"Hope Is Stronger Than Love" - by Sarah MonetteAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V | Act VI | Act VII
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
The Museum of the Free State of Franklin
Bell Creek, TN, November 2011
Everyone had had to bring a brown-bag lunch.
Patty's stepmother had grumbled about, What are we paying taxes for? the way she did whenever the school wanted her to spend money on Patty, and she'd provided baloney and French's Mustard on the whole wheat bread she bought because it was supposed to be healthier than white. Patty hated whole wheat bread, so she used the baloney to get as much of the mustard as she could and ate that.
"Aren't you going to eat your bread?" Stephanie asked.
"Nah," Patty said. "It's whole wheat. Whole wheat is gross."
"Can I have it?"
"Sure," Patty said, and watched while Stephanie ate two slices of bread in three bites. She'd already eaten all of her own lunch. "You want my apple, too?"
"Don't you want it?" Stephanie said, looking at the apple longingly.
"I'm not hungry," Patty said. It was sort of true, and anyway, Stephanie was her best friend.
"Thanks," Stephanie said, and the apple disappeared about as fast as the bread.
"Didn't you eat breakfast this morning?" Patty said.
"No, I did," Stephanie said. "I'm just really hungry. Do you think they've got vending machines here?"
Patty looked around dubiously. Everything was log cabins and wooden fences, and the closest thing she could see to a vending machine was a rusty old piece of farm equipment that she couldn't even imagine what it was for. "D'you wanna ask Miss Harrison if we can go look? Or we could say we need to go to the bathroom?"
"Yeah, maybe," Stephanie said. "I--"
"Hey, lookit the lezbos!"
Patty went cold. It was Chris Watson; he'd finished lunch and was bored, and everybody knew Patty and Stephanie were easy game. "You're sure sitting close enough together--why aren't you holding hands?"
"Shut up, Chris," Stephanie said. Her face had gone a funny color under the freckles, and she was looking at Chris like she was thinking maybe, if they couldn't find a vending machine, she'd just eat him next.
But of course, it was never just Chris. Mike Odell was smirking all over his ugly face and starting to singsong, "Patty and Steph'nie, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!"
Stephanie made a weird yowling noise and got up. Patty got up, too, although she wasn't sure why.
"Oooh, you gonna fight me, Slimer?" Chris said. "'Cause that's what lezbos do, you know."
"Fight!" somebody said--Annie Morales, Patty thought, but she was never sure, because the others took up the chant so quickly: "Fight! Fight! Fight!"
Patty looked around desperately, but she couldn't see Miss Harrison. Stephanie made another weird yowl. Chris was opening his mouth again, and the thought went straight through Patty's mind that she wanted Chris Watson to die.
All at once, his eyes were dripping blood. Even when she tried to think carefully later, Patty couldn't remember any warning, any sign that something was about to happen. Just Chris Watson with his mouth half open and blood pouring down his face.
And she'd wished it. Oh, Jesus, she had. It was all true.
Patty MacIntyre turned and ran.
Coriam, TN, August - October 2011
Patty had always known she was a witch.
One of her earliest memories was of her father showing her the pictures of Grandmother Whittaker, the old yellow newspaper clippings of what Grandmother Whittaker had done. Some of the earliest words Patty learned to read were "Woman Slays Seven, Then Self."
Her daddy explained it to her, how Grandmother Whittaker had made a deal with the Devil and the Devil had given her the power to kill just by wishing it. That part wasn't in the newspapers, but Daddy's cousin Lewis was a deputy sheriff, and Cousin Lewis told Daddy all about the witness testimony, and how Grandmother Whittaker hadn't had a gun or a knife or anything. She'd just looked at those people and they'd fallen down dead. And the first person she'd killed was her husband, which just proved (Daddy said) that it was the Devil in her.
For a long time, Patty had thought Grandmother Whittaker had killed Mama, too, and it wasn't until she got old enough to do the math that she realized that couldn't be right. Mama had been five years old in 1983, when Grandmother Whittaker killed seven people by wishing. She hadn't died until she was twenty-six, and that was in 2004, just after Patty's fourth birthday.
It had been a while before she got up the nerve to ask Daddy about it, because Mama was one of those things they just didn't talk about. There were a lot of things like that in the MacIntyre household, Patty was realizing. She'd made a list once, and when it got past ten items, she'd had to stop and burn it very carefully in the kitchen sink. Mom--as Patty was supposed to call her stepmother, and she didn't mind, much--didn't like it when anybody mentioned that Daddy'd had a wife before her, even if it was Reverend Miller saying how much better Mom was for Daddy. And Daddy'd give you the silent treatment if you tried to talk about things he didn't like.
But Patty really wanted to know. She'd looked through the scrapbook about Grandmother Whittaker when Mom and Daddy had gone off to her half brother Jeremy's first grade Parents' Night, and there was nothing except in Grandfather Whittaker's obituary that "Daniel Whittaker is survived by his two daughters, Lee (age 9) and Norma (age 5)," and Patty knew that already, just like she knew Mama and Aunt Lee had been taken in by Reverend Johnson, who'd been the church preacher before Reverend Miller. And Mama'd grown up and married Daddy, and Aunt Lee had grown up and gone off to Knoxville, where church gossip was she was living with a woman. Patty'd never met Aunt Lee; Daddy wouldn't let her in the house.
But there wasn't anything about how Mama had died, and finally, one Sunday afternoon when Mom had taken Jeremy to visit Aunt Cathy, Patty screwed up her courage and asked her father.
He'd given her a hard look, and she'd thought he wasn't going to answer, but he said, "It was the Devil. The Devil was trying to take her over, and it killed her."
"Did--did she say so?"
"I knew," he said. "I came home from work, and she was lying on the kitchen floor, stone cold and not a mark on her--but such a look on her face. She was going the same way as her mother, and I thank Jesus that she was not strong enough to bear the load. Just as I thank Jesus every night that you'd been playing with one of your little friends."
"Oh," said Patty.
"You have to guard against the Devil, Patty," her father said. "There's a strain of wickedness in the women of your family. Just look at your mother's sister. It's an abomination in the eyes of God."
It wasn't long after that that Chris Watson started calling her and Stephanie lezbos, and although Patty knew it was just Chris Watson being a stupid jerk, part of her couldn't help wondering if he was actually seeing the wickedness in her.
She'd told Stephanie the whole thing, one weekend that summer when her parents had finally, grudgingly agreed that she could sleep over at Stephanie's house. They'd lain in sleeping bags on air mattresses in Stephanie's basement under Stephanie's poster of North American snakes that her mom wouldn't let her hang in her room, and Patty had whispered one horrible truth after another, the first time she'd said any of them out loud. Stephanie had listened respectfully and when Patty was done, said, "Do you really think your grandma was a witch?"
"I don't know," Patty said. "Daddy says she was."
"Because I read a book once about witches," Stephanie said. "They used to burn them, you know."
"They did not!"
"Honest to God. And they used to throw them in lakes to see if they'd float."
"What does that have to do with being a witch?"
"I don't know," Stephanie said. "It seems like a weird thing to do."
"So were you a witch if you floated or if you sank?" Patty asked.
"I can't remember. Do you want to test it?"
So Saturday, they'd bugged Stephanie's mom into taking them to the pool, where first Patty had tried to float and then she'd tried to sink, and neither seemed to work very well.
