July 12, 2016
On the night of April 30, 2016 — the night before the worst wildfire in Canadian history lashed Alberta — I saw Betti Lafore get mad for the first time in my life.
We were all at a cottage party, celebrating a high-school reunion. The cottage, which belonged to our well-off hostess, was way out of town. Deep in the forest near the Athabasca River. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that some wild stuff went down. You name it — it was there. Drinks, drugs, bare breasts. A few people were even shooting rifles off in the backwoods. I don’t exactly remember all the other stupid stuff; the alcohol was flowing.
What I do remember, vividly, was seeing what happened to Betti at that party. I don’t know who invited her, or why she came. Maybe she just got lumped into the considerably large guest list. Maybe she was invited out of pity. Maybe she just came on her own. I’m not sure. I can guarantee, though, that no one actually expected her to show up. Not with how things were.
But she did show up. Sure as hell, she did. And she brought all her strange habits with her.
See, Betti was always, always picked on. Really bad. It wasn’t because she was an ugly girl. Actually, she was quite cute. Just grungy. She constantly looked like she never showered. Dark, greasy-looking hair. Always wore black clothes too big for her. Never any makeup. On top of that, she often smelled. Like dirt. A running joke used to be that she slept in a grave.
That wasn’t it, though. None of that was it. The real reason she got it so bad was because Betti Lafore was — different. Different in a really weird way; she thought she could cast magical spells.
Almost every day, she’d bring odd trinkets or knickknacks to school and sit alone at a table in the cafeteria. She’d mumble and wave her hands over pathetically amateurish crafts she’d created; circles and stars made of twigs that were glued or taped together. I had no idea what it all meant. But whatever she was doing, it never seemed to work. She’d wave her charms, mumble some words, and then hold perfectly still. When it became evident that nothing happened, she’d scratch her head with this quizzical expression on her face.
Perfect target for the bulls.
“Woah-hooohhh!” they’d holler — other students — “Hey, Betti! What are you, trying to curse someone? You some kinda witch?”
Every time anyone called her that — a witch — without fail, she’d twirl around and look with her brow and nose all scrunched together like she was offended. Then she’d correct them: “I’m not a witch, I’m a Wiccan.”
They’d howl with laughter.
Some variation of that occurred at least once a week, usually ending with that signature phrase, “I’m not a witch, I’m a Wiccan”. You see, Betti was the kind of girl that rarely got angry over anything. Never exhibited it, at least. But, when she was upset, you’d know. You’d see her cheeks redden and she’d heat up like a furnace. But she never fought back. At most, she’d attempt to cast ‘protection wards’, as she called them. To no effect, of course.
But that was enough. Those jerks would bait her reactions out however they could. Sometimes the witch-calling. Sometimes a pelting of cigarette-butts. Sometimes altogether worse. But, no matter what, she’d never hurt anyone. Not even so much as a verbal attack. She’d just wave her little baubles around and cast her imaginary spells. And the jackasses got their kicks. I don’t think she was even aware of their little games.
I was pretty low in the social-hierarchy myself, so I sort of knew what it was like. I felt bad for her. I guess that’s how I found the willpower to ask her out. I realize now that pity is not the foundation to build a relationship on. And there’s always a price to pay for just sexual motivations. But my teenage, idiot-self was arrogant, and wanted more than what she could give. A lot more. I guess that’s why we didn’t last. I guess that’s why she never dated again.
To this day, I don’t forgive myself for what I put that girl through. The arguments over her refusal of sex. The guilt-tripping. The messy breakup. After all of it, she just became more reclusive, more distrusting, and more obsessed with her hobbies.
And yet, here she was. At the cottage party. She sat cross-legged on the floor in the corner of the living area, by herself, tuned out from the whole ruckus. Her and I weren’t on speaking terms, but I couldn’t resist a smile when I spied her making hand-gestures and uttering inaudibly amidst the noisy commotion. I even felt a kind of guilty pleasure watching some of the people approach her and ask if she could cast a spell yet. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before they started asking if she was still a witch. She gave them her trademark response.
