THE TROUBLE WITH MAGIC
The top of a tall ladder isn’t the ideal place to be when something unexpected hits you. But that’s exactly where I am, cleaning rag in hand, loud music pumping from the stereo, when a magical shockwave slams into me.
Power sizzles, stinging my flesh, and I gasp.
The shockwave wakes the trapped magic inside me. I grit my teeth, instinctively fighting against the surge. My magic has been locked down for so long, I don’t know if I can control it. Whatever happens, I can’t let it out.
The ladder wobbles.
Dropping the cleaning rag, I shoot out a hand to steady myself on the ceiling beam I was wiping. Instead of wood, my hand hits a rusty old nail. The sharp point rips open the skin on my palm. It hurts like hell.
My calloused hands aren’t exactly delicate or lady-like, but the nail has torn through my roughened skin, deep into my flesh. Blood flows from the ragged wound, and for a moment, I’m frozen. The rush of power in my blood holds me spellbound.
My magic struggles to break free of the powerful council bonds holding it dormant. The released blood calls to my magic, both the earth and animal sides. It throbs inside me, pushing against its restraints. Pulsing in time to the song by The Flaming Buttholes that’s pumping out of my stereo system.
But how can my magic be surging? The crushing bonds the Blood Council placed around it have held it in place for years. I’ve cut myself hundreds of times in the years since the spell was cast with no reaction. I don’t understand what’s happening.
And then another wave of magic hits me and I can’t think of anything other than the need to control and contain my magic before I hurt someone.
The magic is insistent. Urgent.
With one hand, I stumble down the ladder, cursing the urge to clean drywall dust off the walls that led me up there in the first place. Desperately holding the power in, I’m relieved to feel the council bonds tightening back around the magic, helping me fight it. I press the wound into my Death Metal Forever T-shirt, wrapping the fabric around my hand to constrict the blood flow. Better. As the bleeding subsides, so does the power inside me. I let out a long breath, releasing some of the tension holding me rigid.
There’s a pause in my favorite song, the musicians catching their breath before launching into the climax. In the silence, I hear somebody banging on the front door. They’re pounding hard, probably using the side of their fist. How long have they been knocking? When the lead singer’s gravelly voice starts up again, it all but drowns them out.
I won’t do what ya want. I won’t be what ya make me. Hard as ya try, ya still can’t break me.
The power is all but gone and my panicked heartbeats are slowing. I probably shouldn’t open the door before I’ve bandaged the cut on my hand, but whoever’s banging isn’t letting up. It sounds like they’re trying to break the door down. It must be urgent.
With my injured hand pressed against my T-shirt, I stride into the hallway and pull the door open.
Agnes Postlethwaite—AKA the demon neighbor from hell—is standing on the doorstep. All five feet of her trembles with outrage. Damn. My roommate Jess is good at dealing with the old battleaxe. Me, not so much. People skills aren’t exactly my super power.
“Sapphira Black, I’m sick and tired of coming over here.” Agnes has to shout to be heard over the music, and the best thing that’s happened to me all day is that the singer has just launched into the climax of the song. He’s now screaming, ‘You’re a butthole,’ over and over. Perfect timing.
“Turn off that horrible noise and stop hammering at all hours,” shouts Agnes. “Or I’ll call the police.”
“I was cleaning, not hammering,” I yell back, glancing at the antique grandfather clock behind me. “And it’s three o’clock in the afternoon. When am I supposed to play music?”
“That’s not music, it’s an abomination.”
I shrug, not prepared to argue with her about this yet again.
“What if I were giving a piano lesson?” She looks down her long beaky nose at me, disapproval etched into her face. She’s made it obvious she doesn’t like anything about me. Not my music, what I do for a living, or the way I look.
Too bad for her.
During the week, I work as a stonemason. On weekends I work on my house, rebuilding the rooms that were damaged in the explosion. I have three pairs of jeans I wear on rotation, and washing them never gets all the building dust and mortar out of them. The ones I’ve got on could stand up on their own.
But I’d rather wear filthy jeans and a blood-smeared death metal T-shirt than look like Agnes. She’s wearing brown slacks with creases ironed down the front of the legs, a matching brown cardigan, and a blouse with ruffles. Ruffles! She’s probably about fifty, twice my age, but her grey hair makes her look older. It’s styled in such perfectly-crafted waves, I can count how many curlers she must have used.
My thick black locks are pulled into two messy pigtails, one on each side, and probably covered with white drywall dust. Agnes and I couldn’t be more different. Still, I had nothing against her until she went to the police to tell them about an argument she heard me having with Mom before her death. I already feel terrible for losing my cool and screaming at Mom, without Agnes trying to convince the police it was something sinister instead of a normal family disagreement.
Since then, I haven’t been able to look at Agnes without getting steamed.
“I keep the volume down for you all week,” I yell. “Now you want me to tiptoe around on Saturdays too?”
“You could employ a little courtesy.” Her nostrils flare as she focuses on my hand. “Are you bleeding?”
When I look down, blood is trickling over my hand, shockingly red against my skin. The magic surges again, fighting against its bonds. My mother’s ring feels hot on my finger. Her blood inside the clear crystal orb is glowing, as though drawing from the power inside me.
My magic is begging me to use it. I’m a witch, after all.
Something dark curls up inside me. I used to be a witch. Now I want no part of it.
