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     I chose the triquetra pattern for Mara, my forever one. I run my fingers over its interlacing trinity knots and declare that she and I are united in eternity. There are three of these. Mine is coming. The original still lies, I suppose, painted on a granite wall deep inside our improper cave. Triads. The power of three. What you carry, what you seek, and how the weight and the journey change you.

     Things used to be simpler.

     Our teacher, Mrs. Flynt, took us on a field trip once to the Alton Jones campus. I was amazed there were so many acres of cedar, oak, and poplar inside West Warwick. On that spring day we hiked through the hilly woods, passing speckled red mushrooms, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and fiddlehead ferns until we came to a spot near the lake. In her singsong teachery voice, Mrs. Flynt pointed out “a cohort of igneous titans dredged and dropped in a glacial campaign fought eons ago.”

     Someone said, “It’s a cave!”

     Mrs. Flynt said, “No, a proper cave is formed by water chewing its way through limestone or by a lava tube or some such.” I took a closer look at the cluster of boulders forming a big hole in the ground. This must be an improper cave, I thought.

     We spent an half an hour exploring that gaping hole, dropping in, climbing out, scrapping our knees raw on coarse granite, and getting generally sweaty and filthy. In those days, our ankles absorbed all abuse without complaint; we were unbreakable, I thought.   

     Later, we got a talk about snake bites and venereal disease–it was two talks actually; I think Mrs. Flynt used the snakes to build up her courage. My classmates and I hiked back to the school bus laughing and joking about “ssnakesss with ssyphilisss.” It was a fun day. I didn’t get many of those.

     Mara wasn’t on that trip. I met her at a party months later. I don’t usually go for Goth chicks, but there was something, a presence, about the pale girl sitting all alone, intensely scoping the room. She was underdeveloped, filling out her black dress slightly more than the hangar it came on. Her bangs were comically uneven, but cute.  

     She caught me staring. “What?”

     “Sorry,” I stammered. Indicating her dress, I asked, “Who died?” It was a stupid thing to say, an aggressive-defensive, insecure mess of an opening gambit. She was enjoying my obvious discomfort.

     “Don’t make fun of the dead,” she said, her lips widening into a crooked grin. Weird, but cute.

     I took a chance and sat down next to her. We talked nerd stuff. She was super smart, got straight A’s in chemistry, a subject I barely survived. I sketched a few things on napkins and bragged that one day I was going to be an artist.

     She said no. “Not the hang-it-in-the-Louvre kind, anyway. These are good, but it’s more like you’re trying to tell a story. You need to write, use these to help tell stories.”

     “Like kiddie books? Like Where the Wild Things Are?” I asked.

     “Or, who’s the guy who wrote The Giving Tree?”

     I can never remember his name; the guy who looked like a bald biker dude and wrote those gross, funny poems. “You must read a lot,” I said, trying to keep the conversation moving.  

     “I like books more than people.” She looked at her knees.

     I wanted to change the subject. “What else do you like to do?”

     “Nothing.” I thought she’d frozen me out. Then, she said, “I like to learn about the secret arts.” Cool!

     We drifted outside and she told she practiced Wicca. She told me how it was all about living in harmony with nature, and how she wasn’t supposed to use her special knowledge to hurt people. “I seek to honor the Triple Moon Goddess and the Horned God.”

     My mouth hung open. A horny god. I had no clue. “So, what kind of spells do you do?”

     “I am learning ways to build inner strength and acquire wisdom, to provide protection.”

     “I’ll protect you,” I offered and leaned in to kiss her.

     “No!” She pulled away abruptly, then walked off into the night. I hadn’t meant to make fun of her beliefs. I just wanted a kiss. I headed back to the house, carrying an empty beer and a ton of questions with no answers.

     The next time I saw Mara was at the homecoming game. I played bass drum in the marching band, not because I was good, but because I was tall. For our half-time show we did Copacabana and Star Wars and We Are the Champions and we sucked. Afterwards, we took a break. I spotted Mara in the concessions line. It was warm for September, but she wore a dowdy brown coat with a high collar and a wide-brimmed (witch’s?) hat pulled down over her eyes.

     “Hi!” I called.

     She flashed a smile. “Todd. Hi!” She sounded genuinely happy to see me, and that was electric joy to my senses. For an instant her face peeked out from under the brim. I saw that one snaggle-tooth that shows when she smiles, her big, expressive brown eyes, and the fading purplish marks along her jaw, poorly hidden by makeup.

