What with the War and then, a little behind schedule, going away to school, I hadn't lived in Bluff Creek for more than a vacation in years. When I came home that summer with a brand-new diploma from a fancy university Back East to show off, I guess I was expecting everything to be different, and everything to be the same, too.
I was kind of right but it was never the things I was expecting that had changed. All the girls from school were just the same as ever, except of course they were wearing their skirts a lot shorter, and a lot of them were married and had kids now.
One of them that I might have hoped had got married in my absence hadn't changed at all. That was Blossom Culp. She still wore her skirts down halfway past her knees, except when she decided to scandalize Bluff City society by wearing nothing but a long pair of yellow satin bloomers, but that was fine with me, because she still had the skinniest legs I had ever seen. At least her hair looked a little bit less of a mess most days, now that she wore it bobbed.
She had been working at the flour mill during the War, when they didn't have enough men to do the work. I knew this because she had written to me every month when I was away whether I wanted her to or not, and criticized my spelling when I replied. But she was let go with most of the other girl workers afterward. When I came back to Bluff City she was still living with her mother in the old abandoned mill worker's cottage on the other side of the tracks, although she had fixed it up a lot and even replaced the glass in some of the windows. It was more tasteful than the time Blossom's Ma fixed it up, that winter she was famous, although not by much. But this time at least it looked less like it would fall over in a stiff wind and more like an actual house. She had put beaded draperies and things all over the front window too, and a sign in the yard saying that the Prophetess of Iowa told fortunes and contacted spirits from the Other Side, rates negotiable. Blossom has always been one to have a good concept of the value of advertising. She also wrote some kind of column for the Pantograph that was full of all sorts of Spiritualist flim-flam and talking down about other practitioners of the Art, which my brother-in-law Lowell Seaforth admitted he was mostly to blame for her getting paid for, so I suppose she was doing all right, or at least well enough to afford to buy those harem pants.
I had come home from college not entirely sure what I wanted to do next. Luckily for me, my mother couldn't make up her mind what I wanted to do either. She would wander back and forth in the kitchen, trying to decide whether I would rather go back to school to become a lawyer or a doctor, or stay here in Bluff City and become a partner in Dad's construction business.
Dad said he didn't care what I decided to be, as long as it was me who decided it and nobody else, by which he meant Mother, and in the meantime there was no hurry, so I was working part-time in his office, "learning the business" as he said, and spending a lot more of my time loafing around town, which suited me fine. The only downside was that it gave Blossom Culp a lot more opportunity to hassle me.
"Alexander," she said, marching up to me one day right in the middle of Eldorado Street, "There is something strange going to happen in this town."
Now, there are plenty of strange things that have happened in this town, and usually Blossom Culp was right in the middle of them, and usually she dragged me in after her, so I was not in any way anxious to hear any more details about this, but my opinions in the matter were not to make any difference, as it turned out.
Most of the summer I was not subjected to anything more than Blossom cornering me in places and telling me about how this October was going to be some great conjunction of powers or something, and that right here in Bluff City is where the conjunction was going to conjoin, and if we did not do something about it, we would lose our chance to keep the world from turning to evil and destruction. I told her that even if I had been through an easier war than a lot of people, I could tell her that there was plenty of evil and destruction in the world already, and she said "Exactly." But she said it in a way that made me think that somehow I'd lost the argument without noticing.
She had all sorts of other things to say about this conjunction, too, although she wouldn't tell me how she knew them, and mostly I figured it was all brought on by too much thinking up nonsense for her newspaper column. By September she was talking about how the others would already be starting to prepare and she had to use her home ground advantage while she had it.
I did not take any of this serious of course. I have seen enough strange things that I am not going to deny that there are Powers in this world that the average person knows nothing of, and that Blossom knows a little more than that about, but I still know better than to listen to her in general.
Which is why I should also have known better than to go get her out of the police station after she was arrested for breaking into McCulloch's Funeral Home in the middle of September. All she would say when they asked her why was that she needed ingredients, and they would be sorry if they didn't let her go about her business, which was beyond the scope of the small minds of policemen.
This did not sit well with any of them, but as it was she hadn't taken a thing that they could prove, and Jake McCulloch knew about as well as anybody how dealing with Blossom Culp could make anything more trouble than it was worth, so they let her go.
I walked her all the way home mostly just to make sure she didn't get into any more trouble between here and there, and we almost made it, too. But then we were standing in the shadow of the old Dutch Elm tree, which was still alive back then, that stood between my house and the Ghost Barn, when she looked up and commented on how it was the night after the new moon.
I have known that Blossom was sweet on me ever since we were fourteen. That time she tricked me into kissing her for a fraternity initiation would have given it away, if nothing else did. However that did not mean I was going to stand here and gaze at the moon with her, and definitely did not mean I was going to invite her up to the barnloft, and I told her as much, starshine or not.
She rolled her eyes at me. "I am terribly, terribly shocked, Alexander, that you would ever think that I am that kind of girl, and here I was worrying about your safety."
"I am not sure what kind of girl you are supposed to be," I said, "but anyway I am usually perfectly safe as long as you are nowhere in the vicinity, so that worry is easily fixed."
"No-one will be safe until the night of Halloween, Alexander," she said, and I suspect she was trying to sound spooky just like she does with her customers. "And if we do not succeed over the month of October, no-one will be safe after that, either. But there is a spell I just learned, and if you will let me cast it over you, it will give you a certain measure of protection, at least until we get to the most dangerous part of the month."
I asked her if letting her do the spell would mean she would stop trying to talk at me all the time about whatever this thing was that was supposed to happen in October, and she smiled sweetly at me and said that if I said I would to this, she wouldn't have to talk to me about it any more regardless.
Blossom Culp does not lie to me if she can help it, but I before I said yes I should have remembered that she knows all sorts of interesting ways of telling the truth. That is probably where I made my first mistake.