Cover image for Wither : a novel
Wither : a novel
Passarella, J. G.
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Publication Information:
New York : Pocket Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
304 pages ; 25 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Windale is a proud old American town that embraces its colonial heritage, including the legend of a witches' coven dating back 300 years. No one in Windale actually believes in witches, but three people are experiencing vivid nightmares; and an evil presence is working its way into their lives.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Windale, Massachusetts, is a small town known for Danfield College and a grim bit of American history. Three women were hanged 300 years ago, when witchcraft fever swept New England. In the 1990s, the chamber of commerce cashed in on this ugly event, renaming two streets Theurgy Lane and Familiar Avenue and holding a Frost Festival and parade every Halloween. Unfortunately, there was more behind the hangings than hysteria and superstition, and this fall three undead creatures stalk Windale again. Wendy, the college president's 19-year-old daughter, is a student of feminine spirituality, meditation, and herbal medicine. When she conducts a private ritual in a forest clearing, she attracts one of the three witches. The others close in on a little girl and a pregnant English professor, respectively, and the men involved with the chosen victims seem destined to be no more than prey. A made-for-TV movie plot is enhanced by appealing characters, especially Wendy and her shy, would-be boyfriend Alex, who battle with brave ingenuity. --Roberta Johnson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Sabrina the Teenage Witch goes to college in this atmospheric, generally suspenseful horror story. Wendy Ward is a white magic practitioner who dresses in shades of black, and an unconventional freshman at exclusive Danfield College in Massachusetts, where her father is president. Windale, the town where Danfield is located, has been promoting its past persecution of witches as a tourist draw, hoping to cash in on the popularity of nearby Salem. On the eve of the King Frost Halloween Parade, Wendy performs an empowering ritual that goes awry, unleashing dark forces hundreds of years old. Three murderous Macbethian witches, led by the semi-immortal Elizabeth Wither, begin to haunt Wendy's dreams, as well as those of a pregnant English professor and an eight-year-old girl. As it becomes apparent that there is a curse on Windale, Wendy desperately attempts to reverse what she's started and finds herself drawn ineluctably toward the evil she's trying to control. While the authentic arcana of witchcraft provides background, the plot is derivative, with hints of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. Yet the college setting adds an interesting dimension, and the characters are nicely delineated. Although this unusual mix of horror story, thriller and college romance is likely to draw protests from serious followers of ancient wicca rites, readers who savor supernatural menace will enjoy its edge. (Feb.) FYI: J.G. Passarella is the pseudonym for two Hollywood writers. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In the historic town of Winfield, MA, a cyclical evil arises to feed its thirst and seek hosts for a new incarnation, drawing the townspeople into a nightmare of blood and terror. Passarella's tale of the struggle between white and black magic combines scenes of graphic violence with psychological terror in a blend that should appeal to fans of the genre. Sympathetic male and female protagonists add depth and emotional impact, making this title a good choice for most horror collections. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One                        The house was growing. Eight-year-old Abby MacNeil heard it at night--the low groan of the walls, the floorboards creaking, the radiator pipes letting out long and shuddering sighs. Abby would lie still in the dark and listen as the old house complained about its aching wooden bones. It was their first house--she and her father had lived in apartments ever since her mother left, and before that, a trailer--and so she accepted its growing pains as something old houses did in the night.     When they'd first moved to this house a month ago, in the dead of summer, her father had argued that this third-floor room would be too hot for a bedroom. And, in fact, it was stifling up here, where the heat seemed to thicken the airless shadow beneath the slanted ceilings. But Abby still loved it. The room was round like a fairy-tale tower, with a pointed cap roof of green shingles. From its high windows Abby could see the backyard and the weedy fields beyond, and farther still, the woods, cool and green and inviting. At night sometimes, with the window open, they seemed to whisper to her, as if there were children there at play just out of sight behind the trees. Calling to her, an invitation to come and play....     