Gen took a break from digging and wiped sweat-pasted black hair from her brow, smearing graveyard dirt onto her clammy, pale skin. She could just hear those bitchy witches from the Instagram coven she’d tried to join.
“Maybe if you were a proper witch you would have been able to get that spell to work.”
“Actually, if she was a proper witch she shouldn’t have had to look up a spell on the internet.”
“A proper witch would know how to…”
Just like Grandma Mac. Ugh.
Her hands trembled, though whether from exertion or anxiety, she wasn’t sure. The moon, a couple days past full, rose over the tops of the pines edging the east side of the cemetery, its silvery shimmer cutting through the scattering rain clouds and glinting off the puddles the evening showers had left behind. Good. It would help her to see what she was doing better than the sorry excuse for a lantern she’d bought from the wilderness outfitters store earlier. That was $9.99 wasted. She’d even tried a spell to brighten it—involving water and coating the tip of her wand with potassium from an amateur chemistry set—but all that had done was cause the wand to fizz and explode in a shower of lilac sparks. Useless.
What did those Instawitches really know about magic anyhow? She leaned back into the hole. Only another foot or two to go and she’d finally have it. Her maternal grandmother’s amulet. A talisman that would prove her magical birthright. Then she’d show them who was a proper witch.
Grandma Mac may have looked like a bona fide god-fearing woman on the outside, going to mass every Sunday and taking communion with the rest of the congregation, but once she’d had a powerful evil eye and a trove of magical artifacts that could shrivel, burn, freeze, pierce. You did not want to cross her.
Tires hissed on the wet pavement as a car drove past, traveling south on Main. Gen peeked up to make sure it wasn’t stopping and glanced at her phone leaning against Grandma and Grandpa Mac’s headstone next to the lantern. 12:45 shone back in blinding numerals, even though she’d turned the brightness down all the way. The damn phone gave off more light than that weak-ass lantern. If she was right, the nighttime patrol wouldn’t make it to this side of town for another twenty minutes at least. Thank Hecate for small-town complacency. She swung her shovel down again.
Her heart stuttered. There it was! She dropped to her knees and brushed away dirt clods, feeling the coffin’s warped lid, flakes of the cheap varnish over the cherry wood chipping off with each swipe. Grandma Mac had been dead less than a month—not enough time for the chintzy press-board box she’d been buried in to break down much, but long enough to give it a good start.
A wave of loss swamped Gen momentarily, but she resumed clearing away the dirt with extra vehemence. She wasn’t sad, dammit. Not that way at least. The old witch had never accepted her. Instead of enjoying the loving, wise-one relationship she could have had, Gen had never measured up to Grandma Mac’s witchy standards. Grandma Mac had confirmed as much on her deathbed, telling Gen that instead of bequeathing her powerful amulets to her only granddaughter, she was having Aunt Maeve sell them to a private collector. Except one piece, the most valuable one—rumored to give its wearer the ability to persuade those around them to bend to her will—a gold-plated crucifix passed down from her mother’s mother’s mother.
Grandma Mac could have been generous. Gen had been begging her for the amulet for years. Wouldn’t Grandma Mac want her prized possession to go to her direct descendent? And if she’d given it to her when Gen first asked, she could have taught her how to properly wield it too. But Grandma Mac had mumbled about Gen’s father and how she’d never allow him nor any of his kin to possess the amulet. And then she had gone and had the gall to be buried with it.
Gen felt around the cleared edges of the coffin, hissing and cursing as the splintery edges embedded themselves in her fingers. Thankfully she didn’t feel any spells or hexes carved into the lid to keep out anyone who would try to break in and steal the amulet. That would be just like Grandma Mac. But was it stealing if Gen was only taking back what was rightfully hers?
