Authors: Jen McConnel
Tags: #teen, #young adult, #magic, #curses, #paranormal, #fantasy, #witch, #witches, #spells, #science fiction
Distracted, I knelt down and scratched him behind the ears for a minute. When I opened the door to my bedroom, I wasn’t surprised to see Aphrodite standing there.
I tried to speak, but to my chagrin I found that I was still bound by her spell. I narrowed my eyes at her, and dipped my head in a slight bow. She smiled humorlessly.
“I’ve said it before; subservience is not a trait I like to see in Reds.” She waved her hand carelessly, and I felt a popping in my jaw. I tried to speak again.
“I’m ready for my lesson.”
She glared at me. “Didn’t you learn anything last night? It’s not up to you to call the shots. You will wait until I decide to teach you.” She stopped, eyeing me for an immeasurable stretch of time. “I have decided to teach you how to work love magic.”
My doubt must have shown on my face, because she shook her head in exasperation. “It’s time for a field trip, Darlena.”
With those words, the room swirled around me and everything went dark. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust, but even before I could make out my surroundings, I could smell stale popcorn. I shifted my feet, annoyed at the squelching sound they made on the sticky floor. When my eyes adjusted enough that I could see the screen, I realized we must be at a movie theater.
“Why are we here?”
“Sit back, watch, and learn.”
Advertisements were scrolling on the screen, but I didn’t think Aphrodite wanted me to learn about the hottest new soft drink. I glanced around the theater at the other patrons. There was a spattering of women older than my mom, some in groups and some alone, and here and there I glimpsed some girls who were a little younger than me. They were probably skipping school, but I didn’t think the giggling girls were who Aphrodite wanted me to watch. Then I spotted them.
The couple was obviously still in school, because the girl kept looking around nervously. I wondered if she’d ever cut school before. The boy wasn’t that cute, but he seemed confident, sitting there next to his date. I stared at them intently.
“Good. You aren’t as dumb as you act. They are who we will practice on.” Aphrodite’s voice was a soft whisper beside me.
“What do we do?” I tried to whisper back, but I felt loud and conspicuous sitting at the back of the movie theater with a goddess.
“First, feel the situation. What do you know about them?”
“Are you crazy? We just sat down; how am I supposed to know anything about them?” Even as I argued with her, I realized she was right. I did know things about the young couple. I took a deep breath and struggled to put my strange knowledge into words.
“They’re skipping class to be here this morning.” She nodded encouragingly, so I went on. “She’s never been on a date before, and she’s never done anything that would get her in trouble, so she’s doubly nervous.” I paused, staring intently at the young couple. “He’s not as confident as he looks, because even though he cuts class all the time, there’s something about this girl that he really likes. He wants to impress her, but he doesn’t know how. Skipping was his idea.”
I glanced at Aphrodite and she smiled. “Very good. For your first time, you’re very in tune with the energy and vibrations in the air.” She rubbed her hands together like some kind of super villain. “Now, Darlena, what would you do with your magic?”
I sat very still, thinking. I knew I could make the boy fall head over heels in love with his date, if I wanted. I could also make him try to cop a feel, which would make the girl dump her popcorn over his head. I shifted uncomfortably. I didn’t really like either option: they both felt so intrusive, so unfair. What right did I have to manipulate people in that manner?
I finally spoke. “I could do a lot of things. But what would I do? I think I would just use magic to bless this date, making sure they each have a great time. I don’t want to do any more than that.”
Aphrodite looked disappointed. “I had hoped you would have higher ambitions, child. I had hoped you would do something interesting. But,” she continued, “as this is your first lesson, you have my permission to practice in any way you want.”
