The Last Pruett
Grudgingly, Alexandra came to accept that she had no choice about going home, unless she were to run away again, and she thought Dean Grimm really would expel her if she did that. As resentful as she felt about her treatment, about being the 'property' of an older sister with no adult rights, and about a lifetime of lies, she figured she had probably exhausted any special consideration she could expect from her aunt.
She played wizard chess with David on the bus that took some students to Chicago and others home. Anna sat beside her, reading a book. The Pritchards were on the level above, with the Rashes. They had embraced Alexandra before everyone got on the bus, ignoring the Rashes' disapproving glares, and promised they would return from the Ozarks with more "larnin'" from the Grannies.
At least, Alexandra thought, as one of David's knights trampled her bishop, they didn't have to suffer Dylan's presence. He and Carol Queen were sitting in their own booth.
Anna got off in Chicago. She was one of a handful of students deposited at the airport, as she was taking an airplane back to San Francisco. She hugged Alexandra, then gave an embarrassed David a hug as well, and promised to call them. Alexandra and David resumed their chess game when the bus got back on the Automagicka. Alexandra was losing her third game in a row when they reached Detroit and he got off, promising to call her also.
As usual, Alexandra was one of the last students left when the bus exited the Automagicka and drove through the streets of Larkin Mills to stop in front of 207 Sweetmaple Avenue. She walked to the front of the bus with her backpack strapped to her shoulders, Charlie's cage in one hand and Nigel's in the other, with all the enthusiasm of a cat about to be flung into a pond. She looked out and saw the lights on inside her house, but no one outside waiting for her.
"Have a good week, Miss Quick," said Mrs. Speaks.
"Yeah, thanks." Alexandra stepped off the bus.
Mrs. Speaks closed the door and the bus rolled away, leaving Alexandra standing in the street staring at her house. Technically it wasn't the same house she'd lived in all her life, as it had burned down and been rebuilt three years ago, but it was home.
"Fly, fly," Charlie prompted, eager to be inside and released from the cage.
Alexandra sighed and walked across the lawn and up to the porch. Archie opened the door.
"Is Mom at work?" Alexandra asked. Then, with a pang of irritation, she corrected herself: "I mean, Claudia." Claudia had always at least been home to greet her when she returned from Charmbridge Academy.
Archie's ruddy face was expressionless, and she wondered if Claudia had actually been foolish enough not to tell Archie that her daughter – his stepdaughter – was in fact her sister. Which, she had to remind herself, meant that Archie was not her stepfather but her brother-in-law. She hadn't even gotten in the door and already the thoughts swirling around inside her head threatened to give her a headache.
"Big fat jerk," Charlie said helpfully.
Archie's eyes flickered down to the bird, and he stepped back to let Alexandra in. "She's in the kitchen. She wanted to have dinner ready when you got home."
Alexandra had no idea what to make of this. Claudia rarely cooked. She stepped through the door. Archie put a hand on her shoulder.
"We're glad you're home," he said.
From Archie, this was a significant display of affection. She didn't know what to make of that either.
"Thanks," she mumbled, and hurried past him. Claudia was in the kitchen, which was full of unfamiliar cooking smells. Alexandra stopped and the two of them stared at each other for a long moment, while Archie stood uncomfortably behind Alexandra and Charlie hopped about impatiently in the cage.
"I'd better take Charlie and Nigel upstairs," Alexandra said. Without waiting for Claudia's reaction, she went up to her room, set Nigel on her desk, and let Charlie out.
The raven fluttered about the room, then perched on her bedpost and said, "Miss you terrible."
"Who, them?" Alexandra snorted. "Yeah, right."
"Jerk," Charlie said.
"I'm not being a jerk." Nigel stirred in his cage, and Alexandra proceeded to pour fresh water into the snake's dish and dropped a few crickets into the cage. "I'm arguing with a bird, though. How lame is that?"
"Bird-brain," Charlie said.
She heard Claudia calling her, and she went down to join her sister and brother-in-law for dinner.
For the first part of the meal, she said little. All she did was stare at her sister across the table. Claudia asked her about school, and Alexandra gave careful, vague answers. Claudia asked about her friends, and mentioned Anna and David by name. Alexandra told her they were fine. Claudia asked if Charmbridge Academy had disciplined her for running away.
"I'm on probation," Alexandra said.
Archie said, "You got off lightly." Claudia gave him a warning look.
"So," Alexandra said, "just to make sure we're on the same page and we don't have any embarrassing 'oopses' for the rest of the week, you did tell Archie that I'm not really your daughter, right?"
Claudia and Archie both went still. Then Claudia said, "Yes."
