Authors: Jen McConnel
Tags: #teen, #young adult, #magic, #curses, #paranormal, #fantasy, #witch, #witches, #spells, #science fiction
I was jolted out of my reverie by the sound of squealing brakes. I looked over my shoulder as a green car flew around the corner. The driver had clearly lost control and was headed straight for the sidewalk—and me. Frozen to the spot, I put my hands up in an instinctive gesture. I squeezed my eyes shut, ready to be crushed by the hunk of metal barreling toward me. Instead, I heard glass shattering and metal grinding.
Confused, I cracked one eyelid, and then blinked stupidly. The car that had been about to hit me was flipped over in the middle of the road like a turtle on its back. I was fine; in fact, I felt buzzed. Probably a reaction to a near-death experience, I thought foggily. Realizing that the shapes inside the crumpled vehicle were stationary, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed 9-1-1. That’s when I noticed the red sparks on my arms. They faded as I looked at them, but for a minute, my hands had looked like sparklers on the Fourth of July. Puzzled, I turned my hands over, but the sparks were gone. Maybe I had imagined it.
A crowd of gaping onlookers had started to gather, and I saw a few more people pull out their phones. I swayed dizzily and remembered that the whole reason I had been on the street this morning was because I hadn’t eaten yet. I shifted from foot to foot for a moment, wondering if I should stay at the scene as a witness. But since I hadn’t really seen anything, and there were so many other people around, I decided I should get some food before I fell down. Besides, the accident looked bad, and I was feeling squeamish. I didn’t want to hang around in case the people in the car were badly hurt. I could handle the sight of my own blood, but I’d never been around a car accident before. Making a decision, I disconnected my phone while it was still ringing. My stomach lurched, and I took one last look at the still figures in the car. Fighting nausea, I turned into the bakery where Rochelle and I usually hung out.
The bell above the door jingled, and the smell of warm bread enveloped me. I breathed in for a minute, letting the familiar scent steady my stomach. As I approached the counter, Cindy, the pink-haired Non who always waited on me, looked up. Her expression was blurry, like she was trying to remember something and failing miserably, but that wasn’t too out of the ordinary. Cindy was a college student at NC Central, and she was usually stressed out from studying. I smiled at her warmly, waiting for her to rattle off my regular order: everything bagel with cream cheese and honey and a vanilla latte, but she just stared at me, unspeaking. I cleared my throat, and she shook her head.
“What can I get you?”
Startled, I stared at her. In the past year, Cindy had only ever asked me that question once: the first time we met. She looked at me with bored expectation, and I found myself glancing at the menu.
“I’ll try ... the vegetarian breakfast wrap. I guess. And a cup of iced pomegranate tea, to go.” She rang up my order and I paid, wondering why I had deviated from my normal morning routine. I never ordered iced tea, even though southern sweet tea is the best invention known to man. Maybe the car accident had shaken me more than I realized. Shrugging, I put my change in the tip jar and slid down the counter to wait. Instead of starting my sandwich, Cindy slipped into the kitchen, leaving the counter unmanned. As I waited, bored, I strained to listen to the conversations around me. I like to eavesdrop; it passes the time, and I usually learn something bizarre about the strangers around me. It’s amazing what people will say in a public place. As I listened to the couple behind me discussing their sex life (not what I want to hear about before breakfast, thank you very much), I suddenly tuned in to Cindy’s voice.
“That freak out there, the girl at the counter. I saw her curse those people.”
“What are you talking about? Cindy, there’s a customer, get out there.”
“She flipped that car. You saw the accident.”
Cindy’s companion murmured something I couldn’t hear, but my palms had started to sweat. Cindy’s retort made me turn cold.
“She held up her hand and it was like a tsunami hit that car. There were sparks and everything! That weirdo is deadly. Would you just finish her order? I don’t want her to curse me, too.”
