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A Cast of Liches

“For how long must we keep doing this?” the first lich asked the second. His dreadlocks were dry and had faded near to white, a smell not of fragrant oils, but of something long past due permeating the air around him. His eyes were tired and sucked back into his skull.

“As long as it takes,” the second answered. Bent forth on his crooked staff, he observed the cauldron’s brew. “Keep churning.”

A third lich stood by silently, as if deep in meditation. After a time, he too leaned his wicked bones over the pot and spit. “That should do,” he said.

The first lich quit his churning, and, with the others, he waited. As he stepped back from the cauldron, a pale, ethereal mist rose into the air and formed an amorphous mass above the three liches.

The third lich watched the mist expectantly. “Go,” he told it. “Find the boy.”

The mist obeyed and shot toward the sky, disappearing into the dark that swallowed the stars.

“What do we do now?” the first lich asked once the mist had disappeared.

“Come,” the second replied. “Let’s join the others.”

• • • •

When his fury roused him from the grave, the boy went first to see his mother. Their two-bedroom apartment that once had felt so cramped suddenly seemed completely bare. Nothing had changed, really. His father had stayed gone—not even the boy’s funeral could summon him back to his mother. His room was exactly how he left it. His vintage Ken Griffey Jr. poster was still taped crudely above his bed and his baseball bat still rested in the corner by his desk. His collection of Orioles hats remained next to his books on the shelf. All that was missing was his mitt stuffed with a muddy ball. That had been taken for evidence too, along with his body.

His mother hadn’t left the couch since she had come home from the funeral, and this is where he found her, curled up with her knees at her chin and his framed school picture in her hand. Relatives had come and gone—seeing as the boy had no siblings to speak of—though as time went on, they too came less and less. Now she was utterly alone.

The boy tried to wake her. “I’m here, Momma,” he said. “I’m here.” But his mother didn’t stir. She was still, save for the rise and fall of her chest, which even in sleep seemed like an unnatural heaving. Her cheeks were damp from tears, her nose red and raw. She was a distortion of how he remembered her, as if the past months had been years.

“Momma?” he tried once more, but she could not hear him. His voice could not bridge the gap between them.

He wondered if he left her if he would really be leaving. After all, he was not really there. Not to his mother. Not to the ones who needed him most. He did not wait for an answer to come to him; he left her regardless.

• • • •

“Where will he go now?” the first lich asked, as he crowded around the cauldron with the others. The three liches pondered the images refracted in the brew.

“He will go wherever his phylactery leads him,” replied the third. “Just as we followed ours.”

The second lich ran his hand over his nearly skinless skull. “I wish I could look away.”

“As do I,” the third lich said, turning to the second. “But even then, would you be able to forget?”

“No . . . I suppose not,” said the second lich. “That is our curse, isn’t it?”

“Burden. Curse. It makes no difference. It’s what makes us what we are.” The third lich lowered his head back toward the cauldron. “Now, watch.”

Together they did as the third lich commanded, but the first lich could not hold his tongue. “When is it we intervene?”

“Only when necessary,” said the third. “You’ll know. The boy will show us in his own way. He is our guide as much as we are his. It is his story, we are merely the scriveners.”

The first lich steadied his gaze in the images, afraid to ask much more.

• • • •

The boy found it strange how easy direction came to him. What a fallacy, to say that the dead became wanderers.

From his mother’s apartment, he went to visit Officer Sanchez. He followed her to the precinct and he followed her home at night. He sat beside her all day in her patrol vehicle and watched over her as she slept. Though his mother was now alone, he would ensure that Officer Sanchez never would be again.

It wasn’t long before she could sense him. At first, it was just little things. A breeze only she could feel. A whisper her colleagues could not hear. But quickly it escalated into more troubling phenomena. Soon, the boy began to appear in her every dream. She dreaded each time she laid her head against her pillow, for she knew he would be waiting there for her.

Then the dreams drifted into daylight. She could feel him watching over her shoulder. She could see the silhouette of his form lurking in the distance. She could not escape him. Wherever she was, the boy was there too.

Officer Sanchez tried to speak to the police psychiatrist. He told her that it was not uncommon for an officer to experience these symptoms after such a traumatic event. “You have nothing to worry about,” the doctor said. “In time, these things will pass.”

He gave her medicine and began to see her weekly. Still, it did not matter how many pills she took or how strictly she clung to the doctor’s advice; the boy would not leave her alone. He was everywhere she looked. In the hallways. On the streets. In the faces of each suspect she forced into the back of her patrol car with hands chained behind them.

