Author: Amanda Marrone
I wake and turn to my window. The witch ball is rattling against the inside of the pane, glowing from a tangled spell within. I wonder which one of my so-called friends threw a hex my way? I watch the spell dance around in the spun glass, and hear the swoosh of brooms flying past, capes flapping. One, two, three soft landings rustle the leaves by the back door. The fourth hits the dirt hard, and I smile, thinking Dani better stop scarfing doughnuts or she won't be able to get off the ground much longer.
The ball bursts apart and glass clatters against the base-board. Margo. Damn her, she's always breaking them. I'll have to ask Mom to make the next one stronger.
I get out of bed and throw on a sweatshirt and jeans. I hope I'll be able to find a hat because it's getting too damn cold flying around on the stupid sticks without one. The last time I suggested we take a car, Zahara practically bit my head off-"We go by air or we don't go at all!" Like she's such the traditionalist. Ha! Wonder what her mother will say when she notices the tongue stud she's sporting? By the time I get downstairs, they're already walking into the kitchen. I wish my mom would keep the door locked or put up a do-not-enter spell, if only to keep Margo stewing out in the cold for a few minutes.
Dani waves at me. "Hey, Jules."
Sascha kneels and Nuisance jumps up in her arms, nuzzling his chin against her, purring madly.
I scan their faces-only Margo and Zahara seemed pissed. Their cheeks are bright red, and I breathe the smoky night air they brought in with them. "Hey, guys."
Zahara clacks her tongue stud on her front teeth, and runs her hand across her close-cropped black hair. "Nice bed head. Apparently you didn't know we were coming."
I run my fingers through my curls and look at the cauldron bubbling furiously on the burner-deep-purple steam flying up to the vent. "Mom! Why didn't you wake me up?"
My mom pads into the room and casts a glance at the pot. "Again? Didn't you girls go out a few nights ago?"
Margo rolls her eyes and snorts. "Um, it's not like they run on a schedule or anything."
Mom gives a half smile and shrugs. I hate she's taking that from Margo, but I'm no better. The more Margo and Zahara vie for Queen Bee, the more the rest of us seem to shrink in their wake. Well, not Sascha. Sascha seems to float outside the circle, only stepping in when things are about to break. But when did this happen to us? When did the need to pull rank get so strong?
Mom sighs as she heads to the stove. "There've been a lot more than usual." She reaches into a jar and tosses some herbs into the water until the steam runs clear. "Do you know who it is?" she asks.
Sascha nods. "Yeah, it's the guy who gutted that Wilkins lady last week. They tracked him down. Should be an easy job. Mrs. Keyes said he's at that bar by the river so we should get going before he drinks too much and passes out."
My mom cocks her head and purses her lips. "Sorry I wasn't keeping an eye on it, girls. There's a really good movie on and well, I guess I was hoping you'd get a few nights off."
Dani flicks her eyes at Margo and Zahara-then flashes a tiny smile at my mom. "It's okay, Mrs. Harris, my mom didn't see it right away, either."
"But she did see it," Margo says. "We didn't have to come fetch you."
"We're all together now," Sascha says quietly. "Let's just go."
"I need to find a hat first." I grab my wool cape from the coat rack and open the closet.
"For God's sake," Zahara says, "it's not that cold!"
I give her a hard look but close the door. "Fine."
Sascha squeezes my hand with icy fingers as we head to the mudroom. "You're going to wish you had a hat-it is that cold." Of course Sascha wouldn't be caught dead in a hat-she totally gets off on her long black hair swirling behind her as we ride. Like anyone is watching. But me, I'll take warmth over vanity, and it's not like a hat could make a dent in my curls.
"Bye, girls," my mom calls. "Be careful."
I fasten my cape, grab my broom, and follow them out. Sascha was right-it's freaking cold. The wind whips around my face sucking the warm air away. "Just a minute." As I head back into the house my broom jerks in my hand ready to fly, and I clutch the smooth handle to keep from losing my grip. I rummage through the bins in the closet and snag my purple hat. When I get back outside, Zahara's jaw is clenched tight- I hear her clacking the tongue stud impatiently on her teeth.
Margo smirks. "That's real stylish!"
I pull the wool down over my ears. "Thanks!"
We mount our sticks, and Sascha says, "I'll do it." She shakes her long hair so it fans out around her shoulders. "We fly in darkness for the good of all, let us pass unseen till we land again."
A shimmering fog envelops us and we're off. I tip my broom toward the sky and rise up. The frigid air cuts through my cape and I make a mental note to get my heavy sweaters down from the attic. Margo flies alongside me. "Your mother needs to get it together. Helena isn't going to tolerate this crap."
"Yeah, well, I wonder what Helena would think if she knew you were throwing her first name around like you're best buds? I was under the impression we were to call her 'Mrs. Keyes.' You broke another ball, by the way! What the hell were you trying to do?"
Margo looks down her thin pointy nose with wide eyes. "It was just a joke-the worst it could've done was give you a good jolt. And as of this weekend I'll be part of the inner circle, and I'm sure Mrs. Keyes will insist I use her first name." She grins, points her broom down, and shoots ahead next to Zahara.
