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Witch for Hire by Shyla Colt (1)

Chapter One

I’ll be eating crow until I’m shitting black feathers. The space that had once been alive with bright, colorful bobbles, herbal remedies, and homemade beauty supplies, is now a sad, barren wasteland. Bright yellow ‘Everything Must Go’ signs mock me. Puke orange markdown stickers on empty shelves sing their own song all about failure. I curl my lip up at the smiley faces. Screw you, too, pal.

There’s nothing happy about pedaling your wares at a ridiculously low price to make back every dime you possibly can to survive until you can land a new gig, or in my case return to doing the very last thing I wanted to. I was born with a very special set of talents … ones my family swear I’m wasting. However, I set them all aside when the thing that once filled me with joy unlike anything I’d ever known became the cause of pain, misfortune, and paranoia.

I could never pretend I wasn’t a witch—it’d be like denying I’m a person of color when my skin is golden brown, my hair is coarse, and my heritage is rich with the history, sacrifice, and customs of the strong African American men and women who came before me. It’s a part of who I am. My choice to discontinue consciously practicing felt like severing a limb.

I walked around for months, disoriented without the balance of the earth and the voice of my ancestors whispering in my ears. I had to relearn how to live life. Which meant getting as far away as possible from the backwater, cajun parish I’d been born and raised in. The relocation had its pros and cons.

The tiny Kentucky town had been good to me until recently. The economic crash made the extras I offered a frivolous luxury no one could afford to buy. I held on as long as I could and eked out another six months before finally conceding defeat.

I’m currently in the process of scrounging up every penny I can to return home with my tail tucked between my legs. I can handle the botched business. It’s the inability to survive on my own that burns my toast. The years spent away weren’t nearly long enough. The reality of my new life coming to a close cuts me down to the bone. My knees weaken, and I sink to the stool behind the counter.

The saving grace that was my period of solitude is over. Hiding is no longer an option. It’s time to face my past. I bow my head. I’m a strong woman. I can handle a lot. But I’m also smart enough to know when I’ve reached my limits. It’s why I fled in the first place. I’ve learned a lot over the years, but I’ve eluded just as much.

The gaping wound in my heart is still raw and bleeding out. The doorbell jingles and I force a smile for my current best friend, Heather. On the outskirts of the Appalachian Mountains, my community is full of small businesses and thoughtful folks who live off the land and possess the secrets and practices of those who came before them. It’s the closest I could come to living among my kind.

Pausing in the doorway, Heather offers up a sweet smile tinged with sadness. I asked to work the last few hours alone. The thought of having an audience to hear the final death rattle of Homespun soured my stomach.

“How are you?”

“Empty.” I’m too tired to downplay my disappointment. And scared out of my mind for reasons I can never share with you.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“You’ve done more than enough, helping me push out inventory and working all those hours for a mere pittance.”

“Hey, friends help one another out around this way. You know that.”

The corners of my lip flicker upward despite my dark countenance. “I do know.” I’m going to miss the beautiful simplicity and willingness to help a neighbor. Where I’m from friends often look like foes, and power corrupts. And silly little girls with stars in their eyes and hearts wide open are manipulated like marionettes and destroyed from the inside out by the one they love most. Bitterness springs up inside me like water from a freshly drawn well. It’s always there, lurking beneath the surface, a hungry beast who waits to pounce during my most vulnerable moments and devour me whole.

“You really didn’t have to come, Heather.” The proud part of me wants to handle this alone.

“There’s no way I was going to let you close for the last time alone. I get it, boss, you’re a badass. You don’t have to prove it every second of every day. I’m here for you whether you like it or not.” The fiery brunette with flashing hazel eyes has a backbone as hard as steel, and a capacity to love wider than the star-dotted sky above the building.

I chuckle. Not many would dare come for me the way she does. I’m intimidating. From my height, which tops out at six foot one, to my intense gaze and short hair with fiery colors throughout. It’s an image I’ve carefully constructed to keep others at a distance.

Heather saw through all of those things and extended a hand in friendship. I couldn’t pass that up. Not when it came from such a sincere place. The only thing that matches her capacity to care for others is her loyalty. She helped me soften the folks who were born and raised in this town.

They weren’t a fan of a strange woman moving in and buying up prime real estate. I spent the first year proving myself and living the life of an Amish person who’d been shunned. They didn’t know that at the time it was exactly what I needed. Standing on my own against a town who refused to acknowledge me, regrew my self-confidence and gave me a task to focus all of my attention on.

I cultivated a healthy online following and brought in folks from the cities. In the end, it helped not just me, but local economy as well. That was the crack in the icy façade.

“Okay, short stuff. Let’s lock the door one last time, and pop the lid on the jar of moonshine I have in the back with our names written on it.”

“Now that’s what I’m talking about! I told Boyd I wouldn’t be home till late tomorrow.”

I say my silent good-byes to the life I’ve carved out as the deafening click signals the end. Wrapping my arm around Heather’s shoulders, I shut off the main lights as we walk through my personal graveyard of dreams. The stark white of empty shelves are the bleached bones of a carcass picked clean of all its meat. With every flip of a switch, the darkness blots out more of the light. The perfect analogy for what’s about to happen to my life.

