Happy Halloween, everybody! I hope you are all enjoying the spookiest time of the year. I know I am! I had a lot of fun writing this story, and I hope you enjoy it.
TWs: demon, blood, murder (not graphic), self-inflicted wound
The box was perfect despite its plain cardboard exterior, and it sat on the top step to Talia’s apartment waiting for her to get home from work. Though the day was dreary and a light rain drizzled its way down from the gray skies, the box practically glowed from within. When Talia rounded the corner of her street and saw the box sitting there, she broke into a run, a giant grin on her face.
She tossed her umbrella aside and scooped the box up. It was heavy, but Talia didn’t want to put it back down to make it easier to grab her keys from her bag. She jostled the box around, managing to pin it to her side under her left arm as her right hand rooted through her handbag.
When she was safely inside, she tossed her raincoat into the corner of her kitchen, and tore into the box.
Nestled inside the crinkled black strips of paper sat her future. With shaking hands, she pulled the contents from their hiding places and placed them on the table one by one. A jar of black salt. A black candle. Three pieces of black tourmaline. A piece of chalk. A piece of parchment. Instructions.
Talia closed her eyes for a moment, her hands flat on the table. She took a deep breath. Then, she got up to put water on for tea.
She wasn’t a bad person. She just needed some help getting ahead. It’s not like Mariska meant to steal the promotion from her, but Talia couldn’t let another opportunity go by. She’d been working at the bank for seven years, and she was still a lowly teller. Mariska, on the other hand, was hired three years ago and made manager last week.
Talia ground her mug into the counter while she waited for the water to boil. The screaming kettle made her jump, but she appreciated its ability to let its feelings out in a way she couldn’t.
Tea in hand, she returned to the instructions.
First of all, THANK YOU for your purchase!
Secondly, witchcraft is very personal. As such, I will not be giving the step-by-step instructions I’m sure many of you were expecting. I’m going to tell you what each of the pieces in the box is for, and it’s up to YOU to decide how to use them!
Talia threw the instructions onto the table and ground her teeth. She didn’t know anything about casting spells, and this rando from the internet wanted her to just… figure it out? She only bought the box because it promised to be an easy way to meet her goals, and yet now she had to put in some actual work.
She was less than pleased, but she picked the instructions back up and continued reading.
Black salt: Used to consecrate your workspace and ward against unwanted energies.
Black candle: Invites the energies appropriate to your spell to enter your space.
Black tourmaline: A protection stone. Use it to protect yourself from the spell.
Chalk and/or parchment: Can be used to draw sigils.
Happy casting, witches!
Talia read the list again. And a third time. And a fourth. An idea was forming in her mind for how to create the spell, but she needed to do some research first.
The new moon was four nights away, and Talia thought she’d never be patient enough to wait for it. But the internet said that new moons were great for aggressive magic, and Talia didn’t want to blow her chance at getting that promotion. So, she waited, each day a special agony.
Mariska greeted her with a cheery smile every morning, but Talia knew that beneath that veneer lay a greedy woman gloating at her own success at the expense of Talia’s. Talia avoided her manager as much as possible, which wasn’t hard seeing as how everyone else fawned over Mariska, vying for her attention.
It made Talia burn. That position should have been hers. She should be the one everyone wanted to be around.
Just four more days. In the meantime, she would plan the spell and make it perfect.
On the night of the new moon, Talia gathered all the supplies she needed for the spell onto the counter in her kitchen. With the chalk, she drew a circle on the linoleum floor, along with a sigil in the middle.
She had poured every ounce of ill will and anger she possessed into creating that sigil. It had taken her days to shape it into something she was proud of. The result was a spiky, angry-looking symbol embodying her deep hatred and resentment.
Once the circle was finished, she poured the black salt over the chalk, then rested the three black tourmaline stones on top of the salt in a triangle around the circle. She used a knife to carve Mariska’s name into the black candle.
She set the candle down on the floor just inside the chalk circle and lit it. She stepped inside the circle, too. As the flame flickered, Talia raised her arms above her head and chanted.
“She stole my job, but it will be hers no more. She thinks she’s better than me, but she will learn the truth. She will burn burn burn with the fires of retribution.”
Talia was practically shouting by the time she finished the third recitation of the words she’d written. Threes were important, the internet had said, and Talia had listened.
