Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
IT WAS HOT IN TAMPA, even in April.
No one else seemed to notice the heat, but every morning when I put on shorts and a T-shirt for school, it struck me as odd. If I were at home in Willow, I’d still be wearing sweaters at that time of year. Possibly even a winter coat. Whenever my thoughts drifted toward life back in Wisconsin, my throat grew tight, and I had to blink away tears. Being a new student with no friends in an unfamiliar town wasn’t at all how I’d imagined my junior year of high school back in September. Although I did my best to hide my disappointment about my circumstances, I walked around Florida feeling like an anvil in my chest was weighing me down.
So it was better for everyone—mostly me—not to think about things happening outside of the neighborhood where I’d been sent to live with my dad and his wife. And it was definitely for the best that I not allow myself to get caught up in imaginary scenarios about what might be unfolding in my hometown. There wasn’t much I could do about it, and the little I could do, I’d already done.
Aside from my constant discomfort from the unrelenting humidity, I’d become accustomed enough to my routine in Florida that sometimes—just for a minute or two—I’d forget everything that had led me there. I’d be focused on trying to determine the value of a cosine, or join in on a discussion in my Federal Government class and forget all about Olivia Richmond’s birthday party back in September. The game, Violet, all of the death—everything would drop from my thoughts as if it had never happened.
But then, with a jolt, it would come back to me. A familiar sensation of dread would rush in, and my heart would ache at the thought of how much I’d left behind. My mom. Our little house on Martha Road. The friends I’d known since I was born. Trey… When I thought about how much time had passed since I’d last seen him, and how much more would pass before I’d see him again, it felt like a knife slicing through my heart. My daily existence was like having a nightmare about knowing I was supposed to be somewhere else, doing urgent other things, except I was awake.
Dad and his wife, Rhonda, kept encouraging me to make new friends and “create a life for myself.” But I had to admit, I wasn’t trying very hard at that. I was eager to get back to the life I’d left behind, even though in a few small ways, I was clinging to fragments of it as best I could. One of the ways in which I was desperately hanging on was by FaceTiming with Henry Richmond every morning.
“So, what is it that you do at your job?” he asked. He was standing out on the small balcony of his studio, and I could see the sparkling teal waves of the Mediterranean behind him. Henry had been teaching private tennis lessons as one of the staff instructors at Château du Mouton d’Or on France’s Cote d’Azur since February.
“Whatever they ask me to do,” I replied. “I mean, I’ve only worked there a week, so I’m still kind of learning.”
The last time I saw him in Wisconsin, I didn’t expect to see or hear from him again. But he’d surprised me by calling during my first week in Florida. His lunch break just happened to coincide with my morning alarm clock setting. Even after weeks of this routine, I hadn’t gotten over how simultaneously comforting and weird it was to be able to see his face in real time from five thousand miles away. Mom and I FaceTimed often, but seeing Henry in France was a million times more magical. Even though he wasn’t physically in Willow, he knew that all of the traumatic, paranormal things I’d experienced over the better part of the last year had been real. Since I couldn’t talk freely with Trey on the phone, and Mischa didn’t remember the details of how we’d broken the curse on Violet in January, Henry was the only person with whom I could regularly communicate who truly understood the complexity of my life.
And although he never said so, I think he felt the same way about me. It wasn’t like he could tell his coworkers at the hotel that he’d spent his winter break chasing a bunch of high schoolers around Michigan to avenge the death of his sister. Secrets were burdens, and secrets like the ones we kept were walls that separated us from people who would never, ever understand the things we’d witnessed.
“What kind of things?” Henry pressed. “You said you’re working in a assisted living facility, and you’re in Florida. So are you yelling at people for not wearing enough sunscreen at the pool? Organizing shuffleboard tournaments?”
