Chapter 1Twenty Years LaterA truly magical living space...
My computer cursor blinked at me, taunting me with a blank page. Daring me to write the perfect description for my newest real estate listing.
On the outside, the house was beautiful. It was a sage-green American Foursquare with a dormer window sprouting out of the center of the roof and a black front door encased by a large porch. I flipped through the information packet, glancing at each picture.
I had chosen not to include any images of the inside in the listing. The property had sat empty for three years, the house beginning its slow decline without anyone who loved it, someone to take care of it. It would require a lot of renovations, if not a total gut rehab.
There was nothing "magical" about the space, unless the Wicked Witch of the West herself had taken up residence there among the crumbling plaster and hidden critters in the corners.
I flexed my fingers and began to type.Location, location, location...
They were the magic words in real estate, much like recently rehabbed, move-in ready, and motivated sellers.
And I knew all about magic words.
I typed out the description, nodding in satisfaction. I spun around once in my chair before I hit the Send button to turn in the final MLS listing, ready to go live.
I shut my laptop and peered out the large picture window in my home office that overlooked the front yard, with tall maple trees flanking the driveway and a hedge of pink roses that lined the sidewalk. I frowned as I saw movement near the garbage cans we'd placed on the street for pickup day. I leaned forward and squinted, and it was just as I'd suspected-two small gray bodies were scurrying around in between the cans.
If I had a suburban nemesis, it was the neighborhood raccoons. They were of the craftiest kind, always getting into the garbage cans on the side of the house no matter what we placed on top. We sometimes woke to garbage scattered on the driveway after a particularly hearty meal. One evening, I nearly had a heart attack as I opened one of the cans outside to toss a bag inside and one peeked its head out and locked eyes with me. I screamed and ran, bag of garbage abandoned on the driveway, until my husband, Travis, agreed to venture into the fray. They usually only appeared at night, but on garbage day it was an all-day trash extravaganza.
Other neighbors had been through rounds of exterminators and deterrents, to no avail. But I didn't need any of those things. I had a secret weapon.
I scurried from my desk-looking very much like my neighborhood nemeses-and leaned out the door of my home office, listening to make sure that I was alone in the house. When it was confirmed, I raced back to the window, knowing I only had a few minutes before my twins arrived home from school.
I closed my eyes and felt the magic deep inside of me, where I kept it under lock and key. I focused my intention on the raccoons, imagining a magical barrier around our trash cans, preventing them from wreaking havoc.
I whispered a few improvised words, as I wasn't aware of any known spell to deter raccoons, and then opened my eyes.
I smiled with satisfaction as the raccoons halted in front of our trash cans, looking bewildered as to why they wanted to stop, before they ran across the street and disappeared under our neighbor's car.Sorry, guys. Go feast elsewhere.
I leaned over and slid open the window that framed my desk, letting a breeze blow through the large, vaulted space. It was September, and still warm, but there was an edge to the air, the faintest warning of fall knocking on the meteorological door. Soon the maple trees would sigh, releasing their foliage, and an earthy scent would waft up from the ground. Our neighborhood would fill with the sound of leaves crunching under the feet of kids as they got off at the bus stop. With pumpkins and fall garlands. With expensive, designer harvest-themed planters standing guard in front of stately front doors in our suburb of Forest Hills, Illinois.
But it was still summer for now.
My white desk vibrated as the back door slammed. Two sets of footsteps creaked against the oak floors, a tumble of arguments and teasing coming from my twin teenagers. I sighed and stood, ready to make my way downstairs and referee whatever fight was brewing. Yet I stopped as I caught a whiff of smoke in the air.Sarah
, the smoke seemed to whisper. Think of what else you could do.
It was just for a moment, and then it was gone, replaced by the light, sweet fragrance from the Annabelle hydrangea hedge in my yard.
"Nope," I said, and shook my head as I made my way to the door.
Yes, twenty years later, I still had magic. But I had it contained, made it my superpowered personal assistant for backyard rodents and stains on the couch. A secret household helper at my disposal. It was a part of me that needed to remain hidden for a multitude of reasons, mostly to protect everyone else.
The Kardashians had hourglass figures and paid personal assistants, while I had magic and spells and a body shaped like a shelf-stable milk carton.
I leaned out of my office door. "Hey, guys! I'll be right there," I called down the stairs.
I brushed my hair back into a ponytail, looping it with the elastic around my wrist, and gave one final, satisfied glance at the pest-free garbage cans before I walked downstairs to greet my children.***
“Mom, I need money for the cheer fundraiser.” My sixteen-year-old daughter, Harper, stood in the kitchen, a bottle of water in her hand, leaning against the quartz countertop. Her long blond hair was twisted in a bun on top of her head, giving her the look of a Lego character. With one hand, she hoisted herself up onto the countertop.
