling. Twigs and dead leaves flew past him. Teri cried out as something scratched her cheek. At the sight of blood, Helen smiled.

“Come on, Matt!” Teri hissed, pulling him to his feet.

“No. Stay close to me.”

“Are you crazy? Turn around!”

Matt turned to see Teri pulling off her clothes. Behind her was what he could only describe as a whirlpool in the air. He recognized the vortex that had transported Helen’s raven at Yule. “Take off your clothes, now!” Teri commanded. Naked, she stepped toward the vortex and held out her hand.

“Matt! Do not go with her!” Helen commanded.

Matt pulled off his clothes. His back was warmed by the heat coming from Helen’s spells, but his toes recoiled from the cold mud and slush. He took Teri’s hand and they jumped into the vortex.

The last thing Matt heard was his mother’s angry shriek. Then he was in a snowy backyard behind a bungalow. “I thought I would have to explain my mother,” he said through chattering teeth.

“You don’t need to explain anything,” Teri replied. “Let’s get some clothes before my parents see us. Mom would think it’s a ritual, but Dad’ll have a fit.”

She opened the back door and Matt took a long, appreciative look at her bottom as he followed her into her parents’ house.


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