“It’s Werlock,” I correct without looking up from the pile of paperwork on the counter. I thought I had locked the front door behind me when I came in. And even if it wasn’t locked, the bright red CLOSED sign in the window should have been a dead giveaway that the shop was, in fact, closed.
“I’m sorry. I’m looking for Wanda War…Werlock.”
I stop sorting Mom’s papers and turned to the woman. She is in her late-forties. Maybe fifty at the most. She isn’t wearing any make-up, but she has a tanning booth tan. You know, that unnaturally uniform color that you can only get from lying perfectly still in ten-minute intervals three times a week. She’s wearing an oversized, faded Cherry Hill Cougars sweatshirt and a pair of loose-fitting blue jeans. For some reason the thought of a middle age woman wearing a shirt with a picture of a cougar on it, even if it was the actual mascot for the little league team, makes me chuckle.
The woman just stares at me with that weird deer-in-headlights look some people get when they are confused. I take a deep breath and lean on the counter.
“You’re looking for my mother. She died last week.” My head drops as soon as the words leave my mouth. Gods, that sounded final, I think. She had only been fifty-five. Werlock women don’t die that young, not unless an exorcism goes wrong or something like that. But there had been nothing supernatural about Mom’s death. Just a drunk driver and her being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I shuffle some papers around to make myself look busy. I am busy. I have to do a full inventory of the store yet and get all of mom’s files in order before the meeting next Thursday with Mr. Harvey about the estate. And her files are a mess. The woman could prepare a Sigil of Greater Binding with laser precision but ask her to file her receipts in some sort of rational order and you would have thought you asked her to give up a lung.
“I’m sorry,” the woman says. “I didn’t know. My neighbor said she could help me. I guess she didn’t know, either.”
I know where the conversation is going to go, and I don’t want to go there. I open a drawer in the counter while trying to pretend I’m not paying attention. I guess I hope that if I look busy enough, she will just leave. Yeah, I know. My entire career involves getting people to communicate effectively with each other, and here I am engaging in confluent deflection behavior to avoid a confrontation.
I’ve opened the proverbial “junk drawer.” That drawer everyone has where you just throw stuff that you know you should keep but don’t know why you need to keep it. Sitting on top of a plastic coin holder full of pennies is an old metal keychain that says Wildwood on it in chipped blue and gold paint. You did this on purpose, I think.
I performed my first exorcism at thirteen. Granted, it was only a class five imp in Mrs. McGulligan’s cat. And the cat was mean and spiteful already, so nobody really noticed a difference when the imp took over. If it had played its cards right, it might have enjoyed possessing its host for years. But the damn thing knocked over the hummingbird feeder in our herb garden and then it went after my dog Merlin. It just crossed a line it shouldn’t have crossed and needed to be stopped. You would have thought the cat would be grateful to me for getting the imp out of him without killing him. No, the damn thing scratched me when it was over.
Mom had been so proud that I identified the demon type correctly and was able to bind and exorcise it without help. Though I think she was prouder I actually bothered with the exorcism instead of just choking the damn cat. We went down to Wildwood that weekend to celebrate. We spent a whole day at Morey’s Pier, even though Mom hated water parks.
Mom hated large bodies of water in general. Something about an incident with a marid when she was at summer camp as a teenager. I never got the full story. She tried to tell me once, but when she started by saying it happened at a placed called Crystal Lake, I just started laughing and she got mad and refused to say anything after that. Long story short, it was a pretty big deal that she agreed to go down to Morey’s Pier for my First Exorcism celebration.
We didn’t celebrate when I decided to go to college and study behavioral science instead of continuing with the Craft. We fought. She said I was abandoning my responsibilities as both her daughter and her apprentice. She was so furious that she threatened to conjure Nana Morri’s spirit just so I could tell my grandmother why I hated my family. Can you imagine? Summoning the spirit of my grandmother to guilt me into continuing the family business? It wasn’t like I was going to stop practicing the Craft altogether. I just wanted to explore other career options.
