I can’t wait until tomorrow night!” my cousin Delia said as she held up her navy-blue ceremonial robe and spun around.
My bright berry colored robe lay on my bed. I’d been staring at it, waiting for the time I could put on my first adult magical robe. I traced my fingers along the metallic embroidery that ran across the front, wondering how long it had taken my mother to stitch the intricate vines, stars and moons.
My other cousin, Thea, sat down at my desk. “It’s going to be so much better. We’re finally going to be able to learn some real magic. No more of this baby stuff that doesn’t have any real power.”
Delia lay her robe on my bed. “Just think, Isabella, we’ll finally be able to do useful things.”
“I know,” I said. “Chores are going to be a lot easier if we can do them with a snap of our fingers.” While that was true, I was much more interested in learning how to make potions than anything else. Potions can help everyone, and I wanted to use my magic to help everyone.
We stayed in my bedroom, staying out of the way of our mothers while they prepared for our second investiture. Second investiture was one of the most important ceremonies in a young witch’s life and the three of us were all going through it as the same time. It’s the first time we would be able to say what we wanted, and at fourteen, that was a big deal for us. First investiture, when we were seven, was kind of a blur. Seven-year-olds aren’t very awake at midnight. remembered people kissing me and telling me how excited they were for me before I snuck away and fell asleep in the corner of grandpa’s study.
This investiture was exciting because grandma had decided to invite non-family members to witness it as well. Ordinarily, witches keep their secrets within their family, but grandma had decided it was time to start trusting other families and had taken the first step by inviting the Packards and the Brownes. Not only had she invited them to tomorrow’s investiture, she insisted they come early and spend the night as our guests here at Proctor House.
I would have resented the work we had to do except that I was as excited to have people here as grandma, and because she took the opportunity to teach Thea, Delia and I some more advanced spells to make our share of the chores go faster.
The front doorbell rang and the three of us ran down the stairs, almost running into our mothers, who were also rushing to the door.
My mother put her hand on the brass doorknob. “Are we ready?”
Grandma and grandpa joined us from the kitchen. Isabella,” grandma hissed at me, “did you get everything for the guests in their rooms?”
I nodded. Grandma was going out of her way for our houseguests. I think she liked the idea of entertaining other people and wanted to make a good impression. To that end, we had fancy towels for them to use and each room had a tray of snacks they could nibble on – fruit, crackers and cookies that we’d made earlier that morning.
“Open the door, Michelle.”
My mother threw open the door. “Welcome to Proctor House.”
Our first guest was great aunt Jemima, grandma’s sister and the oldest member of our family. She stepped forward, using her purpleheart cane to assist her. Her long grey hair was pulled into a French twist and her blue eyes sparkled with happiness.
“And where are my lovely nieces?” Aunt Jem asked.
Thea, Delia and I stepped forward to hug her.
“Ooh, careful, girls! I’m not as young as I look.”
“Can I take your bag, Auntie Jem?” Aunt Nadia asked.
“Thank you, Nadia. That would be lovely. Be careful, there are delicate presents for tomorrow night in there.”
“Presents?” Delia asked.
“Would I come to visit without bringing you something from Sewell?”
Sewell was a town in upstate New Hampshire, strictly for witches. The town was thoroughly warded and non-magical people could not find it, making it safe to do magic anywhere within the bounds of town. Sewell had the best magic shops in the country and Auntie Jem’s gifts were always amazing.
Grandma took Auntie Jem’s hand and led her and grandpa into the living room.
“I’ll get tea,” Aunt Lily said to their retreating backs.
Before we closed the door, our next set of guests arrived. I had no idea who the elegantly dressed couple was, so I held my hand out and said, “Welcome to Proctor House. I’m Isabella Proctor.
I’m Percy Browne and this is my wife Octavia.” I stepped aside and let them in.
Mrs. Browne looked at our large entryway in awe. “What a marvelous home you have here. Nothing at all like we have in Sewall.”
“I’d be happy to give you a tour later, Mrs. Browne.” Delia said.
