It was the last Sunday before the beginning of the semester. The four of them shared the same floor of their dorm, which is how they knew each other. It was a friendship of convenience, as they all knew their social circles would evolve organically with the passage of time.
Berkeley’s South Campus neighborhood centers around Telegraph Avenue, crowded with students and shoppers on the best of days. On Sundays its density was further intensified by street vendors, who would take over the street entirely, barring it of automobiles. It was a fun place to explore; there were worse ways of passing the time than getting a burger, CD, DVD, or pair of earrings. Esme, for one, had not yet seen the place for herself. It was a long way from suburban Michigan to be sure. She’d looked forward to attending college ever since she’d started applying. She and her parents had considered UC Berkeley a reach school, and yet, here she was. Kimmy, Marissa, and Cecilia would tell the police officers later that Esme’s bizarre behavior began with the old woman, who had made them all pause, but singled out their pretty, blonde friend in particular. But, for the most part, the episode occurred as an absolute mystery.
They’d just had pizza at Blondie’s and were walking South on the sidewalk when Esme heard her name.
“Esme Winthrope?” came the question through the air.
She paused to look around, but saw no one she knew.
“You heard me, girl,” the voice came again.
Taking the cue from Esme, the rest of the group stopped too.
Esme kept looking. She hadn’t liked the sound of what she’d heard: the tone was raspy and imperious, as if it had an edict to impose.
Her eyes settled on the only person looking at her: a white-haired old woman seated at a simple card table with a red tablecloth, a crystal ball, and an un-dealt stack of tarot cards. She wore a plain, wash-faded green T-shirt and a similarly worn pair of jeans. She wasn’t smiling, exactly, but there was mirth in her eyes.
“Do you know her?” asked Kimmy, perhaps recognizing Esme’s discomfort.
“I don’t think so,” she answered. “I’m sorry, do I know you?”
“Not at all,” came the response.
“Then how do you know my name?”
“I suppose reality works in mysterious ways. But believe me when I tell you, I only want to help.”
“Whoa,” said Marissa. “Let’s go.”
“Some kind of stalker maybe,” said Kimmy. “Come on, Es, let’s go.”
But Esme wasn’t sure she wanted to. She’d felt fear a few times in her life, when a high school love interest became too handsy, when she and her father had gone to an art opening in downtown Detroit, but this was something else… The woman truly looked at her as if she had a favor to give.
“Please,” said the woman, “have a seat.”
“What do you want?” Esme asked.
“For $20 I’ll tell you.”
The girls looked at each other. None of them knew what to say.
“What do I get?” Esme asked.
“I might, possibly, be able to save your life.”
“Oh my God, what are you talking about?”
“For $20 I’ll tell you,” the woman repeated.
Marissa took Esme’s hand, a worried look on her face. “Don’t worry about it, Es. She’s crazy. Let’s go.”
“But how does she know my name?”
The old woman’s smile grew. There were gaps in her teeth.
“It’s a take it or leave it proposition, silly girl. I’m only going to be here once.”
Esme was quite dismayed. There was much callous wisdom in the slate-grey eyes staring at her.
She looked at her new friends: “You guys go on ahead of me. I’ll catch up.”
“Are you sure?” asked Marissa.
“Yes, please, I have to find out what this is. Just go to La Val’s without me. I’ll catch up.”
The three of them exchanged a glance, then Cecilia made a motion with her head and urged them on. Finding Esme apparently decided, they left.
“You’ve made the right choice,” Esme heard. “Twenty dollars please.”
The woman put out her hand.
Esme sat down at the table and went into her purse.
“If you want to save my life what do you need $20 for?”
“The spell only works if it is paid for. Sorry, but I’m not in this for my health either.”
Esme found the money and handed it over.
“I understand you’re starting class soon,” said the woman.
“Yes. I mean, in a couple of days.”
“I know you’re thinking about pre-law.”
“Oh my God.”
“That means maybe an English major.”
“Jesus Christ, do I know you?”
“No one knows me, but I know everyone. I’m something of a supernatural being, and I’m at odds with a group of warlocks who have decided to make your body a playground.”
Little thrills of fear kept traveling up Esme’s spine. If she was a con-artist why had she only asked for $20? None of it made sense.
“You’re going to have a dangerous experience today.”
“I’m sorry, what’s your name?”
“My name’s Jacqueline. It doesn’t matter, this is the only time we’ll meet.”
“They’ve been watching you all day. They’ll be here soon.”
“Listen carefully, Esme Winthrope. No matter how bad it gets, you have nothing to be afraid of. Even your friends might turn on you, but if you keep your wits about you you’ll be absolutely fine.”
“I know, what am I talking about? Don’t worry, you’ll know when it happens.”
“Why me? I mean, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“It’s your friend Marissa. Did you approach some boy a few days ago?”