“Are you going to do something about that?” Agnes glares at me with beady eyes, judging me yet again for not doing what she considers the proper thing.
She’s a mundane through and through, with no idea about witches or magic, but I have a feeling if she found out it’d be the last straw. She’d vote herself in as the head of the witch-burning committee of Druid Park Drive, Baltimore City, and I’m the first one she’d throw on the fire.
With a final crescendo of dueling guitars, the song ends. In the silence, all I can hear is my magic, still thrashing against its bonds in a ferocious battering of frustrated energy.
I was about to bandage it when you knocked,” I tell her, gritting my teeth against the renewed surge of magic. “Better go and do that.” I start pushing the door closed.
The first notes of next song fill the air behind me. It’s called Thrill Me, and it starts off a little quiet, with a pulse like a heartbeat and a single electric guitar winding up slowly. But I think Agnes can tell it’s going to get loud again, because she steps forward and catches the door before it shuts.
“Not so fast. I’m turning off that stereo.” She pushes the door all the way open and barges in, charging past me like she owns the place.
Seeing as I heft rocks for a living, I should have been able to stop her easily, but the magic is making my reactions sluggish, so instead I just watch with my mouth open. I’m shocked that she thinks its okay to barge in here. There’s even a little part of me that’s impressed by how badass she is.
Then my responses kick in.
She’s in my home, and I sure as hell didn’t invite her in. This is my place. My sanctuary. And with my magic surging, I don’t have time for her outraged self-righteousness.
“Stop,” I snarl. “You’re like a clucking chicken, poking your beak into my business.” I grab her arm. As soon as my wounded hand touches her, smearing my blood on her bare skin, I realize my mistake.
The heat in my veins turns to fire. I try to erase the image of Agnes as a beaky, squawking chicken, but that’s the picture in my head. I can’t change it. The image is clear.
The magic bursts out of me. My earth magic is strong on its own, but intertwined with my mother’s animal magic it feels like a freight train tangled up with a roller coaster. They tear out of me so fast and hard, I have no chance to control them.
It’s the animal magic that pours itself into Agnes.
One moment I’m holding the cool flesh of my piano-teacher neighbor, the next there’s a chicken in my arms. The bird flaps and pecks me, but I’m already letting it go. My muscles have turned to water and my legs can no longer hold me. I collapse to the floor, trembling all over, the after-effect of the magic I’ve just released for the first time in five years.
But my earth magic is still charged, still crackling the air around me. It’s so strong, so wild, it makes my hair stand on end. As desperately as I try to pull it back in, I’m too weak to contain it.
My breaths come faster. The world around me blurs and both my head and heart pound in time to Thrill Me, which has built to be every bit as loud as the intro promised.
With nowhere else to go, my earth magic slams into the stereo system. The machine explodes with a deafening bang. I cover my eyes as bits of plastic fly across the room. When I open them, smoke is pouring out of the twisted wreckage. Hell, I loved that stereo.
At least all the magic is spent.
Except that the council didn’t just bind my magic, they also banned me from using it. So the fact that my beloved high-performance audio equipment looks like a failed science experiment and my poultry-shaped neighbor is flapping frantically down the hall...well, that’s going to make things really complicated.”
Shit, shit, shit. In the sudden silence, my ragged breaths compete with the chicken’s squawks.
What am I going to do? How am I going to fix this?
I was born with my father’s earth magic, but when my mother died in the explosion, somehow I absorbed her animal magic. Nobody can control two kinds of magic, especially not power as strong as my mother’s. Hence the Blood Council’s binding, and the rules around using my magic.
If Magnus Fox discovers the magical binding failed, he might be tempted to find a more permanent solution to keep my magic from creating havoc. One of the council’s favorite punishments is turning witches into frozen stone statues, still alive, but capable of nothing more than watching the world go past. Which pretty much sums up how much they suck.
Both Uncle Ray and my cousin Sylvia are council members and would have felt me use the magic. They’re my only blood relatives, Ray on my mother’s side, Sylvia on my Dad’s, and I’m linked to both of them. I only hope their family loyalty is stronger than their council bond.
Right on cue, my cellphone starts ringing from the pocket of my jeans. It’s got to be either my uncle or cousin.
Cursing, I reach for my pocket. But as soon as I touch my phone, a charge of residual magic zaps my fingers, shocking me. I yelp and snatch my hand away.
The phone is hot in my pocket and I can smell something bad. Burning plastic?
When I tug the thing out of my jeans, it’s so hot I drop it. But at least it’s stopped ringing. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s dead. Which means I don’t have to talk to anyone, and right now, I’ll take any scrap of good news I can get.
I push myself to my feet. In the living room, Agnes is perched on the arm of my couch next to my smoking stereo. I swear she’s glaring at me harder than she ever has, which is saying something.
Can chickens blink? Because Agnes sure isn’t.
“I didn’t mean to change you,” I say, still breathless. “I’ll find a way to turn you back.”
Chicken Agnes is brown all over, with a silver head and pitch-black eyes. At least she’s not freaking out anymore. There’s a dangerous stillness to her, as though she’s devising the best way to murder me.
I can’t help myself. “Maybe you should have let me play a little music,” I tell her. “Instead of storming over, complaining about every noise.”
Agnes glares at me a moment longer. Then she shits on my couch.
The Trouble With Magic
By Trudi Jaye
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