Home » , , , , , , » Valentine Witch: A Heartblaze Novelette by Shay Roberts

Valentine Witch: A Heartblaze Novelette by Shay Roberts

Spencer and I managed to grab our favorite spot at Buzz, the two red chairs by the bookshelf. A lot of students prefer Starbucks, but I like Buzz Coffee House. Oddly, though, I never get a buzz from coffee, it just makes me queasy, so I sip my green tea while Spencer jams a second straw into his espresso float.
Valentine Witch: A Heartblaze Novelette
Valentine Witch: A Heartblaze Novelette by Shay Roberts
He smiles. “So, this will interest you, because you’re always going on about trees. Guess what we’re studying in Intro to Algorithms and Data Structures?” As usual, he never waits for me to answer. “That’s right, trees!” Spencer, my lovable computer geek, doesn’t need espresso to get a buzz. “I highly doubt that.” “It’s true, they’re a data structure. Buy my next drink or else I’ll explain them to you. In detail.” “Deal.” I smile as I watch him snarf his drink through the twin straws. How did such an unlikely person become my best friend in Greenville? Probably because he makes me laugh. And because he loves hearing my Amazon stories, though I’m careful never to reveal my true origin. Spencer grew up in Greenville and desperately wants to escape this place and have the kind of adventures I’ve experienced. We’ve been best friends since middle school. It’s weird having a male friend. I know he’s straight, but he’s never hit on me. He once said that as a girlfriend, I’d be out of his league. I think that’s just a polite way of saying I’m not his type. So I’m just happy to be his friend. I stiffen as a sudden tingle washes over me. Luke is nearby! Spencer waves and shouts. “Bro, over here!” Luke, wearing his ECU Pirates cap, looks over from the order counter and makes eye contact with me. My heart thumps. I can physically feel his gray eyes on me like a warm embrace. Beneath his team jacket, he wears a denim shirt over a white t-shirt. I want him so much that it hurts, like a bruise on my heart. Spencer sees the way I’m looking at Luke. “How do you say fellatio, in Guarani?” “God, shut up!” This is a little game between us, but sometimes Spencer takes it too far. I speak Spanish, a bit of Portuguese, and Guarani, the most common indigenous language in the Americas. Spencer only wants to know the Guarani words, and the weirder, the better. Spencer thinks I’m just lusting for Luke. But it’s more than that. Luke and I had a class together last semester and I spent a lot of time studying with him. He’s a genuinely good and caring person. I’ve totally fallen for him. Spencer leans in conspiratorially. “The Pirates are organizing a Valentine Dance for the Special Olympics. I heard that Luke’s looking for a girl to help him set it up.” “That’s only two days away. I’m sure he’s already set it up.” Spencer smiles. “Maybe.” I hate Valentine’s Day. Not one has ever gone well for me. At home I keep a heart-shaped box, made of Bolivian rosewood. When a romantic adventure goes wrong, which is literally every time, I take a souvenir of the mishap and put it in the box. Every now and then, when I feel my hopes racing ahead of reality, I look in the box and it brings me back to earth. I try to keep my expectations from getting too high, because if they’re dashed, I could get sick. Or worse. I feel my throat go dry as Luke heads toward us with a cup of coffee. He is so beautiful. Something about his lips reminds me of a lion. I went to middle school with him, back when he was just a soft little jerk who played pranks on me. Now he’s all grown up, and who could have guessed he’d transform so dramatically, both in body and spirit? I love it that he’s helping the Special Olympics. As Luke joins us, Spencer attempts some special handshake the football team uses. Of course he messes it up, but Luke doesn’t make him feel stupid about it. Luke turns his gray gaze on me. “Hey, Izzy, picked a topic for your paper?” Luke and I are both taking a General Ed history class. The assignment is to write a paper about local history using material gathered in the field. I find my voice, but it comes out weaker than I planned. “I’m doing Blackbeard. There’s supposed to be some old guy on the Outer Banks who has one of his tobacco pipes. What are you doing?” “General Nathanael Greene. Our city’s named after him. He was kicked out of the Quakers.” I’m trying to think of an interesting response, but my mind is blank. Spencer suddenly turns to Luke. “Bro, I gotta go study trees. Good luck next game.” Luke frowns. “The season’s over. We sucked.” “Oh, right. Hey, still got spring training right? Gotta pump that iron. Go Pirates!” Spencer heads over to talk to a girl from his computer class. He’s a good friend, and he’s only leaving to give me some alone time with Luke. Luke flashes me a perfect smile and takes Spencer’s seat. “Want to know why Greene was kicked out of the Quakers?” I see that familiar passion coming to Luke, making his cheeks blush. He cares so much about everything. “Of course, tell me.” “He was a patriot. He wanted to fight the British but the Quakers are pacifists. So just like that, they kicked him out. I mean, imagine if I was gay …” I’d rather not imagine that. “So I’m gay, right, and I get kicked out of my church for being gay. That’s still happening, you know. That’s crap, that’s what it is. Pisses me off.” I love the way he furrows his brow when he’s upset. “Oh, before I forget, you’re a lifesaver.” He holds out his hand, palm up. Without thinking, I rest my hand on his and a warm tingling rises up my arm. He looks puzzled. I’m mortified as I remember he had asked for my notes on a class he missed. Now it’s my turn to blush. “Oh. Sorry. I have those notes right here.” A lot of students take notes on a laptop, but I’m a lousy typist, so I do it the old-fashioned way. I pull the handwritten notes from my folder and give them to Luke. He smiles. “Really appreciate