Snow and ice blew against the windows as Captain Westheimer limped into his office. He glared at the massive, leather-bound book on his desk before sitting down to open it to a yellowing page with only his name written on it. The book had been sitting there since the previous night, when he had been going through his cabinets and bookshelves in search of it. He just didn’t have the motivation to actually look through it when he found it. Outside, the yard of the prisoner-of-war camp was empty. It was too cold and too windy for anyone, guard or prisoner, to be out there. At least, over the last several weeks, there hadn’t been anymore ghosts popping up in the barracks.
It had been the middle of October when Westheimer had to deal with a poltergeist inhabiting a radio one of the POWs had smuggled into the camp. One of the prisoners, a British sergeant named Plundell, had never believed in magic or ghosts before, but upon discovering Westheimer was a warlock, he had been insistent on learning everything he could. It seemed to be his way of getting over the shock of his entire world being flipped upside down.
At times, it was a little annoying, especially since Westheimer hadn’t given much thought about himself being a warlock over the last several years. I spent all this time blending in with people who do not possess magic. I wanted to get away from it. I wanted to use it for something else, something good, and yet I also hate it at times.
He had hunted ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and even his own people. Witches and warlocks like himself, who still practiced gruesome human sacrifices and hunted people for their organs to use in potions. Those horrific rituals were what pushed him away from his witch family.
The book of photographs on his desk were all that remained of his time with his blood family. For the longest time, he never understood why he kept them. Was it a reminder of why he left? Possibly. The very first photograph in the book was of him as a small boy with his parents. His father was smiling a little bit, but his mother wore no expression. She was young, but she was beginning to turn gnarled and haggard from years of using dark magic. Granted, she was no necromancer, but she still held contempt for people with no magical abilities. She saw them as tools to further her talent as a witch. Nothing more.
His entire family was like that. After watching innocent people be brutally maimed and slaughtered for annual rituals and ingredient harvesting, Westheimer had enough. The screaming and pleading burned itself into his memory, and so he ran, taking what little he had in terms of belonging. He couldn’t be a part of that anymore.
There were photos of some of his relatives. His older sister, older brother, and younger sister. He had no idea how they were doing. All he knew was that he left them behind. All of them. His siblings, his parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents.
The question on his mind was whether or not he regretted it. They were terrible people, but they were still his relatives. Did he owe them any sense of loyalty?
He stared at the photo of him, his parents, and his siblings. This wasn’t a perfect family. It was missing something, something obvious just by looking at it.
Love. Westheimer couldn’t recall one instance of someone within his family saying that they loved each other, and he certainly never felt it. The only time he had ever felt love was when he met and courted his wife. He felt love when his two daughters were born. There was no love in his original blood family. There was just . . . existence. Sharing in the blood and gore of the harvest rituals and the foul, burning smells of toxic potions.
He kept staring at the photographs. That’s all they were to him. A reminder of what he didn’t want to be. A reminder of why he ran away and tried to start anew, tried to assimilate into the cultures of people without magic. He succeeded. He found a new family, and yet he still felt tied to his old one. He had been trying to figure out why for years. He wasn’t afraid of them finding him—he knew they didn’t care, but they would take revenge if he showed up at their village.
Their vileness still appeared in his mind, and at times he wondered if he would ever be able to feel like he let them go.
There was a knock at the door. Sighing, Westheimer said, “Who is it?”
“Corporal Viermitz, sir,” a young man’s voice replied. “Sergeant Plundell would like to speak with you.”
Westheimer couldn’t believe that Plundell had trudged across the snowy landscape of the prison yard to see him. “Let him in.”
The door opened, and Plundell walked in. The door closed behind him, and he nervously looked at a chair, shivering. “Sir? I hope I’m not interrupting anything—”
“You may have a seat, son,” Westheimer said. “I am surprised you decided to come here despite the weather.”
“I couldn’t focus on anything else. Everyone . . . still doesn’t want to talk about the ghost in the radio, even though that was over a month ago.”
“Why would anyone want to discuss it? This problem was resolved.” Westheimer looked Plundell in the eye. “Or, perhaps, no one wants to discuss it because it was traumatizing. I am sure you would not appreciate people constantly asking you about what had occurred in Italy.”
Plundell looked down at the floor, paling. “No, sir, I wouldn’t want that.”
“Exactly.” Westheimer glanced back down at the photo album. “Now, what are you hoping to learn today?”
“If you don’t mind, something personal. You mentioned a while back that you left your original home because you were different to other witches and warlocks. What did you mean by that?”
“Exactly what I told you. I have nothing in common with them aside from the fact that I can perform spells and brew potions.” Westheimer kept staring at the album. “Remember I told you not to go looking for more people like me, because not all of them are friendly. When I say that, I mean many of them are nothing short of evil.”
He had been looking at a portrait of his parents. The picture was unusual because they were smiling. A dull ache started in his chest. To anyone else, this picture seemed so normal. Two regular people, a happy couple. But underneath, they’re bloodthirsty killers. They care nothing of others aside from their own kin, other witches and warlocks. “Everyone is a tool to them, and from an early age, they’re taught to kill, to maim. Not to defend themselves, but so they can have control.” Westheimer’s face heated up as tears threatened to choke him. “Nothing else drives them but control. They know nothing of love or forgiveness or common human decency!” In a fit of rage, he slammed shut the album, and shoved it off his desk.
Plundell was frozen in place, terrified. His eyes flicked back and forth between Westheimer and the album on the floor. The book had opened to a picture of Westheimer and his wife on their wedding day.
Shivering, Westheimer covered his face. He drew in a ragged breath, the ache in his chest morphing into a pulsing pang of loneliness, uncertainty, regret, and guilt. “I left because I did not want to be a part of that culture anymore.”
