Last week we announced that Jody Gehrman’s Audrey’s Guide to Witchcraft (YA Paranormal Romance) is our Kids Corner Book of the Week and the sponsor of our student reviews and of thousands of great bargains in the Kids Book category:
Now we’re back to offer a free Kids Corner excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded this one already, you’re in for a treat!
by Jody Gehrman
From the award-winning author of Babe in Boyland comes a Young Adult paranormal romance about witchcraft, black magic, and the pleasures of paranormal chocolate…
Falling in love, baking a magical cake, fighting an evil necromancer–it’s all in a day’s work for Audrey Oliver, seventeen-year-old witch-in-training. When her mother goes missing and her mysterious “cousin” shows up out of the blue, Audrey knows something’s gone horribly, dangerously wrong. Now it’s up to her to get her own magical powers up to speed before everyone she loves is destroyed by the sorcerer intricately connected to her mother’s secret past.
Audrey’s Guide to Witchcraft is more than just a novel; it’s a book of spells, a collection of easy recipes, a charming coming-of-age tale, an enchanting romance, and an action-packed adventure. As Audrey overcomes her insecurities and learns to protect herself against the wicked black magic of her nemesis, she grows into a heroine we can root for–a witch who knows that true power comes from deep within.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
That first Friday in September, barely a week into my junior year, I knew Mom had gone missing. I sensed her absence and her fear, even though logic told me she’d left for work as usual. All day at school everything just felt wrong. My hair frizzed, my jeans chafed, even my favorite T-shirt seemed to cling in all the wrong places. Images kept crystallizing inside my brain with dreamlike clarity, images that made no sense. Despite the lack of coherent meaning, these pictures chilled the marrow inside my bones and sent icy rivulets pulsing through my veins. I saw Mom as a young woman, laughing with a dark-haired nymph of a girl. I saw gunmetal grey clouds moving inexorably across the sky, swollen and heavy with rain. The picture that scared me most, though, was the one I understood the least: a lanky man in a crisp white lab coat watching me with pale blue eyes. I’d never seen the guy before and there was nothing particularly horrifying about the sight of him, yet whenever he flickered to life inside my head my heart throbbed insanely and my whole body went clammy with sweat.
“Audrey? What’s up with you?”
I turned and saw Bridget, my best friend, gazing at me quizzically. Her honey-colored hair glowed in the sunlight streaming through the windows of the Culinary Arts room. She wore a crisp yellow apron over her cotton dress. She could easily be cast as a Swedish milkmaid with her wholesome pink cheeks and old-world curves. Next to her I felt even more drab and grungy. I wore ratty jeans and a Hello Kitty T-shirt that was once green but had long since faded to the washed-out khaki of overcooked peas. My shoulder-length auburn hair needed a trim, and my makeup consisted of hurriedly swiped on lip balm. I looked like a barbarian next to her.
I blinked, trying to orient myself. “Nothing’s up. Why?”
“You’re supposed to whisk the egg yolks, not terrorize them.” She gently removed the bowl from my white-knuckled grip.
I laughed self-consciously. “Oh. Sorry.”
“You’ve been seriously freaktastic all day.” Bridget coined about fifty new words a week. I guess standard American English just didn’t give her enough options.
Sometimes Bridget’s neologisms annoyed me, but just then I felt grateful for the distraction. I handed her the wire whisk. “Define ‘freaktastic.’”
“Freaktastic, as in freakily spastic.”
I reached for my notebook. “And here I thought you meant fantastically freaky.”
“Are you adding it to The Guide?”
I jabbed the button on my ballpoint pen. “Don’t flatter yourself. I just want to jot down this recipe.”
The Guide, as Bridget called it, was a tattered, spiral bound notebook I was rarely without. I used it to jot down recipes, lists, and general instructions for living that popped into my head. It was like a cross between a cookbook, a diary and a how-to manual. Bridget kept a journal for her angst-ridden poems and meandering prose about the meaning of life. Me, I liked lists, ingredients, instructions. Somehow they made the chaos of life less…chaotic.
Quickly, I jotted down Mrs. Jackson’s crème brulee recipe, making a few alterations here and there:
Madame Jackson’s Crème Brulee
Ingredients: 3 cups heavy cream, 2 vanilla beans, 8 egg yolks, half a cup white sugar.
- Heat cream with vanilla beans until bubbles form at edges. Remove and let cool about 30 minutes.
- Whisk egg yolks with sugar until thick. Remove vanilla beans and pour into yolk mixture. Cook over low heat until it thickens. Divide evenly among 6 large ramekins or custard cups. Cover and refrigerate until set.
- Just before serving, sprinkle sugar on top and brown with a kitchen torch or under broiler.
