Crossed Souls by Heather Ashley

 

Let me be your freak show, I could be your favorite monster.

-Sub Urban

It starts with glitter.

So much freaking glitter that I know I’ll never get it all out.

It’s all I can see, and I wonder if I’m sucking it down into my lungs with each breath. That can’t be good, can it? Tiny shards of plastic making themselves at home in my alveoli?

My eyes are open, and the gold sparkle is everywhere, so thick it might as well be blood. How is it not digging into my eyes, shredding my eyeballs apart?

It doesn’t hurt even though I expect pain. In fact, it feels good; damn good. Did someone send me a glitter bomb? It wouldn’t be the first time, but this isn’t the same as then. For one thing, minuscule slivers float in the air, obscuring everything else and that’s not normal.

Fingers slide along my skin, tracing the phantom touch that I could swear is a solid set of arms wrapped around my entire body, but they don’t belong to a stranger—they’re mine.

“Willa…” A voice resonates through my head, smooth and velvety in a way that strokes the depths of my soul. It’s calling out to me, one word filled with the longing of a thousand lifetimes lived alone.

“Where are you?” I yell, twisting and thrashing to try and clear the haze of golden sparkle from my sight, but it’s useless.

“Willa…” the voice calls again, only this time it’s desolate, hopeless and heavy with despair like he’s giving up, like all is lost.

“I’ll find you!” I promise into the ether, knowing it’s no use but needing to offer him hope. There’s no escape from my prison, doomed to suffer an endless existence coated in fragments of gold as fake as the knockoff Rolex Gramps wears.

As I’m about to succumb to the inevitable, my body jolts as if electrified, a spark flashing into being inside of me and I gasp as my eyes fly open, freeing me from my cage of golden brilliance.

“Shit,” I breathe as my heart lashes against my palm where it’s pressed against my chest. Questions tumble around in my head faster than I can latch onto them, and I curse again when I notice the clock. “I really don’t have time for this,” I mutter as I kick off the blankets and jump out of bed, rushing for the bathroom.

Freaky dreams aside, I thought the morning after my twenty-first birthday would feel different, that somehow I'd gain more than just a new number. Call me foolish, but I was convinced that the hollow pit inside me might suddenly fill up with whatever it is I’m lacking. Sadly, it turns out that twenty-one feels the exact same as twenty, missing pieces and all.

How disappointing.

When I blew out the candle on my cupcake last night, I could've sworn my wish would come true. Magic saturated the air and swirled around me like a tingly caress as my lips pursed and I exhaled. A hopeful smile tainted my face as I fell into unconsciousness last night, sure I was about to get all that I craved.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

I should’ve known better.

Unfortunately, this morning I still feel like me, if you don’t count that eerie dream and the voice still haunting me like it’s woven itself into the fabric of my being. Somehow, I already know it’s not going anywhere. Resigned to my fate, I pull on my clothes. Maybe next year I'll get my wish.

Like they have their own mind, my fingers drift up to my chest, rubbing across the skin as if it’ll erase the strange tingle underneath. A remnant from the dream, maybe, but it definitely wasn’t there yesterday. After that vision or out of body experience or whatever, I’m pretty sure my body and spirit are out of alignment.

Or something.

Whatever. It’s the best description I’ve got for the strange hum that crackles beneath my skin demanding I pay attention to it. Figuring out this unexplained sensation rockets straight to the top of my list of crap to do, bumping snag some of Gramps’ chocolate chip pancakes to number two. Maybe Gramps will know what’s going on with me.

With the sweet scent of chocolate and vanilla curling through the air, my priorities shift around again, and I’m flying down the stairs in search of my favorite carb-loaded breakfast.

Gramps is already sitting at the table with a stack of pancakes in the middle just waiting for me to annihilate them. Dropping a kiss to the top of his shiny head, I slide around the table and sink into the chair across from him.

"Mornin', Sugarplum."

