The mail arrived at 15 Maple Lane as it does every day around 1 pm. I pull back my green bedroom curtains and watch as the mail truck pulls away, before shouting “Mail’s here!” and calling down the stairs to my dad. There are no packages, birthday OR Christmas. Bummer. Dad claims he has to beat our Rottweiler, Daisy, to the door before she becomes a “shredder with legs”, but she’s old now, and she hasn’t chewed the mail, or anything else for that matter since she was a pup. I can’t help but wonder if there’s more to it. Maybe dad just wants to feel useful.
I see him scurry to the door where my old girl is taking a nap. The letters had fallen through the slot and landed on her back, but she hadn’t even seemed to notice.
“Gotcha Daisy Duke! Hand over that mail and nobody gets hurt!” Daisy picks up her head and dad puts up his finger guns, imitating an old western movie. But Daisy just groans and flops back down, oblivious to the imaginary danger.
“The only thing you’re gonna have a standoff with in this house is the dust bunnies, Jack Baker.” Mom calls from the kitchen as dad rescues the letters from Daisy. Or maybe it’s the other way around. He does his usual routine. Bills on his desk, junk mail in the fireplace, and opening THE letter immediately. It’s always the same kind. Dark envelope, fancy cursive writing, and pressed wax seal with a green ribbon hanging from it. Except this time, the ribbon was red. Dad usually opens it, skims it, makes a huffy noise and throws it in the fire. Except this time…He opens it with hesitation, and reads it carefully. I hear him mumble under his breath before calling mom into the living room. What was different about this time… I crouch in the stairway, trying to eavesdrop, but between their muffled voices and crackle of the freshly fed fire, I only catch bits and pieces.
“….should have prepared better.”
“…should have warned her…”
“…won’t let it!”
“Too late for what?” I make myself known. Mom tries to nonchalantly wipe a tear from her eye, and dad clears his voice.
“For pancakes!” He announces, after some thought. “I know it’s after lunch time but I am DYING for a short stack! Wouldn’t you agree Ella, my love?” He turns to mom, who’s desperately trying to straighten her face.
“Y…yes! I’ll go whip some up. That sounds lovely. Cora, sweetie, would you please grab the mix from the pantry?” She shoots dad a look.
I nod and step out to the storm cellar, where we keep our perishables. Florida is a huge target during hurricane season, so we keep it well stocked incase we’re stuck in there for a few days.
When I immerge, I hear them whispering again.
“Long lost aunt? You really think she’ll buy that Jack? I hate lying to her.”
“We don’t have a choice Ellie...We made our beds. God I wish we’d never met that woman.”
Woah….what? Be cool Cora…be cool…”Got it!” I announce loudly before reentering the kitchen.
Mom gives dad a nudge. “Thanks honey, I’ll get started on these.” She snatches the mix from my hand and dad clears his throat again.
“Cora, sweetie. You remember your aunt Cordelia, the one you’re named after. Right?”
“Uh the one who hasn’t visited us since the day I was born? Suuurreee dad.”
“Well…she’s planning to come for a visit for Christmas and your birthday. But things are very…different where she lives, so we need you to be on your best behavior, and learn some of her…customs, okay?” Dad has a worried, stern face I’ve never seen before, but his eyes pleaded with me.
“Sure dad. Whatever you need. I didn’t know people from Australia were so uptight.”
He got a puzzled look across his face, then nodded to himself. “Yeah, well, a couple rules. You have to…bow. When she comes into a room or you greet her. And we have to call you by your full name, “Cora” really offends her. She’s coming in tomorrow, and staying through the rest of December.”
“You’re joking, right? Almost two weeks? Is this meant to be funny?” I stare at him in disbelief. He sighs.
Mom puts her hand on my shoulder as she sets the first plate down. “I know it isn’t fair but. Please understand…your aunt…she’s a very …complex woman. We just need you to try your best honey.”
“Whatever. I’m really not hungry. I’m taking Daisy for a walk.” I get up from the table and grab her leash and my sneakers. I expect a protest, but mom and dad just hang their heads as I nudge Daisy out the door. My brain is overflowing right now and I need to get away.
I’m deep in thought the entire walk. Why is this long lost aunt showing up NOW? I’m finally turning 18, I thought we’d have a big party and my parents would start treating me like an actual adult, but no, now I get to act like an obedient child for this old bird. I don’t understand why they decided to name me after a random aunt that barely even talked to mom after she had me. And I don’t think she talked to her much before that either. I can see this is important to them, though. So I have to try.