“Where is he now?” the doctor asked one day during a particularly enlightening session. “Is the boy here? Is he in this room?”

The boy leaned in over the doctor’s shoulder and glared at Officer Sanchez sternly. With his left hand he gripped the doctor’s shoulder tightly, but the doctor did not seem to feel a thing. With his right hand he raised a finger to his lips. “Shhhhh,” he whispered.

Officer Sanchez broke down in tears, covering her bloodshot eyes with shame. Still, she said nothing.

After this, the doctor put Officer Sanchez on leave. If she were to be honest, she was glad for it. Her colleagues throughout the precinct no longer trusted her. She no longer trusted herself. Each time she would place a hand to her service weapon she could feel the tenseness in her muscles. She could feel how tightly her finger gripped the steel; it was only a matter of time before it reached the trigger. Standard procedure required she hand in her badge and her gun.

She mostly stayed indoors. She became as afraid of the light as she was of the dark. The boy’s presence paralyzed her. Even when she could not see him she knew he was there, waiting to reveal himself once more.

Finally, she shouted into the shadow, “What do you want from me?”

The boy stepped toward her with footsteps echoing thinly. Officer Sanchez was crouched in the corner of her kitchen, her back against the cabinet beneath the sink. “You know what you have done, and you know what I want for it,” the boy said. Officer Sanchez could say nothing. Sobbing, snot leaked into the corners of her mouth. “You may not have pulled the trigger, but it was you who dropped the gun beside me as I bled out in the dirt. It was you who stuffed the drugs into my pocket.”

Her hands shook, as did her feet. Her teeth were chattering incessantly. “I was scared . . .”

The boy remained still. Patiently, he waited for her to ask him again. He knew she would. He had all the time he needed.

“Please . . .” she pleaded with him once more. “What do you want?”

Slowly, the boy let his hands drop to the side. As he knelt down to meet her eyes, he revealed Officer Sanchez’s service weapon and presented it toward her. She had surrendered her weapon, she knew she had. Yet, here the gun was, as real as anything around her.

Officer Sanchez reached out and took the gun. It felt heavier now than it ever had before, colder too. She did not have to check the chamber to know that it was loaded. Her eyes shifted from the gun to the boy and back again. The boy lifted a finger beneath her chin and forced her to look at him.

Her eyes forced him to remember. Within them he was transported back to his final moments as he gazed up into the ever-darkening blue. He looked into her eyes then too and saw something that felt familiar.

“You’re scared now . . .” he said, almost as if her reaction was unexpected, as if it wasn’t precisely what he’d intended.

She nodded, then Officer Sanchez put the gun in her mouth and blew a hole in the back of her head.

• • • •

The second lich picked up his head and shifted his eyes between the other two. “The others will be proud of the work we have done.”

“Yes, they will be,” agreed the third lich. “But our task is far from done. The boy grows stronger, though he has much to learn still, before he will be fit to join our Order.”

“And if he decides not to?” asked the first lich.

“Many have before him,” answered the second.

The third lich took the staff from the second and began to churn the brew once more. The images before them flickered, as if they were gazing into a zoetrope of time. The deaths of so many passed before their eyes.

“Not all of us are meant to ease the tides on which we flow,” the third lich explained. “This ocean is vast and it is far easier to simply disappear.”

“Then we will have failed?” asked the first lich.

The third lich pulled the staff from the cauldron and handed it back to the second. The image settled back into that of the boy. “We will only know in time.”

• • • •

After the funeral of Officer Sanchez, the boy followed her partner to his home. Unlike Officer Sanchez, Officer McGregor did not live alone. He lived with his wife and two teenage daughters on the outskirts of the city, just as the century-old brownstones began to give way to the suburbs.

It was a picturesque home. One that had dinner on the table each night just before the streetlights came on. One where each parent could be counted on. Two cars in the garage. Paint never chipping. A wood picket fence that quit at the waist, not high enough to keep anything out.

Mrs. McGregor would drive the girls to school each morning. Officer McGregor would pick them up from basketball practice, always sure to catch the last hour or so. He was proud of his girls and what he was sure they would accomplish. He supported them in every way he knew how, in every way they could ever need.

The boy studied their lives even more intensely than he had Officer Sanchez’s. He learned that the girls adored literature class and struggled in the sciences. The boy watched the wife too, though there wasn’t much to see. Each of her days proved as routine as the next. She woke up, made breakfast for herself and her daughters—usually by that point her husband had left for work. After taking the kids to school she would go to the store or, if she already had everything the household would need, perhaps manage a Pilates class for herself or take the dog for a walk in the park.

