I leaned in my car window to crank the stereo, then returned to the sidewalk, staring at the house. Warren Zevon was on the radio, singing “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.” The lawyers I had, for all the good they did me. Fortunately for Ellison, I wasn’t carrying a gun. But the money part? Not quite so flush, especially after Ellison took me to the cleaners.
As I stood in the driveway, I paused, jamming my thumbs in the pockets of my jeans.
Eighteen freaking years I’d spent with my scumbag of an ex-husband. For eighteen years I’d done things his way, followed his traditions instead of mine, kept my mouth shut while he made one mistake after another because I didn’t want to field yet another argument.
I’d decorated the house to his tastes, I’d worn polite, prim clothing because he couldn’t stand for anything to be too “weird” or “garish.” I’d played the good little wife and muted my magic when I was around his friends, who were oh so disdainful of anybody born outside of a human suit. I had put my life on hold to work for his dream, and I’d made his dream happen.
I’d done everything he asked, and what was the end result?
The end result was that I was now standing outside my house for the last time. I had been dumped for a twenty-year-old bimbo, I’d been blacklisted from any job in publishing in the area, and I had been bilked out of both the magazine that I had started almost single-handedly and the house I’d helped to buy.
Sure, I had been awarded half our known assets, but I knew that we had accumulated far more money. Ellison had just managed to squirrel it away from the judge’s eye, a judge who should have recused himself from our divorce proceedings because he was Ellison’s good buddy. But he hadn’t, and I’d gotten screwed without even an orgasm to seal the deal.
“Fuck you, Ellison Reilly. And your uptight prig of a mother, too.” I flipped the house the bird, but that didn’t feel like enough of a parting statement.
Then it hit me. I knew what to do.
I marched back inside and dug through the closets until I found his tuxedo—the one he had worn when we got married. The thousand-dollar stand-in for a honeymoon. I’m sorry, January, but I can’t afford a honeymoon, even though I promised you one. I had to buy my tux. We’ll take one later. Only later had never come.
I added my wedding dress—a modest white sheath dress, because I had stuck to the budget we had originally set for our wedding—and carried both the tux and dress outside.
My next act was to toss the thousand-dollar tux into the fire pit, then drop my wedding dress on top of it. After they were firmly inside, I poured lighter fluid over the whole shebang. I stepped back, then lit a match and flicked it into the pile of clothing. Whoosh! The flames roared up into the cloudy sky, filling the air with the acrid stench of dry-cleaning chemicals. The flames weren’t bright enough to attract undue attention, and Ellison was out with his floozy, so he wouldn’t find the charred remains until tomorrow.
I thought about dancing around the fire but I wasn’t in a celebrating mood and it wasn’t a full moon. And I still didn’t feel like I had payback—at least, not enough. I wanted to say good-bye on a big note. One he couldn’t ignore.
A snowflake landed on my cheek and I glanced at the sky. It was only the first week of December and already the weather had taken a turn toward winter. We didn’t always have snow in Seattle, but this year, it looked like we were about to break the odds.
Ellison was out for the evening with Ana—one “n”—his trophy bride-to-be. He’d spent a year trying to gaslight me that he wasn’t having an affair with her, but I could sense her residue energy on him every time he came home late. Finally, I called Ari and asked her to cast a spell, asking that the affair be brought into the open if it was really happening. I was too close to the situation and didn’t trust my magic not to backfire. The next day, I came home to find his head between Ana’s legs and boom, that took care of that.
I looked around for one last way to signal my departure. I really didn’t want to destroy the house—I had loved that house. But then I caught sight of his convertible and I knew how to sign my good-bye note. He had bought a $55,000 car that we could barely afford, while I was still driving a fifteen-year-old Subaru that was in the shop more often than it was out.
“Can you get any more midlife crisis?” I said, shaking my head. A convertible in Seattle made as much sense as a bikini in the Antarctic, but men who thought with their penises usually made idiotic decisions. Dashing back in the house, I found the spare car key he kept in his desk.
Back outside, I opened the car door, fit the key in the ignition, and rolled down the window just wide enough to fit the hose. One more trip back to the side yard and I found the hose and dragged it around to the driveway. I stuck it through the crack, then returned to the faucet.
“Okay, January, think,” I said aloud. “Do you really want to do this? Is he even worth the effort?”
