Tea for Deux
by August Niehaus
Not beloved, not reviled—just an essential color in the 1500-odd human tapestry of Willowglen, Minnesota: this was what Vivette and Shirley wanted to be, and had wanted to be for almost two decades now.
That, and to finally host their grand tea party, once and for all.
Here they were, in the perfect house for a sternly unsettling tea party for the retirees, farmers, and college students of Willowglen, whose faces were all lightened attractively by their phone screens. Here they were, an adorable, aloof, timeless middle-aged couple—the perfect anesthetic for the small Midwestern town nestled up to tiny Lake Serenity. They’d moved here in their 30s, melded into the sticky air and wispy clouds, and decided never to move again.
Two women, two birds, one likely haunted shingle-style Victorian home on the outskirts of a three-block downtown. This was exactly what they wanted and, now that they could be certain it wanted them too, they wanted to celebrate it.
Vivette stood in the bay window and crooked a finger against her lips as she watched the hazy, lazy summer world outside. Pomegranate cooed and fluffed her feathers against Vivette’s generous sleeve, to which Vivette whistled softly and stroked the feathers around the lovebird’s ears.
“Yes, my sweetest pea, Shirls will be home very soon.” Vivette cast a quick glance at the quartz sundial hung on the wall to be sure she wasn’t lying; sure enough, Shirley’s shadow was very close to the boundary of their property. “Very soon, little bean.”
Though it had been more than a decade since anyone had outright threatened them, Vivette’s heart still rose in her throat at the thought of Shirley never coming through their front door again—
But here she was: sweeping Vivette into her arms, calling to Sir, cooing at Pomegranate’s happy welcome song. Vivette’s stomach flip-flopped, out of sheer love and that lurking panic that comes when you care for something fragile very, very much.
“How are all my loves?” Shirley asked, disrupting Vivette’s persistent thoughts, like she always did.
Sir swooped into the room to land on Shirley’s proffered finger, and she planted a kiss on the top of the dove’s head. “Oh, little misterthing, I missed you too. And you,“ Shirley added when Pomegranate squeaked her indignation. “And you most of all,“ she said last to Vivette, in a lower voice.
Vivette shivered and tittered. “Did you get the rosewater?” she asked, flustered to this day by her wife’s flirtation. She snatched up the grocery bags and hurried them into the kitchen.
There was a distinct frown in Shirley’s voice when she replied. “No, not again. But Mr. Mason assured me, this time next week. “
Vivette squawked. “Shirls, the party is only two and a half weeks away! There won’t be time to drive out to Montevideo by then, and without your pistachio and rosewater cakes…why even bother throwing a party?!” She tossed up her hands. “I suppose Mason and whoever else was there teased you about the supplies, too.“
“Always,” Shirley said with a dark chuckle. “Same as the last twenty years. Why change now? We’ve only set a date.”
Pomegranate twittered her agreement.
“Yes, scrungus, this is the summer of the tea party,” Shirley said to the lovebird. To Vivette, she said, “And that will be how we remember it.”
Vivette smiled and stood on tiptoes to receive another kiss from her wife and a beak-to-cheek rub from Pomegranate. “I was just about to start roasting some zucchini. Put on some MPR and change, and I’ll put you to work if there’s anything left to do.”
While Shirley went to tune in to the classical public radio station, Vivette preheated the oven to 350. She swirled her skirts only a bit excessively to the bold notes of Brahms as she gathered the oil, the seasonings, the zucchini. Vivette breathed softly on the surface of her trusty chef’s knife, humming contentedly as it slid through the zucchini flesh with no resistance.
Shirley re-entered the living area, dressed in one of her favorite plain dark smocks. Pomegranate sat veiled by dark curls on her shoulder. “May I help?” she asked, hovering above her favorite chair in that way that meant she’d already mentally seated herself.
“You may not,” Vivette said with a bright smile. “Almost in the oven. Unless you want a salad too?”
Shirley shook her head and sat.
Vivette turned and opened the oven just as Brahms changed abruptly from energetic strings to a horrible, underworldly static snarl.
The sound filled the house like boiled vinegar. Sir and Pomegranate exploded like feathery bombs into the air, fluttering frantically against the corners of the room. Shirley popped up from her chair, reaching for the birds, catching first one and then the other in her soft hands.
Vivette, palms clapped over her ears, ran for the radio. As her fingers came in contact with the volume dial, the sound changed from the unearthly growl to an eardrum-shattering howl that sent her staggering against the mahogany bookshelf.
Vivette sat down hard, clutching a copy of Nabokov she’d grabbed at for support, to no avail. The radio kept screaming. Pomegranate launched free of Shirley’s protective grasp and beelined to peck and scratch at the radio’s dials.
And somehow, finally, Shirley reaching for it and Sir squealing at it, the radio stopped screaming. Cynthia Talon’s memorable honeyed voice cut in over the final violin strains. “If you put the name ‘Brahms’ into the Google machine, who knows what filth you’ll find. But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself after you’ve made it home on the evening commute.“
The collective sigh from women and birds made the living room air tremble.
