“I’m pathetic?” I started laughing. “Well, at least I’m smart enough to recognize that you’re about to be screwed. The Kerrigans didn’t trust you enough to leave the job to you. They hired someone else to look for the Elements. Your dear friends the Kerrigans are trying to cut you out.”
Her hand was just as lightning quick as I remembered it, striking me across the cheek with a flick of her wrist. “Don’t be smart.”
“I’m smart enough to know that the Kerrigans don’t think of you as anything but a slaggy pawn. If you think you’re going to waltz away from this as lady of the manor, you’re even more deluded than I thought.”
In the distance, we heard a sharp crack, as if someone had just stepped on a limb. My mother began fussing with her hair and straightening her clothes. And then reached into her bra cups and pulled her breasts into proper alignment. Classy.
“Mom. You need to understand that if you continue with this, if you make this choice, you will be dead to me,” I warned her. “Truly dead. There’s no coming back from this. I’m not a little old woman you can twist and manipulate. I know exactly what you are. This is your last chance.”
“Do shut up and let the grown-ups talk, sweetie,” she cooed, pinching my cheek with a bit more force than necessary.
“You better have the goods this time, Anna,” a voice growled from the trees. Three shapes emerged from the treeline, materializing in front of my mother. A tall, gaunt man in dark posh clothes, with a teenage boy and a woman at his side. There was a lean and hungry look about them, as if they hadn’t had a proper meal in the last few years. They were well heeled and sleek but looked tired and unsatisfied. I supposed living without magic when you were genetically conditioned for it would make you feel that way.
I recognized John Kerrigan, the head of the family, which would make the other two his wife, Melinda, and his son, Cameron. McGavock children whispered about the Kerrigans as if they were bogeymen, the baby-eating ogres who made us check under our beds. But up close, they didn’t seem so threatening. They were just like me, with an essential part of them bound up and unhappy about it.
“No more tricks,” John grumbled. “No more false hope.”
“Oh, trust me, John,” my mother purred. “I’m about to make you very happy.”
“So this is the famous Nola,” Melinda said, sniffing and running her dark, empty eyes over me. “I don’t see what’s so impressive.”
“I’m tied to a tree,” I pointed out. “You try looking your best when you’re tied to a tree.”
“You have them here?” John asked, ignoring me.
My mother smirked and unveiled the Elements with a flourish. It was like the prize showcase on a witchcraft game show. John stepped forward, his hand hovering over the case reverently. My mother cleared her throat. “If you’ll recall, we set a price of two hundred fifty thousand dollars.”
“A fair price, to be sure,” John Kerrigan said, while his wife’s mouth twisted into an unhappy line.
“Well, that was before my expenses and the unfortunate emotional trauma of having to strike and truss up my own offspring. So the price has doubled.”
“Doubled?” Melinda spat.
“We’ll pay it,” John said absentmindedly as he pored over the detailing on the bell. My mother made sure to stand in John’s immediate line of sight. Melinda Kerrigan hissed indignantly while my mother preened. The reality of what I was witnessing hit me full-force. I’d lost the Elements. Centuries of heritage and tradition were at that moment slipping right through my fingers. Because I sucked at scavenger hunts. My family had only a few minutes more as viable witches. I would lose my magic. Permanently this time. That strange, occasionally annoying energy that I’d taken for granted for so many years would be gone. I would be able to adjust, but what about the others? Penny, Seamus, the cousins who hadn’t come into their talents yet—they would lose everything. Silent tears began to slip down my cheeks, soaking my collar.
“Why did you bring me here, Mom?” I asked as John Kerrigan closely examined the candle. His son looked mildly bored, and when I questioned the necessity of my being present, he shot a commiserating look my way. “You could have just left me at the shop.”
“I didn’t want you to miss this,” she said, sneering. “And neither did the Kerrigans. They wanted to do the binding right away. They need you here for that. You are, after all, the McGavocks’ representative.”
“You realize that they’ll bind you, too,” I told her.
“When you have money, you don’t need magic,” she said.
“You never knew how to use it in the first place,” I muttered, before getting another taste of my mother’s backhand. Frankly, I was lucky she hadn’t used the hand that was holding the athame. My lip split under the blow, and the hot, coppery taste of my own blood filled my mouth. The tears stopped. And misery made way for the cleaner burn of anger.
How dare my mother do this? How dare she put me through this, have me thinking she was dead for so many years because she was too selfish and too lazy to be a decent human being? She’d terrorized me, belittled me, stolen from me, for most of my life. Why was I letting her get away with it again? Why was I just sitting there like a lump?
From the eastern edge of the clearing, something was tickling my brain. I shook my head, wondering if I was imagining it. The nudging turned into all-out poking. Impatient and persistent. Jane. My friends—the supernatural cavalry—were here.
I opened my mind fully, letting Jane see everything that I was seeing—the number of people, their placement, a special admonition not to hurt the boy, and my suspicion that there could be more Kerrigans hiding in the woods. I would apologize for the headache this gave Jane later. The nudging retreated, and I looked up at my mother, looking so smug and sure of herself while she sold out her family.
