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  • H.K. Slade

Irony

Note: This story was originally published in Fear Forge: Spring Quarter 2023


Rare for me, I wrote this story specifically in response to a prompt: Write a horror story involving the Salem Witch Trials. I'd been tooling around with a near-future world where the supernatural exists, and I thought it would be interesting to see if I could tie the two together. (If you're following along, this actually takes place in the same timeline as New Evil and House in the Snow.)


I looked at history to give me the right characters. For setting, I dug into my own experiences serving warrants in illegal trailer parks (I wouldn't recomend it. Wandering alone into a maze of sheds and modified trailers looking for criminals is something you only do when you're young and dumb). I'd never written horror before, so I had to do a little soul searching to see what scares me. It turns out, I'm not scared of monsters... but I'm terrified of being helpless. Throw it all together, and I was able to sell what came out of the process.


It was a new genre, but I'm pretty pleased with how it turned out. I hope it scares you.


They lied. Housing. Climate. Healthcare. The government promised the end to so many crises that it triggered the same baseless, blind optimism that sells lottery tickets, and society bought it. But like most of science’s miracles, the truth was more curse than cure. It was as true in the 2090s as it had been in the 1890s and the 1690’s before that.

Trembling slightly but driven by a voice in the back of her head that was equal parts anger and desperation, Bridgett Osborn Parris stepped from the ShareRide into the early evening gloom. Half-frozen gravel crunched beneath her tennis shoes. She tapped her thumb to the Linkring on her pinky to activate her cochlear implant.

“Give me the address again,” Bridgett whispered. Her breath came out in a cloud.

“Sandra Solart. Lot number 16, Logan Grove, Nebraska. 68758,” the program’s sexless voice whispered back.

  The trailer park in front of her was a perfect example of the government’s failed promise. With the country’s population cut by a third, everyone should have been living in their own personal mansions. This wasn’t even a nice trailer park. Red clay dirt powdered the sides of the scattered trailers. Most of the windows, cracked and cloudy, had been repaired with chem tape and sheets of aluminum foil. A pair of mangy hogs roamed free, scratching at the ground and foraging through the weeds. The gravel road gave way to dirt tracts so riven by ankle-deep ruts that it looked like a still holo of a storm-churned sea.

A dog howled at the coming night. Bridgett couldn’t see the animal, but she heard the distinct sound of its chain snapping taunt. The chain sounded substantial. And too short. She was glad of it, her own sense of self-preservation drowning out the pity felt for the poor creature.

            Bridgett was a school teacher by trade, a remote learning specialist. She spent most of my days in a sterile, sound dampened cube reading scripted lectures to a camera, and she had no business being in a neighborhood like that, day or night. Looking back to the road, Bridgett seriously considering just leaving. But that would mean slinking back her tiny apartment, crying in the bathroom with her face buried in a towel so Aaron wouldn’t have to spend the night soothing her. The RideShare was already gone, though. She hadn’t selected the option for it to stick around.

            Cortez burned his ships, Bridgett thought and made her way deeper into the park.

            Lot 16 sat at the far end of a twisting path lined in bare elm trees and several discarded washing machines. Deep gouges in the gnarled elms matched the bumper of the old 2036 Ford pickup parked in front of a ramshackle trailer. The hulking structure took up the entire lot. There was a single yellow lamp burning on it, and as the sun slipped beneath the horizon under the cover of the perpetual overcast, Bridgett followed the light like a jaundiced guiding star.

            That rambling structure was as much a trailer as a landfill was a garbage pile. Someone had added so many layers of plywood and corrugated steel onto the rectangular aluminum box that it was unrecognizable as a one of the old, government-issued modhomes. Bridgett trudged up steps half-buried in a drift of leaves and stopped, her hand poised to knock. She was panting, and it wasn’t the cold or the hike in from the road. Her diaphragm was quivering so hard she couldn’t draw a full breath.

            She was terrified by her own purpose.

            They’d tried all the doctors, even the fringe ones. Most of them were nice, sickeningly so, but she never forgot about the woman in the lavender scrubs who gave her the injection. Twenty years later, Bridgett could still picture her eyes. They were so dark it was impossible to tell where the pupil ended and iris began. And her voice, rising and falling like a stage actor’s, made it seem like she was putting on a one-woman-show for a naive little eight-year-old girl.