She grabbed the piece of parchment. She’d pasted a picture of Mariska on it with the plan to burn it. Before she could, though, the candle flame blew out. Talia frowned. Not only could she not burn Mariska’s picture, but she’d read that it was important to let the candle burn down to nothing before extinguishing the flame. Should she relight it?
Unsure, she stepped out of the circle and reached for the lighter on the countertop. Her fingers barely brushed it when she snatched her hand back. It was burning hot to the touch.
So, no, she would not relight the candle.
She crouched down and inspected it. The bottom part of Mariska’s name hadn’t been melted, but Talia couldn’t see a way to help that. With a sigh, she plucked the candle from the floor, ran the wick under some water, then threw it in the trash.
She thought she’d feel different after the spell was cast, but as she cleaned up the circle, she couldn’t help noticing a distinct lack of relief. If the spell didn’t work, she’d have to try again next month.
The day dawned bright and cheery. Talia wanted to burrow back under the covers, but work beckoned. Her only consolation at braving the too-happy morning was seeing if Mariska’s life had started unraveling yet.
The train ride to work was interminable. Talia practically bounced with glee at the thought that she would soon be a manager wielding her power over Mariska.
“Morning,” she mumbled to the greeter at the desk just inside the bank’s automatic doors. The girl was young, perhaps in her late teens, and Talia didn’t know her name. The greeter girls all looked the same. It’s not like she had to have conversations with them.
“Good morning, Talia,” the girl said. “Mariska was looking for you.”
Talia glanced at her watch. 7:45. She was fifteen minutes late, but even so, Mariska couldn’t have been looking for too long…
“Thanks,” Talia said. She scanned her ID at the employees only door and pushed it to go through. She bashed her shoulder into the solid oak when it didn’t give. She tried her ID again. Still declined.
“Could you…?” Talia turned to the greeter girl and gestured at the door.
“Um. We’re not supposed to…” she said.
Talia clenched her fists, but let the slight slide. This girl must be new, because she clearly didn’t understand that when a higher-ranking employee asked you to do something, you did it. Talia approached the teller’s window next to the door instead of sniping at the girl.
“Hello!” she called. Her voice sounded strange to her. Too loud. Too much.
Mariska poked her head from the back room and frowned. “Yes?”
“My ID won’t scan me in.”
“Ah yes, that’s been happening to some other people this week, too. The tech guys are working on the system, I think.”
Mariska’s high heels clacked on the floor, one deliberate foot in front of the other. Talia’s already poor mood worsened. Mariska was taking her time on purpose. She waited for the spell to cause her manager to slip on a wet patch on the floor and break her ankle, but no such luck. Mariska opened the employee door, and Talia slipped past.
“Talia,” Mariska said.
Talia ignored her and made a beeline for the breakroom with Mariska close behind.
“Talia,” Mariska said again. “I would like to see you in my office.”
“I’ll just put my stuff away.”
Five sets of eyes followed Talia from the breakroom after she stowed her things in her locker. She didn’t dare make eye contact with any of them for fear of what she might see there. Pity. Relief it wasn’t them.
Mariska gestured to the wooden chair in front of her desk. Talia perched at the very edge while Mariska sank into the plush leather chair that should have been hers. Talia looked down at her hands clasped tightly in her lap.
Talia felt her boss’ eyes burning into her. When she didn’t look up, the other woman spoke.
“Some performance issues have come to my attention,” she said. Talia’s head finally snapped up. Mariska continued. “Late arrivals. Rude to customers. I’ve, personally, had multiple complaints over the last week or so, and I also looked through your personnel file. It appears that this has been an ongoing issue.”
Mariska paused, waiting for Talia to speak. Talia stayed quiet.
“Would you care to explain?”
“I don’t remember being rude to anyone,” Talia said. She hoped Mariska couldn’t see the lie in her eyes. It was only once. Maybe a few times. But sometimes people were rude, and Talia was expected to just take it? No. And after the news broke about the promotion, Talia had an even harder time just taking it.
Mariska sighed. Disappointment clouded her face, as though she expected this answer from Talia but was hoping for a different one.
“Well, consider this a formal reminder to keep your words in check. I was considering letting you go, but I’ll give you one more chance. And remember: the customer is always right.”