"Morning," I mumble around the piece of bacon I shove into my mouth before my butt is fully in the chair. I’m already running late, so table manners aren’t a thing right now. Gramps doesn’t even blink. He gets it. I stab into the pancakes, piling them high on my plate before drowning them in syrup.

Gramps watches me closely as I inhale my breakfast, like I’m an alien species and it’s his life’s mission to study me. My jaw freezes mid-chew with my mouth still full of chocolate-y deliciousness. I arch an eyebrow and wait for an explanation.

"Just checkin’ you didn’t sprout horns overnight,” he jokes in that adorable Southern twang he has. I’m about the furthest thing from a proper Southern lady and my lack of accent proves it.

With my fingers still gripping my fork, I sift my hair from side to side with my other hand. “Nope, not even a nub.”

“Well, that’s a relief.” Gramps chuckles, with that twinkle of devilry in his eye that always makes me think I got my troublemaker side from him.

Having Gramps in my corner is the best, and I'm not bitter about having zero friends to spend my birthday with. Nope. Not even a little bit.

Being labeled as a freak in middle school meant I was destined to lead that loner life, but hey, I’m under no illusions that life’s ever been fair to me.

The one exception is my magic shop—The Bewitchery. In my opinion, it’s the best one in town, but I’m obviously biased.

I open my mouth to ask him about the sense that something’s shifted inside of me this morning, but before I can, a burst of white flashes in the corner of my eye. It’s the only warning I get before something slams into the wide window over the sink.

“What the hell was that?” I ask, and my fork clatters against my plate, forgotten as I jump up to look outside.

“A bird, I’d imagine.” Gramps hauls himself up out of the chair and comes over to investigate, but the angle sucks. I can’t see the ground under the window.

My steps are tentative as I hurry outside and creep over to see if there’s a hurt animal under the window, but what I find makes my blood turn to ice. White feathers mix with scarlet as I stare down at the mess that used to be a bird of some sort.

Gramps walks up behind me and sucks in a breath. “Oh, no.”

“What?” It’s never a good thing when someone says that.

“That’s a white crow. Rare as a corpse flower bloomin’ and twice as deadly.”

I gape at my grandpa. “Huh?”

He sighs like I’m a moron, but seriously, what?

“A white crow is a death omen, Sugarplum.”

“Oh.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Oh? That’s all you’ve got to say?”

My shoulders lift and then fall. “What do you want me to say?”

Gramps looks me over and then back at the crow before slipping an arm around my shoulders and steering me back towards the house. “I’m gonna deal with that in a bit, but let’s finish breakfast so you can get going.”

I know he’s glossing over the nightmare of a death omen for my benefit, but I’m mostly not freaking out because I don’t exactly know what it means. Obviously a death omen is bad, but how bad exactly? And is it for sure, or just a warning that something could happen? And who is it for—the city in general, or one of us in particular? More research is needed before I decide how much I should be losing it.

Besides, I have more pressing stuff to deal with like finishing my coffee and getting to The Bewitchery on time.

Gramps takes his spot back at the table and picks up his coffee while I sit back down and try to pretend everything’s normal. It’s not working, and my hands shake as I lift my fork back to my mouth.

The last thing I want right now is to eat, but Gramps went to all this trouble and I have a feeling I’m going to need the sustenance today.

"I have some free time this mornin'," Gramps says lazily, before sipping his coffee. Even though his words are casual, his eyes are sharp and assessing. I feel like he's waiting for me to do something, but I have no idea what, and after the incident I’m even less sure about what’s happening here. "Think you could use some help down at the store?"

"Sure, if you want to come hang out, you know I'll never turn down your company," I say just as the old clock in the living room chimes. I shove the last bite of pancake in my mouth, springing up and rinsing my plate off before giving Gramps another hug on my way out the door and trying to leave the white crow and freaky dream behind me.

After everything, I’m late and I've got to run if I'm going to make it to my store in time to open. I loathe running with every bone in my body and my lungs seize up after only a block, forcing me to speed walk and suck in air like a two-pack-a-day smoker. Dang, I really need to start working out more.

