A Witch's Handbook of Kisses and Curses by Molly Harper
If you are fortunate enough to receive a message from the other side, pay attention to it.
—A Witch’s Compendium of Curses
My week started with spectral portents of doom floating over my bed while I was trying to have anniversary sex with my boyfriend. It was all downhill from there.
Stephen had not been pleased when I’d pushed him off of me, rolled out of bed, and yelled, “That’s it! I’m going!” at the image of a half-moon burning against my ceiling. I mean, I guess there are limits to what men are willing to put up with, and one’s girlfriend interacting with invisible omens is a bit out of a perfectly nice investment broker’s scope. He seemed to think I was huffing off after taking offense to that counterclockwise tickle he’d improvised near the end.
Of course, telling him about the increasingly forceful hints I’d received from my noncorporeal grandmother for the last two weeks would have made the situation worse. Stephen tended to clam up when we discussed my family and our “nonsense.” He refused to discuss Nana Fee or the promise I’d made to her that I’d travel all the way from our tiny village to the wilds of America. So I’d tried ignoring the dreams, the omens, the way my alphabet soup spelled out “HlfMunHollw.”
I tried to rationalize that a deathbed promise to a woman who called herself a witch wasn’t exactly a binding contract. But my grandma interrupting the big O to make her point was the final straw.
And so I was moving to Half-Moon Hollow, Kentucky, indefinitely, so I could locate four magical objects that would prevent a giant witch-clan war and maintain peace in my little corner of northwestern Ireland.
Yes, I was aware that statement sounded absolutely ridiculous.
Sometimes it paid to have a large, tech-savvy family at your disposal. When you tell them, “I have a few days to rearrange my life so I can fly halfway across the world and secure the family’s magical potency for the next generation,” they hop to do whatever it takes to smooth the way. Aunt Penny had not only booked my airline tickets but also located and rented a house for me. Uncle Seamus had arranged quick shipping of the supplies and equipment I would need to my new address. And my beloved, and somewhat terrifying, teenage cousin Ralph may have broken a few international laws while online “arranging” a temporary work visa so I wouldn’t starve while I was there. Not everybody in our family could work magic, but each had his or her own particular brand of hocus-pocus.
Although my mother was an only child, my nana was one of nine. So I had great-aunts and uncles coming out of my ears, and their children were the right age to serve as proper aunts and uncles. I had more third and fourth cousins than I could count. Literally—I tried once at Christmas, got dizzy, and had to sit down. They never treated me as if there were any sort of line dividing me from the rest of the McGavocks. So when my mother walked out and I was shipped off to my nana, it was as if the whole town was one very large, very loud family. When Aunt Penny permed my hair, to disastrous results, it was my schoolteacher who undid the damage in her kitchen sink. When my uncles were too traumatized by incidents that shall remain undisclosed to let me get behind the wheel of a car again, it was the postman, Tom Warren, who taught me to drive. They gave me a home I could depend on for the first time in my life. They gave me a family. They gave me back chunks of my childhood I’d missed until then. I would do whatever it took to make sure they were healthy and protected.
Given how Stephen felt about my family, I’d decided it was more prudent to tell him I’d accepted an offer for a special nursing fellowship in Boston. The spot came open when another nurse left the program unexpectedly, I told him, so I had to make a quick decision. He argued that it was too sudden, that we had too many plans hanging in the balance for me to run off to the States for half a year, no matter how much I loved my job.
I didn’t want to leave Stephen. For months, he had been a bright spot in a life desperately needing sunshine, with the loss of Nana and my struggles to keep the family buoyed. And yet, somehow, here I was, sprawled in the back of a run-down cab as it bumped down a sunlit gravel road in Half-Moon Hollow, Kentucky. The term “cab” could be applied only loosely to the faded blue Ford station wagon—the only working taxi in the entire town, the driver informed me proudly. We had a fleet of two working in Kilcairy, and we had only about four hundred people living inside the town limits. Clearly, living in Boston until my early teens hadn’t prepared me for life in the semirural South.
