Authors: Jen McConnel
Tags: #teen, #young adult, #magic, #curses, #paranormal, #fantasy, #witch, #witches, #spells, #science fiction
He sighed. “She said she’d be back to collect you in an hour.” Was it my imagination, or did Dad glance meaningfully at the front door? “I suggest that you be ready to leave in case she gets here early.” He emphasized the words leave and early, and I narrowed my eyes at him, trying to understand.
“Do you mean—”
“Make sure you say goodbye to your mother.” He turned on his heel, but not before nodding at the door again. Unless I was going crazy, Dad was telling me to run.
I didn’t need to be told twice.
I was out of the house in fifteen minutes. I climbed down the tree outside my bedroom window; I figured that I shouldn’t use the door, in case Hecate blamed my parents for helping me. I didn’t want them to have to lie to her, so I didn’t leave a note, but I did loosen the ward on my closet to allow Mom to enter. I had to hope she’d think to look there, and that she would understand why I’d left my copy of the Greek myths open to the story of Atlanta’s footrace. That was the only clue I could leave, but Mom was smart. She’d be able to figure out where I was headed, and she might even realize which goddess I hoped to meet along the way.
I carried my worn nylon backpack. The only food I’d packed was the pomegranate seeds from Persephone, and I didn’t plan on having to eat those. If my years at Trinity had taught me anything, it was never to eat or drink something that came from an immortal source unless there was no other choice. I wasn’t that desperate, yet. The seeds bounced along beside Mom’s athame, wrapped up in my favorite sweater.
Other than that, I had a small wad of cash and my emergency credit card. Our house was just a few blocks away from the highway, and it wasn’t long before I was standing under a bright streetlight with my thumb out.
I got picked up by the third car that passed me on the on ramp.
“Where are you headed?” The tired-looking woman in pink scrubs glanced at me.
I shrugged, wary of drawing a Non too deeply into my issues. “Just needed to get out of town.” That seemed like the safest response, and I hoped she wouldn’t ask me any more questions.
She nodded thoughtfully. I saw her eyes flick toward me again, sizing me up, and her shoulders relaxed slightly. Evidently, she had decided I wasn’t a threat. I didn’t know about that, but I was grateful to be moving west.
“Thanks for stopping. I know nobody hitches anymore.” I tried to sound bright and nonthreatening, but a tremor of worry crept into my voice. The nurse looked at me again.
“You didn’t do anything illegal, did you?” I shook my head quickly. “That’s okay then. And you’re not fourteen or anything?”
“I’m almost seventeen.” Even though I had just passed my birthday, I didn’t feel guilty about the lie. Seventeen sounded a lot better than sixteen.
She nodded. “I thought you looked old enough. I don’t want any trouble, but I couldn’t leave you standing there when it’s getting dark. You might have gotten hit. Drivers are crazy at night.”
She paused, squinting at the road ahead. “I live in Greensboro, so that’s as far as I can take you.”
My heart sank. I shouldn’t have expected to get very far in one night, but I had hoped I’d at least make it across the state line. I didn’t know how quickly Hecate would pursue me, and I wanted to put as much distance between us as possible. “That’ll be fine. I’ll try to get a ride from there.”
We drove on in silence. The sixty-mile drive went much too fast, and before I knew it the nurse was dropping me off at a rusty gas station on the highway. “This is a safe stop; I always get my coffee here, and nobody ever bothers me.”
I nodded, shouldering my bag. “Thanks again. Can I give you anything for gas?”
“I should be the one trying to give you some cash.” She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “You sure you don’t want to crash on my couch and get started tomorrow morning?”
The offer was tempting, but I shook my head. I couldn’t do that to her; what would happen when Hecate caught up with me?
I waved as she drove off, but as her brake lights receded, I felt a wave of panic. What if I was stranded at the gas station for the night? Glancing around at the dark parking lot, I pulled my bag higher on my shoulder and headed inside to get a snack and to see if I could find another ride.
The bell over the door jangled, and I looked around to see if anyone had noticed me. The bored clerk was snapping his gum and reading a magazine, and there was only one other person in the store, a man in a baseball cap back at the coffee machine. Neither of them looked up as I came inside.
I paid for my candy bar with cash; I decided that I would try not to use my credit card unless it truly was an absolute emergency. Maybe the longer I stayed off the Nons’ radar, the longer I could stay off Hecate’s, as well.
As I pocketed my change, the guy in the hat stepped up and paid for his coffee. “Got a long ways ’til Atlanta!” he chortled as the clerk raised an eyebrow at the size of his steaming coffee. My ears perked up. This was almost too good to be true!
“Are you headed to Atlanta tonight?” I asked, trying to seem nonchalant. The man looked at me curiously and nodded. I exhaled and forced a smile. He wouldn’t have been my first pick of traveling companion, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I really didn’t want to be stuck at that gas station all night. “I’m trying to get there. Could you give me a ride?”
I nodded, trying to look confident. The guy stared at me for a long time before he finally nodded. I suppressed a shiver; something about his eyes unnerved me. I didn’t let myself dwell on it, because anything was better than dealing with Hecate. So what if his eyes were creepy? He was probably just tired. I followed the guy out to a big red semi and hauled myself up into the cab. The road looked strange; I’d never been up that high in a car before, and the windshield distorted my depth perception. Still, the truck was headed west, and it would take me where I needed to be.
