I was mucking out the dragon’s garage when the witch’s text popped up on my phone.
BRING ME A BIRD
“Ugh,” I said to Moonfire. “Here we go again.” I shoved the phone in my jeans and went back to my broom. The witch’s ring tone cackled in my pocket as I swept.
Moonfire looked longingly at the scrub brush as I finished. “Just a few skritches,” I told her. “You know what the witch is like.” I grabbed the old yellow bristle brush and rubbed her scaly blue back. My phone cackled insistently and I pulled it out again.
HANG SNAKESKINS OUT TO DRY
FEED AND WALK WEREWOLF PUP
MUCK OUT DRAGON'S QUARTERS
Done all those, I texted back. Been up since 5 AM. Out loud I added, “Get with the program,” but I did not text that.
The phone cackled back immediately.
DONT BE SNARKY
THESE ARE CHORES BY WHICH ONE MUST UNDERSTAND TRUE WITCHERY
NOW BRING ME A BIRD
“Sorry, Moonfire,” I said. “The witch is in a mood.” At least she hadn’t asked me about the spell I was supposed to be learning. I stowed the brush on a shelf and hurried out the detached RV garage and back into the house. Thirteen minutes to get to the bus stop to get to school on time. I threw my backpack on as I crossed to the witch’s old wire birdcage sitting in the living room window. Our newly-acquired goldfinch was hopping around inside. The witch had lured him in with thistle seeds. “C’mon, little guy,” I said, and carried the cage up the steps of the split-level to the witch’s bedroom.
The witch was sitting up in bed as I knocked and entered. Sarmine Scarabouche is sour and pointed and old. Nothing ever lives up to her expectations. She is always immaculate, with a perfect silver bob that doesn’t dare get out of place. Right now she was all in white. The bed is white, too, and the sheets, and the walls—everything. She spritzes her whole room with unicorn hair sanitizer every morning so it stays spotless. It’s deranged.
“Put the bird on the table, Camellia,” she said. “Did you finish this morning’s worksheet?”
I plopped down on a white wicker stool, fished out three sheets of folded paper from my back pocket, and passed the top one to her. “The Dietary Habits of Baby Rocs—regurgitation, mostly.”
Her sharp eyes scanned the page. “Passable. And the Spell for Self-Defense? Have you made any progress?”
The question I had been dreading. I unfolded the second sheet from my pocket while the witch studied me.
Because here’s the thing. Trying to learn spells is The Worst.
In the first place, spells look like the most insane math problems you’ve ever seen. Witches are notoriously paranoid, so every spell starts with a list of ingredients (some of which aren’t even used) and then has directions like this:
Step 1: Combine the 3rd and 4th ingredients at a 2:3 ratio so the amount
is double the size of the ingredient that contains a human sensory organ.
In this case, the ingredient that contained a human sensory organ was pear. P-ear.
Har de har har.
That was the only part I’d managed to figure out, and I’ve been carrying around this study sheet for four months now.
The witch looks at these horrible things and just understands them, but then again, she’s a witch. Which brings me to reason two why I hate this.
I’m not a witch.
Maybe I have to live with her, but I’m never going to be like her. There was no way I could actually work this spell, so the witch making me solve it was basically a new way to drive me nuts.
“Well, it’s going,” I said finally. “Say, what are you going to do with that bird? You aren’t going to hurt him, are you?”
The witch looked contemptuously down her sharp nose at me. “Of course not. This is merely another anti-arthritis spell, which will probably work just as well as the last forty-seven I’ve tried.” She drew out a tiny down feather from the white leather fanny pack she wore even in bed, clipped a paper clip on the end, and held it out to me. “Please place this feather in the cage.” She picked up her brushed- aluminum wand from the bedside table.
“Isn’t this a phoenix feather?” I asked as I obeyed. "I thought you couldn't work magic on those."
"But I can on a paper clip," she said. She touched her wand to a pinch of cayenne pepper from her fanny pack, flicked it at the cage, and the paper-clipped feather rose in the air. It stayed there, hovering.
I tried to remember what some long-ago study sheet had said about phoenix feathers. Very potent, I thought. Had a habit of doing something unexpected, like—
The feather burst into flame.
The goldfinch shot to the ceiling of the cage, startled.
“Watch out!” I said.
