The Sixth Spell by Michelle M. Pillow

 

 

CHAPTERONE

Freewild Cove, North Carolina

“Get that nonsense off your face.”

Kari Grove shifted uncomfortably under the withering stare of her grandmother as she obeyed the command. She threaded the mask off her ears and dropped it to her lap. Even though the global pandemic was coming to an end, and she’d been vaccinated, Connie had not. The pandemic had made Kari hyper-aware of spreading germs, and with Connie sick, the mask felt like a no-brainer.

Connie continued to stare at her. Against her better judgment, Kari placed the mask on the nightstand.

“Only thieves and doctors wear masks,” Connie continued, finally looking away. “A few people get a cold, and suddenly everyone is walking around like they’re about to perform surgery and rob banks.”

Connie Grove was eighty-five and still made her forty-year-old granddaughter feel like a disappointment, even now as she lay on her supposed deathbed. This was the sixth time Kari had been summoned to her grandmother’s side, and she didn’t believe it would be the last.

Nevertheless, how could she refuse to come? Connie was the only mother she’d ever known for all intents and purposes, and with that came a mix of emotions.

And drinking.

Sadly, it also came with a need for hard liquor to get through the visit.

Kari had never met her parents. They died the day she was born—her mother in childbirth, her father in grief. Without even holding his newborn daughter, the weak man walked out into traffic and was hit by a Chicago bus. At least, that’s how her mother’s parents always told the story. It was no secret they’d hated her father. They hadn’t given Kari his last name, and they’d refused to talk about him.

Kari assumed they hated her mother for dumping a newborn on their laps. And, sometimes, she’d suspected it was because that newborn wasn’t from the same “pristine” bloodlines as the rest of them—their phrasing not hers. Connie used to make excuses for Kari’s unruly hair as if Groves were too good for curls.

Kari pushed a lock of hair out of her face and took a deep breath, steadying herself and doing everything she could to remain composed. Her grandparents had never been loving people. In fact, they were assholes.

That didn’t mean Kari didn’t love them in her own way. After her husband’s death, Connie had become last of Kari’s family. Good or bad, family meant something.

Didn’t it?

“Connie, can I get you a drink?” Kari reached for the glass of water off the bedside table next to her discarded mask. She stood to offer the straw to her grandmother.

Connie waved her hand in dismissal and made a noise of disgust. “You were never a good listener, Lori.”

“Connie, it’s me, Kari. Lori was my mother.” Kari returned to her seat and folded her hands in her lap.

“I know that,” Connie snapped under her breath. Her legs worked restlessly on the bed, and she moaned. After a while, she continued, “I bet you drove that monstrosity onto my lawn again. You tore up the grass last time. I don’t even want to contemplate what the neighbors think.”

As a matter of fact, yes, Kari had parked her small RV out back again. Where else was she supposed to put her home?

“Mrs. Connie, isn’t it nice your granddaughter is here?” Faith, the live-in nurse, walked into the room. The caretaker meant well and often tried to come to Kari’s rescue. She’d gone downstairs to answer a knock on the front door.

“Who was at the—?” Kari tried to ask.

“Get me that. I’m parched.” Connie waved her hand at the glass Kari had offered her moments before.

Faith automatically obeyed, keeping her tone low as she tried to soothe her irritated patient. She picked up the water and held the straw steady between two fingers as she brought it to Connie’s mouth.

Faith was one of those people who had been born with a sunny disposition that even the darkest rain cloud couldn’t seem to dampen. That, or she took some mighty powerful drugs to deal with Connie.

Kari wondered if Faith would share and resisted the urge to hum the tune for “Pass the Dutchie” under her breath.

“Who was at the door?” Kari asked once Connie had settled.

“A man is waiting downstairs to see you,” Faith answered quietly, nodding toward the bedroom door. “You go. I’ve got things under control up here.”

Connie coughed and pushed the glass away. “I hope he’s not like that one criminal you brought home. You broke your grandfather’s heart. Though, I was hardly surprised. You always had the worst taste in men. It’s no wonder you never married.”

Wow. Connie was on a bitch roll today.

Kari took a deep breath and bore the criticism like she had since childhood.