I concentrated very hard on the young couple, thinking about fluttering hearts, hands brushing in the popcorn, and an awkward goodbye where two people longed to kiss but no one took the first step. I thought about the tingling anticipation of sitting beside someone really cute in the dark, and I sent my thoughts forward. I could see red sparks flowing down the aisle of the theater and enveloping the first daters. The sparks lingered in the air for a moment before falling like snowflakes onto the girl and the boy in front of me. The air shimmered and the sparks cleared and Aphrodite clapped softly.
“Well done. You might not have a flair for the dramatic, but you certainly know how to wield power.”
“Where do we go now?” I started to rise but she pulled me back down.
“Now”—she smiled—“we stay here. There will be two shows to watch: the one on the screen, and the one you created. See which one teaches you more.”
Just then, the previews began to roll, and I sat back in my seat. Aphrodite had picked a corny romantic comedy for my training, a kind of movie I rarely watched on my own. At first, I was annoyed, but soon I found myself caught up in the missteps of the characters and the lead actress’s convincing tears when she thought that she’d lost her chance at love. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I teared up when the couple on the screen finally got together. I couldn’t help thinking about Justin. Maybe, if we gave it another shot, we could find our own happy ending. My thoughts spiraled off into a fantasy, and the credits were over before Aphrodite elbowed me in the ribs and pointed.
Wiping my face, I noticed that the girl was leaning on the boy’s shoulder, nestled happily at his side. I smiled; maybe Red magic wasn’t just about destruction.
I grinned up at my patron, and she nodded once before vanishing.
“It was actually a lot of fun!” I lounged across Rochelle’s bed that afternoon, watching her paint her fingernails. She was experimenting with designs, but I couldn’t tell if she was trying to paint splotches or spiders. I didn’t say anything, though.
“Sounds like hell to me.” With a deft flick, she finished her nails and held her hands out, eyeing the results.
“I know.” I laughed. “It should have been awful. But the movie was sort of sweet, and it felt really nice to know that I made those kids have a good first date.”
Rochelle screwed the cap back onto the polish. “Oh, goody. You’re all warm and fuzzy. Darlena, get a clue. Aphrodite didn’t teach you anything today. She just had you play Cupid.”
I tossed a pillow at her, which she dodged. “But I didn’t know I could do anything like that. Even if it’s nothing major, at least I’m still learning magic.”
She snorted. “I don’t think getting two horny teenagers to snuggle during a movie counts as anything magical.”
I frowned, feeling the doubt of the previous night creep back into my mind. “What would you have done in my place?”
“First,” she snapped, “I would never have sworn to such a pathetic goddess!”
“Pretend you did.” My voice was tight with anger, but if Rochelle noticed, she gave no sign.
“Well, then, pretending I was as dumb as you, if I were stuck with Aphrodite and love magic, I’d at least do something interesting.”
She thought for a moment. “I don’t know. Ruin the date somehow and make the girl cause a scene?”
I looked at her, feeling a little guilty. For just a moment, I’d had the same thought in the theater. “Why would anyone want to do that?”
She looked at me with pity. “Anger is more powerful than love. What good is it to make two people have a fairy-tale first date? That’s such a waste of magical energy. You raised all that power, and then you let it fizzle out.”
“But this is the first time I’ve used Red magic and not done harm.” I tried to keep my voice level, but I was upset. “Can’t you at least acknowledge that it’s good to know I can stick to the Rede?”
She turned away from me and began putting on eyeliner. “If I were a Red Witch, I’d never waste my power on stupid little love affairs.”
I was in a sour mood when I left Rochelle’s house, and she didn’t try to get me to stay for dinner. It was still light out, and I dawdled as I walked, taking my time and looking around at the brilliant colors of the trees. Fall had really decided to show herself, and the branches looked like they were dipped in gold and lit on fire. I drew a deep breath and struggled to push thoughts of Rochelle from my mind. I slowed down, lingering so I could enjoy the crisp air. Even if I did prefer Samhain, I found myself looking forward to Mabon more than usual. Although it might be awkward if Red sparks started shooting off my hands—my parents wouldn’t know what to think—I was ready to celebrate the true arrival of fall.
