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Four sisters named for the seasons. Five demons set free. One gate to hell to keep closed. With her college graduation on the horizon, Winter needs to do one more thing before she is free to live the life she chooses. She must make it through another summer with her family. Sounds simple enough, but her family has a dark secret. After the death of her grandmother, a powerful witch, the family Grimoire is passed down to Winter. Before she can make it home, however, her three sisters, who know less about magic than she does, take the book and unleash hell on Earth. Now it’s up to Winter and her sisters to send the demons back to the hellscape known as the Bane before things get a whole lot worse. WARNING: This story contains strong language, horror, and depictions of substance abuse, violence, childhood trauma, bullying, and explicit depictions of death that may not be suitable for all readers. Reader discretion is advised.
WARNING: This story contains strong language, horror, and depictions of substance abuse, violence, childhood trauma, bullying, and explicit depictions of death that may not be suitable for all readers. Reader discretion is advised.
“Okay, girl, you can do this.”
I whispered the weak pep talk to myself again as my eyes settled on the scene outside the tinted window of the car that picked me up from the airport because my mother was too tired to do it herself. Funny how she didn’t look all that tired sitting on the porch laughing and sipping that nasty mint tea with the three parasites, also known as my annoying little sisters.
It would have been nice to look forward to coming home. I would have loved it if I thought I would be enticing them with stories of college life and gushing over the cute guys before complaining about the grueling tests I had to take. That was not the relationship I had with my siblings.
My sisters and I had different fathers. Which explained why I had the last name Shaw, her maiden name, and my sisters were all Gibson. I was from my mother’s first love, who passed away leaving her widowed just a month after they married and six months after I was born.
They were from her second marriage, which had quickly followed my father’s passing. A year later, Summer was born, a year after her, Autumn, and then two years later, Spring. Though she was still technically married, their father was never around. Mark was always off on “business trips,” which we all knew was code for sleeping with whatever woman he felt like at the moment.
My mother would never leave him; she was too dependent on his coin. But the dynamic left me with an alcoholic mother and three younger sisters who I never really got along with. They were treated better simply because their father was in the home. They got the good gifts, the most attention, and over the years, I became an afterthought.
I watched them closely, my sisters and my mother, and once again there was that pain in the center of my chest. The product of a pointless wish that I was more like them. My sisters looked like my mother. Though they were varying shades of brown, they had slender frames, wide eyes, and hair with a loose curl pattern that they could put in any style. I on the other hand, inherited traits from my father’s side.
The figure I had was larger. I was athletic, yet curvy, muscular yet soft and when I let my hair down it stood to the sky, a full Afro filled with kinky curls that framed my round face and complemented my honey-brown eyes.
It took me years to stop wishing I could soften my features to blend in with the rest of my family. Perhaps my mother would love me more if I didn’t look so much like the picture I found hidden in the attic. I reminded her daily of the love she lost. “It’s just one more summer,” I said to myself. “You survived twenty-three years of this. You can do one more summer.”
It was just one more stretch of torture. Then I would finish school and would never have to return to the soul-sucking vortex that was my suburban upbringing.
“Um, excuse me.,” The deep voice colored with age and tinted with sadness pulled me from my own tortured thoughts.
My eyes darted forward to meet the soulful brown orbs of the man named Thomas, according to the rideshare app on my phone. He’d turned around in his seat to face me after a full seven minutes had passed and I hadn’t gotten out yet.
“Are you okay?” he asked before tapping the screen of his phone. “Is this your stop? Sometimes this thing sends me all over the world.”
“Oh no, you’re fine. This is it.” I gripped the handle of my duffel bag, the only thing I traveled with. “Can you please just give me a moment? I’m trying to cope with the idea that I have to spend the next three months here. I promise to increase your tip.”
“Sure, take your time,” his warm chuckle eased my angst as he turned the smooth jazz on the radio. “I know from annoying families.”
