The Witches of Worm
“I’M SORRY, JESSIE BABY,” JOY SAID.
Jessica looked up from her magazine and stared at her mother, a point-blank unwavering stare that said something important by not saying anything at all. But it didn’t matter, because Joy wasn’t looking at her anyway.
Joy was looking down into her glass. She was standing over the register in her stocking feet, warming up after a cold ride home from the office in a cable car. Her long blond hair swung down from her bent head, partly covering her face, and the heat from the register made her short skirt stand out like a dancer’s tutu. Standing there like that, with one foot tucked up, she looked like a dancer, or else a fashion model—or even a movie star. In fact, according to some people, she
looked exactly like one particular star—a sexy blond Swedish actress who played in pictures with English subtitles. Jessica couldn’t say about that because the movies were the kind she was too young to get into, but she was certain of some other things. She was certain that no one would guess by looking at her, just what Joy really was. No one would suspect that she was only an overworked, underpaid secretary, for instance, and they’d be even less apt to guess that she was Jessica’s mother. No one ever believed that at first, because Joy didn’t look like anybody’s mother, least of all Jessica’s. But she was—believe it or not.
My “believe-it-or-not” mother, Jessica thought as she stared at Joy. Sometimes she called her that out loud, but when she did, Joy always seemed to take it as a compliment. Joy had started it herself, actually, by introducing Jessica that way. “And this is my daughter, believe it or not,” she would say to people—all kinds of perfect strangers. And none of them ever asked why they might not believe it. Nobody had to ask. It was perfectly obvious why it was hard to believe that Joy could have a twelve-year-old daughter. It was also obvious that, while Joy looked like a Swedish movie star, Jessica did not, and probably never would. But when Jessica called Joy her “believe-it-or-not” mother, she meant something a little different.
Still staring down into her after-work scotch and soda, Joy shook her head slowly and sighed. “I’m
really sorry that——” she was beginning again, but Jessica didn’t wait to hear the rest of it. She picked up her coat and book and went out the door. She didn’t hurry because she knew that Joy was not going to call her back to hear the rest of what she had started to say. Joy would not call her back because they both knew that Jessica knew the rest of it by heart.
If Jessica had waited, Joy would have said one, or all, of a number of things. She would certainly have said she was sorry that, since Alan had asked her out to dinner, there would be a lonely TV dinner for Jessica again that night. Then she might have mentioned some other things she was usually sorry about: that her job kept her away from home until so late, and that they had to live in a city apartment rather than a real house. If she were feeling particularly dramatic, she might have gone on to say that she was sorry she was such a lousy mother, but she guessed she’d never really been cut out for motherhood. Sometimes she even cried a little; Jessica knew that part by heart, too.
Jessica knew it all by heart, and she also knew that none of it was going to change, no matter how sorry Joy might be. Some of the things Joy was sorry about were things she couldn’t change even if she wanted to; and most of the rest were things that might have been changed once but that couldn’t be now. Like the fact that Jessica Ann Porter had been born twelve years
before. That was one of the things it was a lot too late to change.
Halfway down the hallway on the second floor, Jessica stopped, simply from force of habit, to listen to Brandon. If Brandon was at home, he could usually be heard, even when he wasn’t practicing his trumpet, as he was obviously doing at the moment. Jessica stood still, listening.
Brandon hadn’t been playing the trumpet for very long—only a little over a year. Jessica knew exactly how long it had been because he had started only a short time before the day he had turned into a stinking traitor. She could never forget when that had happened. In that one year Brandon had learned to make the trumpet blare and crow loud enough to disturb everybody for blocks around. Jessica put her hands over her ears, for the shout of the trumpet pierced the walls as if they were tissue paper. It sounded just like Brandon, she thought. He’d always done a lot of shouting.
When she reached the main floor, Jessica walked quickly and quietly. As she passed the Posts’ apartment, she could hear a dull whine of conversation and she hurried faster, imagining the door opening and the sound swelling out like a tidal wave to engulf her.
At the rear of the building, passing the door to the apartment where Mrs. Fortune lived with all her cats, she stopped briefly and sniffed to see how bad the cat stink was that evening. Then she went on more
quietly, because Mrs. Fortune, in spite of her age, had incredibly good ears. At least, she seemed to know everything that went on in the entire apartment house. But maybe, as Brandon had once suggested, it was only the cats who had good ears, and Mrs. Fortune got her information from them. Jessica could never tell whether Brandon was serious or not when he said weird things like that, but she could believe almost anything about Mrs. Fortune. She was that kind of person.
Outside the rear entrance to the apartment house, Jessica stopped and stood still, breathing deeply. Sometimes it made things seem better if she could get away and breathe long slow breaths of outside air. But today it only made things worse.
It was a terrible day, dank and windy—the kind of chilling August day that often betrayed the city’s tourists, sending them shivering home to their hotels in their light summer coats. Jessica coughed and shoved her whipping hair back out of her face. The air tasted gray and poisonous, heavy with fog and city smells, and the sound of the wind was sad and angry as it swept down the alley and around the walls and fences of the Regency Apartment House. There was something threatening about the sound, as if the whining moan was full of strange half-spoken words. Shivering, Jessica buttoned the top button of her coat, shoved her book into a pocket, and hurried across the yard.
The back yard of the Regency was small and, except for a narrow strip near the building, very steep. The steepness was a part of the sharp rise that soared up directly behind the apartment house, up to a flat hilltop known as Blackberry Heights. Some of the most expensive houses in the city were in Blackberry Heights, and Joy was always wishing that she and Jessica could afford to live there. But since there was no hope of that, the next best thing was to live at the foot of the Heights, where you could share in some of the advantages. There were, for instance, the advantages of good schools and a good address. That was what Joy said. As far as Jessica was concerned, the main advantage was having a cliff for a back yard.
Beyond the cat-proof fence that enclosed the Regency’s private patch of hillside, the slope of the cliff became very steep and wild. Only weeds and ugly scratchy bushes grew there, struggling for a roothold in the almost vertical stone. A climber struggled, too, slipping and sliding, unless he knew the secret footholds, dug in the distant past by Jessica and Brandon. Anyone who knew those holds and followed them carefully halfway up the face of the cliff, came upon the entrance to the secret cave. That was where Jessica was going.
As she reached the last foothold and boosted herself up to the threshold of the cave, Jessica turned suddenly and peered downward, shading her eyes with her palm. Her face tightened into an expression of terror, and her voice shook as she said, “They’re still following. They’ve found the entrance to the pass.”