I managed a fast, hot shower which did little to dull my mood. In fact, I spent the entire time scrubbing my skin raw while I argued with Mom in my head.
By the time I snuck across the hall and back into my room, I felt even worse than before, a sullen and bitter cloud hanging over my head. It really bothered me when I slipped into petulant whiner mode, but there were times when I just couldn’t help feeling sorry for myself.
I figured this one was bad enough I should cut myself about a hundred years of slack.
I paced my room for a while, wet hair soaking the back of my t-shirt as I struggled with what to do about the echo. No way was I going to be able to sleep up here if he repeated his popping out of nowhere performance and went all pissy on me.
My stomach growled about an hour into my pity fest, but I refused to go downstairs and join Mom and Meira for dinner, even when my little sister came to my locked door and begged.
“Syd, it’s okay,” she said through the door. “I love you. Please come down.”
Nope. Not even for Meems.
I had enough experience with fighting with my mother I was used to skipping dinner in favor of sneaking downstairs after everyone was asleep. Usually to a plate of whatever they’d had wrapped carefully and left for me in the fridge. Made me even more irritated Mom always took the time to make sure I had dinner waiting for me when I was ready.
Like she really cared or something.
Darkness fell, finding me sitting on the floor in my closet, a blanket wrapped around me, trying to focus on my latest book. I reread the same paragraph at least six times while trying to calm my whirling thoughts, but finally tossed the paperback aside and thumped my head against the wall behind me.
Almost missing the soft knock at my bedroom door.
Just go away already.
“Syd?” Uncle Frank’s soft voice made me cringe. “Can we come in?”
Naturally, Mom would have to drag my vampire uncle and his undead girlfriend into the mess, wouldn’t she? Then again, he and Sunny were always on my side, my biggest defenders against the coven. And I needed a little Uncle Frank rah-rah right about then.
I scuffed my feet on the way to the door, turning the lock. The knob. Looked up at my handsome uncle through my lashes, knowing my cranky-pants face was firmly in place. He didn’t say a word, just walked in and wrapped me up in his arms.
His body was warm, which meant he’d helped himself to some of the blood he and his girlfriend kept in a special freezer in our basement. Sometimes it creeped me out thinking how they slept in their cupboards all day down there, silent, dead to the world, only to wake and be normal again after dark.
Sunny’s hands slid up my back, her lips pressing to my cheek as I let Uncle Frank go and turned to hug her, too.
The gorgeous blonde vampire gave the best hugs of anyone I knew. Second only to Uncle Frank. Maybe their undead status made them appreciate life all the more. She put her whole body into it, her heart and soul, and I hugged her back, feeling very loved.
She led me to the edge of the bed and sat down next to me, Uncle Frank sprawling on the floor in front of us.
“You know by now your mother has filled us in,” he grinned at me. “Mir couldn’t keep a secret if the coven depended on it.”
Sunny squeezed me, arm around my shoulders. “Do you have any idea who the boy is, Syd?”
Okay, these two I had no trouble telling. I went to the closet, fished out the articles and pictures, handing Sunny the box the bracelet came in. Sassafras sashayed his way into my room, hopping up beside me to peer at the pictures as I unfurled the short story of my discovery.
“It’s likely,” Sunny said, fingers brushing over the bracelet, “the boy’s echo was trapped inside, dormant, after his death. Often uncompleted tasks that are near to the heart can make a ghost remain behind.”
Sassafras sighed. “You could have just told us.”
“You could have just not attacked me.” I let him sniff the bracelet.
His amber eyes sparked, but he nodded.
“If Sunny’s logic holds,” Uncle Frank said, “when you opened the box and put on the bracelet, you woke the boy’s echo, freeing him.”
“Makes sense,” Sass said. “And would explain why Miriam didn’t feel him when she swept the house before our move.”
So it was my fault.
“Syd,” Sass laid one silver paw on my hand. “At least we know now you didn’t use necromancy.” Right. No crime committed. A bright spark in a very dark room. “You have to help this boy’s echo cross.”
Gulp. “That means using magic.” Ooh. The wail in my voice made me wince.
“This is your responsibility, now,” he said, though gently without his usual barbed sarcasm. “You can’t allow the ghost to suffer.”
“There has to be another way, Sass.” Uncle Frank’s frown gave me hope.
“There isn’t.” The demon cat shook his head. “Outside of calling in an Enforcer.”
There was an idea. “Let’s do that.”
Uncle Frank’s chuckle joined Sass’s eye roll while Sunny kissed my cheek.
“I think your mother would rather keep the Enforcers out of this incident,” she said. “Especially considering your waking of the boy’s echo could be misconstrued by certain parties no matter your innocence.”
I knew it was a fluke accident. Sheesh. But Sunny was right. I was already thought of as a trouble maker in my own coven. No telling what the High Council and the Enforcer order would do if they found out I had access to that kind of power even if I hadn’t actually used it.
