Authors: Jen McConnel
Tags: #teen, #young adult, #magic, #curses, #paranormal, #fantasy, #witch, #witches, #spells, #science fiction
The ceremony had been really special, but I hadn’t seen the athame since. I knew enough about magic to know that no Witch brought out her most precious magical tool just because she was worried about her daughter. Something big had happened, and part of me didn’t want to know what it was.
I looked between my parents, unsure who to ask. “What is it?”
Mom sighed. “Hecate dropped by. Again.” I glanced at her sharply, but given Dad’s lack of reaction, he had clearly already found out about the whole thing with the car. I drew a deep breath, trying to steady myself. Hecate had been around a lot lately, but while that was strange, it shouldn’t have been enough to throw my parents into the state they were in.
“She warned us not to let you go out on your own. She implied that the car might not have been the only close brush you’d have with chaos.” Mom’s voice was calm, detached, but my dad was turning purple and I could practically see the steam coming out of his ears.
“I was afraid of this, but your mother tried to tell me she could watch you. What happened tonight?”
I wanted to tell them everything: about the book, about the plan Justin and I were hatching, about what I’d learned about being a Red. But fear and anger bubbled up together in my throat, and I flung my head back in defiance.
“I’m just trying to understand what I am. Don’t you get it? Everything has changed and I don’t know where I fit anymore.” I kept my hands clenched tight to my sides, afraid that if I opened my palms, I would conjure up the Red magic that I had used that morning. No matter what I was, I wouldn’t hurt my family, not even accidentally. That was one thing I could control.
Mom and Dad stared at me in shock. I didn’t usually fight with them; I used silence as my weapon until they forgot we weren’t getting along. I turned on my heel, ran up the stairs, and crawled into the sanctuary of my closet.
I had just shut the closet door when the tears I had been struggling to hold back all day finally burst out of me. I sobbed into the skirt of the dress I had worn to prom with Justin the year before, not caring that the black tulle was coarse and itchy. There was a gentle tap on my bedroom door, and I held my breath.
“Darlena? May I come in?” Mom’s voice was muffled by the clothes surrounding me, but I let my breath out in relief. I couldn’t talk to Dad when I was upset like this, but I thought I might be able to handle Mom.
“Just a sec.” Snuffling, I scooted out of the closet and sat down next to my bed. I hastily rubbed at my face, trying to wipe away the evidence of my meltdown. Mom was already worried enough about me; she didn’t need to know I’d been crying on top of it all. “Come in.”
The door opened, and Mom flicked on my light as she shut the door behind her. She paused for a moment when she saw me but didn’t say anything. Sinking to her knees beside me, she sat quietly. Her shoulder bumped mine, and I impulsively reached over and took her hand. She squeezed my fingers and turned my hand palm-up. I watched with interest as she began tracing the lines on my palm with her fingertip, muttering to herself. Her beautiful auburn hair fell in front of her face, masking her from my view. Then she cocked her head to one side the way Xerxes does when he’s thinking about jumping up on a window ledge, and I had to fight back the urge to giggle.
Her eyes met mine, and I sobered. “Things won’t be easy,” she said solemnly. I nodded. I had already realized that. She placed something in my still-upturned palm, and I was startled by the feel of it. A glance confirmed my suspicion.
“You can’t give me this!” I held her athame gingerly, feeling the magical energy stored in the blade. “It’s your most powerful tool!” It felt like her, warm and strong, but I knew the blade was sharp. Mom was like her knife, I realized with a flash of intuition: simple but deceptively powerful.
“But you need it more.” The weight of her words settled over the room like a curse, and I shuddered. She kept speaking in a quiet, sad voice. “I am sworn to Demeter, Darlena. Above all else, she is a mother. She was willing to sacrifice the world in her grief at losing her daughter. I don’t,” she choked, “want to lose you, so shouldn’t I be willing to sacrifice a knife if it will keep you safe?” She stroked my cheek with her finger. “You are my beautiful child, and I am afraid I won’t be able to protect you anymore.”
