Written by Grandma Lee
Size: 8x5 in
When Rowan Middlebrook left Secret Hallow for college, she swore she would never return home. It’s not that she doesn’t like her hometown. It’s just kinda weird there, what with the eternal autumn thing, the hauntings, and…oh yeah, all the witchcraft.
But then Rowan broke up with Garrett, her magic-oblivious boyfriend. And then the local school district put a hiring freeze on teachers, so Rowan can’t get a job in her field. And then Nana Winterblossom asked for Rowan’s help saving The Elder Tree, since she she used to be the best earth witch in Secret Hallow.
Why not? What harm could there be in going home just for one week?
Rowan quickly meets the new warlock in Secret Hallow: Caedmon McFarland, who thinks he’s going to take over the coven by marrying Rowan, despite the fact they’ve never met before. Meddling Nana has that matchmaking twinkle in her eye, so she’s no help shaking Caedmon off.
Dodging arranged marriage and trying to save The Elder Tree is more than enough to keep Rowan busy until graduate school.
Which is why it couldn’t be more inconvenient for Garrett, magic-oblivious ex-boyfriend, to suddenly show up in Secret Hallow looking for Rowan.
Now Rowan remembers why she swore to never go home again.
Rowan stepped through the automatic doors separating the interior of the airport terminal from the outdoors. The smell of saltwater, fish, and kelp filled her nostrils as she took a deep breath to calm herself, having just caught sight of a familiar broken-down pickup idling at the curb. Three figures sat on the other side of the darkened windshield: Nana behind the wheel, and the Ash sisters, Enid and Gemma, on the bench seat next to her.
Even at that distance, Rowan could make out the pointed witch hats the sisters wore.
She took a few more deep breaths. She counted to ten. And then she breathed some more. None of that reduced her rising stress. There were not enough deep breathing exercises in the world to get her through the day.
Enid flung open the passenger-side door, jumped to the sidewalk, and rushed over. “Blessed be, Rowan! Been too long. So good to see you.”READ MORE
Rowan managed to smile as Enid pulled her into a warm embrace. The smile vanished when Enid stepped back to cast a scathing glance over Rowan. “We gotta do something about that outfit. You look like Suzy College.”
She glanced down at her University of Oregon sweatshirt and faded jeans. Her idea of fashion consisted of anything clean that fit and felt comfortable. By those standards, Rowan was practically Posh Spice.
By that time, they’d been joined by Enid’s sister Gemma, who pulled Rowan into a side-hug. Neither Posh Spice nor Suzy College would have dared to be seen in public with them: both wore multi-layered, multi-colored skirts, ankle boots in variegated shades of purple, striped stockings, and crop tops that emphasized the ebony skin of their toned stomachs.
And then, of course, the witch hats.
“Give her a break, sis. You shouldn’t be surprised that she looks like a student. Our girl did just graduate.” Giving Rowan a quick hug and a peck on the cheek, Gemma said, “We’re proud of what you’ve done out in the world, but we’re also very glad you’ve come back. Life in Secret Hallow isn’t the same without you.”
A heavily beringed hand waved from the open driver’s side window of the truck. “Let’s go!” Nana called.
Gemma took Rowan’s duffle as Enid dragged her toward the waiting truck.
“Hi, Nana!” Rowan said. She didn’t have to feign enthusiasm at the sight of her grandmother. Nana was old enough that her witchy clothes would pass for benign old lady eccentricity, unlike the Ash sisters, who might as well have tattooed “we are witches” on their foreheads.
“Stop with the chatting and get in, granddaughter,” Nana said impatiently. “We can visit when we get back to the village.” She hated visiting mundane cities. She claimed that being so far from the magic pouring out of The Elder Grove made her bones ache.
Enid hopped into the bed of the truck with what looked like a living, breathing bear-skin rug. She hugged the massive St. Bernard snoozing on the warm metal. “Who’s a good boy?” The dog raised his massive head and gave his mistress a woebegone look.
“You brought Bronson. How nice.” Rowan gave the dog a quick pat as she waited for Gemma to climb in. She tried her best to sound positive despite her anxiety about being seen with such an odd group.
“Bronson is the best boy in the world,” said Enid in a loud baby talk voice that could only attract attention.
She glanced around the loading zone and breathed a sigh of relief to see no one looking. It was a busy day at the airport, so everyone was far too busy coming and going to care what the pickup of women were doing in “costume” so far from Halloween.
Rowan’s clawing embarrassment was too familiar a sensation. She thought she had left such shame behind when she left for college, but it had wasted no time roaring back. All it took was a glimpse of pointy witch hats and the perpetual humiliation of her childhood returned as though it had never left.