Plundell was silent for another moment. He moved to pick up the album, but decided against it. He kept looking at the picture of Westheimer and his wife. “I’m sorry I asked, then.”
“Do not be sorry. I have yet to address why I have kept some of the pictures in that damn book.” Westheimer gave a nervous laugh. “It is quite a stupid thing to be upset over.”
“I don’t think it is. My mother wasn’t close to her parents because they didn’t approve of my father. She kept pictures of them all over the house, and every time she looked at them, I could sense they didn’t bring her any joy. They weighed heavily on her, because of how she had been treated after announcing my father asked her to marry him. The house had been bombed in one of the Blitz attacks, and she lost those pictures. When she and Father moved out to the countryside, she . . . changed. She was happier, despite losing what little connection she had to her parents.” Plundell reached over the desk to touch Westheimer’s arm. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I have an idea.”
“Be grateful your mother did not have to watch people die because your cousin was in need of a liver for a potion.”
The room was silent aside from the snowy winds battering the windows and outside walls. Plundell let out a sigh before saying, “You know, everyone else in the camp was afraid of you because you seemed so bitter and angry. Now, I understand your bitterness. You haven’t moved on from your own demons.”
“These are demons that are hard to walk away from, because on one hand, it does not seem right to erase memories of the people who gave you life and raised you.”
“They’re not your family if they didn’t love you.” Plundell looked again at the pictures of Westheimer’s wife and daughters. “I hate to pry, but you seem to have made a point with surrounding yourself with your missus and daughters.”
“My wife helped me feel human. We love each other.”
“I take it you never told your parents about her.”
“No. I ran away, and I will not go back to them.” A chill moved down Westheimer’s spine. “They would kill her.”
“Isn’t that reason enough to get rid of those pictures?”
The young sergeant had a point. Westheimer swore years ago that anyone who threatened the safety of his wife and children would get no mercy from him. When his sons-in-law proved they were good to his daughters, he swore to protect them, too, and that included protection from his own relatives. Marriage to a person who didn’t possess any abilities in sorcery was forbidden. Given that he had been an outcast for several years when he married Anneli, Westheimer wasn’t one to care about the rules of the witches anymore.
“Could you hand me that album, please?” Westheimer asked.
Without a word, Plundell picked up the photo album. He handled it tenderly, afraid of damaging the aging paper and pictures inside.
“Thank you.” Westheimer took the album, looking at the photograph it had been opened to. It had been taken in the autumn of 1921. He was only 30, but he was already using a cane for his limp acquired in World War I. He and his bride weren’t looking at the camera, but at each other, grinning gleefully, noses touching. It was there where Westheimer felt more like a human being and less like a monster, like he could use his magic to protect and heal instead of destroy and terrify. For the first time in his life, he felt loved.
When he looked at the pictures of his parents and extended family, he suddenly felt cold and disgusted.
“You’ve helped me with my trauma, sir, I think I should repay the favor,” Plundell said, taking the picture of Westheimer’s parents from its little sleeve in the album. He walked over to the fireplace, placed an extra log inside, and dropped the photograph in the flames. The picture, already fragile from age, burned to ash quickly. Plundell then turned to face Westheimer, looking somewhat afraid that he may have overstepped a boundary.
Taking a breath, Westheimer looked back down at the album. I need to stop thinking about this and act. I will never move on if I let these festering links stay in my life. I have a new family now. He pulled the rest of the photographs of his blood family from the album, then took his cane to limp over to the fireplace. Staring into the flames, he held his hand over them, and let the pictures flutter down. The faces burned and disappeared, and with them went Westheimer’s feelings of allegiance to them.
The two stood, gazing into the fire, deep in thought. Plundell turned to Westheimer. “I didn’t want to make any decisions for you, but—”
Westheimer held up his hand. “If you did not, I probably would have stood there for hours debating whether or not this was right, like I have been doing for the last thirty-four years.”
“It’s not easy. My mother was the same way. The only difference was that she was close to her parents growing up. They raised her well, but they didn’t approve of Father.”
“What was it they did not approve of?”
“He had been homeless at one point. He was stable when they met, but my grandparents thought he wouldn’t be capable of taking responsibility.” Plundell let out a thoughtful sigh. “I learned a lot from Father. He said being homeless taught him a lot about being grateful and hopeful. No matter how hard things were, he never gave up. I took that with me when I was conscripted into the army.” Plundell looked down at the floor. “I gave up in Italy, though. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up on bad terms when I go home.”
“From what I was told, you did not have a choice. The rest of your platoon was gone, and you were the only survivor. To keep fighting would be suicide.”
Plundell suddenly looked distant. “I had been with those men since North Africa. In some ways, they had become a family. I would have died for them if I knew what was going to happen.”
Westheimer took the poker hanging from a hook on the side of the fireplace to push one of the photographs back into the heart of the fire. All that remained of them was ash. “That sense of loyalty is what many witch families lack. The deeper into dark magic they are, the more selfish they tend to be.”
“My mother has thought about reconciling with her parents, but she’s not sure.”
“There will be no reconciliation with mine. They will murder me as soon as I set foot back in the village. That, and my parents are very old by now. There is not much of a point.” Westheimer looked at Plundell from the corner of his eye. “Witches take grudges seriously. The last thing you want to do is mess around with them, because you could have a particularly nasty curse set upon you, or one of those damn poltergeists sent to mess with you.”
“Human families can be pretty bitter, too, but at least we’re not capable of that.” Plundell glanced out the window. The camp had been enveloped in a whiteout. “I guess that makes us more similar than we realize.”