“Oh dear goddess,“ Vivette murmured at last. She absently stroked Sir’s back; the dove had retreated head-first into her sleeve. “How awful.”
“Probably the tower finally giving up the ghost,” Shirley said, pulling her hair back in a rough half-ponytail, exposing a perch for Pomegranate. The lovebird nuzzled Shirley’s cheek with a frantic head-bob. “Dear bean, that was too much for your poor earholes, wasn’t it?”
“Shirls,” Vivette said quietly. Her hands had begun trembling. “The shelf.”
Everyone stared at the handmade wooden shelf above the fireplace, the one usually sparkling with tiny jars of flowers and teeth and half-assembled spells. Everything was knocked askew or shattered.
A resin-preserved violet rolled to a stop against Vivette’s big toe. She held it up in shaking fingers to show Shirley.
The once-purple petals had turned bruise-black inside.
Vivette clutched it to her heart, compulsively urging color back into the flower.
“Something doesn’t want us to throw our tea party,” Shirley said, scowling.
Vivette insisted she join Shirley on the next trip to Mason‘s a couple of days later, postulating that two meaningful stares would be more effective than one when it came to getting rosewater prioritized on the stock list. The route they took to Montevideo in their Volvo station wagon took them past the MPR station: a quaint painted-brick building standing at the intersection of four cornfields for the best possible reception, built thirty years ago when the public radio scene in Willowglen was new and sexy. A tower topped it like a tiny Eiffel, a latticework of thin metal rods painted red at the top to prevent airplanes.
Vivette pressed her nose to the hot glass. “It seems so…innocent. So docile. Nothing like that awful noise.” She shivered; the way the sun glinted off the transmitter dishes made them look like cracked church bells, and she couldn’t tear her gaze away. “Perhaps we should have renewed our donation, Shirls.”
“We did not need another mug,” Shirley grunted. Her side of the car was in the sun, and her black dress was doing her no favors. Sweat streamed down the sides of her face.
A flatbed carrying a triceratops head drove past them in the opposite direction.
“That was Frédéric Chopin, regaling us with yet another symphony of pleasure,” crooned Cynthia Talon, coming in smoothly as Chopin’s last piano notes faded from the Volvo’s crackly speakers. “Please, folks, if you heard a bit of noise yesterday, forgive us for our maintenance. Just working on our tower, like the builders of Babel.”
“See?” Shirley said. “It was the tower.”
Vivette made a skeptical crease appear in the corner of her mouth.
After pulling the Volvo into the expansive parking lot of Mason & Mason Outfitters, the women waited until their cloud of dust had fallen in dune-like drifts onto the car’s silver skin before they stepped out into the stifling heat. Vivette reached for Shirley’s hand and hurried them both up the stairs and through the jangling door.
Mr. Mason folded his arms as soon as he spotted them. As usual, he hid his bulk behind the counter. “Mmm, both of you ladies, eh? Come to bewitch my daughters again?”
“Michelle looks not a bit toadlike these days,” Shirley said primly, sweeping towards the baked goods aisle. “Perhaps that small cursing incident, so many years ago now, can be laid to rest…?”
“Pistachios, Mr. Mason?” Vivette asked, stepping between her wife and the grocer, who looked more prime to explode than usual.
Mason’s mustachioed lip twitched. Vivette dug her nails into the licorice root in her sweaty palm and gave his aura a firm nudge.
“Got ‘em in yesterday,” Mason grunted, his mental shields relenting. “After she came in asking for it.” He shot a look at Shirley, who was studiously examining the whole wheat flour selection.
Vivette let the root fall from her relieved fingers. She had a stronger persuasion spell of commanding oil readied as well, for the rosewater, which she fished for in her purse. “And rosewater? You wouldn’t perchance have gotten in some of that, would you?”
“Some things aren’t easy to get out here.” Mason’s nostrils flared.
“Some things,” Vivette said, as sweet as he was bitter, “would make for a much better party. To which you are invited.”
She produced the cardstock invitation doused in anise oil and leaned over the counter to slip it directly into Mason’s hand, despite Shirley’s protesting grunt. Guest list integrity be damned, they needed the cakes.
Mason’s eyes finally slid down to the invitation, and a foreign motion tugged at the side of his mouth. “Hmph. Haven’t been to a party in… Let me look in the back for the rosewater.”
“And the pistachios,” Shirley piped up after his retreating mass.
Vivette raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t tell me we were out of those too! The spell might not be—”
She stopped herself as the bell jangled, and loud humming preceded a bright-blue-haired girl in a flannel shirt and a grocer’s apron. She lit up when she spotted Vivette.
“Viv—Shirls!” The girl threw her arms wide.
The girl’s appearance was the first thing to stir Shirley from her study of the flours. “Lily! Weird shit on the radio this week, eh?” she said, sidling over.
