The ball leaps from my foot, back and forth, right and left as I run and dodge my way down the soccer field. The crowd roars their appreciation, my team one goal off the world championships.
This is it, my moment, my chance to prove I’m the best soccer player who has ever been born. The sky overhead turns a multi-hued rainbow of colors as the demons on one side of the field stomp their feet in time with the human crowd screaming my name.
I feint as a demon player rushes me, her horns down, charging me like a bull, bright red uniform matching her skin. She rushes past me, missing me as I twirl like a ballerina, the ball still in perfect balance between my feet. I complete my pirouette and pull my right foot back, the goal only feet away.
Easy in. Easy win.
The roaring crowd goes wild, my name chanted wildly, the air thick with heat.
No, wait. Cold. Icy cold, prickling goosebumps on my arms as my foot slips and I fall—
I jerked upright, breathing out a gasp of air in a mist of ice. I shivered, wrapping myself in my quilt again, teeth clattering together as I glanced out the window. No snow. Hey, it was summer, right?
So why the freaking cold—
Something flickered on my right and I turned with another gasp, this one from fear rather than the change in temperature. A young man stood beside my bed, glowing softly white, glaring at me.
At my wrist.
I choked on a meep of terror and leaped out the left side of my bed, falling on my hip as he lunged toward me, face full of fury, icy hands reaching for me. Backpedaling was harder than usual, my shoulders hitting a heavy box and pinning me in place.
Didn’t stop my feet from trying to push me further back, my soles rubbing raw on the carpet as my legs flailed for escape.
Empty eyes burned through me, the chill of the grave sending endless shivers up my spine as he came to hover in my face. I knew him, my mind clicking over, making connections. I hadn’t had a chance to ask Mom where the last family who lived here went, and now I knew.
Or, at least, had a good idea.
“You’re an echo.” I tried to keep my voice steady, but the quaver in it probably told him I was terrified.
“Give it back.” His voice sounded hollow, as though coming from far away, hands scrabbling uselessly at my wrist.
For the bracelet. My feet finally found purchase, frantic energy pushing me to stand. I bobbed around the box that had held me in place and backed away from him, rubbing my skin where his ghost echo ran through me.
“HOW DARE YOU!” He came at me again, going through my whole body this time, mouth gaping in a black hole the last thing I saw before he plunged into me. I shuddered violently, my body rejecting the chill of his death as I looked away, cringing from the encounter.
It didn’t take him long to try again. This time, someone else took over. My demon magic roared in frustration behind my fear, pushing back as the young man’s echo swooped around for another pass. Amber fire raced around his edges, lighting him up with flame.
That got a new reaction. He screamed, grasping his phantom head with his transparent hands and vanished.
Panting, half sobbing, I bent over in half, gripping my stomach as my dinner threatened to come up on its own.
Dizziness washed over me, so powerful I almost missed my door flinging itself open, the flash of silver as Sassafras rushed to my side.
“Syd!” He leaped into my lap as I fell to the floor, hugging both myself and him. His whole body shook, amber eyes on fire as he looked around, fur at attention, tail puffed to three times normal. “What happened?”
I told him as I swallowed the rush of saliva filling my mouth, begging my body not to puke.
Just. Don’t. Puke.
Sassafras didn’t have a scrap of sympathy to share as he firmly swatted my cheek with one paw. Claws in, at least.
“Foolish girl!” He jumped down to the floor, looking around as he went on. “You need to find him and send him over.”
Back across the darkness and into the place of rest. I knew that. I hadn’t paid much attention to my witchly duties, preferring to ignore most of the lessons. But ghosts gave me just enough of the willies I listened to Mom’s lecture about the echoes people left behind when they died with a kind of sick fascination I shared with watching horror movies.
Usually, once the soul moved on, echoes crossed over to their rest. Some echoes were accessible after passing, using bone or other items of personal connection. But usually such contact was temporary.
Other times, they stayed. Usually if they had some kind of unfinished business in the living world. Normals had that much right, though it was very rare an echo had enough power for normals to see them.