this.” “Happy to help.” I’ve almost forgotten I just grabbed his hand like an idiot. I love the way he never makes people feel embarrassed. “Izzy, there’s something I want to talk to you about.” Is he going to ask me to help him with the dance? But I’m stupid for getting my hopes up. I’ve seen him hanging out with Latasha Johnson, the beautiful girl with skin like polished ebony. “Something wrong?” I realize that Luke is looking at me with concern. The emotions in my heart have spilled over to my face. I have to be more careful. Mom taught me that to fit into human society, I have to hide my volatile emotions. I’m still not very good at that. I take a quick sip of tea to get my voice back. “I’m fine, what’s up?” Suddenly, I hear a singsong female voice. “Luc-as.” It’s Latasha, just breezing in from the land of the perfect girls, wearing knee-high boots and a long coat with beautiful brass buttons. I hate it when she calls him Lucas. His name is Luke. She shrugs off her coat into Luke’s hands, revealing a skirt and tight-fitting top. All of these garments have names, but I don’t know them. Fashion isn’t a priority in the Amazon. Latasha puts a possessive hand on Luke’s shoulder and makes eye contact with me. “Lucas, honey, will you get me a coffee with hazelnut?” “Sure, Tash, coming right up.” Luke leaves me alone with Latasha. Was he about to ask for my help with the dance? Latasha peers at me, concerned. “Are you getting enough sleep?” “Yes. Why?” “Hmm, maybe just too much eyeshadow.” “I don’t wear makeup.” “Ah, don’t blame you. Hard to match that skin tone.” I want to hear what Luke has to say. But I’d better leave before I do something I’ll regret. THE PRESENT As I crouch along the river bank, I know in my heart that the man behind the tree is a predator. In all my adventures, I’ve never had to escape a predator. The jungle animals, even jaguars, left me alone as a child. They saw me as one of their own. But I won’t get the same courtesy from a human. Mother taught me that people are the most dangerous predators of all. Unlike animals, I can’t always tell what they’re feeling. But sometimes, if I try really hard, I can put images into people’s heads, making them see things that aren’t there. Mom calls it glamour. She said I should only use it in emergencies. This probably counts as an emergency, but my power is useless right now. I have to be able to see the person to make it work, and this man is hiding. Despite the cold, I slip off my shoes and socks. I won’t get out of this if I keep wearing them. Having them on is like wearing a blindfold. Somehow, with my feet against the earth, I have a better sense of what’s happening around me, and I can move faster. I toss a pebble to create a distraction, then head quickly downstream, staying close to the running water so it will mask what little noise I’m making. After creating some distance between me and my stalker, I turn away from the creek and race toward my car. I’m running as fast as a deer, leaping over rocks and fallen trees, blasting unimpeded through thick patches of scrub. I feel what I call my jungle high, a buzz I used to get when flying tirelessly through the rainforest, every decision about whether to zig or zag made instantly, without thought. There’s no better feeling in the world. I have to bite my lip to stifle a laugh. Whoever this man is, I’ve left him in the dust. He can’t catch me. No one can. I have a strange urge to tear off my clothes and just keep running forever. As I vault over a huge fallen log, something breaks the spell and I stumble to a halt. I felt something odd when I touched that log. I touch it again. It’s a buzzing feeling, like bees are swarming inside the wood. How strange! I examine the wood and discover an almost invisible seam. No one’s eyes are as good as mine, and I can barely see it. It looks like some sort of lid. Is there an opening here? I let my hands explore the space on their own and they find a knothole. I slide my index finger into the knothole and pull. I gasp as some sort of hatch door opens. Below it I see narrow, moss-covered stairs leading into the darkness underground. This has to be it. This is where Millicent lives! I whisper down into the void, afraid to make too much noise. “Hello?” Nothing but silence, and a warm breeze. Where is the heat coming from? For some reason, I suddenly imagine these stairs leading straight into the bowels of Hell. But whatever hell awaits, it can’t be worse than this all-consuming, unreturned love for Luke. I’m a wreck. I pray the witch can help. Finding my courage, I ease myself down onto the shadowy stairs. ONE DAY EARLIER I’m northbound on the 158, headed to Kill Devil Hills in the sea-green Corolla my mother gave me as a parting gift. It’s not that I’m not grateful, I just wish she had kept the car instead of leaving for Manaus. I pass the Wright Brothers Memorial on my left. I’ve been meaning to go there. You can actually walk the path flown by the world’s first airplane. That was just a century ago, and already we’re talking about sending people to Mars. Amazing! But the Wright brothers will have to wait. Right now I need to interview a man named Casper Meekins. One of my profs tipped me off to this guy, a self-proclaimed Blackbeard expert. Maybe he’s just some crazy old man, but I enjoy crazy and I need to get out of Greenville. Minutes later I’m in Kill Devil Hills. What a great name for a town! The GPS on my phone directs me to Oceanview, the assisted-living facility where I’ll find Casper. After claiming a parking spot in a near-empty visitor section, I head inside the main office, where I encounter a surly receptionist with a hairy lip reading a celebrity gossip site on her computer screen. She glances up without saying anything. I give her a pleasant smile. “Hi, I’m here to meet with Casper Meekins.” She glances at a sheet of paper with only one name written on it. “You’re not on the list.” “Sorry, what list?” “He’s under