Being a witch has one certainty—I’ll never have all the answers to life’s mysteries. But one mystery I needed to figure out, and now, was who was Ursula Geist. A strong breeze rustled through the maple trees that towered above me, showering my tree-lined path in a golden hue. I inhaled the aroma of dried leaves, their desiccated scent mixing with dying plants, rotted earth and plump mushrooms, reminding me I was home. My pupils dilated, a sensation green witches experience when our awareness comes alive in nature. Breathing deep, I could taste the crisp cabbage and sweet corn growing free in my aunts’ garden. Closing my eyes, I could sense the very fabric of life coursing through my arms and legs like an electrical current. In Ambrosia Hill, autumn was authentic, unlike the artificial scents of the city.
The world felt mirthful and alive, so incongruent with the fear I had a strong gush of for my mother. It seemed unfair the rest of the world would continue on when mine was so dangerous and unsure. The day was perfect. I could almost forget I was on my way to the local library to search for a clue about a cryptic name, spelled out by my obsidian pendulum. Almost, but not quite.
When I’d googled the name, nothing had come up, telling me that whoever this Ursula Geist was, I’d have to find the answers within Ambrosia Hill. The autumn breeze picked up my hair, so I pulled my beanie down tight over my head and stuffed my hands in my coat pockets, bracing against the wind as I charged down the path leading me to town.
I hadn’t been to the Ambrosia Hill Library in quite some time. I preferred to read the books at my aunts’ house, full of whimsy and witchcraft. The library was conveniently located across the village green from the local hardware store. I checked the time on my phone and flaunted my first real smile of the day. Billie would still be at the hardware store with her dad. I quickened my steps to make a detour inside to see her. She worked behind the counter on Saturdays so her dad could be on the floor to help with customers, and we had made plans to meet up after her shift.
I swallowed a lump in my throat as I debated whether or not to tell Billie what had happened in the garden after she left. She had told me she wanted to be included in my life, and that meant she accepted me being a witch. She had taken the news better than I’d hoped, but was this too much too soon? Do I tell her about Ursula Geist? I don’t know anything yet, but I do know it can’t be good. Magical candles holding secret messages was one thing, but a diabolical spirit trapped inside a pair of old witch boots buried in my aunts’ garden was not second date material.
I sighed, kicking a pebble off the sidewalk. I thought back to an online article I’d read on the train ride from New York—Nine Signs Your Girlfriend Has Toxic Baggage. An evil entity buried in the yard ran circles around each and every one on the list. I’m fourteen, not twenty-five, and here I am dating my first girlfriend with more baggage than a diva in Vegas.
Gathering my courage, I stopped in front of the door beside a wheelbarrow filled with hay. A snarky-looking skeleton holding a trowel smiled at me as I shuffled from one foot to the other. A tall man with thinning hair in an oversized work coat and black boots passed me. I pulled the door open and gestured for him to go in ahead. He shot me a peculiar glance, his eyebrows pulled together as he looked me up and down, as if he knew me and disapproved. Knew my family name, knew my house on top of the tallest hill in this sleepy town. It was a look I was familiar with, what with being a Fern woman in this small town. He rubbed at his thick beard as he stepped through the door, cutting a wide berth around me as if I were contagious. The door closed again, and I watched through the glass as he nodded to Billie’s father Ben, who greeted him in the center of the store surrounded by a horde of shoppers.
Billie leaned over the counter and spied me through the store windows. Laughing, she mouthed, “What are you doing?” before motioning for me to come in. The man paused his conversation with Ben to glance at me through the window, raising his bushy eyebrows in what I assumed was suspicion. Maybe he thinks I’m going to place a curse on the entire store where everyone’s teeth fall out? Whatever it was that was going through his head, I could tell he wasn’t crazy about me.
But now all three of them were watching me, so I bit my lip and headed in. The chime of the doorbell was loud, like a dinner bell calling the cattle home for supper, and I flushed, self-conscious that the rest of the store seemed to turn and was now staring at me. Then the moment passed, and everyone turned back to whatever it was they were doing. Only Billie’s puzzled grin was focused on me. My palms were sweating and I rubbed them down my pant legs.
The hardware store was packed. Customers cramped their aisles with their carts full of carving knives, decorations and large, round gourds. With everything that had transpired over the last twenty-four hours, I had almost forgotten that Halloween was a few days away. Ben caught my eye and shot me a big wave. Tension melted from my shoulders at the sight of his kind face, and I offered a shy wave with a warm smile in return. A line of customers awaited their turn at the checkout counter, and Billie held up her finger, letting me know she’d be free in a few minutes. I nodded and circled around the front of the store, listening as she made small talk with the old timers who praised her on her costume.