But the boy knew the image of their perfect lives was all a façade. He saw the way Officer McGregor volunteered at the local church. He saw how he was friendly with his neighbors and respected by all. He watched as the officer emptied the change from his pockets to help a beggar in need. None of that mattered. The boy could see a space deep within the man that Officer McGregor kept hidden from everyone else, a part that he would never let anyone live to see. The boy swore he would reveal it, even if it was only unto Officer McGregor’s own eyes.

• • • •

He began with the wife, on one of the days she had decided to spend at the mall. The boy never understood the appeal of the mall, the way its patrons would idle their day away gleaming at things they couldn’t buy. They strutted their lifeless bodies around each other, never offering a word to anyone else, while their brains rotted from the acid pointlessness of their lethargy.

The boy weaved closely behind Officer McGregor’s wife as she walked past the shoe stores and pretzel stands. Every so often she would pause before a window when she saw something she thought her husband or maybe the girls would like, but then would mutter something to herself and continue toward the department store.

He was almost awed by the way she carried on with her routine. It was effortless, how she managed to ignore what her husband had done. The boy wondered what her husband had told her about the incident. Maybe he told her nothing at all.

McGregor’s wife tried the lipstick and the perfume. She went from station to station at the department store trying new looks, seeing what felt good and what felt different. She tried on wool coats and patterned hats, even though she would never really wear either. She did not consider herself a frivolous woman.

It was a busy day, with many shoppers asking for this and that. The boy watched as Mrs. McGregor stalked the salespeople with her eyes, growing more and more impatient with each passing minute. She was of course not the only one, several other customers stood with their arms crossed and eyes narrowed. Yet, only Mrs. McGregor gathered herself to say something.

“Excuse me,” she growled angrily at a young, dark skinned girl who couldn’t have been much older than Mrs. McGregor’s own daughters.

The salesgirl’s hands trembled around the shoebox she was holding as she glanced up at Mrs. McGregor’s pursed lips. “I’m sorry, Miss. Give me a moment to put this box back and I’ll be right with you.”

The girl made to leave quickly, but Officer McGregor’s wife stepped in her way. “Why can’t you just get what I need now? You’ve got two hands, don’t you?”

“I just need to get a couple things for another customer, ma’am,” the girl stuttered with her head turned to the floor. “Then I’ll be right back to get what you need, I promise.”

The girl looked around at the other customers shamefully and nodded as she hurried off toward the supply room. Though before the girl could return, Officer McGregor’s wife waved another salesperson making his rounds about the floor. He was young, barely old enough to work. A boy. “Thank God,” Mrs. McGregor said once he had arrived.

But before she could say anything further the boy interrupted her. “You should be ashamed,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

The boy stepped closer. He did not blink. The lights of the store seemed to dim. “You should be ashamed for your entire family after what you’ve done. After what you’ve let happen.”

“What are you talking about? I haven’t done anything.”

“Exactly,” the boy agreed. He wore no expression. His eyes were glassy. As he took another step closer Mrs. McGregor realized he had no smell. His skin was dry and hard. An inescapable emptiness took hold of her when she looked at him and saw the bullet holes that riddled his torso.

The boy took hold of her hand and clenched it tightly. As he did, she saw—truly saw—for the first time, what her husband had done. She watched from the boy’s eyes as her husband pulled the trigger. She felt the baseball mitt slip from the boy’s hand. She felt the blood as it pooled around him. And then, as quickly as it had come, the vision was gone, and so was the boy before her.

Not knowing what else to do, she turned and ran. Her head swiveled desperately as she watched the other patrons now looking at her in abject horror. She bolted out of the store and into the parking lot toward her car. Her keys were in her hand before she even got outside. Though she felt like someone was following her, when she looked behind no one was there.

Ripping open the door, she jammed the key into the ignition. Without looking behind her, she floored the car in reverse and wheeled out of the parking space before speeding out of the lot.

Her breath was heavy and her pulse quickened. She realized now that she was crying.

As she took a hard right and sped out onto the main road, she never saw the large Ford pick-up truck coming around the corner to the left. The truck slammed into the driver-side door and rolled her car onto its roof.

From the entryway to the mall, the boy watched as a tall skeletal figure with long white dreadlocks stepped out of the burning truck and looked into the wreckage that contained Officer McGregor’s wife. After a few moment’s glance, the figure stood up and nodded toward the boy. It was then he realized he was now flanked by the two other liches.

