The door of my Hyundai sedan closed far too softly. I glared at it; certain it was mocking me. Older car doors slammed much more satisfactorily. They were heavier and the extra weight hitting home could be heard from across the parking lot. Newer models, like my cobalt blue Dia here, weren’t all about letting people know I had arrived. It was disappointing, really.
But what else was I to expect? Not much was the same anymore. Even phones were less satisfying these days. Who ever heard about slamming a cell phone down in somebody’s ear? Oh, sure, I could slam it. But then I’d have to buy a new phone.
I was tempted to open the door and try again—really slam it, put some elbow grease into it. After nine hours on the road with only one short bathroom break, I’d seen enough of the inside of that car to last me an awfully long time. Not to mention driving alone was making me talk to myself, and I wasn’t that funny.
Stretching with my hands on my lower back, I scanned the grocery store parking lot. There were exactly three cars, and the building was much, much smaller than I remembered it. That was how things were when remembered from the perspective of youth, though. Everything seemed large during childhood. Although, it could’ve been a result of living for so long in a large city where the buildings were giant compared to that of a small town.
The last time I’d been in this particular small town was just last year for my Aunt Winnie’s funeral. Why had so many of the people I loved died on me in the last five years? First Clay, then my favorite Aunt. Two didn’t seem like so much until the grief layered in.
With a heavy soul, I’d made the trip on my own then, too. I’d hated traveling without my husband, but he was gone now. A lump formed in my throat. I swallowed it and took a deep breath. It’d been five years since I lost the love of my life. Well, the first love of my life. The second had left me several weeks ago for a dorm, parties, and medical books.
Thinking of the little devil, I pulled out my phone and sent him a text. Wallie had insisted I message him the moment I arrived in Shipton Harbor. Nothing like having an overprotective son watching over me. Even if he was watching from Harvard University. I should have never taught him how to scry or that locating spell. I’d never have any peace now.
Me: I made it alive. I think. Unless I died and my ghost drove the rest of the way.
Wallie: Your ghost can text? That’s impressive. So, will you just haunt Aunt Winnie’s house for the rest of eternity?
Me: That’s the plan.
Wallie: Cool. I’ll make sure to visit on holidays. If med school kills me, I’ll be moving in.
I laughed and replied with: Oh, no way. You find your own magical house to haunt.
Wallie: LOL. Love you.
Me: Love you too. I’ll call you later.
After locking the screen on my cell, I slipped it into my pocket and took another cleansing breath. The fresh scent of the ocean filled me. That was when I noticed the crisp, cool air that had wrapped around me like an old friend. I never used to like the cold, but for the last couple of years, I’d craved it. Hello, early hot flashes.
With a sigh, I headed inside the store, wishing Clay were walking beside me. I grabbed the cart while I organized my grocery list in my mind. Just as we had done once a week, every week, during our twenty years of marriage. Another ache formed in my chest, tightening it. I closed my eyes briefly and pushed away from the loneliness. Clay would’ve kicked my ass if he knew I was still grieving him this strongly. We’d promised each other long ago if one survived the other, we wouldn’t mourn. We would find the strength to move on and learn to live again.
I’d only agreed to the crazy-ass pact because I genuinely believed we’d die within months of each other at the ripe old age of one hundred and two. It never occurred to me we’d part ways at thirty-eight.
But a promise was a promise. I would try to keep it. That was why I’d returned to Shipton Harbor, to fix up the old house and put it on the market—hopefully, a quick sale. Then, I could go back home and decide what to do from there.
So, here I was. But before I went to my family home, I needed a few things. The house was totally devoid of all foodstuffs, so I had to get enough to tide me over until I figured out how long I’d be in town, which depended on how much work the old Victorian needed.
There was no telling what sort of condition it would be in. After all, it’d been empty for a year with no magic to keep it alive. Aunt Winnie’s magic had kept the beautiful three-story gothic building in tip top shape. It also gave the house a personality that I loved. Without Winnie, it would be cold and normal. Normal was so overrated. And boring.
As I grabbed a buggy and headed around the produce department, picking up enough of my favorites for just a couple of days, I wished Aunt Winnie had left me enough money with the house to have a caretaker oversee the property. Instead, it had been boarded up for a year.
Regular houses didn’t do well sitting empty. Magical houses usually died without a witch nourishing them.
As I looked at the apples, I fought my sadness. It could’ve been a lot worse. At least I still had my baby, Wallie. So, I focused on the mission—sell the house and make enough money to get back to what was left of my life. To the home my son grew up in. To Philadelphia.
That didn’t mean it would be easy to sell the home that had been in my family for a couple of hundred years. If I was correct, the house had been built before the town even officially became a town. I’d never really paid too much attention to the history of it or anything. Maybe I should’ve.
“Ava? Ava Howe?”