“No, it’s not like that,” I said with a smile. “I bring the patients their mail, sometimes help them open it and read it. I clean up around their rooms, bring them dinner. Mostly it’s just…” I paused, not wanting my job to sound as sad as it sometimes was. There was one resident, Ruth, who rarely said more than five words a day to me, but she never failed to whip out a deck of cards and challenge me to a quick game of War when I stopped by her room. At work, I was simply known as the new girl. No one at the assisted living facility thought of me as a troublemaker with mental problems, which was unfortunately my reputation back at home in Wisconsin. It was enormously satisfying to make such a big difference in people’s lives with small gestures like remembering who liked tapioca pudding and who needed to be reminded when Jeopardy! came on, especially after I’d felt like such a colossal failure for months while trying to figure out how to save Mischa from becoming Violet’s next victim. “It feels nice to do kind things for people who appreciate it.”
I’d been begging to be allowed to take a part-time job since arriving in Florida, wanting my own source of income and a reason to get out of my dad’s condo after school for a few hours a day. It had been tough convincing my dad that I could keep up with my schoolwork and hold down a job. But he’d caved when I was offered a part-time position at Oscawana Pavilion Assisted Living Facility. I guess he figured I couldn’t get into much trouble surrounded by senior citizens. There was no way he ever would have let me work at Shake Shack or Starbucks with people my own age.
“Do you have to wear a uniform?” Henry asked. His uniform at the hotel was a light blue polo shirt and a pair of white shorts. I frequently teased him that it made him look like he’d just stepped out of a chewing gum magazine ad from the 1980s. The truth was that he’d gotten very tan in the last few weeks, and he looked so hot that I was sure he was receiving plenty of attention. Something about the probability of women in France noticing Henry made me anxious, although I knew I shouldn’t have cared about his romantic endeavors. I would have forfeited my morning chats with Henry in a heartbeat if it had been an option to instead talk to Trey every day. But I still sensed that I might have felt more than a twinge of jealousy if the morning conversations were to stop because Henry had found a girlfriend.
“Not really a uniform. Just pink scrubs. The nurses wear blue ones.”
“Scrubs, huh? Send me a picture.”
Back in February, I would have blushed, but we joke-flirted back and forth with such frequency now that it didn’t even occur to me to be bashful.“Why do you need a picture? You know what I look like. You’re looking at me right now.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but it’s not like I can see you. You’re practically in the dark.”
He wasn’t exaggerating; I was still in bed and hadn’t pulled the curtains open yet. “That’s because I’m wearing pajamas and my hair’s a mess.”
“You’re gonna be late for school,” he said, raising an eyebrow at me.
Dad would never let that happen. It was quite clear to me that he and Mom were in some kind of silent competition about who was the more responsible parent. I’d gotten into a ton of trouble twice on Mom’s watch back in Wisconsin, and even though that wasn’t a reflection on the quality of her parenting at all, it fueled some kind of weird obsession of Dad’s to do a better job. If I wasn’t at the breakfast table downstairs within the next eighteen minutes, I could expect a knock on my bedroom door.
“I’ve gotta get back outside,” Henry said. “I’ve got a doubles match with a countess.”
“Sounds fancy,” I teased.
“Oh, it is.”
We said good-bye, and I wondered momentarily if the countess was beautiful. I didn’t want to think too much about it, but I was curious about why Henry made a point of checking in with me every day instead of walking down to the beach to eat lunch with his coworkers. Curious, but grateful for it. Our past had bound us in a way that was stronger than friendship. Our check-ins meant more to me than I suspected he knew; the few times he’d been a little late calling me, my heart had sunk at the possibility of him having moved on, found something—or someone—else to fill his time.
As always, as soon as I ended my chat with Henry, I wondered what Trey was doing at that very moment. Although I would have loved being able to FaceTime with him instead of writing letters, seeing him on a screen and talking to him might have just broken my heart. There was no way we would see each other again until July at the soonest, when he would turn eighteen and be released from Northern Reserve. Although Henry and I sometimes flirted with each other, it was always in a spirit of silliness. We never came near crossing any lines—not the way he had the night we were alone in his parents’ basement and almost kissed. I reassured myself that my dependency on him was because he’d taken on a brotherly role in my life, and not because I was in denial about having feelings for him.