Suppressed laughter. Eyes rolling into the back of heads.
Different environment — same Betti. Only this time, instead of some home-made crafts in front of her, she had an open book. And a big flap-over bag.
As the revelry continued on, I overheard a lot of people commenting on a ‘smell’. There was some talk that it was coming from Betti. I made a pass by her and noticed it too. I’ll admit, it was far worse than what I remembered. Almost unbearable. You couldn’t even drink in her presence without it filling up your nostrils. A pungent, earthy kind of musk, combined with sulphur. No — rot.
But we partied on. Or tried to. Got drunker. Got higher. And the smell got stronger. It definitely spread.
By midnight, the only topic of discussion was that stench, that disgusting odour. No one wanted to go near the living area anymore; near Betti. It became this depressing aura that filled the place, and was ‘ruining the whole vibe, man’.
Mark Yunker was the guy to do it. Everyone agreed and urged him into it. He had a certain charisma and authority. Used to be a quarterback. Now he worked in insurance.
We all huddled around at the entryway to the living area to watch.
Mark strode over to Betti wearing a great, big, charming smile. “Heyyy,” he said, “it’s witchy! How are ya, Betts?” Then he looked back to us and raised an eyebrow. “There a broom around here?”
Laughter. Not so suppressed, this time.
When the mirth subsided, so did Mark’s smile. He turned back to Betti now, his face all-business. “Hey, look. You gotta head out. C’mon. This is supposed to be a party, and you’re stinking the place up.”
“I’m not doing anything wrong,” she said. “Go away.”
There was some murmuring from within the crowd. Oooh, drama.
“Yeah,” Mark said, “but —” he breathed in sharp and shook his head, “it’s a party. We want to party. That’s the whole point. No one can party when it smells like an old tomb in here.”
Betti furled her brow and looked at all of us for a long, awkward moment. The only sound was the deep thumping of a pop-beat coming from the stereo.
“C’mon,” said Mark. He waved his hand and started walking away. “Let’s go. I’ll get you a cab.”
Suddenly Betti stood straight up, and lifted her flap-over bag up off of the floor. By the leverage of her body, you could tell there was some weight to it. Quite a bit.
She swung the flap open, turned it upside-down, then shook it. When everyone saw what came out, we all realized the true source of the awful smell:
Crows. Dead crows. A full murder.
Wet bunches of them plopped onto the hardwood; lifeless, putrefied, ebon birds. Withered tails. Tattered plumage. Broken beaks.
A number of us gasped. A few gagged. The thing about dead birds — or any animal with solid-coloured eyes — is that no matter where you stand it looks like they’re looking into you. These crow-corpses were no exception.
Betti shook the bag one last time, and the last crow flopped out. She started in the opposite direction, making like she was going to leave.
That would have been the end of it. I truly believe it would have. If it wasn’t for what Tim Morford did next.
A half-empty beer-bottle spun through the air, and landed right on Betti’s forehead. Stopped her mid-step. The bottle clattered to the floor in a puddle of foam.
At first, I thought Betti would pass out. Instead, she pressed her hands against her forehead and wavered for a moment. Then stumbled backwards. Back to her corner. And fell ass-first into the pile of dead crows. Blood oozed out from between her fingers as lustrous black feathers drifted through the air around her.
Everyone was dead-silent.
Staggering out from the crowd, and tearing himself away from grabbing hands, came the culprit: Tim Morford. Plumber, drunkard, and asshole extraordinaire.
“Forget her,” he growled. “You know what my dad called people like her — Heathen. Goin’ straight to Hell.”
Somebody called out: “Tim, your dad was —”
“Nah! Old man was right!” He swayed and pointed a limp finger. “Fuck’s sake, just look! Dead birds? It’s Satanism. People like her fuckin’ up this whole fuckin’ country with their fucked beliefs and fucked agendas. Same with the faggots. And the transies. Forget that! Forget her!”