Yawning loudly, I decided to worry about cultural adjustments later. I was down-to-the-bone tired. My skirt and blouse were a grubby shambles. I smelled like airplane sweats and the manky Asian candy my seatmate insisted on munching for most of the flight from Dublin to New York. It took an additional two-hour hop to Chicago and another hour ride on a tiny baby plane-let before I finally arrived in the Hollow. I just wanted to go inside, take a shower, and sleep. While I was prepared to sleep on the floor if necessary, I prayed the house was indeed furnished as Aunt Penny had promised.
While the McGavock clan had collectively bankrolled my flight, I needed to save the extra cash they’d provided as “buy money” for my targets. Living expenses were left to me to figure out. I would have to start looking for some acceptable part-time work as soon as my brain was functional again. I squinted against the golden spring afternoon light pouring through the cab windows, interrupted only by the occasional patch of shade from tree branches arching over the little lane. The sky was so clear and crystal blue that it almost hurt to look out at the odd little clusters of houses along the road. It was so tempting just to lay my head back, close my eyes, and let the warm sunshine beat hot and red through my eyelids.
“You know you’re rentin’ half of the old Wainwright place?” the cabdriver, Dwayne-Lee, asked as he pulled a sharp turn onto yet another gravel road. I started awake just in time to keep my face from colliding with the spotty cab window. Dwayne-Lee continued on, blithe as a newborn babe, completely oblivious. “That place always creeped me out when I was a kid. We used to dare each other to run up to the front door and ring the bell.”
I lifted a brow at his reflection in the rearview. “And what happened?”
“Nothin’,” he said, shrugging. “No one lived there.”
I blew out a breath and tried to find the patience not to snap at the man. Dwayne-Lee had, after all, been nice enough to make a special trip to the Half-Moon Hollow Municipal Airport to pick me up. Dwayne-Lee had been sent by Iris Scanlon, who handled various business dealings for my new landlord. Dwayne-Lee’s skinny frame was puffed up with pride at being tasked with welcoming a “newcomer” as he’d handed me an envelope from Iris containing a key to my new house, a copy of my lease, her phone number, and a gift certificate for a free pizza delivered by Pete’s Pies.
Anyone who tried to make my life easier was aces in my book. So from that moment on, I was a little in love with Iris Scanlon. Less so with Dwayne-Lee, who was currently nattering on about the Wainwright place and its conversion to a rental duplex after Gilbert Wainwright had moved closer to town years before. I closed my eyes against the sunlight, and the next thing I knew, the cab was pulling to a stop.
Wiping furiously at the wet drool on my chin, I opened my door while Dwayne-Lee unloaded my luggage from the trunk. Separated from the other houses on the street by a thicket of dense trees, the rambling old Victorian was painted a faded robin’s-egg blue with sun-bleached white trim. The house was two stories, with a turret off to the left and a small central garden separating the two front doors. Given that the opposite side of the front porch seemed occupied with lawn chairs and a disheveled garden gnome, I assumed that the “tower side” of the house was mine. I grinned, despite my bone-aching fatigue. I’d always been fascinated by the idea of having a tower as a kid, although I’d long since cut my hair from climbing length.
The grass grew scrabbled in patches across the lawn. A section of brick had fallen loose from the foundation on the west corner. Knowing my luck, there was a colony of bats living in the attic, to complete that Addams Family look.
“I’ll have bats in my belfry.” I giggled, scrubbing at my tired eyes.
“You feelin’ all right, ma’am?” Dwayne-Lee asked.
“Hmm?” I said, blinking blearily at him. “Oh, sorry, just a little out of sorts.”
I pulled a wad of cash from my pocket and handed him enough for my fare and a generous tip.
Dwayne-Lee cleared his throat. “Um, ma’am, I can’t take Monopoly money.”
I glanced down at the bills in my hand. I was trying to pay Dwayne-Lee in euros. “Sorry.”
With Dwayne-Lee compensated in locally legal tender, I took my key out of Iris’s envelope, unlocked the door, and hauled my stuff inside. My half of the old Wainwright place consisted of two bedrooms and a bath upstairs, plus a parlor and a kitchen downstairs. It was a bit shocking to have this much room to myself. I was used to living in Nana Fee’s tiny cottage, where I still whacked my elbows on the corner of the kitchen counter if I wasn’t careful.
