Excerpt

2010
Prologue
An Outside Perspective

The drunk in the tavern had breath that could have been set on fire—and clothes that should have been set on fire—but that didn't mean he couldn't see or hear straight.

Like when he bumped into the guy in the suit next to the bar. Honest mistake, didn’t mean it, but he clearly heard the suit say “asshole” before they connected. And the suit must have been talking to him, because when the drunk looked back he was shaking his fist at him.

Before the drunk was just pissed; now he was pissed off. He swayed unsteadily and glowered at the suit, who looked nervous. Darn right you should look nervous, thought the drunk, I know kung-fu. Well, he watched The Matrix at any rate, and was pretty sure he could do that stuff if he had to.

Then the man said “cock pee” to the waitress, which seemed like a strange insult, but he was hardly one to judge. Earlier that evening he called a pigeon at the window a “sumbitchering feather duster,” and the TV weatherman who said the upcoming lunar eclipse would be the first that fell on a winter solstice in four hundred years a “garfunkling nerdhole.”

The suit called the waitress a pig. Now the drunk was really annoyed. He liked that waitress and proposed to her at least twice a month. He was going to have to stand up for her honor. He could tell the suit was scared, too, because of the way he pretended to ignore him. Sure, he put on a big show—frantically looking through his wallet, dumping money on the counter, trying to use his cell phone—but the suit was scared. Really scared.

Before the drunk could challenge him to honorable combat—or just hit him from behind—the suit was out the door. The drunk stumbled after him, but lost him as his eyes adjusted to the dark. He stood dazed in the alleyway, wondering which way the coward went.

He saw a figure at the end of the cobblestone alley, but something kept him where he was. The small part of his brain desperately clinging to sobriety screamed at him, trying to save his life. In that moment of inebriated hesitation, he noticed something wasn't quite right about the person.

For one thing, people don't usually have ears that big and pointy.

Or that much hair.

And they usually couldn't jump atop a building in three short leaps.

For a moment the drunk just stood there and looked up at the cloudy sky. He was sure he heard a howl. For the first time in his life, he would have admitted to the police he was drunk.

He figured there was only one cure for a delusion like that, so the drunk stumbled back into the Bleeding Heart Tavern and ordered himself another drink.

 

PART I
WHERE IT ALL GOT REMEMBERED WRONG

This is a story about Bleeding Heart Yard:

Sir Christopher Hatton had but one daughter, Elizabeth. He adored her and raised her in a life of privilege in the court of King James I. She was renowned for her beauty and charm, and had several prospective suitors, though none could gain an advantage over the others.

One winter's evening in 1626, she was the guest of the Bishop of Ely at a ball, where she danced all night. The Spanish Ambassador, Señor Gondomar, arrived late for the party. He was a neighbor of the Hattons, and one of Elizabeth's many suitors. They danced but one time, and those attending remembered the tension between them. Some said they had argued while others claimed they had flirted shamelessly. Perhaps they did both, but regardless they left the party arm in arm.

On the morning of January 27, they found her body lying in the snow behind the stables of Hatton House, her arms hacked and chest slashed open. Those who found her swore her heart still pumped blood onto the cobblestones. Though suspicion lay with the Spanish Ambassador, no one ever proved who killed her. In the years to come the locals dubbed the stables Bleeding Heart Yard.

This story is not true. 

 

1991
Chapter 1
Peter

Peter was moments away from the first half of the worst week of his life. It would be almost twenty years before he saw the other half. It was a perfect summer day in the village of Columbus; the sun high in the cloudless sky, the air hot but not too dry. If you went to the big hill by Purple Woods you could see all the way to Lake Scugog. The kids were playing baseball next to the church. The score was tied, Peter was up to bat, and everything was about to go to hell.

Peter was no good at sports, a fact of which he regularly reminded. For starters, he always closed his eyes when he swung, which was the first thing you learned not to do. The three outfielders, seeing him shuffle up to the plate, moved in so close they could shake hands with the teammates covering the bases.

Peter's father always said things would go better this time. When that didn't happen, he'd sigh and buy Peter ice cream at the old gas station before walking him home and making the same promise again. Next time. Then Peter would shut himself in his room and build things. Today he would finish his Norman castle, the portcullis just needed a little bit of—

“Strike one!”