“So what’s up with you?” Bridget asked as I closed my notebook.
“Nothing.” I waved a hand dismissively. “I’m just in a weird mood.”
“You don’t look yourself.”
“I’m just tired.” Normally I’d be honest with Bridget, but this time my instincts told me to keep my inner freaktasticity to myself. What could I tell her, really? I think my mom’s gone missing and there’s this spooky dude in my brain? With my luck she’d latch onto the idea and pester me with a million questions. Bridget had a serious addiction to fantasy novels, especially the kind with sexy paranormal love interests who can’t resist the heroine even though she’s mind-numbingly bland and boring. If I told her about lab coat guy she’d probably decide he was a vampire or super hot shape shifter trying to contact boring old me from another dimension. That was all I needed—Bridget confusing everything with her inter-dimensional matchmaking.
Mrs. Jackson strode to the front of the class, her ubiquitous jumbo travel mug gripped tightly in one hand. She started going on about the history of crème brulee—something about Cambridge and burnt cream; her monotone threatened to put me in a coma. As Bridget and I measured and mixed, my hands moved automatically through the tasks. I listened to her chatter on about a deluxe food processor she’d been saving up for. She asked once more about what was bothering me, but I changed the subject immediately. I needed her soothing prattle, her cheerful dedication to order.
Towards the end of class, Mrs. Jackson explained that we would practice the last, most important step on custards the morning class had prepared, since we didn’t have time to let ours cool for three hours. She handed out the kitchen torches, rattling off a long list of instructions in a bored, rote tone, like a flight attendant explaining our aircraft’s safety features. I let Bridget go first. I watched as she wielded the blue flame, carefully braising the sprinkling of sugar atop the pale baked cream. The smell of caramelized sweetness filled the air.
The perfume of scorched sugar conjured my Mom’s face again, her eyes bright, her lips curved into a proud smile. We’d baked together a lot over the years. She was the one who taught me to use a culinary torch back when I could barely see over the counter. As I watched, the memory of her happy face morphed, her mouth opening in a scream, her eyes going wide with horror. I shivered.
“Your turn.” Bridget handed me the torch.
I took it from her. The flame sprang to life when I pushed the button; I adjusted the intensity with the dial, turning it up just slightly. Bending over the nearest custard, I focused my attention, letting the room disappear around me. The top layer of superfine sugar quickly transformed as I touched the flame to it. White powder became dark, bubbling beads. Soon the whole surface started to darken, oozing a rich satiny brown. Mesmerized, I watched the sugar transform into something else, something molten.
From under the surface of the custard, a slow movement began. At first I thought it was just bubbling slightly from the heat, but then I felt my stomach clench in fear and I knew something bizarre was happening. The yellowish custard roiled under the layer of liquefied sugar. Gradually, beneath the steady kiss of my blue flame, a face began to take form. The darkened sugar gave way as the pale features took shape. At first I could only make out a faint outline, but then it sprang out at me, eyes and nose and mouth bulging up from the custard like a swimmer emerging from the depths of an opaque sea.
“Ack!” I yanked the torch away so abruptly I almost burned Bridget, who hovered at my side.
Bridget spoke softly, almost reverently. “What was that?”
“I don’t know!” With panicky fingers I turned off the torch and set it down. “Did you see it?”
“I saw something.”
“Oh, god.” I darted a look at Mrs. Jackson, who thankfully had her hands full keeping a couple pimply-faced sophomore boys from using their kitchen torches as light-sabers. “It looked like—didn’t it—wasn’t there a—?”
“A face?” Bridget said. “Yeah. What’s up with that?”
I covered my mouth with one trembling hand, afraid to answer her. The scariest part was that I hadn’t just seen a face, I’d seen the face, the same blue-eyed man that had been haunting me all morning.
Bridget stared fixedly at the custard. “You can still kind of see it—like the Jesus face on that tortilla.”
“What Jesus face?”
“You know, the miracle tortilla.”
A nervous, slightly hysterical laugh escaped me. I covered my mouth and studied the custard. I had no idea what miracle she referred to, but she was right about one thing; you could still see a man’s face etched into the caramelized sugar. The singed caramel coating outlined high cheekbones and fine, angular features. I knew I’d never seen him before, yet something about that face felt hauntingly familiar.
Bridget suddenly got all excited. “Maybe he’s a being from another dimension trying to contact you.”
I snorted. Here it was! I’d been right to keep it from her earlier. “If you say so.”
“You’re so cynical. How can magic ever find you if you won’t let it in?”
“Put that on a bumper sticker.”