            “Don’t worry, sweetie,” she told Bridgett. “When you’re good and ready to have babies, we’ll give you another little shot and turn everything on down there.”

            All science ever did was lie. She’d had enough of doctors. There were other ways, older ways.

            The voice in the back of her head, the one that made her brave in spite of herself, told Bridgett, “Stay angry. Remember what was done to you.” Her teeth popped as she ground them together, and her hand unfroze. Bridgett banged on the door so hard the latch rattled.

            A short, thick shouldered man with a shock of grey parting his curly hair threw open the door and squinted up at her. “Si?”

            “I’m here to see Sandra Solart,” Bridgett said, biting each syllable to keep her voice from quavering. She ducked her chin beneath the collar of her coat and folded her arms across her chest.

            The man’s squint grew deeper, and an edge crept into his voice as he looked her up and down. “Que?”

            For a few seconds, Bridgett stood there listening to her heart pound in her ears. The man shook his head and started to shut the door. The voice in Bridgett head growled. Anger rose up in her chest and she jammed the door open with my foot. She straightened up, unfurling her arms and rising out of the shell of her coat.

“The witch,” Bridgett snarled. “Where is the witch?”

His eyes went wide, and he drew back a step. His hand dropped from the door and covered the small golden crucifix hanging from his neck.

“Go round,” he said in heavily accented English. He lifted his chin and made a furtive nod to the side of the house. “Puerta roja. Knock once only.” Then he quickly closed the door, as if eager for its protection.

Bridgett climbed down the steps and circled the trailer clockwise. A rickety shed that someone had glommed on to the side of the structure force her to swing wide in order to keep going. “Shed,” was generous description; the hovel’s walls were just bright green tarps caked with dirt and mildew. They crackled like frozen sails when the wind gusted.

The wind carried the sound of people talking. A couple, or maybe a trio. All adults, no children, of course. No one living like that would have been able to qualify for a birth license.

Eventually, Bridgett found the red door. A structure of polyply and duracrete that had grown like a blister on the rear of the main trailer. Extension cords ran through the overlapping plates of corrugated plastic that made up the roof so that, taken as a whole, the building looked like a junk sculpture of a basilisk. As instructed, she knocked on the door only once.

Less than a minute later, the door swung out. Bridgett hadn’t known exactly what she’d been expecting, but it wasn’t the rather plain looking forty-year-old woman who emerged from the open door to stare at her quizzically. If she’d been forced to make a prediction, Bridgett would have said witches were supposed to be old and haggard with plenty of warts and a crooked nose. She was actually a little disappointed the woman wasn’t wearing a pointy black hat.

“What do you want?” the witch asked in a soft tone that took the sting out of the blunt words.

Bridgett had been thinking about how to answer that question all day. She’d concluded that there was no sense sidling up to the topic. “The Invetron shot didn’t take. They offered me a settlement, but I want a baby. I was told you could help me.”

The witch’s expression sagged, and her eyes went cold. “Who told you that?”            Bridgett didn’t know. The message had come in from a masked account, just a voice in the ether that gave her a name and address. And hope.  

“They said I should tell you the child’s name will be Dorothy. They said it would mean something to you.”

The witch’s lips pursed together, then relaxed into a smile that put creases in the corners of her eyes. “That it does, little dove, that it does. Come in out of the cold.”

She did as she was told. The witch ushered her in and closed the door.

Outside, the trailer park smelled of molding leaves, cheap vape, and pig shit. Inside, the distinct odor of pine resin and sage pushed away the filth. It was refreshing. It was warm, too. The interleaved rooms all had lamps with cheap, slightly purple digital argon bulbs, but most of the light and all of the heat came from a little potbellied stove. Bars of firelight shone through the stove’s simple grate and cast the space in a warm orange glow. The witch led her into the largest room, the one with the stove, and motioned for her to have a seat on the room’s couch.

“You must be Sandra,” Bridgett said, just break the silence. “The witch.”

The old woman smiled again and made a surprisingly practiced curtsy that instantly took thirty years off her age.

“And you must be Bridgett. I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”

It was news to Bridgett that she was expected at all. She nodded but sat forward, too skittish to settle back into the couch.