I look behind, and pull my broom to fall back next to Dani. "Hey," I say. "How's it going?"
Dani shakes her head. "I've got a stupid chem test first period tomorrow. I really should be studying right now."
"Sorry I was late. I pulled an all-nighter yesterday and I crashed early tonight."
"It's okay, but Margo got all bent we had to come get you. Of course her mom is always watching their cauldron-always kissing ass." I laugh, glad to have Dani by my side-on my side. We ride a ways in silence and then I turn to her. "Things are so weird lately. I'm always afraid I'll say something wrong and piss Margo or Z off."
Dani nods. "We're supposed to be in this together, but . . ." She shrugs and looks ahead at Margo and Zahara. "My mom said this happened to them, too. She said it always does-I mean, there's only so long a bunch of girls can hang without getting on each other's nerves. But we have to try to keep it together. There's no one to take our places yet."
"They're making it harder to want to stay together."
Dani points her chin skyward. "Look at Miss Priss."
Sascha's flying higher than the rest of us-back stick-straight-hair stretching out behind her. "One good gust and she's gonna get blown off riding like that."
Dani draws in closer to me. "Connor's on cleanup tonight."
"I figured," I say, hoping I sound like I don't care.
Dani knows how much I like Connor, though. Of course, seeing as Connor and Michael are the only guys our age in the coven, there isn't a whole lot of choice. But Connor and I were inseparable until we hit seventh grade, and then our moms made it clear we needed some distance. I started hanging out with Dani, and Connor spent more time with Michael, but whenever we're together he sticks by my side and I hope he still thinks about me as much as I think about him.
"Who's helping?" I ask, hoping it's not Zahara's dad. All he does is complain about how bad his back is and how he really shouldn't be out at night in the cold.
Dani sticks out her tongue. "Michael. Let's hope he put some deodorant on today."
"Come on-Michael's a sweetie!"
"I know he is, but why haven't his parents told him his pits stink? I'd do it, but I don't want to hurt his feelings."
Sascha cuts down in front of us and points toward the parking lot. "There they are." I nod as we circle the lot and land next to Connor's van. The glamour hiding us blows away as soon as our feet touch the ground. Connor puts the window down. "Hey, what took you so long?"
Margo rolls her eyes. "What do you think? I hope your mom won't be upset."
Connor winks at me, and my stomach flips. "Don't worry, Jules, all she cares about is getting the job done. I'll call Michael; he's been buying the guy drinks inside."
I glance at Margo, her frown illuminated by the bar's neon sign, and try not to smile.
Connor punches the button on his cell phone and waits. "Hey! They're here."
"Why don't we head toward the river?" I say. As much as I'd love to stay with Connor, I need to concentrate on what we're doing.
Zahara nods and turns toward the sound of the water. "I'll bind him," she says to Margo.
Margo reaches into her cape and pulls out a small bag. "Here ya go." She turns to me as we wind our way through the trees. "Did you finish your Beowulf questions?" "Yeah."
"Can I copy them before class? I was too busy making binders for Mrs. Keyes."
"I guess." Dani tugs on my sleeve, and rolls her eyes. I'm pretty sure we're thinking the same thing-Margo's a kiss ass like her mother.
"Thanks," Margo says. "It took forever just to get a dozen done. I forgot how hard it is to roll the stupid things into a ball, and the damn paper is so thin it kept ripping when I tried twisting the top closed."
"It's got to be thin," Dani says, "so it'll break open when you throw it."
Margo glares at Dani and I know she's gonna give her shit for her habit of overstating the obvious. "Like I don't know that! I was just saying they're a pain in the ass to make!"
Dani purses her lips for a second, looking embarrassed. "Sorry."
Sascha puts her hand on Margo's shoulder. "This is a good spot."
We form a semicircle and wait. The river is full and noisy tonight-I hope it'll be enough to mask the sound.
"Here they come," Dani whispers.
"I want you to know I've never done this before," a man's voice says in the dark.
"Me neither," Michael says.
They come around a tree and he sees us.
"What the fu-"
"We bind you to the earth!" Zahara yells as she throws the wound paper to the ground at the man's feet. The ball bursts in a shower of blue light. Dirt, sticks, and decaying leaves bind together into snakelike tendrils, wrapping around his feet and twisting up his legs and around his waist to hold him in place.
I see him cover his round face as I blink away the echoes of light from my eyes. We draw closer to him-our arms stretched out to the sides to form a circle, energy leaping from our fingertips keeping the circle strong in case he's able to break free.
"What the hell's going on?" he asks, squinting at us. "Mike?"
"I'll go get the bag," Michael says, heading to the van.
"Hey, Mike!" The man struggles to move his feet. "Where are you going? Don't leave me."
"We hear you're a very naughty boy when the full moon comes out." Margo laughs.
"Let's just get on with it," Sascha says, sounding bored.
"Look, I don't know what you're talking about. I was just coming out here for-" He pauses and I wonder what Michael said to get him to come with him. Puffs of breath leave his mouth in short bursts. He pulls at his knees but the forest floor holds him tight.
