NOTE: This is part of the new novel I am writing. I am posting it here as a diversion for readers who may be living under shelter-in-place policies while the world waits for the coronavirus pandemic to pass. For an explanation of this project, please click here. To read the chapters I’ve posted in order, click here.
Colleen’s House ~ Santa Rosa, N.M.
“You couldn’t have known,” Sierra said as Colleen set a basket of garlic bread on the table. “What were you supposed to do? Stand there calmly while that thing made you relive the worst experience of your life? Come on. You reacted the same way anybody would. And who knows what it would have done if you’d stayed? Maybe by giving it what it wanted, you kept it from doing something worse.”
Holly shook her head. “That’s not the point,” she said. “The point is that Morgan is now in more danger than ever because I couldn’t keep my shit together in the face of an obvious trick. Uncle Don has been dead for 30 years. I knew it wasn’t him. I just panicked. I’m supposed to be protecting Morgan, not making her enemy stronger.”
“But none of us knew its M.O.,” Morgan argued. “The important thing isn’t that you didn’t know then. It’s that we do know now.”
Colleen brought in a bottle each of sparkling wine and sparkling grape juice. “I agree,” she said, pouring juice into a champagne flute and setting it in front of Morgan before filling everyone else’s glasses with the wine. “We have more information than we had two weeks ago. You were working blind, with no idea how this thing operates or where it gets its strength, and now at least you know that much.” She picked up her glass. “To having our Holly back,” she said.
“Amen,” Sierra said. The six of them clinked their glasses together.
They drank, and the conversation shifted to the practicalities of dishing up the pan of lasagna in front of them and a flurry of compliments on Colleen’s cooking.
“Thanks,” Colleen said. “And thank you all for everything you’ve done for Holly and me.” She turned to Abuelito and Sandy. “You saved my girl’s life. I realize a dinner party is paltry thanks for that, but I want you to know how much I appreciate you. I’m indebted to you forever.”
“Nonsense,” Grandma Sandy said. “We didn’t do anything except hold her hand and call for help.”
“But if you hadn’t –”
“– Then we’d be the worst kind of assholes,” Grandma Sandy said with finality.
Abuelito smiled, but Morgan noticed it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“You want to say something,” she observed.
“I do.” Abuelito looked at her. “You’ve been researching. What have you found out?”
Morgan sighed. “Not much.” She poked at her lasagna, absent-mindedly picking ricotta cheese out of it with her fork. She hated ricotta. Her mother caught her eye and shook her head. Morgan returned her attention to Abuelito. “I found a couple of things that sound kind of like it, but nothing that matches perfectly.”
“What did you find?”
Morgan looked across the table at Dr. Kavanaugh. “I forgot to tell you about this the last time we talked, but I found something that ties the shapeshifter to La Llorona.”
Dr. Kavanaugh laid down her fork. “Oh?”
Morgan nodded. “Did Mom tell you about that weird thing she saw by the shed a couple of days before you got hurt?”
Dr. Kavanaugh shook her head. Morgan shot her mother a look.
“I meant to tell you the next time I saw you, but you were unconscious,” Sierra told Dr. Kavanaugh, her tone apologetic. “I was putting up Christmas decorations that Tuesday night when I saw a woman with dark hair standing under the eave of the shed. She turned around, and instead of a regular face, she had a horse’s head.”
Dr. Kavanaugh gasped. “But that’s impossible! That’s — no bean sidhe has ever looked like that! I certainly haven’t. Morgan hasn’t.” She looked at Morgan, her eyes wide with horror. “You haven’t, have you?”
“No,” Morgan said. “But who says it was a bean sidhe?” She looked at her mother. “Tell her about its hair.”
Sierra grimaced. “It was disgusting. It had bits of something slimy in its hair, and it smelled like pond water.”
Abuelito nodded, as if none of this surprised him. “And what do you think it was, Morgan?”
“OK,” Morgan said. “So I found this book that talked about something called a puca.”
“The trickster.” Abuelito exchanged a look with Dr. Kavanaugh.
“The trickster,” Dr. Kavanaugh confirmed. “But pucas aren’t usually violent. They’re just — well, they’re tricksters. They play pranks on people, but they’re just jokes. Mean jokes sometimes, but still: jokes. They don’t really hurt anybody; they’re just kind of a pain in the butt.”
“That’s what this book said, too,” Morgan agreed. “But it said something else. It talked about how the puca stories kind of overlap with a bunch of other legends. One of them was the kelpie. There was a Scottish one I couldn’t figure out how to pronounce that was kind of like a kelpie, only a lot meaner, and it mostly hangs out in lakes or seas — not streams or springs. And then there was La Llorona. The book said the La Llorona stories about her having a horse’s face are kind of like some stories about pucas.”
Abuelito stroked his beard. Morgan liked the contrast between Abuelito’s dark skin and his gray beard. Something about him made her think of Gandalf from The Hobbit. She listened as he spoke.
“The shapeshifting sounds like a puca. That thing your mother saw sounds like a kelpie or an each-uisge — the Scottish creature you were having trouble remembering — but neither of those species is known to take on as many forms as we’ve seen this thing use.”
“‘Species.’ You say that like you’re talking about farm animals. Everything you’ve described is something out of myths or folklore,” Sandy said. “This all sounds like something out of a fairytale.”
Abuelito cocked his head and looked at her for a moment, his eyes twinkling with amusement. “My dear, you’re sitting at the table with two banshees. One of them is your granddaughter.”
Sandy opened her mouth, then closed it, shooting Morgan an apologetic look. “This is just a lot to accept,” she said. “I’ve known Morgan her whole life. I’ve never seen all these pucas and kelpies and sea monsters you’re talking about.”
“If we’re lucky, you never will,” Abuelito said. He glanced at Dr. Kavanaugh over the top of his glasses. “I saw it in the alley the night you fell.”
“You saw it? What did it look like? All I could see was a sort of undefined, dark shape behind the dumpster.”
“It was a raggedy little cat,” Abuelito said.
“Did it do anything?”
“Nothing special. But it behaved strangely for a cat. After you left, it came out from under an SUV, sat in front of us, and started licking itself like nothing happened. But the whole time it was there, it never broke eye contact with me.”
Dr. Kavanaugh rubbed her temples. “It would want to stick around to see its handiwork,” she said. “Shifting into a cat sounds like a puca. They’re forever pulling stuff like that. But this thing is violent, like an each-uisge. Morgan is right, though: You don’t usually see the each-uisge in streams, and the only water around here is the little creek that runs out of the spring, which it supposedly guarded when the Jicarilla lived here.” She looked at Abuelito. “What has the flexibility of a puca, the violence of an each-uisge, and the natural habitat of a kelpie?”
Abuelito shook his head. “I’m not aware of anything.”
Morgan took a bite of her lasagna and chewed slowly, thinking.
“I wonder … what if it’s some kind of hybrid?” Grandma Sandy said. “Like part one thing and part the other?”
Abuelito and Dr. Kavanaugh looked at her, then at each other.
“I think you might be onto something,” Abuelito said.
Dr. Kavanaugh nodded. “I really hope you’re not,” she said, “but I think you probably are.”