The witch crossed the room and fed a split log into the stove.

“What is your story, little dove?” she asked as she worked. “What has brought you to Ol’ Mother Solart, so far from the respectable part of town?”

“If you know my name, you have to know my story.”

The witch looked up from the stove and smile again. “Indulge me. Consider it part of my fee if it makes you feel any better.”

Bridgett didn’t want to talk about it, but always knew she was going to have to. At least one last time.

“You know how birth licenses work,” she said bitterly. “Or are supposed to work. What they tell us. I had my ovaries shut down before I hit puberty, just like everyone else. No unwanted pregnancies. They got that part right. I never even had a period. My mom wouldn’t shut up about how wonderful it was.”

Progress, her mother had called it. A miracle, her father had said. And everything was just fine until it wasn’t.

“My husband and I followed all the steps, met all the requirements. We’re financially stable. We passed the psych tests. We took the classes. But when they gave me my Invertron injection… how did they put it? I remained ‘dormant.’”

The tickle on her cheek told Bridgett she’d started crying again. She scrubbed at her eyes with her sleeve and sucked back her stuffy nose. The heat in the little room was building. So took the excuse to remove her jacket and compose herself.

The witch stood patiently, her eyes welling with pity, but never saying a word. Is she waiting on me to say more? Bridgett wondered. The silence stretched on, and Bridgett finally succumbed to the compulsion to fill it.

“The research says it only happens in .003% of all cases. Statistically insignificant, right? Unless you’re one of the .003%.”

The witch reached down and patted her hand. Her fingers were soft and slightly sticky, like candle wax. “Do you have any brothers? Sisters? Cousins?”

It was the first thing everyone suggests. “Oh, can’t you find a surrogate in the family?” Bridgett hated the question.

“No,” she answered, not bothering to hide the weariness in my voice. “Neither does my husband. He’s the last Parris we know of.”

The witch’s hand stopped patting and lay heavy on Bridgett’s. She looked up and could have sworn she saw the stove’s fire glinting in the older woman’s eyes.

“Can you help me?” Bridgett begged, her voice cracking.           

“Oh, little dove, of course I can.” The older woman gathered Bridgett’s hands in hers and squeezed. “They have called us witches for centuries, but what is a witch but a woman who knows nature’s ways? It’s the folly of men to think the way to tame her is with chemicals and instruments. Nature is a spirit, and spirit is the province of women. I can heal the wrongs done to you. I can make you whole. But…”

“But?”

She let out a deep breath. “But it will come at a price.”

Bridgett held out her Linkring, ready to transfer every dollar she had and more. “Name it.”

The witch straightened up and scowled. “Put your money away. I already told you, this is a matter of spirit. And body. The price must be paid in kind.”

Bridgett didn’t know what she meant, didn’t even really hear the words, but it didn’t matter. Desperation can leave a person blind and deaf.

The witch turned and, with deliberate slowness, took three items from the drawers of a weather-beaten dresser: a tarnished copper bowel, a rag, and a triangular butcher’s knife with a ground edge that gleamed in the firelight. Nodding expectantly, she handed them to Bridgett one at a time.

Bridgett wasn’t sure what the witch wanted from her, what she was supposed to do. Then the word “sacrifice” seared across the inside of her forehead. A finger? she wondered. A hand? More? What would be enough of a sacrifice to bring back what was taken from me?

Be bold, the voice in her head told her. Don’t faulter now. Bridgett looked at the knife and her imagination gave her a suggestion, a sacrifice worthy of her cause. She picked up the rag. It was clean but worn thin, hardly better than gauze. Folding it over with trembling fingers, she used it to grip the tip of her tongue. She closed my eyes and set the cold blade as far back on her tongue as she dared. Drawing a stuttering breath through my nose, she braced for the pain, focusing on what she was buying for my suffering, and…

The witch’s hand wrapped around Bridgett’s, her soft fingers surprisingly strong as she kept the knife from cutting.

“No, no, no, little dove,” she tsked. “What have they told you that you would think I’d want to mutilate you like that? Witches aren’t surgeons, we aren’t butchers. No, dear, I just need a drop of your blood. It only has to be willingly given. A little cut on your thumb will do.”