"Maybe you're not a witch," Stephanie said.
"Maybe this is a stupid test," said Patty, and they both started giggling.
The first Wednesday of the school year, Stephanie came home with Patty after school, and they found Mom had had to go out. "EMERGENCY!" said the note. "NO TP!" Patty got the spare key from where the family hid it, and they went inside. Patty was about to ask what Stephanie wanted to do, when Stephanie said, "Hey, remember you told me about your grandma?"
"You said there was a scrapbook."
"You wanna see it?" Patty said, surprised.
Stephanie was beet red, but she nodded, so Patty went and stood very carefully on Daddy's recliner to get the scrapbook down from the top of the bookcase. "Let's take it up to my room," she said. "I don't think Mom will notice it's not there if she gets back, but if she sees it..."
"Okay," said Stephanie, and they sat side by side on Patty's bedroom floor and went through the whole thing. When they were done, Stephanie went back to the first page, where there was a portrait photo of Grandmother Whittaker, and looked at it for a long time.
"She kind of looks like a witch, doesn't she?" Patty said.
"Yeah," Stephanie said.
Then, since Mom still hadn't come home, Patty went downstairs and put the scrapbook back. She jumped off the recliner and gave a huge sigh of relief to make Stephanie giggle, and then said, "So, what do you wanna do?" By the time Mom finally came in with a long dramatic story about running into Patty's Sunday school teacher in front of the toilet paper, they were practicing catching pop flies in the backyard, and Patty felt like she'd gotten away with something huge.
And then, the first day of October, Patty started her period, and everything got really weird. She'd expected, and dreaded, the "you're a woman now" speech, but she hadn't expected Mom--who would discuss her own menstrual cramps with the mail carrier, for Pete's sake--to be so nervous about it. And she hadn't expected Daddy to care at all.
But he did. He wouldn't play catch with her anymore, even though she still hadn't learned how to catch his curveball or tell stories about the year his high school baseball team were state champions. Instead, he started watching Patty like he thought she was going to make a deal with the Devil right there in front of him, and when that got her wigged out so bad she started spending evenings in her room--with the door open because Mom and Daddy both pitched a fit if she closed it--he'd come upstairs two or three times an evening, as far as she could tell just so he could walk past her room.
And he started spending a lot of time with Cousin Lewis, which he hadn't done since he married Mom. Mom didn't like Cousin Lewis, and what was weird was, not only was Daddy inviting him over to watch football on Sundays and stuff like that, Mom wasn't complaining. Patty was so completely weirded out that she did something she'd never done in her life before and tried to eavesdrop.
It wasn't actually all that hard, since the living room was right off the stairs, and Daddy and Cousin Lewis both had deep voices that carried. The worst part was having to be ready to bolt if it sounded like Daddy or Cousin Lewis was going to come out of the living room or if Mom or Jeremy was going to come out of the kitchen. And to show how weird things had gotten, she was actually kind of comforted that Mom wouldn't let Jeremy in the living room, because it showed she still didn't like Cousin Lewis, even if she wasn't saying so anymore.
And there was Patricia Margaret MacIntyre, sitting on the stairs in the dark with her heart beating triple-time, eavesdropping. She wanted to die of shame. But she listened.
Mostly, what she heard was boring. Football and Daddy's work and Cousin Lewis's work, which you'd think would be interesting, him being a deputy and all, but it was just speeding tickets and drunk high school kids. But the third or fourth time Cousin Lewis came over, Patty got desperate, and she waited until Mom and Jeremy had gone to bed, and then she snuck back out onto the stairs, even though she was pushing her luck, because if Mom came out of the master bedroom for anything, Patty was totally caught. Even if she'd been any good at lying, which she wasn't, there was no lie she could tell. Eavesdropping.
So she was guilty and terrified and feeling kind of sick, but she crept down as far as she dared. Daddy and Cousin Lewis were watching ESPN, and Patty was really starting to hate the way sports announcers talked, like everything out of their mouths was the most exciting thing they'd ever said. But the second time the sound went off for commercials, instead of Daddy grumbling about Coach Fisher and everything he was doing wrong, there was this silence.
Holding her breath, Patty scooted down another step.
"I couldn't get a look at the memo," Cousin Lewis said, "but I talked to Carmen and she remembered it pretty good. Sudden changes in mood, increase in appetite, violent behavior--"
"Paula Whittaker sure had all those," Patty's daddy said.
"And then there was a bunch of stuff about the victims," Cousin Lewis said. "Carmen said it was mostly looking for cases where the cause of death didn't make sense."
"Like Paula Whittaker again."
"Yeah. Basically, Jerry, everything Carmen mentioned matched up with the Whittaker case. Even to it taking fifteen rounds to bring her down."
"So the FBI's hunting witches," Daddy said. "But they don't want anybody to know."
"That's sure what it looks like to me," said Cousin Lewis, and then they didn't say anything else, not until the game came back on, and Patty crept back up to her room, shaking so hard she couldn't even make it to her bed, but folded up on the floor, sick with fear and shame. She didn't get any homework done that night, and she couldn't sleep, lying there in bed with all her muscles tense, staring at the gray blotch of the ceiling in the dark and wondering when the Devil would come and if he'd find her before the FBI did.
She felt half dead the next day at school, and she couldn't even tell Stephanie what was wrong. When she tried, the words jammed in her throat, and even though she knew that was just a figure of speech, the block felt so real she almost couldn't breathe around it. Family history was one thing, but the FBI was...they were real. They were on TV. Being a witch was horrible, but it was also, horribly, kind of neat. Stephanie thought so, that was for sure, and Patty was ashamed of herself for being almost proud of the way the story about her grandmother made Stephanie pay attention to her. But being hunted by the FBI, God, they'd arrest her and put her in jail and she'd have to wear those orange overalls and be handcuffed all the time, and everyone would be so ashamed of her. They wouldn't talk about her, not just the way they didn't talk about Mama, but the way they didn't talk about Mom's brother Dennis, who'd gotten in some kind of trouble, although Patty didn't know what, and skipped out to Florida or somewhere, where he spent all his time drunk and doing drugs. Patty'd almost wanted to be a witch, if it would make her be like Mama, but she didn't want to be like Dennis. She didn't want to see that look on Mom's face, the one she always had when she got off the phone with Grandma Karen and Patty knew Grandma Karen had been crying about Dennis again.
Patty felt like crying herself a lot of that October, and she was a little sick to her stomach most of the time. At least it meant she wasn't hungry, so there was none of that increase in appetite Cousin Lewis had mentioned. And she knew Daddy was watching for it. There was nobody she could tell, and there was nothing she could think of that she could do. If she couldn't bring herself to tell Stephanie, she certainly wasn't going to tell any of the girls on her softball team, most of whom she didn't even like. She couldn't tell any of her teachers. She almost talked herself into going to Reverend Miller, but she didn't really trust him, and she was pretty sure the first thing he'd do was tell Daddy. And what could he tell her to do anyway, except pray? And she was already praying, every night and sometimes in the middle of the day if the sick feeling got too bad. Please, God, I don't want to be a witch. I don't want the Devil to make a deal with me. Please don't let him. And she had the horrible feeling it wasn't enough. Because surely Mama had prayed like that. Mama wouldn't have wanted to be a witch. Patty was as sure about that as she was about anything. And all it had gotten Mama was dead.
