Did you ever dream of skipping school? Maybe you were one of those brave rebels who did and managed to get away with it. Not me. I’m too goody-goody. I had obedience and propriety ingrained in me by my mother and broke out in hives if I jaywalked. Not that I wasn’t trying very hard as of late to break the shackles of my upbringing and live a little. I’d ripped those ‘Do Not Remove’ tags off my pillow just last week.
I know, shocking!
I am not really complaining. I comprehend that I have to get my studies in, because untrained, I am a walking hazard at best...utter mayhem at my worst. Let’s just say mayhem has been my middle name as of late and call it a day. Too much reckless magic and inadvertent spell faux pas have been my calling card, and I want that to change, so the townsfolk stop having adverse reactions every time they see me walk by.
Oh—spells—magic? Yes...you see, my name is Lily Sweet, and I am a witch.
No, I am not in a twelve-step program for the delusional. I am a bona fide, card-carrying witch from a long and venerable line of witches...most of them dark. This does not mean I am malicious or have relatives in tune with their Wicked Witch of the West-side. Although the jury is still out on my great-grandmother, Adriana. And I have a cat named Wicked; both are equally capable of being one hundred percent, pure, unadulterated evil.
And that’s on a good day.
I discovered I was a witch not too long after arriving in Sweet Briar, Georgia, my hometown. I never knew it was my hometown because my mother fled this part of the country and moved me way up to the Catskill mountains of New York State. She assumed badass witches were after me. She was correct, but not in the way she believed...and had Jessica Croy Sweet just stayed and sought the help of the family, well...things might have been different where I was concerned as far as my knowledge of all things witch. I didn’t return until after her death and cryptic instructions she’d left behind, suggesting I cautiously go seek out my Georgia roots. This left me at quite a disadvantage.
You see, most young witches are in command of their abilities by the time they are thirteen or fourteen. Here I am, twenty-five, and because of my upbringing, I have just finished my first full week of mage school. I was supposed to start on December first. However, due to my freaking out about my days being micromanaged and grumbled complaints to my great granny, she forced me to start early. Even though I was technically still recuperating from yet another attack on my person.
This is one of the reasons I am in classes half the day, five days a week.
The person who attacked me this time around was, well...me! I slapped my hand to my forehead after an errant spell went awry, knocking my friend Lorcan out cold in the process. I blinded myself for twenty-four hours or so, and the result was a lengthy hospital stay. Ok, so I was also trying to disarm a tilty-head, creepy, and possibly possessed teenager, and my cousin Nora, who hates me, but that’s another story altogether. I was in the hospital for over a week. It is now December fifth, and I’m in the second full week of lessons. I can say, with absolute certainty, I will not survive until Christmas. It’s been nice, but I’m about to perish at the hands of two randy Cougars, a midget Reba McEntire and a demon-spawn from hell.
That demon-spawn is—you guessed it—Adriana Dolce, my great-grandmother on my father’s side.
If the witch Council in our town ever manages to find my errant dad, Charles, I have a bone to pick with him about running off and leaving me to fend for myself with all these crazy relatives of mine. My father’s side and my mom’s. The Dolce clan is all Italian, very powerful and pretty much run our small corner of the world. The Croy side...my mother’s people, are Scottish and equally esteemed, but less in your face about it, and not as in charge around here as the Dolce’s. I’m a Sweet because my grandfather decided to change the Italian surname to its American counterpart.
Are you as confused as I am? Sorry about that. But I digress.
All you need to know is I am a prisoner. A hapless student, thrust in a classroom where free-thinking and coloring outside the lines will get me, not a firm rap on the knuckles, oh no. That would be too kind. I get exploding potions and evaporating eyebrows. Seriously. I managed to burn one down to stubble and decided to tell everyone it was a fashion statement.
“Liliana! Stop daydreaming and tell me why you need to center yourself, clear your thoughts, and then release your spell?”
That would be the demon-spawn, um...my great granny. It’s time I focus on today’s lesson before she gives me detention.
“Because if I don’t, there is a good chance a stray thought can shape the spell, causing it to not only misfire but take on different properties than what I intended?”
“Brava. And what is a good way to clear your mind and center yourself?” Adriana demanded.
“Yoga?” I knew I was asking for it with that snarky comment when my granny scowled at me and crossed her arms, tapping her foot for good measure.