The other girl must have agreed, because a few minutes later I received my breakfast from a girl with braces whose name tag said “Hi! I’m Ginger.” She stared at me as I left the shop, and I felt Cindy’s eyes on the back of my neck, too. I raced home, wishing I could fly.
I had to cut around the long way to avoid the accident, but after what Cindy claimed she had seen, I didn’t want to be anywhere near the wreck. What if I had caused it in some way? I remembered the faint red sparks on my hands; were they left over from some kind of crazy magic? And what had happened to the driver? Nobody was moving inside the car when I left, and I felt a sick sensation in my stomach that had nothing to do with hunger. With a flash of intuition, I realized that the people in the car hadn’t survived. Did that mean I had committed murder? I shuddered at the thought. My magic had never been strong enough to manipulate large objects, but it was definitely odd that the car hadn’t hit me. It should have, based on everything I saw before I threw up my hands in that foolish defense. I unlocked the back door and slipped into the kitchen.
Hecate was waiting for me.
The goddess looked totally at ease, and I glared at her. The first thing that came to mind was the accident I had just witnessed. “Well?”
She stared at me impassively. “Well, what, little Witch?”
I threw my breakfast on the counter and rounded on her. “Well, did I just kill someone?”
“Life always gives way to death. It is the way of things.”
Her answer infuriated me. “Look, lady,” I said, dangerously rude but beyond caring, “you still haven’t told me anything, and now I think I just killed those people in that car!”
She looked at me, her face calm but her eyes smoldering from my insulting tone. “Someone was supposed to die today.”
I sank down in a chair and buried my head in my hands, but she continued talking. “Two people were meant to die; two people died. But those two were not the two that were meant to die.”
I looked up at her, startled.
“A pedestrian like yourself was meant to perish. As was the passenger. But,” she added tonelessly, “you called upon the power of chaos and altered the course of events.”
Horrified, I pressed her. “So I killed the two people in the car? It’s my fault?” I waited for her to tell me no, but I knew the truth in my gut. I was a freak, a murderer, like Cindy said.
The goddess shook her head slightly. “It is more complicated than that. You have done something I do not usually see Reds do. You turned the chaos of the situation inside out.”
Seeing my dumb expression, she explained herself. “The driver of that car would have been injured, but lived. He would have lived with the crushing guilt that he had killed two innocent women, and in three years’ time, the pressure would have been too much for his mind. He would have purchased a rifle, walked into the street, and opened fire on a large crowd at a summer picnic. He would have killed a child and wounded three others before turning the gun on himself.”
Her words washed over me like a death sentence, and I shivered at her emotionless tone. “How can you know what he would have done?”
“You forget your training. I am the goddess of the crossroads, and I see three ways.”
I remembered the strange triple-headed wall plaque in Principal Snout’s office and shuddered. “The past, the present, and the future?”
She inclined her head without speaking, and I tried to process everything she was telling me. It was impossible. My brain kept getting stuck on the fact that two people had died today because of me.
The goddess answered my thoughts. “What you did today—” She paused, her yellow eyes fixed on me. “You confounded chaos. Two people died today, but the thread that bound those future deaths to today has been snapped.”
Her words sank in, and I started to cry. No matter what she said might have happened in the future, I had used Red magic to kill. I’d broken the Rede and every other rule that had ever been instilled in me about magic, and I hadn’t even meant to. No wonder Dad said I was dangerous! Hecate watched me for a moment, her features like stone. I gulped for air and wiped my cheeks, trying to straighten my shoulders under the goddess’s harsh gaze. If she could see the future, maybe she could help me sort things out. Finally, I got a grip on myself and looked her in the eye.
“I need to know. I need you to tell me, right now, without any more games, what Red magic is. I need to know what I am doing before this happens again.”
Hecate looked past me and spoke. “You would have done well to have raised this child with manners. Her arrogance displeases me.”
I followed her gaze over my shoulder and nearly fell out of my chair. Mom was kneeling on the floor behind me, her forehead pressed to the cold linoleum. How long had she been there? Had she heard that I was a murderer? I twisted in my chair, petrified at the thought that Mom might have heard I’d become an uncontrollable monster.