***

The apple moonshine hits my throat, setting it ablaze as it slides down and spreads warmth from my belly throughout the rest of my body. I dance around to the folksy music playing on vinyl. The off-white skirt with layers of ruffles bells out as I spin. I enjoy the feel of the cotton against my legs.

Cool air from the fan blows against my bare belly. The off the shoulder crop top has a matching ruffle across the bottom. It’s one of the more popular clothing items I carried. Made by one of Heather’s cousin, the Bohemian fashions did well. Not that it matters now. Closing my eyes, I take another swig to drown out my thoughts. Raising my hands above my head, I peer up at the skylight and glimpse a bright streak. A shooting star. A sign of things ending. Is it a message or a fluke?

I open up my senses for the first time, tapping into the god-given birthright I’ve denied. Power flows through me like a high voltage of current. It rocks through my bones, stealing my breath. The world presses in around me. I swallow air to keep the nausea at bay. It’s like gaining sight after being blind. The earth’s life force is alive and pulsing with a heartbeat all its own. Steady and soothing, it grounds me. I long to sink my toes into the dirt.

Even the cotton feels artificial against my skin. It’s all I can do not to strip down and practice my craft skyclad. Body tingling, and soul rejoicing, I am awakened and changed. The magic of my sisters surrounds me. There are root workers up on the mountain—practitioners who use the old southern folk magic that originated with Africans.

Like attracts like. I chose to shield my presence when I arrived. Now, I connect. Time slows as I reacquaint myself with this secret part of me long neglected. The void I couldn’t fill shrinks.

Heather dances around me. I feed off her sisterly presence. We all have a type of magic inside of us. Woman together create a very potent energy. One simply needs to know how to tap into it. I want to thank her for all she’s done. I form the Latin words in my mind, gathering the power of my ancestors. I bless her with the gift of prosperity and success. The days of struggling to make her crops yield fruit and gather enough wood for the long winters will be over for a time. Her eyes widen. She feels the enchantment taking hold.

The world becomes a blur. Wind tugs at my hair playfully, welcoming me back to the world few know exists. I throw my head back and release the laughter bubbling up inside of me. There’s happiness here in the midst of sadness. Such is life. Balance must be kept in all things. Even at the darkest moments, light remains.

I embrace this experience and breathe deeply. I’m a conduit. The excess energy I’ve gathered and stored is bursting from my crown, fingertips, and through my soles. Pink spots form on the apples of Heather’s cheeks. She releases a throaty laugh, and we spin faster as the track changes to a more upbeat song.

High on the emotions swirling around inside of me, I wonder why I ever stopped. I am a part of the universe, and the universe lives in me.

The sense of oneness is more intoxicating than the alcohol in the Mason jar capable of running a car. The transcendent experience opens me up wide. Too wide. I feel him. Blood drains from my head, and my knees weaken. A flicker of awareness rises. He latches onto the open connection like a striking viper. My body jerks. I’m immersed in the feel of his mind—cool, ordered, and ancient. The scent of leather, forest, and expensive whiskey fills my nostrils.

Louella? The smooth, cultured tone makes the word roll off his tongue like a sonnet. The old-world elegance he exuded has yet to lose its effectiveness.

I take a shaky step and slam the door between us like a steel trap. Closing my eyes, I re-ground myself. The slow panic sinks in.

It was a split second, and I’m already drowning in everything that is Cristobal Angeles Pilar Cortez. Images of memories fill my mind. I see his angular aristocratic face, framed with chestnut brown hair streaked with a sun-kissed gold highlights. It always struck me as the ultimate irony that one such as he seemed blessed by the sun.

“Lou?”

Heather’s concerned voice pulls me out of the too-deep waters I’m floundering in. I blink and focus on her concerned gaze.

“You okay? You’re pretty good at holding your alcohol.”

“Yes. It’s finally hitting me I’m heading back home. I have some unresolved issues I’m getting ready to jump headfirst into.”

“Man trouble?” she asks.

I frown. “Why do you guess that?”

“Girl, the entire time I’ve known you, the only interest you’ve had in a man was to warm your bed when it got a little too cold before you sent them on their way. Only the ones who agreed with your arrangement got to stay longer than a month or two. I know you’re independent, but people who tend to avoid attachments usually do so because they’re still emotionally engaged elsewhere.”

I sigh. “I try not to lie, so I won’t refute that observation. Let’s just say it’s complicated. I put that old drama in a box and placed it on a shelf to get dusty.”

“But you could never bring yourself to throw it out, not completely. It’s why you haven’t healed.”

I sigh. No, I’m bound. I can’t get rid of it. I promise you, I tried. The words are on the tip of my tongue. I know better than to share. This isn’t her world. I won’t drag her into it.

“You’re right. I couldn’t.” I take a long draw out of the Mason jar. “I took the coward’s way out, and now I’ve got to own up to it. I chose to bury my head in the sand and now I’m back where I started.”

“Or maybe you’re being forced to admit the truth you already knew,” she says.