I shrugged and sheepishly managed a small grimace of a smile before mumbling out my answer, “I focus on an internal flame, making my mind see it even though it isn’t really there, then bring it up and out of me in the form of whatever spell I am casting. And I need to accomplish this task, efficiently and quickly, especially if and when I find myself in battle.” After giving my answer, I looked up and observed Adriana’s face go from sullen to mild satisfaction and knew I’d nailed it.
Now to be able to do it.
“Liliana, cara. Come and sit a minute and listen to me.” Adriana addressed me in a moment of sympathetic understanding. Unusual for her, which left me momentarily shocked so I raptly listened to whatever it was she was about to impart.
“Liliana. I know you are upset at having to be back in school at your age. I know you aren’t lazy or whining just to hear yourself. Heaven knows you had a very rigid and unusual upbringing in light of Jessica’s neurosis, and I understand completely that you have a lot of socializing, among other things, to catch up on.”
Adriana patted my knee and continued, “I am very proud of how hard you are working getting the studio up and running. I know you plan on tackling much of the renovations to your home as soon as you are making a profit, but you cannot shirk your witch studies. Ever. Not anymore. Especially after seeing what your talents were when your file arrived from the Council.” Adriana stated emphatically, “you are a powerful witch.”
“Grandmother don’t take this as me whining, please. But how am I supposed to glean how serious all this witchy education is if you won’t let me see what my talents are?” I cried. I’d asked for one week now, to find out what I could do magically, but every time I did, my great-grandmother had one excuse after another as to why she wanted to wait to share my list of talents, and it had my nose out of joint. I already knew I was an anomaly, especially since most witches had two, maybe three, abilities at most. I had seventeen.
Yeah. I’m impressed myself.
Every witch can do basic things...like move a glass or open a window with minimal effort. But unique abilities manifest at an early age, usually at puberty, and each witch had their talents recorded in the Witch Council. My cousin Andrea was adept at cloaking. She could make herself, or others, invisible and was able to eavesdrop with abandon. Her secondary talent was the ability to muddle sound, so people had a difficult time making out what she was saying in a private conversation.
Lorcan, my friend and landlord of sorts...he was letting me rent a spot he owned directly next door to his mechanic shop, was an empath and walking hot water bottle. I kid you not. He could make you feel calm and safe and warm just by a touch, or better yet, a big bear hug. He uses his talents in the children's ward at our local hospital when volunteering, making anxious parents feel inner calm and bringing the little patients' nerves down to a comforting level, making him one popular witch in our town. Everyone loved Lorcan.
My one-time boyfriend and a detective not to be trifled with, Brian Chase, was a Veritum. They were seekers of truth of the highest order, and one breath of yours across his olfactory senses could make or break you if you were guilty of some transgression. Brian would know in an instant if you were lying or being truthful. A useful, albeit scary, talent. I say, one-time boyfriend because we are on the outs after I decided his moving way too fast, and being a tad on the domineering side wasn’t the type of man I thought I needed to be with at the moment. If ever. I was rather proud of myself for maturing over these last few weeks, knowing my experience with men had been sketchy at best. I knew I needed to trust my instincts more.
My great-grandmother, Adriana, had quite a list of talents. She could turn people into animals or vice-versa, or so I was told. She could animate objects and bend people’s wills, especially since she could read minds with ease. Rumor had it she could also bind souls and lock them away in jars, although I doubted the validity of that one. I knew she could bind people and even ghosts...I saw her whisk one Edith Plank, an unfortunate librarian who wound up getting murdered and returning as a ghost, up against a wall and held her there against her will for a time. Rather impressive and useful if one found oneself needing to coral ghosts, something I hoped I wouldn’t need to enact much in my future. Thankfully, Edith has since moved on. Adriana could also hurl nasty spells that would go boom at anyone in her path and do so with a quirky smile on her face. Not many folks around here wanted to get on her wrong side.
I was one of the only people to not fear my diminutive imp of a granny, and it usually got me in more trouble than it was worth. I knew she was one hundred percent correct and that I needed to become a proficient witch in a hurry. I didn’t understand why I had to do it on her terms and without full knowledge of my talents. I wasn’t petulant. I had a right to know! What if I inadvertently let some perilous and nasty poof of power out of my fingertips and blasted an unsuspecting victim to smithereens? If I knew what to expect, I could be cautious and careful at all times.
“What if withholding knowledge from me causes me to whack some poor unfortunate with my power? You really need to let me know what I’m capable of. It will be on your head if I do someone harm.” I tried once again to coerce granny with reason.