I hugged her close, the athame still clutched in my hand. Neither of us rushed to break the embrace, but finally Mom pulled me back and looked at me hard.
“Remember,” she said, “declaring a path is not the same thing as swearing to a goddess. You do not belong to Hecate. When you finally choose a patron—” Her eyes glistened with tears when she said this, “choose someone who can shape your life. Hecate would not be the best choice for you.” I nodded silently. I had been worried since meeting the goddess that she already took my allegiance for granted, when I wanted nothing more to do with her. Like I’d said to Mom the other day, I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with a patron at all.
“You don’t walk my path, but you are still my daughter. I will stand by you, and if you keep my blade, I think I will be able to help you.” She kissed my forehead and got to her feet. I rose to stand with her and realized that my eyes were level with hers. When had I gotten so tall?
“Thank you. For everything, but thank you especially for this.” She nodded and stepped out into the hall, gently closing the door behind her. I still felt fragile, like a soap bubble, but Mom’s words had reminded me that I wasn’t alone. I had her, and I had Justin. Maybe Dad would even come around eventually, but if nothing else, I was sure he wouldn’t stand in my way. I fell asleep with the knife beneath my pillow, and for the first time since I met Hecate, I didn’t have any nightmares.
My dad had already left for work when I got up the next morning. I know, because I lay awake waiting to hear the car engine turn over and pull away before I ventured downstairs. Avoidance seemed like the best policy right about then. I had hoped to have the house to myself, but I wasn’t that surprised to see Mom in the kitchen.
“Oh, good, you’re up. I made muffins.” Mom handed me the steaming basket of cherry and chocolate chip muffins, and my mouth watered.
“Thanks. And thank you again for—” She waved her hand in a dismissive gesture and blushed, so I trailed off. Hopefully, she knew how much her gift meant to me. She smiled at me, and I sat down at the table.
“Did you want any coffee? There’s still some left from Dad’s breakfast.”
I shook my head. She seemed surprised. I usually wouldn’t turn down coffee, but for some reason, that morning, I didn’t want to be jittery. I had a feeling that I couldn’t afford a caffeine crash, although I wasn’t sure why.
“What about some tea? I was just about to boil water.”
“No, but you go ahead.” I bit into a muffin and burned the roof of my mouth. Mom looked at me for a long second before turning to put the kettle on the stove. She rustled around in the cupboard for a minute, then took down a box of loose-leaf green tea.
Mom sighed softly as she sat down, and I looked at her. “Lena, you know Dad loves you, right?”
This was not at all what I had been expecting to hear, and I stared at her for a minute without reacting. She took my silence as denial, and pressed on.
“He’s just shocked, that’s all. Even though your father seems happy as a Green, I’ve always thought he walked awfully close to the White path.”
“What does White or Green have to do with any of it?”
“Surely you’ve noticed that White and Black Witches don’t tend to be aware of”—she smirked slightly—“gray area, if you’ll pardon the pun.”
I nodded slowly. Taking Justin and Rochelle into consideration, I saw exactly what she meant: neither one of them seemed capable of finding any middle ground. I’d always thought that was just part of their personalities, but maybe it ran deeper than that.
Mom continued, pouring water over the herbs in her mug. “Greens have an easier time seeing balance, since that’s one of our purposes, to balance White and Black magic. But for some reason, your father isn’t able to see anything in this situation but the danger.” She stirred her tea and I took another muffin.
“Why won’t he listen?”
“He’s scared, sweetie. I’m scared, too, but remember, I saw Persephone that first night. I know there’s more going on here than all the legends and rumors. But Dad doesn’t know that.”
“Why don’t you tell him?”
Mom sighed and looked at me sadly. “You know better than that, Lena. Can you ever get Justin or even Rochelle to believe anything once they’ve set their minds on something else?”
Mutely, I shook my head. She had a point.
“Your father makes up his mind very quickly, and sometimes he never unmakes it. But we have to be patient.”