The house appeared to have been decorated by a fussy old lady fond of dark floral wallpaper and feathered wall sconces. The house was old, but someone had paid some attention to its upkeep recently. The hardwood floors gleamed amber in the afternoon light. The stairs were recently refurbished and didn’t creak once while I climbed them. The turret room turned out to be a little sitting area off my bedroom, lined with bookshelves. I ran my fingers along the dusty shelves. I loved a good book. If I stayed long enough, I could put a little reading chair there . . . if I had a reading chair. I’d need to do something about getting some more furniture.
Despite Aunt Penny’s assurances, the rooms were furnished in only the meanest sense. There were a table and chairs in the kitchen, a beaten sofa in the parlor, plus a dresser and a bare mattress in the front bedroom. Sighing deeply and promising myself I wouldn’t mention this to my aunt, I drew the travel sack—a thin, portable sleeping bag for people phobic about touching hotel sheets—over the bare mattress. The travel sack was a Christmas gift from Stephen. I smiled at the thought of my dear, slightly anal-retentive boyfriend and resolved to call him as soon as it was a decent hour overseas.
I found blankets in the bottom drawer of the dresser. I wasn’t too keen on using them as covers, given their musty state, but they would make a good shade for the window so the sun wouldn’t keep me awake. I boosted myself against the dresser to hang one . . . only to observe that some sort of Greek statue had come to life in my back garden.
He was built like a boxer, barrel-chested and broad-shouldered, with narrow hips encased in ripped jeans. Thick sandy hair fell forward over his face while he worked. His sculpted chest was bare, golden, and apparently quite sweaty, given the way it glistened while he planted paving stones near a pristine concrete patio.
I wavered slightly and grabbed the window frame, my weakening knees caused by more than jet lag. Was this my next-door neighbor? I wasn’t sure if I was comfortable living with a he-man who could lift giant stones as if they were dominoes. And when had it gotten so bloody hot in here? I hadn’t noticed that I was warm in the cab . . . Oh, wait, it was time for the he-man to take a water break. He took a few long pulls off a bottle from his cooler and dumped the rest over his head.
My jaw dropped, nearly knocking against my chest. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Just then, he looked up and spotted me ogling him from above. Our eyes connected . . .
And he winked at me like some Lothario gardener out of a particularly dirty soap opera! I spluttered indignant nonsense before tucking the blanket over the window with a decisive shove.
I pressed my hands over my eyes, trying to coax some moisture around my dry, tacky contact lenses. I didn’t have the mental reserves for this. I needed to sleep, eat, and bathe, most likely in that order. I would deal with the man reenacting scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire in my back garden at a later date. My shoulders tense and heavy, I crawled onto the mattress, bundled my shirt under my head, and plummeted into sweet unconsciousness.
* * *
I woke up bleary and disoriented, unable to figure out where the hell I was. Why was it so dark? Was I too late? Were they here already? Where was my family? Why couldn’t I hear anyone talking? I lurched up from the mattress and snagged the blanket from the window, letting in the weak twilight.
As soon as I saw the paving stones, I remembered the flight, the mad taxi ride, and the Adonis in the back garden.
“Oh.” I sighed, scrubbing my hand over my face. “Right.”
I stumbled into the bathroom and splashed cool water on my face. The grimy mirror reflected seven kinds of hell. My face was pale and drawn. My thick coffee-colored hair was styled somewhere near “crazy cat lady,” and my normally bright, deep-set brown eyes were marked with dark smudges that weren’t entirely composed of mascara. I had my grandfather’s features, straight lines, delicate bones, and a particularly full bottom lip. Of course, that meant I looked like my mother, too, which was not something I liked to dwell on. I swiped my hand across the fly-specked glass, smearing the haggard image.
I stripped out of my clothes, standing under the lukewarm spray and letting it wash away the grime. The heavy claw-footed tub actually wobbled a little when I moved, and I worried that it was going to fall through the floor. Long after the water cooled, I climbed out of the tub, only to remember that I hadn’t thought to bring any towels into the bathroom with me. Aunt Penny had stuffed a few into my suitcase because she knew the house wouldn’t have them. But my suitcase was downstairs, next to the door. And I was stark naked.