Patty knew her mother's gravestone by heart:
Norma Christine MacIntyre
Mother and Wife
God watches your rest
The Museum of the Free State of Franklin
Bell Creek, TN, November 2011
Patty ran as far as the parking lot, where the school bus was waiting. The door was open, and Mr. Kennedy must have gone for a smoke or something, so she dodged up the steps and ran to the back and threw herself flat on the very last seat, dark green shiny vinyl and that weird smell like raisins from being in the sun. And she lay there and shook and tried not to think about Chris Watson's face and tried not to hear anything, although she couldn't help hearing the screams. And the way they stopped. And then the new screams. Adults this time, and she thought that was Miss Harrison screaming "Oh God oh God oh God." Patty pressed her face harder into the vinyl and tried not to make any sound.
The police sirens, shrieking and wailing, made her chest hurt, like all that noise was getting lodged behind her ribs in a big hateful bubble, swelling and swelling. Finally, she pushed her face into the seat cushion and screamed as long and hard as she could without using her voice.
That was about when the sirens stopped, and when Patty could think again, she knew what she had to do. It made her feel sick, but she had to.
She got up and walked to the front of the bus, hanging onto the seat backs when it seemed like her legs weren't going to hold her up. She had to grip the rail on the steps with both hands, and even so she nearly ended up sitting on the asphalt when she took the last step and her knees just kept going.
Buckle up your guts, Patty, she said to herself, the way Mom did in the dentist's office. She had to do this.
There was an ambulance and two police cars, all still with their lights going, and the parking lot seemed ten miles long. The little group of adults standing by one of the police cars just wasn't getting any closer. Two policemen, the lady from the museum who'd taken them around, Miss Harrison, and two of the other fifth grade teachers, Mrs. Ledbetter and Mr. Phipps. Mr. Haines and Mrs. Armstrong must be watching the other kids. Patty was a softball pitch from the police car when one of the policemen noticed her. All of the adults swung around, and Miss Harrison screamed, "Patty! Oh thank Jesus!" She ran at Patty and hugged her so hard that Patty's face was jammed into Miss Harrison's reading glasses that she wore on a fancy chain around her neck.
Miss Harrison was normally kind of sarcastic and a lot of kids thought she was mean. Patty and Stephanie had thought she just didn't like fifth graders much. So if she was weeping all over Patty like this--Patty swallowed hard--things had to be about as bad as she thought.
"Judy," said Mrs. Ledbetter, "let her breathe." When Patty got free of Miss Harrison, she found that the other adults had come up around them. Mrs. Ledbetter and Mr. Phipps looked nearly as unstrung as Miss Harrison, and the policemen looked worried and serious. The lady from the museum had gone a horrible color, sort of greenish-grayish-white, and her blush stood out on her cheekbones like red paint.
Mrs. Ledbetter was the fifth grade teacher Patty liked best, and she looked like she'd give a straight answer. Patty asked her, "Is Chris Watson dead?"
The way Mrs. Ledbetter's face crumpled was answer enough--just as well, because the next second it seemed like everybody was yelling at her, Patty, did you see what happened? Were you there? Did you see who did this?
"Hold on!" It was one of the policemen; he had a good deep bellow. "Give the little girl some room here." He squatted down in front of her. His eyes were very dark, and they were kind. "What's your name, honey?"
"Patty MacIntyre," Patty said, and then wondered if she should have said Patricia.
But the policeman nodded and said, "I'm Officer Stanton. Patty, a lot of kids are dead--" Miss Harrison started to say something, but Officer Stanton shot this look at her over Patty's shoulder, and she shut up. He looked back at Patty and said, "We need your help, honey. We need to catch whoever did this."
Patty realized like a punch to the stomach that they didn't know. They didn't know it was her fault. For a wild, sick second, she thought about lying, about saying there was a man who came and...and what? It wasn't like she'd shot Chris Watson or anything else that just anybody could do. And she was no good at lying anyway.
"You have to arrest me," she said to Officer Stanton.
He rocked back on his heels. "Arrest you? Honey, why would we want to do that?"
"Because I did it," Patty said. "I killed Chris Watson and...and everybody else, I guess." And because she could see he didn't believe her, she said the rest of it, as heavy as rocks, "I'm a witch. I witched them to death."
And then Patty MacIntyre embarrassed herself very much by bursting into tears.
Coriam, TN, October 2011
They were doing a unit in Social Studies on local history and using primary sources. It was really confusing, and neither Stephanie nor Patty nor anybody else understood why something was a secondary source when it was about the thing you were studying. But Patty and Stephanie had agreed that they'd better do their project the way Mr. Haines wanted, so they went to the Coriam Public Library one day after school and got even more confused by the librarian. Patty had a feeling this project wasn't going to get a very good grade.
But something the librarian had said stuck with her. She'd said that the library had all of the Coriam Gazette. All of it, from the very first issue. And that meant they'd have Mama's obituary, because the Coriam Gazette had everybody's obituary, old people and babies and people who didn't even die in Coriam. Everybody.
She didn't tell Stephanie. She didn't know why, and she was on the edge of telling her half a dozen times. But she didn't. It didn't feel like something she wanted to share. She went back to the library on her own. It was a different librarian, younger and nicer, and when Patty said she wanted to see the obituaries for 2004, the librarian didn't try to tell her she didn't, but took her down to the library's basement and showed her how to work the microfiche reader and told her how to find the obituaries in each week of the Gazette. And something about how she wasn't asking and wasn't trying to make like she knew better than Patty made Patty say, "It's my mama. She died when I was just little."
"Oh, honey, of course you want to see it," the librarian said. "You just come get me if you have any questions." And she left Patty there like she was an adult and trustworthy instead of a little girl.
It was hard to figure out the microfiche reader at first, but Patty got the hang of it pretty quick. And that was good, because she was into September 2004 before she found what she was looking for. It wasn't a very long article, not like some of the obituaries she'd skimmed through, just Norma MacIntyre, twenty-six, survived by husband and daughter, died Tuesday of an aneurysm.
Patty got out her notebook and wrote the word down, checking twice to be sure she'd spelled it correctly. "Aneurysm." Then she put the microfiche back in its box and turned off the machine, the way the librarian had said, and went back up the stairs.
"Did you find it, honey?" said the librarian.
"Yes, ma'am, thank you," Patty said, and she walked home. She was late, but Mom didn't ask any more questions after Patty said she'd missed the bus, just said, like she always did, that Patty had to get her head out of the clouds and pay more attention.
Patty waited until Mom went upstairs with the laundry before she dragged the dictionary out of the bookcase.
Looking up "aneurysm" led to looking up a bunch of other words, and then to looking things up on Stephanie's computer when Stephanie was busy finishing her math homework and couldn't lean over Patty's shoulder to see what she was doing, but in the end, Patty was pretty sure she understood. Something in her mama, probably in her brain, had broken and killed her. That was scary, because apparently there wasn't any way to know if you had an aneurysm until it killed you, but also it happened enough that it didn't get called "rare" or "unusual" or anything. You didn't have to be a witch to die of an aneurysm. Really, Patty thought, remembering her daddy's stories about how hard her grandmother was to kill, if you died of an aneurysm, it was almost proof you weren't a witch. She was pretty sure her Grandmother Whittaker wouldn't have let anything like a burst blood vessel stop her.