Talia bared her teeth. She hoped it look like a smile.
When Talia got home, she reached in her bag for her keys. When the keys were hard to find, she set her bag on the porch railing, and searched with both hands. They weren’t there.
Annoyance made her eye twitch. She knew she’d put them in her bag after locking her door this morning. There’s no way she could have left them at home, and she never took them out at work.
She took a deep breath. Her dad had a spare. She could call him. He would come over and unlock her door for her. Everything would be okay.
Her dad picked up on the third ring.
“Heya Tali Balli. What’s shaking?”
“Nothing, Dad. Just locked myself out of my apartment.”
“Sorry to hear that. I’d come over and let you in, but your mom surprised me with a trip to the beach, so we’re out of town. I can get Kevin to come over and change the locks, though.”
“Nah, that’s okay. You just enjoy your vacation. I’m sure I left a window or something open.”
She would do anything to not have to see Kevin. Her dad’s favorite locksmith gave her the creeps, and she didn’t want to deal with him ever, but especially not today.
Her dad hung up with lots of love and kisses. She went around the back of her apartment, looking for a way in. No luck in the window department, but the sliding glass door was wide open. The white curtains billowed out the door, blowing in the breeze.
She knew she should call the police. She’d seen every horror movie in existence, but still she couldn’t help but creep in through those billowing curtains.
The place was trashed. Kitchen drawers pulled out and emptied onto the floor. Glasses and dishes smashed, the pieces scattered across the linoleum. She moved deeper into the apartment. Glass crunched under her feet. Couch cushions were sliced open, the stuffing strewn about.
She didn’t want to know what her bedroom looked like.
This wasn’t supposed to happen to her. This was supposed to be reserved for Mariska. The job was supposed to fall into her lap while Mariska’s life was ruined.
Anger boiled beneath her skin.
A noise from her bedroom made her jump. Was the burglar still here?
Talia grabbed a leg from one of the smashed chairs in her dining room and crept her way down the hall. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she feared the intruder would be able to hear it. The anger in her veins propelled her onward.
Weapon raised, she jumped around the corner and into the bedroom. A man rooted through her dresser drawers, throwing shirts behind him. Talia raised the chair leg and brought it down on his head as hard as she could.
The next few hours were a flurry of commotion. The police stalked through the house. The paramedics rushed the bleeding man away. Statements were given. Photos were taken. A warning to not leave town for a while was issued.
Talia wanted to curl up in bed with a cup of tea and a mindless show, but her house was tainted. She couldn’t even crash at her parents’ house because her keys were missing and even though Mrs. Jemp across the street had an extra key, she hated Talia and would never give it to her.
This wasn’t how this was supposed to go.
Talia wracked her brain for what had gone wrong with the spell. She was no closer to discerning the truth when three heavy knocks on the door sounded through the ruined space.
She picked her way through the wreckage of her living room and opened the door. A gust of wind and an empty porch greeted her. The gloam of the evening created an eerie atmosphere, and Talia’s skin crawled with goosebumps, even while she tried to convince herself it was just the kids down the street playing games. She shut the door, retreating to the spare bedroom.
That room was untouched by the filthy hands of the thief. Talia knew it would be her haven for a while.
That night, Talia woke in a panic. The room was too hot, too dark, too small. A noise from the corner caught Talia’s attention. She reached for the bedside lamp, but knocked it off with her reaching hand. The bulb shattered on the floor.
She was now trapped in bed, in the dark, her heart hammering in her chest.
“Who’s there?” Her voice disappeared into the corner, like the words were ripped from her mouth and devoured.
A husky laugh met her ears. Talia gripped the duvet and pulled it to her chest with shaking hands. Two red eyes opened, staring at her from the corner. Talia pulled the covers over her head, hoping that the childhood rule of “nothing under the covers is fair game to monsters” held into adulthood.
A few silent minutes passed. The air under the covers went stale with fear and sweat. The hairs on the back of Talia’s neck stood at attention. When she could stand the unknown no longer, she peeked her head out.
Her nighttime visitor hadn’t moved. It still stood in the corner, eyes staring, except now she could see white teeth in a grinning mouth.