But my heart answered for me. He had used me to build something wonderful, then cut me out of it as thoroughly as he had cut out my heart. The pain of losing him? I was over that, but I wasn’t over the anger that he had taken everything away from me and then blacklisted me with all his buddies in the publishing industry. I had lost my marriage, my career, the magazine…all in one fell swoop.
I turned the faucet on, turning it all the way. The water began to fill the car.
Feeling a grim sense of satisfaction, I stood back, my hands on my hips. “Okay. This…this is closure. Good-bye, Ellison. We’re done.”
I tossed his car key and my house key into the flames still flickering in the firepit, then turned away. The movers were gone, hours ago. The last of my suitcases were in the back of my Subaru. I settled into the driver’s seat, fastened my seat belt, and turned the ignition.
“Come on, Cookie,” I whispered to my car. “Let’s get a move on.”
Smiling for the first time in weeks, I turned up the music as the track switched over to the Talking Heads, and rolled out of the neighborhood with “Burning Down the House” echoing in my ears.
Moonshadow Bay was a town on the coast of Washington, about ten miles south of Bellingham. With a population of around five thousand, it also happened to be the town I was born in. And though I had lost my parents to a plane crash five months ago, the town was filled with happy memories, and even though they wouldn’t be there to greet me, my aunt was waiting for me and that was enough to make me smile.
As I drove through the quiet streets, a life that had felt a world away when I was in Seattle came rushing back. Some of the shops had changed, but the town square was still set up for get-togethers and meetings, and the City Central building, which housed the police station, courthouse, jail, town hall, the main fire station, public works department, and the library, still stood in the center of town, as stoic as ever, with the clock in the tower that was always and forever ten minutes slow, watching over the center of Moonshadow Bay.
The snow had already cloaked the town. Moonshadow Bay was close to the Canadian border, and the town was on the lower end of Bellingham Bay, overlooking the Salish Sea. The storms came in past the islands. The farther north I got from Seattle, the heavier the snow had become. I had been driving for almost two hours, given the slippery roads. The weather added thirty minutes to the usual time, as well as me slowing down to thirty-five on some parts of the freeway. I wasn’t afraid of driving, but I wasn’t stupid, either, and when the snow was falling so heavily it was hard to see through, I took my time.
As I pulled into town, I began to breathe easier. I was finally here, almost home. As I passed the city limits sign, I felt something shift, and the anger I had still been carrying seemed to fall away.
Welcome home, the town whispered. We’ve missed you.
Moonshadow Bay was beautiful, with more parks and woodland areas than it had buildings. The centralized downtown district was fairly dense and compact, and from that inner core, the residential area sprawled out, feathering through the trees and the streams that flowed down to the Salish Sea. While it didn’t have all the amenities of a large city, Bellingham was close enough to make up for that.
The streets were coated with a light dusting of snow and everywhere faerie lights shone, sparkling as they wove around the trees and lampposts and shop windows. Every store seemed decorated and ready for the holidays, and I suddenly felt the tension draining away, out of my shoulders. There was magic in the air—I could smell it as sure as I could smell the snow. It crackled, darting like shifting sparks, and it too whispered, Welcome home. Moonshadow Bay is where you belong.
And it truly was, in a way.
My great-grandfather, Brian Fletcher, and his wife Colleen had come over from England. The family powers had descended through her—we were Fam-Trads, a family of witches—and even though I didn’t know a great deal about Colleen’s heritage other than she had been born in Ireland, I knew that the magic came down through her, through the women in my family. My mother and my grandmother had been witch women, too, and so was my aunt Teran, who was a few years younger than my mother had been. And all of them had passed on their knowledge to me. And what had I done? Turned away from it because Ellison was too spooked by Otherkin.
I passed through the main strip, watching the pedestrians strolling along the sidewalks. The stores were open late due to the holidays, and while the streets had been plowed, they were still slippery. I eased along, making sure not to slam on the brakes.
As I left the town square and turned the corner on Maple Street, my eyes grew misty. I was only a few blocks away from my house. My parents had left me the house I’d grown up in, but I hadn’t been home since they had died, and then I had been so distracted by my grief that I had barely noticed my surroundings.
But now, the realization that I was coming home, and my mother and father wouldn’t be around to greet me ever again hit hard. It didn’t matter whether you were fourteen or forty, losing your parents cut a deep hole.
