Seven Years Awesome Luck
Seven years ago, Trick’s mother made a deal with a witch. In exchange for saving his little brother’s life, the witch would turn Trick into a cat and he’d become her familiar. Now, the witch is dead and Trick is human again. And he hates it.
Denneka isn’t looking forward to eighth grade. Of course, since she has no friends and gets bullied at school, she never looks forward to any new school year. But this time it’s different. This year, there’s a very strange new boy who keeps hanging around her for some reason. He’s super cute, and even though he doesn’t talk much, he seems to like her. But he also chases birds and sits in boxes and talks about seeing their missing teacher in a grave.
But then Trick disappears, and a black kitten shows up on Denneka’s doorstep. She knows she should find its owner, but it reminds her of her missing maybe-friend, so she takes it in. As time passes with no sign of Trick, she fears she’ll never see him again—until she wakes up one morning to find him naked in her bed, claiming to have been there all along and confused about why she’s upset.
It turns out there are other witches in the world, and some of them are pure trickster.
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Through the darkness and pouring rain, Jacqueline stared up at the mansion and thought, I was expecting more gingerbread.
Maybe that wasn’t a sensible thought, but if Jacqueline were in a sensible state of mind, she wouldn’t be here. She would have thrown out the letter as soon as she’d received it instead of driving four hours with her six-year-old because she couldn’t find a sitter, running out of gas half a mile from her destination because she was too distracted to pay attention to the fuel gauge, then walking the remaining distance rather than waiting and calling for help like a normal person. Clearly, her mind wasn’t working right.
Desperation did that, though.
There was a wrought-iron gate between her and the mansion, so she pushed the call button, hoping someone was still awake to answer.
“Mom, I’m cold,” said her son, his teeth chattering audibly.
“I know, Trick. I’m sorry. We’re almost inside.” I hope. They were both wearing coats, but it hadn’t been raining when they’d left home, so she hadn’t prepared for the downpour. Now they were drenched through, and her hands were so cold, she could hardly feel her fingers—or his. Despite the near numbness, she kept her hand clenched tightly around his so he wouldn’t run off. With Trick, that was always a risk.
A harsh buzz cut through the air, and a tinny voice asked, “Who is it?”
Jacqueline jumped at the sudden sound. “H-hello? My name is Jacqueline St. Andrew. I was . . . told you could help me.” She should have practiced what she would say if she got this far so she wouldn’t sound like a lunatic or con artist. The small doubt that had been lingering in her mind since she’d read the letter—the one that told her this was a cruel prank—surged to the forefront, and she couldn’t quite get the rest of the words out. There was a small bubble near the speaker, which she took as a camera, so with the hand that wasn’t holding onto Trick, she dug the letter out of her pocket and held it up to the lens.
The presentation of her evidence was met with silence. Jacqueline didn’t need to read it again to know what it said or how crazy it would look to the person in the mansion. It had come in an envelope with no return address and no mailing address, only her name. The letter read: This woman is a witch. She can help you in ways modern medicine cannot. Below that was a street address. The letter had been signed, A Friend.
A wild goose chase, Jacqueline thought miserably as the seconds wore on with no answer from the house. When she got home, she was going on a manhunt for whoever had sent her here.
The gate unlatched. “Come in,” said the voice from the speaker.
Hope surged through Jacqueline. “Thank you!” She stuffed the letter back into her pocket and pushed the gate open. “Come on, Trick. Let’s get inside.”
It was another hundred feet to the front door of the mansion, but she hardly noticed the distance even though her feet ached with every waddling step. If this woman really could help her, she was willing to walk naked over hot coals.
When she and Trick reached the front door, it was already open, a woman standing on the threshold. “Hurry inside, you two.” The woman was thin, tall, and looked around eighty years old, her white hair cut short in a sophisticated style.
Trick pulled Jacqueline forward, and she let him go so he could run inside the warm house. It wasn’t the safest thing in the world to do, but at this point there was little that could make Jacqueline turn back.
“You poor dears,” the old woman said, offering a hand to help Jacqueline in.
Jacqueline took it only long enough to get into the foyer, not wanting to be rude, and the woman released her to close the door. “Thank you,” Jacqueline said as her own teeth started to chatter.
