Cas Lowood has inherited an unusual vocation: He kills the dead.
So did his father before him, until he was gruesomely murdered by a ghost he sought to kill. Now, armed with his father’s mysterious and deadly athame, Cas travels the country with his kitchen-witch mother and their spirit-sniffing cat. They follow legends and local lore, destroy the murderous dead, and keep pesky things like the future and friends at bay.
Searching for a ghost the locals call Anna Dressed in Blood, Cas expects the usual: track, hunt, kill. What he finds instead is a girl entangled in curses and rage, a ghost like he’s never faced before. She still wears the dress she wore on the day of her brutal murder in 1958: once white, now stained red and dripping with blood. Since her death, Anna has killed any and every person who has dared to step into the deserted Victorian she used to call home.
Yet she spares Cas’s life.
It’s after midnight when I park the Rally Sport in our driveway. Mr. Dean’s probably still up, wiry and full of black coffee as he is, watching me cruise carefully down the street. But he doesn’t expect the car back until morning. If I get up early enough, I can take it down to the shop and replace the tires before he knows any different.
As the headlights cut through the yard and splash onto the face of the house, I see two green dots: the eyes of my mom’s cat. When I get to the front door, it’s gone from the window. It’ll tell her that I’m home. Tybalt is the cat’s name. It’s an unruly thing, and it doesn’t much care for me. I don’t care much for it either. It has a weird habit of pulling all the hair off its tail, leaving little tufts of black all over the house. But my mom likes to have a cat around. Like most children, they can see and hear things that are already dead. A handy trick, when you live with us.
I go inside, take my shoes off, and climb the stairs by two. I’m dying for a shower—want to get that mossy, rotten feeling off my wrist and shoulder. And I want to check my dad’s athame and rinse off whatever black stuff might be on the edge.
At the top of the stairs, I stumble against a box and say, “Shit!” a little too loudly. I should know better. My life is lived in a maze of packed boxes. My mom and I are professional packers; we don’t mess around with castoff cardboard from the grocery or liquor stores. We have high-grade, industrialstrength, reinforced boxes with permanent labels. Even in the dark I can see that I just tripped over the Kitchen Utensils (2).
I tiptoe into the bathroom and pull my knife out of my leather backpack. After I finished off the hitchhiker I wrapped it up in a black velvet cloth, but not neatly. I was in a hurry. I didn’t want to be on the road anymore, or anywhere near the bridge. Seeing the hitchhiker disintegrate didn’t scare me. I’ve seen worse. But it isn’t the kind of thing you get used to.
I look up into the mirror and see the sleepy reflection of my mom, holding the black cat in her arms. I put the athame down on the counter.
“Hey, Mom. Sorry to wake you.”
“You know I like to be up when you come in anyway. You should always wake me, so I can sleep.”
I don’t tell her how dumb that sounds; I just turn on the faucet and start to run the blade under the cold water.
“I’ll do it,” she says, and touches my arm. Then of course she grabs my wrist, because she can see the bruises that are starting to purple up all along my forearm.
I expect her to say something motherly; I expect her to quack around like a worried duck for a few minutes and go to the kitchen to get ice and a wet towel, even though the bruises are by no means the worst mark I’ve ever gotten. But this time she doesn’t. Maybe because it’s late, and she’s tired. Or maybe because after three years she’s finally starting to figure out that I’m not going to quit.
“Give it to me,” she says, and I do, because I’ve gotten the worst of the black stuff off already. She takes it and leaves. I know that she’s off to do what she does every time, which is to boil the blade and then stab it into a big jar of salt, where it will sit under the light of the moon for three days. When she takes it out she’ll wipe it down with cinnamon oil and call it good as new.
She used to do the same thing for my dad. He’d come home from killing something that was already dead and she’d kiss him on the cheek and take away the athame, as casually as any wife might carry in a briefcase. He and I used to stare at the thing while it sat in its jar of salt, our arms crossed over our chests, conveying to each other that we both thought it was ridiculous. It always seemed to me like an exercise in make-believe. Like it was Excalibur in the rock.