"It doesn't change anything," Archie said.
"Really?" Alexandra turned her angry glare on Archie. "I think it changes a lot."
"It doesn't change anything while you're living here," he said.
That was a painful jab, with Ms. King's rejection still fresh in her mind, and Alexandra bristled. But Claudia said quietly, "We're the only parents you've ever had, Alex."
"Only because you kept my real parents from me as long as you could."
"All right, that's enough," Archie said.
"Archie," Claudia said, "I think Alexandra and I will need to have that private talk now."
"Don't leave the table on my account." Alexandra got up.
"Alexandra, sit down now." Claudia didn't raise her voice or betray a hint of anger in her tone or her face, but it was a voice Alexandra had never heard before, and she obeyed in a way she hadn't since she was six years old. She was still sitting there in shock when Archie started to rise.
"You owe Archie an apology," Claudia said. "He shouldn't have to leave like this, but we obviously need to have this out."
"Don't worry about it," Archie said. "I know you two need to have some, er, girl talk."
"Alexandra will be along to apologize to you when we're done."
Oh really? Alexandra thought. Her eyes said as much as she and Claudia locked gazes.
After Archie left the room, Alexandra said, "Wow. You almost sound like a daughter of Thorn."
Claudia's face twitched, but it didn't give Alexandra the satisfaction she'd been hoping for.
"What do you want, Alex?" Claudia asked. "I am sorry. I can't undo my mistakes. But you can't hold this over me forever and use it as an excuse to disobey me and do as you please. Legally, I'm still your parent."
Alexandra wondered what would happen if she provided proof that her Confederation Census record had been falsified and that Claudia was not her mother. It wouldn't change anything in the Muggle world, but what would the Confederation do?
"I spoke to our father, after you ran away," Claudia said. "It was the first time in years."
That surprised Alexandra enough to defuse a bit of her anger. "What did he say?"
"He said you're stubborn, hard-headed, and unforgiving."
Alexandra snorted. "He would know."
"Yes. Apparently he does. It seems you speak to him regularly."
"Not exactly regularly."
"But often enough to get to know him. So I guess he can be forgiven, but not me, even though I'm the one who actually took care of you for fifteen years."
"You're the one who kept him from me."
"Really, Alex?" Claudia looked very weary. "Do you really think I could keep Abraham Thorn from doing anything?"
Alexandra fell silent. Her eyes fell to the remains of the pork chops, mashed potatoes, and green beans that Claudia had made for dinner. With her fork, she stabbed a couple of the beans.
"You're stuck with me at least until you turn eighteen," Claudia said. "I can't control what you do then, but you'll always have a home here."
Alexandra put the fork in her mouth. She concentrated on the buttery flavor of the beans.
"Has your life really been so horrible?" Claudia asked.
Alexandra set the fork down. She chewed slowly, then said, "Will you ever tell me the whole truth?"
Claudia's expression went blank. "The whole truth?"
Did Claudia suspect what Alexandra knew already? Alexandra had been planning to ask her about it – to question her about her visit to Roanoke, and her being subjected to the Squib Laws. But something made her hold back.
Claudia might not know why Elias Hucksteen had singled her out – might not even know that Hucksteen had been behind her forced sterilization. Perhaps fourteen-year-old Claudia Quick had known nothing about what was done to her and why. What had it been like? Alexandra had no idea, but it couldn't have been pleasant. It must have been scary.
Scary enough to fear the wizarding world and hide from it for the rest of her life.
Anna and David's revelation, Julia's admonition to be more forgiving, and Claudia's own plea all replayed in Alexandra's head, along with an image of wizards grabbing a girl her own age, a girl with no wand and no magic, and dragging her away to do terrible things to her. Throwing accusations in Claudia's face suddenly seemed... cruel.
"I just – I'm just so angry that everyone has lied to me," Alexandra said. "Everyone. Every adult I know has lied to me pretty much my entire life. Except Ms. King."
"And Archie," Claudia said.
"Archie had a lot of questions, too, when I had to tell him the truth," Claudia said. "You're right, you don't hide something like that and expect there won't be consequences."
Alexandra thought about how subdued and flat Archie had been, very mellow for him. "He didn't threaten to leave you, did he?"
Claudia laughed quietly. "No. Archie has never threatened anything like that. He deserves better than he's gotten – from both of us."
Alexandra chewed that over, struggling with her anger as it was doused with the reality of other people's experiences.
"I'm sorry you had to take care of me," she said. "Your life would have been a lot different if our father hadn't dumped me on you. You'd have been a doctor. You'd never have had to deal with the wizarding world again. You could have lived in peace."