I groaned, stretched, and climbed out of bed. Dad probably wouldn’t have been thrilled to know that I began every day by chatting with a friend from home since I’d failed to report having made any new friends in Tampa. Of course, he was right; I wasn’t making my semester there any easier by keeping to myself. But I had my reasons for not socially investing myself at my new school. First, I’d lived my entire life up until that point in a tiny town with just over four thousand residents, where I’d been acquainted with everyone and had never had to make new friends. Second, I’d just endured a pretty traumatic experience over the last five months, and I couldn’t discuss it with anyone. Not a single person, and especially not Ms. Hernández, the school counselor who I was required to spend my study hall with and who asked me relentless questions that I refused to answer about Violet, Trey, and all the trouble I’d gotten into at home.
The thing was, I viewed my life in Tampa as temporary. I didn’t want to settle in and get comfortable—not when I expected Trey would be released in July. I wasn’t sure what the future held for us, but finding a way to never be separated from him again superseded everything else.
And then… there was the matter of Mischa.
I didn’t want to get too comfortable in my new life at all, because of the frail balance on which it hung from a promise she’d made.
I never had the pleasure of hitting snooze on my alarm—even for ten minutes—because I had to cast my protection spell before I left for school. It was a spell given to me by Kirsten, the witch we’d met at the occult bookstore in Chicago. The incantation, meant to protect Mischa and her family members, had to be performed every day, at the same time.
Every single morning, in a clockwise direction, I carefully sprinkled salt around the four white candles on my nightstand in the shape of circle, making four complete circles—for Mischa, her sister, and both of their parents. As I lit each of the four candles, I whispered, “With this candle, I focus my intent and protect Mischa from all that would harm. With this candle, I focus my intent and protect Amanda from all that would harm.” And onward, until I’d protected all four members of the Portnoy family.
There were mornings, like that one, when I was cutting it close on time and rushed through the whispering part. But the thought of getting lazy about the amount of intent I applied terrified me. Ever since Mischa had e-mailed me back at the beginning of February talking about her newly discovered powers with tarot cards, I’d been terrified that the evil spirits who had originally tormented Violet until she delivered souls to them had refocused their attention on Mischa.
Violet had told me that when she’d refused to take orders from those spirits at first, they’d threatened her mother’s life. I knew that Mischa was strong-willed and that I could count on her to resist their threats, but I also knew that Mischa was a survivor. She was the most determined person I’d ever met. If she were made to feel like she had no choice but to deliver souls or have terrible things happen to her family, Mischa would do whatever it took to protect herself and her loved ones.
In that way, she was even scarier than Violet. In my experience, Violet was selfish and manipulative. But Mischa was fearless, physically strong, and stubborn. I didn’t want to have to find out what it might be like to challenge her.
Luckily, two new moons had passed since we’d lifted the curse from Violet, and I hadn’t heard any news out of Willow, Wisconsin, about tragic or unexpected deaths yet. Which suggested to me that my protection spell routine was working, and that Mischa had been keeping her promise about staying away from tarot. She’d sworn that she’d never actually given a full reading to anyone after discovering her uncanny ability to always pull the Tower card out of the deck, and I reluctantly believed her.
I blew out my candles, swept the salt into the trash can per Kirsten’s instructions, and got dressed, hoping—as I did every day—that I’d just safeguarded the lives of Mischa, Amanda, Elena, and Adam Portnoy for the next twenty-four hours.
“Just in time for the last cup of coffee,” Dad said when I finally stepped into the kitchen. He poured the last of the pot into a mug for me as I grabbed a banana off the counter. He was dressed for work, although to anyone other than me and Rhonda, it might have been hard to tell. Dad’s work outfits were T-shirts or polos with USF Bulls logos on them instead of just plain T-shirts or polos, and khaki shorts instead of his usual running shorts. He was a professor in the psychiatry and neurosciences department at the University of South Florida’s medical school, and from the handful of times I’d accompanied him to campus, his super-casual attire was not uncommon among faculty.
“Don’t forget. I won’t be home until seven thirty tonight,” I reminded him.
“I didn’t forget. Text Rhonda when you’re ready for a ride home and she’ll pick you up,” he told me.
I quickly replied, “I can take the bus.” A huge part of why I’d wanted to get a job was to gain some independence. Since moving down to Florida, I felt like I was always being watched. Even when I disappeared to the gym in my dad’s condominium complex at night after dinner, Rhonda often joined me. She insisted that it was to fire up her metabolism, but I knew the real reason: She and Dad were terrified that I was going to vanish the first chance I got.