“I’m serious!” Her eyes went wide. “You have to be open.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. Beings from other dimensions might sound exciting to someone like Bridget, who devoured books about anything paranormal and wore jewelry emblazoned with archaic religious symbols. She craved the supernatural, or thought she did—craved evidence of life beyond Healdsburg, the quiet little earthbound town we called home. She didn’t know what it was like to have a terrifying stranger take up residence in your head, then emerge from a cup of custard. I doubted she’d ever felt the bizarre wrongness I’d been steeped in all day, as if an invisible malevolent force had crept in through the backdoor of my brain and quietly taken over.
I took a spoon and started hacking away at the rapidly hardening caramelized layer.
“No! You’ll ruin it!” Bridget looked scandalized.
“It was nothing—just a fluke.”
“We should have at least taken a picture!”
But I didn’t want a picture. I wanted to obscure any sign of those creepy, watchful eyes. I didn’t say out loud what I was thinking—that maybe sometimes being “open” isn’t just stupid, it’s dangerous.
I had two passions in life: baking and chemistry. I guess most people would consider that an odd pairing of interests; I blame my parents. Dad was a chemist. He died seven years ago, when I was ten, but I can still vividly recall the little experiments we did together—dropping a roll of Mentos into a liter bottle of Coke, then running like crazy as a frothy stream of soda exploded into the sky, showering the lawn in sticky sweetness. Mom is a pastry chef, and she passed her love of baking onto me practically from birth. We baked all my birthday cakes together, made cookies and scones and cupcakes on weekends. All my childhood memories are laced with the scent of something sweet and warm fresh from the oven.
Even though chemistry and baking might seem like totally different interests, in my mind their pleasures were almost identical. They both revolved around mixing, for starters, taking separate ingredients and transforming them into something greater than the sum of their parts. I loved the way you could transform sugar, butter and cream into something new: caramel sauce. Seriously, caramel sauce was practically a form of alchemy! Chemistry tried to explain that alchemy. It helped me understand what was happening when I baked, how and why the molecules cleaved to or repelled one another.
Bridget and I left Culinary Arts a little shaken by the weirdness of the crème brulee incident. Well, this might be a more accurate summary: I was totally weirded out while Bridget was cruising along with her usual sunny optimism, the memory of the custard monster already fading. I had Chemistry next, and felt eager to lose myself in Mr. Green’s lecture; maybe we’d even do an experiment. The rational, measured certainty of science sounded extraordinarily comforting after the sinister creepiness of my morning.
Speaking of sinister creepiness, Dallas Rizzo came sashaying around the corner just as Bridget and I stepped into the hall. Dallas was a junior, like us, but she strutted around Healdsburg High with the hubris of a practiced celebrity. She had the longest legs and the tiniest waist of anyone I’d ever seen outside a fashion magazine. Her usual cadre of adoring Dallas-wannabes minced along in her wake as she strode down the hall. Every guy in the vicinity looked half terrified and half in love as she passed.
“Just ignore her,” I muttered under my breath. I could sense Bridget tensing beside me, her eyes darting around like a frightened bunny catching the scent of a bloodthirsty predator.
“Yeah, right,” Bridget grumbled from the side of her mouth. “It’s like ignoring a tornado.”
Her lack of confidence in this strategy was not unearned. Dallas had a thing against Bridget. Whenever Dallas caught site of my totally nonthreatening best friend all her evilest instincts spontaneously surfaced. You’d never guess that throughout elementary school Dallas and Bridget had been inseparable. Bridget’s family lived right next door to the sprawling and opulent Rizzo Ranch out in Alexander Valley. They’d grown up riding horses together, swimming in the Rizzos’ spring fed pond, catching butterflies, picking blackberries. In the eighth grade, all of that changed. Dallas, once gangly and awkward, morphed into a glamazon overnight. Her parents’ ugly divorce coincided with this dramatic transformation, and she reacted by seeking thrills in any form—drinking, smoking, general dare-deviling. She also started dating with a vengeance—if you could even use that polite of a verb for a fourteen-year-old girl bestowing favors in cars.
Bridget, with her super religious upbringing and sheltered worldview, had no intention of following in Dallas’ reckless footsteps. Their friendship crashed and burned, big time. That’s when Bridget and I started hanging out. Even though Dallas had become a legendary Healdsburg High icon over the years with countless friends and adoring fans, I don’t think she ever forgave Bridget for staying more or less the same—or for choosing me as a replacement best friend. Maybe the sight of Bridget—pink-cheeked and somehow childlike even now—reminded Dallas of her lost innocence. That’s just a theory though. Only one thing was for sure: Dallas could always be trusted to make Bridget’s life hell.
“Hey Bridge!” Dallas called with fake singsong enthusiasm when she spotted us. “How’s it going?”
“Fine.” Bridget kept her eyes averted and hurried her steps.