Tommy Jenkins, her prom date, had been caught shoplifting T-bone steaks two years out of high school, long after they’d gone on that one date. That was a lifetime ago. Too bad there was no shelf life on mistakes in the Grove family. Anything you did wrong could be picked up and examined at any time.

Connie gave a weak laugh and turned to Faith. “Then she brought a drug dealer to Thanksgiving dinner. Eyes all glassy. Like we were too stupid to know what was going on. Did it just to prove a point. Lori didn’t need our approval.”

“I’m Kari. Paul took cold medicine. He wanted to stay home, but you insisted it was rude to cancel last minute because you had already planned the seating chart, and we couldn’t have an empty place setting.” Kari stood and walked to the bedroom door.

Why was she defending her old boyfriend? It was a useless argument that only went around in circles. She felt herself hitting her tolerance level and knew it was time to step away to regain her composure before she said something she’d regret.

“Listen to her sass me,” Connie said to Faith. “She’s always been ungrateful. Oh, and then there was that—what’s-her-name?—odd girl with those funny little glasses who wore all black. You know who I’m talking about, don’t you, Kari? She had a crush on you and—”

“Faith, I’ll be right back.” Kari closed the door behind her.

The wood barrier didn’t stop the condemnations. Connie’s muffled voice continued, “Always taking in strays, that one.”

Kari’s eyes drifted to a padlocked door across the hall as she listened. No matter how curious she was to see inside the storage room, she would never try to find the key. Connie had a lot of house rules. One being that no one was allowed beyond the locked door.

“You know she gave my late husband his heart attack, don’t you?” Connie stated.

“Now, Mrs. Connie, you told me it was the cheeseburgers that gave him a heart attack,” Faith admonished gently. “Don’t go blaming that girl.”

“Who do you think brought him the burgers?” Connie insisted.

Kari tried to ignore her grandmother’s demeaning tone even as that age-old guilt surfaced like a brick inside her chest. No one could make her feel bad quite like Connie could. There was no point in debating the past. It wasn’t an argument she would win.

Kari slipped next door to the guest room to take a quick swig of the flask she’d hidden under her pillow. The liquor burned, but she welcomed the sensation. Vodka had a nice way of not making her smell like a distillery. A little numbness would be just the thing to get her through the rest of the day.

Putting the flask away, Kari went to the top of the stairs and saw a man’s legs in work pants standing by the front door. She had forgotten that a contractor was supposed to stop by for an estimate but was thankful for the reprieve. As she walked down the steps, more of him slowly came into view. If she wasn’t so tired, she was sure she could have appreciated his gruff handsomeness—if only for the fact Connie would hate the idea of her dating a blue-collar worker with calluses on his hands. Or “the help,” as Connie called everyone that she felt was beneath her.

Kari’s eyes went to the man’s ring finger and found it empty. Would it be too strange to ask him to pretend to be her date long enough to meet Connie?

Kari tried not to laugh. Ah, the beautiful, subtle passive-aggressiveness of the idea.

“Mrs. Grove?”

A tiny shiver worked over her at the sound of his voice. She had not been expecting to actually feel attraction.

Kari shook off her childish impulses and paused on the bottom step. It took a moment for her to gather her thoughts and meet his handsome brown gaze. Dark hair framed his strong features, but what most caught her attention was his mouth.

The man smiled and made a point of looking around. “This is a beautiful home you have. Great bones. Large rooms. Original architectural details. They don’t make them like this anymore.”

It was a polite way of saying the décor was about forty years outdated.

The liquor did its job numbing her mind and it took her a moment to answer. She found herself staring at the strong line of his neck as he continued to inspect the foyer ceilings.

“It’s not mine. It’s my grandmother’s,” Kari answered, forcing her eyes to a splotch of dried paint on his t-shirt. It didn’t help her concentration. “From what I’ve been told, it’s an old family property, but it’s been used as a rental house up until a few years ago when my grandmother moved back here.”

Connie had moved into the two-story home after the death of her husband. Kari had never even heard her grandparents mention Freewild Cove until Kari got a change-of-address card in the mail. Ironically, Connie had called for a mailing address to send the card to instead of telling Kari on the phone like a normal person.