I flinch. Her words touch a nerve. She’s looking for a romance novel-worthy story. It’s not the one I have to share. My tale is about power, foolishness, and loss of innocence. It’s the stuff that turns a young girl off trusting men altogether. Then again, he’s not really a man, is he?

“Perhaps. The answers will come to light soon, whatever side of the fence my emotions fall on.”

“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. I’m sure you could pick up some spare work here and there.”

Her words are tempting. “Yes, I do. It’s not like we won’t keep in touch. I was never afraid of putting in regular time with pen and paper.”

She smiles. “I’ll look forward to hearing about your adventures. Louisiana is a far cry from our tiny town.”

“Not as much as you’d think. I’m in the Bayou, not the city. Now, Nawlins is a world all unto itself.”

Heather lifts her jar. “To new beginnings.”

“New beginnings.” We clink rims. The ting sounds like the dinner bell the maid used to ring at the extravagant dinner balls I once attended. Back then, I’d been enchanted by the glitz and glamour. This time around is different. I’m the one up on the carving block.

We continue to drink and switch out records. I’m reminded of my youth. Full of music, dancing, and family and friends, it was a charmed period of time I remember fondly. I’ll add today to those cherished memories.

We pass out on the bed as the sun begins to rise and the sky turns from deep purple to lilac. I welcome the oblivion of sleep.

I find myself on the wraparound porch of my mémé’s home. She sits a regal beauty in her long, white muslin gown. Her coarse, snow-white hair is covered by a colorful purple, gold, and green scarf. The creak of the rocking chair as she moves back and forth is familiar. Turning toward me, she delivers a wide smile which softens her face and brightens her dark brown eyes.

“Mémé?” I ask, trying to figure out if it’s more than a usual dream.

“Finally, you’re coming back to me, chérie. I been waiting a long time for this moment.”

I’m glad one of us is excited.

“Humph, you forget who you dealing with?” she asks, reading my thoughts with ease.

So, it is more than a dream. “No, ma’am. But we both know I left for a reason.”

“Ran is more like it. You know better, Lou Lou. You can’t escape your destiny.”

“Destiny?” I scoff.

“Nothing happens by chance,” Mémé says.

I grind my teeth to keep from saying something disrespectful to the matriarch of our family. She’d slap the taste out of my mouth quicker than I could say I’m sorry.

“Go on and speak your mind.” Mémé nods toward me.

“What’s to say? You have your opinions, and I have mine.” I shrug, swallowing down the words dancing on the tip of my tongue.

“Ain’t my opinion, girl. The spirits talk.”

I shake my head. This is what I hadn’t missed—my life becoming a chess game for my long-dead ancestors and their spirit friends dictating the way things should go.

“And what do they say, Mémé?”

“That your future is more than you ever imagined. You spent a long time denying who you were. You belong back here with us. And what’s between you and that man of yours, huh? That’s not over by a long shot.”

“There’s one major problem with that. He’s not a man.”

“Eh, girl, you picked him. Don’t be upset about it now. We all tried to warn you about his true nature.” There’s no compassion in her steady gaze.

“I was young and stupid. I didn’t think I’d have to suffer over it for the rest of my life.”

“That’s up to you. Either way, you’re going to have to deal with it. Dat boy’s been moving up the food chain while you were away.”

“Stop,” I say, not ready to think about him.

“You’re an Esçhete. We don’t run from anything. You have a duty to yourself and this family. You’ve always been gifted. It never took a genius to see you were the likely candidate to lead the next generation into the future. We gave you time to mature and find your inner strength. A storm’s brewing and you’re going to be in the eye, so I hope you rested well.”

Sighing, I cast my gaze down at the wooden planks of the porch. “What if I’m not able to live up to the expectations?”

“You think just anyone can stop practicing magic and come back like that?” Mémé snaps her long, wrinkled fingers. “Non. You’re special.”

Her words are blows to the walls I’ve barricaded myself behind. They come on like a battering ram. Cracks form. My lower lip trembles. My vision blurs, and my eyes sting.

“It’s okay, honey. Let it out.”

Walking over to the chair, I place my head on her lap. She runs her hands through my hair, and I inhale the scent of lavender and sage that always seem to cling to her clothing. Cradled by the woman I’ve always seen as a second mom, I allow myself to properly grieve—for the purity I lost, the love I gave and had rejected, and my shattered soul. The tears are a purge. A necessary cleansing. Sobs shake my body, and I let them. Thunder booms above our heads, and a flash of lightning flickers in my peripheral vision. Tonight, even the Bayou mourns with me.

When I have no more tears left, I lift my head and meet Mémé’s dark, steady gaze.

She nods her head. “That’s what you needed. Time, and a release. Now you pick up the pieces and come back better dan ever. It’s okay to be knocked down as long as you get back up.”

Her words are a soothing elixir applied to my wounded pride.

“Never be ashamed of your mistakes. As long as you don’t continue to make the same ones, consider them nothing more than a learning experience. Things only have the power we give them.”

She’s right. I’ve turned this into the defining moment of my life. It’s time to create a new turning point.

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