Lily scrunched up her whole face. With her blue hair, it made her look like a Disney fairy. “On MPR? Always weird shit. ‘We’re going to have a composer growling, coming up on the hour.’”
Vivette contained her titter behind the back of her hand. Then she sobered sharply as a visceral memory of the howling washed over her. “Not that, no. The howling. It was awful, wasn’t it? They said it was tower maintenance.”
Confusion knitted Lily’s eyebrows into a wrinkly scarf. “I must not have been listening when that happened.”
“It was during ‘Evening the Odds.’ You always listen to ‘Evening the Odds,’” Shirley said.
“Every day at 5 PM.” Lily nodded vigorously. “All this last week.”
“And you—” Vivette met Shirley’s gaze for a long time. Blinked twice, questioningly, and got a slow nod in return. “—didn’t hear a terrible howling noise on Tuesday?”
“Not Tuesday, not yesterday…” Lily looked from one to the other. “You…both heard it, then?” She shrank away almost imperceptibly, and a little fruit-stone of anxiety caught fire inside Vivette.
“Must have been our radio,” Shirley said smoothly. “Talon, though, she can’t be our radio’s fault.” She dropped into a sugar-sweet tone. “‘Rogers wasn’t a composer. He was an alchemist. Burn him!’”
Lily collapsed into giggles, and some of the tension left Vivette.
But not all of it. Lily was the kind of girl who worked at her uncle’s grocery store while she decided if she wanted to go to college and spent endless hours on Tumblr on the weekends—not someone prone to real-life deception. Why would she claim not to have heard that ear-splitting sound?
“Found the pistachios. And a bit of rosewater,” Mason grunted as he parted the sea of plastic flaps, and Vivette turned her attention ensuring the perfection of the ingredients.
“Don’t you find it a bit strange, Lily having no clue what we were talking about?”
The car was a little loud, the engine idling as they sat at a stop light. Shirley, looking out the window towards the radio tower, shook her head. “Not really. That girl doesn’t always know what she’s doing, or thinking, or talking about, really.”
Vivette sighed. “Still, that doesn’t give her very much credit as a witness, now does it? Even if she did hear it.”
“Pit stop,” Shirley said.
The gas station’s uneven parking lot grumbled under the car wheels as the car turned in and Shirley pulled it into the loan parking space in front of the vending machines. A sudden rush of fear and nerves came over Vivette.
“I’m coming with you,” she said, though what she meant to say was, Don’t leave me here.
The gas station bathroom was as dingy as Vivette remembered it from their last trip to Montevideo, but the bleached driftwood sculpture on the wall was new. Vivette studied it with her head tilted to the side. Such an odd piece of artwork. It would have looked out of place at the Montevideo Shopping Center, much less here.
And was it really driftwood? She noticed there were knobby ends on every stick, like the heads on humerus bones…
Shirley gently bumped Vivette with her hip as she slid by to the first stall, whistling “When Doves Cry.” Her attention broken, Vivette smiled, but it was forced. Suddenly she didn’t want to look at the driftwood-or-bones anymore; she felt like she’d just touched thrift store clothing for hours. Shivering, she went to the sink to wash her hands.
As the cool water ran through her fingers, Vivette brought her gaze up to the mirror. And screamed.
It wasn’t her own face staring back at her. It was a hairy, fanged demon, gaping its vicious jaws.
Vivette screamed again, but this time she had the agency to bang her fists against the mirror. The demon snarled and tossed its head as if her flurry had dizzied it. It snapped its teeth together thrice, glowered deeply, then vanished, replaced by Vivette’s pale reflection.
By the time Shirley had managed to get herself out of the stall, Vivette’s fear had turned to outrage. “How dare that thing!” she snapped, clenching her fists at her sides. “How dare it try to attack me like that! This is my town!”
Shirley looked sufficiently shocked, but not afraid. It was one of the things Vivette loved most about her. “What in Hell was it?” she asked.
“A demon,” Vivette said breathlessly. “I’m sure of it. In the mirror. staring right at me.”
Shirley went to the mirror and examined it from every angle. she ran her fingers along the edges, and moved back and forth in front of the glass. Finally, she frowned and stepped back from the sink.
“Doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary,” she said. “And that worries me.” She gave Vivette a fond look, and reached for her wife. Vivette gratefully crawled under Shirley’s arm and snuggled against her bosom.
“I reckon we’ve taken care of more dangerous beasts,” Vivette said. “Nonetheless, I did not like the way it was looking at me.”
“As long as it’s not a demon who gets in the way of baking cakes,” Shirley said, with grim determination.
“Willowglen is in mortal danger,” Shirley announced several days later, “of missing out on the most epic tea party of the century.”
She stood in the kitchen, covered in flour and staring at the lumpy mess of cake on the counter. It was the third one she tried to make that morning. Pomegranate sat on Shirley’s shoulder, preening her wings studiously.
Vivette yanked the sundress over her head and flung it on the floor next to the others. “I swear, this party is cursed. Not a single one of my dresses flatters me right now! Maybe that mirror demon was a fashion Medusa.”