"Maybe. I won't lie to you now and say it was always easy raising you, especially once it was obvious that you were... magical. But I never blamed you, Alex."
Alexandra looked away. "You've never liked me."
Claudia reeled as if slapped. "Is that what you think?"
"I can't blame you. You have no reason to like the wizarding world. You didn't ask for anything that happened to you, and what our father did to you was pretty shitty –"
"Watch your mouth."
Alexandra paused a moment. "I understand that you did the best you could. But I didn't ask for anything that happened to me either. I didn't even ask to be born. You should have told me the truth as soon as you could, not just waited until everything came crashing down on both of us. That was stupid, and it wasn't fair."
"No, it wasn't," Claudia said.
Alexandra stood up. "May I be excused?" It had been a long time since she'd actually asked to be excused from the table. Claudia didn't answer, and Alexandra headed for her room.
She found Archie blocking the path to the stairs.
"You were listening," she said.
"I have a few things to say to you," he said. "Claudia has had a really hard time – harder than you know. I know she kept things from you. She kept things from me, too. That's between Claudia and me. What she kept from you is between Claudia and you. But I want you to know that from the moment I met her, Claudia has protected you as much as any mother could. She would never have married me if she wasn't convinced that I'd protect you, too."
"I didn't need protection."
"Now you're just being stupid, Alex. You were a little girl. You're still a little girl, just an older, mouthier one."
"I can take care of myself."
"Of course you can. Just like every other fifteen-year-old."
Alexandra had been snapping back with little thought. Feeling aggrieved and defensive and more than a little confused, she hadn't really thought over Claudia or Archie's words. Before she could offer another retort, though, something Claudia had said made her pause, and then some of what Archie had said sunk in. He hadn't ever been overly affectionate, he was frequently irritable and rarely understanding, and she was mostly annoyed and embarrassed by him. She'd never thought of him as her father, but – how fair was that? For most of her life, her real father hadn't been around. Archie had. And it was true: in Larkin Mills, she had lived in a little bubble of safety, however imaginary it might have been, and no matter what trouble she got in, Archie had never tried to make her fear him.
"You know," she said, "Claudia is right. You never lied to me. You're almost the only one who didn't." She looked away. "Maybe you do deserve better."
Archie showed no reaction to this. He didn't say anything else as she went upstairs to her room and threw herself on her bed to ponder things she suddenly did not have the vocabulary to describe.
Alexandra, Archie, and Claudia continued to float on the surface of a sea with deep and dangerous currents, all of them ignoring the effort it took to navigate it. Alexandra had not quite forgiven Claudia, but now she had the uneasy feeling that maybe Claudia wasn't the only one who'd done wrong.
Her sister and brother-in-law resumed work the next day, though with overlapping shifts. Archie did not object when Alexandra said she was going to walk around the neighborhood, though he told her, "Stay away from Old Larkin Pond. Understand?"
She wasn't planning to go to Old Larkin Pond. Instead, she walked a few houses down the street, and then, with considerable trepidation, knocked on the door to Brian's house.
Nobody answered, and their family SUV was not in the driveway. She considered calling him but decided not to. Wherever they were, they'd be back, and she'd probably see him around the neighborhood. Maybe he'd even come knock on her door. He knew by now that she came home for spring break. Restless and not ready to go home yet, Alexandra found her steps carrying her toward downtown, and the corner on which sat the old Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections warehouse.
It hadn't changed since the winter. There were the same number of broken windows, no more, no less. Drivers and pedestrians still went past without giving the place a second glance. The fence around it still warned away trespassers. There were now plants growing in the cracks in the cement around it, but it was otherwise as barren a property as before.
Alexandra was thinking about what Martha had told her, that even the Trace Office wouldn't know she was in the warehouse.
She looked with her witch's sight, and the Muggle-Repelling Charm fell away like old paint dissolved in turpentine. She walked through the nonexistent fence and directly to the front door. The door opened with a push.
Up in the sky, Charlie circled the building and cawed.
I don't think I'll need you this time, Charlie, she thought, but the presence of her familiar was almost as reassuring as the wand in her pocket.
The ground floor was as she remembered it, mostly empty and dusty, with more sunlight coming through the windows than in December. She walked around looking for any suspicious boxes or packages or crates. If there had been any recent 'deliveries,' Martha must have already moved them upstairs.
She walked to the stairs. "Hello?" she called. "Martha?" She cast a Light Spell and opened the door to the stairwell, then ascended the stairs quietly, listening and keeping her wand ready. At the entrance to the second floor, she paused. Goody Pruett's portrait was located here, but this was also the warren of dark corridors and unlit offices where Martha stored the Dark Convention's illicit items. She proceeded up to the third floor and turned right to enter the large, sunlit open space that occupied half the upper floor.
