By R.W.W. Greene
Joanne’s television remote hit the wall hard, spawning batteries and bits of plastic that chose their own paths to the floor. She flicked the switch on the power strip that governed the media center and picked up the tarnished hourglass she’d readied before tuning into the ceremony.
Four years would likely be enough, but eight years would be safer. She fit the timepiece into the mechanical hourglass turner she’d ginned up from a junked dryer and set the counter to 70,080. The machine wub-wubbed competently, turning the hourglass end over end over end widdershins. The counter changed to 70,079, then 70,078, then 70,077. … The rig wasn’t pretty, but it beat turning the hourglass by hand.
Joanne stifled a yawn. She had time to kill before the spell gelled, and she used it to clean out her refrigerator and haul everything to the compost heap. The rose and blackberry bushes she’d planted around the house were growing fast. Thorns bristled every which way, and the stems were already thicker than a baby’s wrist.
Joanne locked her front gate and went back inside to send an email to her accountant.
“Democracy disappoints again, pal. Dropping out for a while,” she wrote. “Keep the bills paid, will you? – Jo.”
She didn’t wait for a response. Tasha Islam had been her accountant for more than a century, and she trusted her. She’d helped set Tasha up in business, after all, and was still her best source for exotic referrals.
Joanne unplugged all of her appliances and took a shower. She brushed her teeth and gargled with Listerine. She browsed Pinterest while waiting for the readout to blink zero, then moved the hourglass to her bedside table. The sand inside glowed like embers. Outside, the bushes finished their expansion, surrounding Joanne’s home with a dense wall of brambles and thorns. If that proved inadequate, she also had one of the local dragons on retainer. Joanne rolled a sleeping bag out on the bed and zipped herself inside. The spell took hold, and her pulse slowed. Her eyelids fluttered. Her heart stopped. Her last breath dissipated in the air above her bed, and the dust motes resumed their course.
In Cambridge, a scientist announced a cure for cancer and was murdered in his sleep, his research stolen. A passing meteor resulted in a near panic and the formation of three new doomsday cults. A calf was born with two heads, inspiring yet another doomsday cult. Prince’s estate released a new album, “1999 Had Nuthin’ on This Party.” David Bowie’s estate launched his entire catalog—including three never before heard albums—into deep space in search of extraterrestrial musicologists. The polar ice caps melted some more, but no one bothered to measure them. Russian laid claim to East Germany. NASA cancelled the Mars mission: “Too little, too late,” a spokeswoman said. A super storm flooded most of the East Coast. The “Fantastic Four” franchise got a fourth failed relaunch. A Cuban upstart claimed to be Fidel Castro in a cloned body and called for a new revolution.
The sand inside the hourglass faded to darkness. Joanne’s face screwed up, and she sneezed out eight years’ worth of drifting dust motes. Thanks to the Listerine, her mouth tasted fresh, but her body went all pins and needles as it slowly came back to life. When her ability to move returned, she scrubbed at her face with her hands and sat up in bed. Winter light dodged through the bramble wall and trickling through the filthy windows.
When her bedside light failed to switch on, Joanne crooked her fingers to summon a fire imp. The imp darted around the room joyfully, but Joanne halted it with a glare. It settled in the air near the ceiling, flickering sullenly. Joanne got out of bed and tottered on stiff legs to the wall switch. She flicked it up and down several times. Nothing. The imp bobbed, laughing at her. Joanne scowled. Ice on the lines, probably. A storm.
Joanne sent the imp into the fireplace. The dry wood lit with a whoosh, and Joanne fell into the chair beside it to warm her feet. She directed the imp into a lantern on the mantle where it sipped oil and expanded to fill the small bedroom with a warm glow.
Joanne picked the dust boogers out of her nose and threw them on the fire. She’d warm up, eat something, and go back to bed until morning. Prepping the pause was easy enough, but stasis played hell with biological processes. She’d be constipated for a week or better. She rubbed her hands together and pushed them close to the fire. She pulled its warmth into her, using the energy to rejuvenate her groggy cells. She slipped out of the chair and ran through some simple yoga positions before heading into the kitchen for an MRE and a pitcher of water.
In the morning, the electricity was still out so Joanne dressed, grabbed her laptop bag, and went out the front door in hopes of finding an outlet. The brambles creaked away from the door at her touch.
“Hell’s bells!” she said. Her garage was gone, as was the car she’d parked inside it.
She turned to fetch her broom but stalled out when she spotted the ragged tents. There were three of them stomped into the snow in her front yard.
“Are you the witch?” said a young woman in a red winter cap, crawling out of her ratty shelter. She squinted at Joanne. “You don’t look like a witch.”
“I’m no one,” Joanne said. “What are you doing here?”