“Moron.” I cursed myself as I made a shivering dash across the bedroom to retrieve my jacket. I took the stairs carefully—because I wasn’t about to die in a household accident wearing only an outdated rain jacket—and carefully avoided windows as I made my way to my luggage. The towels, somehow, still smelled line-fresh, like the lavender and rosemary in Nana Fee’s back garden. I pressed one to my face before wrapping it around myself toga-style.
I mentally blessed Penny for packing some ginger tea in my bag, which was good for postflight stomachs. I retrieved the tea bags and cast a longing glance at the kitchen. Did the “furnished” bit include dishes and cups? I could function—I might even be able to dress myself properly—if I just had some decent tea in me. Even if it meant boiling the water in a microwave.
I shuddered. Blasphemy.
If I set the water to boil now, it would be ready by the time I picked out clothes. Multitasking would be the key to surviving here. There would be no loving aunties to make my afternoon tea, no uncles to pop into town if I needed something. I was alone here with my thoughts, for the first time in a long time. And considering my thoughts of late, that could be a dangerous thing.
“Staring into space isn’t going to brew the tea,” I chided myself. Securing my towel, I made my way to the stove, careful to avoid the windows. I didn’t know if my neighbor was doing his sweaty work out in the yard, and I didn’t fancy being winked at while wearing this getup.
After setting the tea bags on the counter, I began rummaging through the cupboards, finding dirty, abandoned cookware but no kettle. I sighed and thunked my head against the cupboard. I just wanted some tea. Just a little tea, and I’d be right as rain . . . as right as rain could be.
I was starting to sound like one of the less sane characters in Alice in Wonderland.
I could take the risk of heating it by less conventional means. Honestly, I’d been on a plane for hours. It had been days since I’d used any proper magic—or improper magic, for that matter. Maybe the hiatus and the change in environment would help with my little . . . problem. Maybe, for the first time in months, I would have a handle on it.
I took a deep, cleansing breath and filled a ceramic mug with tap water. After glancing around, as if some random stranger might be pressing his face to the window to catch me using illicit, magical tea-brewing techniques, I wrapped my fingers around the mug and imagined energy flowing from my hands, into the ceramic, into the water. I closed my eyes and pictured heat growing between my hands into a glowing ball of energy that slipped between all of the tiny molecules in the water and got them moving, got them hot, got them boiling. I pictured how good it would feel to get dressed, put my feet up, and have a nice cuppa. I felt the smooth material grow hot beneath my fingertips and the steam rising from the cup, curling around my face. But too quickly, the pleasant, soothing heat turned volcanic. I hissed, yanking my hands away from the burning-hot mug, watching with resigned frustration as it cracked down the middle and spilled boiled water all over the counter.
Dodging out of range, I scrubbed a hand over my face in defeat. Clearly, my self-imposed ban on nonessential magic was for my own good, in addition to that of the general populace.
I tossed the remains of the destroyed cup into the sink and tried to mop up the water with the corner of my towel. I grabbed another mug, opened the top cupboard nearest the refrigerator, and—
“ACCCK!” I shrieked at the sight of beady black eyes glaring out at me from the cupboard shelf. The furry gray creature’s mouth opened, revealing rows of sharp white fangs. It swiped its paws at me, claws spread, and hissed like a brassed-off cobra.
I let loose a bloodcurdling scream and ran stumbling out of the kitchen, through a screen door, and into the moonless purple light of early evening. With my eyes trained behind me to make sure it, whatever it was, didn’t follow me, I slammed into a solid, warm object. The force of my momentum had me wrapping my arms and legs around it as I struggled away from the fanged menace.
“Oof!” the object huffed.
The object was a person. To be specific, the shirtless, sweaty person who’d been standing in my back garden earlier. Dropping a couple of yard tools with a clank, he caught my weight with his hands, stumbling under the impact of struggling, panicked woman. Certainly as surprised to find me in his arms as I was to be there.
Slashing dark eyebrows shot skyward. The full lips parted to offer, “Hello?”
Oh, saints and angels, I was doomed. He was even better-looking up close. Tawny, whiskey-colored eyes. A classic straight nose with a clear break on the bridge. Wide, generous lips currently curved into a naughty, tilted line as he stared up at me.