Peter snapped out of it. He hadn't even seen the ball whiz by. He was glad his father wasn't watching today; he could picture the disappointment on his face, hidden under a mask of fatherly support. He knew he would strike out, he always struck out, but the least he could do was make an effort—

“Strike two!”

Again, Peter snapped out of it.

“Why don't you play t-ball instead?!” yelled one of the outfielders, who now stood beside the pitcher. Simon the umpire wasn't even paying attention anymore; instead, he talked to his girlfriend behind the batting cage. Peter's fate was that much of a foregone conclusion.

Peter's head sunk. He hated this game. He hated how it made his father feel about him. He hated how it made him feel about himself. He wished he could hit the damn ball once. Just once. He didn't care what happened after that. He raised his eyes and focused. He wouldn't go down without a fight. Blood rushed into his ears to the point where he couldn't hear their taunts and jeers any more, just the thundering current roaring past his ear canal.

He tried and failed not to close his eyes as he swung. But instead of the usual nothing, he felt a minor earthquake run through his forearms as the ball connected with the sweet spot. His arms seemed to extend naturally into a follow through. Had anyone taken a picture of the moment it could have been used on a Rookie of the Year baseball card. Out of habit Peter started to walk back to the bench only to have his teammates wave at him to run the other way. He turned his head and saw a small white dot in the clear sky drift farther and farther. The outfielders stood dumbfounded, not having a chance in hell of catching it.

Peter jogged toward first base, eyes locked on the ball. The cheer that had started stopped short as everyone waited to see what would happen. It was like a dream—it just kept on going and going. His heart pounded and legs shook as it sunk in this would be his first ever home run. More than that, it would be a new record for distance! Peter was about to laugh and cry out and start some taunting of his own when everyone heard the unmistakable sound of glass shattering, followed by a soft bang.

No one knew how to react to this. Some gasped, others cheered, and a few laughed. In the end it turned into a thin smattering of applause, but Peter didn't notice. He had stopped dead in his tracks.

He saw which house the ball had hit.

****

It wasn't fair. Peter had hit a home run. He had won the game. Yet rather than being heralded as a hero and carried on the shoulders of his teammates, they marched behind him like prison guards escorting a condemned man to the gas chamber.

The old two-story wooden house was on an unpaved road and had gravel for a driveway, but no car. They said it was older than the church. It looked it.

There were thousands of places like Columbus across Canada, small villages with a population of a few hundred that sprang up at moderately used intersections. And because of their isolation—the nearest city, Oshawa, was an hour's bike ride away—the children created their own local mythologies and passed them down from generation to generation.

Most Columbus adults remembered stories about the Old House. It had been abandoned since the Second World War, which made it perfect for tales of bloody murder, hidden treasure, and unquiet ghosts that left footprints in the dust with missing toes. It also made a great haunted house for Halloween. But Peter's generation had added a new twist, because a few months ago someone had moved into the Old House, and they said she was a witch.

Of the pack of children advancing on the Old House, most claimed to have seen the witch. Of them, half said she was beautiful and the other half said she was ugly, which led to the conclusion she was ugly and used magic to appear beautiful.

In the minds of children, this was what was known as proof.

The wooden fence around the Old House was once white, but hadn't been repainted in years; large flakes of yellowed dandruff still clung to its sides. A great tree had once been in the center of the yard but only a smooth stump remained. Peter pushed open the squeaky gate and walked up to the front door.

Something sounded strange. He realized he only heard his own feet on the gravel. He stopped and turned around. His entourage waited behind the fence. Simon grabbed the squeaky gate and shut it, as if he was afraid of what might escape if he didn't.

“'Of course you should play baseball,'” Peter said, mimicking his father's voice. “'How else are you going to make friends?' Some friends.”

Peter was no athlete, but he was no coward, either. Besides, he didn't believe in witches or magic. Not really. All that mattered was he had broken someone's window and by God he was going to apologize and find a way to pay for it if he could. He was that kind of a stand up guy.