So maybe Patty's mama hadn't been a witch.
Maybe there was hope.
Bell Creek, TN, November 2011
They didn't believe her. Mr. Phipps and Miss Harrison scolded her for making up stories about something so horrible, and Mrs. Ledbetter tried to talk to her about "sometimes we believe things but they aren't true," and the museum lady and the other policeman just looked at her like she was crazy while it was like Officer Stanton thought he could find the truth--the man with the gun--if he just kept asking questions, like Patty'd just forgotten or something. But no one believed her, and all Patty could do was sit in the back of the police car and tell them what happened over and over again. "I wished Chris Watson was dead and he started bleeding from his eyes."
And then the FBI showed up.
They didn't look like FBI agents on TV. One was tall and skinny skinny skinny, and the other one was short and mostly bald and looked like Patty's favorite teacher ever, Mr. Donovan in second grade. But they weren't dressed in police uniforms and she saw the badge the skinny one showed Officer Stanton, and anyway she'd known the FBI would come for her. She'd just thought it would take longer.
The two agents talked together, the tall one sort of hunching down to listen to the short one, and then they split up. The tall one went off with the lady from the museum and the other policeman, while the short one followed Officer Stanton over to where Patty was sitting.
"Patty, this is Mr. Todd," Officer Stanton said. "He needs to talk to you for a minute, and he needs you to tell him the truth."
"I will," Patty said and hated the way her voice came out, all blaring and sullen.
"Hi, Patty," said the short man. "I'm Solomon Todd." Instead of crouching down next to the car to talk to her the way all the other adults had, he plopped down cheerfully cross-legged on the asphalt.
"Are you an FBI agent?" Patty asked, suddenly unsure again.
"I used to be," said Mr. Todd, smiling in a way that showed all the crinkles around his eyes. "I'm retired now, but they let me come on field trips sometimes."
"But the other one's an FBI agent," Patty persisted. She had to be sure. And Mr. Todd nodded.
"Then y'all are here to take me away," Patty said and managed not to ask, Can we just get it over with?
Mr. Todd had gone very still. "Are we, Patty?"
"Because I'm a witch." All at once, she thought she understood. "It's okay, Mr. Todd. I know the FBI is hunting witches. I heard Cousin Lewis explaining it to Daddy."
"Witches," Mr. Todd said under his breath, and for a second there was a really weird look on his face before he smoothed it out. "Patty, why do you think you're a witch?"
"Because I am," Patty said, and she told him about Chris Watson.
"There's something else, isn't there?" he said gently, and it all spilled out, Grandmother Whittaker and Mama and Daddy watching her and Stephanie saying they used to burn witches and Cousin Lewis saying the FBI was looking for witches and everything. And Mr. Todd listened and didn't interrupt and didn't tell her not to make things up and she could see he believed her like Stephanie had.
"Oh God, did I kill Stephanie, too?"
Patty nodded, but the fact that Mr. Todd knew Stephanie's name told Patty the truth even before he said, "I'm sorry, Patty."
"I didn't want to kill her!" Patty said. Her voice had gone all loud and flat again. "I didn't want to make a deal with the Devil!" She sniffed hard and wetly, and Mr. Todd pulled a packet of Kleenex out of his suit coat and handed it to her.
"Keep it," he said. "Patty, are you hungry?"
"Not really?" Patty said; she couldn't tell what answer he wanted.
"Huh," he said and pushed to his feet. "You sit tight for a minute, kiddo. Okay?" And he turned and jogged to where his tall skinny friend was just coming over the rise.
They walked back toward Patty, talking and gesturing. They were just to where she could hear them when the tall one stopped. "As in, 'they're coming to take me away, ha ha'?"
"Focus, Grasshopper," Mr. Todd said sternly, and then they both lowered their voices, glancing over at Patty, so she tried to look like she hadn't been listening. Their conversation only took another minute, and then they came over to her and Mr. Todd said, "Patty, this is Mr. Villette. We're going to ask you to come with us, but we're not taking you away, all right? We just want to talk to you somewhere more comfortable."
"And we'll call your parents," said Mr. Villette. "Is there an adult you'd like to come with you? Your teacher, maybe?"
She didn't want Miss Harrison, who would either be sarcastic or weepy. "Could you ask Mrs. Ledbetter?"
"Okay," said Mr. Todd. "We'll take our car."
Mr. Villette gave her a funny wrinkled-nose smile and held out his hand. She wasn't sure for a second if she should hold hands with an FBI agent, but she didn't want to make him feel bad. His hand was enormous, but he didn't squeeze at all.
He said, "Mr. Todd says Stephanie Silmer was your best friend."
"Yeah," Patty said.
"I'm sorry," he said. "That's really rough."
"I didn't want her to die," Patty said.
"I know," he said, and he sounded like he did know.
Mrs. Ledbetter got in the back of the FBI agents' car with Patty. "Are you doing all right, Patty?"
"Yes, ma'am," Patty said, hoping Mrs. Ledbetter wouldn't ask why it was her and not Miss Harrison Patty had wanted.
Mrs. Ledbetter didn't ask; she leaned forward to talk to Mr. Villette and Mr. Todd. About TVA and the economy and all the men in town like Stephanie's dad who didn't have jobs anymore. Patty stared out the window and tried not to think about Stephanie. She didn't want to start crying again.
They didn't have far to go, just to the Bell Creek police station where they went into a room with fake wood paneling and a worn-down, dark mustard-yellow carpet. There was a big window in one wall that looked into another room. Patty wondered if the other side was mirrored like in police stations on TV, or if the Bell Creek police officers didn't bother.
Mr. Todd sat at the end of the table farthest from the window and Mr. Villette sat next to him facing the door. Patty sat opposite Mr. Villette and Mrs. Ledbetter sat next to her. The police officer who'd led them to this room said, "Can I get y'all a Coke or anything?"
"Decaf coffee?" Mr. Villette said hopefully.
"You got it," the officer said. "You want anything, honey?"
"I'd really like a Coke," Patty said. Mom would have a fit, but right now that seemed like the least of Patty's worries.
"Sure thing. Anyone else?"
"Just water, please," said Mr. Todd, and Mrs. Ledbetter said, "Yes. Water, please."
"Just a moment," said the officer.
While he was gone, Mr. Todd got out a little recorder and set it up, testing it with his name and the date and "Bell Creek, Tennessee," just like the X-Files episodes Patty wasn't supposed to watch. And, oh God, that shouldn't be like a knife in the chest, but it was, because she'd watched X-Files at Stephanie's house, off Stephanie's parents' DVD box sets. Mr. Silmer had watched with them, sometimes, and those were the nicest memories she had of Stephanie's dad. And it was one more thing that was never going to happen again.
Mr. Todd played his date stamp back and smiled at Patty. "You wouldn't believe how mean my boss gets when I give him a .wav file full of static."
"Have you done that?"
"A couple times. Once was on purpose." He winked at her.
The officer came back with a cup of coffee in one hand and two bottles of water in the other, with a Coke can tucked under his elbow. He handed the drinks around, said, "Let me know if you need anything," and closed the door behind him on the way out.