Alzheimer watch. Family only, and you need to have an appointment.” I flash her the look, something Mom describes as an upside-down smile, but without being a frown. “I’m his granddaughter, and I do have an appointment.” At an early age, I discovered that I am the best liar on earth. It’s a gift of my Fae blood. Mom constantly urged me not to use it, especially on her. But as a kid, that didn’t stop me. I only started feeling guilty about using it when I got older. But this is, at worst, a white lie. Older people are often lonely, and I’ll bet Casper wants to tell me his stories. He’ll get as much out of this as I will. The mean receptionist looks confused. “Sorry, it’s the building right behind this one. He’s in unit 106.” I thank her and exit the rear door of the office, eventually locating Casper’s building, a collection of small apartments. I find unit 106, with a doormat shaped like a sailing ship, and ring the doorbell. It’s so loud it hurts my ears. Inside, I hear a gruff old voice. “Just be patient now, I’ll get there.” It sounds like he’s walking with a cane. It takes him a long time to get here, but he throws open the door with surprising vigor. Casper is bone thin, with wispy white hair and sharp blue eyes. “Takes me some time now, since my fall.” His accent fascinates me. It sounds almost Australian, with a hint of Irish. When he says “time,” it sounds like “toime.” I heard about this at ECU; it’s called High Tide Brogue, and some people think it’s the closest thing we have to Elizabethan English. This man is living history. “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Meekins, my name is—” He cuts me off, “I know your damned name, girl. Come in before the sun sets.” How does he know my name? He’s just confused. Must be the Alzheimer’s. I follow him inside, waiting patiently as he moves at a crawl with his cane. Will I be like this one day, unable to sprint through the jungle? The thought terrifies me. Casper points to a sofa in a small living room dominated by a gigantic TV screen. There’s some sort of fishing show on, but he has it on mute. “Sit yourself down, Claire. I’ll get you an orange juice. No pulp, just the way you like it.” He thinks I’m someone named Claire. Should I play along or is that just cruel? “Claire couldn’t make it today, Mr. Meekins.” “What’s this Mr. Meekins crap? I’m your grandpa.” He actually thinks I’m his granddaughter. Did the receptionist call ahead of me, or is my glamour working unintentionally? Casper returns with half a glass of orange juice. “Go easy on that, it’s bad for the sugar.” I take the glass with a smile. I love orange juice. “Thanks.” “Why you here, Claire? Nobody’s seen you around for months now, maybe years. Don’t ask me for exact dates, berlaskin head ain’t right no more.” Berlaskin head? I love the way he talks. I should be recording this. “I need to ask you some questions, Grandpa. Is it okay if I record this?” Casper nods and sits heavily next to me. “Sure, but you’re interrupting my fish show.” He pronounces “fish” as “feesh.” I could listen to him all day. I set my phone on the sofa between us and turn on the audio recording app. “I want to ask you some questions about Blackbeard.” His eyes light up and he almost bounds off the sofa, losing his balance for a moment before grabbing his cane. “You just sit, I got something to bring you.” I wait patiently, trying to ignore the mentholated smell coming from the sofa. Casper returns with something in a jar of water. It looks like a small leather sack. He sits beside me, breathing hard, and waves the jar in my face. “Guess what I got?” I take the jar from his hands. Whatever is in there was alive once. But that’s about all I can tell. “I have no idea. What is it?” Casper smiles a snaggletoothed grin. “It’s Blackbeard’s balls!” Suddenly, I realize the leather sack is actually a scrotum. “That’s disgusting!” I hand the jar back to him. He’s delighted by my reaction and chortles. “Careful, now. It’s a historical artifact, is what it is.” I’m already imagining telling this story to Spencer. He’ll think it’s hilarious. But what happened to the pipe? “I thought you had Blackbeard’s pipe.” “Why would I want his pipe when I got his balls?” For a moment, I wonder if this is some sort of joke. Maybe my professor set me up. But why would he do that? And besides, Casper seems so earnest. He believes what he’s telling me. And I believe those are actual human testicles in the jar. But they can’t belong to Blackbeard. Someone probably lied to Casper and took his life savings in exchange for them. “Grandpa, where did you get them?” “They call them balls, but why isn’t it ball? Brain’s got two sides but it’s a brain, not brains. Butt’s got two sides but it’s a butt, not butts.” He’s losing it. I have to get him back on track. “Where did you get these? If they’re human remains, there could be a victim somewhere.” “Oh, there’s a victim, alright, and he’s at the bottom of Ocracoke Inlet.” “Can you please tell me how you got this?” Casper chews at the inside of his cheek. “Mama told me not to say.” “You can tell me, Grandpa, I’m family.” Okay, that was more of a gray lie, and I feel a pang of guilt. Casper slowly nods. “Fine, Claire, but you can’t tell Mama.” “I won’t tell anyone, I promise.” Casper places the jar on a low coffee table in front of the sofa, then puts his cane across his knees as if trying to brace himself. “Daddy was a no good cheater and Mama had her fill of it. So she went to Miz Millicent for help.” Casper stops, glancing nervously into the dark corners of the room. “Who is Miz Millicent?” Casper licks his dry lips and clutches his cane. “A love-witch. Lives in the woods on the north end of Roanoke. Been there since forever. See, Mama was good with mushrooms, and she sometimes made poisons for Miz Millicent, called them remedies. But she didn’t want to kill Daddy, just wanted him sleeping in his own damn bed.” Wow, too bad I can’t write my paper about that! “So