“No,” I say as I slam the drawer shut. “I’m sorry. I can’t help you. I need to sort my mother’s things.”
“But I don’t know where else to go,” says the woman.
“You know, the Catholic Church still has exorcists on staff. They even provide services for non-Catholics. And they do free in-home consultations. Their rates aren’t bad, either. I think they even have payment plans. It might even be tax-deductible.”
“I already spoke with Father Bryant,” she says. She shuffles in place. “He came out to the house and said there was nothing. My husband thinks I’m just being difficult.”
For the last three years, I’ve had a private practice in Philadelphia as a marriage counselor. I know the sound of a lonely housewife when I hear one.
“Husband travels a lot?” I ask. She nods. “Let me guess. He thinks you’re seeing things on purpose to make him stay home.” She nods again.
“Sometimes he’s gone for days at a time,” she says. “Or when he has to go to California, he can be gone for a week or more. That’s when it starts…doing things.”
“What kind of things?”
“At night, when I’m trying to sleep, I hear the sound of footsteps in the hallway. I’ll put something down in one room, and when I come back later it is somewhere else. One minute the room will be cold and the next hot.”
I walk around the counter and mutter the Third Eye incantation under my breath. It’s one of the first incantations you learn in Demonology. It allows you to both read auras and detect paranormal residue. All living things radiate an energy field, called an aura. It fluctuates and changes colors based on a person’s psychological state. More importantly for a demonologist, it allows you to immediately identify if the subject is the victim of a possession or disguised by a glamour. I confess, I’ve also used it on more than one occasion in my counseling work. It really gives me an edge when dealing with couples that don’t want to tell me everything but expect me to fix their relationships.
Some otherworldly creatures like specters and demons have their own auras as well, but when they enter the material realm, it becomes charged and takes a tangible form. Kind of like Fairy Dust, only not visible to the naked eye and non-allergenic. The woman didn’t have any poltergeist or demon residue on her, which meant that Father Bryant was probably correct. Her house wasn’t haunted or possessed. But her aura indicated that she wasn’t lying, either. Whether or not the haunting was real was irrelevant. She thought it was real.
“I’m sorry. I’m Nancy,” I say and extend my hand.
“Nadine,” she replies. “Nadine Porter.” She shakes my hand with a weak handshake. “Does this mean you’ll help me?”
I look over my shoulder at the counter. “Mom would be upset if I left you out to dry.” I shrug my shoulders and force a smile. “I can come by tomorrow.”
Mom never actually advertised that she was a demonologist. She promoted the shop, Three Wishes, as a new age bookstore/alternative medicine/arts and crafts establishment. Her clientele consisted of wannabe teen witches, “whole health” people, and grade school art teachers. But somehow word would get around to those that needed it that she also provided exorcisms, séances, and an assortment of other occult services. When I was her apprentice, I would assist with the exorcisms. Most of the time, we were really just offering a placebo. Of the dozen or so exorcisms we would do each year, only one or two ever had a real entity involved. And even if there was something, it tended to be a brownie or house sprite or something equally harmless. In those cases, Mom would just tell the fae to chill the Hell out and stop spooking the residents. No sense banishing the poor things back to the Aether over spilt milk or a broken light bulb.
It seemed odd at first performing exorcisms on houses that didn’t need them. It felt like stealing. But Mom said that in some cases, imaginary hauntings were more real to the victims than real ones. And the only way to help someone with an imaginary haunting was to validate their belief so they could confront whatever it was causing it.
It was a tactic I had learned to use in my counseling practice, too. I’ve learned that people often contrive problems to avoid dealing with real issues in a relationship. The husband might complain about the fact that his wife owns fifty pair of shoes instead of dealing with the fact that he’s stressed about work and is afraid he might get laid off. Or a wife might complain that her husband leaves his dirty socks on the bathroom floor instead of the fact that she’s afraid that he no longer finds her attractive. You have to work through the fake problems first as if they were real in order to get people to address the real ones.
