Image description: A hand reaches into the transparent pocket of a dark blue jacket to hold a lemon.
Gaea Sharma figured everyone had to have something colossally wrong with their parents. It was her only way of rationalizing her life. Her mother, a human rights lawyer, seemed pretty sound of mind. Some parents slapped their kids, others gave their kids pretend allergies, and some got mad over Bs and Cs. Gaea’s mother did none of the above. And Gaea was grateful. Her mother was merely an avid believer in vampires.
Riya Sharma had been raised by a group of women who knew things that other people didn’t. They knew why certain rooms in the abandoned apartments had lights on once every month, knew how to get any wild cats to adore them, and they got over any sickness they had alarmingly fast. The locals in Riyas’s village had steered clear of that house full of capricious women in possession of threatening things, like knives and beads and views on geo-political conflict. Nowadays, Riya’s family might have been called a coven. But to her, they were just family.
From the earliest day Gaea could remember, her mother was always warning her to stay clear of vampires or other malevolent spirits, and sending her off to kindergarten with lemons in her pockets to protect her from evil spirits. Gaea couldn’t remember if she had ever been given a reason.
Diagrams of crystals and medicinal purposes for herbs were stuck to the fridge in the kitchen, which itself smelled perpetually of sage. The walls of their house were decorated with paintings with sigils etched into their canvases that no one else knew about. Gaea’s friends thought it was just a decorative choice. Gaea didn’t feel like explaining.
The consequences that came with her mother being slightly overzealous with her superstitions was an easier pill to swallow than acknowledging her mother might be right.
“You have the gift, Gaea.”
Her mother had stared at her from across the breakfast table. It was sudden. Gaea was 11 years old, picking at her eggs and watching a bird fly from flower to flower outside the window. She’d been somewhat aware of her mother’s stare, but had brushed it aside because it was nothing new.
Her mother was always looking for something from her child, and Gaea was always worried that one day she might find it.
Gaea snapped her eyes back to meet Riya’s.
She’d known the answer. Her mother said nothing, only pursed her lips and frowned.
“Are you going to use it?”
Gaea had looked back up to meet her mother’s gaze. Only in fifth grade and already carrying the hollowness in her eyes of a world-weary traveler, her mother only had to glance to register Gaea’s look and deepen her frown. A deep sigh from her mother’s mouth, then:
“Alright, fine. When you feel like it, you just tell me.”
And that was how most conversations regarding magick tended to go with Gaea and her mother. She would go silent, respond in monosyllables, give just enough to frustrate her mother till she dropped it entirely. It wasn’t that Gaea didn’t believe. It was that believing seemed like more trouble than it was worth. Deep down somewhere she suspected her worst fear was ending up with her mother’s most unsettling habits.
She’d seen her mom in the late hours of the night, her wrinkles more prominent than ever in candlelight, rummaging through the countless books she had pulled out of a safe. They spent about twice as much as any other family on salt. It wasn’t until Gaea turned 17 that she’d been allowed outside after 9pm, and her mother would still avoid going out after sunset. If that was the cost of believing in magick, Gaea thought, she was better off just the way she was.
Still, describing her relationship with her mother as a negative one would be uncharitable. They watched a different Studio Ghibli movie together on the second Thursday of every month, and pored over history books in the library together with a shared passion for tracking the human condition. Her mom was a great host, and made spaghetti that was renowned in Gaea’s friend group. When guests came over, Riya locked the back room and told them it was the AC unit in the house. Whatever disregard she had for her daughter’s own boundaries, Gaea could appreciate that she at least knew which parts of their life to keep secret.
Riya didn’t know how long it was going to take for her daughter to get into trouble.
Soon, she thought. Very soon.
The bags underneath her eyes were growing deeper, and staring at the stack of books on the table some part of her became aware that at any point the library would call, having figured out where all their books about Dracula had gone. No matter. She’d give them back, she was always planning to. They were pretty useless, anyways.
That was the thing about inheritances. You couldn’t read your way out of them. Not that she had really convinced herself that Bram Stoker was helping — he didn’t know the first thing about what she’d gone through. When she passed on into the next realm, she would find her mother, Gaea’s grandmother, and seek him out so the two of them could give him a few notes.
Riya’s mother had been rather nonchalant about the whole ordeal.
“It’s just the Sharma curse,” she’d say, shooing Riya away without a second thought that one day Riya and her own child might be having this same conversation at the kitchen table. Riya had tried to read, curse, scream, and cry her way out of carrying the atrocious burden she’d watched her mother shoulder. But by 25, she was seeing shadows in windows and chanting protective mantras every time she walked past the cemetery on her walk home. And by 30, Riya was watching her own childhood anger play out on her daughter’s face with every extra murmur of prayer.