“Wait! Don’t scurry off. Honestly, you act like you’re scared of me!” Her automatons tittered brainlessly at this, though as far as I could see it wasn’t especially funny. Dallas jutted one hip out and eyed me contemptuously. “How are you, Adrienne?”
“Audrey,” I corrected her. She knew perfectly well what my name was—we’d all gone to school together since the beginning of time, for god’s sake! But she loved making me feel like something she’d scraped off the bottom of her shoe.
Her brown hair had fresh blonde highlights, and she ran her fingers through it delicately, careful not to muss her perfect do. “Bridge, I’ve been meaning to tell you, a friend of mine just lost like twenty pounds in two weeks. Some kind of gluten-dairy-free diet. You have to fast for a few days, but it’s totally worth it. I could text you a link to their web site.” She let her gaze linger on Bridget’s ample hips.
Bridget just shrugged, but I could see by the way she folded her arms across her middle that Dallas’ “helpful” tip had exactly the desired effect—to make her feel like a beached whale.
“I’m surprised a friend of yours would diet.” I knew I should shut up, but girlfriend pissed me off.
Dallas blinked at me, her mascara-caked lashes practically sticking together. “Was I speaking to you, Addison?”
“I assumed you all just stuck your fingers down your throat and called it a day,” I replied sweetly.
Dallas shot daggers from her eyes, though her mouth remained frozen in a tight, chilly grin. The scene, much as I hated to admit it, was familiar. It looked just like ones we’d played out a hundred times in our high school years—Dallas oozing toxic sweetness, me snarling in Bridget’s defense, Bridget going limp and silent, as if playing dead might help. Something felt different that day, though, something I couldn’t quite identify. The cloying smell of Dallas’s perfume filled my head, mixing with the sweat of bodies already sticky with September heat. Dallas’s teenie-bopper posse radiated nervous fear; I could smell their sickly potpourri of deodorizing products, see the chaos flitting around inside them like trapped bees.
Then things got scary surreal. Dallas’ face glowed a sickly yellow, and her brown eyes glassed over with milky green as they bore into the top of Bridget’s bowed head. With an electric flash of insight I realized Dallas was jealous of Bridget—she envied her courage, her freedom to be herself. For a split second I felt sorry for Dallas, but then I sensed the waves of poisonous hatred that jealousy had spawned; my mouth filled with the aftertaste of rancid milk, and I nearly gagged.
Nobody noticed me as I took all this in. They remained locked in their roles, playing out their little drama as if nothing had changed. It had changed, though. Everything had changed.
“Oh my God!” Dallas put one hand to her over-glossed lips. “I hope I didn’t offend you. I’m trying to help.”
“No. I’m fine.” Bridget’s voice sounded small and far away.
“I just know how hard it can be to shed those unwanted pounds.” Her eyes roamed up and down Bridget’s body while her rigid smile stayed firmly in place.
Dallas started to open her mouth to say something else, but she never got the words out. A strange concoction had started brewing inside me—rage and protectiveness and a desperate need to shut this girl up. That’s when I felt the world coalesce inside my chest. My heart became a vacuum sucking up everything around me—the stink of grease from the cafeteria, the nervous excitement of people passing us in the halls, Dallas’s hatred, Bridget’s mortification. It funneled into me all at once, and I couldn’t contain it. My entire body was saturated, bursting at the seams. I felt a white hot force swirl inside my chest, rise into my head, and shoot out of my eyes in a great, stinging rush straight at Dallas’s scrawny throat.
Instantly Dallas choked on whatever she’d intended to say. Her manicured hand shot to her throat and she made a strangled sound like a cat preparing to hock up a hairball. For a second she looked at me, her face full of surprise and confusion. Then she tried to speak again. The sound that came out of her this time had a desperate, convulsive quality—a cross between moaning and gagging. Her little friends all gaped at her in horror. She covered her mouth, eyes wide.
Nicole, her head ho-in-training, put a tentative hand on her shoulder. “Dallas? You okay?”
More garbled sounds came from Dallas. Nicole looked torn between her desire to assist the Queen Bee and her fear of projectile vomit. She compromised by positioning herself behind Dallas and steering her away from us, toward the closest exit. The entourage followed, whispering up a storm and shooting us curious glances. Before they made it out the door Dallas turned and gave us her patented stink-eye.
Suddenly I felt utterly drained. My breathing steadied, and my heart slowed from a tango to a waltz. I wanted a cool glass of water and a long, dreamless nap. The hurricane that had just ripped through my body receded until it became a blurred shape on the horizon.
“Um, Audrey?” Bridget said in a tremulous little voice. “What just happened?”
I shook my head. How could I explain the craziness I’d just been through? Half of me didn’t even believe it myself. I’d never experienced anything like it. I let out my breath slowly.