Cringing, I closed my eyes briefly and prayed to the goddess to give me strength. I knew that voice. And it belonged to the absolute last person I wanted to run into tonight. Or ever. I was grimy from the long trip, not to mention exhausted. I needed a sandwich and an enormous glass of wine. Or a whole bottle. Definitely, I’d deserve a bottle after facing my number one high school nemesis.
Turning, I plastered my best PTA-mom smile on my face. “Olivia Lockhart.” I flipped my long brown hair over my shoulder and prayed I’d be able to extract myself as soon as possible. But high school was a long time ago. We were adults now. It would be fine.
“It’s Lockhart-Thompson now.” With one hand on the top of a little boy’s blond head, she held out her other hand to show me a big ring. Geez, a huge ring.
Of course, I’d known she’d married Sam Thompson about five years before, just in time to have their son, Little Sammie.
Sam and I had been best friends for as long as I could remember, even after I moved away. We kept in touch.
“Of course. I’m not used to you with that name, though I’m thrilled my Sam has found the love of his life.” I sincerely was happy for him. He and Olivia hadn’t been friends in high school, and then afterward, Olivia had married and divorced. After her divorce, she and Sam ran into one another when Olivia was rear-ended, and Sam picked up the call.
And he’d fallen hard. I’d been a bit dismayed that my best friend was in love with the biggest busybody Shipton Harbor High had ever seen, but who was I to pooh-pooh on his happiness?
Olivia, however, damn well knew my last name. I’d just seen her a year ago at Aunt Winnie’s funeral. “I’m Ava Harper now. And for the last twenty-odd years.” I might’ve been widowed, but I’d kept Clay’s name. I’d kept anything that had reminded me of him, even though he’d died five years ago. Right after Sam and Olivia got together, actually. That was a hard and dark time for me, but I somehow managed to be happy for my BFF. And in return, Sam listened to me through the tears and then the anger of grief.
Olivia put her hand over mine on the handle of my cart. Her sympathy seeped into my hand, and to my surprise, it felt genuine. That was new. The last time we spoke, Olivia had wanted to burn me at the stake. Or on a cross. Then again, that was right after she’d found out I was a witch.
She squeezed my hand. “Sam told me about your husband. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
She’d said all this with less sincerity last year at the funeral. I ducked my head and gave the rote answer, the same one I’d given any time I went out in public and ran into someone who knew me before my world fell apart. “Thank you. It’s been incredibly difficult.”
“I can’t imagine losing my Sam. But it’s been five years now, hasn’t it?” She raised her eyebrows. “Are you about ready to start playing the field again?”
The smile on my face froze. I extracted my hand from under hers and straightened my spine. “I’m here to sell the old homeplace and then get back to Philly. That’s all.”
Olivia’s face fell again. “Oh, I hate that you’re going to sell that beautiful old house. How long has it been in your family?”
And why were we having this conversation? Oh, right because Olivia was a busybody. Good to know some things never changed. Yay, me. Not.
“I was just trying to figure that out in my head. When I find the records, I’ll let you know.” I winked at her and pushed my cart forward a few feet, but she didn’t get the hint. So help me, if she didn’t leave, I wouldn’t be held responsible for my actions. How mad would Sam be if I turned his wife into a squirrel? I’m sure it would be worth the risk. Maybe. I shelved the thought for later. I didn’t want to do it in front of Little Sammie, anyway.
“Well, I insist you come to have dinner with Sam and me very soon!”
I kept going. “That sounds lovely, you can have Sam call me about it.” I intentionally didn’t invite Olivia to give me a call. I wasn’t here to make friends. And I sure didn’t trust Olivia. “I’ve got to run now!”
After seeing Olivia and having to talk about Clay, I wanted to get the hell out of there. I had been feeling like I was ready to think about life after being widowed, but that wasn’t at all something I wanted to discuss with Olivia Lockhart or anyone else from my childhood life in Shipton Harbor.
I sped around the store after that, snatching up anything I could quickly think of that I’d need for the next twenty-four hours or so. If I didn’t remember it now, I’d figure out how to live without it.
The drive to the house took a good fifteen minutes. Shipton Harbor was a small town, but the house wasn’t in the town. It was on a cliff overlooking the ocean on the outer edges of the city limits.
At the moment, that ocean was calm with medium-ish waves breaking. The scent of saltwater, sand, and sunshine swirled around me, welcoming me home. It was the only thing I missed about Shipton Harbor. Well, that and Winnie.
Definitely not Olivia.
And this beautiful, old, gothic Victorian that stood tall against the blue sky with puffy white clouds. With the lights off—not because the electricity was cut off, but because no one was there—it looked sad and, well, dark. I stood beside my car and stared at the home I grew up in. So many emotions churned inside me. A voice from deep inside my mind said to keep the old place, start a new life.
But I wasn’t sure I wanted to start over. I was forty-three for crying out loud. Where would I even begin?
Bracing myself, I grabbed my grocery bags and fished the house key out of my pocket. This was the big moment to find out how bad the house was inside. The electricity had been off for the last year, since right after Aunt Winnie’s funeral. I only had it and the water turned back on a few days ago, so at least I would have that. Probably.