"How about: 'Hi, Mom. How was your day?'" I said with a laugh as I walked into the room.
"Your cheer squad needs more than money." My son, Hunter, her twin, with an equally impressive mop of blond hair, was hidden in the stainless steel fridge. "Like an ethics code."
Harper rolled her eyes and took a swig from her water bottle. "Oh yeah? Well, half of your lacrosse team needs to be sent to one of those Scared Straight!
"I wouldn't put it past some of those parents," I said as I pulled out one of the chairs from the kitchen island. Forest Hills wasn't exactly known for being progressive or tolerant. Therapy was for hippies, and only troubled teens wore black nail polish.
Harper and Hunter continued to trade barbs back and forth, and I shook my head with a smile. My husband, Travis, and I always said they came out of the womb hugging and arguing at the same time, ever each other's best friend, fiercest protector, and most worthy opponent.
Hunter appeared from the fridge, holding half of a white-paper-wrapped sandwich left over from the night before, and took a huge bite. He had the appetite of a German shepherd who had been living on the streets for a month. "I brought the mail in," he said, his mouth full. He jerked an elbow toward the pile on the counter.
"Ohhhh, the new Lululemon catalog," Harper said as she plucked the magazine from the stack, causing the rest to spill onto the floor.
"No one needs two-hundred-dollar leggings," I said as I bent down to retrieve the mail. My hand paused and my body tensed when I saw what was on top.
It was an envelope, addressed to Travis and me, from the North Valley University Alumni Center. Still crouching, I tore it open. Inside was a letter and a flyer. The front of the flyer showed a redbrick building with a white clock tower rising high behind it. A large manicured lawn filled with impatiens and begonias opened in front of the building, overlaid with the words: Homecoming and Alumni Weekend Events.
I scanned the letter as I slowly stood.You are cordially invited...
"What's that?" Harper said, but her words barely registered. In my peripheral vision, I saw her crane her neck around and peer down at the paper....to the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Hawthorne Hall fire.
"Ew. That's weird. Won't the 'unveiling of a plaque' put a damper on homecoming weekend?" she said. "Homecoming is supposed to be parades and football games." Her face held a faraway expression; no doubt she was thinking of her high school's homecoming festivities, all Spirit Week and themed dress-up days. Forest Hills High School did not mess around when it came to rallying the community and drumming up support from alumni.
I slowly stood and placed the flyer on the island, pushing it away with one finger, before I looked at my kids.
"Probably just want money from alumni," Hunter said, his sub sandwich paused in the air. He frowned as he considered it. "Do we have to go?"
I looked down again at the picture and didn't answer. They knew what I would say. I had to go-we all had to go. Travis, the kids, me.
Because of who had been hurt in the fire.***
"It might not be that bad. Enjoyable, even. Maybe. Possibly." Travis poured two glasses of red wine from a bottle he had brought up from the basement. The rack was next to the second fridge, where I often "found" extra sliced turkey for school lunches or the ingredient I needed for a particular recipe.Oh, we're out? Let me just check the basement fridge. I'm sure there's some in there.
Like I said, a magical personal assistant.
I had resisted the magic for years after the fire, afraid of what might happen again. But one night, when the twins were six weeks old, I gave in. They would only sleep in their swings, and around two in the morning one night, Hunter's swing ran out of batteries. Travis was at the hospital, after being called into emergency surgery. So I was alone in the house, the night closing in around me. Not that the distinctions of "night" and "day" mattered with two newborns who nursed every three hours. Time was nebulous, and I was barely surviving.
After the swing halted, I began to panic, looking around the house for a spare set-I was sure we had some-with no luck. He began to scream, and out of sleep-fueled desperation, I whispered an incantation to charge the batteries. Just to give them enough juice to last through the night.
And it worked. So I began to use it for small, low-stakes things, only when necessary, to make life a little easier. Only for good things, white light. Magic needed to be practiced with the best intentions, light and love for all, with the Rule of Three looming in the background. The Rule of Three stated that anything a witch put into the world would come back threefold, good or bad. And I most definitely only wanted the good to boomerang back to me.
Travis slid one of the wineglasses over to me, and I arched an eyebrow at him as I took the glass and brought it to my lips. I took a slow sip, closing my eyes, pretending I was savoring the wine. Really, I was trying to figure out what to say.