“Seriously,” Bridget turned and searched my face. “What was that? Did you hear the noises she made? It was like something strangled her. And the air was kind of…sparkly.”
“Was it?” I murmured.
“Yeah, like phosphorescent, almost.” Bridget’s brow furrowed in a frown.
“Are you okay?” I looked at her more closely. “Diet advice? Please!”
She shrugged. Bridget always downplayed her encounters with Dallas, as if refusing to talk about it would make the problem disappear. “Yeah. Fine. That was just weird, is all.”
The bell rang, jangling my already raw nerves. I squeezed Bridget’s hand and we both ran off to our classes, me to Chemistry and her to History. As I slipped into my seat and prepared to concentrate on Mr. Green’s lecture, I felt relieved to escape the scene in the hallway in favor of the cool, rational world of science. Still, a part of me remained preoccupied. I could feel a lingering dull ache behind my eyes. My chest tingled and my leg muscles twitched restlessly. I felt like a snow globe that had been shaken up; my glittery particles still swirled in all directions. I tried to lose myself in notes, but I couldn’t ignore the ominous shadow hovering over the day.
When I got home from school that afternoon, my sister Meg had her bright red Stratocaster strapped on and she was sing-screaming into the mic, “PMS distress!” over and over.
I made my way through the front room where Meg’s band had their gear strewn everywhere. I stepped gingerly over tangled chords and sidestepped a battered amp. “Is that a new song?” I asked Meg as she paused for a breath.
They all turned to look at me. Meg’s white-blonde hair was artfully disarranged, and her grey-blue eyes looked slightly crazed in a nimbus of black eyeliner. My little sister was angelically pretty, always had been, but she did what she could to undermine the sweetness of her face. Her two best friends and band mates, Erika and Jo, weren’t burdened with the same pristine beauty. Erika, the bass player, had short brown hair, the petite body of a gymnast and a face that was forever pinched in a look of consternation. Jo, the drummer, was tall and pear-shaped with deep purple hair and too many facial piercings to count. The three of them had been playing music together since junior high. Now they were sophomores and had finally given their band a name: Cherry. It was okay, I guessed, as band names went—definitely suggestive, but not obscene, and not impenetrably cryptic like a lot of modern bands.
“We’re just messing around,” Meg said. “Don’t worry, I won’t humiliate you by singing about cramps.”
Jo and Erika laughed. I got the feeling I always did around Meg and her friends—that they were inside their own uber-cool musicians’ bubble, a world I could never hope to enter. Even though I was a year older and therefore should have been the one scoffing at them, I could never shake the sense that they found me laughably unhip. I pushed my annoyance away. There were way more important issues to focus on right then; my own petty insecurities would have to wait.
“Have you heard anything from Mom?” As the words left my mouth, an incredibly lucid image of the stranger staring up at me from the crème brulee tore through my mind. I could see his eyes at close range for just a second before his face melted into darkness. A sharp pain blossomed inside my ribcage. I angled my face away from Meg, afraid she’d notice the anxiety in my eyes. I didn’t want to worry her—not before it was absolutely necessary.
“No.” Meg sounded puzzled. “She’s probably at work.”
Mom had her own catering business, so her hours were pretty unpredictable. We rarely knew when she’d be home from day to day, though she always called before dinner, either to tell us what to thaw or what she planned to bring home. She rented a space downtown that used to be a bakery once her business got too big for our kitchen. I grabbed the phone and dialed her work number, my fingers trembling.
“Wine Country Catering.” Maxine, the lady Mom hired to take orders and do the books, sounded bored.
“Hey, Maxine. It’s Audrey. Is my mom there?”
She hesitated, and then said in a slightly apologetic tone, “No, honey, I thought she was with you.”
Though I knew something was wrong, had known all day, this first scrap of evidence confirming my fears felt like a punch in the stomach. “Have you talked to her?”
“She called this morning, said she had to take you to the doctor.”
It occurred to me to fib, to make up some story that might save Mom the embarrassment of getting caught in a lie. I couldn’t be bothered, though. Why would she fabricate a doctor’s appointment? At least this told me she probably hadn’t been abducted against her will. Wherever she’d gone, she’d known about it this morning, had tried to cover by calling Maxine with an excuse. Again, the images that had haunted me all day flickered to life inside my head and I shuddered.
“Audrey, honey? You there?”
“Yeah.” My voice sounded raspy and small. “I’ll try her cell. Thanks, Maxine.”
I hung up and punched in the number, willing myself to stay calm. All I got was her voicemail, though. I left a message urging her to call me right away. For half a second I considered telling her about the weird feelings I’d been trying to suppress, but I knew I’d just ramble. It wasn’t the kind of thing you can describe succinctly over voicemail. Even face-to-face, I didn’t know if I could explain to her about the wrongness, the excruciating tension I’d been swimming in. I wanted to tell her about what happened with Dallas, too. If anyone would understand, it would be Mom.