“Pulease! Right now, you are barely able to keep ice cream on a popsicle stick. The last thing we need is you overthinking everything because you get a gander at your long list of suspected abilities. Suspected, mind you...we haven’t verified anything as of yet. That will come once you master the basics of witchcraft and spell casting. Until then, Squirt, you are staying under the blindfold I’ve put on you.” Adriana sniffed.
“Fine. Be that way. Don’t blame me if you forget to duck.” I waved my hand in her direction and watched in horror as an errant bolt shot out of my fingertips and zinged straight into Adriana's hair, causing it to explode in electric static amazingness. It loosened the tight bun she wore and caused her hair to stand straight out from her scalp like a spiky glowing halo.
I guess I forgot to focus on that inner flame.
“Did she really have you stay an extra hour?” My cousin Andrea was nothing if not supportive of me, and was one of the best things about being thrust into a vast family such as mine.
“Yes. And I don’t want to talk about it. Because now I have additional homework as well. Stupid, dumb, big, fat, mouth. Idiotic disobedient fingers.” I grumbled.
“How do you feel about the rest of the lessons? Are Hermione and Hortense as rigid as Grandmother? Tanaquil is formidable but fair. I had her myself when I was in school." Andrea's voice trailed off as I lobbed a glare in her direction.
“Yes, Dre...but the last time you were in school was just about the last time I was. I am afraid Adriana will insist I enroll in the local elementary school before all is said and done, and I will be shoved into one of those horrid little desks, and all the kids will laugh at me behind my back! I will look like Buddy in Elf and be the town laughingstock, oversized and clueless.”
Andrea sniggered but gave my arm a sympathetic pat before flopping back on my bed, pulling Wicked, my obstinate feline, on top of her.
“You can’t let Granny get to you, Lily. The two of you are so alike, that’s why you butt heads so frequently.” Andrea began scratching Wicked under her chin, and the purring commenced in earnest.
“Bite your tongue. I am nothing like that woman. I still can't believe you tried to make me believe grandfather Antonio is as diabolical as she is. There is no way that sweet man is anything like Adriana, the old retractable bat. Grandfather is a darling little gnome who likes to garden and feeds birds and butterflies. Heck, he doesn't even chase the squirrels away from his feeders. He's a big softy." I reached out to pet Wicked, but she swiped at my hand and hissed. I eyed Jake’s old baseball bat hanging above my bedroom door and gave her a pointed looked. She yawned in response.
"That softy cursed his old nemesis, Doc Warren, now since retired, but at the time the town pharmacist, without telling anyone about it. Some of the older men in town played bocce on the village green before the courts were moved to the park. Doc Warren was instrumental in this move because he'd continuously complain about wayward bocce balls being hurled at his giant glass window at the pharmacy.
“The year of the final tournament on the village green is when the incident I am speaking about happened. It was about one week later when his wife finally got around to informing us that he never came home from the bocce tournament, that we figured out grandfather turned him into a sheep! We had wondered why one showed up near the drugstore. The poor thing was bleating and trying to get in the automatic doors, but the manager kept chasing him out. That his wife didn’t mind her spouse went missing, especially in light of the fact that he tended to sing at the top of his lungs while sleepwalking, made us all realize she probably enjoyed the respite.”
“Please. There is no way I can even begin to believe such a tale,” I stated, convinced Andrea was trying to pull a fast one. He was all of four-foot-eleven and total marshmallow fluff. There wasn’t the slightest chance he’d be such a mean-spirited rascal. Unless I witnessed him performing malicious machinations of magic upon another, I steadfastly refused to believe him possible of such deeds. I continued my observation, “Grandpa is a cream puff.”
“Ok, cuz. Believe what you will. But that man can give old Beelzebub a few lessons in mischief. He’s been in a mood lately, as a matter of fact. It might be because he has a new nurse, but I think he is upset we haven’t had a massive family get-together, especially around the holidays. Oh! Not that it is your fault...he doesn’t blame you since...um.”
Yeah, since for Halloween and Thanksgiving, I had managed to wind up in the emergency room. I get it. I am turning into the holiday jinx in my family. Hopefully, no evil asshats will show up in the next few weeks and have me destroy Christmas as well.