But my dad let her do it. He knew what he was getting into when he met and married her, a pretty, auburn-haired Wiccan girl with a strand of white flowers braided around her neck. He’d lied back then and called himself Wiccan too, for lack of a better word. But really, Dad wasn’t much of anything.
He just loved the legends. He loved a good story, tales about the world that made it seem cooler than it really was. He went crazy over Greek mythology, which is where I got my name.
They compromised on it, because my mom loved Shakespeare, and I ended up called Theseus Cassio. Theseus for the slayer of the Minotaur, and Cassio for Othello’s doomed lieutenant. I think it sounds straight-up stupid. Theseus Cassio Lowood. Everyone just calls me Cas. I suppose I should be glad—my dad also loved Norse mythology, so I might have wound up being called Thor, which would have been basically unbearable.
I exhale and look in the mirror. There are no marks on my face, or on my gray dress button-up, just like there were no marks on the Rally Sport’s upholstery (thank god). I look ridiculous. I’m in slacks and sleeves like I’m out on a big date, because that’s what I told Mr. Dean I needed the car for. When I left the house tonight my hair was combed back, and there was a little bit of gel in it, but after that fucking kerfuffle it’s hanging across my forehead in dark streaks.
“You should hurry up and get to bed, sweetheart. It’s late and we’ve got more packing to do.”
My mom is done with the knife. She’s floated back up against the doorjamb and her black cat is twisting around her ankles like a bored fish around a plastic castle.
“I just want to jump in the shower,” I say. She sighs and turns away.
“You did get him, didn’t you?” she says over her shoulder, almost like an afterthought.
“Yeah. I got him.”
She smiles at me. Her mouth looks sad and wistful. “It was close this time. You thought you’d have him finished before the end of July. Now it’s August.”
“He was a tougher hunt,” I say, pulling a towel down off the shelf. I don’t think she’s going to say anything else, but she stops and turns back.
“Would you have stayed here, if you hadn’t gotten him? Would you have pushed her back?”
I only think for a few seconds, just a natural pause in the conversation, because I knew the answer before she finished asking the question.
As my mom leaves, I drop the bomb. “Hey, can I borrow some cash for a new set of tires?”
“Theseus Cassio,” she moans, and I grimace, but her exhausted sigh tells me that I’m good to go in the morning.
Thunder Bay, Ontario, is our destination. I’m going there to kill her. Anna. Anna Korlov. Anna Dressed in Blood.
“This one has you worried, doesn’t it, Cas,” my mom says from behind the wheel of the U-Haul van. I keep telling her we should just buy our own moving truck, instead of renting. God knows we move often enough, following the ghosts.
“Why would you say that?” I ask, and she nods at my hand. I hadn’t realized it was tapping against my leather bag, which is where Dad’s athame is. With a focused effort, I don’t take it away. I just keep tapping like it doesn’t matter, like she’s overanalyzing and reading into things.
“I killed Peter Carver when I was fourteen, Mom,” I say. “I’ve been doing it ever since. Nothing much surprises me anymore.”
There’s a tightening in her face. “You shouldn’t say it like that. You didn’t ‘kill’ Peter Carver. You were attacked by Peter Carver and he was already dead.”
It amazes me sometimes how she can change a thing just by using the right words. If her occult supply shop ever goes under, she’s got a good future in branding.
I was attacked by Peter Carver, she says. Yeah. I was attacked. But only after I broke into the Carver family’s abandoned house. It had been my first job. I did it without my mom’s permission, which is actually an understatement. I did it against my mom’s screaming protests and had to pick the lock on my bedroom window to get out of the house. But I did it. I took my father’s knife and broke in. I waited until two a.m. in the room where Peter Carver shot his wife with a .44 caliber pistol and then hung himself with his own belt in the closet. I waited in the same room where his ghost had murdered a real estate agent trying to sell the house two years later, and then a property surveyor a year after that.