“Not to mention,” Shirley said, with a meaningful glance at the radio, “this isn’t the first time MPR has gone out. No snarling or howling this time though. No noise at all in fact.”
Vivette frowned. Are you sure? I…kind of think I’m hearing something, quiet as it may be. I turned the volume all the way up when it went out, but I couldn’t be sure. Can’t you…?”
For a heart stopping moment, she thought Shirley couldn’t hear it now either, and that Vivette was just the crazy one. But then Shirley nodded. “Yeah, I kinda can hear it. Sort of a…humming noise?”
“Yes! Exactly!” Vivette paced around the room in her slip. “Running under every single show since…I suppose it’s been since we first heard the howling. It sounds like…I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
Outside the kitchen window, three distinct crow voices rose in a chorus of bloody murder. Pomegranate leaped off Shirley’s shoulder and flew to the window, furiously rapping her beak on the glass. Vivette leapt for her bird, calling as gently as she could manage, “Here, scrungus!”
As her hands closed around the tiny feathery bundle, Vivette was overwhelmed by the feeling of being watched by something malevolent. She looked sharply out the window and saw what it was that had so disturbed the crows and the lovebird.
At first she thought it was a white dog, a Bichon or West Highland terrier. Then she realized it was a cat—a Persian cat, with a lion cut. Though the crows swooped at it, the cat did not seem worried by the beaks and claws scrabbling for its uncanny golden eyes. It glared steadily at Vivette.
Vivette covered her mouth with her handful of Pomegranate. She could feel the malice in the cat’s eyes, but she could not tear herself away.
In the oven, another cake caught on fire with a terrible whoosh. Shirley wailed.
Something snapped inside Vivette. She stood bolt upright, allowing Pomegranate’s head to poke out from between her interlaced fingers. “You—will not—destroy—my party!” she shrieked.
A hard-edged prairie wind whipped up, ruffling the cat’s mane. It narrowed its eyes against the dust, and the invisible hand gripping Vivette suddenly released her. She stumbled, clutching Pomegranate to her chest, but did not lower her force of will until the cat had relented and loped away.
Shirley crowed triumph so loudly the cupboards rattled. “Yes! Begone, foul cake impersonator!”
She came charging around the corner, apron askew, swatting with a bamboo cutting board at a thin shadow scuttling across the tiles. Vivette stood between it and the door, and when it sensed this, it exploded into a writhing horde of mealworms.
Dry-heaving, Vivette released Pomegranate and dove for the broom next to the back door. She threw the door open and she and Shirley took turns flinging mealworms out into the parched grass.
When the last worm was sent head-over-abdomen into the cloudless sky, Shirley slammed the door closed and leaned against it to wipe her brow.
“Goddess above, that was disgusting.”
“Nasty. Simply nasty.” Vivette ran scalding water over her hands and wrung them over and over.
Shirley slowly eased off the door, catching her fingers in her dark curls. “Vivs… If Willowglen is, in fact, consumed by a vengeful spirit army—as much as that might amuse me—the party will be ruined. There’ll be no one left to be our guests.”
“Oh no. No, that simply will not do.” Vivette’s lower lip quivered. “But… No one will believe us that the town is haunted. Lily thought we were having a folié a deux about the howling. How will we convince anyone to help us?”
“It’s up to us, then.” Shirley thumped her chest, a gesture which brought Sir and Pomegranate fluttering from their respective corners of the house. Vivette thought her wife cut quite the figure, outlined boldly against the western windows, two birds puffed tall on her shoulders. “We have to protect Willowglen so we can host our tea party!”
So they planned for tea and war.
Between them, the women had enough arcane knowledge to fill a modest e-book. Vivette had trained casually for five years in her teens under a second-degree Wiccan, but Shirley had the stronger natural magick. Marriage had melded them into a single-minded being, and now they brought their powers of research and spell-making to bear on the matter at hand: stopping a supernatural invasion so they could throw their damn 20-year party.
Ancient protocol was unhelpfully vague on how to handle the sort of situation.
“Compositions are like birds,” crooned Edwin McBean on the afternoon show, the night before the tea party, “and also, music will remember you.”
Vivette fluttered her eyelashes at the radio, her hands moving without conscious thought to open the last several RSVP envelopes. She’d processed nearly a thousand responses in just four days. Tonight, she was glad for the soft nothings McBean provided. His voice was a balm on her sweaty soul.
“Aww, compositions are like birds. Did you hear that, dear scrungus?” Vivette asked Pomegranate, who lay very still against her neck. She kissed Pomegranate’s soft belly, and the overheated lovebird could only puff up a little more to return her affection. “Yes, you are my little composition, my little symphony, aren’t you?”
“Just for our listeners, well, really, for two…particular listeners, I’ve been asked to play this music that will remember you,” McBean said, rubber-banding Vivette back to reality. The anxiety tree sprouted foliage in her gut. “It will remember how you sound, and follow you wherever you go…Vivette and Shirley.”