I had to agree with them. She looked amazing, and heat rushed to my face when she caught me looking at her and Billie responded with a wink. She wore a green blazer over a black T-shirt, which hit just above her belly button in her high-rise ripped black jeans. She wore a headband with two electrical bolts, making it look like she had sockets coming out of the side of her head, and she’d added stitches to her face and hands. She had topped everything off with black lipstick to match her black nail polish. Billie could pull off an outfit like that and make it look cool enough to wear out to a skateboard park, or even Price Choppers, the local grocery store.
An elderly man with stark white hair and thick overalls sidled up to the counter, tipping his driver’s cap at Billie. “Getting cold out there,” he drawled as he placed a package of light bulbs and a pack of gum on the counter.
Billie rang up his items with a smile. “Sure is, Mr. Johnson. Winter is coming fast this year.”
The old man nodded as he pulled a wallet from the bib of his overalls. “Speaking of fast,” he said as he handed Billie a ten-dollar bill, “which is faster, hot or cold?”
Billie smirked as she leaned against the counter, her eyes tilted up at the ceiling as if in deep thought. “Cold?” she guessed as she handed him his change.
“Hot.” He chuckled, pocketing the money. “Because you can catch a cold.”
Billie’s boyish grin spread wide across her face, and she fist-bumped Mr. Johnson on his way out of the door. “Good one, Mr. Johnson!” she called out to him. “I’ll have to remember that one,” she said as I strolled over to her.
Billie’s dad walked out from an aisle and flashed me a bright smile. “Hey there, Zinnia! Billie told me you were back in town for Halloween. It’s good to have you home, sweetheart.”
My face heated. “Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be back,” I replied, a trace of bashfulness in my voice.
“Why don’t you take Zinnia outside to visit with Bacon for a bit?” he asked as he slid behind the counter. “She needs lunch. I’ll stay in here to handle the front.”
Billie took off her work apron, tossing it on the counter as her dad wrapped his arm around her neck in a big hug, kissing her on the cheek. “Too much, Dad,” she squealed as she squirmed away, a big smile on her face. It felt like an old routine of theirs, something they did a lot and that Billie loved even though she’d never admit it. With a pain stabbing my heart, I realized how much I missed my dad.
“What?” he asked, taking a step back in mock surprise. “I thought you liked head-lock hugs? Next you’re going to say you don’t even like noogies.” His eyes were twinkling with mischief.
“Yeah, maybe when I was like ten,” she teased, bumping him in the side with her shoulder and I laughed. “And nobody in the history of the universe has ever liked noogies.”
They had an easy friendship between them, so different from my relationship with my dad. Billie had a quality about her—she was real with the people in her life. Billie wasn’t afraid of embarrassment or displaying public affection with those she loved. Even though her dad was her parent, he respected his daughter, and in return, she respected him back. I knew from experience that it wasn’t an easy task to be included in Billie’s circle. She kept that number low, selective. But what she lacked in quantity, she made up for in quality. One friend of Billie equaled a dozen friends. Billie wasn’t shy—she wasn’t afraid to be who she was. If she liked someone, they’d know it—they’d feel it across their skin and deep into their bones. It was an electric charge that ignited the entire body. That was real magic, something no one could receive from even the most powerful spell.
Of course, there was a trade-off. It worked both ways with Billie. If a person ended up on her bad side…their one hope was to run and hide. I admired her ability to be honest and tell it to me straight.
Billie smiled at me and I went weak in the knees. She was so pretty it made my head spin, and it was hard not to stare as Billie brushed her arm against mine, and all the tiny hairs on my skin shot straight up under my sweater. A tingling sensation ran up and down my arm as if electricity were running through me, as though Billie had flipped on a switch inside of me.
“Come on, City Girl. Let’s go out back.” My heart quickened at my nickname, coined by our first encounter over the summer at the lake. She reached for my hand as I followed her out through the back door and into the frigid air. I watched her from the corner of my eye. How does she have that effect on me?
Billie’s pet pig Bacon snorted, and Billie crouched down to give her a cuddle. I curled my now-vacant hand into a loose fist, already missing her warm touch. Bacon waddled over to me, wagging her spiral tail. I squatted down and gave her a huge hug. It felt so good to be back with them. I loved animals, and part of the reason I’d fallen so hard for Billie was her sensitivity toward all living creatures. Her strong vegan roots acted like a moral compass for her.
Billie studied me and Bacon, her emerald eyes locked on my every movement. I let out a slow, shaking breath. I liked her looking at me and she knew it. Billie offered me a teasing wink. She stood up, brushing the loose dirt from her jeans as she picked her way to a storage container and scooped out Bacon’s lunch—a mixture of grains and leafy greens. Her tail swinging like mad, Bacon pulled out of my arms, snorting as she ran over to her food bowl with what I could only assume was pure gluttonous joy. I plopped backwards onto the ground with a giggle. It was impossible not to smile as I watched the two of them interact. Billie’s entire face lit up around her pig.