“She’ll pass by there on the way home from the hospital anyway,” he informed me. “Who were you talking to this morning?”
I gulped down some coffee to hide my surprise at his question. Whenever I was chatting with Henry, I tried to keep my voice down so that Dad and Rhonda couldn’t hear me because the walls in their condo were thin. “Just a friend from home,” I answered honestly.
“When it’s six o’clock here, it’s five o’clock in Wisconsin,” he reminded me, as if I wasn’t aware of the time difference. “Kinda early to be talking to someone back at home.”
“He’s not in Wisconsin,” I clarified. “Sometimes I talk to Olivia’s brother. He’s taking the semester off from school to teach tennis in France.” There was no point in lying. I’d only been allowed to have a phone again because both my mom and dad had access to everything, including passwords to all of my accounts. If he wanted to know who I was speaking with every morning, it wouldn’t take him long to find out. Henry, Mischa, and even Cheryl knew better than to ever put anything in writing that they wouldn’t want my parents to read.
Dad crossed his arms over his chest as he swished coffee around in the mug he held. “Hmm. That Richmond kid, huh? The one who was at the ski lodge with you?”
I hurriedly clarified (not for the first time) that Henry had not been at the ski lodge with me and Trey, which was the story we’d all been telling for months, and I dashed out the back door to begin my walk to school. Since the end of January, I’d been evading questions from both of my parents about why I’d escaped from the boarding school where I’d been sent in the fall, and how Trey and I had ended up in Michigan to meet up with our former classmates during their ski trip. There was no way I could tell them any of it without sounding like a maniac—that we had to stop Violet before a bunch of people whose deaths she’d predicted were expected to die. I guess I just had to accept that no matter how much time passed, my dad was never going to let it go.
It was barely six thirty in the morning when I reached our corner, and the humidity was already at 70 percent.
My high school in Tampa was a lot larger than Willow High School, with nearly three times as many students. You might think it would be hard to avoid making friends while surrounded by so many people, but I was finding it easy to go unnoticed. Teachers didn’t make a big deal on my first day about introducing me. My chemistry partner, Alianne, was nice enough, correctly read my disengaged vibe, and politely ignored me in the cafeteria at lunchtime. No one encouraged me to join clubs or sports teams.
During study hall, I took my usual seat on the red couch in Ms. Hernández’s office and we went through our routine, which, at this point, going into my tenth week at Hyde Park High, was becoming rote.
“How are things with your stepmother?” she asked.
“Fine,” I replied. I’d made the mistake during my first social work session at school of describing Rhonda as very young and pretty, and had mistakenly given Ms. Hernández the notion that all of my erratic behavior since the fall could be explained by some kind of issue I had with her.
“Has she laid off on the prom pressure?”
“Yes,” I said. “For now.” Rhonda had read in an e-mail sent out to parents by the principal’s office that junior prom would be held in mid-May, and she’d immediately suggested that we go shopping for a dress. It broke my heart a little to tell her that I had no interest in going to a dance in Hyde Park with a bunch of people I barely knew. Even though she wasn’t old enough to be my mom, she was really trying hard to fill the role, or at least qualify as world’s coolest stepmom.
“What about the boyfriend? How’s he doing?” Ms. Hernández asked. She never failed to ask me about Trey during every single one of our sessions, even though I’d never mentioned him.
“As well as can be expected,” I replied. The bitter reality was that I didn’t know how Trey really was. The one phone call per week I was allowed to have with him was monitored by the administration at his military-style school. Weekly, he told me in a cool, emotionless voice not to worry about him, because everything there was great. This made me suspect that things were far from “great,” but there was nothing either of us could do about that until he turned eighteen and was free to leave.
Investing as little energy as possible, I moved through the rest of my classes that day. A surge of joy rose within my chest when the final bell rang. As I stuffed my bag at my locker, I tried to ignore people around me talking about either band practice or a concert that night at the Amalie Arena. Back at the start of the school year in Willow, I’d had a packed calendar too. But there was no point in lamenting the time when I’d been involved in student government and been excited about things like yearbook committee and live music. Those days were over.