The ghost hunters and psychics most people knew about were only picking up on stray magic. Not what they thought were ghosts.
Considering echoes were just the dark part of the whole, the ego part full of flaws and need, without the temperance of the soul for light, it was probably a good thing normals didn’t have interaction with them.
I was a witch and a demon and it still freaked me out.
“My demon took care of it.” I made my way to the bed, my stomach finally settling.
“No,” he snapped, tail thrashing as he joined me on the quilt. “Your demon power could only drive the boy away. You must send him over with witch magic if he is to be free.”
Yeah, not going to happen.
“Mom can do it,” I said, misery rising inside me as I ran my hand over the bracelet. Sassafras patted my hand with his shining paw.
“He appeared to you,” Sass said. “Which makes you responsible for his crossing.”
Just. Freaking. Lovely.
Before I could stop him, Sassafras hopped down and headed for the door. I knew exactly where he was going and chased him, but he scampered quickly across the hall out of sight. By the time I caught up with him, he’d already managed to open Mom’s door. With magic.
Something he wasn’t allowed to do in the house, the bratski.
Five minutes later, I found myself seated firmly at the kitchen table and forced to listen to a lecture about responsibility and compassion. My arms crossed themselves over my chest, I swear it, my last scrap of give-a-damn curling up in a corner to suck its thumb as my irritation at Mom’s attitude rose to bite my temper.
“Maybe,” I interrupted her in a biting tone, “if someone had cleared the house in the first place,” oh, Syd, Syd, what are you doing? “I wouldn’t have some random echo attacking me in the middle of the night.” I sat back, anger flaring. “Ever think of that, Mom?”
Youch. One thing about Mom and me? We knew how to push each other. Yup, yup. And I’d hit the jackpot.
Thing is, Miriam Hayle was a powerful witch, a wonderful leader—don’t ever tell her I said that—and an all-around perfect example of what magic use and control should look like. I know I frustrated her to no end.
Her oldest daughter, the flake, dropout, loser who hated magic. So when we fought, she either resorted to losing her crap all over the place, or crying.
Honestly, I was aiming for so pissed off she shot fire out her ears. But I hit the exact part of her guilt I needed to turn on the supernatural waterworks.
She cried pretty. Made me sick.
Mom sank into a chair next to me, hands shaking, tears in her eyes. Crystal tears, all shiny and sparkling. Blech.
“I don’t know how I missed it.” She turned her attention to Sassafras, like I wasn’t there. My left hand fiddled with the bracelet, wondering if I put it back in the box would the boy go away? Because it had to be the trigger, now that I understood. The sigh I heard in my closet when I put it on? Woke him up, didn’t I?
Amateur. And just one more instance of proof to me I was the last person who should have access to magic. Every time something like this came up I had this palpitation in my heart. Little disasters I could handle. But what happened when they started getting bigger?
I had no doubt they would.
Sassafras comforted Mom. I ignored them both, went back to my room. Stood there a long time, feeling around the space for the echo, even though it meant my stomach heaved a few times.
No sign of him, not a whisper.
I tightened my wards around myself, dampening my magic even further even as I wove some around the edges of my room. I often wondered why this type of magic use didn’t bother me, why I could create shielding to protect myself out of the very power that made me so sick.
Without answers of my own and never able to get a satisfactory reply from Mom’s own puzzled confusion, I was grateful at least the warding power was available to me.
I knew if I didn’t have access to such protections, I would have blown up something important long ago. Like myself.
I curled up on my bed, back against the head board, covers tight to my chin as I looked around the room. Didn’t sleep. Considered calling out to the echo. I could offer him the bracelet back, try to make amends. Maybe then he’d leave.
Wasn’t holding my breath.
It was a long, trembling night.
Family Magic by Patti Larsen is the 2014 winner of World’s Best Story launching August 6th 2015.
Stay tuned for Chapter four of our exclusive prequel to Family Magic.