My phone jingled my son’s text tone in my pocket. My baby was keeping tabs on me. I couldn’t help but smile. He was the one who came with me to Shipton Harbor and cleaned out the house last year. The perishables, anyway. It had been hard on both of us, him helping me in place of his father. But he’d risen to the occasion. Wallie was a great kid. Now that he was settled in at college, I had no reason not to take care of this and get the house sold.
I’d been putting it off for too long, dreading the flood of emotions I was sure would overwhelm me at any moment.
On the other hand, those emotions could’ve been waiting to catch me off guard. Hit me when I wasn’t expecting them. I needed to keep an eye on them. Keep them locked down tight.
The door creaked as if it was making the only sound the house had heard since the last time I closed it. Or was it a sad kind of greeting? Or a cry for help? I couldn’t tell.
I suppressed a shiver as I entered the open first floor. Everything was exactly as I’d left it. Furniture covered in sheets, boards on the windows, the whole shebang. The air was stale and smelled of dust, old magic, and salt.
Hurrying to the kitchen, I put the grocery bags on the dusty white drape-covered kitchen table and flicked on the light. To my relief, it came on. It would be dark in a few short hours, and the last thing I wanted was no power. And that saved me a phone call to the electric company. They were lucky.
I opened the fridge and sniffed, then groaned while covering my nose. I’d scrubbed it before leaving it to be turned off, but it had still developed a smell. It was at least still clean. I just had to get rid of the smell. I didn’t have any herbs to mix up a spell, but I had picked up some baking soda while at the store. Thank the goddess for small things.
Unpacking my bags, I opened one of the boxes of baking soda and put it in the back corner to start absorbing the smells. The freezer was next. I slid the second box in and remembered I forgot to buy a bag of ice. This old fridge didn’t have an icemaker, so I was SOL for my Diet Cola for a while.
And on that thought, I realized I might have to replace it to put the house on the market. I’d know for sure when the realtor came by. For now, I’d get the place ready for visitors.
Grabbing a towel out of the cabinet where they’d been all my life, I smelled it. It still had a faint scent of the homemade detergent Auntie used. She’d scented it with dried roses. Smiling, I dampened it and wiped out the cabinet my Yaya and Aunt Winnie had always used for dry goods, then put away the rest of the food.
With the kitchen settled, for the time being, I walked around the house before I went out to the car to unload the bags I’d brought with me.
Ah, but first, the boards needed to go. Drawing on my witchy side and not the other part of me that I refused to use, I used the magic to remove the boards from the windows. The bright afternoon sun streamed in, lighting up each room so there was no need to turn the lights on as I went. The home was built with large windows in each room. I walked out of the kitchen toward the back porch and was surprised when a sense of dismay washed over me. Auntie had always kept an herb garden out here. It’d once been full of life and beautiful.
Someone well in the past had converted the original porch of the house into a sunroom, then added another porch on the back of that at some point. Both the sunroom and the porch had been filled with a variety of herbs and flowers during Aunt Winnie’s life.
Seeing it without all the little pots of greenery only drove home that I’d never see my Aunt Winnie again. She’d raised me, along with my grandmother, Yaya, and filled the hole that would’ve been there from losing my parents at such a young age.
My amazing parents were Beth and John Howe. I was five when dad died in a car accident while coming home from work. I didn’t remember much about him, but the few memories I had were happy, and I cherished having that piece of him. We moved in here after that and became a house full of witches.
Mom’s death had hit me hard. I was ten and she climbed a ladder to hang some holiday lights. A freak bolt of lightning had hit her. She was dead before she even fell off the ladder.
Shaking out of the memory, I backed into the kitchen, closing the door to the sunroom and my memories with it. Then I continued through the rest of the house to finish uncovering everything. Before heading upstairs, I grabbed my bags from Dia, my very tired car. One more thing I’d probably have to replace soon.
I lugged my bag of clothing up the stairs and into my old bedroom. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to use Aunt Winnie’s. All her things were still in there, for one thing, and it still smelled faintly like her verbena perfume. I wanted to keep it that way because it felt like she was still with me.
My old bed would do fine.
As I looked into Aunt Winnie’s bedroom on my way to mine, a tinkling crash behind me made me jump nearly out of my skin. I whirled around to find one of the many, many knickknacks had fallen off of the bureau lining one wall of the large hallway.
Glaring at the trinket, I wasn’t sure what I expected it to do. A song and dance, maybe. If it did, I was getting back in Dia and hauling tail. Magical house that wasn’t so magical anymore, was one thing. But animated objects singing and dancing? No way. No how. My sanity couldn’t take it.
I was sure it was probably from all the open windows and the vibrations of the house settling from having someone move around inside it after a year. What else could it be? No ghosts were around. I’d know. My other powers—that I would not think about—would’ve alerted me if that was the case.
I brushed it off and finished settling in for the night. It was nothing.