She laughed. “You must call me Octavia, now that you are becoming adults.”
It was nice that someone acknowledged we were becoming adults. To hear it from our mothers, we were still children and would be treated that way for several more years.
“Why don’t we help you with your bags and get you settled in your rooms first,” I said, ticking off the items on grandma’s list of things a good hostess did.
Percy thrust his bag into my outstretched hand, while Olivia gave one bag to Thea and one to Delia. “Be careful with that last one, please.”
Aunt Nadia smiled at the couple. “While the girls bring your bags upstairs, please join me in the living room for some tea.”
Thea, Delia and I carried the Brownes’ bags to Thea’s room which had been turned into a guest room. We set them down and I gave the room a quick look. The fresh flowers on the bureau looked good, the new towels and soaps we’d bought rested neatly on the bedside table, and the plate of snacks sat on Thea’s cleaned off desk. I could still see the vacuum marks on the carpet and there wasn’t a speck of dust in the room.
The doorbell rang and we rushed to the front door. Thea opened the door and welcomed our guests.
“I’m Charles Packard and this is my wife, Emma,” said the short man. He was a couple inches shorter than me, maybe five feet three inches. His wife was even shorter.
“Welcome to our home. I’m Thea and these are my cousins, Isabella and Delia.”
We all shook hands like grandma had made us practice and if she had been paying attention, she would have been proud of us.
“Can we take your bags?” I asked.
“Oh, not to worry,” said Emma Packard. “We don’t have much to carry.”
We led them upstairs to Delia’s room and let them get settled while we sat into my room. I threw myself on my bed, careful not to crush my robe while my cousins sat on their air mattresses.
After a dinner whose guiding principle could be called “children should be seen and not heard”, Thea, Delia and I went to my room. Now, don’t get me wrong, usually we were encouraged to share our opinions about anything we wanted to, and to debate with the aunts, but this was not allowed that night. We sat quietly and separated far enough from each other that we couldn’t even have our own conversation. When grandma finally said we could leave the table, we were thrilled. Listening to old people remembering the people we never knew and relive the times we weren’t even alive for was going to turn me old before my time.
A creak on the landing woke me from a light sleep “Who’s there?”
I wasn’t worried when no one answered. Our house was safely warded against intruders, like all witch houses were. It was probably one of our guests having trouble sleeping.
We woke up early but stayed in bed for a bit, talking. Since none of us remembered much about our ceremony when we were seven, we didn’t know what to expect. “It can’t be all that bad, or we’d at least remember that, right?” I asked. It bothered us that the aunts wouldn’t tell us what to expect. We’d talked long into the night last night about what we wanted for our futures and we all decided we were definitely going to remain students and that if we didn’t take grandma’s advice to move to intermediate studies that it could be a difficult seven years.
My alarm rang at six thirty and two minutes later Aunt Nadia was at my door, lightly knocking. “Girls, are you awake?” she asked.
I opened the door and let the aunts in. “Good morning girls,“ said my mother.
“Are you ready for your day? I’m so excited for tonight and your new commitment,” Aunt Nadia said.
“It’s going to be a wonderful night, but first we need your help down in the kitchen,” Aunt Lily said.
Great, we get to help make breakfast, too. I only hoped the dishes were done from dinner last night. I didn’t like the idea of tackling that pile before breakfast.
Down in the kitchen, grandma was cutting fruit into a bowl. “Good morning, grandma,” we all said, kissing her on the cheek.
She stood up and, surprisingly, hugged each of us. “Look at you three, about to take one of the most important steps of a young witch’s life today.” She wiped a tear from her eye and said, “No matter what you choose, I am proud of each of you for the young woman you are now, and for the woman I think you will become.”
“Thank you, grandma,” said Thea. “You know we always work hard because we want you to be proud of us.”
Grandma wiped her hands on her apron and said, “Yes, well, make me proud by getting to work on breakfast. Delia, you make the pancakes, Thea, you make the eggs and Isabella, you fry up the bacon. We’ll eat in a half an hour.”
