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I stared at the bank of mailboxes. My key jutted from the lock to Box 13, but I couldn’t twist it yet. It felt like a big dough ball was proofing in my stomach, the pressure building and building until I wanted to hurl.
Ten pastry school applications and nine rejection letters later, I had one last chance to escape the future where I decorated grocery store sheet cakes for minimum wage forever. In a perfect world, I’d work my way up from part-time cake decorator to bakery manager to maybe owning my own shop.
In the real world?
Nobody wanted to hire a witch. We were supposed to be power-hungry, manipulative hags who used our devil spells to curse law-abiding citizens.
I’d never use my power to harm—and I didn’t even believe in the devil—but other than the few celebrity witches who’d made it into the mainstream, the rest of us were outcasts. People were both fascinated with our magic and terrified when we moved in next door. So, keeping my witchcraft under wraps was my best chance at both safety and sanity.
That meant lying on job applications. The second my power sparked at work, I’d be booted from yet another bakery. Mom and I would have to pack the car and start over yet again.
New chain store. New city. All the same problems as before.
I tried to wet my lips, but my tongue was milk-powder dry. I needed school. A degree was the only way to break the cycle I’d been stuck in. It would open up better jobs and maybe even help me prove that the with stereotypes were garbage. Mostly, I wanted to learn from the pros and make myself into something more than a decent home baker. A legit pastry chef.
If this letter was another rejection, my whole future looked like a dead end.
No pressure though.
The screech of brakes knocked me out of my everything-depends-on-this staring match with the mailboxes at the front of our apartment complex. The high school bus pulled to a creaky stop.
I’d been standing here an hour?
I should’ve retreated to the apartment, but instead I pulled my hoodie’s drawstrings so tight that only my eyes and nose peeked through the hood. I couldn’t run until I had my answer.
My instincts said a letter was waiting if and when I worked up the courage to check.
A pack of kids a couple years younger than me jumped off the school bus laughing. One boy peeled away from the group with a wave. He spun his key ring on a finger as he walked my way. I tried to work up the mental energy to open the mailbox—I really did—but my arms were still acting broken.
“Sorry. Can I…?” He used his key to point at the row of boxes I was blocking.
I jumped out of the way. Still gripping the tie cords, I accidentally pulled my hood tighter as I hopped.
The guy tilted his head to the side, trying to scope out who was hiding inside. “You go to Nisky?”
“Mmph.” I grunted and tilted away from him. We would’ve gone to the same high school, but I’d dropped out a few districts ago. Homeschool was safer.
The left side of his face twisted, but he went back to his business, ignoring the weirdo. I wobbled foot to foot while he unlocked his box.
I hated being outside. The sun. The people. Always asking questions. Why aren’t you in school? Why’s there sage in your purse? Are you a w-w-w-witch? Always with three stutters.
A w-w-w-witch, no. Witch, yes. But it wasn’t like I ran around cursing people. That wasn’t a thing.
“Um. I think you forgot your key?” The boy reached for Box 13.
“No!” My arm shot out on its own. The key jumped from the lock to my open palm in a puff of red-orange sparks. I gasped a breath at the loss of energy and my knees shook, suddenly weak. It drained too much when my willpower made its own decisions. No incantation or ritual to focus my energy—just a raw blast of magic that left me breathing like I’d galloped a mile.
And I was Exhibit A for bad witch behavior. When emotions ran high, magic would do what it wanted.
If you didn’t have power or couldn’t understand it? Terror was the usual reaction.
The boy’s face drained of blood and his mail fluttered to the ground. “You’re a w-w-w—”
I jammed my hands and the stupid key into my pocket. Before I could come up with a lie, he was already scampering away. He was probably running to tell his parents a witch was stalking the apartment complex. I couldn’t stand around waiting for them to dig out their torches. Or call the cops. Not that witchcraft was technically illegal, but enough complaints by jumpy soccer moms and I could be locked up for “questioning” for days without being charged with a crime.
Who had time for that?
I took a breath so deep suburbia disappeared and there were no more yapping dogs or screaming weed whackers—just me and the box. The box and me. And my destiny.
The key turned.
I swiped the envelopes and locked the box again before hurrying back up the steps to the apartment. There were only two letters. One from the power company and one from SCCC addressed to Ms. Anise Wise.
Both thin. I’d never gotten a college acceptance letter, but I knew they came in big, fat envelopes. I stumbled on the top step, banging my shin so hard I blacked out for half a second.
Who gets rejected from community college?
Inside, I yanked the dark curtains tight before tearing into the envelope.
