A detention center guard stopped Carol at the entrance and motioned to a steel bin. “Remove all flowers, vegetation, or silver items and deposit them in the receptacle.”
Carol brought nothing like that today. She had tried flowers before, once because she didn’t know the policy and later because she thought conditions might have improved.
But nothing seemed to improve at the detention center. Especially not her daughter.
Satisfied, the guard let Carol into a steel hallway. Wall-mounted plaques boasted of progress she didn’t see. In these enlightened days, we don’t burn witches at the stake. We rehabilitate them. After what that crone Tabatha Mbaye did to the president, authorities had zero tolerance for witchcraft. Anyone could be detained, even for so little as wearing a pentacle under a school uniform. Certainly, Carol agreed that witches needed monitoring, but there should’ve been leeway for minors just playing with powers they didn’t understand.
Try telling Morgan that. She called Tabatha a hero. Teen girls thought they knew everything.
The steel hall ended at the guestroom, a humorless white square furnished with round tables and plastic chairs. Armed guards patrolled the walls and exits. Parents in ones and twos sat across from daughters in scarlet jumpsuits. Some inmates had short hair — boys or girls? Carol couldn’t tell.
At the guestroom’s center table sat Morgan, arms crossed, face ever petrified in a scowl.
Carol sat across from her and examined with a mother’s eye. Morgan was thinner, but her bushy auburn hair was clean and her jumpsuit looked crisp, not soiled like last time. Maybe she was being polite to the guards for a change.
Not so with her mother. If Carol didn’t initiate conversation, neither would speak. She cleared her throat. “So, they’ve started holding boy witches here?”
Morgan rolled her eyes. “Those are girls too, Mom.”
“You look thin. Eating enough?”
Morgan shrugged. “It’s super-processed gruel, nothing real in it. They’re scared we’d used meat and veg for spells.”
Wouldn’t you? Carol almost asked, but Dr. Brunwick had warned against instigating. Carol forced a polite smile. “The doctor said you might be released if you’ll behave, show progress. They just want to see your head’s in the right place.”
“I won’t behave for them.” A smile lit Morgan’s eyes. “And I don’t want to show them progress. It’s mine to keep.”
“But wouldn’t it be nice to come home? See Dad?”
“Dad can see me whenever he wants.”
Which was never. “And school? You could catch up with Rhonda and Claire.” Stoners, both, but Carol would take them over the alternative.
Morgan’s face softened and then turned stony again. “They’ll get by. I have new friends now.”
Carol had heard — Sati, Brooke, Tasha. She’d asked Dr. Brunwick about moving Morgan to another group with better influence, but he feared she’d be a bad apple that spoiled the bunch. Never mind how she was supposed to rehabilitate among the wrong crowd.
Daughters at other tables held hands with their parents. Some even laughed. A skinny ginger two tables away stared at her fathers and scratched her arm, antsy to be released. These other girls wanted to get better, but Morgan was so antagonistic. There was once a sweet girl who liked to sing about every animal she saw, no matter how hard it was to rhyme. She hadn’t needed rhymes when she could sing about platypuses and giraffes. Some days Carol wondered if that girl had ever been real.
Morgan coughed. “I’ll miss you, Mom.”
Carol couldn’t help smiling. Whatever had become of Morgan, she wasn’t lost. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll keep visiting, always.”
Morgan pursed her lips and turned away. “Sati’s been eyeing the future. She’s seen change. Little things here, great things outside. We’re just missing a couple items to connect them.”
Carol gaped. Witchcraft, even here? “But they took away your spell things — ”
“Reagents.” Morgan tugged at her hair. “Anyone can find them if they’re desperate, even around the guards. They can’t stop us from bleeding.”
Her words sank through Carol just as screams overtook the guestroom.
The skinny ginger’s eyes turned white. Her father’s retreated as a pale moth wriggled from her arm. Bits of skin broke into larvae, chrysalides, and then fluttering moths. The girl was melting away. She must have found a moth here earlier. That was enough a reagent for a young witch to work terrible wonders. A whooping alarm drowned the screams and guards swarmed the guestroom.
A hand held Carol’s — Morgan, reaching across the table. She seemed calm, as if she’d known a fellow inmate might burst into moths today. Brave girl. Carol squeezed her hand.
A jagged thumbnail scratched Carol’s palm. Blood welled in its creases. She looked wide-eyed at Morgan, but guards were already pulling the two apart. There wasn’t time to explain. Morgan tucked her bloodstained thumb inside her fist and vanished into the detention center’s depths.
Carol followed the other parents out, curling her bleeding hand into a fist while she listened to their whispers. Some blamed their daughters. Others blamed the doctors for failing them. No one blamed the soulless wall plaques. Thou shalt not suffer a witch her vices.
At the hall’s end, parents dallied in collecting personal effects to avoid the parking lot tide, but Carol was used to it. She pressed through steel doors and let the protestors’ roar wash over her.
“Give back our daughters!” they chanted. “Set our daughters free!”
Newscasters used to scavenge the protests, but now they only reported on fugitive crones and nationwide witch hunts. If Morgan could, she would run away to join the wild witches. She believed in the coming revolution.
Carol gripped tissues in her bleeding hand. She wasn’t sure what to believe anymore. Morgan couldn’t be right about change; Carol promised herself that. Teen girls didn’t know everything.
But as her car pulled away from the protestors and the loneliness since her last visit sank in, she couldn’t help wondering: What if they do?
Hailey Piper is the author of An Invitation to Darkness and The Possession of Natalie Glasgow. Her next novella, Benny Rose: the Cannibal King, is due in 2020. Her short fiction appears in The Bronzeville Bee, Daily Science Fiction, Blood Bath Literary Zine, and many other publications. She lives with her wife in Maryland, where she haunts their apartment with the echos of a clacking keyboard. Follow her on Twitter via @HaileyPiperSays or visit her website, www.haileypiper.com.