Fall is sneaky in North Carolina, because summer likes to linger. But I can always tell when fall has really arrived. I’m not quite sure how to explain it, but I guess there’s a certain smell in the air that I recognize. I took another deep breath through my nose and frowned.
The crisp scent of fall was still there, but underneath was a smell like burned food. I noticed a thick, gray cloud to my right. Acting on impulse, I turned the corner and cut across a side street. The closer I walked to the smoke, the stronger the smell became, and my heart hammered in my throat as I realized what it was. I prayed I was wrong, but the sight that met my eyes proved that my prayer came a little too late.
The coffee shop on the corner by Trinity was a charred mass of wood and melted glass. Flames still licked around the structure, but they seemed to be teasing the spectators: all the damage was already done. I spotted Cindy clutching her barista apron and sobbing. Firefighters were on the scene, but their hoses seemed worthless. It was eerily like the destruction I’d dreamt about before meeting Kali, and I shuddered, pushing that thought from my mind. Whatever had happened had nothing to do with Red magic. Steam hissed up into the air to join the inky smoke, and I crossed the street to see what had happened.
“Darlena!” I looked up, startled. Justin pushed through the crowd.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded as he got closer.
Instead of answering, he pulled me into a tight hug, crushing my ribs. “I thought you were inside!”
I looked at him, stunned. “Why would you think that?”
Suddenly, I realized why he was worried. I had texted him after leaving the movie theater to let him know I was going to hang out with Rochelle. He had texted back that he’d meet up with me later. He must have assumed we’d gone to our usual spot. I looked up at what was left of the building and suppressed a shiver.
“We were at her house. I was just walking home when I smelled the smoke.”
He hugged me again. “I’m glad you’re okay.” He shifted his concerned gaze to the scene in front of us. “I wonder what happened?”
“That girl over there, that’s Cindy. She worked here. Maybe she knows something.”
Justin steered me through the crowd and I hesitantly tapped Cindy on the shoulder. Her eyes were puffy from crying, but I thought I saw a flicker of fear when she recognized me. Then she started crying again, and I wasn’t sure.
“Cindy, what happened?”
“What happened?” She screeched loud enough that people around us turned to look. “What happened? Why don’t you tell me, you crazy freak?”
I looked at Justin nervously. “I don’t know. I just saw the smoke and walked over.”
She shook her head. “I don’t believe you. I saw you flip that car over, and you knew I saw you. You cursed me!”
Stunned, I took a step back. “Why would I do that?”
“Cause you’re some kind of satanic freak! You hexed me, and I’m lucky to have made it out alive!” She started sobbing again, and I felt a wave of fear. Cindy had seen me use magic on that car, but I would never have done anything like that on purpose. People were watching us, and I wondered when Cindy’s voice would be enough to draw the attention of a police officer. I swallowed nervously.
Justin tried to come to my defense. “But what caused the fire? Darlena was nowhere near here when it happened.”
Cindy shot him a dirty look. “Yes she was. I made her order ten minutes before the whole place went up in flames.”
I looked at Justin. He was sitting beside me on my front porch, tapping the ground with his shoe. “Please say something.”
“Darlena.” He sighed, but then stopped as if he didn’t know how to go on. After a minute, he finally said, “I trust you.”
I exhaled, unaware until that moment that I had been holding my breath. “Thanks. I—”
“But,” he held up his hand to stop me, “something happened today that I can’t explain.” He looked down at his scuffed tennis shoes. “I know you’ve hexed people before. You’ve never hid that from me.”
I stared at him, dumbfounded. “So you think I hexed Cindy? Why would I want to do that?”
“Were you angry that she saw you cause the car accident?”
I recoiled as if he’d hit me. Was Justin blaming me for that, now? He had no idea what it had felt like when I’d realized I’d caused that horrific accident. I glared at him, and he repeated his question quietly.