Dear Ms. Wise,
Although your qualifications are impressive, we regret to inform you that we cannot accept magic users at this time—
I tossed the letters and lurched the few steps to the living room couch. Hugging a pillow to my face, I scrunched my eyes closed. I could keep working part-time at the grocery store bakery until they found out about my magic. Then I’d…
I didn’t know. Apply again next year? I kicked the cushions. Maybe Mom would have ideas. We’d both been hoping we’d never have the Anise-totally-blew-it conversation, so as stupid as it was, I didn’t have a backup plan.
Until she came home from work, I had nothing much to do but mope. I’d already “graduated” from homeschool and I’d memorized every spellbook in the house. Lying on the couch all afternoon would only make me feel like more of a loser.
Tossing the pillow back, I headed for the kitchen. In our closet-sized apartment, the walk only took a few steps. I stood in the middle of the peeling laminate tiles and set my hands on my hips, trying to find something to do. I’d already swept the floors with the birch-twigged besom and scrubbed the cheap countertops so long that they gleamed. I couldn’t even organize my baking pans. They were neatly stacked in the cupboards.
Not because I liked cleaning, but because I needed a spotless kitchen to make sure my spelled cakes didn’t suck up bad vibes. Cleaning mostly kept negative energy out of my space. Today, I was the one tracking it in.
Looking for a project to distract me, I lifted the lid off the jar of flour. It was almost empty. Only a cup left and Mom and I wouldn’t have payday until Friday. I checked the fridge. We still had eggs. A meringue? A custard? But, no. We’d need the eggs for breakfast.
We had ketchups and mustards, but not much food other than the leftover Chinese we’d been nursing the past few days. The sweet and sour chicken was almost gone, but the rice container was still mostly full.
Rice, rice, rice…rice pudding?
I couldn’t make a big portion, but we had milk, butter, sugar—and with a little spelled vanilla?
It would be perfect. And bonus. Working would keep me from staring down the black hole of my future. I tied back my shoulder-length hair and tried to release the tension that was tightening the knots in my shoulders.
My well of power was running low after that slip outside, but casting an enchantment wouldn’t drain me the same way as an accidental casting. Enchantment was my thing, and with all the ritual involved, I could control how much power I spent. I tried to breathe out the tiredness and stress and bring myself into a better headspace for casting a joy spell.
Bring joy and do no harm. I repeated the incantation over and over as I chose my tools. Spoons were the one thing I had too many of. I waved a hand back and forth over the open drawer to feel the energies of the woods. Ash. Elm. Hickory. Some battered and charred with a hint of age to their aura, some smooth and new.
What would match with a joy spell?
My fingertips glowed ember-bright and warmth flowed up my arm as one of the spoons called. Applewood. Fruit woods worked well for happiness enchantments, and the short, stumpy spoon fit my mood. I moved counterclockwise through the kitchen, picking bowls and measuring cups with the same care. Everything had to work together in my head. There weren’t really rules to the casting, but I had my own rituals, and doing everything the same way every time I cast usually made it easier to focus on the magic.
Today, not as much. I couldn’t shake the shadow of the bad news. Then I opened the spice cupboard and the warm, homey smells of cinnamon and clove silenced that little voice chanting failure, failure, failure.
Fresh-dried rosemary. Bundles of aromatic sage. And the sweet licorice scent of my name—jars and jars of anise. For rice pudding, I took out a jar of the star anise I’d powdered by hand. No matter what I made, I always snuck in a few grains. The spells stuck better when I put my name in there.
Then, my favorite part. The vials of homemade vanilla.
I carefully set each glass on the counter. My neat handwriting crisscrossed the labels on the mismatched bottles. Each label listed the date I’d started the extract and the magical properties I’d infused it with. Enchantments for happiness, good fortune, or love.
The labels were just a formality, though. I knew each vanilla by smell.
I uncorked a triangular blue bottle and took a whiff. The warm scent of Madagascar and a hint of cinnamon curled up my nose, sparking memories of the day I’d started brewing this batch. My seventeenth birthday. That day felt like this morning instead of more than a year ago. Mom had found the greatest present—bundles of cured vanilla beans from all over the world.
A smile almost bubbled up, but it disappeared as soon as I set down the bottle.
Last year, I’d been hopeful about my future.
Now I knew better.
Bring joy and do no harm. There was no point beating myself up. I couldn’t fix everything today, and if I didn’t concentrate I’d royally screw my rice pudding.
The leftover rice stank of refrigerator and needed a good cleansing before I added it to the pot. I lit a bundle of sage with a spark of my power. The magic usually came out a cheery red-orange, but now it flickered like dying embers, dull with flecks of gray as it half-heartedly flowed from my fingers. Lighting a flame was supposed to be the easiest thing for a witch aligned with fire, but today my wellspring was full of ashes. My tired knees played quaked as I waved the sage smoke.