She'd listen to them, and the sound of the house's long sighs as it settled in for the night, and then shed fall asleep ... ... And wake in darkness. Tonight. Around her, the house had grown still, and was silent. Her eyes searched the surrounding black, and she felt a tickle of panic. She was alone, and awake. In the dark.     She reached out to turn on the bedside lamp, gave its tiny chain a tug. Click-click. Nothing. She felt for the lightbulb and was surprised when her fingers felt something soft instead: small, feathered, dead. Like a stuffed bird stuck in the fixture. She pulled her hand away with a tiny gasp. Smelled her fingers. Moldy, like decaying leaves.     Now her eyes were beginning to adapt to the deep darkness. What she saw made her frown with its unfamiliarity. The room was bigger than she remembered from just hours ago, when her father had switched off the light.     In the textured darkness, she saw the walls as supple, like skin. Curious now, wanting to touch it, Abby swung her legs out from under the covers. Stood, feeling the natty weave of the rug beneath her bare feet. Began venturing out into the dark, groping ahead of her. Touched the wall--and recoiled.     The wall had flinched. She jerked her hand away, as if stung. But more curious now than afraid, she approached again, lay her palm against the wallpaper, more gently now, as if it were a nervous animal. Moved her hand slowly over the wall, soothing it.     She felt its pulse. Deep, slow ... confused it with her own. She was almost certain now the house was breathing ...     ... and that she was dreaming. She understood that dreaming was sometimes just as vivid as the things she did in daylight. But she had yet to develop the adult reflex to pull away from a dream, to deny what was happening so sharply that she woke herself up. So Abby accepted the dream, and decided to explore it.     She groped along the floor, venturing farther from the bed. Some of the things she found in the dark were familiar, her grandmother's rocker, the glass doorknob on the closet (it looked like a big diamond), her rolltop desk. But there were other things here as well, things long since lost. A doll with a hard plastic head, a favorite toy when she was three. (She could feel its bristly eyelashes on its open eyes.) A wooden duck that paddled after her when she tugged its leash. She hadn't seen that since she was a toddler.     She left these curiosities and continued to explore the growing dimensions of her room. She followed the round walls with trailing fingers, discovered the variations in its texture, sometimes smooth and sometimes furred, sometimes rough like bark. She found a chair that wasn't there in the daylight, its cottony insides bursting through a rip in the fabric. She found a bookcase, and pulled down one of its heavy volumes. She opened the book and tried to feel the words with her fingertips, like a blind person. She explored farther, realizing now with a glimmer of uneasiness that she had ventured very far from the safety of her bed.     Then she found the staircase.     It waited, disappearing below in the darkness. Not the stairs that were outside her room in daylight. These stairs were formed from smooth stones, the grit of dirt between them, cold against her bare feet.     She sat down on the top step and deliberated exploring farther. Already this dream had lingered much longer than the others. Already she'd ventured too far from the bed she knew. Could she find her way back now if she descended these stairs?     She would try. She stood, and took one exploratory step down. That wasn't so bad. She took three more, feeling braver now. She descended each step carefully, pausing before the next. She could feel the cool, open space waiting below for her. Cool like a basement. It smelled like a basement, too, cool and dank, though there were none of the chemical smells--of paint cans and rusting tools--found in her own basement.     How many steps had she gone down? She'd lost count. Finally she put her foot out for the next step and found there were no more. She'd arrived at the bottom. The floor here was earthen, gritty and hard beneath her bare feet. The darkness seemed deeper here, too. She couldn't see the room ahead, but she could smell its vivid contents, a dizzying potpourri of scents ... dried flowers, raisins, dead leaves, and stagnant water. Then beyond these scents, others: candle wax, animal fur, ashes. She was disoriented, and with the disorientation came fear. She retreated a step toward the security of the stairs but couldn't find them now behind her. Like a stage set that was moved while the audience was distracted.     She fumbled, groping for the missing stairs. Couldn't find them. And became even more disoriented.     Her fingers fluttered in the open air, trying to find something firm, an edge or corner. Some reliable surface to lead her back home ...     