she went to Miz Millicent, on account of Miz Millicent owing her for some remedies. Otherwise, going there would’ve been damn foolish. If regular folks find Miz Millicent, they have to answer a particular riddle before she’ll help them. And if they get it wrong, they get mommicked, for a certainty.” He looks into the corners again. It makes me nervous. “So your mother asked Millicent to make your dad stop cheating?” “Now you’re listening right. Miz Millicent gave Mama this jar with Blackbeard’s balls. Part of some spell to put Daddy on the straight and narrow. Worked, too. When Mama died, I found them in the attic. And ever since, I’ve made a studiment of Edward Teach.” I take a closer look at the jar. The glass looks handblown, and the lid seems to be sealed with some sort of wax. It all looks very convincing. But I need to know more. “Grandpa, tell me how Millicent came to have this jar.” “Simple. She loved Edward and he broke her heart. A man with good sense don’t break a witch’s heart. So she took his manhood. That alone didn’t kill him, but he died in his very next battle. Couldn’t fight right without his balls.” “That can’t be. Edward Teach died in 1718. That would make Millicent around three hundred years old.” “She’s a witch. Ain’t you been listening? She’ll still be in those woods a hundred years from now. As long as there’s love, there’ll be a love-witch.” What if all this is really true? No one needs the help of a love-witch more than me. “Grandpa, do you know what riddle Millicent asks?” I jump as the front door suddenly opens. An angry man with gray hair and a business suit strides in with the receptionist creeping sheepishly beside him. Casper whispers to me, “Shit, we’re ’bout to get mommicked.” THE PRESENT As I creep down the steps into the witch’s lair, my eyes adjust to the darkness. Mom always said I have cat’s eyes, because I can see at night. When it gets really dark, as it is down here, everything takes on a blue hue. At the bottom of the stairs is a surprisingly large room with an antique wooden table and chairs. Looks like a dining room. Several dusty, unlit candelabras stand on the table. I examine them. They look hand carved, from ivory or bone, and depict a series of beautiful female faces, like Greek goddesses. I want to see the room without the blue hue, so I look for some way to light the candles. After rummaging around, I find a box of matches in a cupboard filled with delicate china dishes. I light the candles, bringing warm light into a room covered with a half inch of dust. Clearly, no one has been here for decades. Suddenly, I leap from my skin as I see someone standing on the other side of the table: an ethereal woman with long white hair, blue eyes full of suspicion, and a heart painted on her lips. She strokes an albino ferret cradled to her breast as she speaks in a cold tone. “You must excuse the mess. I spend most of my time on the other side.” Casper isn’t crazy. The witch is real! And she looks pissed. “I’m Isabelle. I’m so sorry to intrude, truly I am. Please forgive me. It’s just … you’re my last hope.” Thinking of Luke suddenly fills me with pain. The witch’s face softens a bit. “Ah, so this is a professional call, a matter of the heart?” I nod, trying to push back my emotions. Millicent squints, as if seeing me for the first time. She sets her ferret on the table, comes around to me, and lifts a candelabra to my face. “I see you’re no ordinary girl.” I feel a twinge of fear. I’ve been trained from birth to hide my true heritage. I try to sound casual and innocent. “What do you mean?” Millicent shrugs. “Have it your way. It’s not my place to meddle in these things. I have but one purpose, and but one question. Answer it correctly and I may help you. But answer wrong and I’ll feed you to my creatures.” My stomach lurches in fear and I take a step back. She’s so beautiful, but she scares the crap out of me. I glance down at the glittering red eyes of the ferret, and suddenly I have an urge to flee. I look back at the stairs. Millicent snaps her fingers. “Too late for that. You’re here now, and you will answer my riddle.” I nod, unable to find my voice. She gestures for me to sit, so I comply. She’s smiling now, for the first time. For some reason, that’s even scarier. “Listen carefully, strange girl, for I will not repeat this. Are you ready?” No. But I nod anyway. “I am a burden that only others can lift. What am I?” Is her riddle really that simple? The answer seems so obvious that I don’t trust it. This is a question that I was born to answer. I swallow hard and speak softly. “Loneliness.” Millicent’s face twitches. I can’t read her expression. She sits down across from me and her ferret climbs into her lap. “Before I render aid, you must agree to one condition.” A wave of relief washes over me. Apparently, I gave the right answer. “What condition?” “When you die, you will owe me a lifetime of service. An animal lifetime.” “I don’t understand.” She holds up her ferret and he squirms in her grip. “This is Phillip. He accepted my help, and when he died of heart failure, he returned to serve me as a companion and food taster. When this animal body dies, he will be released from his debt.” Oh my god, I’ve heard of this! Witches have familiars. Usually it’s a cat, but this one’s a ferret. I love animals, and I’ve always wanted to come back as an animal, but not as a witch’s pet. This may be too crazy, even for me. I shake my head. “Maybe I made a mistake.” Millicent cocks her head. “Tell me this boy’s name.” “Luke.” His name strikes me like a hammer. Who am I kidding? This broken heart will end me. I can’t fix this on my own. I hesitantly meet Millicent’s eyes. “Okay, I accept your terms.” She extends her hand across the table and I reluctantly take it. Her grip is strong and her skin hot. Have I just sold my soul to the devil? “The pact is sealed, strange one. Now, what would you have me do with Luke?” ONE DAY EARLIER I return from