Thunder booms overhead, promising a storm. Daisy girl is staring up at me. I was so busy fuming I didn’t realize how far we’d gone, and her poor old bones are probably tired. My parents got her when I was little and we lived in a rough neighborhood for a few months. She’s probably about as sick of moving as I am. 12 different places, 8 different states, over the course of 18 years. It’s total malarkey. I understand dad is a “traveling salesman” but…you don’t have to take it so literally. I guess they figure the transfer is easy since they don’t have a bunch of kids to worry about. Mom has fertility problems, and had trouble conceiving even me. She calls me her “Rainbow Baby”. But anyways, Florida isn’t so bad, but it sure as heck isn’t Christmas here. The bows and strung up lights don’t make up for the 78 degrees and overcast weather. Though it’ll make plans for my December 21st birthday a bit easier without snow and ice to worry about
Daisy lurched to a stop and pulled me from my thoughts when she started to growl. I spun around, searching for the threat, but all I saw was a large black bird, perched on the light post ahead. Daisy HATES crows. We could never figure out why, but everywhere we went, she always found one to go after. She barked and yanked me toward the bird, which let out an obnoxious “CAW!” and took flight. That was weird…”You okay Daisy girl?” I patted her head, and she gave my hand a lick before starting home.
As I turn down our little side street, I could immediately tell something was wrong. Mom was on the porch, pacing. She spots me, and waves at me to pick up the pace. I was out of breath and panting, but mom looked even worse than I did.
“Cora. Cora she’s here. She’s early. She said she could “Just feel things were amuck around here”. What does that even mean?” She runs her hand through her messy blonde curls. “I’m sorry. I was hoping we’d have a little more time to prepare.” She straightens up, as if she had the sudden realization that it was her daughter standing in front of her, and she wasn’t just alone with the ficus. “It’s just that your…aunt is the only living relative that I have. The only ties to my home in Au…straila. So I need to keep her happy.”
“I got it mom. Don’t worry, I’ll behave.” I give her a long hug, and open the front door, preparing for the wrath of Aunt Cordelia. I can already hear her giving dad the 3rd degree as I listen around the corner.
“Aunt? Don’t make me laugh. The idea that I’d have common blood with you people…but I will, as you suggest, vet the girl slowly to the old ways. And those food bowls…don’t tell me you still have the beast Artimus gave you…Did you really think that mongrel would protect you? I trust she’ll be sleeping outside.”
Now she’s done it. “She most certainly will NOT be.” I shout. Ah crap, sorry mom.
“Why, you insulant little brat! Apologize this instant.” She stomps her cane and I practically force myself into a bow.
“I’m sorry…aunt Cordelia.” I mumble, still staring at the ground.
“Aunt? Surely this is not your daughter. I presumed this was the beast tamer. Disgusting. I should have known you would raise her with the disrespect of the new world. This is unacceptable. This is NOT what we agreed to!” She gets up and the whole house shakes under her bulbous figure. She’s headed for mom. I cut her off.
“Let me help you get your bags upstairs aunt Cordelia!” I say, grabbing her suitcase and carry-on bag. I almost immediately fall backwards with the weight of the little bag. It’s only the size of a back pack, but it feels like there’s a boulder inside it! I see her disgusted expression turn to a slight smile at my discomfort. She takes the bag from me, and removes a tiny black stone from it, and tries to hand it back to me. ”There. Try now.” Is she nuts? Like a little rock is going to make a difference. I reach for it again…and by some sorcery…it did. The bag was light now. She chuckles at my shocked expression again, but quickly draws back. “What are you waiting for, take those bags to my room now!” She barks, before going for mom again.
I quickly toss the suitcase on the guest room bed, and the magic bag on the floor, then race for my window. I crack it open slowly, listening down to the front stoop below. I expect dear old auntie to take a bite out of mom.
“Ella this is not what we agreed. She knows nothing of the old world or its ways. I did NOT expect to have to raise an infant in the ways of magic. This was your responsibility. And you KNOW what happens to people who break contracts with me. Things are worse than I imagined. I am taking her. Tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, at the very moment I gifted your womb, she is coming with me.”
Gifted your womb? What the hell??? I hear mom sobbing.
“Cordelia please, we just wanted to raise her like a normal child. Our magic roots died when we were forced out of Auberheim for seeking your help. When we couldn’t get back through the portal, we agreed…we just wanted a plain life for us and our child after everything we’ve been through. I beg you. Leave us in peace. She knows nothing of the old ways, she wouldn’t make a suitable heir for you, not at all!”