McBean’s normally peaceful, droll voice dropped two octaves and became a guttural snarl as he spat their names into his microphone.
Shirley’s fingers flew as she tied small feather bouquet centerpieces together. She paused long enough to raise a middle finger at the radio. “Oh, fuck off, you idiot skank. Come out of your safe little tower and maybe then I’ll think you’re scary.”
“Shirls,” Vivette said warningly.
“Fine,” Shirley muttered. “Just—go back to playing some Chopin, will you? Too much Wagner lately.”
Classical MPR responded by playing a few lullaby-esque piano notes. Shirley waved her arm and went back to tying. “Close enough.”
But any lightness in the notes was quickly gone. The performer seemed both afraid of the keys, and furious at them, their fingers dancing across the instrument as though it were a spine.
Vivette felt the tendrils of the spell curl around her wrists and seek her abdomen, her neck. She slapped it away, but it insisted, snaking around her ears and slithering inside. Shirley roared, reaching for one of the enchanted dirks they’d prepared weeks before, just in case.
But Sir appeared in a flurry of white feathers, batting at Shirley’s wrists until she dropped the attack stance. Then he swooped at the spell and attacked it with his claws and beak, his wings whistling until Pomegranate joined him. The spell writhed and withdrew, the song fading from the radio. Vivette got a handful of the spell’s bulk and shoved with all her might.
“Birds!” she cried, and Pomegranate and Sir swooped to her, ruffled but unharmed. The song-spell squirmed and faded through the front door.
“Two in one week,” Shirley said, whistling into the silence. “I’ve smelled more eucalyptus in three days than I really care to consider. Just think, if we weren’t casting those protective spells, how many more classical songs would have tried to attack us? That’s assuming such a blow with this—” She hefted the weapon in her hand. “—wouldn’t have unleashed the whole damn force of evil pent up in that radio tower.”
“Absurd,” Vivette said with a shake of her shoulder-length curls. “But please. Enough of such tiresome things as hauntings. Did I tell you, I finally found a dress to wear on Saturday?”
“That’s fantastic,” Shirley said, getting up from her chair to come and kiss Vivette on the forehead. “Did I tell you I found your great-great-grandma’s silver sets in the attic?”
Vivette squealed, and the two birds mimicked the sound admirably. “Ohhh, that’s perfect! Great-great-granmama would be so pleased for us to use it on such an important party.”
“The music,” Shirley said suddenly. “It never came back.”
Sir flew to the radio and stood on top of it, bobbing his head. Even the underlying noise was gone; nothing but pure hissing silence came out of the Bakelite box.
Vivette pursed her lips. “Shirley,” she said, keeping her voice steady, “how many rosewater and pistachio cakes have you successfully made?”
“Seven,” Shirley crowed.
“And how many feather bouquets did you finish?”
“Fifteen. One for each table. Oh, and I got the card tables out of the shed. Wiped them down. No more spiders.”
Vivette nodded her satisfaction at the lack of arachnids. “Napkins?”
“Washed and folded.”
Vivette’s eyes slid to the yellow stool she’d bought Shirley at the county fair two years back. Underneath the clear finish, the once-golden stain was turning to a brackish blood color, oozing down the stool’s legs. She gulped and refocused on her checklist. “Tablecloths pressed? Sandwiches sliced? Oh, and—of course—tea leaves prepared?”
“Done, done, and done.”
Vivette folded her hands in front of her. “I hereby declare us, at long last, ready for our tea party.”
The radio’s silence stretched between them.
“You think maybe they gave up and went back to Hell?” Shirley asked finally, with a half-hearted shrug.
“Not a chance. This is a waiting silence.” Vivette shuddered, remembering other waiting silences, lulls before childhood storms. “They’re preparing to do something awful.”
Shirley tipped her head and considered Vivette for a long moment. Her expression softened, and she reached a hand out to coax Pomegranate onto two of her fingers. “I won’t let them hurt you, Vivs.”
Love overwhelmed Vivette, and she came to Shirley and put her arms around her wife’s shoulders. “I know. But we can’t let them hurt Willowglen either.”
They stared deep into one another’s eyes for a long time. Then without another word, they broke apart and began preparations.
Vivette called to Sir and Shirley took Pomegranate firmly in one hand. The women strapped a tiny, feather-light titanium armor strapped to each bird’s chest. After they made sure the birds could still fly, Shirley retrieved their leather breastplates from the hall closet while Vivette flitted from shelf to shelf, cupboard to cupboard, packing a rabbit-skin bag of phials and herbs.
When she came to their ceremonial dirks, she strapped one on and turned to hand the other to Shirley, who had wrestled her way into her breastplate by herself.
Vivette hid a very telling smile behind her hand. “Shirls, dear, you look dashing.”
Shirley wriggled one eyebrow. “I’ll put it back on after the party.”