“There’s a fire through here.” The old woman guided her through the main hallway and into a huge living room. The furniture was elegant and plush, and the fireplace was big enough for a large dog to stand in.
Trick was already in front of the fire, holding out his hands.
“Let me take your coat,” said their host, peeling Jacqueline’s drenched coat off of her with minimal cooperation needed from its wearer.
“Thank you,” Jacqueline said again. “Trick, take your coat off.”
The boy obeyed, yanking it off so that the sleeves turned inside-out, and huddled closer to the fire.
The old woman draped the two coats over wooden chairs near the fire. “I don’t have any clothes that would fit you two, but I have extra robes that would work. If you’d like, I could put your clothes in the dryer for you.”
Jacqueline weighed the danger of getting undressed in a stranger’s home to the danger of hypothermia if they stayed in wet clothes. She looked around, but she didn’t see or hear anyone other than the old woman in the house.
As if sensing the direction of her thoughts, the old woman chuckled. “I live here alone. You’re perfectly safe.”
Jacqueline relented, and soon she and Trick were wrapped in warm robes and sitting in front of the fire. She’d already toweled off Trick’s hair so it wasn’t more than damp and was working on drying her own. “Thank you again for seeing us,” Jacqueline told the old woman. “I’m sorry for coming so late. The letter got me so excited, I sort of took off without thinking it through.”
“Perfectly understandable.” The old woman was in a chair across from Jacqueline, pouring tea from a set on the coffee table. She slid one cup to Jacqueline’s side of the table and sat back, sipping her own.
Jacqueline finished wringing the water out of her hair and set the towel aside. “Are you really a witch?”
“I am,” said the old woman.
Jacqueline eyed the tea still on the coffee table. “Witch as in Wiccan, witch as in Hogwarts, or witch as in ‘double, double toil and trouble’?”
The witch laughed. “The third one, if that’s how you want to differentiate it. My magic is a purely secular practice and doesn’t involve wands. Although it is something that’s in the blood. Not just anyone can be what I am.”
Jacqueline nodded acknowledgment of the information, and she didn’t take the tea.
“Tell me why you’re here. I assume it has to do with your baby.”
One of Jacqueline’s hands slid over her large belly. “There’s a problem with him. The doctors say he won’t survive. They’re so sure, they won’t even try to save him. I don’t know who else to ask.”
“You poor thing. You must be so frightened.”
Angry and frustrated was more like it, though Jacqueline couldn’t deny there was a good amount of fear. It didn’t seem wise to let the witch see that part, though. “Can you help me?”
“Of course, child. Witches have been helping women with difficult pregnancies since the dawn of time. Or the dawn of magic, anyway, whenever that was.” She got up, setting her empty cup on the table. “Wait right here. I may already have what you need in my storeroom.”
The witch left the room, and Trick started playing with the fire poker.
“Trick, put that back. It’s dangerous.”
“No, it’s not,” he protested, but he put it back. “I’m bored.”
“Are you warmed up yet?”
“Yeah. Can I have some cookies?”
Even if this worked, they had another four-hour drive back home—after they called for roadside service, which could take another hour or more at this time of night. Trick could sleep on the way back, but they did need some food. The witch was friendly enough that she probably would offer food if they asked, but Jacqueline was wary of taking anything from the witch. If witches were real, then all those fairy tales warning about them had to come from somewhere, right? Of course, people used to think redheads, albinos, and other people who fell slightly outside the norm were evil, too, so maybe those stories were meaningless. This witch had been nothing but kind so far. Maybe Jacqueline was just being paranoid.
The witch returned, holding a small, silver goblet. “Drink this, dear.”
Jacqueline took the goblet, which was half full of a thick, moss-green liquid that smelled strongly of the forest. “What’s this?”
“It’s what you came here for.”
“Is it . . . a magic potion?” Jacqueline asked, hardly believing she was really saying those words.
“What’s in it?”
“Oh, you don’t want to know,” the witch said cheerfully. “But it will work. I promise.”
“This will save my baby?”
“Drink that, and I guarantee your baby will be born healthy and hale.”
