Six minutes to make a decision.
I glance at the dashboard clock again and wring my sticky palms on the steering wheel. The key is still in the ignition; I could just drive away. But it’s not that easy. The first step to changing my life is only six minutes away—the only opportunity I’m likely to get. It could solve everything: no more living hand to mouth; no more going without for people who only take; no more clutching to the bottom rung of the lowest ladder, struggling to climb and getting knocked back time and time again.
But even if I take this chance and it pays off, I’d be a monster.
So how can I?
I’ve been asking myself the same question every afternoon for the past six days, lurking like a vulture behind the tinted glass of my windscreen. I’m still no closer to an answer.
It’s my great-grandmother’s fault. She couldn’t just die and keep the family legacy to herself; I never asked to be told. But now that I know, I can’t get it out of my head. The knowledge is rampaging through my skull, a violent throbbing behind the eyes, demanding things from me I’m not sure I can deliver.
Four minutes to make a decision.
I check myself in the rear view mirror, hands clumsy with adrenaline. My fringe is plastered to my forehead with sweat and my make-up is bleeding from my eyes – I look like I’m going into labour again. I reach over to the glove compartment and root around until I find the pack of baby wipes I keep there; I pull one out and clean my face in three short, hard swipes.
The wipe can’t erase the memory of my great-grandmother’s whiskered cheek, feverishly hot and pressed against my own. The grip of her bark-like fingernails, burrowing into my arm, remains a phantom pressure. And I can still smell her breath – an acid perfume of mints, cigarette smoke and promises; a baited line, ready to snag my curiosity.
‘I have a secret,’ she’d said, and laughed. It was a vicious laugh that was born in her withered lungs and crawled from her throat as a hacking, damp cough.
I screw my eyes shut until the nausea stirring in my belly passes.
Two minutes to make a decision.
I’m hunched forward again, pawing at the steering wheel. My back is aching but I can’t relax into my seat. I can feel my pulse racing in my throat.
Part of me wishes she’d taken the secret to her grave.
But then, if what she said is true, it could be the greatest gift anyone has ever given me. I’ve been searching my whole life for answers, when even the question eludes me. Maybe this is it. Or maybe it’s the ramblings of a half-mad woman, lonely and dying, playing her last trick on the great-granddaughter who never made time to visit.
I’ve even said it aloud; it sounds ridiculous. I know that. Nobody believes in witches – real witches, not those wiccans or druids or New Age types. But she’d been so convincing. She could explain everything. Those half-glimpsed imaginings on the periphery of my vision: flashes of the world that lies hidden beneath this one; the recurring dreams of strangers, all wearing my face, living lives I couldn’t possibly imagine: the memories of my ancestors, speaking to my unconscious mind; and the sense that I’m only half a person, missing something fundamental: my dormant magic, rendered deaf by a strega’s binding spell three centuries ago, passed from female to female through my great-grandmother’s side, all the way down to me.
One minute to make a decision.
My great-grandmother’s words flood my mind like a tidal wave of bleach, eradicating all my superfluous thoughts: ‘To release the binding, you have to make a sacrifice. That’s what magic is. Sacrifice. I couldn’t do it – lost my chance – but I’ve lived with the secret for over half a century…
Your mother told me the particulars of your childhood, before she died; perhaps you can do what I wouldn’t. It’s your turn now, my only surviving descendant.
‘I will die this night. Within the next seven days, if you truly wish to realise your destiny, take a child who is seven years old. That’s essential: seven is a sacred number. Either boy or girl, it doesn’t matter. Then seal their eyes with wax, for they must not bear witness, and take the sharpest knife you can find. Draw it across their throat and wash your hands in their blood; but it must be done quickly, while they still breathe. Then use the blood to draw a single circle upon your brow, directly between the eyes.
‘And that’s all. The child’s final breath will release the binding. You’ll be more than you can ever imagine… and less than you are. You have until midnight on the seventh day; the decision is yours.’
The school bell screams out across the empty playground. They’ll be out in moments.
I take three quick breaths to calm myself, push away from the steering wheel and turn the rear view mirror away from my face.
BA (Hons) Creative Writing
Alan is a second year Creative Writing student and a proud science-fiction and fantasy geek. He decided to become a writer after a childhood spent reading the fiction of authors such as JRR Tolkien, Ursula K LeGuin, Philip Pullman, Chris Wooding and Jim Butcher. After graduation he aspires to publish the first novel in an urban fantasy series.