CHAPTER 5 – Sorcery
Each of the aggressors seemed to be waiting for someone else to take the first swing. Finally, after a delay long enough for Matti to begin to hope they had changed their minds, one of them – the insurance agent or maybe lawyer—took half a step forward and cocked his fist.
However, instead of brutal blows pummeling her body, Matti felt herself suddenly swept up and away from them. For a fleeting moment she was once again in her father’s powerful arms, like a time so many years ago when she had chased a ball into the path of a fast approaching gravel truck. That first moment quickly evaporated, and the next one filled with confusion as she rose above the threatening mob and out of their reach even as they lunged for her. The heel of her sneaker scraped across the top of the fence as she cleared it and floated out over the river—fifteen feet above the turbid water.
“What the hell!”
“But – but, there ain’t no such ….”
“Witchcraft! It’s witchcraft!”
Matti’s fear of the impending beating dissolved as a deeper, more soul-rending terror of the unknown tore at her. She finally found her voice and screamed a full-throated, head-shaking, wordless plea for help. Her arms wind-milled and her legs bicycled, but to no avail. Moving at just over walking speed, she floated across the river, narrowed there to a mere fifty-foot breadth between nearly vertical banks.
At the steeply sloping east bank, she bobbled in her descent until she settled as gently as a falling leaf amid a tangle of ice plant. Scrambling about on hands and knees, she made it up to clear ground at the top of the bank. Just as she reached level ground – a paved, narrow driveway that serviced the back of the building on that side of the shopping center – a grime-covered figure back in the shadows of a nearby, recessed doorway moved enough for her to notice. Not knowing what to expect, she went rigid.
A fist-sized rock bounced past her from behind. She snapped her head around to look back toward the opposite bank just as second stone landed closer and brushed against her pants leg on the first bounce. The men on the far side of the water were heaving whatever they could get their hands on; some items were so heavy they fell almost immediately into the water. Stones, bits of metal from the nearby burned truck and various pieces of debris rained down on her side of the water.
“They’re not gonna quit,” said a voice from the shadows. “This way!”
When he took off to her right, Matti followed.
They ran around the end of the building and across the shopping center’s central parking lot where they ducked behind a corner of a small, collapsed building on the far side. By the time the small mob made it back to Washington Street, across the bridge and to the parking lot entrance, Matti and her savior were well hidden. After several minutes of hand waving, gesturing and poking into several blown-away storefronts and among the mass of the destroyed cars filling the parking lot, their pursuers gave up and walked away muttering and shaking their heads.
Matti and her mysterious rescuer huddled behind the collapsed wall and watched until they were gone. Now that Matti felt safe enough to take her eyes off he men, she looked over at her ash and grime-covered knight.
Although filthier than she was, he wore jeans, sneakers and polo shirt like her. He also wore a windbreaker that was as ash-covered as the rest of his clothing but with a bit of embroidery on the left breast that looked familiar. She reached out and pensively touched the material, brushing the gray from the cursive lettering with her shaking fingertips until she uncovered the sweeping strokes of gold colored thread on sky-blue nylon. With eyes open wide, she peered into his grimy face and gasped.
“Woody? Woody, is that you?”
She flung her arms around his neck, and her face burrowed against his neck as the sobs began … again.
“Oh, Woody! Momma and Dad –”
Almost afraid to believe it was really him, her hands sought out the familiar feel of the embroidered, dinner plate-size patch beneath thick layers of ash on the back of his jacket. A couple of her suggestions had even been incorporated when the Aeros, a local radio-controlled airplane club, designed their club emblem. It was an airplane-arrow hybrid encircled by the club name and their motto, Sky High & On Target.
They remained there for a couple of minutes, kneeling and crouching amid the ruins while her tears made a muddy smear in the ashes covering his shoulder as he stroked her back.
She gasped, jerked back, and peered into his eyes.
Gripping Woody’s arms, she pleaded, “Have you seen Jamal? He wasn’t home when … it happened. He might have gone to the park, or even up-the-hill.”
“Up-the-hill” was an open field on top of a hill just south of town where the property owner permitted The Aeros to operate. Jamal and Woody were both members. Although Matti wasn’t officially a member, she was a frequent guest and supporter. She and Woody knew each other in school, although he was a year ahead of her, but it was their association in the club, meeting at members’ homes on a rotating basis, that had grown beyond casual friendship.
They had been friends since junior high, and he was still not all that large, a couple of inches taller and maybe twenty pounds heavier than Matti’s trim frame. And he, too, was active in school sports, mainly track and football.
They had casually dated off and on during the past year, but nothing serious developed. She hadn’t seen him since they had gone to a party a couple of weeks earlier, although she found he often intruded into her thoughts. But now, he was here, touching her, in the flesh, grinning, breathing – alive. He was a familiar face, a known in a world filled, now, with increasingly horrifying unknowns. She was no longer alone.
Woody slowly shook his head as he peered back into Matti’s beseeching eyes. “I was up-the-hill, myself, when they arrived – flew right over me. He wasn’t there. Sorry.”
Her eyes began to glisten as she felt the weight of her loss returning, although it had never been far away. Fighting it off, she asked, “What about your family? Is your mom...?”
Woody continued to shake his head, but now the glisten of his eyes began to match hers.
Matti had met his parents and liked them, although, his father tended to be pretty harsh. Maybe a son needed it. She could imagine parenting a boy through high school could be quite a challenge, almost as much as with a girl. He had two sisters, but they were older and living away. Matti had never met them. She remembered his mother was not much different from Momma.
Again, tears and throat wrenching sobs overwhelmed her. With Woody there to hold her, to share with her a loss so great it could hardly be comprehended, she finally opened to it. She cried and grieved. With Woody, at least she could.
Feeling drained, she pulled back a little and looked back into his eyes. Her frown pulled the inner corners of her eyebrows down when she asked, “How did you … what did you … how did I …?”
“I don’t know.” Matti’s doubt was in her eyes, and he added, “Really, I don’t know. I was walking around over here and saw those guys chase you into a trap. I didn’t even know it was you, at first. Then, when I realized it was you, I knew you were in some pretty deep trouble, and I was scared to death. I just wanted so bad to get you out of there … just to pluck you up and … and here you are.”
“Then you didn’t … it wasn’t you that –?”
“Yeah, I think it was. It was like I felt – I don’t know – like in my mind, I felt right. I felt like I was in control. I could feel – something … I don’t know. Something, sorta like scratching an itch. And, it just seemed to fit. None of this makes any sense at all, does it? I don’t know what happened or what I did, but I’m sure glad I was there to do it.”
“Oh, Woody, so much has happened, so much that is so strange, I’m about ready to accept just about anything.”
After she described the strange vibes that resulted in her sharing a storm-drain with a large, black dog, she asked, “Am I a witch? Are you? Were we changed by what happened yesterday, or were we like this before? I don’t think I ever talked with animals before, not really two-way like I did yesterday. But maybe I did and just didn’t know it.”
“Well, I know I never flew anyone across a river, before. And, I’ll tell you, it scared the hell out of me.”
“I don’t know who was more scared, me or those guys reaching for me. And, I’ll tell you what: if they get hold of either one of us, I think there’ll be a witch-burning.”
“Yeah, I hear you.