“Thanks Thomas,” I flashed him my best smile and then turned to look out the window again, hoping for something that could encourage me to get out of his car so he could go about making a living. That was like hoping for a damn miracle because the hardest thing I’d ever have to do, which I did every day of my adolescent life, was watch them sitting there happy in their blissful little life, one I never truly felt a part of. I was an outsider, someone they tolerated, until my time with them ended. Three more months.
I pulled out my phone and checked the notification bar. Nothing. That would have been the perfect moment to receive a message from Dominique, my college bestie and roommate for the last three years of my life. I could imagine her stepping off the plane in Michigan and running into the arms of her loving family. Yes, I was a little jealous, but I was happy for her. At least one of us got to feel loved when we went home.
I shot her a text. Love you, miss you, send whiskey. And slipped the phone back into my pocket.
Just as I thought I would tell Thomas to step on the gas and get me the hell out of Dodge, I saw him. Coming through the screen door and wearing the half smile I loved so much, Elijah. A tall and lanky guy with bronze skin and a blond Afro, Elijah had always been my rock. Whenever things got too tough at home, I would climb out of my bedroom window and head down the street to the massive home that housed the geeky little boy I called my best friend.
It was his face that gave me the strength to open the car door and step out into the sultry summer air. Even if I didn’t want to see the trio that made my childhood hell, I definitely wanted to talk to Elijah. There was so much I needed to catch him up on. I also needed to prepare him for the reality that I would not be returning to my adorable little home in Joliet after graduation.
After seven intensive interview rounds, I’d accepted a job that would take me across the world to Barcelona as an application development and support engineer. It wasn’t where I thought my path would take me, but in my second year of college, I shifted focus from the arts to science and to everyone’s shock, I excelled! After three internships and double course loads that left me exhausted, I found myself in a room with people who had the power to change my life.
Just before I left for home, I got the call. After my graduation I would join a team of twenty-three other engineers I would work with to support the development of technologies that would sustain our world. Still, I felt a pang of guilt when I thought of the friend I would be leaving behind.
I wondered how he would take the news that I’d be completely derailing our plans to open a business together when I got back. We talked about starting a gallery together that would blend my love of physical art with his love of culinary art, bringing a new meaning to the term paint-and-sip. It would have been amazing.
As the door closed behind me and cut off the sound of Thomas’s farewell, my good old buddy Elijah gave me another burst of motivation. The motivation to wrap my hands around my sister’s throat and strangle the life out of her. My sister, who was then hanging around his neck and kissing him. Yes, kissing him! Here I thought he was there to welcome me home and instead, he was there to fill up my brat sibling.
My mind exploded with thoughts of how I would make them both pay for the betrayal, and for a second, I actually considered how it would feel to stand over their matching gravesites.
“Winter, girl. Why are you standing there?” My mother’s drugged-out voice reached my ears just as Summer removed her lips from Elijah’s and turned to wink at me. The bitch. This was all a game for her, of course. What better way to welcome me home than to piss me off by sucking face with the one person who made coming home enjoyable?
While Summer hung around Elijah’s neck, her short skirt inching up her thigh, my other sisters watched her in reserved awe. Autumn, typically the more timid sister, sat on the top step wearing shorts and a graphic T-shirt displaying anime characters I couldn’t possibly name. Her hair, unruly as ever danced around a full face and round wire glasses.
Spring, the youngest of my sisters, leaned against the black painted banister. Her summer dress hung from one shoulder as she sucked on a lollipop and twirled her finger in her waist-length hair that made her oval face appear slimmer. As if she needed it. Of the four of us, Spring was the only one who didn’t need to work out to stay in shape.
Instead of acting out one of the many scenarios of rage that filled my head, I forced a weak grin to replace the scowl on my face, lifted the duffel bag over my shoulder, and headed into my own personal hell. At the top of the steps, Elijah stood there with a ridiculous look of innocence and shock on his face, as if we hadn’t talked the night before about when I would be home.
As if he hadn’t neglected to tell me he’d taken up playing tonsil hockey with my little sister. I pushed past him, slamming the duffel bag into his chest, and took pleasure in the pained huff of air that escaped him as I headed inside the house without so much as a hello to the four women who pretended to be happy about my return.