She turned to face the dark corridors penetrating into the other half of the warehouse, and visualizing the old chair she had seen in one of the offices on her last visit, said, "Accio chair!"
With a clatter and a bang, the chair came bouncing off a corridor wall and flew across the floor to her, its feet scraping dust from the worn wood. Alexandra grabbed the back of it and placed the chair so she could sit in it facing the direction from which it had come. It was just a bare wooden chair, an old one, and when she sat down and put her weight on it she could feel it wobble a bit. But with her arms resting on those of the chair, wand in one hand, she imagined herself a queen on her throne. She looked to the right at the closed windows and pointed her wand at the nearest one. With a flourish, she unlocked the window and popped it open. The window made a painful creak as it swung outward, letting in fresh spring air and street sounds. A moment later, Charlie was flapping at the window, and then darting through the gap. Without being told, the raven beat wings over to her and landed on her shoulder.
Now she felt like a queen. She sat in her chair with a raven on her shoulder and a wand in her hand, and waited.
With a shuffling sound, Martha emerged from the same corridor from which the chair had come flying. The hag took small, careful steps. Her hands were clasped in front of her, and she was stooped over a little more than usual. Her red eyes were fixed on Alexandra's wand as she stepped into the light.
"Hello, dear," the hag said. "It's so wonderful to see you again."
"I'm sure." Idly, Alexandra twirled her wand. It held Martha's attention. "So, anything new to tell me? Anything interesting happen since December?"
"No, nothing at all," Martha said. "Business as usual, so to speak." She was palpably nervous, though she spoke in a calm, conversational tone.
"Trespassers? Certainly not."
"Have you been here the whole time? Don't you ever leave?"
Martha blinked, laying a hand alongside her face to shield her eyes from the sunlight. "Just the occasional – harmless – walk. Very late at night. I'm due to be replaced soon, though. One of my sisters will take my place here."
It was run just like a business, Alexandra thought. She was going to have to learn more about that, but she asked sharply, "When you go on walks, what do you do if you encounter Muggles?"
Martha snorted, which made a horrible sound in that huge nose of hers. "Muggles only see what they want to see, dear. They don't look at a hunchbacked old lady too closely."
"If I ever find out you've harmed anyone, I will make you wish you'd never set foot in Larkin Mills," Alexandra said, as she stopped twirling her wand.
Martha sounded affronted. "I told you, dear, we don't sh –"
"Where you live. Right." Alexandra tossed her head, and Charlie made a low croaking sound that caused the hag to back away. "I'm going to be using this place to practice magic. Just this third floor area here. You'll leave it alone, you won't intrude on me, and you won't spy on me. Leave me be and I'll leave you be."
Martha stood there a moment as if unsure what response was desired from her, then she simply said, "Yes, dear, of course. Old Martha won't be any bother to you."
"Good." Alexandra flicked her wand, and flames shot from its tip. Martha almost fell over backward. "You can go now."
Martha backed away. Alexandra caught the way the hag's ingratiating smile fell away just before she disappeared into the shadows.
"She's scared of me, Charlie," she whispered, "but we'd better keep an eye out."
"Wicked!" Charlie said.
Alexandra rose from her chair, feeling almost as regal as she had sounded. The Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections warehouse was now, to all intents and purposes, her domain. She intimidated hags with a few words. She had a refuge here in downtown Larkin Mills invisible to Muggles and the Trace Office alike. No more spending every vacation unable to do magic. This was what being a witch should be like all the time, she thought.
Alexandra visited the warehouse almost every day the week of her vacation. She told Claudia and Archie she was going to the mall or the library, and sometimes she did actually go to the latter place, but after her first afternoon throwing all sorts of charms and transfigurations beneath the roof of Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections and not receiving any Howlers or notices from the Trace office, she exulted in her freedom to unleash magic at will.
Martha stuck her head into the open space Alexandra had turned into her practice studio once, and quickly withdrew. Alexandra didn't see her again. The floor was scarred, scored, and burnt and there were fragments of concrete and wood splinters everywhere. Alexandra had discovered that she could easily levitate cinder blocks and 2x4s from the lot below up into the warehouse. She used them for target practice. When she was tired of throwing hexes, she practiced transformations and even some elementary attempts at conjuring inanimate objects. Teachers at Charmbridge could conjure desks, chairs, and even doors at will, but that was something not taught until Advanced Charms I. So far, Alexandra had not even succeeded in conjuring a pencil.