“Uh, Tim —”
“Nah, nah! This ain’t right! This fuckin’ bitch! Why don’t you just party? Like us? Like normal people!? Why you gotta bring your cult shit here? Huh!? Fuckin’ witch!”
Betti just sat there with her palms to her face, rocking back and forth. Rivulets of fresh blood trickled down her wrists and dripped off her elbows, pitter-pattering against the bodies of the black birds.
As if an idea struck her, she paused. She lowered her arms, revealing the deep gash on her forehead and blood-drenched face. Her wide, red-rimmed eyes took in the cadaverous pile of crows before her.
Then she plunged both bloody hands wrist-deep into the pile of crows. She whispered something at it.
That’s when a dreadful feeling started in my gut, and crawled up to the top of my head. I saw the times I spent with Betti flash from behind my eyelids like a high-speed film. I remembered her showing me passages from her favourite black book. I remembered the rituals involving dead animals. I remembered the power of virgin’s blood.
And Betti was a virgin.
I couldn’t stop myself from shoving a couple people aside. “Betti,” I said, “don’t —”
“Party,” she said. She raised her head and then slowly stood up, glaring at all of us. The almond-shaped cut on her forehead like an extra eye. She breathed heavy through her nose. “That’s what you want?”
The lights in the room flickered. Then dimmed. Then they went out. It was strange because the bulbs were still glowing, except the light they should have given off seemed to be immediately halted at a barrier of dim darkness.
There was the sound of breaking glass from somewhere in the kitchen. A number “ohmigods” from the crowd. The rest of us were the definition of dumb-struck.
Betti, however, was something else. Her eyes were glowing orange. So was the wound on her forehead.
The room got warmer. Much warmer, very quickly. Intense heat emanated outwards from where Betti stood, causing many of us, including myself, to cover our faces and turn away. There was a loud whoosh, accompanied by a momentary wave of even greater heat. Then the furious cackling noise of great pyre. And it didn’t stop. It just grew louder. By the time I mustered the courage to look back, I saw the most terrifying thing I may ever see in my lifetime.
Betti was completely set ablaze. The crackling, billowing girl’s face was now charred beyond recognition. Flames licked at her bubbling flesh, causing it to run like wax down her skeletal frame. Her eyes were liquid fire that dripped out of their sockets. And a crack in her cranium, from the injury before, glowed just as bright.
She raised her fiery arms. Her face split open and burning skin peeled away from her jaw so that she could shriek with the terrible vehemence and vitriol of a demoness of hell:
“YOU WANNA PARTY!?”
We jumped back.
With a violent hiss, her chest burst open and streams of fire rushed out into the crowd.
Everyone scrambled, pushing and shoving. There was discordant screaming from all around. Screaming that was cut short by the roaring of fire.
Has-been-quarterbacks did a flaming 40-yard dash. Never-were-cheerleaders did a new number in Stop, Drop, And Roll. Never-will-be-nerds learned what it would be like to be an inept Johnny Storm. Everyone else swatted and twisted. A wicked dance of death as they tried futilely to beat back the relentless, consuming flame.
Everyone but me.
Tim, now a human torch, grabbed hold of my arms. His skin sizzled under the fire. He smelled like a barbeque. A piece of his cheek popped as he shook and shouted hoarsely: “Help! Oh, God! Oh — God! Oh — AAAUUUGH!!”
I wretched myself away from the conflagrant, garbling mess that was once Tim. He toppled over in a sparkling whirl.
Curiously, there were no burns on me. But every adrenal instinct in me still compelled me to get out of there. Each time I made for a door or exit, however, the very building would conspire against it. Doors swung shut and locked on their own accord. The wood from the walls sprung out from their place and barred windows. And although the fire never seemed to catch hold of me, it only made it all the more horrifying to helplessly watch those around me be eaten alive. To blacken and change.
Eventually — mercifully — all the screaming, all the writhing, all the madness, slowly diminished until everyone around me were nothing but piles of smouldering ember.