Jacqueline nodded, still smiling. She was playing with the $20 bill, rolling it and unrolling it with both her hands.
“Exactly. Boy. Someone Marissa liked.”
“I… I guess so. Donny Harmon. He lives next to our suite.”
“Well, there you go.”
“There I go what?”
“I’m sorry Esme, but that’s as much as I can do for you. Just don’t be afraid. That’s the trick. No matter how scary it gets, it won’t last forever. Don’t do anything rash or crazy, and I think you’ll survive.”
“You think? You’re not positive?”
“That’s right. I think.”
“What, do you want more money? I’ll give you more money if you’ll make it go away, whatever it is.”
Esme held her purse up like an offering, though she wasn’t sure how much more money she had.
“Goodbye Esme, I wish you all the best.”
Jacqueline put the $20 bill in her pocket, smiled again, more sympathetically this time, and then clapped her hands. With that she disappeared, and Esme found herself seated on a fold-out chair without a table in front of it. She looked around, but the apparition was nowhere to be seen.
Esme was breathing hard and fast. A cold sweat had broken out on her forehead. She wiped it with the back of her hand, distractedly. She tried to get her nerves under control. The worst thing about what she’d just heard is she’d believed every word of it.
She thought of how put out Marissa had seemed to find Esme successfully flirting with Donny Harmon. But it was Marissa’s own fault. She’d called the boy “cute.” If you down’t want the cradle robbed why would you announce your feelings for all to hear? Esme had done it almost out of a reflex.
She realized she’d lost track of time. The sun was setting and the street vendors were beginning to pack up. The usurpation of crowd noise around her was expectedly incoherent.
She took her phone out of her purse and called Marissa. After several rings she answered.
“Hey Esme, where are you?”
“I might ask you the same question.”
“We’re at La Val’s. How did it go with the old lady?”
“Oh, you know, about as can be expected.”
There was silence on the other end. Esme was afraid her tension was palpable over the phone, but didn’t know how to hide it.
“I’m on my way,” she said. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
There was another pause on Marissa’s end, then: “Like what?”
“I’ll ask you when I see you. Don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right there.”
Esme hung up and put her phone back in her purse. She stood up, heart beating harder than she wanted it to. When she heard her name again, from another unfamiliar voice, she spun around, but saw only a pair of Asian students walking towards her. But there was something strange in their eyes, as if they knew her and expected her to look at them.
They went past her and were swallowed up in the crowd.
Indeed, Esme felt something wasn’t right. Somehow, she was in danger. She wished the old woman would come back and tell her how best to handle her current incorporeal, ill-defined predicament. It was fair to say she felt exposed somehow.
She decided to continue on to La Val’s anyway. Maybe the feeling would disperse on its own. It was only a block away. She tried not to meet anyone’s eyes as she went, but she kept thinking of Jacqueline, and, turning left on Durant Avenue, thought she heard a piggish squealing that almost resembled words. It came from right behind her, loud and primordial. She felt a warm breath on the back of her neck.
Letting out a scream she spun around, but there were only more unfamiliar people behind her, yet, like the Asian students had, they looked like they knew her.
“Are you talking to me?” Esme called out.
The pedestrians simply walked around her, giving no answer.
Stay calm. Stay calm. The old woman had told her not to be afraid. That’s what Esme told herself, but found it harder to accomplish than she would have wished. The thought of Marissa and Donny Harmon came back to her. She had to find her friends. Maybe they could help. At least she wouldn’t be alone. The thought of going back to her dorm room alone was not comforting: she was so far from home, after all.
La Val’s was a bar and arcade in a basement under a Tower Records store. As Esme descended the stairs another person came through the doors looking right at her. Esme let out another shriek: it was a smiling, pink-skinned pig-looking thing, with a fringe of wispy white hair, beady, button eyes, and a big, flat nose. That explained the strange grunts she had heard earlier.
He grinned cruelly as he walked past. Esme closed her eyes and went on down the stairs. Marissa. It had to be Marissa. What would she have to say for herself?
She saw her friends gathered around a pool table near the back of the bar. They all had plastic cups and were sharing a pitcher of beer.
“I hope you have enough for me,” she said squeakily, with an unconvincing grin on her face.
“Go get a cup from the bar,” said Cecilia. “Since I’m the only one here with a fake ID give me your dough when I go back for seconds.”
Esme’s eyes met Marissa’s, and she was horrified to see that there was indeed something there: an interest, as if she didn’t know whether to be slightly afraid and slightly guilty. Apparently the old woman hadn’t been lying.
Esme took off her blue Cal sweater and dropped it over the back of a chair. She heard the strange pig noises down here too, but was too frightened to get a detailed lay of the land.
She walked self-consciously through the crowd to the bar and eventually got the bartender’s attention. He gave her a plastic cup and she took it back to the pool table, butterflies in her chest.