The inside of the house was the same as it always had been. I walked directly from the foyer to the stairs that would take me up to the second story, because why the hell would I want to spend any time staring at the shrine to the family that hardly contained an image of me?
At the end of the long hall on the second floor was another narrow door that opened to a spiral staircase that ended in the attic, otherwise known as my room since the youngest of my brat sisters hit puberty. It was okay, though. I liked it because as long as I was there, I was untouchable. I was in my own world, free from their judgment and forced toleration of the sister who didn’t belong to their picture-perfect family. Never mind the cracks of infidelity that ruined the frame.
Reaching the top step, I tossed my bag over to what was once a claw-footed bench that gave me a clear view of the semi-forested area behind our home. A treadmill that I could only imagine had been used twice since they purchased it had apparently replaced the bench. Great, that’s just what this place needs, another useless piece of equipment. Over the years, I’d seen countless selections of fitness machinery going in and out of the door along with the fads they came rolling in on. My room, despite the added clutter of my mother’s junk, was the same as I’d left it.
Another great part about being in the attic was all the space I got, and that my mother didn’t give two cents about how I decorated. It wasn’t as if she would bring any of her posh pals up to see the room. With that understanding, I’d made it a point to make the space my own. Massive tapestries of trees hung along the arched walls, giving the room the feeling of being in a gallery. Each one depicted a different scene.
When things got tough, if I couldn’t get to Elijah, I would lock myself away and daydream about escaping into the fabrics and starting a new life. Everything else was pretty typical: desk and computer chair, dresser, and a standing armoire, because the attic didn’t come with built-in closets. On the back wall, my massive four-poster bed sat with its welcoming arms that seemed to stretch out to me instead of the ceiling.
Sleep, that was what I needed. It was a long flight in from New York, and, after the shock of my best friend’s betrayal, that bed looked like pure heaven. The inside of the house was cool. Thank God for the central air system that combated the scorching heat outside. Summer was making its mark a lot earlier than expected. Perhaps that explained my sister’s sudden hots for Elijah. I grunted and kicked my shoes off my feet. I had to get them out of my mind. No way would I spend my entire summer break ruminating about the two who had stabbed me in the back.
A point proven quickly as I rounded the bed and my foot slammed into something hard. Why would I have expected the massive chest that my foot slammed into? It hadn’t been there before. But sitting innocently on the side of my bed was a box made of wood and finished with golden latches. I fell onto the mattress holding my baby toe and praying for relief. Welcome home, Winter! I groaned as the stabbing pain eased into a slow throb that would no doubt bug me for the rest of the day.
“Please don’t let me lose a toenail,” I muttered as I looked down at the wooden chest with the note taped to the top. Written in my mother’s hand. Your grandmother wanted you to have this.
The pain became a nonissue as I slid to the floor beside the chest and removed the taped note. I read the simple message again as I thought of the last time I saw my grandmother’s face. It was about a week before she passed when she flew out to meet me in New York. My grandmother was always so proud of me for being accepted to Cornell as a philosophy major. So proud that she pissed my mother off by paying for what scholarships didn’t cover, so that I wouldn’t have to take out loans and end up with massive debt. She joked about how my mother was just mad because it meant less for her to get her hands on after she passed away.
I thought about that visit often. Just before spring midterms began, she insisted we meet. When we did, we had a normal lunch with our usual chatter, but at the end she said something that felt cryptic and odd at the time, but now I felt it was a message meant for me to understand.
“Be careful of the fourth door.” My grandmother, whose eyes were full of the world, spoke over a cup of lemon tea.
The words felt heavy, landing in my chest and weighing on my heart. I asked her what she meant, but she went right back to her roast beef sandwich as if she hadn’t said a word.
It had to mean something. I just didn’t know what, and I never got the answer to my question. I told myself I’d bug her about it after I finished exams, but when I walked out of my last class, I got the call from my mother informing me that they found my grandmother in her home. She’d passed away in her sleep.