She clambered back out of the hole to retrieve the ax she’d borrowed from Aunt Maeve’s garage. She’d never be able to dig out enough dirt to clear the whole coffin lid, so she had to resort to more… brutish methods of retrieval. The damp earth’s acrid smell tickled her sinuses, and the residue of the evening’s showers soaked through her jeans and sweatshirt along with her sweat. She shivered off the thought of bugs in the dirt and swung the ax down onto the lid with a thud. The coffin didn’t crack.
She swung again, more fiercely this time. The wood groaned, and though it didn’t break, it felt scored and dented from her attempts. She was having an impact. It couldn’t be that much longer until she broke through.
Ok, here goes, she thought, repositioning herself. One, two, three! She stumbled forward as the axe stuck in the lid. She adjusted her grip and pulled. It didn’t so much as wiggle.
“Oh are you kidding me?” she said out loud.
She brushed her muddy hands on even muddier clothes. “I’m not giving up that easy. I want that amulet, you crusty old hag.”
She gave the axe handle a disk-herniating heave. The wood groaned and cracked, then splintered. She was in! She dropped down and pulled away chunks of coffin lid. The fusty smell of death made her gag, but she bit the sides of her tongue and groped around until her fingers brushed the crucifix’s cold, sharp metal.
A car door slammed down past the cemetery fence. Gen froze and the amulet slid out of her reach, as she heard the crunch of Goretex on the gravel path leading up to the gate.
“Shit,” she hissed as she scrambled out of the muddy hole, grabbed her phone, and staggered toward the cover of the trees at a clumsy trot. The earlier evening’s rain still dripped off the pine boughs, adding to the collective dampness of Gen’s hair and clothes. Crouching in the shadows and trying to control the gasping breaths her little jog had cost her, she watched Arty Reynolds walk up the path toward Grandma Mac’s grave, his deputy’s badge glinting in the moonlight, his standard-issue Maglite bobbing. When the beam swept across the dug-up grave he stumbled. Shit, shit, shit.
The static from Arty’s walkie talkie made her jump. “Yeah, dispatch, this is Officer Reynolds calling. I want to report some vandalism at Liberty Hill. Affirmative. Somebody dug up old lady McAliley’s grave.”
The sound of static filled the empty graveyard as dispatch relayed instructions to Arty.
“No. Tell him it doesn’t look like anyone’s still here. No cars or anything, and I didn’t see anyone as I walked up.” He shuffled around the hole toward the headstone as Gen watched. He’d probably be able to hear her heart from where he stood if he stopped and listened. More static response.
“Actually, sir, there’s a lantern, I think, on the ground a few yards past the headstone. Hadn’t seen it before. Pretty poor quality if you ask me. It’s not casting enough light to take a piss by. Somebody must’ve dropped it. I’ll take a look around.” Arty pushed the lantern over with his toe and shook his head. He raised his Maglite and swept the cemetery’s edge with its beam.
Shit. Was she going to get busted because of that damn useless lantern? What was the penalty even for graverobbing? Not that she’d call what she was doing “robbing.” She was the one who’d been robbed. Grandma Mac should have left that amulet to her. She was just reclaiming what was rightfully hers!
“Do you think there’s any truth to that rumor that old lady Mac was a witch?” Gen heard Arty ask as he edged closer to the shadow of the pines and to her hiding spot. “Well, no sir, of course I don’t believe in witches.” He paused. “Well, yes sir, I understand. Yes sir. Over and out.” He had reached the edge of the moonlight, the silver glow highlighting his stubbly chin.
Instinctively, Gen grabbed her wand from her sweatshirt pocket, gripping the elm-wood handle with shaking fingers. Although what she planned to do with it, she wasn’t sure. Poke Arty in the eye? She didn’t know any attack spells. She wasn’t even sure the wand was authentic. She’d bought it on Etsy from a sweet little shop with a Goth aesthetic. A proper witch would… She squeezed her eyes shut to stop the voice in her head. Holding her breath and willing herself not to vomit with anxiety and humiliatingly reveal herself, she focused on the beam of Arty’s flashlight. Nothing to see here, Arty. Nothing to see here. You want to go back to the station now. You don’t want to continue searching the trees. She breathed deep, in and out—quietly—as much to calm herself as to raise the vibration of misdirection.