Mr. Todd opened his water and took a swallow. Then he turned his recorder on, said, "Interview with Patty MacIntyre. Okay, Patty. I know you've told me this story before, but I need you to tell it again for my boss in Virginia."
"And for me," Mr. Villette said. He sounded kind of fierce, and Patty was startled into looking directly at him. He was watching her, almost staring, and she saw that his eyes didn't match. Nicky, her best friend in first grade, had had a dog with different colored eyes, but Patty hadn't known people could have eyes like that. She looked away. Even if he was staring at her, it was rude to stare back.
"Okay," she said and tried to sound like she meant it. "Wh-where do you want me to start?"
"Where do you think the beginning is?" Mr. Todd asked.
Patty swallowed hard and looked at the recorder so she wouldn't have to look at Mr. Villette or Mr. Todd or Mrs. Ledbetter. "My grandmother was a witch." She told the story again, but this time Mr. Todd asked questions. Lots of questions. He said it was okay if Patty didn't know the answers, but she wasn't sure if he meant it. When she mentioned the scrapbook, Mr. Villette started asking questions, too, and it got to where she wasn't telling the story at all, just sort of bouncing from question to question. They were asking a lot of questions about Stephanie, and Patty wished they wouldn't.
Then they started asking about the field trip. Mr. Todd wanted to know what the Free State of Franklin was and why there was a museum for it and why they were having a field trip, so Patty told him about the Tennessee Studies unit in the fifth grade Social Studies classes and how they were supposed to be learning about the history of where they lived, but everybody knew field trips like this were just a way to give the teachers a break. She caught herself too late, and felt her face flood red.
Mrs. Ledbetter, though, just laughed a little and said, "That's really not how we try to pitch it."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Ledbetter. I didn't mean--"
"It's all right, Patty. You're allowed to have opinions."
"The Museum of the Free State of Franklin is an incredibly valuable historical resource," Mrs. Ledbetter said, "but it's never one of our more successful field trips."
"You have to keep trying," Mr. Todd said.
"Yes," Mrs. Ledbetter said, and she sounded tired and sad. "We keep--" Her voice broke, and she said, raw and watery and blaring, "Oh, God damn it."
Patty handed Mrs. Ledbetter the packet of Kleenex Mr. Todd had given her.
"Thank you, honey," Mrs. Ledbetter said, and she pulled back from the table a little. Patty wished she didn't have to know what Mrs. Ledbetter sounded like when she was crying.
"So you were all pretty bored," Mr. Villette said to Patty.
"The truth isn't going to hurt anybody," Mr. Todd said.
"It's not a very interesting museum," Patty said apologetically. "Just a bunch of old farm equipment and maps and stuff. When we went to the museum in Oak Ridge, at least there was stuff to do, you know? And a machine that made your hair stand on end."
"A Van de Graaff generator," Mr. Villette said.
"Yeah," Patty said. "That was neat. But this was just old stuff."
"Is that why Christopher Watson started verbally harassing you? Because he was bored?"
"Probably," Patty said uncomfortably and shrugged. "But I don't know why Chris Watson does anything. Did anything, I mean." She swallowed hard. "I wished him dead, you know."
"That's what you told me," Mr. Todd agreed. "How did you do it?"
"Tell us what happened," Mr. Villette said. "For our boss in Virginia."
So Patty told them about Chris Watson being mean and calling Stephanie "Slimer" and saying they were lesbians. "He was trying to get Stephanie to fight him, and I think she was really going to. And I wished he was dead. Just like that. Like..." She didn't know how to describe it. "And I looked at Chris Watson and there was blood pouring out of his eyes."
"Is that how your grandmother killed her victims?" Mr. Todd asked.
"She wished them dead," Patty said.
"No, I mean, bleeding from the eyes. Is that how she did it?"
"I don't know. I know there was blood everywhere. Daddy told me that."
Mr. Todd and Mr. Villette gave each other a kind of funny look. Patty wasn't sure what it meant, whether they believed her or whether they really didn't.
"Patty," said Mr. Villette, "are you hungry at all?"
"No," Patty said. But she took a long drink of her Coke, because she was thirsty after all that talking.
"What have you eaten today?" said Mr. Todd.
Patty looked sideways at Mrs. Ledbetter, who said, "Go on, honey," even though she looked as confused as Patty felt.
"Well, I had breakfast," Patty said. "Frosted Flakes, and Mom made me take a banana on the bus, but I gave half of it to Stephanie."
"And lunch?" said Mr. Todd.
"I gave most of it to Stephanie," Patty said, and her voice blared and broke because she was starting to cry again.
"Stephanie was hungry," Mr. Villette said, sort of half asking and half not.
Patty nodded convulsively and gulped and blew her nose with one of Mr. Todd's Kleenex. "Stephanie was really hungry. We were going to go look for a vending machine when Chris started being a jerk."
"Huh," said Mr. Villette. He and Mr. Todd exchanged another one of those looks, and Mr. Todd said, "Excuse me just a moment. I need to make a phone call."
He left the room, and Patty and Mrs. Ledbetter and Mr. Villette sat silently. Patty stared down at her hands so she wouldn't have to try to make eye contact with either adult. Her hands were filthy, she saw, with dirt grimed under the fingernails and big patches of dirt across both palms. Like she'd fallen down, although she didn't remember it happening.
Come to think of it, she didn't remember much of anything between pushing past Kelly Roberts and climbing up the stairs of the bus. So maybe she had fallen. Mrs. Ledbetter cleared her throat and said, "I don't want to tell y'all your job, but are you just about done with Patty? Her father should be getting here any time now."
Patty's stomach disappeared. "You won't let him burn me, will you?"
"Let him what?" said Mr. Villette.
"It's what they did to witches," Patty said. "He said it's what they should've done to my grandmother."
"Actually, in America, they hanged witches," Mr. Villette said, "and nobody's going to do anything of the sort."
"I'd really rather you arrested me," Patty said in a little voice.
"Honey, your daddy isn't going to burn you," Mrs. Ledbetter said, as Mr. Todd came back in the room. "He's just going to be so grateful you're alive."
Mrs. Ledbetter didn't know Daddy and how he felt about witches.
Mr. Todd sat down and said, "We'll talk with your father, Patty."
"Okay," Patty said, although she wasn't sure Daddy would pay much attention to Mr. Todd and Mr. Villette, one short, the other skinny, and both of them Yankees.
"Patty," Mr. Villette said, not mean but sharp, like a teacher getting somebody's attention, "I need you to help me with something before your dad gets here."
"Okay," Patty said. "If I can."
"You can," Mr. Villette said, and he smiled at her. It was a nice smile, and it made her feel a little better. He flipped his legal pad to a clean page. "I'm going to draw a map, and I need you to tell me where everybody was standing when Chris Watson's eyes started bleeding."
Mrs. Ledbetter made a noise like she was going to say something, but Mr. Villette looked up and met her eyes. "She's our only eyewitness," he said calmly. "And it's not like she doesn't know what happened."
"I'll do my best," Patty said, and questions to answer were better than having to sit and think about it inside her own head.
"Okay," said Mr. Villette, and he started drawing, neat, quick, precise lines that laid out the Museum of the Free State of Franklin like he'd been studying it all his life. He even sketched in the rusty farm equipment--a plow or a thresher or whatever it was--that Patty and Stephanie had been sitting near.