     She saw the concern in my eyes and that’s all it took. It was like watching a time-stop movie of a flower blooming, except in reverse. She closed up tight and turned her face toward the person in front of her in line. For the second time, I had blown it. I was determined to do better. I realized we had something in common.

     We met a few times in the cafeteria and I made a point of saying, doing, and thinking nothing offensive. (You try it!) She warmed up to me, even suggested we enroll in an art class after school. She passed me a library book on Celtic art. The triquetra drew our attention, the perfection of a triple racetrack turning back on itself into infinity. We spent the next Saturday morning painting that design on the big rock that acts like a watchman at the entryway to EGHS. (That’s East Greenwich High School. Go, Avengers! Huzzah!) It wasn’t vandalism; everyone painted the rock. New layers obliterated the ones below, though they wound up looking the same.     

     This was my time, the one part of my life when everything was possible. The future lay in a perfect pattern before my eyes. I owed that wonderful feeling to Mara. We were sharing a chocolate cabinet. OK, you’re probably not from Rhode Island. A cabinet is an ice cream shake. Anyway, I blurted out that I loved her. She spoke softly. “I love you.” I heard her say those words. I can still hear her saying those words, just as I can still feel the warmth of her skin and the thrill of her kisses. Yes, it happened.

     Don’t ask me why, but I felt there was something only I could give to Mara, something she needed. I knew her secret; the clues were on her like cheat notes to a test. The trick was to get her to say it. Over the course of weeks, I got it out of her in bits and pieces. Her mom’s boyfriend, Brad, liked Mara as much as he liked her mom. Maybe more. And he was a mean old drunk. I asked Mara why she didn’t tell the police, or her mom. She said she thought her mom knew. That sucked. I told her (honestly) that I knew how she felt. I told her about Barry.

     Uncle Barry used to visit my room when I was little. I don’t remember much, but I know what I know. He’s gone now. Moved to Oregon and died. When I heard, I wanted to laugh, but that’s not what I did. That’s the really fucked up thing about me.

     Brad sounded like another Barry. I told Mara, “The difference between men and women is that a man wants to beat the shit out of his attacker.” That wasn’t completely true, but she accepted it. I sensed she appreciated my candor. A spark went off in my mind, my heart. I was her brave knight. I promised her I would avenge her; it would be my life’s quest.

     She held my hand tightly. “Together,” she said.

     Being the future writer, I laid out our plan. Mara was the brainy Wiccan, so she brewed up a chemical arsenal.

     Obviously, we picked Halloween, or Samhain as she called it. After her mom left for work, we put on a little performance for Brad, complete with music, magic, and Mara’s special spooky punch. He fell like a lightning-struck oak. We got him into his brand-new Cordoba with its Aztec eagle hood ornament and drove to the wilds of West Warwick. My learner’s permit meant I had to have an adult with me to drive after dark. Nobody said the adult had to be conscious.

     We dragged the groggy old bastard for an hour under the gibbous moon until we found our secret place; my memory did not falter. The boulder pile offered up its intimate domain. (Halloween makes me talk like this.)

     I dropped Brad down the hole, into that stony interior with its rudimentary floor of mud and leaves and muskrat turds. Mara was dressed in full regalia, with a black and red hooded cloak. By lantern light, she performed an arcane ceremony, at one point holding up a wicked cool dagger with a pentagram on the hilt. “Death to lies,” she said.  

     I went to work painting a nice triquetra on the wall above our semi-conscious subject. The Day-Glo green came alive in the lamp’s aura. It wasn’t paint, but a special, permanent dye, Mara’s creation. I was careful to save enough. We worked together to turn Brad’s manhood into a baby gherkin.

     Pointing at the symbol that stood over our work, I said, “We should get tattoos.”

     “We should cut the design into our flesh.”

     I looked at the blade again. “We should get tattoos,” I repeated.

     We decided to do it in henna, there being no end of surprises in Mara’s little bag of tricks. To this day I can feel the spot where the tattoo was.

     Brad was still in la-la land. My heart was pounding like my bass drum; I was jazzed from what we’d done. It felt … righteous. As we sat there in our improper cave, I turned to Mara. “Let’s make love,” I said.