Sigh. I’m actually in a heightened state of anxiety, just thinking about mistletoe, cookies, wreaths, lights, and trees. I don’t want to be a downer, though. After the last incident, where I almost got bested by whatever the heck it was that possessed Rowan Nightingale, I have resolved myself to enjoy life. I need to quickly embrace my family and friends, hugs, holidays, and being an extrovert...even if the thought makes me want to find a cave and go hide in it.
New year, new me...and all that.
I contemplated young Rowan. She had just turned nineteen and worked for June Carter, my mom's one-time best friend, and the woman I am renting my apartment from while I decided what to do with the home I inherited. Talk about an introvert...Rowan makes me look like a regular party girl, a cheerleader-type, which I am most definitely not. I know the Council still has her in their care, in some type of psychiatric ward attached to our local hospital. The witch clerics have been trying to figure out what possessed her, making her murder our town's librarian, Edith Plank. No one is sure if she was influenced by her thoughts and an easy target for some nefarious sorcery, or acted alone and is an insane teen who was bent on getting the boy she liked at all costs. Either way, she has creeped me out to epic proportions, and I wondered if I would ever look at her in the same light if the Elders deem her a victim in all that came to pass.
I was definitely a victim, even if the reason I was laid out had to do with my inability to control my magic rather than a direct attack by Rowan, or whoever was pulling her strings as puppet-master. I am still sore over the fact I managed to knock myself out. I am totally embarrassed that I shot a few errant bolts into Lorcan. But more than anything since the incident, I had a permanent sour disposition every time my thoughts turned to my cousin Nora and the fact she escaped and still has not been found, despite the police having searched far and wide for her.
What had me out of sorts was that our newest deputy, Gordon Delaney, managed to sweet-talk the sheriff into dropping any and all charges that were brewing concerning my deplorable cousin. They had the all-points bulletin on her called off. I hated to admit it to myself, but other than pulling a gun on Lorcan, which sounds terrible until we were informed it was a prop gun and not the real thing, she hadn't really done anything to warrant a police arrest. Her past indiscretions at college notwithstanding. All Nora demanded was the box I carried in my hand that I managed to find, with the help of a mysterious water sprite or magical creature that lived in Nichols Pond. Nora didn’t get her wish.
Yeah. I know—weirdness all around me, twenty-four, seven.
The box contained a ring left to me by my Aunt Adelaide if the voice that magically began to speak after I opened it was to be believed. There were times, especially in the wee hours of the morning, where I was afraid that I’d lost my mind. I began doubting all that had happened to me since leaving New York State and moving here to Sweet Briar. Then I’d look down at the beautiful ring that I never removed from my right hand, in the shape of a sweet briar rose, our town’s namesake, and I could feel the power radiating from it, and knew I wasn’t a nut case. Much.
“I don’t even want to think about Christmas. I haven’t done a bit of shopping and don’t know what to buy for anyone.” I whined as Andrea gave me a keen look.
“You, dear cousin, are worried about where you will wind up and which relatives’ nose will get out of joint if you aren’t celebrating in their home. This fretting doesn’t have anything to do with gift-buying. You know we are all easygoing and keep it simple and cheap...but heartfelt. A candle, homemade cookies, a simple token of your affection...you are using this as an excuse because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.” Andrea sat up, shifting Wicked to her lap.
“Great-grandpa is upset for that very reason. Stevie Junior was talking about going on a ski trip for the long Christmas weekend, and my mom was making noises that she thought it a grand idea, and we’d all go...and drag you with us. Effectively taking you away from the rest of your relatives. Your Aunt Iona heard about it when she heard your cousin Sophia mention it to my dad at the café. She had a meltdown. Stevie quickly nixed his plans and a tentative peace resumed. That said, it’s not your fault. You have nothing to do with any of this. Other than you are loved so much, everyone wants you with them for the holiday. I get that it’s stressful...and you feel guilty.”
She wasn’t wrong with that proclamation. I had the same problem for Thanksgiving, except the untimely attack meant I spent that holiday laid out and dodged a bullet, even though it wasn’t an enjoyable escape. This time around, I knew I’d have to decide which one of my aunts I’d spend Christmas Day with...and I had a feeling, no matter how I tried to appease them, I’d have hurt feeling and stress galore. Especially in light of this news. I groaned and flopped back onto the pillows on my loveseat.
“Hey, look on the bright side,” Andrea exclaimed, “perhaps some other calamity will hit, and you’ll knock yourself out cold again!”
I tossed a pillow at her head; only it bonked into Wicked, who ran, protesting loudly, from the room. Uh oh. I’d be paying for that little mistake later.