I arrive at Nadine’s house carrying Mom’s house cleansing kit. I thought about using the exorcism kit but considering that there wasn’t actually a demon or ghost in the house that seemed a bit excessive. It wasn’t like Nadine would know the difference. At the very least, maybe removing some of the negative energies from the home would lighten Nadine’s mood enough for her to stop thinking that she was being haunted.
“You’re early,” says Nadine as she let me in through the kitchen door. A box of chocolate Chex cereal and a carton of Silk soy milk sat on the kitchenette next to a bowl.
“I have an appointment with a couple of clients at noon,” I say. “It was supposed to be later, but the husband’s work schedule got changed at the last minute and the wife accused him of volunteering for the new shift in order to avoid dealing with their relationship so he’s trying to get her off his case and—.” Nadine wraps her arms around herself and looks around. “I can come back if this is a bad time.”
“Nay, where’s my burgundy briefcase?” asks a voice coming from upstairs. As it doesn’t sound disembodied, I assume it is her husband.
“It should be next to your desk,” she yells back.
“It’s not here.”
“I’ll be right back,” she says as she leaves me in the kitchen in order to help her husband find his briefcase.
I wander into the living room and end up standing in front of a wall full of framed photos. There’s Nadine and her husband’s wedding picture. They made a good-looking couple in their day. I mean, red carpet movie premier good-looking. I’m trying to reconcile the stylish fashionista in the wedding portrait with Mrs. Frumpy who came into the shop. Nearby are photos of what I assume are their children. The most recent features the kids’ college graduation photos. Empty nesters, I think to myself.
“I’m sorry,” says Nadine as she comes back downstairs. “I swear sometimes men are blind on purpose.”
“Let me guess. Sitting next to his desk?”
Nadine laughs and nods. “Do you want a cup of coffee before you…I don’t even know what it is you exactly do.”
I sit my kit on the coffee table and open it up. “We’re going to chase the spirits away.” I pull a set of brass bells, a cymbal, and the incense burner from the kit. I reach for the dried sage. “You don’t have an infants or small children in the house, do you?”
“You’re not pregnant, correct?”
The look on Nadine’s face makes me want to kick myself. It’s a standard question. Any first-year apprentice knows you don’t use sage around infants or pregnant women, so you have to ask. With modern fertility treatments, you can’t just assume a woman her age wasn’t pregnant or trying to get pregnant. I think about apologizing to her but anything I say at this point will just drawn out the awkwardness and make things worse. I go about setting up the incense burner instead.
“Nay, I should be home…who’s this?”
I look up to see Jason Porter standing on the stair landing. My jaw drops. He’s aged well. The single gal in me thinks, “Damnit, Nadine, what are you so miserable about?” while the marriage counselor in me realizes “Well, now I know why you’re so miserable.”
“This is Nancy,” say Nadine. “She’s an exorcist.”
“Um, not really,” I say. “I’m just filling in for my mom.” Jason raises an eyebrow at me. “She’s dead so she couldn’t be here.” Brilliant, I think. Way to make a first impression.
“I see,” he says. “Honey, can we talk for a minute? Would you excuse us Ms—”
“Warlock…Werlock. Nancy Werlock.”
“Riiiigght.” Jason leads his wife into the kitchen.
I sit on the loveseat and curse my good hearing. Jason isn’t exactly yelling at her. Not in an abusive husband sort of way (I am very familiar with that type of yelling in my line of work.) Nadine isn’t crying, but I can tell by the way her voice rises and falls that she wants to cry. This is a couple with serious communication problems.
“You know what, Nadine. Do what you want,” says Jason as he storms through the living room. “I gotta get to the office to finish up the reports and then I’m going straight to the airport.”
“You’re not coming home for dinner?” she says as she follows after him.
“Just…go.” He waves his hands toward me. “Do whatever it is you two are doing.”
