Matilda sighed and sipped her coffee. She really wished this hadn’t happened. It had been such a long time since Elliott had let Marlee come to stay.
Matilda’s relationship with her son was, well, strained to say the least. Motherhood had never come naturally to her, not because she didn’t love her child, but because love alone, as Matilda had found out, was not enough to raise a child on. Matilda shook her head softly and let the buzzing of the fluorescent lights carry her away down memory lane, barely noticing as Marlee finished her meal, licked her fingers, and slipped out of her chair in search of the bathroom.
She had given birth in the back of a patched together Volkswagen van. It had once been dark purple, but sun and hellfire had bleached it weary lavender. Duct tape on the on the windows cast striped shadows across the shag-carpeted interior as her body twisted and strained against itself, pain sharper than any magic sword biting into her.
Elliott’s father hadn’t been there. In fact, Matilda hadn’t even told him when she got pregnant. It was one of many things her son would later come to resent her for.
Elliott’s father had been a rough man, nearly a decade her senior. He was the sort who hardly even remembered which dimension was home anymore; the sort who always had traces of forbidden magic under his fingernails, always had some new scar or bruise to testify to his most recent victory or defeat, always had blood that wasn’t his on his clothes, always had an excuse ready on his lips.
Matilda had been 23, both lost and wandering, with a cracked crystal ball and a restlessness that came not from a love of travel but from a deep seated fear of sitting still. She had left home at seventeen to find the demon that had killed her brother, and she hadn’t been back since. It had started out as your typical high-fantasy coming of age quest, nothing worth writing home about. (Matilda never had.) It had taken a bit longer than she had planned.
She had found the demon in question the year before she met Elliott's father, five years after her single-minded quest began, laying low in a hole in the wall sub-dimension just sideways of Cincinnati. The final battle hadn’t been as epic as she had imagined it, but when it was over, the demon was as dead as her brother. And closure turned out not to be as sweet as she had hoped.
Matilda was left with only an enchanted sword and the knowledge that there was more to reality than she was prepared to comprehend. Without the specter of vengeance to beckon her onward, Matilda was desperately in need of a new purpose, or, at the very least, a distraction.
That was where Elliott’s father had come in.
It wasn’t that they didn’t love each other. It was rather, as Matilda had found with motherhood, that love was not enough of a foundation on which to build a life.
Relationships, Matilda learned, were hard, much harder than killing demons. They required things like trust, and sacrifice, and worst of all vulnerability, something Matilda looked on with more revulsion than the infestation nine-eyed spider slugs she had once been hired to exterminate from the white house by an exhausted and confused presidential aid.
By the time Matilda found out she was pregnant, it was all over, his love letters burned, protective runes barring him from her apartment. A more selfless mother might have called him, might have let him back into her life, made it work, made a family. But Matilda was proud. Always had been. Another trait her son would come to resent . . .
“Grandma!” Matilda was shaken out of her memories by Marlee’s shriek.
She leapt to her feet. The sound had come from the dingy gray door of the lady’s room. Matilda gritted her teeth. Nothing good ever happened in public restrooms.
Matilda burst through the swinging door with curses both magical and vulgar on her lips. The bathroom’s scratched white tile was glazed amber by the light that shone from the far end, easily overpowering the fluorescent lights. Marlee huddled against the opposite wall, her freckled skin pale beneath the hellish lighting.
I’m getting too old for this, Matilda thought. The source of the light was a swirling, semi-translucent vortex Matilda knew all to well. A portal. It tugged at the edges of reality like a quantum vacuum, blurring the edges of possible and impossible with a smell like burning toast and the feeling of electricity in the air. The hairs on the back of Matilda’s neck stood up.
“What the hell is that!?” Marlee yelled, over the deafening rush and crackle of the portal. Now that help had arrived, she seemed much less frightened and more curious. Already she was slowly peeling herself off the wall and inching towards the portal. Matilda caught her by the hood of her sweatshirt and held her firmly in place.
“Don’t say ‘hell’, Marlee,” Matilda admonished, “and it’s a portal”
“A portal to where?”
“Eh? You swallowed a whale!?!?”
“A PORTAL TO WHERE, GRANDMA!?”
“OH THAT!” Matilda paused to turn her hearing aid up a few notches. She continued at a slightly lower volume. “Hell, I’d say.”
“Oh, so you’re allowed to say it?” Marlee grumbled. Then, as her grandmother’s word’s sank in, “Hell???”
“Based on the color of the portal, the speed of the vortex, and the demonic runes spray-painted on the wall behind it, I’d say so . . .” Matilda approached the swirling vortex cautiously, strands of her hair escaping it’s braid and whipping treacherously towards the portal. “Not a whole lot of other dimensions it could be. Unless there’s some fire-demon out there powerful enough to spawn their own sub-dimension . . .” Matilda trailed off, squinting into the dizzying whirl of flame like it was a tricky crossword clue.