“Stupid girl. You knew the people of that village would banish you the moment they got word your child came from magic. And did you think I wouldn’t catch on to your little plan? Moving around so I wouldn’t find you? Imbecilic. I have spies everywhere.” A large, black bird caws overhead, and lands on her shoulder. I put my hands over my face. Damn! Daisy girl was looking out for us this whole time…This is crazy. This whole thing makes no sense! I glance down again, and the crow is staring back at me. Aunt Cordelia glances up, and winks at me.
I’ve had enough of this crap. I’ve got to talk to dad. I’ve got to leave. I’m sure there’s a place where that old crone can’t find us. I pull my old duffle bag out of my closet and dump it. I have to make a plan to run. My head is pounding, and I stumble into my nightstand as I get my bag together. Woah. Take it easy Cora…better sit…better…no…the wink... what has she done to me?
It was my mother’s voice. “Mom? What did that witch do to me? What time is it?”
She looked surprised, but it passed quickly, and she pulled me up and into her arms. “There isn’t much time. It’s 11:30. Cora, I can’t stop this. She is going to take you. But I promise with all that I am, we will get you back. No matter where she goes, we will find you.” She unclasped the locket from around her neck, and put it on mine. “This will ensure that. Come downstairs. Your father and I need to explain all this to you in our own words, before she gets in your head.”
I follow her downstairs, completely panicked and lost. Last week…I was a normal kid. Now a witch is trying to take me?
Cordelia is standing in the living room, with her big walking stick in hand, and her bags at her feet.
“Tell her! NOW! Tell her what you did.” She demands to my parents.
Dad hangs his hands in his head. But mom steps up.
“First off, honey, we are not from Australia. We hail from another world, called Auberheim. In our world…real magic exists. Like a fairy tale. But it’s been outlawed due to an ancient war between the Royal Family and the Sorcerers. Anyone found using magic, or seeking it out would we banished from the Kingdom. But your father and I….Cora we wanted a baby so badly. We tried and tried...and the witch knew our trouble and after countless offers…we visited her on the night before the winter solstice, when her power would peak. The agreement felt simple. In exchange for keeping her name sake, we would be blessed with a happy, healthy baby girl.” She hesitated. “But there was a catch. We were to teach you the old ways of magic, so on your 18th birthday, she could claim you as her heir, her apprentice, and take you away.”
Dad pipes up. “But we never intended to go through with it! When the villagers caught wind that we got the help of a witch, they banished us to this world. And we knew it was our way out. We would always travel so she couldn’t find us. But then when those letters started coming…I knew we’d never escape her. Each one contained a countdown to her return. That’s when I contacted an old friend for help.” He pats Daisy’s side. “He brought us Daisy when we first came to this world. She’s the pup of the Witch Hunter’s dogs. Specially trained from birth to smell her kind out.”
“A myth. Lazy mutt couldn’t sniff out a troll at her age. It didn’t work, did it? Here I am! And I’m ready to collect my end of the bargain, and show you why you should have held up yours.”
She raised her stick, and slammed in on to the ground three times. Sparks flew out of the bottom, and mom and dad rose into the air. Clouds that felt like steel chains clasped around my wrist. Daisy got up, and with a last bit of energy, she latched on to the witch’s cane. My parents fell back to the floor, and suddenly their legs started retracting into their bodies. Their arms started turning black, and feathers sprouted from their hands and torsos. I turned away, I couldn’t watch, I was paralyzed with fear, and still held in place by the witch’s spell.
“Wicked beast!” Cried the witch. She stomped her cane again, and Daisy began to shrink. “Birds!? A mouse? What did that vile creature do to my wand? Dead! They should all be dead!” She paused a looked at me with a devilish smile. “No matter. I will have what I came for.”
She pulled me by my long blonde hair, into the drive way. With her swift whistle, a massive, demonic looking beast was flying overhead out of a storm cloud, and trying to land. She yanked me again, and forced me to mount the giant, snarling creature. I pleaded silently with the beast, hoping it could hear my thoughts, see my pain. But it’s red, beady eyes held nothing but evil. Cordelia struck me with her cane as she climbed onto the monster, behind me.
She kicked her heeled boot into its incredible, grotesque wing, and it flapped, ready to take flight.
“You will take us to The Red Tower. In Auberheim. Make haste demon, our little girl here has much to learn, and much suffering to do.” She brushed my hair behind my ear with a cackle, and I winced. The cloud bindings tightened as I reach up, running my fingers over the locket my mother gave me. I looked over to the door of the home I would never see again.
Two big crows stood in the doorway, with a little black mouse at their feet.