“Yes. Yes, that would be…would be best.” Vivette melted into a giggling fit. Shirley joined her, the birds drawing figure-eights around their heads. At last, Vivette caught the hiccups and they both fell against the wall, sobering swiftly.
MPR was still silent.
“Are we properly girded for—hic—war?” Vivette said in a tiny voice.
“Hell if I know,” Shirley said, smiling slyly, “but I do know we’re going to go kick some monster ass.”
The Volvo’s wheels crunched gravel like a cow’s cud as Shirley eased it down the farm road between corn fields. Vivette rolled her window down and poked her head out of the car, careful not to tip the small pea-green birdcage on her lap.
“I can’t see the top of the tower,” she called softly.
Shirley growled. “I’ll pull a little closer,” she said.
“It won’t help,” Vivette said, folding herself back into the car. “There’s a fog, like the physical manifestation of a foul stench. The tower is wrapped in it.”
“Well then,” Shirley said, and shut off the car. “We’ll walk the rest of the way.”
“You forgot to roll the windows up,” Vivette said.
“I don’t think it matters.” Shirley pocketed the keys and patted the steering wheel fondly. “You’re a good car, Simon.”
For unexplainable reasons, Vivette’s eyes filled with tears. “You’re a very good car, Simon.”
She got out quickly, hugging the bird cage to her chest. Sir cooed a familiar song, and Vivette’s spine found its steel again.
“You good carrying the birds?” Shirley asked, patting the backpack she’d flung over one shoulder. “I’ve got the blades and the spells.”
Vivette tried to speak as steadily as she could. “Perhaps we should take those out now.”
She set the cage down and strapped the sheathed dirk around her waist, over the polka dot shift dress she’d picked at the last moment, then clipped on the bag of phials. She tucked a juniper twig in her palm for protection and bent to retrieve the cage.
Pomegranate warbled a warning and Vivette had time to duck as a flaming arrow hissed over her head. The fire threw harsh light as it flashed past, and Vivette caught a split-second vision of a tall humanoid comprised of dark, swarming objects.
The road ahead lit up again as the being lit and notched another arrow. This time, the women were ready. Vivette ground the juniper wood into her sweat and skin, then threw her palm up towards the swarming being. A stream of pale green light flowed from her hand, visible only against the pollen particles and nocturnal insects between her and the being.
The light formed a nearly invisible cylinder around the being, resisting its attempts to fire through or over it. Despite the metallic tang in her mouth, Vivette broke into a run towards her handiwork, holding the cage in one hand and her dirk in the other.
A massive vine exploded out of the gravel, too quickly for Vivette to avoid. She stumbled, managing to turn her blade downward to become a sort of cane, preventing the cage and birds from being crushed beneath her. She found herself face to face with the being, who had unnaturally folded its body in half to stare at her. The pale light was the only thing standing between them.
Vivette realized the swarming things were yellowjackets. The holes in the being’s face that resembled eyes and a mouth were simply where the insects weren’t flying.
She wrenched the dirk out of the gravel and stabbed reflexively.
The yellowjackets exploded in every direction. Vivette hid her face, anticipating stings, but she heard Shirley roar a powerful word and the insects dispersed. Pomegranate and Sir fluttered around the cage anxiously.
“Don’t let them out,” Shirley called, as if reading Vivette’s mind. Vivette jerked her hand off the latch. “Raptors.”
Three hunting cries shrilled overhead in answer: eerie, vindictive falcons’ calls. Vivette wiped the slime off her dirk in the grass and craned to see into the dark sky. Where there had been a clear summer night, several thick, deliberate stratus clouds had crawled up to obscure the stars.
Her attention turned to the radio tower. Vines—no, Vivette realized in horror, those were limbs—caressed the struts, growing from the base and inching up and around, like the set of a horrifying Rapunzel recreation. As if sensing her attention, two of the tendrils uncoiled and slapped down on the roof of the station with a meaty thwamp.
“On the roof!” she called, but even as the words left her, Vivette had an overwhelming sense that the limbs were not the source of the problem. “Wait—inside!”
Shirley ran past her at a dizzying speed, belying the deliberation with which she normally moved around their house. The limbs on the roof lunged, and Vivette’s heart bounded into her throat. But the limbs slammed into the gravel and corn where Shirley had been a second before.
Vivette broke into a jog, trying not to jostle the birds. Staying out of their range, she waited until the limbs had wriggled off the ground, calculating their next attack, then rushed forward with her dirk raised high.
The limb on the left shot towards her, and she estimated, blew a quick breath on the blade, and swung. The sanctified dirk went right through the hellflesh, its sizzle like that of branding a cow. The wounded limb reared and flopped, and a chunk of the MPR station roof went flying.
The remaining limb pulled out of blade range, and Vivette took the opportunity to dash after Shirley, who had already disappeared through the shattered station doors. Harsh falcon screams galvanized her and infuriated the caged birds.
One of the falcons hit the back of Vivette’s head, and she stumbled through the entrance into a garden of glass shards. The second falcon had not dived at a good angle, so its path took it back into the sky, but the third raptor had time to adjust its trajectory and came at Vivette with its claws outstretched.