The kettle screamed, the third time, and Riya allowed herself one more glance at the calendar as she went to turn off the stove. 35 more days till her daughter, currently unsupervised, would come home for summer. She was antsy for her daughter to saunter through the door in one piece, but just as nervous for the excruciating heat of her glare to be cast on the walls of her house. Gaea hated the decorations, the back room, the daily rituals, and she made it known. Riya couldn’t blame her, exactly. It was basically written on Sharma womens’ birth certificates that they’d grow to be women brimming with resentment.
Riya, of course, could never say this to Gaea, because then her daughter would wrinkle her nose into that specific expression whenever she was reminded that she was, much to her chagrin, a Sharma.
After she ate her lunch, she decided to take the useless books back. Checking the time she judged she had enough time to make it to the library and back before dusk. On the way out, she tugged three times on a bunch of green chilis and lemons that hung precariously from a string wrapped around the porch. She knew Gaea hated that, too.
“Oh, and stay out of the field,” her mother would call.
“Why?” Gaea would ask.
And then the interchange of unsaid things would begin as it always did, mother to daughter and daughter to mother in an attempt to feign normalcy while both being anything but.
“You’ll lose blood from all the ticks out there.” There’s something there
that’s going to hurt you.
“I can handle a few bugs.” No, there isn’t.
“You’re allergic.” I’m trying to protect you.
“Everyone’s allergic to being bitten, Mama.” Try harder.
“Gaea.” Stay out of the damn field.
To her credit, Gaea did heed her mother. But like most teenage girls, there were a few things that could change her whims. One of Gaea’s vices was a childhood best friend with sandy brown hair and darker brown eyes, who happened to look a lot like every boy her mom had disliked.
Bennett was everything that Gaea was not. Lighthearted, soft around every edge, and so, so normal. His parents were a doctor and a housewife, and he was a product of a nuclear family. It amazed Gaea that someone like that could be real. On summers back from university, she’d spend more time around him than in her own house, hoping that maybe his family legacy would rub off on her instead of her mom’s.
Gaea had always surrounded herself with people who her mother wrinkled her nose at “There’s nothing wrong with your friends, they’re just… painfully average,” her mom would say. “You outshine them.” Gaea was never sure if the intent was to inflate her pride or poke at her irritation. Either way, she took pleasure in the way they were so different from the people she had over for Christmas dinners.
With Bennett there were no meaningful looks, no undercurrents, no secrets. When he had wanted her to know how he felt, he pulled her aside after school and kissed her. Plain and simple.
He was kissing her again tonight, the both of them in the dirt in the cornfield. She bit down on his lip.
He pushed her lightly, chuckling.
“You gotta stop doing that,” he swiped a knuckle across his bottom lip. “Look, you’re drawing blood.”
“Guess I don’t know my own strength,” Gaea said.
“That much is true,” Bennett murmured back.
A crackle from behind them cut through their conversation. Gaea’s mind couldn’t help but think of the countless conversations she’d had with her mother. She swatted the thoughts away.
Ticks, she told herself. Worst case, coyotes.
And after a beat, she whispered to herself. “Vampires do not live in cornfields.”
“What’d you say?” Bennett said.
She glanced at him.
“Let’s go back to your place,” she offered. “Coyotes are coming out.”
He shot her a look but didn’t say anything, dusting himself off as he stood.
She ignored the intrusion of his gaze, still lingering on her as her eyes darted around them. It was one of the few things she hated most about being with him – she could pretend as much as she wanted to fit into his picketed-fence world, but at the end of the day, they both knew she couldn’t. She just wished he wouldn’t make it so obvious.
Gaea fixed her eyes back on him then, ready to snap at him to stop staring at her, before she registered a stark change in his expression. His mouth hung slightly open, and she was no longer as interesting to him as whatever he was looking at directly behind her.
She turned on one foot, slowly.
It stared at her. She blinked. It occurred to her that this was the part where she was supposed to be afraid, but all she felt was unadulterated rage seering through every bone in her body. All women in the Sharma family had ended up fighting their mothers’ battles – it seemed she was no different.
“Run,” Gaea said, not looking back at her friend.
Behind her, she felt him shift, as though he was resisting the urge to leave her.
“Bennett. Fucking run.”
Bennett didn’t need to be told another time. He took off in the direction he’d come, sprinting towards his own house. Gaea felt chills run up her spine then, because the spirit didn’t move.
It’s for me, she thought. Just for me.
It was dark by the time Gaea got home, and her mother was on the porch.
The green chilis and lemons that typically hung on a string outside their home were missing. Despite the moon’s intrusive glare reflecting off their windows, Riya had three candles lit on the deck table and was sitting barefoot, sipping a cup of tea.
In retrospect, Gaea would realize her mother had less wrinkles that night than she’d remembered her having before.
Riya looked up at her daughter trudging up the porch steps. Gaea stopped dead in front of her, and crossed her arms.
Riya put down her tea.
“Baby, you look tense. How was your night?”