visiting Casper and park my Corolla at the guesthouse behind Mrs. Jenkins’s place. She lets me stay there for free, and in exchange I cook for her. She’s a sweet old retired woman who eats like a bird, so it’s no trouble. Sometimes I worry I’m taking advantage of her, so I clean her house as well. She’s getting too old to be hauling a vacuum around. On the way here I got a text from Luke and a message from my academic advisor. My advisor wants me to come in for a chewing-out over my interview with Casper Meekins, and Luke wants to stop by to “ask me something.” I texted Luke to come on over. He’s been to my place several times to study. Is he coming to ask me to help him with the Valentine dance? Will Latasha be with him? I hurry into the guesthouse, no bigger than a small apartment. I loved this place the moment I saw it. It’s in the woods just outside the city, and it’s so quiet that I can hear five different species of birds chirping in the morning. It’s not the jungle, but it will do. Luke already knows about some of my weirdness, like the wooden “silverware” I use, but I don’t need this tampon box sitting out on the bathroom counter, or that bra draped across the chair in my bedroom. Of course, I’m not likely to be in the bedroom with him, am I? I feel myself getting giggly. I know from experience that it’s dangerous to get my hopes up like this. I need to control myself, to come back down to earth. And I know a surefire way to do that. I pull my heart-shaped box out from under the futon and run my fingers over the Bolivian rosewood. Amazon wood has a certain feel, I’d know it with my eyes closed. I quickly open the box and force myself to grab a random item. It’s a movie ticket. I remember this one. Trevor Marlin took me to the movies on the night of Valentine’s Day, three years ago. He left to go to the bathroom and never came back. I’m still feeling too happy, so I reach in and pluck out another item. It’s a valentine card from a secret admirer I had in middle school. I never found out who sent it. I suspect it’s actually a pity valentine from Heather Marston, the nice girl who gave up her spot as prom queen to a girl with Down syndrome. I’m still too hopeful. I need one more reminder. I fish around in the box and pull out a candy wrapper. That was from last Valentine’s Day, when I watched Doctor Zhivago and ate an entire box of chocolates that Mrs. Jenkins gave me. I got so sick I was up all night. Okay, I am officially back down to earth. I hear a car drive up outside. Luke’s here! He sure didn’t waste any time coming over. I shove my big box of memories back under the futon and hurry to the door to let him in. Through the screen I see Luke approaching alone. Yay, no Latasha! That has to be a good sign. Luke looks great. Since football season ended, he’s started letting his light brown hair get longer. He smiles as I open the screen door. “Hey, Izzy, I just need a minute.” “Sure, come on in.” I try to sound casual, but it sounds more like I have a cold. He plops down in one of my beanbag chairs. “These chairs rock. I want one.” “Can I get you something?” “Nah, thanks, I can’t stay.” I see his fingers scratching absentmindedly at the carpet. Is he nervous? How is that possible? He must be bored. “Are you sure? I was just going to make something to eat.” He sits up straighter. “About that. You’re an awesome cook. Everyone thinks so. Remember that stuff you made last study group, with the smoked sausage?” “Andouille pot stickers. My mom used to make them.” “Oh god, they’re really good. And you were so nice to offer to make them again sometime.” Where is he going with this? Does he want me to cook for the dance? I could do that. Maybe I won’t need the witch’s help after all. I smile, trying to sound casual. “I’d be happy to make them again.” “That would be awesome. A big favor to me. See, I got this thing tomorrow.” I nod, gazing into his soft gray eyes. This is it! Kind of last-minute, but he’s going to ask me! “After the Special Olympics dance, Latasha is coming over to my place. She thinks I can cook, but I can’t. I’m hoping you can like, ghost-cook for me, so she doesn’t find out. I’ll really owe you.” My heart explodes. A hole opens in the floor and swallows me whole. I feel myself plunging into blackness. THE PRESENT I sit at Millicent’s table, crying. She asked me to cry so she could harvest my tears. All it took was thinking back to that horrible moment when Luke asked me to cook for his girlfriend. It hit me so hard that I actually fainted. Luke was freaked out, so I told him I had low blood sugar and was upset about getting in trouble for the interview. He believed me, of course, thanks to my Fae gift of lying. What happened afterward scared me more than the fainting. I felt physically weaker, and some of my hair came out in the shower. Not enough for anyone to notice, yet, but it’s only a matter of time before this love cancer eats me away to nothing. Sometimes I imagine that my father is dead, killed by this same affliction. Perhaps he was cast aside by my mother, then retreated into the jungle to die of a broken heart. As tears flow down my cheeks, Millicent collects them with a small gold spoon. Then she slowly empties the spoon across a china saucer, creating a little trail of tears. Her smoky blue eyes bore into mine. “Are you certain this is what you want?” When Millicent first asked what I wanted done with Luke, it sounded like a gangster calling a hit. But I won’t take this out on Luke. This is my problem. It’s not his fault. So I’ve asked Millicent to make sure her spell only affects me. I want my love for Luke to disappear. It’s the only way I’ll survive this. I nod to her. “Yes, this is what I want.” Millicent points to the saucer. “Then kill it.” I look down to find the trail of tears has transformed into a pale, twisting worm. I’ve never killed anything on purpose, not even an insect. The thought of killing this poor, helpless creature makes me