I felt Jane’s mental nudging again, closer this time. The head poking was more urgent now. What would she want? Would she want me to shut up? To stop provoking my mother? Unlikely. If anything, she would probably want me to cause distraction. She and the others would want the Kerrigans and my mother distracted so they could sneak up on them.
Magic had to work for me this time. Forget the binding. Forget inconsistency and random explosions. I was more powerful than Penny’s binding. I was no longer ambivalent about my own talents. It simply had to work. There was no other option.
I focused on the energy around me, the light and heat coming off the campfire. I drew that into my mind, focusing on the nerves and muscles of my hands. I pictured a spark growing between them, the heat traveling along my fingertips and feeding that spark until I could feel the flame glowing pleasantly against my skin.
“Mom!” I called out while she flirted shamelessly with John in front of his wife and child. I called louder. “Mom!”
She turned her attention to me, exasperated. “What?”
“There’s something I’ve wanted to say to you for a long time,” I told her.
She simpered, as if this was some warm Hallmark moment between mother and daughter. “And what’s that, darling?”
“You were never a proper mother. Despite having the best example in the world, you never managed to learn about loving someone or caring for someone more than you cared for yourself. You’re selfish, cruel, and unable to see anything past your own wants and needs. You were never a mother to me. And you were never the daughter Nana Fee deserved. You want to know why you were never Nana’s heir? It’s because you’re weak. Your soul is weak, your spine is weak, and your magic is weak. You feel so little emotion, so little real energy for anything except for what you think you’re missing out on, that you’re barely human enough to qualify as a witch. I think that’s why the magic seems to have passed you by. It’s a living, breathing thing, Mom, and you can’t be trusted to care for a goldfish.”
“Shut up, you little bitch!” she hissed, her grip tightening around the blade in her hand.
“You forgot about me.” I chuckled, squirming against the tree in an attempt to stand, to no avail. “All those years when I thought you were out there trying to fix your problems so you could come home to us. You’d just conveniently forget about the fact that I existed, until you needed money, of course, or something from Nana Fee. You forgot that I needed you, that I loved you, that I would have forgiven you anything if you’d only asked.”
“Cue the violins,” Melinda Kerrigan huffed. “We’re on a schedule here, John.”
“Really, madam, we don’t have time for this,” John insisted, although I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or my mother.
“What have I ever done to need your forgiveness?” my mother demanded, ignoring them. The athame glinted in her hand as she gestured wildly, the blade coming closer and closer to my face. “You ruined my life, not the other way around. Always needy. Always noisy. And when I needed you, when I came to see you, all you did was scream and turn to Daddy.”
At the mention of my father, my anger spiked, from a minor blaze to volcanic in the space of a second. Instead of trying to fight it off, I embraced it. I could feel the last of Penny’s restraints fall away and the spark of proper energy flowing through my body. I took a deep breath, feeding that spark, picturing it growing into a flame, larger and hotter, until it caught the ropes binding my wrists. It wasn’t burning me; it was as harmless and welcome as sunlight. I was in control. I was a McGavock. This was who I was. And no one was going to take this from me. Not even another McGavock.
I leaned away from the tree as the rope smoldered and smoked. “Never mind the fact that you tried to snatch me out of Dad’s hands and kidnap me. Another thing you’ve conveniently allowed yourself to forget,” I scoffed as the ropes’ hold on my wrist weakened.
Just beyond the ring of trees, I could hear movement. Fallen leaves crackling and branches moving as something large made its way through the trees. John’s and Melinda’s heads turned toward the noise, while my mother’s overbright eyes stayed focused on me.
“What’s that?” John demanded.
“Probably just a deer,” my mother assured him without even looking up. “They’re thick as rats around here.”
But the crackling sounds grew louder, closer. I could hear distinct footsteps now, lumbering, heavy footfalls that had John standing in front of his wife and child in a protective stance. And still, my mother was entirely focused on sneering down at me, the point of her blade hovering carelessly close to my eyes. I had no doubt she would use it, if just to intimidate me into shutting up. She was too far gone. And I was embarrassing her, which was something Anna McGavock could never abide.
Still, I continued. “I guess that’s how you survive, right?”
I could hear beastly, laboring grunts as the branches just beyond our circle bucked and swayed. My mother’s attention wavered as she glanced toward the trees.
“You forgot about me. You forgot about my dad.”
An enormous hairy shape emerged, with long furry arms and a twisted, apelike face. I couldn’t help but grin at Jed’s choice of creature projection. He’d made himself a Yeti for me. My mother gasped and stumbled back from the approaching Sasquatch, closer to me. The athame fell from her hand.
“Mom, there’s one more thing you’ve forgotten.”
Her head whipped toward me, a menacing snarl half-formed on her lips.
I yanked hard and freed my wrists. I grinned at her and wiggled my free hands. “I’m a witch.”
I sprang to my feet, tossing the burning remnants of rope at the Kerrigans, who instinctively ducked away into Jed’s path. I pressed my palm against my mother’s chest, and a strange, enormous energy surged through my arm and sent her flying back against a tree. I stared down at my hand, stunned.