That night, as twilight descended over Spring Street, Meg and I sat on our front porch, eating ice cream. When it became obvious Mom wouldn’t be home for dinner I’d thawed some of her homemade spaghetti sauce and made raviolis. Now we were passing a pint of Hagen-Das Dulce de Leche back and forth, watching the sky turn a rich lavender. Spring Street didn’t get a whole lot of traffic, so I noticed the sound of a wheezing motor even from a distance. We watched as a rust-eaten van turned onto our street and roared toward us. When it puttered to a stop in front of our old Victorian, I felt the little hairs on my arms stand at attention.
A girl a few years older than me pushed open the door on the driver’s side and the hinges whined in protest. She slammed it behind her. Though the light had begun to fade, I could still see her pretty clearly as she stepped down onto the sidewalk. She had the most amazing black hair: blunt bangs bridging two long, velvety curtains. She wore a funky white dress with huge red flames that swirled up from the hem. But the most striking thing about her outfit were the shoes: knee-high patent leather go-go boots in a red so shiny it made you think of Greta Garbo’s lipstick, cherries and bumper cars all at once.
“Who’s that?” Meg mumbled.
“No idea.” For some reason I affected nonchalance; I tended to do that when I was unsure of myself.
Meg giggled and whispered, “Betty Page in a rust bucket.”
Though the girl couldn’t possibly have heard, she swung around, her black hair twirling out like a Flamenco dancer’s skirt. We gasped quietly in unison, as if we’d been caught at something. I felt my face burning as she sized us up. For a split second I saw what she saw: a slouching, seventeen-year old redhead wearing ratty plaid pajama bottoms and a stained T-shirt, decimating a tub of ice cream. Meg’s skinny, coltish legs stuck out from polka-dotted boxer shorts three sizes too big. We must have made quite the picture.
“Evening,” the girl said, coming toward us. “What a beautiful porch.”
Our porch was far from beautiful, but her expression looked sincere. We sat lounging on our decrepit glider. The yellow paint had peeled away in big patches from the porch’s ancient façade. Ever since Dad died, Mom had trouble keeping the place up.
Meg jammed the spoon into the ice cream and handed it to me before standing up. “Thanks. Something we can do for you?”
The girl started to climb our porch steps. “You must be Meg.”
“Yeah,” she said, sounding surprised. “Uh, do I know you?”
“I’m Sadie,” she said. “Sadie Slater.”
“Nice to meet you. This is Audrey.” Meg jabbed a thumb at me.
Sadie swiveled her head in my direction and her hazel eyes sparkled. “Audrey. Yes. I see.”
Something about the way she searched my face unnerved me.
“Are you here to see Mom?” It sounded weird and kind of childish, but since she hadn’t offered any indication about what she was doing on our porch or why she knew our names, it was the only query that came to mind.
She smiled. “Your mom asked me to come stay with you, actually. I’m your cousin. Second or third—something like that.”
“Where’s Mom?” I blurted.
“That’s not what I asked.”
Meg looked back and forth between us, her expression anxious and confused.
Sadie assumed a bland, polite expression. “Why don’t we go inside and—”
“Where is she?” I asked, more loudly this time. All the raw fear I’d been fighting for hours surged inside me and threatened to spill over. Putting up a polite front for this mysterious “cousin” hardly seemed important.
“Everything’s fine.” Sadie held my gaze. “Elise had to take care of some important family business. A little emergency came up, but it’s nothing for you to worry about.”
This wasn’t exactly comforting. I knew very little about Mom’s family, but I did know she wouldn’t drop everything to help them, even for an emergency. Meg and I had never really had any grandparents, aunts or uncles—our only family, really, was us. Dad had been an only child and his parents both died before we were born. Mom’s family was a total mystery. She’d told us she’d been raised in some hippie commune in Humboldt County, that her father died when she was little and she hadn’t talked to her mom in over a decade. When we asked why, she always gave the same cryptic reply: “I left all that behind years ago.” Then she’d change the subject, and if we persisted with questions she’d get snappish. We’d learned long ago just to accept the enormous gaping hole in our family tree.
“A family emergency?” I arched my eyebrows. I knew I was being bratty, but I couldn’t help myself. Those go-go boots were irritating. “You expect us to believe that?”
She shrugged. “Believe it or don’t believe it. It’s the truth.”
“Mom doesn’t really even have family, does she?” Meg looked from Sadie to me, tiny wisps of fear in her face.