There was a chance this was all some trick, but Jacqueline was too desperate to be cautious about this. Her baby would die without help. The worst this potion could do was kill her, and she was willing to risk her life for her baby. Besides, the witch hadn’t given her any reason to mistrust her yet. Before she could second-guess herself, Jacqueline chugged the potion as quickly as she could.
The taste was revolting. As soon as she lowered the goblet, the witch offered her the cup of tea she hadn’t touched yet. She’d already crossed the line now, so she drank the tea to get the taste of potion out of her mouth.
She could feel . . . something in her belly. It wasn’t bad or painful, but it was strange. Did that mean the potion was already working?
“Now, then,” the witch said, returning to her seat across from Jacqueline, “let’s discuss payment.”
Jacqueline got an altogether different and more unpleasant feeling in her gut. This was what she got for being reckless. How stupid of her not to think of that before drinking the potion! Of course the witch wouldn’t help her out of the kindness of her heart. That wasn’t how people—witches or otherwise—operated.
“How much do you want?” Jacqueline asked. She didn’t have much money, but she could probably get a loan if necessary.
The witch laughed lightly. “Oh, dear girl, do I look like I need your money?”
Jacqueline glanced around the room. “No, I suppose not. What do you want, then?”
Jacqueline’s heart nearly jumped out of her body. A horrible weightless feeling started in her chest and swam through her head. “W-what?”
“Your son,” the witch repeated calmly.
“No!” Jacqueline cried, her hands instinctively moving to cover her belly. “I didn’t ask you to save him just to lose him!”
The witch laughed as if Jacqueline had made a joke. “Not that one.” She pointed at Trick. “That one.”
Jacqueline turned her horrified gaze on her oldest son. Trick had been dozing by the fire until her outburst a moment ago, and now he was watching the two of them in confusion. “You . . . you want Trick?” she asked.
“Is that his name?” The witch sounded pleased. “Yes, he’ll do nicely.”
I guess the fairy tales were right, Jacqueline thought as she stared at the witch, her heart pounding so hard that her pulse was a drumbeat in her ears.
Trick was less concerned. “Do for what?”
“Nothing untoward,” the witch assured him. “Don’t worry; I’m not going to eat you.”
“Nothing untoward?” Jacqueline repeated.
“I’m a very old woman,” the witch said. “Much older than I look. I don’t expect I’ll be around much longer. I simply want some companionship in my final days.”
“Then get a pet.”
“Witches don’t have pets,” the witch explained. “We have familiars. And humans make the best familiars.”
Now Jacqueline was confused. “Wait, what? I thought ‘familiar’ was another word for ‘pet’.”
“Oh, it’s much more than that. A magical bond exists between a witch and their familiar. A mere pet could never compare.”
“It’s not that I’m not sympathetic about your loneliness problem, ma’am, and I’m very grateful for your help, but I’m not going to give you my son. That’s just crazy.”
The witch’s pleasant smile shifted slightly. It was still a smile, but suddenly it was much less pleasant. “I’m afraid you don’t have a choice. You’ve already taken the potion, and you have nothing else to give me that I want.”
An air of danger permeated the room. Jacqueline’s skin itched. She wanted to jump up, grab Trick, and flee the house. But the two of them were wearing nothing but the witch’s bathrobes, her car was out of gas, and it was the middle of the night. Never mind the fact that she was heavily pregnant and moved about as fast as a three-legged elephant.
The witch understood the position Jacqueline was in as well as she did. “Your son won’t be hurt, and I won’t keep him forever. I’m not a monster.”
“How long?” Jacqueline asked. Her throat was so tight that the words came out in barely a whisper.
“How does seven years sound?” the witch proposed. “That should be plenty for my needs. And then you can retrieve him, and he can go about his life. Seven years isn’t so much, is it?”
It was to a six-year-old, but in the grand scheme of things, no. It wasn’t much. The witch had Jacqueline over a barrel; she could have demanded a lot more. “W-what will you do with him?”
“Pamper him, feed him, pet him,” said the witch.
“He’ll be a cat, of course.”
“What?!” Jacqueline shrieked.
Trick’s eyes lit up. “What?!”