(Actually, he knew all too well that if it wasn't for the army of children watching his every step he'd be home working on his Norman castle, pretending it never happened and terrified that someone would rat him out.)

Swallowing hard, Peter grabbed the iron door knocker and rapped once, lightly.

“No one's home! I'll leave a note!”

The door yanked open a foot, and Peter could just make out half a woman's face and long raven black hair. He almost screamed, but rallied his nerves and did the honorable thing.

“Excuse me, miss? I'm sorry, but we were playing baseball by the church and I got my first home run ever and I think I might have broken your—” A hand shot out, grabbed Peter by the wrist and pulled him inside. The last thing Peter saw before the door slammed shut was his teammates running away like spooked rabbits.

The woman's back was against the door now. She held his wrist like an iron shackle, barring any chance of escape. Despite the dim light of the hallway, Peter saw half of her face clearly. She wasn't ugly, but she wasn't pretty the way women on TV were pretty, either. Her features were strong and angled. Peter's father would have called her handsome. She was also furious. She said nothing but there was hate in her eyes. When she brushed aside her long black hair, he saw why.

Blood dripped from her left cheek. He saw several deep cuts, along with something that glowed purple. She smelled vaguely of sulfur. Still silent, she held up the baseball. One side of it smoked and also glowed purple. Any doubts that she was a witch vaporized; he just hoped he didn't vaporize with them. She knelt down and examined him close, grabbing him by the cheeks and turning his head from side to side. Her eyes narrowed. She said exactly two words:

“You again.”

“Me? Did I? Was I? I'm sorry! I didn't mean—” Again he didn't have a chance to finish his sentence as she pulled him into the kitchen. She stopped in front of the fridge, and glared at him with narrowed eyes.

Everything got a little hazy after that.

****

The next thing Peter remembered, he was back outside, walking down the gravel path in a daze. He stopped and shook his head to clear it. He wasn't sure how long he had been inside, but it had to be at least an hour. The shadows were longer.

At first he thought one of the kids from the game had waited for him, but Peter didn't recognize him. The stranger was about Peter's age, with dark black hair, and leaned against the fence with a Tom Sawyer grin on his face.

“Got cursed, huh?”

Peter didn't think to ask how he knew, because until the kid had said it he wasn't sure himself. Now some of the fog was lifting, enough to know the kid was right. Peter nodded.

“Maybe I can help ya,” said the kid. “Step into my office.” He took Peter to the tree stump and sat him down. “Did she tell you what kind of a curse it was?”

Peter frowned, trying to remember. He shook his head.

“Die before you're eighteen? Live beyond your years? Wealthy but never happy? Forever poor? Too fat? Too thin?” He rattled off others, but nothing sounded familiar. The kid bit his lip. “That sucks. If I knew what it was, I might be able to undo it. Maybe I can just convince her to reverse it.”

The shutters on the attic of the Old House burst open and the witch leaned out, buck naked, and let out a furious shriek.

“Or maybe not.”

“Get away from my boy, you horrible child, or I shall curse you again!” Her voice was deep for a woman, theatrical and strongly accented.

The boy shouted up at her, “For God's sake, mom! Get back inside before the neighbors see you!”

“Then I shall curse them, too!”

“You already live here, what more can you do?”

Peter's eyes widened. “Mom?”

“Yeah, unfortunately.” He certainly had the same hair as his mother, as well as the same dark eyes, but there the similarities ended. The kid must have misinterpreted his puzzlement for worry, because he knelt down beside Peter with a serious expression.

“Hey, it's going to be okay. It's not safe to ask her for anything right now, but chances are this curse won't kick in for weeks. Maybe years. We've got plenty of time to fix it. Well, maybe. I'm still new at all this. Sorta. I’m kind of old at it, too, I think. Meet me here tomorrow and I'll tell you what I've found out.”

Peter nodded in agreement, still a bit dazed from his ordeal. He didn't know what he was going to tell his dad, but whatever it was, it wasn't going to be the truth—even if he could remember what it was. “I better get going,” said Peter. “I don't want my dad to start worrying.”

The kid watched him get up. “You going to be okay?”

“I think so. Thanks. I'm Peter, by the way.”

“Zared, but you might as well call me Red.”