The woman in the red cap looked back at the other women emerging from their tents. “I’m pregnant. They say sleeping here for three days and nights will take away the baby.”
The other women nodded.
“That’s not true,” Joanne said.
“I know a girl wot done it!” said a teenager wearing a hunter-orange snowsuit and a scally cap. “Demon come in the night and took it clean away!”
Joanne sighed. The woman in the red hat was shivering. “Come inside where it’s warm at least.” She held the door open. “Stomp your feet clean.”
Joanne instructed the women from the tents to pile their coats and boots in the hallway and gather in the living room. She summoned another imp for the teapot and set the water to boil. “How far are you along?”
“Six weeks,” said Amanda, the woman formerly wearing a red hat.
“Seven fortnights,” the teenaged girl said.
“Two months,” the third woman said.
“What are your doctors telling you?”
The women looked at each other.
“I ain’t seen one, guvnor. Reckon how no one has!”
Amanda shook her head. “Seeing a doctor is a sure route to the breeding camps.”
Joanne nearly choked on her tea. “Breeding camps?”
“Aye,” the teenager said. “They keep you in chains so no ’arm will come to the baby, miss.”
“It’s not that bad,” Amanda said. “But they do lock you up and watch you for the duration. No smoking. No drinking. No processed food. If you’re married, you get to come back home with it. If not—.” She shook her head.
“If not what?” Joanne said.
“They take the babe away!” the teenager said. “Send ya home empty!”
“Is this some kind of a joke?” Joanne said. “Did Sonja put you up to this?”
Joanne pointed at the teenager, who was warming her scuzzy feet in front of the fire. “Why does she talk like that?”
“Downton Abby,” the third woman said. She was the oldest of the pregnant tenters, maybe twenty-five. “It’s all she’s been allowed to watch.”
“All I’ve known since I were a girl,” the teenager said. “Like family it is.”
“Enough!” Joanne closed her eyes. She extended her senses into the women’s bellies and verified the ages of the fetal tissue inside. “None of you want to be pregnant.”
The three women nodded.
“And Planned Parenthood doesn’t exist, either?”
“We don’t know what that is,” Amanda said.
“You’re all sure about this?”
The women looked at each other for support and nodded.
Joanne concentrated for a moment, whispered a spell, and turned off the fetal-tissues’ ability to replicate and grow. It was a simple variation of the spell she used for curing warts and shrinking tumors. “There. None of you are pregnant anymore. No backsies. Your bodies will reabsorb the tissue. There may be some spotting but—” Joanne dashed into her bedroom and pulled a box of condoms from her drawer. She handed them to Amanda. “Divide these among you. The expiration date is past, but the stasis spell will have kept them all right.”
The teenager held a wrapped condom up to the light. “D’ya eat them?”
“Oh, hell!” Joanne held out her hand. “Give me one of those, and I’ll show you how to use it.”
“Oooh, blimey,” the teenager said after the demo, “I could never use one o’ them!”
The woman who was going by the name Amanda but whose aura clearly showed she was lying about it nodded. “It’s illegal. My sister had one once. Her husband slapped it right out of her hand.”
Joanne summoned another fire imp and took it to the kitchen where she pounded herbs and made up three baggies of loose tea. “This will keep you going for a couple of months. Drink a cup every morning. It’s not as effective, and it tastes terrible, but,” she shrugged, “it’s the best I can do. Come back when you need more.”
The women looked at the bags uncertainly.
“You know how to make tea?”
Amanda scoffed. “Of course we do. It’s just … we don’t have any money.”
Joanne opened her front door. “On the house. Once I get the garden going again we can plant enough for everyone.”
After the women had packed up their tents and gone home, Joanne headed out again in search of electricity and WiFi. Both were promised at a Dunkin Donuts she found near the highway.
“The sign’s not true,” the teenager behind the counter told Joanne as she walked in. “We’re not hiring.”
“I’m just here for coffee,” Joanne said. “Check my email.”
A pink man in a too-small polo shirt stepped out of the tiny backroom. He pulled the hem of his shirt over his gut. “Who’s here?” he said.
The counter girl snapped her gum. “I already told her we weren’t hiring.”
The man stopped behind the girl and put his hand on her shoulder. “I think you should let me decide that, Jennifer.” His smile faltered as he caught sight of Joanne. “I’m sorry.” He stammered. “We aren’t hiring.”
“Just coffee.” Joanne held up her laptop. “Maybe a couple of doughnuts and a place to sit for a few minutes. You have that, right?”
The pink man turned red. “Of course.” He stepped away from the counter girl. “Jenifer will take care of you.”
Joanne gave the blonde girl a friendly smile. ‘Small coffee. Black. And two of those chocolate frosteds.”