The witch addressed her more receptive audience. “Yes, sweetie. A witch’s familiar is an animal. So I’ll turn you into cat first, then make you my familiar. You won’t have to go to school or do chores or any such unpleasant things. How does that sound?”
Trick jumped to his feet. “That sounds awesome!”
“Good!” said the witch. “It’s settled, then.”
“It is not settled,” Jacqueline growled.
The witch directed her gaze at Jacqueline, her eyes suddenly hard as diamonds, even though she continued to smile. “Would you rather take your chances on my bad side?” A beat later, she blinked, her expression softening. “I’m just a lonely old woman asking for a companion to dote on in my last days. Would you deny me that?”
As the witch pointed out, Jacqueline really didn’t have a choice. I shouldn’t have brought him with me, Jacqueline thought, far too late. Though if she hadn’t, maybe the witch wouldn’t have helped her at all. “How do I know this isn’t all some elaborate ruse to kidnap Trick?” she asked. “I haven’t actually seen you do any magic yet.”
“A good point,” the witch acknowledged. “What if I change him into a cat before you go? Will that convince you of the honesty of my intentions?”
“I . . . guess so,” Jacqueline said, not sure what other answer she could give.
Ten minutes later, Jacqueline walked alone out of the mansion, shaking with shock and guilt.
Seven years later
Trick St. Andrew had seen dead bodies before. He’d made dead bodies before. They were delicious. His favorites were finches, but mice were pretty tasty too. Though as much as he liked eating his prize, the best part was stalking and killing it.
So it wasn’t like Trick had never seen a dead body before, but this was the first time he’d ever seen a dead human body, and that made it interesting.
Crouched beneath a bush, he crept forward, paws silent on the dirt, and peered at the sky through gaps in the leaves. It was getting dark, but the sun hadn’t set yet. The graveyard was quiet and empty except for the big man digging a hole and the dead body sprawled out next to it. Would it get dark before the man finished?
Curiosity killed the cat, Trick reminded himself, except that was totally not true. He’d been curious lots of times, and it hadn’t killed him yet. He knew it would be safer to wait until full dark, when his black fur would make him nearly invisible and he could sneak up for a closer look without the big man seeing him. The end of Trick’s tail twitched impatiently, rustling some of the bush’s lowest leaves. He didn’t have time to wait. His mom was expecting him soon.
That thought put him in a bad mood and made him reckless. I’m doing it, he decided. Staying low to the ground, he snuck out from beneath the cover of the bush and crept through the grass toward the dead body. A quick look, then he’d go. It was pretty dark, even if the sun wasn’t quite down yet. The digging man probably wouldn’t see him.
He kept it slow, one paw at a time, the short-cropped grass brushing his belly. The air smelled of freshly-turned dirt, the man’s sweat, and rot. Not much, though. The corpse was fresh.
Trick edged up on the man’s right side, aiming for the corpse’s head. What would it look like? Stiff and inhuman, or like a sleeping person? Did dead people look any different from dead animals?
The man stood in the hole as he dug, only his head and shoulders above ground level. Each time he jammed the shovel into the earth, he let out a stiff grunt, and then dirt flew up out of the hole.
Trick slipped behind a headstone. A moment later, he left its cover to very carefully creep closer to the dead body. In front of the hole was another headstone. It had a name on it. The first name was easy to read, but the last name was so long that Trick’s eyes skipped right over most of the letters. There were numbers, too. Dates. Trick didn’t pay much attention to the date normally, but today was different. The second date on the headstone was—he counted back—seven days ago?
That was weird. The dead body had to be less than seven days old or it would have stunk a lot more.
He was only a few feet away from the corpse when the digging man hauled himself out of the open grave and brushed a hand off on his pants. Trick flattened himself against the ground and froze.
“That should do it,” the big man grunted to himself, wiping his forehead with his arm. He moved to the other side of the corpse—so close to Trick that he thought the man might step on him—and planted a boot on the body’s shoulder. “Sorry, buddy.” He shoved with his boot, rolling the corpse into the hole.