Is it cliché to run a magical shop in the heart of New Orleans? Maybe. But there's nothing I'd rather do than brew potions that help people, so I have no intention of stopping anytime soon. The Bewitchery is my baby, even if I don't have a coven of my own to help me run it.

Not yet, at least. It's a someday goal.

Gramps is as close to a coven as I get, and while I do have some magical ability with my potion-making, I can't do any of the really cool stuff other witches can do, like flying or healing people.

The house I grew up in—Gramps's house—is within walking distance of my shop and the apartment I call home sits above it. My favorite black Converse smack the pavement as I rush down the sidewalk. I'm so focused on where I'm going that I almost trip over my own feet when I see it—this mysterious-but-enchanting-in-a-magic-sort-of-way golden sparkling dust that stretches out like a tether from a guy across the street. It reminds me of my dream and a gasp slips out from between my parted lips.

It's like his whole body is coated in the shimmery substance—think a glitter bomb that exploded all over him—and then it gathers above his heart and stretches out, but even when I squint, I can't tell where it's going before it drifts off into nothingness.

Blinking rapidly, I realize what I'm seeing isn't going away. It’s not a trick of my eyes, but maybe I’m hallucinating. It could be a brain tumor, and I find myself hoping, as my heart goes crazy in my chest, that this has to do with magic and not some overgrown cells pressing on my optic nerve or something.

I want to stay and watch him to figure out whether I'm having some sort of delusion, but I don't have time. The very possible brain issue I've got going on will have to wait.

I try to shake off the itchy feeling between my shoulder blades and the tingle in my chest that's demanding I go talk to him, so I refocus on making my mental to-do list and hurry the rest of the way down the sidewalk.

I try not to, but I find myself searching for more of the same glittery golden ropes on anyone else, but there aren't any and I breathe out a sigh of relief. I'm chalking it up to stress, and the distracting sensation of a splinter under my skin in the middle of my back is just a side effect. What else could it be?

A whimper pulls my attention away from unlocking the shop's front door and over toward the alley around the side of the old brick building. It sounds like an animal that's hurt or upset, and something about it draws me in. I have to help whatever it is that's making the pitiful sound; I don't have a choice.

My feet move on their own, carrying me forward and toward the darkened side street. It's not wide enough back here for a car, since these buildings were constructed before cars were even a thing, and it smells musty and like old trash. It’s beyond charming, let me tell you.

I let my gaze sweep the cobblestone ground littered with old cardboard and, at first, don't see anything unusual. It's not until I look again that I see one of the pieces seems to be shivering. I creep closer, crouching down and reaching out to gently move the soggy cardboard away. My fingers tremble, and I move slowly since I have no idea what might be under there, and a hurt animal will be quick to defend itself if it feels threatened.

"Oh my gods," I whisper as huge, soulful brown eyes stare up at me from a sweet beagle face almost fully covered by trademark floppy ears. I scoop him up in my arms, and his tail gently thwacks against my side. He sniffs at my face, and I can't help but laugh. "How'd you get out here, hmm?"

He doesn't have a collar on, and right now, I don't have time to take him to the vet and get him scanned to see if he has one of those chips that'll tell me who he belongs to. "Guess you're spending the day with me in the shop, huh, bud?"

The dog looks up at me with what I swear is an arched eyebrow before he huffs out a breath, and I can't help but laugh. Standing up, I make sure he's securely tucked in my arms before heading back to my shop and unlocking the door.

This morning has already been nuts, and it's only nine a.m. Once I'm inside, I close the door and set the pup down on the floor. He stares up at me with those eyes of his that really look like he can see into my soul, like he's weighing and judging me, and I find myself hoping I'm worthy. Maybe if he doesn't belong to anyone, I can keep him.

It's almost like fate.

Fate. It's one of those words people throw around casually, but ever since I was a little girl, I've believed there's some bigger force out there that has a hand in our lives. Some people call it god, but not me. It feels too big to have the face of just one old man in the sky. No, this is more like energy that swirls around everything, living and not, and shapes the way things play out.