Burning stakes came to mind, though I doubted the infraction was even close to meriting such an end.
Then again, if Celeste had anything to say about it, I’d be crispy crittered for sure.
“Tell us about this job of yours.” Sweet of Uncle Frank to change the subject. I found myself smiling a little as he leaned forward, arms around his raised knees as he winked and grinned at me.
“It’s fun,” I said. “I’m a shampoo girl, sweeper, cleaner, appointment taker—you name it.” My feet still ached a bit from the full day of standing, muscles sore from all the activity, but I couldn’t wait for tomorrow.
“And your boss?” Sassafras’s prodding didn’t bother me as much as it could have, especially since he didn’t overreact like Mom and the others earlier.
“Yeah,” I said. “She’s a normal who thinks she’s a witch.”
Uncle Frank’s grin widened. “How did you keep from laughing?”
A giggle escaped me. “It was so hard,” I said. “Especially when she was serious about her power.” I made google eyes at Sunny. “She knows things.”
We all laughed, breaking the tension. I relaxed at last, losing the tight mesh of anxiety I’d been holding, feeling my whole body sigh and release.
I really did love my family.
Most of them.
“Okay, so boss lady is a harmless nutjob who likes to play at witchy,” Uncle Frank said. “But Syd, this situation isn’t playing. Right?”
The boy’s echo. Yeah.
“We’ll be right here with you.” Sunny tightened her arm around me again while Sassafras started his purr engine. Calm washed over me, stilled my pounding heart at the thought of using my magic.
They were right. Uncle Frank’s blue eyes glittered with love and pride as I nodded.
I pulled away from Sunny, stood up. Gathered my magic even as I begged my empty stomach to just be still for once. The demon magic inside me stirred while I let myself fall into the feeling of relaxation I’d found and allowed my shields to drop.
And called the echo.
Nothing. Silence. Had he gone on after all?
“You have to try harder.” Sassafras’s magic nudged me. “Pull him to you, Syd. Don’t give him a choice.”
“Easy, tiger,” Uncle Frank said to the demon cat. “She’s doing fine.”
“She’s shirking her power as she always has,” Sassafras snapped. “And, per usual, you’re not helping matters, Frank.”
Did they really have to snap at each other like a pair of bratty kids at a time like this?
“Sydlynn,” Sass said. “Focus!”
I reached out, forcing my power into a ring around me, straining as Sassafras prodded me harder, reaching for the boy.
Ran at top speed across the hall and through the bathroom door.
Fell to my knees in front of the toilet and threw up as my entire being rejected my use of power.
I groaned as a soft hand rubbed my back, another holding my hair as I dry-heaved my wretchedness into the bowl. Sunny’s soothing voice half-sang to me, nonsense words of comfort until I was able to pull back. She handed me some toilet paper to wipe my lips as I flushed, struggling to my feet even as her strong hands lifted me without effort.
I brushed my teeth, gargling while tears trickled down my face.
Sunny hugged me when I was done. My misery curled into a hard, black ball in the pit of my soul and continued to weep.
Feet pounded up the stairs, the surge of family magic all the warning I needed. Mom thundered into the bathroom, eyes huge, fury on her face.
“Sydlynn Thaddea Hayle!” She clenched and unclenched her hands as she glared. “What were you doing?”
Uncle Frank pulled her back, scowling at her. “What you asked her to do,” he said. “What Sassafras pushed her to do. What this whole damned coven expected her to do.
She tried to call the echo and dispel it.” He let Mom go, arms crossing over his chest. “Maybe if you helped instead of freaking out, this would have been successful.”
Mom’s face darkened as she poked her younger brother in the chest with one finger.
“Considering she refuses to use her magic,” Mom snarled, “maybe if she’d asked for help instead of jumping into something foolish,” she glared at Sassafras whose ears flattened sideways, whiskers drooping as he hung his head, “the entire coven wouldn’t have felt her fail!”
Oops. Then again, screw that.
“You want me to get rid of this ghost,” I shouted at her, “but you want me to not use the magic I need to do it.” I pushed past Mom, Uncle Frank, my demon cat and went to my door. “I wish you’d make up your mind, Mom!”
Another door slam.
And this time, no matter who knocked, I refused to open it again.
I collapsed on my bed, heart aching, sobbing into my pillow as my frustration and fury combined.
Exhausted physically, mentally, emotionally, I fell into a deep but troubled sleep.
Tickled. Something tickling my hand.
No, my wrist.
I opened my eyes, reaching out to swat at the itch.
His empty white ones stared back at me.
Family Magic by Patti Larsen is the 2014 winner of World’s Best Story launching August 6th 2015.
Stay tuned for Chapter seven of our exclusive prequel to Family Magic.