It landed with a big, hollow thud. Trick’s ear twitched. The sound was wrong. Not a dirt sound at all. His curiosity stronger than ever, he crawled toward the edge of the hole and peeked over. There was a wooden coffin at the bottom of the hole. The body had landed on it face up. Trick leaned closer to see. The corpse was a man, maybe around Mom’s age, bald with a beard and a big nose. One eye was closed, the other half-open.
Yeah. Dead humans looked a lot like dead animals. Just an empty lump of meat.
The dirt under Trick’s right front paw slid into the hole, and he had to scrabble back before he fell in.
“Hey!” cried the big man, right beside him. “Get outta here!” The man swung the shovel at Trick, but he darted away, tearing through the grass back toward the bushes. Only after he’d gotten well away from the grave did Trick glance over his shoulder to see that the man wasn’t following. The man wasn’t even looking at Trick. He was shoveling the dirt back into the grave, eyes darting around like he was afraid someone might be watching.
Trick ran out of the graveyard without seeing any other people and started down the hill back toward the main part of town. The sun was getting low, but he could probably make it back before dark.
Agreste was a small town. He didn’t know how many people were in it or anything, but he knew it was big enough to be interesting and small enough that he could get around without constantly being bombarded by big, loud things. And most of the people, when they saw him, either ignored him or talked nicely to him. Some even gave him food. That big man was a lot meaner than most of the people Trick ran into around here.
Downtown, he loped down the sidewalk beside an old movie theater, then ducked into an alley. It was a shortcut that saved him a couple blocks on his way home, which was good because he was likely already gonna get yelled at as it was.
Halfway down the alley, the rustle of feathers drew his attention to the edge of one of the roofs, where a red-tailed hawk sat watching him. Trick eyed the hawk, wondering if he should turn back the way he’d come or run on and hope the hawk didn’t make a move.
Dang bird, he thought to himself. This wasn’t the first time he’d caught the hawk watching him. Or a hawk, anyway. He couldn’t really be sure it was the same hawk, and it didn’t make any sense that it would be. Trick and his family had only moved into Agreste a week ago, but he’d been spotting hawks watching him for years, even back in Three Sisters. None of them had ever actually tried to snatch him, but those talons were sharp, and he knew that he was still small, even for a cat.
He crept forward carefully, keeping his eyes on the hawk, which peered down at him with a cool gaze as if it didn’t care at all what he did.
Something shifted behind him, then the direction of the wind changed, and he caught a scent that froze his feet and raised his hackles. Fox.
His heartbeat sped up as he considered what to do. Caught between a hawk and a fox. Not good. Not good. Trying to act casual, he started down the alley again, ears pricked for the fox that he knew was trailing him, eyes darting to the hawk every second or two as he scanned the alley for an escape.
A wire fence butted up against one wall of the alley, blocking off a driveway or something on the other side. It hadn’t been put up very well, and the edge at the corner was loose. It was a small gap, but he was a small cat. The hawk could still fly over, but if he could . . . Yes. That’s it.
Cats were predators, but they were also prey, and even though Trick hated to think of himself as prey, he knew that was what he had to be for this to work.
Activate prey drive, he thought, breaking into a sprint toward the gap in the fence. As he’d expected, he heard the scuffle of claws on pavement as the fox behind him bolted out from where it had been hiding, determined to catch him before he got through to safety. Energy surged through Trick’s body as he ran, paws light as air on the ground, practically flying. A second later, the hawk screeched and dove toward him. He heard them both, the fox and the hawk, and knew that if he took even a moment to glance toward them, he’d be dead. He could practically feel the hawk’s talons in his back and the fox’s teeth on his tail. From somewhere inside him, he dug out another burst of speed.
He reached the fence and threw himself at the gap, wriggling with all his might through the hole between the wire and the brick of the building, and tumbled out on the other side. A screeching cry and sharp yip came from behind him, and he spun to see the fox and the hawk locked in vicious combat, tumbling together against the wire fence, which rattled loudly as the two bodies beat against it.
Take that! Try to eat me, huh? He spared a moment to meow tauntingly at them, enjoying his victory. Even with the fox snapping at its neck, the hawk took the time to turn its head and pierce him with a glare. Its talons were buried in the fox’s side. The fox was a lot bigger than the hawk, but those talons . . .