“What are you up to today? Any big plans with the aunts?” Billie raised her eyebrows at me. “Perhaps an afternoon sacrifice, or maybe raising the dead?”
I laughed with an uneasy head nod. She wasn’t too far off. I countered with, “Ah, nothing that gruesome for us green witches. More like calling the corners. Maybe I’ll conjure up a small storm, like a tornado.” I pressed my lips together as if I were thinking. “Just over your store, though.”
Billie threw her head back and laughed. “I see you haven’t lost your spunk, City Girl.” And she threw me another wink. My face responded as it always did—I could feel the color rising in my cheeks and I pictured myself turning a deep red. The same color as the beets growing in my aunt’s vegetable patch.
“Okay, in all seriousness though, what are you up to?” She tilted her head. “Still able to hang out when I get off, right?”
I got to my feet and toed a pebble around in the dirt with my boot. Billie scrunched her eyebrows together and stepped closer to me. “Zinnia, is everything okay?”
My gaze met hers. Her face was etched with genuine concern. I took a deep breath, knowing I couldn’t hide the truth from her. Somehow protecting her with a lie seemed like more of a betrayal than dumping my witchy teen drama on her. I bit my lip.
“I’m on my way to the library to look up a strange name that I can’t find on the internet, but my pendulum told me that’s where I need to start looking if I want to figure out who and what is hurting my mom.” Billie’s jaw dropped, and I gripped her elbow, allowing some of the fear I’d been feeling to spill into my voice.
“Billie, her reflection moved backwards in the mirrors. And she can’t eat cinnamon—it flipping burned her!” I wrung my hands together as I continued to verbally vomit on my girlfriend. “Do you know how serious that is?” I paced as Billie stared at me with wide eyes. “She’s in trouble. Something is wrong, and my aunts aren’t here to help me, Billie.”
I stopped my frantic pacing to gauge her reaction. She was staring, an open-mouthed, blank expression on her face, her willowy arms dangling limp at her sides. Even Bacon paused mid-chew to watch my freak-out. Girlfriend of the Year award goes to…um, yeah, not me. More like Baggage Accolade of the Decade goes to the complicated and never-ending string of commotion girlfriend…yep, I’ll take that one, thank you.
I inhaled a long breath before continuing. “They left for Conjure Lake and I’m not sure when they are coming back. I can’t get in touch with them because there’s no cell phone reception in the mountains, and all I have to guide me is this.” I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the divination board. Billie gasped, then reached out for it. I gave it to her and she turned it over, studying the rows and symbols, being careful while examining the board before handing it back to me.
“So to answer your question—yes, I’d love nothing more than to see you this afternoon. You’re the main reason I came back to Ambrosia Hill. I want to be with you.” Tears filled my eyes, and I blinked them back. “But I have to find answers, Billie. And fast.” I shook my head, closing my eyes. “I can’t leave my mom to face whatever this is alone. Something is wrong, and I’m afraid of what might happen to her.”
Billie stood mute beside me for a long moment, examining my face with the same care she’d shown the divination board. “Well, you are never boring,” she said as she wrapped an arm around my back, pulling me into her. She held me in a tight hug, and I huffed a laugh as I melted against her, my head resting on her shoulder.
“It’s okay, Zinnia, I’m not going anywhere. I meant what I said last night. I’ll support you, no matter what. We will figure this out together.”
I sighed, hugging her tighter, “You honest to God—or should I say Goddess—don’t care I’m a witch?”
Billie laughed, rocking us back and forth. “Omigod, no way. The biggest problem most girls have is a surprise pimple. Not you. You’ve got monsters crawling out of the dirt in your garden.” She pulled back to grin at me. “My girlfriend is a witch. How many people get to say that?”
We both laughed, and I sighed again. “Not many,” I said with a shrug.
Billie’s dad called from the back door. “Hey, kiddo, another wave just hit! Come inside as soon as you can, okay? Bye, Zinnia! See you soon!”
I yelled goodbye back as I waved, standing on my tiptoes as if the extra height would make my goodbye more sincere. Billie offered me an apologetic shrug.
“I’ll meet you at the library when I get off. Find out as much as you can and we’ll go from there. What’s the name?” I told her, and Billie looked back at the store. “I’ll ask around today and see if anyone recognizes that name.” She leaned forward to give me a quick peck on my lips, and my eyes bulged out of their sockets like Buzz Lightyear. First, I’m her girlfriend, and now we can kiss freely? It was like a fairytale, and I was loving every second of it…minus the spooky entity stalking my mom.
Every fairytale has something creepy, but mine’s the one with Billie.