"Wow," Patty said, and he gave her a funny sidelong look.
Mr. Todd said, "Mr. Villette is a man of many talents."
"Shut up, Mr. Todd," said Mr. Villette, but Patty could tell he wasn't mad. "Now, Patty, where were you?"
That was easy, and she put a finger on his map to show him. He drew a circle and labeled it in tiny perfect capitals PMacI. "And Stephanie?"
"Right next to me," Patty said, and pointed. He drew another circle and labeled it SS.
"Good. Where was Chris Watson?"
"Just in front of Stephanie." And then she remembered he couldn't know which way Stephanie was facing. "Between her and the auditorium building."
"How close? Arm's reach? Could she have hit him without moving?"
"No, he knew better than to get that close. She punched him in the mouth last year. But--" She shut her eyes to remember better. "She looked like she was going to sort of lunge at him, and she could have reached him."
"Okay. We'll say there-ish," said Mr. Villette, and she opened her eyes to watch him draw another circle, CW. "You mentioned another boy."
"Odell," Mr. Todd said quietly.
"Right. Michael Odell. Where was he?"
That was harder. She hadn't been looking at Mike Odell; she'd been watching Stephanie. "He wasn't as close as Chris. Back behind to the right, I think."
MO on the map. "Who else?"
She squinched her eyes shut, trying to call back the ring of staring, gleeful faces. "Annie Morales was off to my left, and Olivia Schroeder was next to her, with Erin and Cammie and Amber. Brandon Chen was behind Chris, and Johnny Patterson must've been next to him because he always is." Her throat seized up for a moment before she could correct herself. "I mean, was. And everybody else was back kind of spread out between the auditorium and the parking lot. I remember I had to push past Kelly and Madison--Madison Becker, not Madison Petrie--when I...when I ran."
Her eyes came open, even though right then, she really didn't want to look at anybody, but it was like Mr. Villette had gotten there first, because he was already saying, "Patty, you did the right thing."
"But how come it didn't work?"
"What do you mean?"
"They all died. And if I witched Chris and ran, how come... I mean, what did I do? I didn't mean to!" She was about to start crying again, and she sniffed hard and pushed the heels of her hands against her eyes.
"You didn't," Mr. Todd said, and he didn't sound like Mrs. Ledbetter trying to tell her she'd just been playing make-believe; he sounded like it was a fact.
She looked at him. She wanted to believe him, but just because he looked like Mr. Donovan and was a retired FBI agent, didn't mean he wasn't lying. Or just wrong. Because adults were wrong sometimes.
"No," he said, like he understood all that, "you really didn't. We think it was your friend Stephanie."
"What was Stephanie?" Mrs. Ledbetter demanded. "What in the name of God is going on?"
Patty was glad Mrs. Ledbetter had asked. It sounded better coming from a teacher.
Mr. Todd and Mr. Villette looked at each other.
"Oh, I see," Mrs. Ledbetter said, and Patty hadn't known she had a voice that sarcastic. "Is this where you tell me it's classified and a matter of national security? Or, 'We could tell you, ma'am, but then we'd have to kill you'?"
"No," Mr. Todd said. "It's not like that."
Mr. Villette had his head bent over his legal pad. He said, "Well, it is, a little bit. I think you can understand it's not something we want all over the media."
"But why..." Mrs. Ledbetter's eyes got wide. "This has happened before. That's why the FBI showed up so goddamn quick. You were expecting it."
"No!" Mr. Villette said, like she'd accused him of murder. And in a way, Patty supposed she had.
"If we'd been expecting it, we could have prevented it," Mr. Todd said, more quietly. "We are not the kind of government conspiracy that kills children. And, no, nothing exactly like this has happened before. But, if we're right, Stephanie Silmer is a manifestation of a phenomenon we've been studying and tracking for almost twenty years. We can't predict it--"
"Yet," Mr. Villette said fiercely.
"Most of the time, we're damage control," Mr. Todd continued. "Because most of the time, the...the people this happens to are adults, and they kill serially. Not en masse."
"Oh my God," Mrs. Ledbetter said weakly.
And something still didn't make sense. "But if Stephanie was the witch," Patty said, "how come she's dead? I mean, my grandmother, it took fifteen rounds for the police to kill her, and nobody was even shooting today."
"Well, we don't know yet," Mr. Todd said, "but I can speculate, because we know that people like Stephanie--and it's not witchcraft, Patty. It's more like a disease. A virus. People like Stephanie burn energy very quickly, and particularly when they're just getting sick, they burn it faster than their bodies can replenish it. They need a lot of calories."
"Stephanie was really hungry," Patty said.
"Yes. She was...well, we use the word 'converting.' She was converting, and then she attacked Chris Watson and the rest of your class, and that used up even more energy, and my best guess, frankly, is that she starved to death in the space of about fifteen minutes. Maybe less."
Patty's entire insides shrank down into a cold sick lump in the pit of her stomach, and she wanted to scream again, the way she had in the bus, only this time not keeping silent.
"My God!" said Mrs. Ledbetter, shooting up out of her chair. "You have no right to tell a child something like that!"
Mr. Todd leaned back in his chair to look her in the eye. "And what do you suggest I do? Lie to her about her best friend's death? In the long run, that will do far more harm than telling her the truth now, no matter how ugly the truth is."
"It's okay, Mrs. Ledbetter," Patty said, even though it wasn't. It was never going to be okay. But the thing that was wrong wasn't Mr. Todd telling the truth. And he was right. She didn't want to be protected from knowing. "I wanted to know. I mean, I want to know. I want to know what happened. I mean, if it's a sickness, how come she got it and I didn't? Did my grandmother have it?"
"We don't know," Mr. Villette said, "although we'll be asking to look at whatever records the police have so that maybe we can find out. But as to why it was Stephanie and not you--we don't have any good answers to that, either. But we may be able to get some better answers if you'll help."
"Me?" said Patty.
"You probably knew her better than anyone," said Mr. Villette. "You'll know things she didn't tell her parents."
"But if she was sick, shouldn't you ask her doctor? She went to Dr. Barber, same as I do."
"Hamstrung by my own metaphor," Mr. Todd muttered, and said more clearly, "It's not that kind of sickness, Patty. It's something that affects the mind before the body. So we need to know about what Stephanie was thinking."
Patty looked helplessly from Mr. Todd to Mr. Villette. She didn't know what they wanted her to say, and saying anything felt like she would be betraying Stephanie, who'd punched Chris Watson in the mouth for calling Patty an ugly weirdo.
"It wasn't Stephanie's fault," Mr. Todd said, in that mind-reading way that was starting to get a little creepy. "We aren't trying to blame her, just to understand what happened to her."
"What kinds of things did she like to do?" Mr. Villette said. "What was she interested in?"
"Um," said Patty. "We watched the X-Files. She played catcher on her church softball team, like I do." It was the first thing they'd had in common, back when they were starting to be friends, that they both played catcher. They didn't talk about church, but they played catch and practiced their fielding all the time.
Had played. Had practiced.
Patty bit the inside of her cheek to keep from starting to cry again and thought of another thing about Stephanie. "She was really into snakes."
"Yeah. When we went to the zoo, she wanted to spend all our time in the reptile house looking at the poisonous snakes."
"Huh. Did she know a lot about them?"