Oscawana Pavilion Assisted Living Facility was only about sixteen blocks away from my high school, but it was hot enough when school let out that I’d show up drenched in perspiration if I didn’t just wait for the bus. So I popped my earbuds in my ears and tried to remain patient. I was starting to feel anxious and felt the urge to walk to the next stop, assuming I could beat the bus, but I knew I’d never make it in time.
By the time the bus arrived, my scalp had broken out into a rush of tingles. I knew that this was Jennie’s way of wanting to initiate contact with me, and since I’d been home in Willow over Christmas break, the tingles had become an increasingly frequent sensation. As always, the physical sensation of being lightly jabbed by needles was accompanied by a potent mixture of emotions that never failed to nauseate me a little. The thrill of being contacted by my twin sister swirled around with panic that I was either going insane—or veering off into a strange lifestyle of having paranormal powers that was going to result in my being considered a total freak by other people.
Even though I’d been finding all sorts of new ways to receive her messages (with varying degrees of effectiveness), Jennie had a way of reaching out to me at moments when it was extremely inconvenient for me to try to respond. Like when I was hanging on for dear life to a pole on a crowded bus. I’d run out of patience for the pendulum; asking Jennie yes-and-no questions could be extremely time-consuming, and I couldn’t exactly whip it out in public places.
I did my best to try to ignore the tingles. Whatever it was that Jennie was trying to communicate didn’t matter; I had to be at work in fifteen minutes to clock in.
The moment I stepped into the assisted living facility, I was grateful for its excessive air-conditioning. I passed through the lobby, where an elderly man was playing the grand piano for the amusement of several women, some of whom were playing mah-jongg. The lobby had several enormous fish tanks, which were among my favorite things about working there. I tended to take my fifteen-minute break in the lobby just to stare at the fish.
On my way to the bathroom to change into my scrubs, I was greeted by Luis, my manager. “Slight change to your rounds today, honey,” he said. I might have taken offense to my boss calling me “honey” except that Luis referred to everyone as “honey.” He was an overweight gay man in his forties who seemed to have gotten to know every single resident in the home personally, which endeared him to me. “We’ve got a new resident in the Daytona wing. Her name is Mrs. Robinson. If she hasn’t already placed a dinner order with the kitchen by the time you check in on her, could you walk her through the process?”
The assisted living facility had three floors, and there were four corridors on each of them. My rounds included the east corridor on each floor, each of which had six resident rooms along it. It might not seem like checking in on eighteen senior citizens would take me four whole hours, but every day, it did. I was almost at the end of my shift—the sun had already started setting—by the time I had my first encounter with Mrs. Cherie Robinson, Oscawana’s newest resident.
When I knocked on the door to her room, I heard a raspy voice call out, “Come in!”
A thin, frail Black woman sat in the upholstered chair in the corner of the room. Her walker was set beside the chair, and as I entered the room she didn’t turn away from her television set, which was tuned in to the local news. “Hi, Mrs. Robinson. I’m McKenna, your evening aide.”
“I know,” she told me without looking at me. “The nurse told me somebody would come by to help me order dinner. They left a menu around here, but I can’t read a damn thing on it.”
“I can help you with that,” I said cheerfully. Many of the residents had difficulty with farsightedness, but within a few days at Oscawana they usually realized that the cafeteria options didn’t change much from day to day, so being able to read the menu wasn’t that important. My eyes scanned the room for where the nurse might have left the menu.
As I walked over to the kitchenette counter to retrieve it, Mrs. Robinson asked me, “Aren’t you going to introduce your friend?”
Startled, because I hadn’t notice anyone enter the room behind me, I looked over my shoulder and didn’t see anyone. “I’m sorry. There’s no one else here with me,” I told her.
“Sure there is. She’s right next to you,” Mrs. Robinson insisted.
My scalp broke out into a raging storm of pins and needles. It was then, as I stood at the table and took a closer look at the elderly woman where she sat in front of her television, that I noticed the milky white cataracts covering her eyes. Mrs. Robinson was completely blind.