Nothing. More open space.     And then suddenly, something: her fingers found cloth, worn cotton or lace, folded and creased. Was it a curtain? A fringe of tablecloth. She clung to it, not quite solid but still reassuring against this absolute dark. There was so much fabric, and beneath it something more solid, stuffing or soft wood. She explored its shape with her hands, recognizing carved wooden feet and arms. A chair. She felt a little better. She could curl up in this chair and wait for morning. Wait for her father to find her. She tried to climb up into the seat ...     She reached up to feel the back of the chair and was surprised when her hands felt something rough, not the smooth cushion she'd expected. Rough and weathered, like leather ... A face.     Someone was sitting in the chair.     Before Abby could snatch her hand away from that face the mouth opened suddenly and her fingers were sucked in. Abby sat bolt upright in her bed, screaming. She shivered, gasping for breath.     The door to her bedroom opened, and with it came light from the hallway. Her father was there, profiled in the hallway light. Groggy and mad. "What's going on in here?"     He came in, sat on the edge of her bed. Yawning, taking her into his arms. "All right now, you're okay," her father said. "Musta had a bad dream. I told you not to eat chips before bed."     Abby clutched him tighter. Already now the dream was fading, her room was small and round again. She stared beyond him, trying to wipe the sticky saliva from her devoured fingers on his undershirt. Hours later, she was too deeply asleep to hear the thump overhead as something heavy came down from the sky and landed hard on her little pointed roof. She was too deep into blissfully dreamless sleep to hear the chittering across the green shingles overhead as the thing that had invaded her dreams paid a midnight visit. The roof beams creaked beneath its weight, then were silent as her visitor leaned over the edge of its new perch, claws curled over the rusting gutter, and looked in. * * * The shrill buzzing of the alarm clock sounded like a fly exploring Wendy's ear. She swatted at it, missed the snooze but managed to sweep most of the contents of the bedside table onto the floor. She flopped over, yawning. Gave her senses time to wake at their own pace. Sight first: white ceiling, obnoxiously chipper sunlight. Then smell: this morning's coffee, yesterday's incense.     With a long sigh, she struggled out of bed and surveyed the chaos that had been her room for the last three years. Her mother had left it alone for once. Everything scattered where she'd left it: clothes, charm bottles, crystals, books, jewelry. Wait--not everything. Her pentagram. Must've flipped itself upside down during the night. Now it hung on the wall with two points up, the symbol of the goat. Bad mojo. She spun it on its nail, transforming Goat into Man. The symbol of white magic.     Her parents accused her of being disorganized, but Wendy (who was taking an intro. psychology course this semester) countered that she was simply a right-brain organizer. That argument didn't discourage her mother from her midnight Clean and Organize missions. Yet another problem with living at home instead of in a dorm. But paying for room and board at a dorm a quarter mile away from home was even tougher to justify to her parents than her sloppiness. Especially when your dad was president of the college, and you lived in the president's mansion. The college waived her tuition, but not dorm housing costs, and her father made it plain that if she wanted a dorm room, she would be footing the bill.     She dragged herself onto her exercise bike and began pedaling mechanically. Gotta establish the rhythm: eyes dosed, upper body swaying. Exercising was brutal this morning, especially after another restless night of weird dreams. The odometer stood at 1,249 miles. She'd thumbtacked a U.S. map to her wall, marked how far she'd managed to pedal--in spirit at least--away from here, this quaint little freckle on the backside of Massachusetts. Today's aerobic session should bring her to the outskirts of Jacksonville, Florida. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine herself there. Gators. Sunshine. Anywhere but here ...     A half hour later and a few hundred calories lighter, she made the long trek to the shower. She reemerged ten minutes later, swaddled in a Big Thirsty towel. She hopscotched her way across the book-littered floor, being careful not to stub her toe on the Western canon. School stuff--a psych text ($68.50), a weather-beaten English lit reader (a compulsory course for freshman). Then the scattered syllabus of her own independent course of study: classics of numerology, pyramid power, astrology. Titles like: Witchcraft through the Ages. Wicca. Gaia's Grace. Trance Channeling Understood . The most recent purchased with an employee discount at the New Age shop downtown where she worked. She spent most of her paycheck before she'd even walked out the door.     