As soon as he closes the front door, I jump out of my seat. “Nadine, wait here.” I follow Jason outside and run up to the car door before he closes it. “Mr. Porter, can I just have a minute before you go?”
He looks up at me and huffs. “Look, Ms. Warlock—”
“Whatever your name is. I don’t know how much my wife is paying you for this sham. And I don’t even care. But my house is not haunted. There are no demons. There are no ghosts.”
“I know,” I interrupt him. “That’s not why I’m here.”
“Funny, my wife thinks you’re here to do an exorcism or some crap.” He tries to close the car door, but I put my hand in the way. The last time I did that, the husband slammed the door anyway and I ended up with two broken fingers. One of the hazards of being in the counseling profession with poor reflexes. Jason, however, opens the door wider and turns to face me instead.
“Mr. Porter, you are a very attractive man,” I say. He turns bright red and looked toward the steering wheel to avoid eye contact. “You’re an attractive man who spends far too much time on the road away from his wife.”
“You think I’m cheating on my wife?”
“No, cheaters don’t tend to get embarrassed when a woman calls them attractive.”
He takes a deep breath and sits back in his seat. “Nadine’s been acting strange ever since the kids moved out last year. I told her she should get a hobby. Volunteer somewhere. Maybe take a class or something at the community college.”
“Has she ever worked outside the home?”
“She worked while I got my Master’s degree. Then after things took off with my career, she stayed home to raise the girls.”
“Mr. Porter, your wife’s going through menopause. Or is about to.”
“Did she tell you that?”
“She didn’t have to. She’s eating chocolate cereal with soy milk. My mom did the same thing when she went through the change-of-life.”
Actually, mom didn’t do quite the same thing. For her, it was milkshakes made with Kahlua and Soy Delicious Chocolate Obsession ice cream. But I didn’t want Jason to think my mom was some sort of post-menopausal alcoholic demon hunter.
“So all of this haunting or possession stuff? It’s in her head?”
“More like misinterpretation. The rooms aren’t getting hotter or colder. She’s getting hot flashes. She’s having trouble sleeping and she’s lonely, so her brain is hearing the normal house-settling sounds and making them out to be something else. Things aren’t being moved on her. She’s having brain farts from stress. Her handsome husband is off for days or weeks at a time doing gods-know-what and she’s home feeling frumpy and unattractive.”
“My wife is a beautiful woman, Ms. Werlock. There is no reason for her to feel that way.”
“When was the last time you told her that?”
Jason rubs his temples. “What am I supposed to do?”
“How about you call the office and see if someone else can do those pressing reports for you, and you can spend an hour helping us cleanse the spirits?”
“But you just admitted there are no ghosts in the house.”
“And what do you think your wife wants to hear? ‘I’m sorry, Nadine, but you’re just going through menopause so deal with it?’ or ‘See, your husband loves you so much he wants to help chase away the bad spirits bothering you?’”
Jason gets out of the car and pulls his cell phone out of his pocket. “You should be a marriage counselor, you know that?”
I pull a business card out of my purse and hand it to him. “Actually, I am. The shop was Mom’s thing. I’m just—”
“So, are you charging the exorcism rate or the counseling rate for this house call?”
“Neither,” I say. “This one’s on Mom.”
The “exorcism” went well. Nadine said she could feel the demon leave the house. Jason played along and said he felt something as well. As I was leaving, I caught him out of the corner of my eye as he kissed his wife on the cheek and whispered something to her. I got the distinct impression someone was going to be rescheduling his flight.
I go back to the shop after my last appointment of the day. I still have boxes of paperwork to go through. There is an entire folder of receipts from various dollar stores and flea markets that just say Item, Taxable and Item, Non-Taxable but no actual description of what the items were.