"Yeah," Patty said. She remembered wishing Stephanie knew a little less, especially about snake venom. "She'd read all the books in the school library, and all the pages she could find on Wikipedia. She made me look at this horrible picture of a kid who'd been bitten by a snake in South America, and his leg was falling off. It was awful."
"What about her parents?" said Mr. Todd.
"Her mom's terrified of snakes," Patty said.
"What do they do?" said Mr. Villette.
"Mr. Silmer lost his job in 2009, and he hasn't really found another one," Patty said. "I don't know what it was exactly, some kind of accounting, because he used to tell accountant jokes all the time, and now he doesn't anymore. And Mrs. Silmer is a physician's assistant."
"Was Stephanie an only child?"
"Yeah." There was a pause. Patty shuffled frantically through her memories, trying to find something more, but Stephanie was just Stephanie, and it was silly trying to make her out to be some kind of crazy person. And then she did think of something. "Oh."
"What is it, Patty?" Mr. Villette said, and his weird eyes were kind.
"Well, maybe it's nothing," Patty said.
"You can't hurt anyone by telling us," Mr. Villette said.
"Well, Stephanie... I told her about my Grandmother Whittaker because I was afraid I was a witch, and she was really interested. Wanted to see Daddy's scrapbook and everything. And, I mean, if she...if Grandmother Whittaker had this sickness you're talking about, and Stephanie got it..." She got the rest out in a lump: "Could she have got it by thinking about Grandmother Whittaker too much?"
Mr. Villette looked at Mr. Todd, and Mr. Todd looked back. "Mythology," Mr. Villette said softly, and Patty didn't understand what he meant, but the look on his face made her cold.
"That's a good idea, Patty," Mr. Todd said. "That is, no, just thinking about your grandmother wouldn't have made her get this virus, but it could have affected her, well, her symptoms, I guess you'd say."
"So she looked at people and they fell down dead, just like with my grandmother."
"Maybe," said Mr. Villette, and Patty was going to ask him what he meant when there was a noise out in the main part of the police station that was yelling and crashing all mixed together.
They all jumped. Patty knocked her Coke over, and then everything was crazy for a second while Mr. Todd grabbed for his tape recorder, and Mrs. Ledbetter nearly fell over trying to keep from getting Coke on her clothes, and Patty and Mr. Villette both grabbed for the Coke can and ended up knocking Mr. Villette's legal pad on the floor.
"Sorry!" Patty said. "Sorry!" She crawled under the table after it and saw as she turned it right side up and tried to straighten the crumpled pages that all the time they'd been talking, Mr. Villette had been working on his map.
He'd been drawing in the dead bodies, with neat shaded lines connecting them to the circles he'd marked with Patty's help, so that for some of them it really looked like the circle was the top of the head, if you were looking straight down at a person standing upright, and the dead body was the shadow. And others, like Olivia--she'd gotten almost all the way to the parking lot before she died.
"Oh God," Patty said, backing away from the legal pad as if it was on fire, crawling at first, and then standing up as soon as she was out from under the table.
"Patty?" said Mrs. Ledbetter. "Honey, what--"
"I'm sorry, I gotta--" She turned and dove for the door, clawing it open and half falling across the hallway to the women's restroom. She heard someone yell her name from the front of the building, but she couldn't even look around, all her attention focused tightly inward on not puking before she made it to a toilet. Not in front of Mrs. Ledbetter and the FBI agents and the whole Bell Creek police station.
She made it, just barely.
The Knoxville Zoological Gardens
Knoxville, TN, May 2011
The reptile house at the Knoxville Zoo was dim and humid and creepy as all get-out. Patty had kind of liked the king snake the zookeeper had brought out and let everybody touch, even though Kelly and Olivia and Madison Petrie had been all stupid and shrieking and giggling about it. But it hadn't been slimy or rough, just dry and bumpy-smooth and moving endlessly beneath her fingers, and it hadn't seemed to mind being petted. That had been cool. But then Stephanie started asking questions, and she kept asking questions, even when everybody else had gotten bored and gone somewhere else, and Patty had to stay, because she was Stephanie's designated buddy, and she'd get them both in trouble if she left.
Stephanie was trying to persuade the zookeeper to show her how they milked the rattlesnakes for venom, and the zookeeper was kind of laughing, but there was no way he was going to let a nine-year-old girl near a rattlesnake, and Patty knew it even if Stephanie didn't.
"Come on, Stephanie," she said, interrupting Stephanie in the middle of something about hemotoxins and blood clotting that Patty didn't even want to know. "Let's go look at the red pandas."
The door opened, letting in another bunch of fourth graders, and the zookeeper looked glad to see them.
Stephanie gave Patty a disgusted look. "Yeah, let's go be girly and look at something cute."
"Well, okay," Patty said peaceably, "we can go look at the rhinos if you want. Just, enough with the snakes, okay?"
Stephanie glowered for a second, but she could never stay mad for long. "Okay," she said. "This place giving you the willies?"
"A little," Patty said. It was okay to admit it to Stephanie, now that they were moving. And Patty had touched the king snake, which she knew made Stephanie approve of her.
"Wouldn't you like to be able to bite anybody that made you mad?" Stephanie said, pushing the door open.
"It's called being a brat," Patty said, and came gladly out of the reptile house and into the sunlight. "And Mom said she'd spank Jeremy if he ever did it again."
"That's my point," said Stephanie. "It's not being a brat when you're a snake."
"And you want to go around biting people all the time?" Patty said.
"Not all the time. Just sometimes. You know."
"Yeah," Patty said, because she did, and Stephanie grinned at her.
And then Stephanie said, "Ooh! Lookit the fox!" and broke into a run. And by the time Patty caught up with her, they'd both forgotten about snakes.
Bell Creek, TN, November 2011
No one came after Patty into the restroom, which was a relief, but it was weird, too, when Patty could think about it. Teachers never left you alone if they thought you were sick.
She flushed the toilet and washed her hands. Her reflection in the mirror looked awful, but there wasn't anything she could do about it. She splashed cold water on her face; it felt good, even if it didn't make her any less red or puffy.
And still no adult had come after her. She was already afraid when she opened the door again, and her father's voice echoing down the hall wasn't a surprise, just the confirmation of a horrible truth.
"I know that child is a witch," Daddy was saying. "Just like her mother and her grandmother before her."
"And I'm telling you," Daddy continued, his voice rising into a shout, "I'm not having a witch in my house! I have a little boy!"
"You have a daughter," Mr. Todd said, and Patty hadn't imagined he could sound so stern.
"We know the government's hunting witches," Daddy said. "You can take her away. Tonight. I'll sign any papers you want."
"Mr. MacIntyre," Mr. Villette said, "we don't want to take your daughter away from you. There's no reason to. She's not a witch."
"That's what the government always says. I know about Roswell, too."
"Roswell?" said Mr. Villette, but he broke off sharply.
"Mr. MacIntyre," Mr. Todd said. "Your daughter is no danger to your son. Or to anyone else."
"Tell that to the Watsons," Daddy said. "Or the Pattersons."
She couldn't stand frozen in the hallway of the Bell Creek police station forever, no matter how much she wanted to. Slowly, lifting one lead-weight foot at a time, Patty started toward the front of the building.
"Patty hasn't hurt anyone," Mr. Villette said.