“Of course she does.” Sadie smiled at Meg. “Everyone has some kind of family. Your mom just hasn’t been in touch with hers for a long time. Now they need her and she’s agreed to help.”
“I want to talk to her,” I demanded.
Sadie’s smile tightened. “Nobody’s stopping you.”
“I tried her cell and got voicemail. Why isn’t she answering? She always answers our calls.”
“Sometimes when there’s an emergency there isn’t time to talk. I’m sure she’ll get in touch soon.”
I knew I was trying her patience—I could see it in the set of her jaw—but I didn’t care. “So what is this big ‘emergency,’ anyway?”
Her smoky hazel eyes locked with mine and her voice became a warning. “Audrey, I’m here to help out. I’d appreciate it if you’d drop the attitude.”
“So it’s a secret?” I didn’t look away. “That’s convenient.”
“It’s not a secret. I just think your mom would prefer to explain the situation herself. I’m sure she’ll call when things calm down.”
Meg looked at me, obviously unsure of how to take all this. She turned back to Sadie. “You’re really our cousin?”
“Yep. I’m supposed to hang out until your mom gets back. Not that you guys need—you know—babysitting, but she didn’t want you here all alone.”
“How old are you, anyway?” My tone clearly implied that even if we did need babysitting, she wasn’t qualified for the job.
“Twenty-one,” she answered crisply. “Old enough to ensure you two don’t get completely out of hand.”
I’d always been able to intuit people’s secrets, read the meanings behind the words they used. Ever since I was little I could tell if someone was lying, sense their mood, guess their fears. Though I didn’t trust Sadie, exactly, nothing she’d said so far was a bald-faced lie. Well, okay, the cousin thing sounded fishy, but I could tell she really did believe she’d come here to help. At the same time, I knew Mom was in danger. These perplexing mixed messages did little to soothe my jumpy nerves; it was like a traffic light glowing red, yellow and green all at the same time.
Sadie’s sudden appearance seemed mysterious and suspicious. On the other hand, she did know where Mom was—I sensed that right away. The only clues I had about Mom right then were vague, disturbing images that made my skin crawl but gave me no real information. That meant Sadie was my strongest link to her at that moment. Maybe getting in touch with mom would be easier if I could earn Sadie’s trust enough to get the truth from her. It would be stupid to drive her off, anyway; she was my only lead.
“So what?” Sadie broke the silence. “Is this a stand-off? Are you refusing to let me in?”
I swallowed and stared at my shoes. “Sorry. I’m not trying to be rude. I’m just worried about my Mom.”
Sadie ran a cool hand down my arm, skimming it lightly. “Of course you are. I promise you, though, she’s fine. Which is more than I can say for that ice cream.”
I looked down. The abandoned tub of Dulce de Leche sat on the porch swing, melting rapidly, the spoon balanced precariously amidst the mush. Meg laughed and picked it up. “We already ate too much anyway.”
“You take care of that; I’ll get my things.” Sadie clomped back down the steps in her crazy red boots and opened the back doors of the van. Meg poured the gloppy ice cream over the porch railing, into the bushes. Then we watched as Sadie pulled from the van an old-fashioned steamer trunk the size of a refrigerator and a very small hatbox. Setting her luggage on the sidewalk, she went back to the van and gently wrapped the first of her surprises over her shoulders: a gleaming, sand-colored snake as thick around as a man’s arm and as long as a garden hose.
“Oh my God,” Meg whispered. “Is that what I think it is?”
Before I could answer, Sadie took out the second surprise: an old-fashioned copper birdcage with a large, iridescent iguana seated on a cushion inside. She pressed her face to the bars of the cage and made gentle kissing sounds.
After all that, the two kittens that stood blinking at the twilight before leaping deftly to the pavement seemed a bit anti-climactic.
“Man,” I mumbled. “Cruella and her traveling circus.”
The snake swiveled its bony head in our direction, its tongue darting out as if to taste us. “This is Alistair,” Sadie said, nodding at the snake and striding toward us. She held up the caged iguana. “And Captain Zinky.” She looked down at the kittens as they trailed behind her. “The striped one is Honey and the grey one’s Mo.”
Meg reached down and picked up the grey kitten as it started the arduous journey up the porch steps. “They’re so cute!”
“Watch out. Mo’s a biter.”
“You’ve got…plenty of pets.” Though I wanted to be okay with Sadie staying here, the whole thing was weird and I couldn’t pretend otherwise. Our mom disappeared and in her place we got this bizarre chick in go-go boots with a funky-ass van containing a veritable menagerie. On what planet did this qualify as normal?
Still cradling Mo, Meg picked up the other kitten and handed her to me. I took her reluctantly. She had orange and white stripes and she fit in the palm of my hand. Okay, she qualified as cute. And soft. Her perfectly round blue eyes gazed up at me, eager and curious. I stroked her head and she purred with surprising volume.