I go to the junk drawer and pull out the keychain. I sit on the floor behind the register and hold it between my hands while speaking the Through the Veil incantation. It’s not that I don’t know better. You’re not supposed to bother the dead for the first few months or so. Not until they have had time to acclimate to their new condition and all. But Mom is strong-willed and if she is in the middle of something she just wouldn’t answer. Like when she would check the Caller ID and not answer the phone because the finals of American Idol were on or something like that.
A breeze sneaks into the room, carrying the familiar scent of lavender.
“You set me up,” I say.
“Hello to you too, Ms. Sassy,” says Mom. “I’m dead one week and already you’ve lost your manners?”
“So what am I being blamed for this time?”
I tell Mom about Nadine and how I found the keychain.
“Werlocks are demonologists. Not psychics. I had no idea that woman would be coming in. It’s your own guilty conscience talking.”
“I miss you.”
“I know, honey.”
“Everything okay? You settling in okay and all that?”
“Oh, I’m fine. Your grandmother is helping me get comfortable.” Mom paused for a moment. “Oh, Nana says ‘Hello,’ honey.”
“Hey, Nana,” I answer back as a hint of honeysuckles drifted across the room. “Miss you, too.”
“You know you’re not supposed to call so soon,” says Mom. “And you didn’t call me to talk about the Porters…And Nana says that was nice of you to help them like that. It was very sweet.”
“Thanks, Nana.” I pull my knees up to my chest. “I’m sorry, Mom.”
“No worries, Honey. Not like I’m going to get in any trouble for talking the call.”
“No, I don’t mean calling you. I should have been here.” I’m trying hard not to start crying. It’s dangerous to release strong emotions while the Veil is open. Not everyone on the other side is content to be there, and some spirits can ride an emotion back to the material world. But they have to get pass both Mom and Nana, first. I just start bawling.
“Oh, Honey. It’s not your fault.”
“Yes, it is! If I had stayed, then you might not have been at that intersection. And you’d still be here. And—”
“Nancy Clarice Werlock! I’m as much for guilting my children into listening as the next mother, but you cannot blame yourself for this. You can’t know whether or not this would have happened otherwise. That man was going to get drunk regardless of whether you were a demonologist or a therapist or an acrobat or anything else. Kohl’s was going to have that sale regardless of whether you were here at the shop or in your office in Philly.” Mom paused again. “I know I should have just got it at Target but I wanted to comparison shop. It was 50% off all appliances.”
It takes me a minute to realize that last part was directed at Nana.
“I don’t know what to do, Mom. I’m sitting here packing up all of your stuff and it just hit me that…that it’s all going to be gone and there won’t be anything left.”
“Have you talked to your brother? I talked to him a couple of days before the accident and he told me Megan saw a pixie at school. She’s developing the Sight. Maybe—”
“It wasn’t a pixie, Mom. I talked to Scott the other day. It turned out to be a dragonfly. She caught it and brought it home.”
“Now how do you mistake a dragonfly for a pixie? She’s seen dragonflies before!”
“She’s only six, Mom. And it was a Flame Skimmer. You know, they aren’t a native species in Jersey.”
“Oh, well, there goes that idea.”
“Honey, I’m not mad at you!…We have to go.”
“I’m afraid so. We’ve got eavesdroppers and you’re attracting attention.”
“Nancy, stop apologizing. Your life is your own. Not mine. If it’s one thing I realize now more than ever, it’s that you need to live your life for you. You have a good heart. Follow it. You’ll be fine.”
Mom cuts off the connection. I sit there behind the register for what fells like an eternity. I decide that unless I intend to sleep on the floor that I should get up and go home. I walk around the shop several times first. I guess trying to work up the courage to leave. I had forgotten how comfortable it is here. How safe I always felt.
I can’t let the shop go. I know that now. But I can’t exactly close my private practice and leave all of my clients hanging, either. And I certainly can’t be in two places at the same time. Bilocation just isn’t a talent Werlocks possessed. I look at the keychain in my hand. There is only one alternative left.
I’m going to need to find an apprentice.
Excerpt Two from Nancy Werlock’s Diary (Episode One)