Half an hour was not that long to cook breakfast for thirteen people, unless you had our kitchen and some magical help. We had a griddle that covered the six burners of the stovetop, meaning Delia would only need to make two batches of pancakes. On the other stove – what do you mean your house doesn’t have two stoves? The Aunts used to run a catering business, so not only do we have everything you could imagine, we generally have two of them. On the other stove, Thea and I could make the eggs and bacon just as quickly. I could smell muffins in the oven already, courtesy of the Aunt Nadia. Coffee was brewing and everything seemed to be going to plan.
How did I know it was all going to plan? Because the kitchen’s chalkboard had a plan written down on it. Food, activities, ceremony – it was all up there with jobs and lists. Aunt Delia had charmed the board and when one task was finished, it was checked off and the next task assigned.
The smell of breakfast brought our guests downstairs and we brought the food out to the sideboard in the dining room. Grandpa was lighting a fire in the fireplace as we walked in. Aunt Lily was setting the sideboard up with plates and cutlery.
Once the Packards and Brownes joined us, we were ready to eat. Grandma looked around at everyone in the room. “I suppose we should get Jemima. She’ll be angry if she misses breakfast.”
“I’ll go get her,” I offered.
I walked up the stairs and down the hall to her room and knocked on the door. “Auntie Jem? Are you awake?”
She didn’t answer, so I tried the doorknob. The door swung open for me with a small creak. All our bedrooms had heavy velvet drapes that blocked all the early morning light, making it was easy to oversleep. “Aunt Jem?” I whispered.
I walked to the window and opened one of the curtains. Sunlight flooded the room but Auntie Jem didn’t move. “Wake up, sleepyhead, or you’ll miss breakfast.”
I looked at the four-poster bed and it seemed like time froze. Aunt Jemima was laying on the bed, her open eyes bulging out. My heart skipped a beat and then began to pound. Something was wrong with her. I put my finger to her wrist to check for a pulse. I couldn’t find one. I didn’t see her breathing either. I wasn’t sure what to do. I’d never found a dead aunt in a bed before. Should I call the police? Should I get grandma up here?
I stuck my head out the bedroom door and yelled “Mom! Can you come here for a minute?” I tried to keep the panic out of my voice. I’m not sure I succeeded because all three aunts came running.
At the doorway, my mother took one look at me and said, “What is it?”
I pointed at Aunt Jemima and didn’t say anything. Aunt Lily and Aunt Nadia rushed past me and checked for her pulse. Aunt Nadia straightened up and looked at my mother, who had not left my side. She shook her head and I started to cry. My mother put her arm around me and said, “It’s not your fault, sweetie.”
I knew it wasn’t my fault, but I’d never seen a dead body before and I didn’t know how to feel about it. I guess my default is crying.
“I’ll have to call the police,” said Aunt Nadia.
Aunt Lily snapped her head up and said, “Not Roy.”
Aunt Nadia said, “There’s not much I can do about that, they’ll send whoever they send. We can keep him away from you, though.”
I had no idea what they were talking about. We had much bigger worries than Aunt Lily not liking a detective.
“How?” asked Aunt Nadia.
“I’m checking,” replied Aunt Lily. She closed her eyes for a moment, a look of deep concentration etched on her face. When she opened her eyes, she shook her head.
I brushed the tears from my eyes and looked to my mother. “Aunt Jem wasn’t killed by a spell,” she said.
I nodded, hoping she’d died of natural causes. The thought of a killer in the house was terrifying.
“We’ll need to get our story straight, too,” my mother said as she led us all downstairs.
Aunt Nadia took grandma and grandpa aside. “There’s no easy way to say this.” She took a deep breath and continued. “Aunt Jem is dead.”
Grandma didn’t say anything for a moment, and I could see emotion playing on her face – disbelief, surprise, then pain. Silent tears ran down grandma’s cheeks and we could hear grandpa comforting her.