Bridgett released her tongue. It was so dry she had to peel the rag off. Conversely, sweat poured down her forehead if a spicket had been opened. If she’d had anything to eat that day, she would have thrown it up.

Nicking her left thumb barely using any pressure at all. Dark red blood welled in the cut. She made a tight fist over the copper bowl and the blood fell in drops. Drip, drip, drip… the sound of a slow leak in a kitchen sink. The witch took the rag from her and pressed it over the cut.

“See?” she said kindly. Her breath smelled of cloves. She transferred the bowl to the stove and said, “That wasn’t so dramatic, was it?”

Maybe it was the sight of blood or the increasing warm air in the hovel, or maybe it was how close she’d just come to severing her own tongue, but Bridgett suddenly became very lightheaded. She sat back on the couch and mopped her brow with the collar of her shirt.

“Irony,” the witch said as she poured liquid from a kettle into the copper bowl with her blood. She fished other items from the dresser drawers and began fiddling with them.

“What was that?” Bridgett asked. It was an effort to verbalize the question. her recently reprieved tongue felt thick in her mouth.

“Irony, little dove,” the witch said, sounding almost jovial. “Do you know about irony? You see, I knew nothing of witchcraft until after I was persecuted for using it. My first pact with dark powers only happened once I was condemned for it. You could say I retroactively justified my own murder. Irony.”

What was she saying? The heat was unbearable. Bridgett blinked the sweat out of her eyes, too tired to even lift her arm. “I… I don’t understand.”

The witch turned, and there was mockery on her soft features. “Oh, you’d like another example? How about this. You’ve been able to have children all this time. The only think keeping you from it was a spell. A spell, ironically, of mine. All I needed to do for you to conceive a little Parris child was stop casting it.”

Oh, shit, Bridgett thought. Run. Do something. Do anything! She tried to tap her Linkring to call for help, but there was no energy left in her, not even for that. “Why?” she asked, barely able to get the word out.

“Why cast the spell, or why did I need your blood?” The witch took the bowl in her hands and swirled the contents. It sloshed from side to side. “Since you’ve been so generous with yourself, I suppose I can answer both.” She took a seat on the couch next to her, the bowl nestled in her lap.

“You see, long, long ago, your ancestors accused me of being in league with the devil. They hung me until I was dead. Well,” she snorted, “dead in a sense. In a tiny jail cell over the corpse of my infant daughter, I made a deal with a demon. I learned how to walk down through the centuries, wearing the bodies of other women. As I said, it’s a simple spell.” She reached over and peeled back the bloody rag from Bridgett’s thumb. “It just requires a bit of blood.”

Leaning over, the witch whispered into her ear like a school girl sharing a secret. “I’ve been spending all this time finding the decedents of those who wrong me. Finding, and ending them. You won’t see the name Noyes or Putnam in this part of the world very often anymore. Your husband, little dove, is one of the last.”

She folded the rag back around Bridgett’s thump and carefully close her limp hand. “Any more questions?”           

The witch stood up, swirling the bowl again. “Well, if you think of any,” she said, “I’ll soon be in that head of yours. I always keep my host tucked away in the back somewhere in case I have questions.” As muddled as Bridgett’s thoughts were, it was impossible to mistake the cruel delight in the woman’s tone.

The witch downed her concoction in four gulps, and tarry filth dribbled down her cheeks. Finished, she dropped the bowl to the floor where it bounced and rang on the cheap polycrete stepping stones. Her ghastly smile, which had seemed so matronly before, was stained black with ichor. The glint in her eyes, only a hint earlier in the night, burned with a heat that rivaled the stove’s.

            And as quickly as it came, the look of malice and triumph on her plain face dissolved… into confusion.

            “Wha… wha… what?” she gasped and clutched at her stomach. Her eyes went unfocused.

            “Oh, Sarah,” Bridgett heard myself say. And it wasn’t her voice; it was the voice in the back of her head, the one that urged her to be brave when she was weak.

            Slowly and not under her own power, Bridgett got to my feet. The witch, as if connected to her on some level, dropped to her knees.

            Bridgett had no words for how strange it was to feel her mouth moving, the breath being exhaled from her lunges and having her tongue shape it into words, all without her direction. It wasn’t purposeless, though, she could tell. The voice using her body had a point to make.

