She walked until she came to a clearing. It was small, maybe fifteen feet in diameter, more like a pause in the undergrowth than a true clearing. But it was the first clearing, and the book said on a night when the western sky was red, walk towards the setting sun until you come to the first clearing. It didn’t say anything about how big it needed to be.
Tonight the sky was like a deserted battlefield of tattered, bleeding clouds. That’s how she’d known it was time.
She set her pack down with a grimace and windmilled her arms a few times. Mr. Bojangles was big as cats went, and her muscles were aching from carrying him and the other equipment on what had turned out to be a goodish walk, maybe two miles.
She opened the pack from the top just wide enough to stick her hand in and feel around for the candle, matches and the familiar. Mr. Bojangles clawed at her hand and she hissed with pain and gave him a practiced, reproachful pinch. Bad kitty, she whispered.
The book said the familiar should be something the target invested emotional importance in. She had spent awhile thinking about that.
It was harder than she thought, deciding on a familiar. At first she’d thought to take his pen, especially when he’d set it right on the edge of the table, tantalizing her with the nearness of its chewed blue cap, so recently pressed against the full pinkness of his lower lip.
In the end she decided the pen wouldn’t do, despite the anxiety the chewmarks suggested. Anxiety wasn’t the same as emotion, even she knew that. She didn’t even bother to pick it up when he left it on the table, right there at the edge. Some might have called that a sign, but she was scornful of such obviousness. If it was that easy, then anyone and everyone could do it, which was clearly not the case as proven by the book, which had sat for years, right there in its queasy red cover, for anyone to see and read. For anyone to see and read and learn.
But no one did. Until she found it dusty and forgotten in a corner of the reference room.
It would have been easy if he’d had a cat, or a dog – two birds with one stone, the familiar also the sacrifice. But he had no cat or dog. He had a little sister, though after some thought she decided her mother’s cat Mr. Bojangles was the better option. Easier.
She ended up taking his sunglasses. She heard him talking about them, how they’d belonged to his father, dead in the war in the desert. She’d seen the notice in the paper, and ached at his week-long absence.
It wasn’t hard to get the glasses. She didn’t know if the charm she muttered was particularly powerful, or if he was just a heavy sleeper (or if it was nothing more than her natural gift for silence) but he never even stirred when she climbed through his window at precisely 3:15 a.m. (the book had been clear about this, that it couldn’t be a minute before or after but precisely).
She stood silently in his moon-dappled room, getting her bearings. She rifled his pants and coat pockets before she noticed the glasses sitting on the desk, facing him, as if watching over him as he slept.
Or watching out for me, she thought with a thrill. But a silent one; she was good at silence.
She stared at him for awhile, maybe longer. She wanted to kiss him but the book had said very sternly that she must not interfere. She wanted to touch his face, the part of his jaw where the smooth flushed skin of his cheek became the still-almost-imperceptible hardening edge of his jawline, where scruff would soon prickle, where his waning boyhood and impending manhood would battle for dominance.
I’ll help you with that, she promised him silently.
She felt the pulse in her forehead flutter so hard that it lowered the shade of her eyelid, something that had begun happening when she first started reading the book. She’d tried to catch the flutter in the mirror but didn’t have to to understand that it was making her look weird, making it even harder than normal to not seem so odd, not seem so strange, not seem so fucking off-kilter all the time.
Her lid fluttered again and pulled her eye into a droopy leer that she couldn’t see but could feel, that made her want to claw it out and swallow it whole.
Instead, she squinched it shut.
The sheet lay in a drift over his abdomen, flat with muscle. A line of wispy hair led like an arrow from his navel to under the sheet.
She stared one-eyed at that a moment, imagining tracing her finger down that line, her raw bitten nail disappearing under the sheet to touch him, wake just that part of him as he slept, stroking him to alertness and never having to worry about glancing up to see him half awake and horrified at the sight of her but even so not even recognizing her, they never recognized her, even if they’d just checked out a book they didn’t recognize her, even when she was looking right at them, even when she was right there in front of them, they never recognized her. She was as invisible as her silence.
Her finger was actually touching the edge of the sheet and the first downy filaments of hair when he snorted in his sleep. She gasped and snatched her hand back, reaching for the glasses on his desk in nearly the same motion.
She would not interfere. If she did, the whole thing would be for nothing: finding the book, the cat in its gravesack, all those years watching him. All that time following the father, home on leave, constantly ducking out of sight, casting and recasting the spell. All for nothing.
She looked at him – at his soft hairless cheek – a moment more, and then made her silent way back out the window.
He would recognize her soon enough. Things were going to be different from now on.