She had, however, done a pretty good job of transforming that bare wooden chair. It was now gilded and cushioned with a higher back, and it had carved lions' feet. The lions' feet actually looked a bit more like dog paws – and a squashed, maimed dog at that – but skill at Transfiguration did not necessarily come with equivalent artistry.
Alexandra had yet to see the Seaburys' SUV in the driveway, and the house remained unlit in the evenings. Brian's family had apparently gone on vacation. Claudia told her that Bonnie still went to physical therapy twice a week, but she was expected to recover completely. The Seaburys had told Claudia nothing about their vacation plans.
Anna and David both called her. Alexandra told them about the warehouse with some excitement, not mentioning the resident hag. Now David was the envious one: his father might be able to arrange for him to practice on his broom while he was at home, but he couldn't use his wand. When Anna mentioned schoolwork and her Citizenship Project, Alexandra remembered that she still needed to complete hers, and thought maybe she should talk to Martha about hags' rights.
On Friday afternoon, Alexandra walked to the warehouse on Third Street with Nigel tucked under her shirt. Charlie was flying around the neighborhood, no longer feeling obligated to watch over her while she went to the warehouse, but Alexandra wanted to see if she could perform any magic using her snake familiar.
She passed through the park and saw Billy Boggleston and his friends at the same table as before, smoking and making a lot of noise. The noise increased when they saw Alexandra.
Nigel stirred beneath her shirt, agitated by the tension he felt from her. She put a hand over her belly, where the snake was coiled comfortably between her tank top undershirt and t-shirt, and murmured, "Don't worry, Nigel. I've got no reason to bother with them."
Fortunately, Billy didn't seem to feel there was a reason to bother with her either. The boys did not leave their seats, only shouted after her with catcalls and jeers. Alexandra made sure she was out of their sight, and not being watched by anyone else, before she crossed the street to the Regal Royalty warehouse and walked through the fence.
Her experiments with Nigel were mostly fruitless. She let the snake slither across the bare floor of her practice area and tried to command him, tried to feel what he felt, tried to see through the snake's eyes, and tried to direct where he might go, but Nigel, after investigating the immediate surroundings, decided the most suitable course of action was to crawl through a crack in the wall out of Alexandra's reach. Pleas, commands, and fingers thrust into the crack after the snake were all fruitless, and Alexandra feared she might have to start blasting walls apart, until she hit upon the more expedient solution and said, "Accio Nigel."
The snake came shooting back out of the crack in the wall, writhing and agitated. When Alexandra scooped Nigel up, he actually hissed and bared fangs at her.
"Chill out, Nigel," she said. "You're the one who decided to crawl into a hole." And I let him, she reminded herself. She couldn't blame the snake for acting like a snake.
She pulled up the bottom of her shirt and tucked her familiar back beneath it, pressing a hand against the snake to keep him still.
"Hey, Martha?" she called out.
There was no answer, even after Alexandra walked into the dark corridors with her wand lit and shouted down them.
Nigel continued squirming as she walked downstairs. She listened for any sounds, and continued to call Martha's name on the second and first floor, but decided not to venture into the darkness while she had an agitated snake under her shirt.
Maybe the hag was ignoring her, or maybe Martha had already left and her replacement had not yet arrived. Alexandra would have to come back the next day and find out.
"Bye Martha," she called out as she left, not expecting an answer and not getting one.
When she returned to Sweetmaple Avenue, she saw two vehicles that hadn't been there when she'd left a few hours earlier. One was the Seaburys' SUV in their driveway, and the other was a shiny BMW sitting in front of her own house. The latter vehicle was of more interest and concern to her, so she walked past Brian's house without knocking on the door and up the steps to her own.
Inside, she found Claudia sitting in the living room with Livia.
"Hi," Alexandra said, as her two oldest sisters both looked at her. She was covered with dust and a little sweat. Nigel began squirming again, forcing her to clap her hand to her stomach.
"Hello, Alexandra," Livia said. She was wearing a plain blouse and slacks, not her doctor's uniform, but her demeanor was still reserved and professional, as if she were in her office and not in her sister's living room.
"We were waiting for you before we ate dinner," Claudia said. "Archie is on duty until midnight."
"What's wrong with your stomach?" Livia asked.
Alexandra pulled Nigel out from under her shirt – the snake was refusing to be still.
Livia's eyebrows went up. "You have a familiar?"
Alexandra didn't answer. Claudia said, "Put your snake back in its cage and wash up, Alex. I'm afraid dinner is what I picked up at Marmalade on the way home. I'll go set it out on the table." She rose from the couch and walked into the kitchen. Livia's eyes followed her with a slight frown.