She kicked these few titles out of the way, searching for today's wardrobe. Color coordination wasn't an issue: practically everything she owned was some shade of black. She found a relatively unwrinkled blouse, her I-feel-frumpy-today jeans, black sandals. She dressed quickly, lingering only when it came to accessories.     She settled on old favorites: a crystal pendant, silver bangles, a black onyx ring. She deliberated when it came to earrings. Lately shed even been considering letting the holes in her earlobes close. She'd taken out her nose ring for good her junior year of high school, when she realized even the class valedictorian had one. The navel ring had been a complete waste of time and pain since she was way too embarrassed to ever flaunt a bare abdomen in public. That left her pierced ears as the only remaining bit of sentimental body mutilation left ... wouldn't it be a radical move to let them heal! But she was waffling and decided to let the issue go another day. In went the dangly silver crescent moons. At least piercings could close up if you got sick of them. The tattoo of a quarter moon and three five-pointed stars above her right ankle was something she'd need a goggled technician and a laser to get rid of someday.     She threw her books into her backpack and sprinted out. Downstairs, the folks were finishing breakfast. She gave her dad a quick peck on the bald top of his head.     Wendy reached around to straighten his tie. "Why the three-button blazer today, pater ? Bankers?"     As president of Danfield College, her father's days were spent raising funds for the school's endowment. Either locally, or in Boston, Cambridge, and the technology-heavy Route 128 corridor.     "Biotechnology. Someplace in Cambridge."      Wendy stole a sip of his coffee, a bite of his toast (black; dry). She said, "Nice, Dad. Soliciting funds from bioterrorists."      Her mother appeared with a glass of OJ for her. "Actually, dear, they make skin."     "Skin?"     Her father lowered his newspaper. "Synthetic skin. For grafts, burn victims, that sort of thing."     "Didn't realize there was big money to be made in skin," Wendy said. But there must be, if her father was traveling all the way to Cambridge to meet with the skin-mongers.     As she dashed toward the door, her mother caught her sleeve. "What about breakfast?"     "Late for class."     "Eat something anyway." Of course her mom had already been up since dawn, assembling the impeccable ensemble she now wore: silk blouse, cream-colored skirt, a single strand of freshwater pearls. Accented by an hour's worth of cosmetics. Classy. Would you buy a house from this woman? Her mother certainly hoped so. ,     Wendy scooped a handful of Raisin Gravel into her mouth, chased it with a gulp of juice and turned to go. Her mother followed her out to the foyer.     "Honey, I need to talk to you for a second." Using her Quiet Voice. Something urgent, to be kept secret from her father.     "What's up?"     Her mother hesitated, unsure how to begin. "I know classes are casual, sweetheart, but couldn't you find something a little less ... wrinkled?"     Wendy rolled her eyes. "C'mon, Carol, I don't have time for this."     "Wendy." Sharper now. Not just nagging. "I know you want to just pretend that you're ... the same as every other freshman. But you're not. You're the president's daughter. Believe it or not, that makes a difference."     Wendy's jaw set in an angry line. "Actually, Mom, I couldn't care less about being `the same' as every other freshman. Conformity isn't exactly a high priority in my life."     "Maybe it should be." Her mother said quickly. Rewind. "That's not what I meant. I only meant to say ... people notice. What the president's daughter does. How she dresses ..." Her mother's face softened. She touched Wendy's hair. "I always liked your long hair. Won't you consider letting it grow out again?"     "I gotta go." She rolled her eyes and ducked out before her mother could try to hug her.     Outside, the day was hazy and hot, Indian summer coming to a reluctant end. Wendy jogged across the rolling lawn, which was wet from the sprinkler system the college's landscapers ran around the clock, drought-be-damned. Her car was waiting in the long gravel drive, a battered Gremlin she'd chosen over the more sensible Accords and Civics her father had offered when she turned sixteen.     As she was unlocking the hatchback, her father appeared on the front doorstep with his briefcase. "Try to keep it on the road today," he called. "It runs better without shrubbery in the grill."     "Okay, so I thought it was in `Park,'" Wendy called back.     Her father crossed the lawn toward her. His own car, a silver BMW, waited a few car lengths--and several rungs up the automotive evolutionary ladder--away. He slipped an arm around her waist and looked at the Gremlin's glossy black chassy. He secretly admired the battered piece of shit. Probably reminded him of some psilocybin-inspired road trip during his own college days, maybe a girl with armpit hair and a Navajo blanket in the backseat ...     "How's the paint holding up?"     "Starting to chip a little."     He grunted, looking where she pointed. When they'd bought the Gremlin it had been a sickening bioluminescent green, the color you want to imagine for nuclear waste. Together, they'd spent the better part of a weekend and $69.99 repainting the car to its current glossy black. Where the paint sported nicks, however, its former florescence glowed through.     Wendy looked up at her father suddenly. "Would you like me better with more hair, Daddy?"     He considered a moment, smart enough to know his answer mattered. "Not if it means you'll start spending as much time in the bathroom as your mother." A nonanswer. He gave her a kiss and headed off for Cambridge.     She opened the Gremlin's hatchback carefully. Beeswax candles, overdue library books, and empty Diet Coke cans spilled out at her feet. The car was a four-cylinder Dumpster. She tossed her backpack onto the heap and checked her watch. Five minutes to class. The president's mansion was on the college's west side, which meant a dash across campus to student parking, out in the hinterlands with Maintenance and the tennis courts. A five-minute drive on a good day, which this wasn't. Twice she almost hit frat boys on bikes darting out from parked cars. (One flipped her off.) Then when she yielded to pedestrians at the lone traffic light on campus the Gremlin conked out. By the time she got it started again she had an audience, including two hecklers beside her in a converted jeep/date-rape mobile. "Dyke!" one called as they sped off, leaving her in a cloud of blue exhaust.     "Thanks," she said. "You have a good one too." Pretending it didn't sting. She slipped the Gremlin back into gear, and it lurched ahead.     With only three thousand students and a dozen academic departments, Danfield's campus remained self-contained. Most of the classrooms were dustered around Parris Beach, which had been nicknamed for the central lawn with its narrow reflecting pool. In good weather, sunbathers populated the lawn. The whole place was surrounded by a low brick wall. All interconnected with cobblestone bike paths and little grassy quads. Tres picturesque . But a nightmare for commuters. Scoring a campus parking permit required a Byzantine journey through the administrative netherworld, and being the president's daughter apparently didn't count. ("Honey, I'd help you," her father said early in the term, "but you can bet there are a dozen little would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins on the student paper just dying to uncover evidence of presidential favoritism.")     When she finally arrived at her freshman comparative lit class, the seats were already nearly full. Three hundred fellow frosh, gulping down breakfast lattes and Cokes from the student center, grumbling at the early hour. Wendy stood at the base of the stairs looking up the tiered ranks, scanning for an open seat. Very aware that the class bell had rung five minutes ago.     Professor Karen Glazer appeared at Wendy's elbow, pointing up to the back of the hall. "There are a few seats left in the nosebleeds." She gave Wendy a disapproving look. "I'm still signing drop/add slips if you're having trouble making it to my class on time, Wendy."     "Sorry," she mumbled, then hurried up the stairs, receiving plenty of amused stares from her classmates.     As fate and the chaos theory of student seating would have it, she had to pass right by Jack Carter, Danfield's blond, toothy quarterback, whose mission it was to stamp out individuality wherever he saw it. "Look, it's the black hole of Windale," he whispered to his mini-entourage of Jensen Hoyt and Cyndy Sellers, both of whom giggled obligingly. Wendy discreetly blew him a kiss with her middle finger.     She caught a lone smile among the sea of hostile faces: Frankie Lenard, the pudgy little blond women's studies major from Los Angeles who had befriended Wendy at orientation. Frankie gave her a sympathetic quirk of the lips as Wendy climbed the stairs past her and slumped in the first open seat she found.     "Here, you missed this." A voice spoke quietly beside Wendy. She turned and found the second sympathetic smile of the day, this one unexpected. Lanky guy, nice eyes--was that a scar over his right eyelid--something reluctant about his smile, like he expected to get in trouble for it. He was dressed in khakis and a loud Hawaiian shirt. Fashion throwback or ... nonconformist? She liked that in a guy. Scuffed-up pair of Ray Bans on his stack of texts. Maybe he thought he was at the University of Honolulu. Boy, did he have a surprise coming in about four months.     He showed her a photocopied page. "She handed these out before you got here. You can look off mine if you want."     "Thanks." Wendy glanced at the page, which described the parameters for an upcoming class term paper, eight to ten pages, three cited references, yadda-yadda-yadda.     "I'm Alex," the Good Samaritan said, and actually offered a hand to shake. She laughed, and gave his hand a squeeze. "Beat you here by about thirty seconds."     "Wendy," she said, introducing herself.     "Guess you wouldn't be late if you didn't have to park all the way over in East Lot," Alex said, then, at her confused look: "Black Gremlin, right?"     "How ... ?"     "You almost ran me over the other day." Matter-of-factly. "It's okay, really. My fault. I was jaywalking, headphones on ..."     Wendy shook her head, smiling. "Sometimes I think that car's possessed. It's always--"     "Wendy!" Professor Glazer interrupted, her voice sounding nearby in the acoustically sensitive lecture hall. Wendy snapped away from Alex, saw her prof glaring. She was a ferocious little woman, Professor Glazer. Even six months pregnant.     "Yes, ma'am?"     "Since you're so chatty today, why don't you help us get started with Hawthorne ..." * * * Karen Glazer looked up at her student at the back of the lecture hall and waited. Wendy Ward, daughter of the college president, looked embarrassed to be caught flirting with the handsome guy next to her. Mortified now to be on the spot.     "Hawthorne, professor?" The poor kid's voice came out a squeak. Karen took pity.     "Give us your impressions of Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables . Go ahead, throw out anything. Help get us started on a Monday morning."     An uncomfortable silence. Then, suddenly, the girl actually came through with a response. "Well ... Hawthorne comes right out and says the moral of his book in the preface. Which was kind of surprising. I mean, usually writers disguise their morals in symbolism and whatnot."     Whatnot ? Karen let it slide. "And what is Hawthorne's moral?"     The girl was thumbing through her copy of the novel. She found the passage and read aloud: "That the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones?"     "Exactly!" Bless you, child , was what Karen really wanted to say. Bless you for actually reading my assignment . She did a quick mental shuffle, reclassifying Larry Ward's kid from the overcrowded Space Cadet classification to the more rarified category Promising Student. An endangered species.     "And what are the `wrongdoings' that haunt the generations in Gables ?" Karen prompted, building momentum now, opening the question up to the entire class.     Silence. "C'mon, guys, this is an easy one."     Finally, an anonymous reply: "Witchcraft?"     "The accusation of witchcraft," Karen corrected. "Colonel Pyncheon falsely accuses his enemy Matthew Maule of witchcraft--and Maule is hanged! What do you think of that? Kinda appropriate this time of year, don't you think?" She looked out at the gallery of blank faces, searching for some glimmer. Nada . If anything, they seemed embarrassed for her and her enthusiasm for this 150-year-old book. Karen felt herself deflate a little before their critical gaze. An unpleasant feeling. She was losing them.     She felt a sudden sharp kick from the baby, and put a hand to her belly. Thanks, kid . Her own daughter joining the chorus of disapproval. She felt the gap between generations yawning suddenly wider before her. Felt a vertiginous lurch, toes at the precipice. Looking across the chasm at those blank, dispassionate faces on the other side of youth. Her students. Somebody's children. Each year she felt the distance from them growing. Was it simply a matter of age? At thirty-eight, Karen didn't feel old, exactly, at least not physically. In fact she felt for the first time her right age: she'd been thirty-eight for the last two decades. Back in college in Boston, then grad school, she'd always been a little out of sync with her classmates. Even from her friends, whose companionship felt more like a coincidence of common sensibilities, interdepartmental alliances, than true kinship. Would her daughter's love be similarly coincidental? A matter of convenience, of cohabitation? Would they grow apart, like roommates who drift out of touch because they were never really friends? Would her own daughter someday give her the same glazed-over look of incomprehension as this gallery of strangers?     "Professor?" A girl's voice. Karen snapped back into focus. Saw a raised hand--Wendy again.     "Yes?"     "Did you assign this book to hint that we shouldn't celebrate witch killing?"     Karen smiled. "Not exactly the best reason to have a parade, is it? But no, I don't have a secret political agenda in assigning Hawthorne. That's later in the term, when we read The Scarlet Letter." She perched herself on the edge of her desk and looked up at Wendy, grateful to the girl for helping get her back on track. (Continues...) Copyright (c) 1999 Joe Gangemi & John Passarella. All rights reserved.