“The irony here,” it said, “is that I never would have found you if you hadn’t sought out the girl. My dark patron is not nearly as powerful as yours. I had to wait for you to run through all the others to catch you. I had to use the last Parris as bait.”

            Realization blossomed in the witch’s features. She seemed on the verge of screaming, but couldn’t. She worked her fingers into her hair, digging for her scalp.

Unbidden, Bridgett crossed the room to the stove. Her hand opened the grate. It sizzled. She could smell the burning skin. The pain was blinding, but she didn’t have enough control to even scream. Whatever had hijacked her body took no notice.

“You have lived on in the stolen bodies of young women foolish enough to trust you. The only way I’ve survived is in the minds of my decedents. Surely you saw the resemblance in young Bridgett, the high cheekbones so characteristic of the Osborn women?”

            “Sarah Osborn?” the witch croaked as if forcing air though her closed throat.

            It had been a months since Bridgett had smiled, but she felt the corners of my mouth turn up. “See, there you go,” the voice controlling her, this dark hijacker, said. “Only a little slow, but you always were the stupid one, Sarah Good. Stupid and mean.”

            The witch’s hands came away from her head clutching clumps of her own hair. She tried to lunge at Bridgett, but something held her hands to her side. She never stopped struggling, though. The muscles on her neck cording up under the strain.

            Bridgett’s hijacker used a pair of tongs to pick a burning log from the stove’s firebox. Sparks and ash fell to the stepping stones as she walked across the room with it. Smoke began to haze the air in the tight space

            Oh, god, Bridgett thought. She tried to force words out, to halt her legs. She’d never considered herself a strong woman, but she gave it every ounce of her will, and she stumbled a step. It wasn’t much, the burning log never wavered, but it was a crack in the prison wall. Bridgett flailed at it with the desperation of a wild animal.

            “Stop, Bridgett,” the dark hijacker said. “You came here to rectify the wrongs done against you, and that’s exactly what we are doing. See, I know very well what happens when men in power abuse our trust. The women suffer.” She rotated the log, keeping the flame burning.

 “Ministers and magistrates...” the voice went on, “I fed an entire generation of them to my demon. But you know what is worse, Bridgett? When one of your sisters turns on you. Do you remember, Sarah Good, do you remember when you turned on us? Told them I was a witch?”

            The dark hijacker, this Sarah Osborn, was strong. Too strong. Bridgett reasoned that she didn’t have to overpower her to survive this, though; she just had to get enough control to tap her Linkring. Someone would come save her.

            The older witch, still kneeling in the middle of the rambleshack hut, spat back, “I was trying to save my own skin.”

            “Yes,” the hijacker agreed. “Yes, you were.”

            There was panic in the kneeling woman, now. She was begging. “Be reasonable, Sarah. They were threatening to burn me.”

            “That’s a lie, and you know it. They didn’t burn witches in Salem. Hang us maybe, or even drowning.” The log, now smoldering, lowered to the witch’s face. “But once again, we come back to irony, don’t we?”

            Something held the poor woman still, but her features flinched, crawling across her skull as if they could escape the heat. Whatever power held paralyzed her couldn’t keep her from crying.

            “P-please,” she hissed. “I don’t want to die alone, not like this.”

            Noooo! Bridgett raged inside her head. I will not do this. I will not let you use me this way.

            Her arm pulled the burning log from the kneeling woman’s face, but not under Bridgett’s command. Her dark hijacker was still in control.

            “Don’t worry, Bridgett,” the voice said. “I wouldn’t condemn another woman to anything I wasn’t willing to endure myself. Besides, the spell I put on her only works if I am here to hold the reins.”

            Her hand opened and the log dropped onto the couch cushions. In moments, the cheap fabric began to char and blacken.

            “You are the last of them, Sarah Good,” the hijacker said the helpless witch, “the last of the people responsible for me dying alone in the cell. This time, you and I will meet our end together.”

            Open flames leapt across the couch, and black smoke started filling the room. Bridgett watched it happen, horrified, terrified, powerless to stop it. Near the end, Sarah Osborne, her ancestor and lifelong companion, allowed her the use of her own voice.

            Bridgett used it to scream.

           

             

 

 

 

           

             

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