I coughed on a chunk of cherry. “Mom, I can’t be patient. Whether or not Red magic is as bad as he thinks, I better learn how to control it, and fast. I don’t want to be responsible for any more deaths!”
“I know. But whatever you plan to do, be careful. Hecate is not someone you want to directly oppose.”
“Mom,” I said thoughtfully, “Justin and I came up with a plan—”
“I don’t want to hear about it.” Her words were final and I closed my mouth, feeling shut out.
“But you said you wanted to help me!”
“I do. But I don’t think you should tell me anything.”
I stared at her. “Why not?”
She sighed again, sadly. “Because, to be honest, I’m frightened of Hecate. I don’t want to know anything that could hurt you if she found out, and I don’t know if I could keep a secret from her.” Her eyes welled up with tears and I reached across the table for her hand. Sniffing to regain control, she continued. “I am sworn to obey Demeter. You know that. But you do remember the only god who helped Demeter when she was searching for her daughter, right?”
A chill passed over me as I remembered the myth. Demeter had appealed to all the gods, but they refused to help her find Persephone. All except one, who defied Zeus and accompanied the distraught goddess into the Underworld to collect her daughter.
“Hecate. I had forgotten that.”
Mom nodded miserably. “That’s why I don’t want to know. Demeter has strong feelings for the Queen of Witches, and if she could compel me to speak against you—”
I squeezed her hand. “I understand. I won’t tell you anything.” I felt a heaviness in my stomach when I spoke, as if I had swallowed a stone, but I tried to ignore the strange sensation. Mom was being honest with me, and I had no right to make her choose between her patron and me.
The next week was quiet. I didn’t come downstairs much because I was avoiding my dad, and he knew better than to come to my room. Justin texted with a few suggestions, but nothing seemed to happen. If it hadn’t been for the athame sitting on my desk next to three ruby pomegranate seeds, I would have had an easy time believing that I had imagined everything. I almost wished I could pretend that things were normal, but I had a feeling they would never be normal again.
The following Saturday, I finally agreed to Mom’s request that I come down for a family meal. She had made blueberry pancakes for brunch, and she knew I couldn’t say no to that. I slid into my chair, trying not to meet Dad’s eye. He smiled at me over the newspaper, and I started to relax. Maybe he’d forgotten that he thought I was dangerous. I poured syrup over the stack of pancakes on my plate, then chewed in silence.
“Linzi, we better check the crawl space today. They’re calling for that tropical storm to be a full-blown hurricane by tonight, and it looks like it will come up the coast. There’s a flood watch in place for the next three days.” He folded his paper and set it down beside him to take a bite of pancake. Mom brought the last plate for herself and sat down.
“I hope it passes us by. We’ve been lucky; there hasn’t been a really bad hurricane to hit North Carolina since Fran. Do you remember that at all, Darlena?”
I shook my head. Dad chimed in. “You were so young, I’m not surprised you don’t remember. You had just turned one when it hit.”
Mom laughed. “We ate birthday cake for a week when the power went out! I was so thankful that you’d made that cake, Richard.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“The hurricane hit Cape Fear, and the whole state was pretty much under water and without power.” Dad looked thoughtful. “We got really lucky. We had rented a beach house that summer, but your mom insisted that we come home early. She said she didn’t want your first birthday memory to be away from home.”
I looked at Mom, then at Dad. A hope was forming in my mind, but I didn’t want to say anything in case Hecate or another one of the gods was watching me. As casually as I could, I asked, “What about this storm? How bad will it be?”
Dad answered. “There’s really no way to know for sure until it becomes a full hurricane. It’s still a tropical storm, but they’re anticipating that it will hit the Caribbean by tomorrow morning at the earliest. We’ll just have to wait and see what it does. But,” he added, “I’m going out to the grocery store today to pick up some bottled water and bread, just in case. Can’t be too careful.” He finished his last bite of pancake, hesitated for a moment, and then planted a syrupy kiss on my forehead. I looked up in surprise and met his eyes. “I’ll check the generator when I get back. You girls better enjoy the sunshine while you can!” He picked up his keys and headed out the door.