The girl put the doughnuts in the bag, slid the coffee across the counter, and drew her hand away from the $20 Joanne held out. She craned her neck to yell into the backroom. “Do we still take dollars?” she said.
The pink man leaned out of the door without leaving his chair. “What?”
“The old kind of money.”
“Sure.” He disappeared into the small room.
The blonde girl took the twenty and held it near the register. “How do I enter it?”
The pink man’s head appeared in the doorway again. “Convert it to Bitcoin, and add four.”
The girl did some math. “That’s going to be $17.75.”
“For a coffee and two doughnuts?” Joanne said.
The girl popped her gum and shrugged.
Joanne took her food and change to a greasy table in the corner of the shop. The coffee was burned and, she soon realized, the doughnuts were stale. She was logging into the Modern Witch discussion board when two overfed cops walked in. Joanne glanced up in time to see the doughnut clerk point her out to them. The biggest one hitched up his belt and strolled over to tower beside her.
“Got a receipt for that computer?” he said.
“This?” She blinked. “It’s at least nine years old.”
“Where’d you get it?” The cop said. He tucked his thumbs in his belt, thick fingers trailing on the pepper spray looped there.
“Best Buy or something.”
The cop shrugged. “If you bought it there, you must have the papers.” He looked over his shoulders at the other cop. “They still give receipts out at Best Buy, Nick?”
The other cop nodded. “Last I checked.”
“I thought so,” the big cop said. “Stand up slow so we can get a good look at you.”
Joanne held her hands away from her body as she stood. She’d dealt with enough racist cops in the past to know what set them off. She held still while the big cop took her picture with his smart phone. “Give me a search,” he told the device. He watched the screen for a few seconds and grunted. “You aren’t even in the system, girly. Must be an Illegal. You just climb over the Wall or something?”
“I’ve lived in this country since before your parents were born,” Joanne said.
The cop laughed. “You hear that. Nick. She said—” The big man flopped bonelessly to the floor, followed quickly by his partner.
Joanne put the doughnut shop’s staff to sleep for good measure. She got back online, downloaded her messages, and filled a paper sack with stale doughnuts to feed her pixies. Her broom wasn’t comfortable for long distances, but it got her home in a couple of minutes. The teenaged girl was huddled on her doorstep.
“What are you doing here?” Joanna said.
The girl shrugged miserably. “Me dad threw me out, miss. Told him I’d lost the babe an’ he dragged me to the door.”
“I would think he’d be happy.”
The girl wiped her nose with her sleeve. “It were his best friend’s babe, miss. Gettin’ me up the tree like that were part of their marriage deal.”
Joanne’s jaw dropped. “Get inside. You are not going back to that house!”
She set the girl up in the spare bedroom.
Joanne returned to her spot in front of the living room fireplace and watched the pixies eat the doughnuts. They’d refilled the wood box while she’d been gone, and the fire roared merrily. Joanne opened her laptop and looked again at the email she’d downloaded. Tasha Islam, fled to Canada and working out of a brownstone in Montreal—she’d moved most of Joanne’s money to an offshore account. Sonja Gomez, her best friend in the witch community, deported without a hearing. Drones fighting World War III over what was left of the Middle East and Northern Africa. Martial law in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Texas, starving in wake of its Referendum of Independence.
Joanne stared into the fire. Going back on pause would be the easiest thing for her, probably best for the girl, too. The 1920s were great and the 40s had shown a lot of potential, but Joanne had slept through the 30s and 50s without hesitation. It would be easy to do it again, turn the glass and skip the bad years in hopes of better.
The girl knocked shyly on the door and came in. “Do you have a TV, miss. Downton Abby is on in a few minutes and—”
“No TV, but there’s a full library in the next room.” She pointed.
The girl sighed. “I can’t read, miss. Guess I’ll just try to sleep.”
The girl shook her head. “Never went to school. Me dad said it was for boys, no use for a girl like me.”
Joanne rubbed her forehead. “What’s your name?
“Where does your father live, Zoey? Describe it to me carefully.”
Maybe this time, better years needed a little push. There were more witches out there, many of them likely on pause but many more just hidden away and riding it out. She would find them. Organize them. There were, no doubt, plenty of girls like Zoey, too. The witches could swell their ranks in a few years, sharing their arcane knowledge with a new generation of women.
Joanne listened to Zoey’s description of her father’s home and rehearsed her dragon-summoning spell.
R.W.W. Greene is a New Hampshire writer with an MFA that he exorcises/exercises regularly at local bars and coffee shops. He keeps bees, collects typewriters, and Tweets about it all @rwwgreene.
Photo credit: Tom Lee via a Creative Commons license.