Gramps used to tell me that all I had to do was close my eyes and feel, and if I let go enough, I'd be able to get a sense of fate's guidance in my life. It was his favorite thing to have me do whenever I'd ask him why my mom had been killed when I was too young to remember her. For a few of my tween years, I was resentful and more than a little pissed off at how unfair the hand fate dealt me was.

But then there were plenty of days like today, where my life took a sharp turn in a direction I didn't expect, and I ended up on an adventure I never saw coming. There's a weird energy today, almost like expectation hangs heavy in the air, and I don't think it's coming from me. As a witch, I like to think I'm more tuned in to the vibrations and energy around me than your average human.

Today feels different, and I'm not sure whether to brace myself or run headfirst into whatever's coming, but there's no doubt that something major is on the horizon.

That odd golden glittery rope-aura thing from earlier springs to mind, but then a customer's opening the front door, and I hurry to flick on the lights, all thoughts of pretty swirling magic slash brain tumors pushed out of my head.

I finally get a break mid-morning and stop to watch my new little beagle buddy. He's been wandering around the shop all morning, and the customers seem to like him, but I always thought beagles were sweet and gentle. This one is a bit standoffish, which is a bizarre quality in a dog because he's not aggressive about it.

He looks at the people walking around the store, and if he doesn't like them, he walks away when they try to pet him and hides behind the counter. When he does it for the third time this morning, I look down at him with a raised eyebrow, and I swear he stares back up at me before rolling his eyes.

"You don't like them?" I ask him, watching the group of customers walk out without buying anything. The bell rings as they walk out the door, and he barks out once, and it's sharp. I can't help but laugh as I bend down to scoop him up and take him out for a bathroom break.

"If you're gonna be sticking around, you need a name," I tell him, setting him in a patch of grass outside my store while I think. My lips curve up into a grin when the perfect name hits me as he comes to sit beside me and leans his weight against my leg.

Picking him up again, I ruffle his ears, and he huffs out a breath looking annoyed. "I'm going to call you Chandler," I tell him, proud of myself for matching him up so perfectly with his TV sitcom namesake. "Could you be any more the dog version of him?"

I'm laughing as I walk back into my store. It's not until the next customers walk through the door that the smile slips off my face and is quickly replaced with a look of what must be horror, at least if the girl on the right's expression is a mirror of my own.

Because that girl? She's walking in with another girl at her side, and the way she looks sends chills skittering down my spine, and Chandler hurrying over to them with his hackles raised and his teeth bared.

"What the hell happened?" I ask, feeling a sick sinking feeling in my gut and hoping like hell the boils all over the girl's face, and the way her skin has formed lumps underneath it like some kind of swamp creature, isn't a side effect of one of my potions gone wrong.

If I thought I didn't have friends before, I can't imagine how big the crowd with torches and pitchforks would be if my potions and salves and balms started turning my customers into hideously deformed monsters. It'd be bad for business, but more than that, I'd feel like an absolute monster myself for having done that to anyone who came to me for help.

If there's one thing I’ve always been able to take pride in, it's my store and the creations I come up with to make people's lives better. Right now, I'm working on a bath bomb that leaves you feeling not only like you got a massage when you climb out of your soak, but also painlessly removes all the hair below the neck. It's nearly perfect. Tonight, I planned to test it out since I always test things on myself before even thinking about putting them on my shelves.

I couldn't say the same for the shop down the block, though. They're my main competition, The Blackened Bone. If I had to take a guess, I'd bet whatever went wrong here came from them and not me.

At the very least, I'd see if I could figure out what happened to this poor, unfortunate girl standing in front of me, looking like she'd rather die than go on looking like she does right now. I can't say I blame her; it's going to take a whole lot of makeup to fix the mess she has going on if no potion can fix it.

"I told her she should've come here, but no. She insisted on going to the shop down the block," her friend rambles as her wide eyes meet mine. "Please. We need your help."