Focus, I told myself. There’s a mutant rodent in your cupboard, waiting to devour your very soul, then terrorize the townsfolk.
“In my kitchen!” I shouted in his face.
“What?” The man seemed puzzled, and not just by the fact that I seemed to be wrapped around him like some sort of cracked-up spider monkey.
“In. My. KITCHEN!” I yelled, scrabbling to keep my grip on his shoulders while leaning back far enough to make eye contact. Despite my all-out terror, I couldn’t help but notice the smooth, warm skin or the tingles traveling down my arms, straight to my heart. He smelled . . . wild. Of leather and hay and deep, green pockets of forest. As my weight shifted backward, his large, warm hands slid around my bottom, cupping my cheeks to keep me balanced against him. “Th-there’s a creature!” I cried. “In my kitchen! Some demon rat sent from hell! It tried to bite my face off!”
The fact that his hand was ever so subtly squeezing my unclothed ass managed to subdue my mind-numbing terror and replace it with indignant irritation. I didn’t know this man. I certainly hadn’t invited him to grope me, spider-monkey climbing or no. And I had a perfectly lovely boyfriend waiting for me at home, who would not appreciate some workman’s callused hands on my ass.
“You can move your hand now,” I told him, trying to dismount gracefully, but his hands remained cupped under my left cheek.
“Hey, you tackled me!” he protested in a smoky, deeply accented tenor.
I narrowed my eyes. “Move your hand, or I’ll mail it back to you by a very slow post.”
“Fine.” He sighed, gently lowering me to my feet. “Let’s get a look at this creature in your kitchen.”
Struggling to keep my towel in place, I led him into my kitchen and tentatively pointed toward the home of the Rodent of Unusual Size. I could hear the beast hissing and growling inside, batting at the closed door with its claws. I was surprised it hadn’t managed to eat its way through yet. But somehow my would-be rescuer seemed far more interested in looking around, noting the pile of luggage by the door.
“Haven’t had much time to unpack yet, huh?” he asked. I glared at him. He shrugged. “Fine, fine, critter crisis. I’m on it.”
He opened the cupboard door, let out a horrified gasp, and slammed it shut. He grabbed a grimy old spatula I’d left on the counter during my rummaging and slid it through the cupboard handles, trapping the monster inside. He turned on me, his face grave while his amber eyes twinkled. “You’re right. I’m going to have to call in the big guns.”
He disappeared out the door on quick, quiet feet. I stared after him, wondering if I’d just invited help from a complete lunatic, when the early-evening breeze filtering in through the back door reminded me that I was standing there in just a towel. I scrambled over to my suitcase and threw on a loose peasant skirt and a blue tank top. I wondered what he meant by “big guns.” Was he calling the police? The National Guard? MI5?
I was slipping on a pair of knickers under my skirt just as my bare-chested hero came bounding back into the kitchen with a large, lidded pot and a spoon.
“Are you going to cook it?” I gasped, ignoring the bald-faced grin he gave my lower quadrants as the floaty blue skirt fell back into place.
“Well, my uncle Ray favors a good roast possum. He says it tastes like chicken,” he drawled, holding the lid over his thick forearm like a shield as he tapped the spatula out of place. “Personally, I have to wonder if he’s eaten chicken that tastes like ass, but that’s neither here nor there.”
I darted away as he opened the cupboard door. A feral growl echoed through the empty house as he maneuvered the pot over the front of the cupboard. He used the wooden spoon to reach over the grumpy animal and nudge the possum into the pot. Slapping the lid over it, he turned and gave me a proud grin.
“Thank you.” I sighed. “Really, I don’t know what I would have done—”
The giant rat began thrashing around inside the pot and making the lid dance.
“I want that thing tested for steroids!” I yelped.
“It’s just a baby,” he said, placing one of his ham-sized hands on the lid. “These things burrow in pretty much wherever they want to, doors and walls be damned.”
“This is a baby?” I peered down at the dancing pot. “How big do the mothers get?”
He shrugged. “Better question: where is his mama?”
“Oh,” I groaned as he opened the back door, crossed the yard, and gently shook the possum out of the pot and into the tall grass near the trees. I called after him, “Why did you have to say that? I have to sleep here!”