One more turn and I was on Fern Street, and there, up ahead on the left, was a beautiful two-story farmhouse, with a wide front porch that was supported by intricately carved newel posts. The driveway was clear, except for one truck, which I recognized as my aunt’s. Teran had driven an old beater for years now, and how the thing held together, I didn’t know. It ran on a whisper of magic, for sure.
I parked next to the truck, then turned off the ignition and sat in the silence for a moment, taking it all in.
The house came with a half-acre acre of land, so the yard was wide and private, surrounded by trees on all sides. Fern Street was a dead-end road, ending at one of the many pathways leading into Mystic Wood State Park. I lived right up against the park. I finally opened the door and hauled myself out of the car, wincing as I stretched.
Even though I worked out on my exercise bike every day and did yoga, the years were beginning to tap on my shoulder, reminding me that I wasn’t anywhere near the shape I wanted to be in. But given that I had held down a full-time job and cleaned the house and took care of everything so Ellison wouldn’t complain, I decided to cut myself some slack.
I slung my purse over my shoulder and clattered up the front stairs. As I reached for the bell, the door opened and there she was—Aunt Teran.
“Thank heaven you’re here. It’s setting in to blow up a gale out there,” she said. “The movers made it here and I did my best to direct them where to put the boxes.”
My aunt had a smile a mile wide for me. She held out her arms and then it hit me. Her eyes—they were same as my mother’s eyes. The same depth, the same love, the same color even. And in that moment, the dam broke and I leaned into her embrace, bursting into tears for the first time since my parents’ funeral.
Twenty minutes later, I was snuggled under a throw, curled on the sofa with a peppermint schnapps mocha and a plate of cookies. They were oatmeal raisin, with just the right amount of cinnamon.
“So you’re back to stay,” my aunt said. She was sitting in the rocking chair. My parents had updated the house shortly before they died, with new paint throughout, a new kitchen and a new master bath. It felt like home and yet, oddly different. The living room had a new sofa in it, and I had to admit it was comfortable, but it felt out of place.
I let out a sigh. “Yeah. I’m back to stay.” I paused, then said, “I guess that chapter of my life is over.”
“Was it bad? The divorce?” Teran sipped her mocha. “I don’t know if I spiked this enough.”
“It’s got plenty of kick to it,” I said, rolling up to a sitting position. “The divorce? Well, it wasn’t good. I know I should have ended it years ago, but I was…”
I thought about it for a moment. “No, not comfortable. I was in a rut. I had no clue what to do if I left, and back then I didn’t want to think about the fight we’d have dividing the magazine. I guess Ellison took care of that for me.”
“Tell me what happened with that.” Aunt Teran folded her legs under her in the chair. She was tall and sturdy, and she had hair down to her butt. It had been salt and pepper when I last saw her, but now it was black, streaked with electric blue, and it looked amazing. She was wearing jeans, a rainbow-pride top, and her throw-back granny glasses. Teran had never married, and she had never told me why.
“I did something everybody always warns you not to do. I signed a document—a notarized one at that—without reading it. We were in a hurry, Ellison assured me that what I was signing were articles of incorporation. But the notary was actually a friend of Ellison’s who was helping him. The articles of incorporation turned out to be a prenup. They got my signature but actually managed to change the date, pre-dating it to before our wedding. I gave Ellison full control over the magazine, as well as giving him full ownership of the house, but I can’t prove anything.” I groaned, bringing my knees up to lean against them.
“I feel like such a fool. I trusted him and he screwed me over so bad my lawyer couldn’t untangle it. We told the judge what happened, but it was useless. It was my word against Ellison’s, and he has some powerful friends in the Seattle law community, including that judge. So he basically conned me out of the magazine I started and any interest in the house.”
I winced, glancing at her. Teran could be mighty blunt, but I really needed some TLC now, not a lecture.
She stared at me for a moment, then the next, she was by my side, scooching me toward the center of the sofa. She slid in behind me and began to rub my shoulders.
Sighing, she said, “You know, sometimes the con artists of the world catch us by surprise. Ellison was good at hiding his true nature, although I never liked him very much. He was such a pompous ass. I’m not going to scold you about this. But…”
That “but” hung in the air, and I dreaded hearing what was attached to it.
“But what?” I finally asked.