"She gets pretty touchy when you talk about anything magical," Alexandra said.
"So, you're here to visit Claudia?"
"Partly." Livia turned her attention back to Alexandra. "I also came to do something about what you told me about."
"My family's property here in town."
Alexandra grimaced. "Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections? What are you planning to do?"
"Evict any hags or other creatures living there."
Alexandra stood there in dismay, with Nigel coiling about her wrist.
"Claudia and I have both been hiding from the wizarding world for years," Livia said. "We've both been neglectful of certain responsibilities because of it. It's time for me to do something about that."
"Livia? Alexandra?" Claudia called from the kitchen.
"I need to put Nigel back in his cage." Alexandra hurried upstairs, deposited the snake in his terrarium, and opened the window so that Charlie could enter her bedroom when it pleased the raven to return.
Downstairs, the three sisters ate take-out food while Claudia asked Alexandra what she did at the mall all day, and Alexandra wondered if Claudia really believed she'd been at the mall. Livia asked Claudia questions about Larkin Mills Hospital and her current workload, and the two of them talked about medicine while Alexandra wanted to shout at them both.
"So how is Charmbridge Academy?" Livia asked suddenly. "Is Mr. Cervantes still teaching Charms?"
"He's an Assistant Dean," Alexandra said. "Claudia doesn't like talking about my school."
"It's all right, Alex. I told you before that it's okay," Claudia said.
Alexandra and Livia made small talk about magic and Charmbridge Academy. Claudia was as silent as Alexandra had been when they were talking about nursing and medicine.
When they were done eating, Livia said, "I'd like to pick up Alexandra tomorrow morning to go visit... the warehouse. If that's all right with you, Alexandra?"
"Yeah, sure." Alexandra had a lot of questions for Livia, but didn't think they were good ones to ask in front of Claudia, even if their oldest sister was becoming more tolerant of talk about magic.
Claudia nodded. She began cleaning up the residue of dinner. Alexandra got up to help her. Then they walked with Livia to the door, and Livia and Claudia stood apart for a moment, the ghostly traces of a bond that had once existed between them heavy in the air. They leaned into one another and exchanged restrained hugs.
Alexandra wondered if there were some things you never got over.
Livia rang the doorbell early the next morning. Alexandra had already eaten breakfast. Archie was still asleep and Claudia was at work, so Alexandra didn't need to say good-bye to anyone before she walked out to Livia's car and got in. It was much newer and more expensive than Claudia's car, and Alexandra liked the comfortable seats and plush interior so much, she almost wished they were driving more than a few blocks.
"So, you want to evict the Dark Convention from one of their warehouses," Alexandra said. "What are you going to do if Martha says no?"
"The hag who's guarding the warehouse."
"You're on a first-name basis with her?"
"I don't actually know if hags have last names."
"Martha will have to recognize that I am the Pruett heir."
"How? Did you even bring a wand?"
Livia had started the car. She paused as she was about to pull away from the curb, reached between the two buttons directly below her collarbone, and slid a long wand out from beneath her blouse.
"I thought you're supposed to be Wandless," Alexandra said. "And – seriously, that's where you keep your wand?"
"It doesn't exactly fit in my pocket." Livia slid the wand back down the front of her blouse. Now Alexandra knew why Livia sat so rigidly upright. "I will let you accompany me, Alexandra, but I want you to stay behind me and let me handle things if this Martha is uncooperative."
"You're going to handle things? Have you ever 'handled' a hag before? How long has it been since you've actually used a wand? I mean, other than for healing?"
Livia pursed her lips. "I got Superior scores in Basic Magical Defense on every one of my SPAWNs."
"How many years ago was that?"
"I've probably forgotten more magic than you've learned, Alexandra. I'm an adult, fully-trained witch and you're a ninth grader. I'm in charge – understand?"
"Sure." Alexandra fingered her own wand in her pocket and called for Charlie, who might still be sleeping back in the cage sitting in her bedroom, or who might have already flown out the window to do whatever ravens did all day over Larkin Mills.
It took them only two minutes to drive to the Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections warehouse. Livia frowned at the fenced-off property. "The closest parking is that gas station across the street."
"No, you can just go through the fence."
"What do you mean, go through the fence?"
"Look at it with your witch-sight," Alexandra said.
"My witch-sight?" Livia sounded as if she had never heard of such a thing before.
"The. Fence. Is. Not. Real. It's a Muggle-Repelling Charm. A fully-trained witch should be able to see through it."