“She’s dead,” said the second lich. The boy considered the figures of the two liches beside him silently. “That is what you wanted, is it not?”

“I . . .” the boy began, but found his response lodged in his throat.

“It is always the ones who have done nothing that are the hardest,” the third lich said with his gaze still focused on the wreckage.

“Is this what she deserved then?” the boy asked to the breeze in front of him, not entirely expecting a response.

The third lich turned to regard the boy. “What do you believe?”

• • • •

Officer McGregor refused the chief’s offer of extended bereavement leave. Unlike Officer Sanchez, Officer McGregor was too proud to speak with a psychiatrist. He hid his anxieties well and rarely spoke to anyone about what was going on. Even if he did, it would be expected of a man who had just lost his wife. His years of conditioning turned to self-sabotage as he isolated himself from all those who could have helped him.

Officer McGregor’s daughters noticed his increased coldness, his unusual irritability, but when they tried to reach out to him, he told them everything was fine and that they need not worry. In his mind, he was protecting them. They had to know that their father was not weak. They had to know he would always be there for them. His girls were everything to him now, he cared about nothing else.

• • • •

When Officer McGregor arrived at home, his house was completely dark. Had the girls been at basketball practice or out with some of their friends, this occurrence wouldn’t have been the least bit alarming. But Officer McGregor knew this was not the case. He had spoken to his oldest not even an hour before when he had stopped by the grocery store on the way home from work. He had planned on making pizza for the three of them and wanted to ensure they would be home. His daughter confirmed that she and her sister would be.

Instead of removing the groceries from the trunk of his car when he parked inside the garage, his hand immediately went to his service weapon. Deliberately, he opened the driver’s side door and scanned his surroundings as he stepped out. He could hear nothing but his own breath. No TV blaring in the living room. No microwave heating popcorn in the kitchen. No friendly chattering before computer screens or iPhones.

And yet, the door leading into the house was wide open.

Seeing this, Officer McGregor unholstered his gun and paced toward the door. Sweat dripped down his forehead and his hands began to feel clammy. He wanted to call out for his daughters but knew better than to give away his position.

He entered the house and made sure the kitchen was clear. Atop the granite counter, his youngest’s computer gave off a dim glow from the spot where she always did her homework, though the seat sat empty.

Officer McGregor moved through the dining room into the living room, with a tactical precision in his movements. Still, both rooms were empty.

Yet as he moved to the stairwell leading to the second floor, he saw something flicker in the darkness out of the corner of his eye. Raising the pistol in front of him he slowly traced his steps back into the living room.

There the boy sat on the couch, staring into the static of the now lit TV screen.

“Don’t move!” Officer McGregor shouted, aiming the gun at the boy. The boy cocked his head toward the officer, his eyes dark and blood from his wounds seeping into the cushion fabric. Officer McGregor gaped at the stark image in front of him, too mesmerized by the boy’s presence not to believe his eyes. “Why are you here?”

The boy stood up and faced him. “I’m here to give you a choice.”

Officer McGregor took an aggressive step toward the boy. “Where are my daughters?” he demanded.

The boy looked around the room, his expression one of confusion. “What do you mean? They’re here. With us. Don’t you see them?” From the darkness behind him, the first two liches appeared on either side of the boy, though now they were no longer liches. They were youthful and lively. The first lich’s dreads were full and dark, his skin taught and glowing. The second lich’s head was no longer bald and skin-bare. His neck no longer scarred by the burn of the noose that killed him. Their figures no longer skeletal. They were children once more.

“I said don’t move!” Officer McGregor shouted as they all took another step toward him.

The boy laughed. “It’s funny. That’s more than you said to me the first time.”

“Where are my daughters?” he demanded once more, but none of the children would be deterred.

“Don’t shoot,” the children said in unison. “Please, don’t shoot,” they pleaded, though they continued to step forth.

The officer did not ask again. As they took one final step toward him, Officer McGregor fired and emptied his clip at the figures in front of him.

Yet when the children beside the boy hit the floor, Officer McGregor saw that they were not the boys he had seen them as, but his two daughters, bleeding out on the floor.

Officer McGregor dropped his service weapon to the floor, leaping first to his youngest and kneeling by her side. One bullet had gone through her cheek and another through her left eye. She was dead as soon as the bullets entered her body.

“Daddy . . .” he heard his eldest whisper, her hand clasped to a bullet wound in her neck.