“All right girl, suck it up.” My hand rested on the latch that sealed the chest shut.
Inside the chest there was a collection of items my grandmother knew I would love. The plush throw that we often cuddled beneath when watching mystery shows on television. My favorite mug to drink from. Her pearl earrings and other jewelry. There were photographs and letters that she’d written me that dated back to when I was a child. I’d seen none of them before. After going through the items, I opened the most recent letter, dated just after our last encounter.
This will be the last letter I pen to you. My, how I have loved watching you grow into the amazing young woman that you are. But my time here is now done. I wish we had more time to spend together, but the ancestors are calling me home.
As you know, our family has a rich history, and part of that history has been as the Watchers. We protect those who know not that they need it. I’ve tried to teach you all that I could over the years, though I know you gave little weight to the lessons I aimed to pass on to you. Regardless, it is now your turn to protect the magic of our family. These letters will show you the way and what my scrawlings cannot teach, the grimoire will. I trust you to care for it as I have. You should not remove the binding until you read these letters and understand what you’re facing.
Take care of the magic. And of yourself.
Beware of the fourth door.
Love you always and beyond.
The side of the bed felt like concrete pressed against my back as the walls around me moved in. She was gone, and her last words to me were the same cryptic message. The stories of our family’s magical history had been told to me since I was a little girl. And I’d even learned a few tricks from my grandmother, but as I grew older, we spent less time together.
My mother was a believer in the sense that she said it was nothing to be experimenting with. She didn’t practice magic, which made it difficult for me to connect with that side of the family, as she ostracized herself and me by extension. My grandmother was the only one who was determined to stay in my life.
The grimoire. I’d seen it in her home only a handful of times when she would bring it from hiding. The pages were full of spells written in the hand of our ancestors. I’d read a few of the spells and even tried out some, but nothing had ever worked. It was a fun thing to do as a young girl whose imagination was highly overactive. Still, it meant the world to my grandmother, and I would cherish it always.
The grimoire. I’d gone through the entire chest and it wasn’t there. Digging out the contents again, I itemized everything in my head and still found nothing. Not that the massive thing would be easy to miss. I felt the bottom of the chest. Perhaps my grandmother had a hidden panel that would keep the book safe, but there was nothing. Outside of my window, I could hear the incessant chatter and giggles from my sisters. Frustrated, I stood with intent to yell down and tell them to shut it.
Head hung out the window, I looked down on the unexpected face of Elijah staring up at me with a blank and confused stare. Summer danced around him, smiling and laughing. She stopped, looked up at me and winked with a small wave of her fingers before she continued her dance around my stone-faced friend.
I turned from the window red with anger and nearly screamed. When I turned back to slam the window shut, understanding hit. There was no way Elijah would be with Summer. Nothing would convince him that my brat sister was desirable. Nothing except magic.
That bitch had stolen my book. And if she had it, I’d already failed. My grandmother wanted me to protect the book and the secrets within. She wanted me to keep it out of the wrong hands. Summer, well, she was the very definition of wrong hands. Even when my grandmother was alive she hadn’t wanted to share the secrets with my sisters, most of all Summer. She worried about a darkness she saw within her. There was a story about the last time a dark heart held the book. I couldn’t remember the details, but the gist was that shit went left and a lot of lives were lost.
I caught her eye again and saw the sinister look she shot me, and it sent me on a mental spiral back to our childhood and a fish tank my grandmother got me. Two tropical fish named Min and Max who I loved dearly suddenly died after a fight with my sister about how the fish were mine and not hers. I cried to my mother about how the water smelled weird, like nail polish. She told me I was overly emotional and needed to calm down. Later I saw Summer, with that same sinister look on her face, holding a bottle of my acetone polish remover.
All resolve of not getting into a battle with my brat sister went out the window. I knew the evil she was capable of, even if my mother chose to deny it. I would do whatever it took to get that book back from her. If I didn’t, there was no telling how many people would suffer.