Disbelievingly, Livia looked from Alexandra to the fence, which stretched across the worn, cracked drive that had once allowed wizardly trucks and wizardly cars and other wizardly vehicles to pull up to the Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections warehouse with deliveries, or to pick up sweets to be delivered to Goody Pruetts across the Confederation.
"If you don't believe me and you can't make yourself go through a simple Glamour, how are you going to handle a hag?" Alexandra asked.
Livia pressed her lips together, took a deep breath, and muttered, "If you're pranking me, I swear I will make you pay for the repairs to my car." She closed her eyes and stepped on the accelerator. The car shot forward and the chain link fence with all the dire warning signs seemed to stretch, as if the illusion itself felt the pressure of the solid vehicle against it, and then they were through, sitting in front of the warehouse. Behind them, the illusory fence still stood, showing no sign that a car had just passed through it. Livia opened her eyes, then turned off the ignition.
"It was an illusion," she said, bemused. "The fence was an illusion." She gave the warehouse another look. "Those windows aren't really broken. And that door –"
"How are you at Unlocking Charms?" Alexandra asked.
Livia bit her lip. "I learned a few in tenth grade."
"No problem, then. I'll let you handle this."
Livia kept swiveling her head around furtively as she tried to open the heavy metal door. Alexandra leaned against the brick wall while cars drove past, the people inside not giving them a second glance. She let her sister try to open the door for several minutes before she grew bored and impatient.
"Can I try?" she asked.
Livia dropped her hand to her side, staring at the locked door in frustration. "How did you get in?"
Alexandra cast an Unlocking Charm. The door clicked and swung open. She shrugged as Livia stared at her.
Livia pushed past her to lead the way into the warehouse. Alexandra followed closely at her heels.
"Seriously, maybe you should let me do the talking," Alexandra said. "Martha knows me."
"You can introduce us." Livia was looking around as they stood on the ground floor. "It's so much different than I remember," she murmured.
"It's been abandoned for years," Alexandra said.
"I can see that." Livia walked to the stairs, and Alexandra followed, rolling her eyes.
"Martha lives on the third floor," Alexandra said.
They walked up to the third floor. Livia spent some time looking around Alexandra's 'studio,' while Alexandra said nothing about the scorch marks and shattered beams of wood and bits of concrete and glass sprayed around the open area. Livia cocked her head and squinted at the throne-like chair.
"Martha!" Alexandra called. "Martha, come here! I want to talk to you."
Livia turned to her. "That's a little rude, don't you think?"
"You kind of have to cop an attitude with hags," Alexandra said, "or they'll try to eat you."
Livia stared at her blankly for a moment, then laughed. "You have quite a twisted sense of humor, Alexandra."
"Didn't your parents ever tell you about hags?" Alexandra said.
She regretted the words immediately as her sister's face turned grim. But Livia said, "I heard rumors about them, of course, and occasionally saw them in the Goblin Market. But they don't really –?"
Alexandra shouted again: "Martha! The daughters of Thorn demand your presence!"
"What?" Livia exclaimed.
"It helps to be a little bit dramatic, too," Alexandra said. "When she shows up, be... you know. Kind of bitchy. If they aren't scared of you, they won't respect you."
Livia's face turned several shades of appalled and incredulous before settling on resolute. "I told you to let me handle this."
Martha did not appear. Alexandra frowned. "She mentioned she goes for walks sometimes, but not in the morning. Maybe she's asleep." She shouted again, this time using a spell to amplify her voice until it rattled the windows and made the floor shiver: "MARTHA!"
There was still no sign of the hag.
"Maybe she's hiding in her lair," Alexandra said.
"Lair?" Livia frowned. "Why don't you take me to see the portrait of Goody Pruett you told me about?"
"That's on the second floor." Alexandra was becoming a little uneasy. Could Martha be lying in wait, tired of being pushed around by a teenage girl? Perhaps she had been planning to do something, but when Alexandra arrived with another witch, the hag had thought better of it and was now lying low. But with her wand ready to curse hags or other creatures, she led the way downstairs, not letting Livia get ahead of her this time.
On the second floor, she cast a Light Spell, and was relieved to see Livia do the same. At least she remembers that much.
"Martha?" Alexandra projected her voice in a theatrical manner. "Where are you? We want to talk to you. My sister is with me, and if we have to come looking for you, you will risk our displeasure!"
Livia made a sputtering sound. "Risk our – are you serious? Who talks like that?"
"Your displeasure? Your displeasure?" called a voice from down the hallway. "Trapped in eternal darkness listening to horrible, unspeakable sounds in the night – that is displeasure! Watching my family's hard-earned fortune deteriorate in this crumbling ruin of a once-thriving empire –"
"That's Goody Pruett," Alexandra said.