Aunt Lily got us all situated in the drawing room to give grandma time to pull herself together, much to the consternation of our hungry guests. “We have a problem. Jemima has passed and we need to call the police.”
Mr. and Mrs. Packard paled at the news. The Brownes blanched as well.
“What? How did it happen?” asked Emma Packard.
“We don’t know. I didn’t find any magic lingering in the room, so it was probably natural causes. She wasn’t young, you know,” said Aunt Lily.
Mr. Browne shifted in his seat. “Who found her?”
“I did,” I meant it to come out loud and in command, but all I could manage was a timid whisper.
“You?” he asked. “Well, there’s our first suspect right there.” He jumped up and strode across the room, then squatted until he was nose to nose with me. “Tell me, girl, why did you kill your aunt?”
I shrank into my mother’s arms, trying to avoid his morning breath. “I didn’t kill her. Why would I want to do that?”
He stood straighter and looked at all the other witches in the room. “We all know, although we don’t say, that young witches, particularly those who are under a lot of stress to pass their first training, often do things which may seem rational to themselves in the moment, but which are actually quite harmful to themselves, or others.”
“I didn’t kill her. I heard the stairs creaking last night, though,” I said.
“Now you just wait a minute,” Aunt Nadia said. Before she could go on, Octavia started to speak.
“Shut up, Percy. You sound like an idiot. Of course this little girl didn’t kill Jemima. Look at her – she can barely speak or look at anyone. The poor girl is in shock and should have our concern, not our accusations.”
She patted the couch next to her and Percy sat down, like a trained dog returning to his position.
“Nadia is calling the police, and we have to agree that we are here for a celebration for the girls. There’s no sense bringing the police into our private business.”
There were nods around the room, but Percy didn’t seem convinced.
“Percy?” my mother asked.
“I’m just saying, it doesn’t take much for a girl to snap in this day and age. And she probably thinks she’s being clever making up a little story about hearing someone out in the hallway last night.”
“Damn it, man,” said Charles. “You need to shut up before you embarrass yourself any more. If she did it, the police will figure it out.”
“I guess you’re right,” said Percy, “and I’ll go along with the lie, as long as she -” he pointed at me, “isn’t left alone for a single second.”
“I think we can arrange that,” my mother said. “I wouldn’t want her alone with you accusing her anyway. We all know how little it takes to run afoul of male fragility.”
Five minutes of us accusing each other and arguing about the dead woman upstairs and the police arrived. It was almost a relief.
Grandma opened the door, her eyes red from crying. “Dobbins,” she said, anger seething through her clenched teeth.
“Ma’am. I’m sorry for your loss. There was no one else available to come this morning. I promise I’ll treat your situation with the utmost discretion and tact, if you’ll let me. I think it’s about time I did something for this family.”
Grandma nodded and stepped aside, letting the officer pass. Dobbins shook Grandpa’s hand. “I’ll do my best to be thorough and get out of your way as quickly as possible, sir.”
Why was grandma angry with a police detective, and why was that detective willing to be so accommodating to the family?
“I’ll bring you upstairs,” Aunt Nadia volunteered.
“Did you find the victim?” Dobbins asked.
“I found her,” I said.
He turned to me. “And your name is?”
My mother took a step toward him. “She’s my daughter.”
A little something seemed to go out of Dobbins but he quickly recovered. “All right, then. Isabella, I’d like you to come with us. I want you to show me exactly what you were doing when you found Mrs. Proctor.”
My mother led the detective and me to Aunt Jem’s room and I heard the same creak in the stair I heard last night. Once in the room I ran through exactly what I did not an hour before.
“And has she been moved since you saw her?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No. She’s in the same position I found her in. Aunt Lily and Aunt Delia checked her pulse and no one else was in here.
“We’ll have to ask you all to wait downstairs while we process the room. We’ll have the coroner come in, too.” He walked to my mother and said, “Michelle, you have to believe me, if there was anyone else available, I would have stayed away. I keep my promises.”
My mother nodded and patted his arm. “Do what you can for Aunt Jemima.”