“Honey’s a sweetheart,” Sadie said. “All she wants to do is cuddle. Could one of you grab my trunk? As you can see, I’ve got my hands full.”
Meg scooped Honey away from me. “Audrey will get it. I’ve got the kittens.” Then she hurried up the steps and the two of them vanished inside the house, animals in tow.
I trudged over to Sadie’s steamer trunk and, tucking the tiny hatbox carefully under one arm, wrestled the monstrous trunk up the stairs.
That night I worked on my Chemistry homework in my room and called Mom’s cell compulsively. I could hear Meg and Sadie chatting downstairs. Once in a while they’d laugh, and the sound grated on my nerves. A little after nine, I heard Meg’s footsteps on the stairs then in the hall. I tried to look engrossed in my homework as she let herself into my room.
“She seems cool,” Meg said, though it sounded a little more like a question than a statement.
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that Meg hadn’t been plagued by spooky visions all day. She had no reason to believe Mom was in danger. “She’s definitely…interesting.”
Meg didn’t say anything for a long moment. She wandered around my room, picking up my things, studying them idly, putting them down. “You don’t trust her.”
“I just think the whole situation’s weird.”
“The family emergency part, you mean?”
“Yeah. Since when does Mom take off like this? Since when does she run around helping her family?”
She tucked a shock of blonde hair behind her ear and looked out the east window. “So what’s your theory? You think Mom’s been abducted?”
When she put it like that it sounded ridiculous. Besides, my sneak-o-meter wasn’t exactly going off around Sadie—I knew she’d told us at least some version of the truth. “I’m not sure what to think.”
“Are you scared this family emergency thing is dangerous or something?”
I studied my pencil like an archeologist dating a skull. The older sister in me didn’t want to freak Meg out unnecessarily. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s fine. I want to talk to Mom, though. It’s not like her to be out of touch.”
Meg leaned against the windowsill. “What do you think of Sadie?”
I shoved my pencil into the little plastic sharpener and twisted it around and around. “She’s bizarre. Who walks around wearing a boa constrictor, anyway?”
“I think she’s sexy.”
I stopped sharpening my pencil and looked at her. “Sexy?”
She shrugged. “Not in like a lesbian way or anything, but you’ve got to admit she’s sort of hot.”
“Hot?” I packed all the incredulity I could into the syllable.
“Whatever.” She looked a little embarrassed now, which was gratifying.
“Where’s she going to keep the snake and the iguana, anyway? I didn’t see a terrarium.”
“That’s where she went just now, to show them the yard.” Meg looked nonplussed.
“She’s going to set them free in our yard? Are you serious? Won’t they die?”
“She’ll keep a downstairs window open; they can just come and go. She says she’d never lock anything in a cage.”
I didn’t know much about reptiles, but I felt pretty sure what Meg was telling me made no sense. Snakes and iguanas didn’t just “come and go.” Anyone I’d ever heard of with exotic pets like that had to keep them in terrariums, right? They weren’t independent like cats. They needed a controlled environment.
I’d just opened my mouth to say as much when a high-pitched cry from outside stopped me. We both froze. The shriek tore through the air again, a shrill keening that sounded urgent. I got up and joined Meg at the window. We stood there, gripping the casing, feeling the soft September air as it wafted through the screen. The night smelled of dewy grass and barbeques. The sound had stopped, and for a second I thought we’d overreacted to squealing tires or someone’s TV, but then we heard it again, even louder and more urgent this time. It came from someplace very near us, maybe even from our own backyard.
“What is it?” I whispered.
Meg pressed her nose closer to the screen. “Look,” she breathed. “Over there.”
I searched the moonlit yard. “I don’t see anything.”
“There,” she said, jabbing a finger at the far end of Mom’s garden.
And then I spotted Sadie standing between two bushy clumps of lavender. She stood with one hand outstretched, reaching as if she intended to pluck a star from the sky.
“What’s she doing?” I leaned closer to the screen, squinting.
“I don’t know,” Meg whispered. “What’s that sound?”
Just then a huge, snowy-white owl swooped down from the sky and landed on Sadie’s outstretched arm. It perched there, perfectly at home, fluffing its feathers before turning its glowing yellow eyes toward Sadie. We watched as woman and bird remained frozen for a long moment, Sadie in her red boots and her flaming dress, the owl blinking down at her as if it might open its beak for a pronouncement at any moment. The tableau made the hairs on my neck stand straight up.
“How is that possible?” I murmured.
“Man, she should be on Animal Planet.”
“You think she…called it to her?”
“I don’t know.” Meg grinned. “Whatever she did, though, it’s hella cool.”