Thinking about it now, I remember my shaking hands and a stomach close to heaving. I remember the desperation to do it, to do what I was supposed to do, like my father had. When the ghosts finally showed up (yes, ghosts plural—turns out that Peter and his wife had reconciled, found a common interest in killing) I think I almost passed out. One came out of the closet with his neck so purple and bent it looked like it was on sideways, and the other bled up through the floor like a paper towel commercial in reverse. She hardly made it out of the boards, I’m proud to say. Instinct took over and I tacked her back down before she could make a move. Carver tackled me though, while I was trying to pull my knife out of the wood that was coated with the stain that used to be his wife. He almost threw me out the window before I scrambled back to the athame, mewling like a kitten. Stabbing him was almost an accident. The knife just sort of ran into him when he wrapped the end of his rope around my throat and spun me around. I never told my mom that part.
“You know better than that, Mom,” I say. “It’s only other people who think you can’t kill what’s already dead.” I want to say that Dad knew too, but I don’t. She doesn’t like to talk about him, and I know that she hasn’t been the same since he died. She’s not quite here anymore; there’s something missing in all of her smiles, like a blurry spot or a camera lens out of focus. Part of her followed him, wherever it was that he went. I know it’s not that she doesn’t love me. But I don’t think she ever figured on raising a son by herself. Her family was supposed to form a circle. Now we walk around like a photograph that my dad’s been cut out of.
“I’ll be in and out like that,” I say, snapping my fingers and redirecting the subject. “I might not even spend the whole school year in Thunder Bay.”
She leans forward over the steering wheel and shakes her head. “You should think about staying longer. I’ve heard it’s a nice place.”
I roll my eyes. She knows better. Our life isn’t quiet. It isn’t like other lives, where there are roots and routines. We’re a traveling circus. And she can’t even blame it on my dad being killed, because we traveled with him too, though admittedly not as much. It’s the reason that she works the way she does, doing tarot card readings and aura cleansing over the phone, and selling occult supplies online. My mother the mobile witch. She makes a surprisingly good living at it. Even without my dad’s trust accounts, we’d probably be just fine.
Right now we’re driving north on some winding road that follows the shore of Lake Superior. I was glad to get out of North Carolina, away from iced tea and accents and hospitality that didn’t suit me. Being on the road I feel free, when I’m on my way from here to there, and it won’t be until I put my feet down on Thunder Bay pavement that I’ll feel like I’m back to work. For now I can enjoy the stacks of pines and the layers of sedimentary rock along the roadside, weeping groundwater like a constant regret. Lake Superior is bluer than blue and greener than green, and the clear light coming through the windows makes me squint behind my sunglasses.
“What are you going to do about college?”
“Mom,” I moan. Frustration bubbles out of me all of a sudden. She’s doing her half-and-half routine. Half accepting what I am, half insisting that I be a normal kid. I wonder if she did it to my dad too. I don’t think so.
“Cas,” she moans back. “Superheroes go to college too.”
“I’m not a superhero,” I say. It’s an awful tag. It’s egotistical, and it doesn’t fit. I don’t parade around in spandex. I don’t do what I do and receive accolades and keys to cities. I work in the dark, killing what should have stayed dead. If people knew what I was up to, they’d probably try to stop me. The idiots would take Casper’s side, and then I’d have to kill Casper and them after Casper bit their throats out. I’m no superhero. If anything I’m Rorschach from Watchmen. I’m Grendel. I’m the survivor in Silent Hill.
“If you’re so set on doing this during college, there are plenty of cities that could keep you busy for four years.” She turns the U-Haul into a gas station, the last one on the U.S. side. “What about Birmingham? That place is so haunted you could take two a month and still probably have enough to make it through grad school.”
“Yeah, but then I’d have to go to college in fucking Birmingham,” I say, and she shoots me a look. I mutter an apology. She might be the most liberal-minded of mothers, letting her teenage son roam the night hunting down the remains of murderers, but she still doesn’t like hearing the f-bomb fall out of my mouth.
She pulls up to the pumps and takes a deep breath. “You’ve avenged him five times over, you know.” Before I can say that I haven’t, she gets out and shuts the door.
Anna Dressed in Blood © Kendare Blake 2011