She only had time to throw up the cage between her and the hunter before it hit her and sent her staggering backwards. Up close, the falcon was a nightmare: half the flesh on one side of its face was gone, replaced by leering bone, and its clawtips glowed orange. It scrabbled at the cage, but Shirley’s spell held true, and the falcon’s claws couldn’t reach past the bars.
Vivette heaved the cage away from her but held on to it. The falcon went end-over-end into a poster of the MPR Presents Haydn vs. Handel Face-Off Festival from the year before.
Upon touching Handel’s lovingly recreated features, the falcon exploded into an unholy fire and disintegrated into ashes.
Vivette bent over to catch her breath, setting the cage down. Pomegranate flew to the top and grabbed the top with her feet, pecking wildly at the handle.
“Pom,” Vivette said very seriously, “if you need to—”
The lovebird stopped pecking and fixed her with a beady eye. She tipped her head slightly several times, then blinked once, slowly.
Her message was very clear.
Pinching her lips together, Vivette undid the latch and opened the cage door. Sir shot out and flew right to her shoulder. Pomegranate fluttered out and made a beeline to the stairs leading to the second level, where Vivette knew from her donor’s station tour a decade ago was where the studio rooms were.
Vivette didn’t dare look in any of the windows as she hurried after the lovebird, but out of the corner of her eye, she saw the mirror demons following her likeness across the room.
The stairs were mushy underfoot, and Vivette breathed a prayer of gratefulness that she hadn’t realized they were made of bloody mud until after she’d already made it to the second floor. She scraped the excess off her flats with her dirk, pulling a face. “Shirls? Shirls, where did you go?”
Shirley’s words sounded like they were being squeezed out of her. Forgetting her shoes’ plight, Vivette took off towards the sound of her wife’s voice, Sir clinging valiantly to the shoulder strap of her breastplate.
Vivette burst through the doorway of the main studio and pulled up short at the sight. Shirley flailed in the powerful grip of many, many more of the same limbs climbing the station tower. The limbs seemed to originate from the control room board and the gelatinous blob growing out it, reeking of rot and expensive cheese.
A massive crease in the blob quivered, then flew open to reveal a bloodshot eye the size of a ship’s wheel.
Vivette couldn’t help it. She gasped. Shirley mumbled something horrified from behind the monstrous limb pressed over her mouth.
Sir shot off Vivette’s shoulder like a tiny white missile, singing high like a hellhound. But instead of aiming for the blob’s eye, he shot up the side of the creature, towards the hole it had punched in the station roof.
“Sir, bug, come back!” Vivette cried. Her words became a primal scream and she raised the dirk in both hands.
The blob roared as the blade went hilt-deep into its eye. But instead of death throes, it thrashed with intention, and suddenly its limbs tightened around Vivette’s feet and waist. She beat her fists against the rubbery flesh, but the blob punched new holes in the roof and pushed Vivette and Shirley through into the night.
Vivette tried to hold her breath, but the foul fog surrounded her head and eventually she had to gulp down air. The fog filled her head with a haze she couldn’t shake, and she wished she could raise her hands to claw the blurry out of her vision.
The limbs holding Vivette suddenly twitched and released, and she fell for a heart-stopping second before corn enveloped her. Now she rubbed at her eyes, calling for Shirley and the birds. There was no answer, just the rumble of the blob from inside the station. Growling under her breath, Vivette extracted herself from the corn, straightened the rabbit-skin bag she somehow hadn’t lost, and marched back towards the MPR headquarters.
The falcons were wheeling and screaming again. The blob spread on the ground outside of the station, its eye open and staring right at her, the dirk still embedded within.
Something rustled in the cornfield behind her. Her heart stopped.
Then something else stirred the air over her head, and Vivette looked up sharply, expecting a diving raptor. The whisper of soft feathers and a familiar chirp started Vivette’s heart again.
The rustling behind her came again, but this time it came with Shirley’s dear voice. “It’s divisive.”
“Shhh.” Shirley touched Vivette’s arm and gestured towards the blob, which still stared silently at them. “See? Your dirk did nothing—alone. We have to all attack it together. Or it’ll keep spawning those awful micro-visions.”
Vivette’s eyes widened as it clicked. “Oh goddess. That’s why we were the only ones who could hear it and see it. It wanted the town to turn against us.”
“Bingo,” Shirley said. “Let’s kill it.”
She whistled, and Pomegranate chirruped overhead. Somewhere between them and the blob, Sir warbled an answer. Shirley and Vivette stepped meaningfully towards the monster.
“My dirk,” Vivette whispered.
“Give me the bag,” Shirley replied, pressing the hilt of her blade into Vivette’s hands. When Vivette opened her mouth to insist otherwise, Shirley gently put a finger under Vivette’s chin and shut off her protests. “You’re a much better duelist than I, my dear. And I know just which spells to use.”