They walked down the dark hallway, Alexandra watching the shadows and listening for any sounds besides the old woman's ranting, until the portrait was revealed in the glow of their wands.
Goody Pruett put a hand up in front of her eyes. "You're blinding me! Let me see, oh, let me see!"
Alexandra and Livia lowered their wands. The light now illuminated their faces from below, making them as eerie and sinister as the grim old witch painted in blacks and whites. But Goody Pruett recognized Alexandra. "You! The young witch who consorts with hags!"
"I told you I'd come back," Alexandra said.
"Hello, Goody Pruett," Livia said softly. "Do you remember me?"
Goody Pruett's eyes, perpetually captured in brown pigment, were disturbingly bright in that withered face. Her voice lost much of its stridency. "Livia?"
"I'm sorry you've been left hanging here," Livia said. "I just didn't think about this place, after my grandparents died."
Alexandra did not know if magical portraits could cry. But Goody Pruett's face was trembling in the fashion of someone who wanted to cry. "Your grandparents – dead? Then, my descendants –"
"I'm the last Pruett," Livia said. "I'm sorry."
Goody Pruett bowed her head. Then she straightened her shoulders, lifted her head, and looked Livia in the eye. She spoke with quiet dignity, and only a hint of pleading. "Please, take me with you. Let me reside in the home of the last of my heirs, not here."
"I'm sorry," Livia said, "I can't."
The painted face became stiff, as if she were drying into immobility.
"My husband is a Muggle," Livia said. "We live in a Muggle neighborhood. My house is a Muggle house."
"Muggles," the old witch whispered. "The Pruetts have been untainted by Muggle blood since we first came to the New World –"
Livia cut her off. "I don't intend to leave you hanging here alone in the dark. I'm here to reclaim my legacy. I'm going to banish any hags and other Dark creatures and do something with this property. I don't know what yet, but I'll either renovate it into something you're satisfied with, or find somewhere else you'll be happier – on one condition."
"Condition? What condition?" Goody Pruett's voice became sharp again.
"My friends are Muggles, my husband is a Muggle, and the child we're going to have will have Muggle blood no less pure than his Pruett blood. I don't know if a portrait can change its thinking, but if you can't, you can at least keep your mouth shut. If I ever hear you speak ill of Muggles or Squibs again, I will end you. Do you understand?"
A portrait might not be able to cry or change its thinking, but it could turn pale – color actually leached out of Goody Pruett's faded cheeks. Her mouth opened slightly, her eyes widened in astonishment, and then, abruptly, she clapped her lips together and gave Livia a curt nod.
"Good." Livia glanced sideways at Alexandra, who was staring at her older sister in astonishment. "Now, we're trying to find the hag who lives here. Martha? Do you know where she went?"
The portrait didn't answer right away. Her eyes closed. Alexandra wondered if she was going to sleep. Then she mumbled, with trembling lips, "Those sounds... those sounds..."
"What sounds?" Livia asked.
"Last night." Goody Pruett opened her eyes again. "There was screaming."
"Screaming?" Alexandra and Livia said together.
"Then there was silence. And then, there was... skittering."
"Skittering?" Alexandra and Livia both repeated, while Alexandra felt a chill as if the shadows were reaching for them as they spoke.
"Skittering... something skittering, skittering, up the stairs, down the stairs, down the corridors..." Goody Pruett's eyes became wide, and she put her hands over her ears. "Skittering!"
Alexandra's scalp prickled all over, and she grabbed Livia by the arm. "We're getting out of here."
Livia turned to her. "What?"
"We've got to get out, now. We're in danger."
Alexandra began dragging her sister toward the stairs. Goody Pruett wailed: "Don't leave me here!"
"Alexandra, let go of me. What's going on?" Livia shook her hand off and stopped.
"There's something in here more dangerous than a hag." Alexandra held her breath, listening. Had that been the sound of dry, bony fingers scratching on wood? Her spine tingled and there were goosebumps all over her flesh.
"You don't want to know."
"Yes, I do want to know."
"Standing here in the dark waiting for it to jump out at us?"
Livia opened her mouth, then her eyes darted around as something scraped against the floor nearby.
"Come on," Alexandra said, more urgently. This time Livia didn't argue.
They were almost to the exit, and Alexandra was letting Livia precede her out the door, when she paused.
"What is it?" Livia asked, holding the door open for her.
"Nothing." Alexandra joined Livia outside, and did not say anything about the long, dark smear on the floor, a rusty red color that wasn't quite dry.