Officer McGregor spun toward her and placed a hand over hers, trying futilely to stop the bleeding. Her words were garbled by the blood in her throat, now leaking from the corners of her mouth. It stained the carpet beneath her. Her body was a slab of bullet holes, a desecrated vision of what the officer held in his mind. And she too was fading quickly.

“Daddy, why did you do this?” They stared into each other’s eyes, her lids losing strength the longer she gaped at her father.

“It’s not—” Officer McGregor began, but he realized she too was dead, the same as her mother, the same as her sister. Only he was left now, a puddle of blood and tears pooling upon the floor of an empty house.

For some time, he held his daughter’s lifeless body, motionless. He could feel the boy’s presence but dared not look up. He could not bear the sight of whatever it was he would see.

“It was nearly my birthday, you know?” the boy said. He needed the officer to see him. Lifting a ghostly finger beneath the officer’s chin, the boy forced him to look at his face. Officer McGregor stared at the boy for a long time expectantly.

“No,” the officer said. “I didn’t know.”

The boy and the officer stared together at the bodies of the lifeless girls on the ground. It was a brief moment, but for a few fleeting seconds the boy and the officer knelt as one, sharing their frustration and their pain. Their feelings were not the same feeling, their experiences too distant to truly understand how the other felt, but for the first time they each acknowledged that the pain was there, that it existed.

From behind them, the three liches approached, now returned to their permanent spectral form. “Aren’t you going to finish it?” the second lich asked the boy.

“Finish what?” the boy replied. “What’s done is done.”

Officer McGregor’s face turned to the boy in puzzlement. “Isn’t that what you wanted? To kill me?”

The liches appealed to the boy. He seemed to consider the question for a moment, but it was clear he had long before come to his conclusion. “No, I have what I came for.”

The liches nodded in satisfaction with the boy’s answer. “Come with us,” said the first lich, placing his bony fingers across the boy’s shoulder to guide him away from the scene.

But the boy paused. “Wait,” he said. “Must I go with you right now?”

The first two liches looked questioningly at the third. When it was their time, they had followed the others unthinkingly. “There is something you must do?”

The boy looked at his feet, almost ashamed. “Yes, there is.”

The third lich approached, something close to a smile at his response. “To join our order is no easy decision. Go, do what you must. When you are ready, we will find you.”

With that, the three liches disappeared into a mist, and the boy was sent on his way.

• • • •

When the boy returned to his mother’s apartment, he found that she no longer laid on the couch. The apartment was clean and well tidied. Her clothes were freshly washed. In the kitchen, the boy could hear something stewing. He wished he could remember the smell. He wished he could remember a good many things.

His mother sat in the chair where she would always be sitting when he came home from school, but it no longer looked like she was waiting for him. She was looking forward, toward the TV. The headline to the side of the news anchor read: OFFICER MCGREGOR ARRESTED FOR MURDER OF OWN DAUGHTERS.

She had not forgotten about her son. Pictures were still framed all around the house, displaying his life. She had not brought herself to clean out his room yet, and maybe she never would. Even so, there was a sense that she had managed to regain some sense of herself without him once more.

The boy stood next to her and whispered, “Momma?”

Still, she could not hear him.

He tried once more, a little louder, and again after that. “Momma, can you hear me?”

She could not. And the boy knew it. But even so, he went on.

“Momma, I’m here,” he said. “I’m here, Momma.”

• • • •

Over their cauldron, the three liches consulted. “What happens now?” the first lich asked.

“That is up to the boy,” said the third. “Either he will come to join our Order in their fight, or his phylactery will fade and he will become no more.”

“The others will not be happy if he fades,” the second lich said.

The third lich sighed. “The others will understand that not all fires will burn until the sunrise.”

The other two liches considered these words. The first lich opened his mouth but realized he had nothing to say. None of them did. Realizing this, the second lich walked over to a pile of wood behind him. He picked up a couple of small pieces and arranged them carefully within the fire beneath the cauldron. “We should return to the others,” he said.

The first lich nodded and hurried over to the second’s side, but the third lich remained rigid, staring into the brew.

“Aren’t you coming?” asked the first lich.

The third lich did not so much as flinch. “You two go ahead,” he said. “I think I’ll stay and watch a little while longer.”

Woody Dismukes

Woody Dismukes is a Brazilian-American poet, author, and social advocate living in Jackson Heights, Queens. He is a 2018 Clarion West graduate and has taught at University Settlement’s Creative Center. He is the author of The Way the Cowries Fall, a poetry chapbook from the American Poetry Journal, and has had work featured in Lightspeed, FIYAH, Strange Horizons and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @WoodyDismukes or on his website