Vivette handed the bag over, and Shirley reached inside with a broad smile.
When Vivette saw what was in her hand, a deep sense of peace came over her. Shirley did know just which spells to use. She always did; that was why she was perfect.
“Ready,” Vivette said, raising the dirk.
Shirley raised the spells. In unison, they leaned forward on tiptoe to kiss.
Then with a mighty battle cry, the two women charged at the blob.
The creatures they’d seen over the last weeks rose from the gravel like the undead to stand in their way, but now Vivette knew their power lay in her belief. She stared straight at the yellowjacket man and concentrated on how ridiculous the idea of a person made of insects was.
The man began to swarm apart, the yellowjackets fading into the night.
In the station windows, the mirror demons roared and made as if to leave their shimmering prisons. Vivette turned her focus on her own reflection, something she’d wanted very little to do before now. But soon she was staring at her own face as she ran past and, satisfied, she turned away.
The falcons’ screams cut off abruptly as Shirley willed them out of existence.
Vivette didn’t even pause to give the Persian cat a second glance, and it winked away into nothing.
Now that they were close, the blob stirred. It slammed its kraken-like limbs into the ground in front of it, flinging gravel in all directions. As the pelting rocks stung Vivette’s face, she tried to convince herself that it wasn’t real, that the limbs were just a shared figment of her and Shirley’s imagination.
The limbs shrank, as if the blob had sucked them back into itself. But the dirk-punctured eye swiveled wildly, and it was clear the blob’s intention was not to retract its limbs.
The ground shook, and the bottom of the blob yawned open into a massive, dripping mouth, multi-beaked like a squid.
Vivette screamed, half in terror and half in delirious euphoria. She pulled her arm back and gathered her strength in her shoulder and elbow. The smell of fennel and rosemary came from Shirley’s hands as she crushed the spells in her fists.
Sir shrilled. Pomegranate growled. The birds dove like arrows.
Vivette stabbed upwards. She closed her eyes tightly. The dirk sank into flesh. The dirk hit cartilage and vital organs. The rosemary and fennel overwhelmed her.
The dirk slid through the air, meeting no resistance.
Vivette opened her eyes. She and Shirley and Pomegranate and Sir stood in the center of an empty moonlit parking lot in front of the Minnesota Public Radio station building. The station had a fully-intact roof and radio tower. There was not a single sign of monster nor confrontation.
“Well,” Vivette said into the utter silence of the Willowglen night.
“Well,” Shirley said back.
They grabbed one another and kissed deeply.
The morning of the grand tea party came with a glorious dawn. Vivette let Shirley sleep in an extra half an hour while she lugged the white plastic chairs and the tea tables out to the lawn and set them up with the feather bouquet centerpieces. Every time she came back into the house, Pomegranate came to dive into the hood of her jacket to preen and cuddle. When Shirley awoke, they sliced the rosewater cakes together and carried the radio outside.
Lily was the first guest to arrive, promptly at noon. Vivette rushed to meet her.
“You live out by the station, don’t you, Lily?”
“Yes,” Lily said with a puzzled smile, handing Shirley a poorly-crocheted hot pad. “Next field over. Why?”
“Did you hear the commotion last night?” Vivette asked as casually as she could.
Lily shook her blue locks wildly. “Not a peep. I was actually camping in the yard with—a friend.” Her cheeks turned crimson, and Vivette knew she meant Ross Tanner, who’d been sweet on Lily since they were in kindergarten. “It was so peaceful and…quiet.”
Vivette glanced at Shirley, who shrugged.
“What commotion?” Lily asked, looking from one to the other.
“Oh, the MPR tower had a little outage. Guess some electricals blew. We heard it all the way from here,” Shirley said, winking at Vivette.
“Gosh! They keep saying they need more money to fix that tower… I kinda thought it was a ploy for donations.” Lily widened her eyes. “I’ll give them a little something with my next paycheck from Uncle Paul, then.”
“Speak of the devil,” Shirley said, and went to the front door to welcome Mr. Mason who, in his pink pinstripe suit, looked about as out of place at a tea party as bones on a gas station wall.
Vivette ushered Lily out into the backyard to find a seat, and sighed as she came back into the house. Sensing her wistfulness, Pomegranate swooped to her shoulder and snuggled against her neck, and Vivette stroked the lovebird under the chin. The one time she and Shirley had the chance to prove how vital they were to Willowglen’s very existence, and no one would ever know about it. It wasn’t like they were asking for the town to love them—just to recognize that they’d slain a posse of nasty apparitions in the name of keeping them safe.
A posse of which there was zero evidence.
Then Lily screamed, long and loud and dramatic.
Vivette rushed outside to find Lily pointing a quivering finger at the grass. “Ew! Ewwww! There’s, like, a bunch of them!”
Vivette peered closely at the grass where she was pointing. Three fat mealworms squirmed like disembodied fingers.
Debussy tinkled out of the radio.
Pomegranate twittered, and Vivette could have sworn it was a laugh.