The paper-clipped feather levitated and began chasing the finch. The finch cheeped and darted. The flaming feather manuvered until it was chasing the bird in tight clockwise circles.
“You said you weren’t going to hurt it,” I shouted, moving toward the cage.
“Back away,” said the witch, leveling her wand at me. “I need sixty-three rotations of finch flight to work my spell.”
I knew what damage the wand could do. The witch was fond of casting punishments on me whenever I didn’t live up to her bizarre standards of True Witchery. Like once I refused to hold the neighbor’s cat so she could permanently mute its meow, and she turned me into fifteen hundred worms and made me compost the garden.
But the finch was frightened. A fluff of feather fell and was ashed by the fire. Another step toward the cage. . . .
The witch pulled out a pinch of something from her pack and dipped her wand in it. “Pins and needles,” she said.
“If at any time you start to disobey me today, random body parts will fall asleep.”
“Oh, really?” I said politely. “How will the spell know?” One foot sneaked closer to the cage, down where the witch couldn’t see.
“Trust me, it’ll know,” Sarmine said, and she flicked the wand at me, just as I took another step.
My foot went completely numb and I stumbled. “Gah!” I said, shaking it to get the blood flowing again. “Why are you so awf—?” I started to say, but then I saw her reach for her pouch and I instead finished, “er, so awesome at True Witchery? It’s really amazing. It’s taken me all this time to figure out just one ingredient in the self-defense spell.”
The wand lowered. Sarmine eyed me. “Which one did you figure out?”
“Pear.” I didn’t say it very confidently, but I said it.
She considered me. I thought a smile flickered over her angular face. But the next moment it was gone.
Still, she did not raise the wand again.
I breathed and shook my foot some more. I might get to school on time.
“Camellia,” she said, considering. Her manicured fingers tapped the white sheets as she studied me. Even in bed her silver chin-length bob was immaculately in place. “I am going to take over the city.”
“Really,” I said, with maybe too much sarcasm. I was still on edge about the poor finch, who was cheeping like a frightened metronome. But seriously, the witch was always coming up with new plans to take over the city. The last one involved placing a tank of sharks in the courthouse.
The fingers tapped the wand, but it did not lift toward me. She merely said, “Impertinence. Turn off your selective listening and hear me out. It’s time we witches reclaimed the world and came out of hiding at last. I have the most magnificent plan yet to control the city. But first, I need a demon.”
“A demon?” That was serious. “Don’t you think you should go back to sharks?”
“A demon,” said the witch firmly. “I shall put his spirit into the plastic mannequin in the basement. The scheme is perfect. I’m summoning him this very afternoon, so I need you to bring me two ounces of goat’s blood to lock him into the mannequin.”
She eyed me like I was going to complain about where to find goat’s blood, but goat’s blood is sooo old news. I’ve got a supplier. I was more concerned about this demon nonsense. “Anything else?” I said. The pins-and-needles feeling was finally wearing off and I could stand on two feet again.
“Three fresh roses, a dried pig’s ear, and two spears of rhubarb. Recite for me the properties of rhubarb, please.”
Um. That was just on a study sheet a week ago. “Used for stiffening, sharpening, etching. So frequently used in blinding spells that it was once declared contraband by the Geneva Coven. Also good in pies,” I said.
A fractional nod that meant approval. “And goat’s blood?”
Hells. “Also good in pies?” I said.
An odd line of disappointment crossed her brow. “Camellia, you really have to learn this,” she said. “All witches must be able to protect themselves.”
I gritted my teeth against this ridiculous statement. No matter how often I reminded her I was never going to be a witch, it didn't make a dent. I was not going to waste another morning arguing. Especially not when the third sheet of paper in my pocket was my study sheet for today’s Algebra test, and I had had zero time to study it due to snakeskin-hanging and sheep-defrosting and everything else.
The witch took out two crisp twenties from her fanny pack and handed them to me. “Very well, you may go.”
I took one step to the door, and turned. “Do you promise you’ll release the finch as soon as he’s flown far enough?”
A flicker of the eyelid that was the equivalent of a major eyeroll. “Yes, Camellia. What use would I have for a goldfinch? It would have to be fed, and it wouldn’t provide me with anything useful, like dragon tears or werewolf hairs.”
“Or free labor,” I muttered under my breath as I left the room.