When she spoke, her words weren’t directed at me. “Your Highness, I am sorry. She is headstrong. I taught her as best I could, but I never thought she would meet you. I never thought I would have that honor. Perhaps I have been lax in her upbringing.”
The supplicating tone of my mother’s voice made me even angrier. “Now, look here, both of you,” I cut in, and Mom gasped. “She is a great mom. If you think I’ve got an attitude problem, lady, that’s all because of you. My parents aren’t to blame for anything I do. I’m sixteen, for gods’ sake; I can do what I want. So if you’re pissed, blame me, not her.” I glared defiantly at Hecate for a moment, even though my heart was racing.
Hecate smiled slowly, and that was scarier than anything else I had lived through that morning. She looked like a spider gazing at its next meal, and I had to tighten my muscles to keep myself from recoiling in reflex. I had already cried in front of her once; I wouldn’t show her that I was afraid. I clenched my fists and lifted my chin, not breaking eye contact with her even though her yellow eyes were the creepiest things I’d ever seen.
Her smile widened. “Little Red one, you are well suited for your task. Today was a fluke, I see that now. Clearly, I do not need to worry about the chaos you will bring.”
With a thunderclap, she was gone. I sank back into a chair. “I am getting so tired of these melodramatic exits!” I muttered. “Don’t goddesses ever use the door?”
On the floor behind me, Mom let out a strangled chuckle. In a second, she was laughing hysterically. Quickly, I knelt beside her. It sounded like she might start crying at any time, and I didn’t think I could handle that on top of everything else.
“Mom, she’s gone. Get up. It’s okay.” Talking to her like I would a two-year-old, I slowly coaxed Mom from her crouch on the floor and seated her at the table. Gradually, her laughter died down, and I could feel her eyes on me. I couldn’t look at her; what would she think of me now? Desperate for something to do, I put the kettle on the stove and started to make tea. Mom kept her loose herbs in neatly labeled jars on the top of the cabinets, and I climbed up on the counter to reach for the peppermint. It would soothe us both. Pausing for a moment, I grabbed the jar of dried roses, too. A little bit of joy wouldn’t hurt, especially if Mom had heard as much as I was afraid she had. Like so many things, tea can have two purposes for Witches: we drink it because we like the taste, just like Nons, but we are more intentional about the ingredients. A well-prepared cup of tea can be a spell, affecting the person who drinks it in different ways depending on the properties of the herbs used.
Mom didn’t speak, even when the kettle began to whistle and I poured the water into the mugs. When the infusion had steeped long enough, I took the mugs to the table. Mom clutched her cup reflexively and closed her eyes as the steam washed over her face.
I sat across from her and eyed her nervously. She was sipping at the tea slowly, but she wouldn’t look up or meet my eye. We couldn’t ignore what had happened forever, and after a few sips of the still-hot tea, I took a deep breath.
“Mom. We need to talk about this.”
My words sounded surprisingly adult, and she glanced up at me. I faltered for a minute, but I kept talking.
“I don’t care what Hecate says; none of this is your fault.”
Tears welled up in her eyes and she blinked rapidly. I kept talking, trying to distract her.
“I chose this, Mom. I still don’t really know what I’ve picked—” I forced a laugh to lighten the mood, but she didn’t even crack a smile, so I went on, “I don’t know what it is that I am now, but I picked it. Nobody forced me to do this, and you certainly didn’t raise me wrong. You and Dad are amazing. It’s just that Hecate only likes to talk to weak Witches; strong ones irritate her.” Even as I said it, I realized it was true, but I stopped talking for a moment in confusion. Had I just called my mother a weak Witch? Worse, had I implied that I was strong enough to make Hecate uncomfortable? I took a sip of tea and tried to collect my scattered thoughts. Before I could speak again, however, Mom began talking.