Such a little bit of magic and I was already at my limit. Even the smoke wavered when my thoughts slipped off the work. I had to stick to my intention. Bring joy and do no harm.
It had better work. I needed the boost.
With all my supplies set out by the stovetop, I started combining ingredients. I stirred counterclockwise, using the applewood spoon to channel my power into the mix—my kitchen witch version of a wand. My fingers glowed and so did the pudding, but neither cast off the warmth they should at this stage of the spell. I dripped in the vanilla, trying to think happy thoughts and infuse them into the recipe.
Kittens and new Kitchen-Aid mixers. Hugs from Mom and snuggling up to read my spellbooks.
Let the taster of this pudding experience true happiness.
I was thinking the right words, but they echoed hollowly in my head. Empty. Because I couldn’t trick myself into feeling happy when I wasn’t.
It was what it was. The enchantment on the vanilla was so strong, it should carry the recipe…
I stirred over low heat, and as the liquid absorbed into the rice, the strong scent of vanilla—with the teeny tiniest hint of anise—began to fill the kitchen. Maybe I hadn’t messed it up this time?
Bring joy and do no—
The glow of my power exploded in a blinding burst. A massive craaaaaaack echoed through the kitchen. I blinked, trying to clear my eyes of the fireworks from the mini fireball.
My spoon had cracked in two.
A puddle of blackness bubbled in the rice. I tried to scoop out the taint with one of the spoon halves, but it was already too late. The white rice morphed into black tar. Instead of warm and comforting vanilla, it smelled like burnt rubber.
The scent sparked my least favorite memory. Tires squealed as Dylan Claussen peeled away, leaving me stranded in the school parking lot. Tears pricked the corners of my eyes as the gathered crowd chanted, “Kill the witch.” I’d pushed through them, running toward the school office. Somehow, I’d managed to break up with my boyfriend, drop out of high school, and almost get burned at the stake all in the same morning.
I still remembered crying in the principal’s office. The secretary had trembled while she typed up the forms for my withdrawal and I wondered what I could have done to make anyone so afraid.
I’d fix it if I could. Maybe then they’d let me live my life.
When Mom came home, I was sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by the latest rejection letter, my bowl of rice tar, and a mountain of crumpled tissues. The pudding didn’t taste that bad if I ignored the chunky black bits, but one bite had set me sobbing so hard it felt like the meat had pulled off my ribs.
My feelings couldn’t lie. Instead of turning my mood around, I’d cast a spell of despair.
“Anise?” She dropped her purse and rushed over. “What—” She must’ve seen the rejection letter because she scooped me straight into her arms. “Oh, sweetie. I’m so sorry.”
I leaned against her neck and breathed in the comforting scent of her rose oil perfume. The tears were mostly gone now, but I felt hollow. Like I couldn’t even light a candle if I wanted to. “I botched my joy spell or I wouldn’t be crying this much.”
Mom shoved the bowl away. “Why would you taste that?”
“I wanted to feel what I did wrong. It’s the only way I’ll get better.” I didn’t mind that Mom never cast anymore, but no matter how much people hated me for being a witch, my magic was the most me thing about me. I couldn’t not do spells. I wouldn’t change who I was for a second.
It was the other people I wanted to change.
“If you’d consider…” Mom began.
I pulled away from her, giving her the full view of my blotchy, tear-streaked face. I’d already cried enough to fill a vial with witch tears. If she started lecturing, I’d probably crack in half like my poor spoon.
Instead of going there, she smoothed back the loose wisps of my dark hair. “It’s the new moon. New beginnings. Should we go for a drive?”
“Yes.” I’d take any chance to escape into nature and soak up the moon’s energy. But Mom usually hated that stuff. I squinted at her. Her red-dyed hair was pulled up in a bun and she still wore her black apron and “Nora” name tag from the restaurant. Her blue eyes were bright, but she drooped a little. Which was no wonder, working three jobs.
I grabbed the bowl of rice pudding and headed to send it to its garbage disposal grave.
“Never mind. You have to be at the office in the morning.”
“Not anymore.” She let out a huge breath and slapped an envelope of her own next to my ripped-up rejection letter. “I was downsized, but I got last week’s pay plus two weeks of severance. What do you think? Some ice cream and a drive to the overlook?”
I couldn’t help flutters of unease as the rice pudding glopped down the drain. With both of us this lost, it might be time to move. Tomorrow, we’d come up with a plan.
For tonight, all I could stomach was ice cream.
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