sick. “I can’t.” Millicent snaps. “Don’t try my patience, it’s just a construct.” Millicent is getting angry and that scares me. Shame and disgust wash through me as I take a cup from the table and press it into the saucer, crushing the worm. It makes a little squeak as it dies. I nearly throw up. The witch nods. “Now go home while you still can. When I look at you, I think of all the rare spell ingredients I could harvest from your body.” That’s it? Did she cast the spell? I don’t feel any different. I step away from the table and Millicent directs me to the stairs. As I look up at the hidden opening in the log, I remember the man lurking in the woods. “Thank you for your help. Before I go, I just want to warn you. There was a man in the woods. He was careful, like a hunter. It’s probably nothing, but he worried me.” Millicent pauses, her eyes narrowing as she looks up at the opening. “Your concern is noted.” I climb the stairs and emerge into the forest above. Without a word, Millicent slams the secret hatch behind me. I survey the woods. The animals are calm so hopefully there’s no danger around. As I hike toward my car, I realize what I need to do to test Millicent’s spell. I have to make Valentine’s Day dinner for Luke and Latasha. If I can do that, I’ll know I’m cured of this sickness. I’m alone in Luke’s kitchen. I thought about calling Spencer over to help me make dinner. But if I have some sort of breakdown, I don’t want him to see it. And what’s more, I don’t know how to explain the witch to him. Spencer’s a man of science. He’ll think I’ve lost my mind. Luke is off with Latasha, running the Valentine’s Day Dance for the Special Olympics. They’ll be back for dinner in an hour, and I’m making good progress on the Andouille pot stickers. I should have the food finished and be out of here before Luke and Latasha return. At first, I thought Millicent’s spell hadn’t worked. When Luke left for the dance, I was still all tingly for him. Then I used his bathroom. There was some sort of dark ring around the inside of the toilet. Gross. I felt a little less tingly after that. I’m actually running ahead of schedule, so before I put the pot stickers in the skillet, I want to check something. Before he left, Luke told me to make myself at home. He probably didn’t mean I could go into his bedroom, but I need to see it. I need to feel it. His bedroom is small and crowded with football trophies and high school track medals. Wow, someone certainly thinks a lot of himself. I sit on his squeaky bed and run my hands across the ugly brown comforter. It smells musty. Has it ever been laundered, even once? I’m definitely not feeling the awe and excitement I expected here. I go back into the kitchen and put the pot stickers in the skillet. While they’re cooking, I check the place settings at the table. Luke has written on a paper heart at Latasha’s spot: “Be my Valentine, Latasha.” His handwriting is surprisingly feminine, and he used a little heart to dot the i in Valentine. I panic as I hear footsteps in the hallway outside. Is that them? They’re way too early! For a moment I consider hiding, but then I’d be stuck here while they did god knows what, thinking they were alone. My heart pumps harder as the door rattles and the handle turns. I freeze in my tracks as Luke enters the room. Relief washes over me when I see he’s alone. “You’re early, what happened?” He closes the door and throws his keys on the table with a sour look. “Tasha and I had a fight.” “On Valentine’s Day? Are you kidding me? That sort of thing only happens to me.” He grabs a beer from the fridge and slumps into a chair. “I think she was making fun of the kids at the dance. She claims she wasn’t.” He’s finally realizing that Latasha is a mean girl. “I’m sorry, Luke, that really sucks.” As I go over to take the skillet off the burner, I analyze my feelings. I do feel sorry for Luke, but I’m not eager to pounce on the opening. Now I know for certain that Millicent’s spell worked. I’m no longer in love with Luke. And the irony is, he’s now available. Fate has a sense of humor. I make Luke a plate of pot stickers and bring it over to the table. “This might help a little.” He jumps on the food. “Damn, this smells good. Thanks, Izzy. Why can’t Latasha be more like you?” He jams the food in his face. He’s not exactly a delicate eater. Why didn’t I notice that before? Wait, what? Did he just say he wishes Latasha was like me? That must be his stomach talking. I sit across from him, trying not to watch his teeth grind the food. “Valentine’s Day puts a lot of pressure on women. Maybe she just said something stupid by mistake.” Luke shakes his head. “You know what? Forget about her.” He gets up and grabs a pen from the kitchen counter, then scratches her name off of the valentine on the table. In its place he writes “Isabelle.” He slides the valentine to me and sits down to resume eating. Wow, is he really that emotionally clueless? He speaks with his mouth full. “You’re the one who deserves the valentine. You were so sweet to make dinner. And I was a jerk to ask. Please stay and eat with me.” I’ve heard of this. The rebound effect. “Luke …” “That’s right, it’s Luke, not Lucas, goddamnit. Why does she always call me Lucas? I guess Luke isn’t good enough.” I try to speak in a calming tone. “You’ve got strong feelings right now. Maybe you’re saying some things you don’t really mean.” “No, I mean it. You and I should be dating. I’ve always liked you, Izzy. More than liked you.” I feel anger rising in me. How can he so casually use me to soothe his hurt feelings? “I should go, Luke.” I rise from the table but he reaches over to take my arm. “I’m sorry, Izzy. Please stay.” I don’t feel any tingling where he’s touching me. I just feel pissed as I jerk my arm away. “How dare you treat me like this? I’m not a consolation prize!” He blinks, taken aback by my outburst. “What? No. I’m serious. I like you more than Latasha.” I feel my face