“Even so…” He nodded thoughtfully. “Is Mrs. Grove available?”

“She’s not feeling well. I’m Kari Grove. I’m the one who called you. William, right?”

“Angel Molina, actually. I work with William Warrick. He had a family emergency and asked me to step in for him since you indicated you had an urgent situation.”

“I hope everyone is all right,” Kari answered.

“I believe so. His mother is having her gallbladder removed,” Angel said. “I guess Bonnie has been ignoring the symptoms for a while now, and it has become serious enough to require immediate surgery. If you’d rather wait for him, I underst—”

“No, not at all. I appreciate you coming by on such short notice. I’m a little concerned about the ceiling in here.” Kari motioned for him to follow her into the living room.

The patterned yellow wallpaper made her dizzy just to walk into the room. The décor hadn’t been touched since the nineteen-seventies. The carpet was a distinct shade of green with worn patterns and old stains long left to settle into darkened spots. The sofa and chair were a matching set and just as old and worn as the carpet. Someone had pushed a tattered coffee table close to the couch. Nicks and water spots lined the surface. This home seemed an odd choice for her fastidious grandmother. Maybe age had made the dust and stains impossible to see.

Kari stood close to the wide entryway and looked up. A long crack ran down a bow in the ceiling. She needlessly pointed toward it. “Not so great bones in here. My grandmother promised me the last five times I was here that she would get it looked at, but I think it’s getting too bad to keep putting it off. I have to warn you, she won’t be happy I called, but I can’t leave it like this.”

Angel gave a low whistle as he stepped past her into the room. “What happened?”

“I’m not sure.” Kari followed him cautiously. “The last time I was here, it was a small bow. Now I feel like this side of the house will cave in at any moment.”

Angel frowned as he walked the length of the room. “That’s not natural wear and tear. What’s above us? It looks like something is putting strain on the ceiling.”

“I’m not sure,” she repeated.

“We should take a look.” Angel kept his gaze on the ceiling as he walked back toward the stairs.

“We can’t.” Kari followed him to the entryway and moved to stand between him and the staircase.

“I need to assess the damage if I—”

“Connie doesn’t let anyone in that room. It’s locked,” Kari interrupted.

“Connie?”

“My grandmother,” Kari clarified.

“Oh, well, I’m sure if we explain—”

“No. It’s not possible. She’s…” Kari glanced up the stairs. “I’m sorry, Mr. Molina. I keep cutting you off.”

“Angel,” he corrected. His kind smile acted like a warm beacon in her shitty day. He was probably just being nice and she was a complete mess.

“I’m sorry, Angel. I’m all over the place, but that’s no excuse for rudeness. My grandmother’s not well and not taking visitors. Is there something you can do from down here to make it safer? Anything? It doesn’t have to be pretty.”

“Brace it, maybe? It definitely won’t be pretty.”

Kari sighed. A slight headache settled behind her right eye. “She’ll hate it, but I don’t care what it looks like. She’ll dislike the house falling out from under her even more.”

Angel frowned. “I don’t feel comfortable messing with the integrity of the room without seeing what we’re working with, and without securing the express wishes of the homeowner. If you can get your gran—”

“That won’t be possible,” Kari insisted. She stared at the crack in the ceiling and couldn’t look away. The headache became progressively worse, radiating behind both eyes and traveling from her temple down the side of her neck. “Not right now. I’m sorry.”

“I can’t recommend anyone going into the living room or the room above until you have it looked at. My gut tells me you shouldn’t even be staying in the house.” Angel frowned as if contemplating what he would do. “But, if you’re going to be here, I can’t in good conscience leave it like this. I can pick up a jack post if you’d like me to try to brace the ceiling, but it’s a temporary solution and not the best one.”

“Miss Kari,” Faith called from upstairs, her voice soft and urgent at the same time. “You should come.”

Kari blinked, prying her eyes from the crack. She glanced up the stairs and then at Angel. She felt a little nauseous. “Yes. Do that. Please. Anything.”

“Miss Kari,” Faith insisted, a little louder. “She’s asking for you.”