Trick didn’t really want to wait around to find out which of them would win. Or whether the winner would be satisfied with its kill or if it would want some kitten for dessert. He slipped through a cracked-open back door into the building, hurried through what turned out to be an antique store, and got shooed out the front door by the shopkeeper.
The fox was tough; Julia had to give it that. But then, for an animal like a fox to hunt this far into town, it had to be either young and stupid or desperate and hungry. For several minutes, as she beat her wings against the fox’s face and raked its side with her talons, Julia thought this might be the end of her. Cut down in her prime in some alleyway by a dumb animal.
How embarrassing that would be.
And then, finally, the sun set. It had been gradually getting darker as she trailed the kitten boy on his way home, and it would take another half hour for full dark to set in, but Julia knew it—felt it—the moment the sun dipped below the horizon.
The fox jerked back with a start. Well, tried to jerk back. Really more lurched backward against the brick wall, limping on legs whose tendons had been cut and bleeding profusely from the gouges in its side. It tried to run from the human who had suddenly appeared where the hawk had been a moment ago, but it couldn’t get to its feet.
Julia got up off her side and shifted into a crouch, her own flesh scratched and torn, though not nearly as badly as the fox’s. The injuries stung, and she hissed out a curse, both from the pain and from the distraction which had made her fail in her directive. Even still, annoyed as she was at the fox—and at that blasted, stupid boy—the wild panic in the fox’s eyes, the pained sounds it made, and the way it scrambled hopelessly to flee on dysfunctional limbs stirred a swell of pity inside her.
The fox wouldn’t live long, either dying from shock, killed by a stray dog, or slowly succumbing to its injuries. Julia would mercy kill it now if she had some weapon that would let her do it cleanly. She glanced around the alley, looking for both a weapon and anyone who might see her, and found neither. But she could see a canvas flour sack sticking out of a nearby dumpster.
With a growl of annoyance, she stood, body stinging with all the cuts and shallow punctures the fox had managed to give her, and got the bag. Careful not to get herself bitten again, she scooped the panicked fox into the bag and tied the bag closed. The fox cried and fought like crazy, but she figured it would either settle down soon or pass out from the pain. Maybe it would live long enough for her to get where she was going, or maybe not. It wasn’t like Kester needed another familiar, especially not some dumb fox. Best case, it’d get released into the wild to maybe try to kill her or the kitten boy again. It didn’t matter. Julia had bigger problems to worry about.
Like how she was going to get across town as an injured, naked woman with no possessions except a bag full of screaming fox.
Julia’s master lived on the farthest edge of Agreste in a four-bedroom house on two acres of lush, green land with a small river a stone’s throw from the back porch. The house was a sprawling single-storey, with brick pillars and façade at the front setting off the green-painted wood of the rest of the house and a brown-shingled roof.
Hidden by the moonless night, Julia walked carefully down the driveway, a cut on the sole of her right foot making her limp. The front porch light was on, and when she knocked, the door opened instantly. He’d been waiting for her, as she knew he would be.
“Julia! Are you all right?” Kester’s eyes searched her face, then flitted over her body and noted how cold she was. Reaching an arm around her shoulders, he pulled her inside and shut the door. “Come in and warm up, dearest one.” He led her to the fireplace and pushed her down onto a footstool in front of a crackling fire. With a cock of his head, sapphire blue eyes moved to the sack in her hand. “Why have you brought me this?”
Julia shrugged and held it up for him. The fox wasn’t moving anymore. “Thought you could save it. Might be too late.”
He took it, opening the top to peer inside. “Hmm. You may be right. I’ll have a closer look.” His concerned gaze swept over her again, taking in the cuts and scratches. His frown dug little furrows into his brow: creases he didn’t normally have. At thirty-six, he showed no signs of aging, aside from having filled out so as to become even more handsome. Kester had been beautiful at eighteen, when she’d first met him, and he’d only grown more so with time.
Unlike Julia, who was dirt-plain as a human and would probably start getting gray hairs and wrinkles as soon as she hit thirty next year. That was the way things always seemed to go.
“After what it did to you, why save it?” he asked, genuinely curious.
She shrugged again.
“Such a sweet girl. What a soft heart you have. All right, go get a hot shower, and I’ll see if this beast can be saved.”
