The phone rang, jolting Josh from a series of unpleasant dreams. When he grabbed the phone, however, he wondered if he was still having nightmares. “I saw you,” his mother shrieked. “You were there. They took pictures of you. You’re no son of mine. You’re only a child of the Devil!”

He held the phone further away to keep the dog-call shrieks from damaging his eardrums. “Oh gods,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “They swore they’d destroy those damn photos. She is stalking me. Please, this isn’t happening.”

Finally he’d heard too much. He slammed the receiver down into the pillow and went to splash some cold water on his face to make sure he was really awake. When he returned, he could still hear the muffled buzz of his mother screaming. He plopped down in the plush chair across the room and sighed. Only the muted “beep beep beep” of a dial tone let him know that she’d finally given up.

It never ceased to amaze Josh how much power “that tone” coming from his mother carried. When she really started into him, he’d curl up into himself and feel like that five year old who was beaten for innocently asking why his Jewish friends were going to Hell since they were really nice. One rant, one rampage, from the woman who raised him to be an “individual” but really meant “just like her,” and he’d begin to question everything he’d ever believed in. Sometimes he sincerely wished he could have just stayed Baptist. Everything would have been easier then. He’d have never had to hear that tone, never had to halfway believe that he was as bad of a person as she insisted.

Josh sighed as he pulled on a sweatshirt. Of all the days to call, she would choose a holy day. His coven was expecting him to stand priest at the Samhain ritual that evening. He had about six hours to mature from being a scared child to the Horned God, ready to be the metaphorical sacrifice for his chosen tribe so that they might endure the long, cold winter.

He’d long suspected his mother had been hunting for “proof” that he was a “horrible person”. Josh had never been as blindly faithful as she, so she always suspected he was hiding something. She’d attacked him before, but never like this. Josh had become a master at hiding his tracks. He wished he didn’t have to be ashamed of his religion, but it had been the only way to keep the peace. Josh also longed to overcome his upbringing and not sometimes wonder when she yelled at him if he was damned to the Hell he insisted wasn’t real, or if he was truly as wrong and evil as she claimed.

He fired up his computer and pulled up website after website, trying to figure out where he’d been betrayed. His town’s local papers showed nothing. It wasn’t on Witchvox or any of the other big Pagan sites. He started to search for his chosen magical name and on the fourth page, he found it. Some idiotic Livejournaling loser had cost him his happy lie. He wished with all his heart he’d snapped that damned memory card in two. The kid had sworn he’d delete the photos. But he had not, and there they were.

He shrugged himself into his jacket and favorite tattered black gloves. “Taking a walk might help me clear my head,” he muttered as he jogged down the apartment stairs. “After all, isn’t union with Nature what this is all supposed to be about?”

Josh grumped down the street, but soon realized it was almost impossible to be in a foul mood in weather this beautiful. The crisp air and the colors of leaves gave him time enough to remember who he was. On the way back home, he recalled he needed to pick up the wine and the pomegranate for the ritual; the priestess would bring the bread and apples. He ducked into a store and emerged with a bottle of rich red wine, then started to examine the fruit stalls along the street for the equally ruby fruit. Finding some beautiful ones, he decided to get a dozen—one for each covener—instead of just one. The scent of the fruit lightened his heart and he returned home whistling.

However, arriving once more at the top of the stairs, he saw his answering machine flashing with a half dozen calls—all, CallerID said, from his mother. His good mood gone again, he put the wine away and left the fruit on the table. It was nearly time for ritual, and although he had once again lost his sense of direction, he’d promised the group he would be there.

He pulled off his everyday clothes, quickly showered, and garbed himself in the deerskin tunic and pants befitting the Samhain priest. His sword belt and antler crown he’d put on there. But he couldn’t set his mind where it needed to be. “Child of the Devil” echoed through his head. “Shame to the family”, “worthless heathen”, “disgrace”, “sinner”, and “damned creature” followed shortly thereafter. He couldn’t get her voice out of his head, no matter how he wanted to, and for someone about to lead a ritual, that wouldn’t work at all.

Normally a pacifist, even Josh had limits. The memory of that had just pushed those boundaries too far. He ripped a photograph of his mother out of a desk drawer and jabbed it to the bathroom wall with pushpins. He then grabbed eleven of the pomegranates from the kitchen. He hurled the first one at her image and it exploded with a redly satisfying splat. “You don’t know the first thing about me,” he screamed, throwing another fruit. “You don’t know what sacrifice is.” Thunk. “Your God gave his life…” Squish. “So did mine. So does mine. Every year. Not just once.” Pulp had splattered all across the room and Josh. “You didn’t ‘give your life for me.’ You tried to force your life on me.” A thick patch of red juice had obscured the photograph entirely by now. “Removing choice isn’t a sacrifice, it’s a lust for power.” Pomegranates are the only fruit with juice that truly looks like blood. “YOU” splat “WILL” splat “NEVER” splat “UNDERSTAND!” splat! Josh blinked suddenly in realization and whispered “…and that is not my problem…” Out of fruit but finally sure of himself, he moaned at the loss of the security deposit on his apartment. The red would never come out of those walls entirely. Like blood, pomegranate juice stains.

When the priestess came to pick him up, she found Josh smiling, garbed, and seemingly covered in blood. For the first time he understood what sacrifice meant, and he was ready to take that role on willingly.

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