flush with anger. “So you’re saying that if Latasha called right now and apologized and begged to get back together, you’d tell her no, because you like me better all of a sudden?” “Not all of a sudden. I’ve always liked you. You’re the one who just wants to be friends!” I feel my rage boiling. Blood pumps in my ears. “Where are you getting that? This isn’t about me. It’s about you getting dumped and using me as a Band-Aid!” I grab the valentine that he just wrote my name on. “You know what? I have a special box for things like this.” He looks bewildered. “I don’t understand why you’re so mad.” I grab my purse, storm out of his apartment, and slam the door behind me. As I drive home, I think about Luke’s second-hand valentine stuffed into my pocket. How could I have had feelings for that jerk? I’m suddenly struck by a realization. Why am I so angry at Luke? My hands are actually shaking. Mom always told me that anger isn’t the opposite of love, it’s the other side of love. Is it possible the witch’s spell is wearing off? Are my feelings for Luke returning? I find myself heading east, out of town. It’s a two-hour drive to Roanoke Island and I’ll arrive in the middle of the night. But I have excellent night vision and will have no problem finding Millicent’s hidden home. She will not be happy to see me again, but maybe she has some answers. I really hope she does. I can’t keep going like this. It’s raining by the time I hike to the witch’s lair, and I’m cold, wet, and muddy. It’s a dark night, with only the suggestion of moonlight penetrating the clouds. I find the log with the hidden hatch but immediately notice something’s wrong. I can’t feel the seams of the hatch, or the knothole that opens it. After some fumbling around, I worry that I’ve come to the wrong log. I circle around the area, looking for other logs. It’s not like me to be this disoriented. I freeze in fear as I see some sort of spindly creature lurking before me. I hold my breath, studying it for a moment before I realize that it’s not a living object. I step closer and discover a dome of black glass mounted on a tripod. Is it some sort of camera or sensing device? Suddenly, I hear crashing in the woods all around me. From hundreds of yards away, and in all directions, people are converging on my location, and they aren’t trying to be quiet. My heart pounds with terror. This is some sort of trap, and I’ve walked right into it! I hear a stern voice booming through an amplifier. “Raise your hands and stand still. If you comply, you will not be harmed.” It sounds like the police, and there are dozens of them streaming in from all directions. A cold sweat breaks out on my skin. I raise my hands and call out, “Don’t shoot!” I’m soon surrounded by some sort of SWAT team with night vision goggles. They wear armor and helmets, and carry military-style rifles, all pointed at me. I feel like I’m going to pee myself. “Please don’t hurt me.” One of them, a woman, grabs me roughly and cuffs my hands behind my back. The steel immediately starts to irritate my wrists. The woman searches me, presumably for weapons. On her armor I spot some sort of insignia, like a laurel wreath. Whoever these people are, they’re not the police. The woman breaks a glow stick and light floods the area. She swivels up her night vision goggles and surveys me, then turns to her companions. “This one doesn’t look right.” She steps closer, getting in my face. “Where’s your ID and phone?” I left my purse in the car and my phone on the counter in Luke’s apartment. My first instinct is to explain everything to them. But as soon as I start talking about witches, they’ll think I’m on drugs. Best to lie. My voice trembles with fear as I speak. “I left everything at home. I live on the island. I came out for a walk.” The woman nods. She believes the lie. “We have to do some tests back at the van. Then we’ll take you home.” Tests? What tests? Are they going to make me walk a straight line or touch my nose? The cops, or commandos, or whatever the hell they are, escort me out of the woods and to an empty parking lot outside the refuge. The woman guides me into the back of a big black van filled with complex instrumentation. I bet Spencer would know what all of this is, but I have no clue. The woman sits me down on a bench in the back of the van. The handcuffs feel like glass shards grinding into my wrists. “Please, can you take off the cuffs? They’re killing me.” I turn and show her my red, swelling wrists. She nods and takes off the handcuffs. The relief is overwhelming. “Thank you so much.” I blow air over my wrists to soothe them as the woman takes some sort of gadget out of a pouch. “Just a quick test, then you’ll be released.” She presses the gadget to my arm. It clicks, and I feel a little sting. I think she’s testing my blood. The woman withdraws the device from my arm and examines a small glass panel on its face. For a few moments, an hourglass spins, then a number appears, “09.” Her eyes widen. Something has shocked her deeply. Terror washes over me. She’s detected my Fae blood! Without a word, the woman quickly exits the van, locking the door behind her. I scramble over to the door, trying to listen through it for some clue. I’ve always had tremendous hearing, and I can hear the woman outside the van, talking over a radio. “The catch just tested as a zero-niner.” A male voice replies over the radio. “Jesus! Here in the States? That’s gotta be a false positive.” The woman sounds nervous, but excited. “I’ll run the secondary test. In the meantime, get an iron hood out here in case we have to transport her for boxing.” “Roger that.” Boxing? What is boxing? And what’s an iron hood? The thought of iron being put over my head makes me sick. Suddenly, I can’t breathe. The little voice inside me says these people are going to kill me. And I always trust that voice. Oh god, how the hell do I get out of this? I’m surrounded by people with guns. My heart pounds in