After she got out of the shower and put on some flannel pajamas, Julia went back into the large, open living room. She didn’t recognize any of the furniture, but she liked it. When he’d bought the house a few days ago, Kester had paid a designer to furnish it for them. While the design was stylish and elegant, it was also minimalist and comfortable, with soft cushions on the couch and more seating than the two of them were ever likely to need.
Kester was sitting in one of the armchairs with his feet propped on a footstool and a laptop resting on his thighs, his head tilted down so the edges of his wavy blond hair hid his eyes. The fox lay curled in a tight ball on the floor near his feet, gauze wrapped around its ribs. It looked up when Julia entered the room, nothing but calm disinterest in its expression.
“What did you do to it?” she asked, a trickle of annoyance winding through her. Did he mean to keep it as a house pet?
“Only a calming spell. I’ll lift it when the poultice has finished healing its wounds.”
So, he didn’t mean to keep it. Good. She sat in a chair across the seating area from him. Now that the fox was saved, she wondered if it was smart of her to have bothered. “It tried to kill the boy. It might again.”
Kester looked up from his computer and stared at the fire, tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair. “That’s a good point. I should probably kill it to be safe.”
Julia sighed. “I did carry it all the way here.”
His fingers moved to the keyboard, and Julia listened to more tapping for a few minutes. “There’s a wildlife sanctuary about two hours away,” he said at last. “I’ll drop it off tomorrow. If I don’t lift the calming spell, they should see that it can’t go back into the wild and may give it a home. Does that please you?”
She gave him a small, tired smile and nodded.
“Good.” He set the laptop aside. “You did well protecting the kitten boy from the fox, though I’m disappointed you weren’t able to see him safely all the way home.”
Julia bowed her head. “I’m sorry, Master.”
He held up a hand. “I’m not blaming you, only expressing my current feelings. I would have had a hard enough time sleeping tonight without knowing whether or not he changes, but to not even be sure he’s home when the time comes—not to mention alive . . .” He tapped his finger against his chin. “We’ll have to watch the house. Jacqueline will no doubt have all the curtains drawn, but if the boy is missing, she’ll go out to search for him. Hmm.” He checked his watch. “We don’t have much time.” He stood and held out his hand for Julia. “Come. I’ll mend you, then we need to go.”
“It’s not that bad,” Julia protested, but she was already getting to her feet and reaching for his hand.
He made a dismissive sound and took her to his laboratory.
Trick’s mom was buzzing around the house like a bee, and Trick sat on the top perch of his cat tree, staying out of the way. When Trick had made it home, Mom had been standing in the open doorway, watching for him. A look of worry had turned into annoyance and relief when Trick had scooted past her feet into the house, and he’d gotten a really long lecture about being on time and how important tonight was. He had mostly tuned her out, and she’d gone back to cooking dinner.
The dinner was laid out on the dining room table now, dishes covered with lids and foil to keep them warm. The garlicky scent made Trick’s nose twitch. Mom had made spaghetti with salad and garlic bread, which she swore Trick used to love even though he hadn’t had it in seven years. As Trick had found out soon after he’d been turned into a cat, cats were carnivores, which meant they had to eat meat in order to live. Mom, though, was a vegetarian. She always made faces when preparing the meat for Trick’s dinners, especially when handling the livers and kidneys and stuff. Which was so silly. Meat was just dead stuff, and dead stuff was just . . . stuff that wasn’t alive anymore. Nothing lived forever, which meant everything died at some point, so dead stuff was as normal and natural as plants and sunshine. Trick didn’t understand what Mom’s problem was. But she had been very excited to make a meat-free meal tonight.
She fiddled with the three place settings, fidgeting and pacing and adjusting forks every few seconds. Trick watched his mother from his perch in the living room, annoyed at how excited she was. She was so sure she was right, and Trick was afraid maybe she was.
“It’s almost time,” Mom said, coming in from the dining room. “Trick, get off of that. You can’t be sitting there when you change back.”
I’m not going to change back, Trick thought, willing it to be true. The time’s going to pass and nothing will happen and I’ll be a cat forever. So there.