"We have reason to believe you're responsible for some recent werewolf activity," Zahara says like she's a cop. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
"Shit," he says. "Look, I've never hurt anyone. I take precautions."
Zahara scoffs. "Funny, I think Annie Wilkins and Steven Gardener would beg to differ-if they were still alive, that is."
"Steven was before I got a watcher. And, and-Annie, that was an accident, I swear. I-I liked Annie-I never would've hurt her on purpose. Something went wrong, but it'll never happen again."
Margo nods her head. "Damn straight it'll never happen again."
"Come on," Sascha says, "let's just get this over with."
"He needs to show some remorse!" Zahara snaps. Margo looks at Z. "When do they ever show remorse?"
"Oh, my God, you're part of that group, aren't you? Oh, God no. I'll leave town, please," he begs. "Just let me go!"
Tears glisten on his cheeks. I hate when we drag it out like this, I hate how I start feeling sorry for them.
Zahara sighs. "All right, fine, let's do it."
The man smiles-he must think Z was talking about letting him go.
We all face our palms toward him and yell, "Reveal!"
Yellow light swirls around him forming a ball above his head. He looks at the sky with wide terrified eyes. I know he's feeling the change coming and instinctively searching for the round moon that isn't there.
"What did you do to me? This shouldn't be happening-it's not time!" he screams. "Please, just give me another chance!"
I want to look away but I never do. I need to see the change so I can steel myself for what comes next.
His face twists and expands into a long snout. I'm glad the water crashing behind us drowns the groan of bones growing at a remarkable pace. His clothes tear and drop. I get a glimpse between his legs, and feel my cheeks flush. Dark coarse hair grows, covering him, and he's complete. He snarls at us, jerking his muzzle from one person to the next, swiping the air with razor claws.
I reach into my cape pocket and take out my gun, freshly loaded with silver bullets. Arm straight-I aim at his chest and fire. We all step back to avoid the spray as he goes down. I don't watch his body change back, I want to remember him as the wolf and not the man-it makes it easier to sleep at night.
Michael walks past with the body bag. "Nice work."
"Anyone want to hang for a bit?" Connor asks as he helps Michael spread the bag.
Margo smiles. "Love to!"
Zahara lifts a flask from her cape. She takes a swig and hands it to Margo. "Me, too. We could head back to your house, Connor. Margo's got a bunch of binders to give your mom."
Connor looks at me. "How about you, Jules?"
I shrug, feeling drained. "I should head home; I'm tired and it's late."
He pouts his lips, and I almost change my mind, but Zahara and Margo exchange looks, and I don't feel like dealing with any more of their crap tonight. "Hey, Michael, what did you tell the guy to get him out here?" I ask, changing the subject.
Michael looks up and winks at me. "Blow job."
Shaking my head, I take the flask from Margo. The cool metal stings my lips as the brandy burns its way down my throat. I hate the way it tastes, but Zahara refuses to fill the flask with wine or anything else because "brandy is the traditional after-kill drink." Of course it doesn't help having Helena in charge, making sure things are ridiculously old school.
I hand it to Dani who takes a quick sip. "I've got a chem quiz."
Sascha holds out her hand and takes the flask. "I've got a French translation to finish." She takes a long drink and puts the flask in her cape. "You don't mind if I borrow this do you, Z? My mom noticed some of her booze was missing, and she cast a spell on all the bottles so they'll only open for her. But I'm going to need a little buzz to help me get through interpreting Le Petite Prince, c'est tres difficile pour moi!"
"Okay," Zahara say, "but don't drink the whole thing-I don't want Mrs. Keyes on my ass for going through her good brandy too quickly!"
She shoots an apologetic look at Connor, but he just smiles. He knows what a bitch his mom can be.
Sascha pats the flask in her cape. "Don't worry, a little goes a long way." She mounts her broom and heads up through the trees. "Later."
Michael and Connor grunt as they roll the man into the bag.
"What was his name?" I ask.
Michael wipes his sleeve across his forehead. "Uh, Jack."
Connor zips the bag up and stands, wiping his hands against his jeans. I look up at the sharp crescent moon. "Rest in peace, Jack."
Connor laughs. "You're such a softy, Jules! You sure you can't hang with us?"
"If she's tired, she's tired," Margo says.
Dani sighs. I wonder if she's waiting for Connor to ask her to come over, too. She crosses her arms across her stomach. "Well, like I said, I've got to study." She leans in and kisses everyone on the cheek, something we used to do all the time-now it looks awkward and forced.
"I'll go with you," I say, air-kissing Margo and Zahara. I squeeze Michael's shoulder, and then I put one hand on Connor's cheek and give him a long, wet, full-on-the-mouth kiss. He presses my lips with his and I pull away.
"Bye," I whisper. I mount my broom-my heart pounding louder than the water on the rocks. I look at Zahara and Margo, and try very hard not to smile in their wide-eyed faces. "Have fun, guys."
As we clear the parking lot, Dani bursts out laughing. "Oh, my God, Jules-you so rule! I can't believe you did that. Did you see their faces? Did you? And he totally kissed you back!"
I allow the smile to come now and wonder if he can taste brandy on his lips. I just hope there won't be hell to pay tomorrow.