She clenched the wand handle and shivered as a chilly breeze swept through the trees, bringing a stream of water down from soaked pine boughs. One giant droplet landed smack onto the end of Gen’s wand and reacted with the leftover potassium. In the millisecond before the flash momentarily blinded both of them, Gen saw Arty’s mouth frozen in a terrified O, and the whites of his eyes all the way around his dilated pupils. Gen dropped the sparking wand and let out a scream that would have made a banshee jealous. Spooked, Arty ran straight for his patrol car, Goretex boots kicking gravel onto the discarded lantern as he passed. The old cruiser’s tires squealed on the wet pavement as he fled.
Gen stood completely still until the patrol car was out of sight, her heart racing and her face burning with embarrassment. She had screamed. Like a little girl. OMG, if Arty ever figured out it was her, she might really vanish in a puff of smoke. If she was a proper witch… Whatever. What did it matter? She’d scared him off. That was the point, wasn’t it? Who made the rules about “proper” witches anyhow?
She crouched down and retrieved her wand, then hustled back down the path. Someone would surely come back to investigate once Arty made his report. She slid into the grave, reached back inside the coffin, and fumbled around for the amulet.
As soon as her fingers closed around the crucifix, a tremor like a sustained static shock ran up her arm. Her hand buzzed, her muscles clenched, and her hair stood on end. She sucked in a breath through gritted teeth, but she didn’t let go. A fresh gust swirled up from beneath her, and a bolt of fear rocked her as Grandma Mac’s face rose up in front of her, twisted with fury and shriveled in death—a gruesome, transparent caricature of the woman Gen had known. One last protection spell to keep the unworthy away. Gen tightened her grip and pulled. This is my birthright!
“You aren’t going to scare me off, you dusty old witch,” she hissed. Grandma Mac snarled, her ghostly teeth bared as she lunged toward her granddaughter. Gen jerked back and the chain snapped. Grandma Mac’s ghost let out a wail as it burst into a thousand wisps of smoke and disappeared.
Gen stumbled back against the earthen wall, body shaking, hand still buzzing with the energy of the amulet. Too musty down here, but she needed a moment to collect herself before she could scramble back to the surface. Holy crap, I did it! Her ears rang as the blood rushed through her veins. She palmed the crucifix and rubbed Jesus’s shiny head. She might thank him for protecting her, if she believed in that kind of thing.
She took a deep gulp of air, pulled her phone out, and opened Instagram to go live. The app would notify anyone online so they could tune in.
“This is for all you bitchy witches who didn’t believe I would do it.” She held the crucifix up next to her face and then panned to the open maw of the grave. The shadows gave her a stark, fierce quality better than any witchy filter she could apply. She pushed away from the muddy wall, her shaking hand making the video feed tremble. “You all think you’re so special. But I bet none of you has the guts to dig up a grave. How many of you can trace your ancestry back to true witches?”
Never mind that Grandma Mac had wanted to disavow her. Bloodlines be damned. She would not be denied her inheritance. She bared her teeth at the camera. 500 people already viewed her live feed, 600, 700, she lost track… Let the whole world see.
She scrambled out of Grandma Mac’s grave, propped the phone against the headstone, and stood in the video stream. She looked like shit, but she didn’t really care anymore. The moonlight covered for her where it mattered. A proper witch didn’t need to be Instagram perfect to wield her power. She raised her wand, pointing it toward the moon, and stared down the camera, as though looking directly into the eyes of her viewers. Another breeze swirled around her, lifting the ends of her hair and sending a few dead leaves past.
“I am Genevieve McAliley, granddaughter of Lula May McAliley. I have recovered my talisman, and warded off those who would seek to bind my power. I claim my title for myself. I do not need your approval. I know myself. I am a proper witch.”
© 2023 Elisabeth Kauffman