The covers were ripped off of her. She felt exposed, naked, despite the ample nightgown she wore. She pulled her knees into her chest and wrapped her arms around them, making herself as small as possible. She squeezed her eyes shut.
And for the first time in twenty years, she prayed.
She prayed for her safety, for the thing to go away and never return, for forgiveness. She promised to be nicer, to be kinder, to not let things get to her so much.
The thing in the corner laughed again.
“You have to mean it for it to work.” Its words buzzed through her head, leaving pressure and pain in their wake. Talia thought her head would split open, almost welcomed the relief that would bring, but the pain of its words were not just physical.
The throbbing in her head reached a crescendo, and she passed out.
When morning dawned, Talia hardly noticed. She lay on her side staring at the lamp on the bedside table.
It wasn’t broken. There were no glass shards from the bulb on the floor. It sat, painted a cheery yellow with blue and white flowers, mocking her.
The previous night had felt so real. Had it been a dream?
No, she decided. It had happened for real. If she couldn’t trust her own mind, she was doomed. She’d find a way out of this. She had to.
She reached for her phone. The voicemail at her job picked up, and Talia thanked the universe for being this kind to her at least. She didn’t want to hear the gloating pleasure in Mariska’s voice while she explained the break-in and how shaken up she was. Talia hoped Mariska wouldn’t call her later to check in, but knowing her boss, she would want to make sure Talia wasn’t lying herself.
She sat up in bed and swung her legs over the edge. The floor was cool under her feet, waking her up even more. Talia wanted to hide under the covers, wanted to sleep until this was over, but she knew it would never be over until she fixed it.
She had a lot of work to do.
The shop smelled like incense and candles all competing to be the dominant scent. It was entirely unique and surprisingly pleasant. A bell over the door tinkled as Talia shut it behind her. If only Talia had come here in the first place, she might never have been in this mess. Local help was better than internet help any day.
The walls lining the short hallway into the main room of the shop were filled with skulls, bleached and mounted on shiny blocks of wood. Their empty eye-sockets followed her as she passed them one by one. Talia shivered.
A woman in black slacks and a white short-sleeved button-down shirt behind the counter smiled until Talia stepped over the hallway threshold into the open room. The woman’s smile disappeared, and she drew a symbol with her right hand in the air in front of her.
“I need some help,” Talia said.
“Clearly.” The woman hopped down from the stool she’d been sitting on, a strange look on her face. Talia couldn’t quite place it, but it almost looked like a mix of annoyance and clinical interest. “Come on. I’ll make some tea, and you can tell me all about it. The name’s Gussie, by the way.”
Talia followed Gussie through a beaded curtain and into a small kitchen at the back of the shop. Gussie busied herself with the teapot while Talia took a seat at the small round table in the corner of the room.
“No offense,” Talia said, “but you don’t look like you can help me.”
Gussie sent a withering look over her shoulder. “And you don’t look like someone even remotely magical enough to make a curse work, let alone have it rebound.”
Talia’s toes went cold, and she clenched her hands in her lap.
“It’s written all over you. I don’t care about the whys.” Her lips curled into a devilish grin. “I want to hear the how. What exactly did you do to cast the spell?”
Talia explained. Gussie listened, her smile growing wider with every word. They both sipped their tea.
“Well, good luck with that.” Gussie laughed. It was a harsh sound, unsympathetic.
“You people are all the same. You think you can just order shit from the internet and play at being a witch, and then when it doesn’t work, you come in here crying about the results. You know what? I. Don’t. Care. You can just go away and deal with your demon problem yourself.”
Demon. Talia had been avoiding that word. It thudded in the air, worming its way into her stomach and sitting there like a rock.
“How much money would convince you to help me?”
Gussie leaned over the table, her dark eyes boring into Talia’s. Talia wanted to look away, but she felt stuck.
“Honey, you could offer me all the gold in the world, and I’d still tell you to go fuck yourself.”
Heat bloomed in Talia’s cheeks. She felt like the other woman had slapped her. Gussie rose from the table, and left Talia sitting there. The beaded curtain clacked behind her, a sound that wouldn’t normally have entered Talia’s consciousness, but today it sounded like a door slamming in her face.
A soft chuckle emanated from the corner of the room.
Talia had barely settled in at home before the doorbell rang. With a groan, she got off her bed and ambled to the door.
It was one of the detectives from the day before.