“The thing I can’t excuse is the fact that you spent eighteen years sublimating yourself for a man who wasn’t worth a fraction of what you bring to the table. How the hell did everything we taught you go sliding out the window?” She slid her arms around my shoulders, hugging me from behind. “What happened, child?”
I shrugged, scooting to the side and turning around. I couldn’t face her.
“I don’t know, to be honest. At first I fought. I fought to celebrate my holidays. I fought to practice our traditions. I argued about the clothes he wanted me to wear. I made excuses for his rudeness, especially around other Otherkin. Basically, I tried to hold my own, but after a while, he wore me down.”
“Why didn’t you leave him?”
Again, I had no good answer. “I don’t know. You’d think I would have, right? But…somewhere along the way, I guess I lost my confidence.” I glanced over my shoulder at her. “I gave up. When someone tells you you’re stupid time after time, you begin to believe it.”
Teran gave me a hug. “Well, that ends now. That ends tonight.”
I ducked my head, smiling. “I’ve missed you.”
“And I’ve missed you, too. But I knew that you weren’t ready to see me, child. I remind you too much of your mama.” She stroked my hair, pulling it back. “As wavy as it ever was.”
I laughed. “We’re always going to envy each other’s hair.”
Teran had straight hair, down to her ass. Mine was dark brown and wavy. Not corkscrew curly, but long and wavy and just rough enough to never take a good shine.
“And yours is as smooth and silky as ever. I love the blue, by the way.” I sighed, then said, “You’re right, though. I wasn’t ready to face their deaths yet. But I guess…now I have to. It feels good to be back in Moonshadow Bay, though. I’ll see Ari a lot more. Ellison didn’t like her and he almost broke up our friendship.”
“You two were always thick as thieves,” Teran said. “All right, I’d better get on home. Ree and Roo are probably hungry.” My aunt had two hound dogs. They were as old as the hills—or at least, as old as most dogs get—and they showed no sign of slowing down. But her familiar was a great horned owl that lived out in the trees near her house. They had a deep connection that crossed the species barrier.
I walked her to the door and she gave me a hug, then handed me a key. She had taken care of the house after my parents died. “Here, you’ll want this back.”
I shook my head, folding her fingers over the key. “No, you keep it. Just in case.” I pressed my lips together, thinking of my mother and father. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
“Too true, love,” she said, hugging me. “That’s why you have a key to my house, too. For the same reason.” As she headed down the sidewalk to her car, it occurred to me that I was really, truly, starting over. For the first time in eighteen years, I was embarking on a new stage in my life.
I walked out on the porch, watching the snow fall. It drifted down, the flakes larger, like thick wisps of cotton candy. There was a softness to the night, and all around the neighborhood, lights twinkled on the windows around the houses.
I glanced over at the house next door, only to see a “Sold” sign on the front lawn. When I was little, the Hart family had lived there, and I’d played with Sallie Hart, though we weren’t best friends. Now, it looked like her parents were off to greener pastures.
Slowly descending the steps, I walked out toward the front of the yard. The streetlights cast a muted glow in the winter night, and I closed my eyes as I crossed my arms, jamming my hands deep beneath my armpits to keep warm. My breath hung in the air, vaporous—like a miniature cloud. It was cold, but I just wanted to let the peace that came with the snowfall encompass me.
“Hello…” The voice came from over my shoulder, but when I jerked around, I couldn’t see anybody there. It was a woman’s voice, clear and familiar though, and I was sure that I had heard it. I glanced around, suddenly realizing I was going to be alone in the house. While Ellison hadn’t been much comfort, at least he’d been a warm body.
“Can you hear me?” The voice echoed again, this time from the other side. I whirled around, but still, there was no one in sight.
Holding my breath, I turned and ran back up the sidewalk and took the steps two at a time. Once inside, I slammed the door behind me. I didn’t have the energy to deal with ghosts tonight, and since there hadn’t been any stranger lurking in the bushes, that’s all I could assume the woman’s voice had been. There were certainly enough of them hanging around.
Shaking, I locked the door. Tomorrow I would dig out my mother’s herbs and make a protection charm, but for tonight, I decided to sleep on the sofa. In the kitchen, I found the biggest, meanest-looking knife my mother had owned. Clutching the hilt, I returned to the living room. I placed the knife on the coffee table within easy reach and then, exhausted, I curled up under the afghan on the sofa and promptly fell into a dreamless sleep.