     Familiar storm clouds filled her beautiful eyes. “I … can’t.” Everything I needed to know was in those two tortured words, if I had listened, but I was young and horny and stupid. She was trying to explain her situation. Mara said she needed me to be her friend. What I heard was rejection aimed straight at me. Poisonous pride flooded my brain. I had offered her my cock like it was some great gift. She didn’t want it.  

     We spoke only a little as we hoisted Brad’s fat ass out of the hole and dragged him back to his car. Pain and awareness were slowly seeping back into his mind. I told her we should have used her dagger on him, but Mara stopped me. “This is enough. It’s wrong to add more evil to the world.” So, I wrote a letter and put it in his pocket, saying next time he wouldn’t find a pickle dick; he’d find a stump.

     Brad moved out of her mom’s house. I hope he died, but I really don’t know. The cops never came knocking, so to hell with him.   

     Mara and I saw each other often. We walked through graveyards; gawped at the lizards in the pet store; went antiquing (what teenager goes antiquing?); and ate the world’s best pizza at Two Guys from Italy on Main Street. I cherish those moments, replay them often in my mind. I called it dating, but she corrected me. She said we were best friends. So, I went to a boutique in Newport called The Operculum and bought her a friendship ring: a moonstone set in tri-color gold. Witchy chic.      

     Anyway, try as I might, I graduated a virgin. Mara skipped commencement. We saw each other a few times that summer, but something had changed. When we kissed, she—it was— I’ve tried a million times to figure out what I could have done differently but succeeded only in making myself ache. I have to accept my past as it is. (That’s a fucking lie in case you couldn’t tell.)

     She went off to college at UC Berkeley. I guess they have more Wiccan circles out there. I got into RISD (just Google it) and focused on my art and my writing. I got pretty good. I’ve written more than a dozen children’s books over the years. Danny the Lonely Blue Dragon is mine. I like talking to kids at book signings and public readings, with their folks around, of course.

     I don’t have any kids of my own. Dawn, my ex, said it was best not to. “You know how you are.” I do know. At times, I’d be all over her, but mostly I wouldn’t touch her, just sit around wishing and being moody. My compass really spins! Dawn used to say her love was worth more than that… more than me. She was right.

     After the split, I’d hook up with other women, single moms. It’s no use. What I carry has become what I seek. I haven’t … but I can feel the beast getting stronger. Bourbon and a pricy shrink help, but the main thing is Mara. I feel her presence warning me against passing along this dark gift. You can believe that or not; it’s what I feel.

     I wrote to her about all of it. She wrote or emailed often, telling me about her life, her Wicca buddies, her three fat cats, her career in pharmaceuticals and the difficulties she had at work, plus the gory details on why her relationships crashed and burned. Some of it hurt to read, but I was glad she trusted me with her private thoughts. She signed her letters “your enchantress.” She never wrote the word “love.” That hurt, too.

     One day, I found a letter in my mailbox, written in her fine hand on parchment stationery. Mara said she might be coming back to Rhode Island soon. It was like my heart stepped out of the freezer. Maybe, I could say or do or be something different this time. I wanted to be better, to be someone who could offer her a decent future. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter now. It didn’t happen.   

     The infinite track was always leading me here; it will go on even when I have ceased to be. All I have left is this task, then I’m done. I couldn’t be her protector, so I’ll be her avenger. Huzzah!   

     Witnesses say Jack, her junkie boyfriend, threw Mara against a wall so hard it caused bleeding in her brain. The prosecutor tried to pin it on him, but he was miles away when the aneurism killed her, so the jury gave him a pass. 

     The funeral was nice, I think. I was pretty drunk. I’m glad her mom brought Mara home and hope she doesn’t mind that I came back today and replaced the little bronze plaque with this big Celtic marker.

     So, I stand here crying like I haven’t done since Barry died. I’ve got one hand on Mara’s stone, the other holds a fifth of Cuervo Gold and a plane ticket. Without her, I’m a bad thing waiting to happen; it’s only a question of who gets hurt. I choose Jack. I’ll do what I have to do and make the cops do the rest. I’ve made sure the matching triquetra headstone I ordered for myself will be ready when they bring me back here.

     Mara, I can’t claim to understand your choices; I hope you can accept mine. I like to think you’re wearing the moonstone ring. Under this vacant October sky, I pronounce the two of us bound to eternity. I am a used and broken wreck of a man, but you, Mara, are beautiful. You are love-worthy.