I had spent the early evening driving the twins to their practices and then cooking a dinner of gnocchi with Italian sausage and spinach, even though I knew Travis wouldn't be home from the hospital until late since he was on call. He was a pediatric surgeon at Forest Hills Hospital, which meant many mornings I woke up to find his side of the bed empty.
As I stirred the vodka sauce into the pasta dish, portioning a plate for Travis, I tried to think of an excuse not to attend. But short of faking a back injury on the day of the event, I hadn't come up with anything plausible.
He never knew what Alicia, Katrina, and I had done, the things that we had caused. I had vowed to keep it that way, to keep him and the kids far away from my magic. Even though I still practiced in secret, I reasoned it was for small things, just to help out. Nothing like what we'd tried to do in college. So he was in the dark.
For fuck's sake, he still thought we'd been learning how to juggle.
"Sarah, I don't think we can get out of this one," he said. He looked at his wineglass, his dark hair falling over his forehead. It was unfair-I had more streaks of gray at thirty-eight (covered every three weeks religiously in the privacy of my bathroom, after whispering a few careful words)-than he did at forty-two.
I could hear the gentle hesitation in his voice as he carefully trod around the land mines of my past. He always knew where to step, and this time was no different. "My parents already texted me that they're going, and Nancy, of course. They want it to be a Nelson family thing, I guess."
Growing up, a "family thing" was all that I had ever wanted. To be a part of something, to feel loved, wanted, included. Travis, and by extension, his parents, had given me that. Sure, they were quirky and offbeat, and deliriously out-of-touch at times, but they were mine. And as a Nelson, I would need to attend.
I swallowed, the red wine burning my throat, and nodded slightly. "Of course. We should go."
His shoulders sagged in relief as he gave me a grateful smile and put an arm around my shoulder. "Thank you. It might be good to go back, remember some of the good times. And-hey, you might get a chance to reconnect with your juggling club."Chapter 2
I never thought I would be the kind of person who owned a pool. Growing up, I had a small plastic wading pool, which my mom would fill up with freezing hose water on the spotty patch of grass that served as the lawn behind our town house. She would sit on a faded folding lawn chair next to me, shaded by the shadow of the town house's ugly brick exterior, eyes glazed over as she fixed her gaze on something in the distance. Probably an image of what she'd thought her life would be.
She did her best, but it had always been just the two of us. My birth father had never been involved, and I had never met him. Our lives were fueled with coupons and boxed mac and cheese—the generic store kind, not the fancy stuff from the blue box. She died of a heart attack in her sleep right before I met Travis, and missed out on the opportunity to see my life truly begin, missing the good part of the movie.
When Travis showed me this house ten years ago, I saw the pool in the backyard and was transported back to those hazy summers in the plastic pool with a crack down the side, even though we were worlds away. I knew my mom would have loved the house.
After Travis had headed upstairs to bed, I took my wine glass outside. I sat down on the edge of the pool and stuck my feet in the lukewarm water, feeling a sense of calm hum through me, as I always did when I was near the element of water.
Our orange tabby cat, Katy Purry, sauntered out of the boxwood hedge that lined the pool area, her ample stomach waving softly as she walked toward me.
“Hey, there. Terrorize any chipmunks?” I said as I lifted a hand and put it on her back when she curled up next to me.
Her eyes closed and a loud purr rumbled from her body. No. Too fast. I need to do more cardio.
I laughed. "You’re perfect the way you are."
Yes, my cat talked to me. Well, not "talked." More like telepathically communicated. She may have technically been my familiar, but Katy Purry was far from a sleek black cat perched on the edge of a broom. She was more like an opinionated feline furniture pouf.
I scratched behind her ears, feeling for any knots, and she responded by purring louder.
She had come into my life five years prior, when I went into the local PetSmart to buy food for the goldfish Hunter had won at the school carnival. A local rescue was holding an adoption event, with pets on display. I froze, holding the fish flakes in the air as I spotted a tiny orange kitten playing with a feathered toy mouse.
She spotted me and turned her head. Hi.
I almost dropped the fish flakes when I heard her voice in my head, high and squeaky.
I adopted and brought her home in a daze, almost unaware of what I was doing. She was so very excited to see our house, it was like having a chatty toddler again. Do you do spells? Can I see your broom? Do you have a pointy hat?
Yes, in secret. No. Definitely not.
Throughout the years, her voice had grown deeper, calmer. And she thankfully stopped trying to sharpen her claws on my throw rugs. Her waist size didn’t stop increasing, though, as none of us could resist feeding her treats. Of course, I was the only one who literally heard her outbursts of joy when I walked in the door with the tuna flavored Temptations packets, but the purring was clear enough to the whole family.
Copyright © 2023 by Maureen Kilmer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.