Kari took a backward step up. “Whatever you think is best, Mr.—uh, Angel.”

She turned and rushed up the stairs. When she tried to brush past Faith in the hallway, her wrist bumped the door frame to the locked storage room. Pain shot up her arm.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but she is very insistent that she talks to you. I think she wants to make peace,” Faith said.

Kari’s breath caught. Was this it? Connie’s last moments? Was she finally going to say something nice? Try to connect to her? Say all the things she never said, like, I love you, Kari?

“If you need me, I’ll be downstairs making her lunch,” Faith said. “She needs something in her stomach before I give her meds.”

The bedroom door hung open, and Kari pushed it out of her way. She felt a wave of dizziness and foreboding. There was nothing peaceful about the eyes that stared at her when she entered. She crossed the threshold into the bedroom.

“Connie? Faith said you had something to tell me,” Kari prompted when the woman only continued to stare.

“You’ve always been a disappointment to me, Lori, since the day you were born,” Connie said, her expression bordering on a snarl. The thread of hope she’d felt when Faith said Connie wanted to make peace burned up like a piece of tissue paper in a campfire.

I’m Kari.

She didn’t bother to say the words out loud. It didn’t matter.

“No matter what I did, nothing could fix what is broken in you. I bought you the best tutors, the most expensive classes, ballet lessons, horse-riding lessons, introduced you as a debutante into fine society, gave you the prettiest bedroom, and surrounded you with the prettiest things.”

“You locked me in that room,” Kari answered, not sure why she brought up her childhood punishments. Some memories were best left packed away.

“Little good it did,” Connie countered.

A chill worked over her body under the coldness of Connie’s stare. She felt her hands balling into fists as if they had a mind of her own. How much criticism did a person have to take in a lifetime?

I love you, Kari.Was that so hard to say?

“You should never have been born,” Connie continued. “Of course you know that.”

The headache became worse until Kari felt as if the pounding radiated over her entire body. A mixture of sadness and rage filled her, taking her by surprise.

“I should have smothered you that first night in your crib and saved myself a lifetime of heartache and pain.”

“Connie…” Kari tried to speak. Her hands shook as she came near the bed. She closed her eyes, clenching her fists. She needed her grandmother to stop talking. “Please. You don’t mean that.”

“Don’t I?” Connie laughed. The sound was so cold and dismissive. “Have you ever known me not to say what I mean, Lori?”

“I’m Kari,” she said, keeping her eyes closed.

“I know who you are,” Connie snapped. “You killed your mother, Kari, and your father would rather kiss the front of a bus than—”

Kari felt a scream erupting from deep within as if forty years of ingesting a healthy dose of Connie’s constant negativity had finally blossomed into something hateful and evil. She suppressed the scream, and that single act caused her throat to burn and her hands to shake. She wanted all of this to stop.

“Connie, I’m…” Kari’s words trailed off as her eyes opened. She gripped a pillow tight, her fists balled around the thick stuffing. She didn’t remember picking it up.

Connie’s lifeless eyes stared past her toward the corner of the ceiling, her mouth slack.

In terror, Kari hugged the pillow to her chest and stepped back. The rage left her as quickly as it had flooded in. Her hands shook with panic and fear.

“Connie?” Kari whispered, willing her grandmother to take a breath.

Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck.

What have I done?

“Soups ready,” Faith announced from the doorway. “Are you having a nice chat, Mrs.—”

Kari turned. Her stricken expression stopped Faith from finishing.

“I…” Kari hugged the pillow tighter. “She…”

Faith rushed to set the food tray she carried on the nightstand and reached to touch Connie’s neck. After a few seconds, she said, “I’m so sorry, dear. I didn’t think we were that close to her time. I wouldn’t have left you alone had I suspected.”

Kari couldn’t answer.

Oh, fuck.

Faith straightened Connie’s head, closed her eyelids, and pushed her jaw closed before arranging her body to look more at peace.

“She’s no longer in pain.” Faith continued talking, saying all the nice platitudes that people habitually expressed in these situations.

Kari still couldn’t respond. She clutched the pillow tight as she backed out of the room.

Oh my God. What have I done?