Authors: Harper Lin
Next in Line
his is a work of fiction
. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Paw-sitively Dead Copyright © 2015 by Harper Lin.
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the author.
eath was a part of life
. You didn't need to be a witch to know that. Witches might sometimes deal with it differently than non-witches, though it didn't seem so on the anniversary of my parents’ death.
Before I left to visit them in the graveyard, my aunt Astrid and cousin Bea were varnishing the mezzanine in the newly rebuilt Brew-Ha-Ha, our family cafe.
Aunt Astrid was spry and clear-eyed at sixty-seven, always ready to roll up her sleeves and renovate. To people who didn’t know her well, she was usually just an older woman with wispy swathes of blond-gray hair and loose tie-dyed dresses who always seemed to have a distant look in her eyes. Usually it was because she was remembering the future. Non-witches underestimated her; she was actually a lot sharper than she looked.
My cousin Bea approached the varnishing of the mezzanine more studiously, drawing from everything she’d ever read about primers and painting and architecture. She was the bookish sort and remembered everything she read. She was also beautiful, big-hearted, popular, and two years younger than me. I couldn’t be jealous of her even if I tried. She wore her heart on her sleeve, and she healed everybody she touched. And I meant that literally. Healing was Bea’s witch talent.
The Brew-Ha-Ha had been the most popular cafe in our hometown of Wonder Falls before the cafe had practically burned to a crisp. I was hanging a photo of our late baker on the wall behind the bar. Poor Ted. He had been tragically caught in the fires and passed away. He never knew his employers were three witches.
“Cath!” a familiar voice called my name.
That would be the elated voice of my childhood friend Min. He didn’t know I was a witch either. Not many people did. Min and I had lost contact after he went out of town for college, and now that he was back, I was getting to know him again.
That day, he wore a brand-new T-shirt and jeans, looking a lot nicer than he used to in our childhood days. Probably because he’d sold his business and become obscenely wealthy. He was never a braggart about it though. He was even nice enough to come over and help take over my role in the renovation of the Brew-Ha-Ha while I had to step away for the morning.
“You look ready to work up a sweat,” I said when he came through the door. He gave me a light hug in greeting. “Thanks for coming in to help.”
He peered through the bars of the mezzanine and waved hello at Bea and Aunt Astrid.
“Hey, Min!” Bea called.
Aunt Astrid added, “Just open the windows while you're down there, would you? Getting some air in here would help this all dry faster.”
“Right.” He made for the nearest window, stopped himself, and grinned at me, almost shyly. “Your hair's different. Nice, I mean. Not that it was bad the old way.”
I’d had my dark ringlets straightened for the occasion—for two occasions, technically. “Samantha really wanted me to get it dyed or styled like, well, in her style.”
“You went to Perry's Parlor just for a hair straightening?” Min laughed with incredulity.
Samantha Perry, a friend of one of Aunt Astrid’s friends, had opened a hair salon in town. Samantha was almost fifty, but she was a real live wire and a rebel. I laughed with him. “I’m all for supporting small businesses in my hometown! My head just can’t support a spiked green mohawk.”
“That's what I want to do now. Support small businesses here.” He quickly added, “I mean, not just because you mentioned it and I’m trying to copy your opinion or one-up you or anything like that.”
I stopped myself from raising an eyebrow at his backpedaling. The Greenstones and the Parks had always been like family. Even if we hadn’t seen each other in years, what was Min so nervous about?
He continued rambling. “I mean that supporting the locals is what I want to do, but I don’t know. Putting my life to use is just something I’ve been thinking about since Tommy passed.”
Thomas Thompson had graduated from Wonder Falls High the same year as Min and me. We didn’t even know him well enough to call him Tommy, really, but he had become the pride of the town when the news network he worked for won a Michener Award. Then it turned out he won the award for an expose on the torture of prisoners of war under the Canadian Forces, and he became an embarrassment instead. That was, until he was caught in crossfire in some faraway war-torn desert and shot to death. From then on, he had been a hero.
“War correspondent is a dangerous job,” I remarked.
Min nodded. “I don’t mean I want to end up like Tommy. I just want to make a difference in our community, you know?”
I sighed. Our community. “I doubt anyone in this town would take too kindly to an investor, actually. They might view it as condescending. People here have a lot of pride.”