His little brother was sitting on the couch, kicking his feet in boredom. “Mom, can I go read yet?” he asked.
Trick didn’t understand him. What six-year-old boy wanted to read? Why did anyone want to read? Who wanted to stare at scribbles on a page when there was a whole world of adventure out there? Maybe it was because Brother wasn’t a cat. Poor kid. Life probably was a lot more dull when you had to obey all the rules that humans did.
“Landon!” Mom said, turning on the boy like he’d said something outrageous. “Aren’t you excited to see your brother for the first time?”
Brother frowned in confusion and pointed at the top of the cat tree. “Trick’s right there.”
“As he really looks,” she insisted. “Not as what that witch made him.”
“But he’s always been like that,” Brother said.
She sat on the couch beside him. “Do you remember what I told you before? About how you were in trouble before you were born, and Trick let himself be turned into a cat by a witch in order to save you?”
“Witches . . . are made-up,” said Brother, not sounding super convinced about that.
“Most people think so, but there really are some of them around. The sneaky witch gave me a potion to save you, then wanted Trick to be her familiar for seven years as payment. She died a year later, so I was able to bring Trick home early, but he was still stuck as a cat.”
Trick yawned and stretched, then got up and lay down with his back to them.
“And tonight is seven years?” Brother asked.
“Yes.” Mom checked the clock. “Very soon, Trick will be human again, and we can all go on with our lives.”
Trick turned his head and meowed at his mom.
“Why are you in such a bad mood?” she asked him. “Aren’t you excited to get your life back?”
The end of Trick’s tail twitched in exasperation. He couldn’t explain to her that he didn’t want to be human again, that he hoped the witch had intended to remove the spell herself instead of it undoing itself automatically after the seven years were up as Mom believed. Hopefully, he’d never be able to tell Mom that because if he could tell her that, it meant he could talk, and talking meant being human, and who needed that?
She stood and picked Trick up. He had an impulse to hiss and lash out with a paw, but he could never hurt his mom, so he let himself be picked up and set on the floor between the couch and the curtain-covered windows. For a second, he thought to run into his room and hide. But if the change was coming—and it definitely wasn’t—then it wasn’t something he could hide from. Better to stay here and let Mom see that she was wrong, that Trick was meant to be a cat and no amount of optimism and regret and spaghetti could make him a boy again.
So Trick sat on the rug in front of his mom and brother and waited.
Mom didn’t do a countdown. Things had been so weird when the witch had turned Trick into a cat, they hadn’t gotten an exact time on when it had happened. But Mom watched Trick with wide, unblinking eyes, her body perched literally on the edge of her seat.
Minutes passed. Then a few more. As his nervousness was beginning to turn into happy relief, a feeling flowed through Trick like being stretched in a taffy pull. Everything felt weird and wrong, and the world lurched around him. He heard Mom cry out and Brother squeal, and Trick himself let out a yowl that morphed into a boyish scream. And then he was suddenly very cold. He looked down at his pale, hairless body in horror. His fierce claws had turned into fragile, dull little caps for his fingertips; he was defenseless. His whiskers had fallen out, and the world around him felt far away and blurry. His senses were muffled. And his tail—an entire limb—was just gone.
He screamed at the top of his lungs.
“My baby!” Mom cried, pulling a throw blanket off the back of the couch and kneeling to wrap Trick in it, hugging him so tightly he could hardly breathe. He trembled with rage and loss as his mom held him. She pushed him out to arm’s length and looked into his eyes. “You’re so big!”
He was. Big and awkward. He was probably slow, too. He couldn’t believe this. It had actually happened.
“Look, Landon!” she said, pulling the blanket tight around Trick’s body. “It’s your big brother!”
The little boy’s eyes were wide, and he pushed back into the couch cushion instead of coming over to them.
Trick sucked in breaths faster and faster as Mom wrapped him in another tight hug.
Outside, in a car across the street, Julia sat with Kester, watching and listening. They couldn’t see anything past the closed curtains, but they had the car windows open, so they’d heard the first scream. When the second one came, sounding like neither a woman nor a young boy but like something between a teenager and a tortured cat, Kester turned to Julia, a broad grin on his beautiful face. “Well,” he said, “this should be fun.”