panic as I hear the van door being unlocked. My inner voice tells me to calm down and use my glamour. As I crouch beside the van door, I push away the fear and try to concentrate on an image of myself, sitting on the bench at the back of the van. In my mind’s eye, I picture my face, my hair, and my red wrists. The woman opens the van door and steps past me as she enters the van. She has some sort of kit in her hand and is looking at the illusion of me. “One more test.” Focusing on the mental image of myself on the bench, I slip out the door of the van. Several of the commandos stand around talking excitedly, their rifles slung over their shoulders. I try to ignore them, focusing on the image of myself inside the van. If that is what I see, that is what they will see. I walk away from the van and no one seems to notice me. Suddenly, I hear the woman inside the van curse loudly. By now I’ve left the parking lot and entered a wooded area. I slip off my shoes and run with my bare feet on the earth. I feel a jungle high overtaking me. No one can catch me now. It’s morning and I lie in a hot bath, exhausted but too shaken to go to bed. I’m lucky to have escaped alive. After running through the woods, I found my way to my car. Fortunately, I was parked in a residential area far from the commandos. I watched the rearview mirror all the way back to Greenville. Who were those people? Were they following me? Do they have helicopters? Can they somehow track my blood? I felt a little safer after I got home, but not completely safe. I tried to call Mom, but it turns out she’s deep in the jungle on a vaccination run and won’t be back until tomorrow, so I have to process this on my own. My skin is getting all wrinkly so I emerge from the bath and put on my big terry cloth robe. It’s time to brush my teeth and make an attempt at sleep. I use my hand to wipe the steam from the mirror, and then yelp in shock. Millicent, with her hazy blue eyes and the heart on her lips, is staring at me through the mirror! Her soft but commanding voice seems to be coming from everywhere at once. “Hello, strange one. I see you’ve returned safely.” Just when my night couldn’t get any weirder, a witch starts talking to me through a mirror. But I’m glad she’s here. I need answers. “Millicent, I went to find you, and there were people with guns.” “The Knights of Rome. They were looking for me. I’m sorry you fell into their hands.” “What did they want?” “To kill me. That’s what the Knights do. They kill what they call paranormals. Why did you go back there?” I think about my fight with Luke. It seems like a lifetime ago. My anger has vanished and now I feel the old familiar longing. “I think the spell wore off. I still have feelings for Luke.” Millicent sighs. “There was never any spell. It wouldn’t have worked on you anyway. All I used was the power of suggestion.” “But what about the tears, and the worm?” Millicent shrugs. “Props in my little play.” I feel anger rising. “So you lied? It was all a big act? Do you even have any powers?” Millicent laughs and I realize how stupid my question was. After all, I’m talking to her in a mirror. “You should be relieved, impertinent girl. No spell was rendered, so no service is due. You won’t spend your next life as my ferret.” “But what do I do about Luke?” “What would you have me do? Magic works poorly on your kind.” “You have to do something. I won’t survive this.” “I’m sorry. I can’t help. Goodbye, strange one.” I feel a surge of panic. “Wait, don’t go!” Millicent leans forward in the mirror and whispers. “You don’t need magic to find love. Love has already found you.” She purses her lips and blows into the mirror. It steams over. What the hell does she mean by that? When I wipe the steam away, she’s gone. I slump, feeling drained. Time to go to bed. Hopefully when I wake up, this will all seem like a bad dream. Then I can hang out with Spencer at Buzz and pretend it never happened. I like hanging out with Spencer, he makes me laugh. But I can’t go to bed just yet. I have one final task to perform. I find my jeans and take Luke’s crumpled second-hand valentine from my pocket. This will be an excellent addition to my box of romantic horrors. The best yet. I go to into my bedroom and pull the heart-shaped box out from beneath my futon. I open the box and put Luke’s valentine next to the card from my middle school secret admirer. I guess it’s better to get a pity valentine from the prom queen than a second-hand valentine from the guy you love. I open the card from middle school and read what’s written inside: “Happy Valentine’s Day. Your secret admirer.” My heart skips a beat. It’s probably been five years since I read this last. I didn’t remember that the i’s were dotted with hearts. I had mistaken this feminine handwriting for Heather’s, but it’s Luke’s! In middle school, some of the girls used to dot their i’s with hearts. He must have thought it would impress me. I think back to Luke in middle school, the little brat who followed me around playing pranks. Maybe that was the only way he could show his affection. I suddenly have a memory of him asking me if I wanted to come over and watch a video while his parents were out of town. I told him I just wanted to be friends at school. I had completely forgotten that. Luke and I ended up going to different high schools, so I lost track of him until college, where his transformation into the football player had astounded me. It’s hard to think of boy-Luke and man-Luke as the same person. This valentine card, sitting in my rosewood box the whole time, is proof of Luke’s words. He has always liked me. More than liked me! I stare at the card, shocked and amazed. A sudden tingle hits me. Luke is nearby! I hear his car pull up and I rush to the window. He gets out of his car, smiling apologetically and holding up my forgotten phone like a peace offering. I smile and wave him in.


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