I didn’t really know why Min had even come back to Wonder Falls. If I hadn’t been there to protect him, school life would have been unbearable, and even looking back at that time, we couldn’t really call it happy. Min’s father had impossibly high standards that Min could never quite meet, and Min’s mother tended to be overbearing. He must have found a balance between the two though, and maybe he stayed in town just to be around his family. Family was the reason why I’d never left.
“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” I said then followed up with a reminder about the windows. “You know, it would be nice to have your problem, having the option of not working and doing whatever you want.”
I put on my jacket, draped a black picnic blanket over one arm, and called my farewells to Bea and Aunt Astrid on my way out.
Death was a part of life, and life went on. When a mezzanine needed varnishing, we rolled up our sleeves and opened the windows to let out the fumes. We laughed about hairstyles and planned for a future where we could make our mark on the world and make it a better place to live. That day didn’t have to be so full of doom just because it was my parents’ death anniversary. But unfortunately, it was.
down to the corner of Ebb and Eddy and considered that my shoes were formal but sensible enough to visit my parents’ tombs. The sunshine shone pale yellow though the early morning air. I thought that I might as well take the path through the meadow to the graveyard.
That turned out to be a terrible idea. I wore all black and was sweltering by the time I was halfway down the path.
Wonder Falls didn’t have a proper park. On one side of the path, children ran about, shouting in delight, playing hide-and-seek and other games, as their parents and guardians watched from picnic blankets or short boulders that served as seats. On the other side of the path, a Dalmatian strained against its leash as it snarled and barked at me. Gillian Hyllis, the local fire chief and the dog’s owner, waved at me apologetically.
With my witch talent of communicating with animals, I joined my mind to the Dalmatian’s and commanded it to quiet down. I sensed puzzlement in return, which translated in human to, “You smell like cat!”
Of course I did. My cat, Treacle, had helped me pick my outfit. That had been after taking him to the grooming salon, so at least my clothes didn’t smell of alleyway or garbage or whatever cats got into when they insisted upon straying. Treacle was a black cat, so if any fallen hairs had stuck to my clothes, most humans wouldn’t notice.
A lot of animals had senses keener than human senses, but if that dog—like a lot of dogs—couldn’t be polite, then I ought to have just stuck to communicating with cats, as I usually did.
The unpaved meadow path sloped downhill and led into an abandoned orchard. The sprawling branches cast mottled shadows over the slope. A river stirred up a cool breeze as the water rushed to the distant falls somewhere over the horizon.
Our town was named for the falls, and my family had a bond with the Maid of the Mist that reached back for generations. How could I explain the Maid of the Mist? Some people were between worlds, and she was one of them.
The Greenstones were familiar with her, so we called her, as well as other people we could not explain to humans, our Familiar. The Maid of the Mist could take all manner of different forms, but something about being a witch meant that we recognized her every time. However, she didn’t show up to me anymore, although she used to when I was a young girl, playing in forests and nature settings like where I was now.
I stayed a little longer in the orchard, looking for the right sort of wildflowers in the shade. I found them and walked on toward the graveyard, and on the other side of the stone bridge, I saw the St. Bernard dog by the river bank. It sank its giant paws into the shallows and lapped up the water. Part of a leash hung from its collar. It must have done what the Dalmatian had been doing, straining against the leash, but its leash must’ve been too weak or the dog too strong.
“Hey, there,” I said. “Someone must be missing you. Come over here.”
The dog looked up, startled, then backed away and whimpered. I hesitated going after the St. Bernard. I didn’t want to mud wrestle with a dog the size of an adolescent bear all the way to the animal shelter. Instead, I used my powers, but when I tried to connect our minds, the dog did the magic-force equivalent of pushing me away. Then the dog bolted. Some animals were afraid of magic powers.
I took my phone out of my jacket pocket and called the Wonder Falls animal shelter. Old Murray, who ran the animal shelter, was out that day. His teenaged grandson, Cody, answered for him, so I told Cody about the St. Bernard on the loose.
Then I continued my walk to the graveyard from the meadow. The entrance was a waist-high, whitewashed wooden swinging door between two poles. The place was hidden, but everybody in town just knew where it was.