Ever since the golden writing had appeared in my book, I’d had a suspicion that Aphrodite was the one who was helping me. Because of that, I was headed toward Atlanta. Besides being a huge city where I could hopefully hide from Hecate, Atlanta was named after a myth. There was a girl named Atlanta who swore she’d never marry. Aphrodite got involved, being the goddess of love and all that, and the girl agreed to marry anyone who could beat her at a race. The goddess picked a suitor that she liked and gave him three golden apples. For some reason, the Atlanta chick was distracted by the gold, and the suitor flung the apples off the path whenever he needed a chance to pull into the lead. He won the race and the girl, and supposedly they lived happily ever after.
Even though my experience with the goddesses I’d met indicated that they could pop up anywhere at any time, I thought I stood a better chance of winning Aphrodite’s favor if I could get to a city named after one of the mortals she had liked. Besides, getting as far away from my family as I could seemed like a good idea; even if Hecate came after me in Georgia, they wouldn’t be around to be harmed.
The trucker and I passed the first hour in relative silence, each lost in our own thoughts as the countryside passed by the windows.
When we drove through Charlotte, the trucker leaned forward and turned the knob on the old radio wedged in the dash. He glanced over at me.
“Mind if we have some music?”
I shook my head. A twangy country song filled the cab, and I suppressed a smile. How stereotypical, I thought.
“Damn, I hate that whiny country shit.” I was startled to hear his response, and I laughed despite myself. He changed the station to classic rock and sat back, satisfied. “I bet you thought I was one of those rednecks who chews tobacco and listens to Patsy Cline, right, girly?”
I blushed, embarrassed that he’d read my disparaging thoughts. He chuckled when he saw my uncomfortable reaction. “I’m a good southern boy, but nothing beats the Stones.”
We settled back into silence, but when I looked across the cab, I thought I saw a smile playing around his lips.
“I don’t even know your name!” I blurted out. It had just occurred to me how odd that was. “And you don’t know my name,” I added lamely.
“Well, girly, I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”
I hesitated for a minute, but I decided to tell him the truth. “Darlena.”
“Darlena.” For some reason, I didn’t like the way my name sounded in his mouth, and I tensed. But all he said was, “That’s real pretty. Mine is Hank.”
“Thanks for taking me to Atlanta, Hank.”
He grunted noncommittally, and again I felt a shiver of apprehension. I leaned back in my seat and recited a spell for protection in my head while I looked out the window. I hadn’t really paid attention to protective magic in school, and I kept forgetting the words to the spell, but I hoped it would be enough to keep me safe. I started to doze midway through the spell, and we had almost made it to Atlanta when all hell broke loose.
I was dreaming in red again. I stood in a rich red room that smelled like roses and something rancid. The room was vast and empty, but I had the sensation of eyes watching my every movement. Suddenly, I felt a hand grab me from behind.
I woke from the dream to realize the sensation of being grabbed was very real. The truck was stopped on the shoulder of the road, and there weren’t any cars passing us. It must have been really early in the morning, if the highway was empty. Still disoriented from my dream, I twisted in my seat only to realize that Hank was pressed up against me, his meaty hands gripping my biceps. If I’d had any doubt what was happening, his next words confirmed it.
“Glad you’re awake, girly. It’ll be more lively.”
The truck smelled like sweat and cigarettes, and I fought back the urge to gag. I twisted my arms, but Hank only held on tighter. His breath was warm on the back of my neck, and he pulled me across the bench until he was pressed against my back. Suddenly, I wasn’t just frightened. I was furious. How dare he? Just because I was traveling alone, what made him think he had the right to do whatever he wanted to me?
With strength I didn’t know I had, I wrenched out of his grip and thrust my hands against his chest. He made a grab for my hands, and just as his fingers closed on mine, I pushed again, barely noticing the red sparks that covered my arms.
Hank and the truck flipped to the left, the sound of metal on gravel like an explosion. I clutched the door handle so I wouldn’t fall into him. He growled, confused, and I pushed the air in front of me again with my free hand. The trucker slammed against the driver’s-side door, which was now parallel to the ground. His eyes were bleary with shock. He wasn’t unconscious, though, just stunned, and I knew I had to move fast.
Adrenaline coursing through me, I pushed against the passenger door. It wouldn’t budge, but the window was down, so I tried to lift myself out of the cab. A hand grabbed my foot and I kicked out wildly. Grabbing my backpack, I shimmied out the window. Without any thought other than escape, I flung myself to the ground feet first.
The drop from the truck winded me, but I didn’t let the pain in my ankles slow my pace. I ran away from the deserted road into the brushy area along the shoulder. I didn’t hear anything behind me, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I didn’t slow down, dodging around trees and garbage, propelling myself farther away from the road. I ran until I felt like I was going to burst, and then I sank to my knees beneath a shrub. There wasn’t time to get to Atlanta, and I hoped the goddess I was seeking would understand my urgency.
“Aphrodite, I need you here now!” I called out as I struggled to pull the athame from my backpack. Impulsively, I put the knife against my skin. If she was a keeper of Red magic like I thought, she would have some kind of affinity for blood. That was one thing all the Red goddesses I’d met had in common. I pushed the blade of the knife into my left palm, grunting with effort, until I drew blood, and then I switched the knife to my wounded hand and sliced my other palm. It’s really hard to cut skin, and harder to cut yourself, but I finally did it. Ignoring the raw pain, I pressed my palms to the earth, panting, “Goddess, please, help me now!”
I knelt there for a moment, frozen in fear, listening to the sounds of the night for any sign of Hank. For a moment, everything was still, and I worried that I’d made a terrible mistake.
“Well, you don’t have to be so melodramatic about it.” The annoyed voice came from behind me, and I turned to face the first goddess I had ever summoned intentionally.