Climbing my back steps, he looked far more relaxed than he should have been after evicting a vicious furred fiend from my kitchen. Shirtless. “I have to sleep here, too. And if it makes you feel better, there’s a good chance that the mama could be sleepin’ under my side of the house,” he told me. “I’m Jed, by the way.”
I giggled, a hysterical edge glinting under the laughter, as he extended his hand toward me. “You’re kidding.”
He arched a sleek sandy eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”
I cleared my throat, barely concealing a giggle. “No, I’m sorry. I’ve never met a Jed before.”
He chuckled. “I’d imagine not, with that accent and all.”
Now it was my turn to raise the bitch-brow, a super-extension of the eyebrow combined with one’s best frosty expression. He of the sultry backwoods drawl was mocking my accent? That was disappointing. Since landing in New York, I’d worked hard to control whatever lilt I’d picked up in the fifteen years I’d lived with Nana Fee. It wouldn’t do for the locals to know where I was from.
“Your accent,” he said, his forehead creasing. “Boston, right? ‘Pahk the cah in the yahd’?”
I blushed a little and regretted the bitch-brow. I’d forgotten how muddled my manner of speaking was, compared with my new neighbor’s Southern twang. My accent was vaguely Boston, vaguely Irish. Nana Fee had tried to correct my lack of Rs in general and attempted to teach me Gaelic, but the most I picked up were some of the more interesting expressions my aunts and uncles used. Mostly the dirty ones. So I spoke in a bizarre mishmash of dialects and colloquialisms, which led to awkward conversations over what to call chips, elevators, and bathrooms.
“Oh, right,” I said, laughing lightly. “Boston—born and raised.”
Technically, it wasn’t a lie.
Jed looked at me expectantly. I looked down to make sure I hadn’t forgotten some important article of clothing. “If you don’t give me your name, I’m just gonna make one up,” he said, leaning against the counter. “And fair warnin’, you look like a Judith.”
“I do not!” I exclaimed.
“Half-dressed girls who climb me like a tree are usually named Judith,” he told me solemnly.
“This happens to you often?” I deadpanned.
He shrugged. “You’d be surprised.”
“It’s Nola,” I told him. “Nola Leary.”
“Jed Trudeau,” he said, shaking my outstretched hand. “If you don’t mind me sayin’, you look beat. Must’ve been a long flight.”
“It was,” I said, nodding. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll just go back to bed.”
There was a spark of mischief in his eyes, but I think he picked up on the fact that I was in no mood for saucy talk. His full lips twitched, but he clamped them together. He held up one large, work-roughened hand. “Hold on.”
He disappeared out the back door, and I could hear his boot steps on the other side of my kitchen wall. He returned a few moments later, having donned a light cotton work shirt, still unbuttoned. He placed a large, cold, foil-wrapped package in my hands. “Chicken and rice casserole. One of the ladies down at the Baptist church made it for me. Well, several of the church ladies made casseroles for me, so I have more than I can eat. Just pop a plateful in the microwave for three minutes.”
I stared at the dish for a long while before he took it out of my hands and placed it in my icebox. “Do local church ladies often cater your meals?”
“I don’t go to Sunday services, so they’re very concerned about my soul. I can’t cook to save my life. They’re afraid I’m just wasting away to nothing,” he said, shaking his head in shame, but there was that glint of trouble in his eyes again. He gave me a long, speculative look. “Well, I’ll let you get back to sleep. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
“Thanks,” I said as he moved toward the door. I locked it behind him, then turned and sagged against the dusty sheers covering the window in the door. “If there are any greater powers up there—stop laughing.”
I massaged my temples and set about making my tea. Jed seemed nice, if unfortunately named. And it was very kind of him to give a complete stranger a meal when he knew she had nothing but angry forest creatures in her cupboards. But I couldn’t afford this sort of distraction. I’d come to the Hollow for a purpose, not for friendships and flirtations with smoldering, half-dressed neighbors.
Just as I managed to locate a chipped mug in the spice drawer, a loud, angry screech sounded from somewhere to the left of my stove. I turned and fumbled with the locked kitchen door, yelling, “Jed!”