When I got to my parents’ shared grave, a black cat with a star-shaped scar on his forehead sat before the tombstone, as if he were reading the names. Stella Greenstone. Gordon Greenstone.
The black cat’s name was Treacle. My cat.
“Everyone’s out walking their dog,” I warned Treacle as I unfolded the picnic blanket. Treacle yawned and stretched over to sit with me.
None of the dogs in town had ever bothered him, but I knew he would appreciate the warning. Treacle was a street cat. He was clever. He could dodge dogs of any size, but then again, cats were smarter than dogs.
“Hi, Mom and Dad. I’m sorry I’m late,” I said to the grave. “Mallows are hard to find when the meadow’s crowded. It was nice to be out with everyone though.”
I talked to my parents in my head after that. I didn’t want anybody passing by to overhear the real story behind Ted’s death or how we were rebuilding the cafe as fast as we could. But not too fast—we had to restrict our magic because we didn’t want any townspeople wondering how we were getting it done in such a short amount of time. I also caught my parents up on other news, such as Thomas Thompson’s recent death.
I wondered if witchcraft was really enough. We could protect people who weren’t witches from evil beings and evil magic from other dimensions—other dimensions that only witches knew the ways of. But what could we do about the evil in this dimension, like wars? Unlike Ted, Thomas’s death hadn’t involved magic at all.
I sighed to my parents and stopped my train of thoughts, hoping I wasn’t being too much of a downer. Treacle comforted me by putting his front paws on my knee. I stroked his head.
“I was orphaned,” I said out loud. “Aunt Astrid was widowed. How do we protect ourselves from the pain of death?”
In any case, I blamed myself a little for my parents’ deaths. They had, after all, been fighting the monster under my bed. A literal monster.
Aunt Astrid always tried to hammer into me that my mother was only doing her duty as a witch, protecting everybody in town from the evil thing masquerading as a child’s imaginary monster. I didn’t know enough to believe her though. Not until I found myself taking on the same duties. As witches, we had to do our best, but sometimes tragedies happened as a result of our jobs. I just had to do better, in whatever situation came my way, and hope for the best.
I thought, as I laid the mallow flowers on the grave, that I would be ready to do what needed to be done. That was what being a witch meant.
Then I noticed where the sun was in the sky, how bright its light was over the graveyard. The morning was going much faster than usual. I also realized that I’d forgotten to bring a packed lunch like I usually did on the anniversary.
I left Treacle on the blanket, conveying “I’ll be right back” with my mind. I would swing by the delicatessen and grab something. I stood and fumbled through my jacket pockets, hoping I’d brought some cash, when something unusually magenta caught my eye beside the statue of an angel I was facing. The magenta was too glossy to be a bunch of wildflowers. It was human hair.
All of a sudden, even the sunshine felt cold.
“Excuse me,” I called out, approaching the statue slowly. When I looked around the statue, I saw the body—the dress, the shoes. “Are you okay?”
Please be drunk. Please be sleeping, whoever you—
The magenta hair turned into lime green where it fell on the ground and neon orange where it fell over her face. The neon orange hair over her nose and mouth wasn’t moving with her breath. I stood still, holding my own breath, hoping I was mistaken, hoping she would breathe and blink and wake up.
I bent down to take a closer look at her face. Even though no one else in town would have that hair, I had to make sure. Unfortunately, it was Samantha.
I stepped back, slowly at first, then I stumbled a good distance away. I plunged my hand into the other pocket of my jacket and fumbled until I found my cell phone. Even with my hands beginning to shake, I turned my phone on and dialed the Wonder Falls police station.
“Wonder Falls Police,” said a familiar voice on the other line.
“Blake!” I cried. “I’m at the graveyard. I saw Samantha lying here—Samantha Perry. I—I think she’s dead!”
Blake maintained his professional cool. “We’ll be right on over. Just calm down, and don’t move anything.”
I took a breath and choked on something that I smelled.
“Cath?” said Blake. “Are you all right?”
I answered with a cough. “Something reeks!”
I turned around, and I saw what must have caused the stench. It was a pile of bones, a skeleton essentially, with gray, brittle skin stretched over it. The lips had decayed enough that the skull seemed to grin at me. “Uh-oh.”
“What is it?”
I said, “You might want to bring backup.”