“Did this just open on its own?”
The answer was a bit too quick, to forceful. There was guilt running beneath the words like river.
“Marlee . . .”
“ I barely touched it! I just touched it and . . . this- this thing pops up!” Marlee said in a half-hysterical rush.
Matilda paled. I took a powerful magic presence to open a portal to hell. To do so involuntarily . . .
Matilda had hoped, when Marlee had been born, that she would be as normal as her father. Her younger, wilder self had resented the wish, but she was old enough to know the pain that came with being different, and to wish her granddaughter spared. Had it been such a vain hope, after all? The strangeness had certainly skipped a generation in Matilda’s son . . .
Matilda had done the best she could, all on her own. Much better than many would have expected of her, that was for sure. She’d traveled the country with her son slung on her back, taking work here she could find it, one day banishing the hellhound terrorizing a small Midwestern town, the next mopping floors or loading crates. She became a familiar face at inter-dimensional temp agencies the world over.
And that was all well and good, when her son was small. A two year old is as happy in a scummy motel as in the guest room of the faery queen's palace, as content to ride in the backseat of a beat-up pickup truck as on the back of a three-eyed unicorn. But all that changed as he got older.
Elliot grew tired of constantly moving from place to place. He complained of never being able to make friends, rolled his eyes at the protection charms his mother cast on him each night before bed, wrinkled his nose at her incense and smudged sage.
He started to lose interest in her chaotic homeschool curriculum.
“It’s a bit heavy in sacred geometry, a bit lacking in regular geometry, isn’t it, Ma?” He’d say sarcastically. Or, “I know you think the history of 11th century witchcraft is important, Ma, but colleges generally don’t.”
“Look at me, I didn’t go to college, and I turned out just fine,” Matilda had retorted, not looking up from her attempt to find a vegan alternative to frogspawn. The chia seeds didn’t seem to be working, but perhaps if she added some hemp . . .
But as the years went by, Matilda was forced to admit, grudgingly, as in all things, that perhaps he had a point.
Matilda hadn’t stayed in one place for more than year since she was seventeen. She woke up at night not knowing where in the world she was, ore even which world. Elliott was getting too old never to have known a proper home, and quite frankly, so was she. So she did something she had promised herself never to do. She settled down.
She sold her purple Volkswagen, more duct-tape than car by then. She washed the patchouli scent from her long red hair, now streaked with grey at the temples. Plaid replaced tie-dye. Cardigans replaced leather jackets. She took out her nose ring, covered up her tattoos. She enrolled Elliott in middle school and attended his parent-teacher conferences.
His teachers said he was a gifted student, though he had a lot of catching up to do. They looked at her pointedly as they said this, as though this was her fault. (Maybe it was, but who were they to judge her for it.)
And so they settled. Matilda was never the suburban soccer mom Elliott seemed to want. But she did her best. Magic still crackled at her fingertips when the summer thunderstorms rolled in and sparked at her stiffening joints in the cold of winter. Crows still perched on her picket fence more often than songbirds. Her cupboards were always stocked with belladonna and lavender and her broomstick was far more magical than practical. The spiders living in the corners of her kitchen had names.
And she still left and came back at odd hours, to much whispering and odd looks from the neighbors. She still washed demon-blood and ash from her hands before kissing her son goodnight. She collected speeding tickets rushing from exorcisms to JV soccer games and mathletes competitions. She did her best. But it was never enough.
So she joined one of the new-fangled demon-hunters guilds, a choice she lost friends over. The people she had once camped under overpasses with and hurled fireballs beside raised eyebrows at her settled lifestyle and her new nine to five schedule. In their youth they had all made speeches about the evils of institutions and the benefits of the freedom to drift from place to place. But then life happened. She became a parent and they didn’t, and her guild membership card was just the last of many things they no longer had in common.
She packed her friends away in photo albums, along with the rest of her old life. Her son came first. Matilda wasn't good at love, but she loved nonetheless, and fiercely, like a wolf loves her cubs.
Matilda was employee of the month 9 months in a row. She soon had more kills than people who’d worked there twice as long. She never missed a school play or a sporting event. She set up the Christmas tree in November.
It was never quite enough, but it was close. Matilda and her son would never understand each other, but they coexisted as well as they could. They fought, but they made good memories too. It would have to be enough, because it was the best they could do.
When he went off to college (accounting school, Matilda’s younger self would have been horrified,) Matilda breathed a shameful sigh of relief. She had done her best, and only time would tell if it would be enough. She had taught her son all he would learn, and he had taught her a few things along the way. Perhaps it wasn’t the worst thing in the world if her son turned out normal. After all, she had thought, rubbing the old scars that always seemed to ache a bit, no matter how much time faded them; Interesting times had been used as a curse for a reason.