“Can I come in?” he asked.
Talia stood aside and let him in. He hovered in the entryway, but shut the door behind him.
“The man who broke in here, his name was Henry Foster. He died this morning from blunt force trauma to the head.”
The blood drained from Talia’s face. She’d killed someone. The detective was still talking, and Talia had to force herself to hear him over the rush in her ears.
“…warrant for your arrest. I’m sorry.”
He held handcuffs out, and gestured for Talia to turn around. She shook her head, not comprehending. He grabbed her arm and spun her around. This wasn’t happening. Couldn’t be happening. That man had broken into her house! She had been defending herself. Surely, the authorities would see that.
Except they wouldn’t. Not while she was being stalked by evil.
The cold metal bit into her wrists, and she bit back tears. Her father’s best friend, a talented lawyer, would have her out on bail by dinnertime, but she still had to deal with the shame of being marched past her neighbors bound by the law. The last thing she needed was for them to see her crying.
If ever the ground was going to open up and swallow her, now would be a convenient time.
Familiar soft laughter followed her from the house.
As she suspected, Mr. Caldicutt had her out of jail in time for the evening news. He offered her a ride home, but Talia declined, opting to take the train. She just wanted to be alone.
She felt the thing’s presence the whole train ride home. It felt like isolation and death, its cold breath of hatred on the back of her neck. It was watching, amused. Talia wished it would make itself known. The waiting was almost unbearable.
She locked herself inside her house knowing that wouldn’t keep her safe. Gussie was right. She’d thought she could just take this power and use it without thought or training, and now her life was falling apart. It was all Mariska’s fault. If Talia hadn’t been passed over for a promotion again, she would never have had to order that magic box. But she wasn’t going to let her boss ruin her life. Things were still salvageable if only she could figure out how.
The candle was still in the garbage under the sink. Talia dug it out. It stank of discarded food and darkness, but she washed it off in the sink, then grabbed a knife and a lighter.
With what was left of the black salt, she made another circle, and she ringed it with the tourmalines. She sat inside the circle, and paused.
A dark presence prowled the outside of her circle, testing it for weaknesses. A growl rose up, emanating from nowhere and everywhere. It rattled around in her head, pain threatening to keep her from thinking or acting. She pushed past it.
She used the knife to carve away Mariska’s name. In its place, she etched the word “love.” She set the candle in the same place she’d put it the first time she cast the spell, and she held the lighter against the wet wick until it dried and caught flame.
Wind kicked up in the kitchen, whirling the shards of glass and broken furniture around in a frenzy. Inside the circle was a haven of stillness.
Talia used the knife to slice into the palm of her hand. Blood streamed out of the wound, and she dripped some onto the flame of the candle. It sputtered but didn’t go out. Talia took it as a good sign.
She stood. Howling joined the frenzy outside the circle. The pain of it lessened with each moment the candle stayed aflame. She raised her hands to the sky, one pale, one covered in blood.
“By my blood I end this spell. By my will I sever ties with this dark entity in my home. Leave this place and never return.”
She choked the words out three times, each time harder than the last. By the end, she could hardly breathe, her words quiet. She tried to give them power despite the difficulties she was having. The howling reached a peak, then died immediately after she managed to say the last word.
Shaking, Talia lowered herself back to the floor. She sat there all night, watching the candle burn down to nothing, until it finally extinguished itself.
Talia called in sick again the next day and spent it sleeping instead. When she woke mid-afternoon, she felt refreshed and energized, like the events of the previous week had been a dream.
She returned to work the day after, a spring in her step. She smiled at everyone, learned the greeter girl’s name, and was pleasant when customers were rude. After a week of this new Talia, Mariska made a positive note in her file.
The charges against her were dropped. She cleaned up her apartment, got new furniture and dishes, and even though she could only afford used items, she was grateful she had her freedom to buy them at all.
One night, several weeks after the night she banished the demon, she noticed a piece of paper wedged between the kitchen counter and the wall. She grabbed her tweezers from the bathroom, and fished around until she grabbed the paper and pulled it out.
On the paper, in jagged black marker, was the sigil of hatred she’d created. Her heart sped up, the blood drained from her face, and she felt light-headed. As she blacked out, she heard the hated laughter she thought she’d left behind.