"Then how come she's the only one left alive?" Daddy said. "How come, out of a class of twenty-two kids, this girl you say isn't a witch is the only one left?"
It was a really good question, and she could hear that in Mr. Todd's voice when he said, "We aren't entirely sure yet, Mr. MacIntyre. But we know it isn't because Patty killed them."
They weren't telling Daddy about Stephanie, and Patty realized, as she came out of the hallway, that she couldn't blame them. They had to know that anything they told Daddy about witches, the whole county would know in a week's time.
"There you are," Daddy said. "Witch."
"Mr. MacIntyre, your daughter is not a witch!" Mr. Villette sounded angry.
But Daddy didn't even look at him when he said, "How can you be sure?" He was looking at Patty, and she felt like she'd never seen him before, like this man looking at her all cold and hateful was some stranger. Had to be. Those flat brown eyes and that turned-down, ugly mouth, those couldn't belong to her daddy.
"Patty," Mr. Todd said, starting toward her in a hurry, "why don't you go back and wait with Mrs Led--"
"We don't want you in our house," Daddy said over Mr. Todd. "Your mother--" He stopped and corrected himself. "My wife and I have talked about this. If we couldn't keep the evil from showing in you, we weren't going to let you poison Jeremy."
"I wouldn't!" Patty said.
"That's what your mother said," Daddy said. "And she died to prove it, too."
"She had an aneurysm!" Patty yelled. "I read her obituary in the library! She had an aneurysm and it killed her and you shouldn't be glad about it!"
"Patty," Mr. Todd said gently, trying to get her to turn around without actually touching her, like he was afraid she'd take a swing at him.
"We won't have you in our house!" Daddy shouted.
"I wouldn't go there if you asked me!" Patty shouted back. "Not if you got down on your bended knees and begged!" And then she was crying again, which was stupid, and also it hurt, because her eyes were already raw and her throat and chest hurt from all the crying she'd been doing over Stephanie and everybody else, and it wasn't fair of Daddy to make her start crying again.
She let Mr. Todd herd her back to the room where Mrs. Ledbetter was waiting. The adults talked for a moment over Patty's head, and Patty let them, because sometimes it was okay to be a kid. She managed to stop crying, finally, and heard Mrs. Ledbetter say, "Jerry MacIntyre never has had the sense God gave a goose." And it was horrible that somebody was saying that about her daddy, but it made her feel better, too.
"Come and sit down, Patty," Mrs. Ledbetter said as Mr. Todd left again. "Do you want another Coke?"
"No, thank you," Patty said. She swallowed hard. "Mrs. Ledbetter, what's going to happen to me? If the FBI don't want me, and Daddy says he won't--" She stopped and pinched the bridge of her nose, because this was seriously enough crying already.
"Do you have any other family?" Mrs. Ledbetter said. "Is there somebody we could call, maybe?"
Cousin Lewis was Patty's first, horrible thought. Then Grandma Karen--but she wasn't really Patty's grandmother, even though Patty loved her. But that made her remember Aunt Lee. "My mama's sister lives in Knoxville, I think," she said. "I don't know her. But maybe...do you think maybe she'd let me stay with her?"
"Mr. Villette is calling Children's Services," Mr. Todd said, coming back in the room. "But we can have them call your aunt, too. What's her name?"
"Lee," Patty said. "Lee Whittaker."
"Good," said Mr. Todd, making a note of it. "Don't worry, Patty. You're not going to be abandoned."
Except that's what Daddy just did, Patty thought, but Mr. Todd was already out of the room again, and she knew better than to argue with adults anyway.
She and Mrs. Ledbetter sat at the table and didn't say anything to each other until the door opened again, and Mr. Todd showed in a young woman with bright new-penny-colored hair who said she was Angela Gorham and she'd be Patty's caseworker and Patty could call her Angie.
She was another Yankee, and Patty'd never called an adult by their first name in her life. But she had a nice smile.
"Patty, are you going to be okay?" Mrs. Ledbetter said. "Only, I need to get going."
Patty nodded. "I'll be fine, Mrs. Ledbetter. Thanks for staying."
Mrs. Ledbetter looked at her for a moment. Then her mouth got grim and she said, "Don't let your daddy's nonsense poison you, Patty. You're not a witch." And she left, nodding thanks to Mr. Todd for holding the door for her.
Patty looked back at Miss Gorham just in time to see her mouthing the word "witch" at Mr. Todd with question marks all over her face. Mr. Todd didn't turn a hair, just said, "Patty, I need to talk to Miss Gorham for a moment before we leave. And I think Mr. Villette would like to talk to you."
"Okay," Patty said, and she got up and went into the hall where Mr. Villette was waiting.
"Patty," said Mr. Villette, crouching down so he could look at her, "you're in for a rough time, and there's nothing I can say that will make it easier. But there's one thing you should remember when you think about Stephanie."
"I know," Patty said. "It wasn't her fault."
"Not that," Mr. Villette said, "although you're right, it wasn't. But listen. Christopher Watson's eyes started bleeding, and you ran, right?"
"You saw my map--" And he screwed up his face in what she guessed was an apology. "So you know how big her radius of effect was."
"The distance she could kill people at."
"Yeah." Patty remembered Olivia Schroeder, who'd almost made it to the parking lot.
"So here's the thing. Stephanie could have killed you, too." He watched her anxiously as he continued: "She'd converted before you started to run, because she made Christopher Watson's eyes bleed. She could have killed you, and she didn't."
"Oh," Patty said. She thought about that, and he waited, still watching her. "Why didn't she? She killed everybody else, even people like Jessie Norris who never picked on us at all."
"We'll never know for sure," Mr. Villette said. "We don't know whether she could aim it, or whether once it started, she couldn't really control it. But either way, she held it off of you, Patty. And we know, from other people like Stephanie that we've been able to talk to, that that must have been very hard. Stephanie loved you. And I don't want you to forget that."
The word "love" was embarrassing, like Mr. Villette thought she and Stephanie really were lesbians or something. But she looked at him, still watching her and still looking anxious, and she knew that wasn't what he meant. That wasn't what he meant at all.
"Thanks," she said.
He nodded, and for a second he looked almost shy. "This is my card," he said, and handed her a business card. She took it, but she couldn't look away from him to read it, even though no one had ever given her their business card before. "If you need somebody to talk to, you can call me or e-mail me, okay?"
"Isn't that weird?" Patty said.
He grinned. "A little. But it's better than not having anybody. And I know about people like Stephanie. You may have questions, once you have a chance to think. And I don't want... I can't--we can't stay here, but we aren't abandoning you." He was really fierce about it, like it mattered to him, and that made Patty feel better.
"Thank you," she said. "I think Miss Gorham will be okay. And maybe my Aunt Lee will come."
"I hope so," he said.
There was a pause where Patty knew she should be saying something that would let him feel like he was off the hook, but she didn't know what.
He said, "Do you think you're going to be all right?"
"I don't know," Patty said. "I'm going to try."
"Me, too," said Mr. Villette, and then he stood up and put his adult face back on as the door opened. Mr. Todd came out, and Miss Gorham stood in the doorway.
But Patty still had his business card, and she held onto it tight as Miss Gorham said, "Come in here, Patty. We've got a lot to talk about."
She wasn't a witch. Stephanie was dead, and her daddy didn't want her in his house, but she wasn't a witch.