And there was Betti. Or rather, Betti’s jagged outline now. Still blazing with terrible radiance. The air around her bending from the thermals. She spoke in an echoey, ghostlike tone, and with each word tiny flakes of cinder plumed out from her mouth. “Have your party,” she said. Then her voice dropped to a raspy hiss. “Burn your witch.”
I tried to say something: “Wh-What —” I was forced to choke back my words as heat flooded over. I could barely look at her without squinting.
She turned to me. Flame flickered at the back of her throat, and a tongue of molten moved from behind her scorched teeth. “You. Come to see what you helped create?”
“No, I — I don’t —”
“I’ll bind your soul. I’ll bind both our souls. But that’s for later. Not in Heaven, or Hell. But in Death.”
I was about as confused as I was frightened. Before anything else happened, I noticed Betti’s ragged silhouette became bones. The bones splintered and broke. Then, all at once, they burst. Sparking pieces spiralled outwards, clattering against the walls and toppling at my feet.
Nothing remained where she was, except for the fire, which quickly grew, grew, and grew, drifting upward, until its tip whipped against the roof.
The doors and windows opened.
Without hesitation I got out and ran with legs that felt like gelatine. All sanity seemed beyond me. All I knew was running; one foot in front of the other. I got out about a kilometre before I collapsed from exhaustion.
Hyperventilating, I looked back and saw the cottage. It jumped up in a gorging fire that painted the night sky red.
That fire spread and consumed thousands upon thousands of acres. A mandatory evacuation was declared. It took two months before it was deemed ‘under control’. It was one of the worst disasters in our history. Investigations could not determine the cause of the fire, but it was firmly suspected to be human-caused.
I know which human.
Betti Lafore had to die. She had to die because her existence was only to be a punching bag for intolerance. I’m just as much to blame. Ultimately, I couldn’t accept her. I treated her like she owed me. Like her value depended on that. And at the core of it, that is exactly how everyone else treated her. They demanded her to pay their toll, or be gone.
Society needs that, it seems. People need something that they can point fingers at, and say, “There, that’s evil. That’s a witch.”
I can still hear her voice —
(“I’m not a witch, I’m a Wiccan.”)
— every time I think about it.
But I knew Betti better than anyone ever did. For a little while, at least. I can tell you that she was was a whole and complete human being. Not a witch. Not a Wiccan. But a girl.
Yeah. A girl. A human. A human that felt emotions of anger and sorrow, and was driven to act on those emotions, like any other might.
I hope that doesn’t come off as justification, considering what happened. But whatever truth lies in that fills me with questions. Why didn’t I burn? Why was I the only survivor? What did Betti mean when she said she’d bind my soul? The more I think about it, the more I’m just infected with guilt and regret.
I almost wish for death. Almost. I say ‘almost’ because, since that terrible night, I’ve became more than a little obsessed with black magic. Betti’s only interest in life. Hoping to understand. Hoping to find forgiveness. I didn’t.
What I did learn filled me with complete and utter dread and aversion to what’s coming:
To create fire, even in terms of magic, you need three things; oxygen, heat, and fuel. Oxygen is all around in the air, so for Betti, that was probably easy. The tricky part is heat and fuel. In order to conjure fire, you at least need the power to generate or manipulate large amounts of heat. Heat radiates, like light, so it can in many ways be directed and thus not necessarily set fire to the stuff the sorceress doesn’t want to immolate. But you need that source of heat, first. No matter what.
In other words, the term ‘conjure’ doesn’t so much refer to creating it out of thin air, but rather directing existing heat to go where you want it to.
Betti’s fire was the result of something that could produce enough heat to burn an entire cabin full of people. That heat had to have come from somewhere. The lights and vents couldn’t possibly have been enough. There had to be more.
I think I know.
It’s what’s waiting for me when I see her again. That thing that will bind us together, never to be free. All this time I’ve been asking for forgiveness. What I deserve is what fuelled the fire. What she fed on. A catalyst so strong that it caused her body to heat up with the power of an inferno.
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