She poured herself a glass of beer then sat down, crossed her legs, and drank.
Marissa had a pool cue in her hands. The game was between she and Kimmy. Marissa lined up a shot and fired, missing badly.
“Oh man, that was terrible,” said Esme. “My grandma could’ve made that shot.”
Marissa looked at her, with that same mysterious expression. She looked like she was at a loss for words.
Esme grinned toothily, then, over Marissa’s shoulder, saw a heavily-haired thing pass by and disappear into the dark. She put a hand over her mouth to silence a shout, then she took another swallow of beer. Perhaps if she pretended it wasn’t happening it would go away on its own.
Kimmy took a shot and sunk it. She was a good looking girl, tall and full-figured, out-going and confident. Esme became envious of her fearlessness. She didn’t want to face Marissa with all the questions she had. Was it possible she was going crazy? She hadn’t felt that way last night, talking to Donny Harmon, though she’d sensed the jealousy in Marissa. Esme didn’t even like the boy that much. Why had she felt the need to inspire such feeling in her new friend?
Cecilia sat down next to her.
“Are you okay?” she asked as Kimmy circled the pool table and the Ramones came on on the jukebox.
“What do you mean?” Esme asked.
“I don’t know, you look kind of pale.”
“That old woman sure was creepy.”
“Yeah?” Esme asked, raising her voice so everyone could hear her. “What’s Marissa got to say about that?”
“Who? Me?” Marissa said, pointing at herself.
“What are you talking about?” said Kimmy.
“I don’t know, ask her. The old woman said it was her fault.”
Great, Esme thought, I’m making a fool of myself. But at least Marissa was listening.
Cecilia missed her shot then approached Kimmy and Esme. She poured herself another glass of beer.
“What are we drinking?” asked Esme.
“Trumer Pils. Only the best.”
“Thank you, so much. I wish I had a fake ID.”
“There’s a part at Alpha Omega tonight. I’m sure somebody there would be happy to make something like that happen for you.”
“Yeah?” Esme went on, voice still raised. “Someone like Donny Harmon?”
There was an unsatisfying crack from Marissa’s botched shot.
“Shit!” Marissa shouted, then walked quickly to the opposite end of the pool table where she found the chalk and began grinding it into her cue.
The pig noises sure were getting loud, and Esme covered her eyes so as not to see another one walk right past Marissa, grinning loudly. Could her friends not see them? What on Earth was happening to her?
Cecilia sank the 8 ball then came over and poured herself the last of the beer. Marissa sat down alone at another table. Kimmy kept looking between she and Esme. Esme, for her part, knew she looked every bit as terrified as she felt. It was like someone was playing a joke on her and she was falling for it. But what could she do? The animal people were everywhere, laughing at her.
She finished the beer in her plastic cup, then she fished around in her purse and brought out a $5 bill, which she handed to Cecilia.
“Here,” she said. “For round two.”
“Thanks,” said Cecilia, who then headed for the bar.
Now sitting alone, Esme forced herself to look out at everyone else. The animal people were everywhere, grinning or openly laughing. There were regular people too, but they seemed completely unaware that anything was amiss. The more Esme looked at the demons the more they looked back at her. They started coming towards her, and formed a semi-circle around the pool table, with cruelty in their eyes and mugs of beer in their claws.
Esme began to hyperventilate as Cece came back. Only Marissa, perhaps, seemed uncomfortable, but when Esme met her eyes Marissa quickly turned away and knocked back another draught of beer.
“Jeez, Es, are you okay?” asked Kimmy, but, when Esme turned towards her, she too began to change: her eyes yellowed, her skin darkened, and hair began to grow on her arms and shoulders. Her mouth morphed into a snout, with two wet nostrils at the end of it, and her hands became paws with leathery pads and big, protruding claws. She placed one of these paws on Esme’s knee and the lips on her snout pulled back into a snarl of equal parts mirth and menace.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” said Kimmy in a growling, guttural voice. “This is almost the end of it.”
Cece, now pig-shaped, imposing, loomed over her.
Esme began to cry. She pushed Kimmy’s hand away.
Then Marissa appeared before her. She still looked human. She took Esme’s empty cup out of her hand. The expression on her face was one of shame and apology.
“I’m so sorry, Esme,” she said. “I think you should get out of here. I think you drank too much.”
“How could you do this to me?” Esme shouted.
Marissa looked a little longer, then turned and began racking the pool balls for the next game.
Esme let out a full-throated scream as Cece and Kimmy closed in on her.
She shot out of her chair and kept her head low and pushed as violently as she could through the furry or pink-skinned bodies around her.
She ran out of La Val’s into the early evening night. She forgot to look both ways as she ran across Durant Avenue, completely missing the 18-wheeler barreling down the street. There was a loud honk and an unsuccessful squealing of brakes. Esme never knew what hit her. In this way, bloody and final, the issue was decided.