She hopped onto the lumpy seat and just managed to latch the creaky door before the pickup lurched forward. In the chipped side-view mirror, she caught sight of the exhaust belching out a cloud of black smoke.
“Easy, Nana!” Enid called through the open window separating her from the cab. She was lying across the slumbering dog, who hadn’t batted an eye at the pickup’s jerking.
Nana took a corner like a race car driver. “Sorry. Can’t do much with this old bucket of bolts, ya know?” Rowan grabbed the handle above the passenger window to brace herself.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Enid. “You could have someone do a little work on the old clunker.”
“No one in the village is very mechanical. You know that.”
“Who’s talking about a mechanic?”
“Um, you guys haven’t been casting spells on this pickup…have you?” Rowan asked.
“Goblins, no!” Nana cried as she wrenched the wheel to whip them around a corner.
Rowan almost felt reassured, but then Gemma muttered, “No spells that Nana knows about, anyway.”
That explained the purple sparkles now gushing out of the tailpipe.
Rowan fumbled beneath the flowing fabric of Gemma’s skirt to find her seatbelt, grimacing as she fell against her seat mate during another sharp turn. She knew no one could hear their conversation, but still didn’t feel comfortable discussing the peculiar talents of the residents of her village out in the wider world. It felt like one of her blissfully mundane professors might appear from nowhere and scold her for weirdness.
After a few hair-raising moments, she managed to buckle up then gripped the door handle for dear life. Her grandmother’s driving hadn’t improved any in the time she’d been away at school.
“Orianna wanted me to apologize. She wishes she could have come today.” Nana merged into traffic without checking over her shoulder. Tires squealed and a cacophony of horns honked their displeasure.
Rowan’s knuckles whitened on the handle. “I haven’t heard from her in ages.”
“I’m not surprised. She won’t leave that child of hers alone for two seconds.” Gemma laughed. “That’s why I plan to never have kids of my own. They take up too much time and responsibility. When would I get to watch more TV shows on Netflix? I wouldn’t be able to binge entire series in a single weekend.”
“You say that as though that would be a bad thing,” said Enid through the window. To Rowan, she added, “Gemma’s doing enough for the village kids without adding one of her own to the herd. She’s fixated on restoring the schoolhouse. I’m surprised she hasn’t already tried to recruit you.”
“Shush, sis! Don’t ruin things.”
Rowan frowned. “Recruit? What do you mean?”
Nana interrupted. “We need to talk about other issues first. Specifically, the Elder Tree. Nothing is more important. We won’t be able to educate the young witchlings of Secret Hallow if the magic is gone!”
Gemma placed a hand atop Rowan’s free one. “She’s right. The Tree is in desperate need of your special brand of tender loving care. I do believe you’ve arrived just in the nick of time, to be honest. We’ll lose the Elder before too long without the right kind of help.”
“That’s the truth,” said Enid. “We’re in urgent need of the right kind of help.”
The group fell silent as they each descended into their own thoughts.
Rowan rolled down her window and leaned her head against the frame as she watched them pass beyond the city limits.
It wouldn’t be long now before they reached Secret Hallow.
The road narrowed as they ventured deeper into the forest and the trees bumped up against the neglected macadam like a living wall. Locals didn’t venture out this way very often due to long-standing legends about the strange happenings in the deep woods between them and the ocean.
Little did they know, the truth was far stranger than what they imagined.
An occasional shaft of golden sunlight filtering through the dense vegetation caused shadows to dance on the road ahead of them. The breeze blowing in through the window carried the rich aroma of damp earth and decaying leaves. The slight chill made Rowan glad for the warmth of her sweatshirt, no matter what Enid thought of her look.
It wasn’t as though Rowan had anyone to impress now that she had broken up with her boyfriend, Garrett.
Nana’s cheery voice interrupted Rowan’s dejected thoughts. A rusted directional sign swung from a single nail off a leaning post, heralding the nearby village. Gloom fell over the truck as they drove onto the rickety covered bridge separating Secret Hallow from the outside world.
The pickup slowed to a crawl on the splintered wooden track as the weathered structure surrounding them creaked at the weight of the vehicle.
Rowan spoke through clenched teeth. “After all this time, no one thought to fix this thing?”
“Why bother? This is a great way to keep strangers from showing up on our doorstep.” Nana cackled. “Better than trying to shoo off curious weirdos, don’t you think?”
“I suppose.” Rowan doubted there was anyone weirder outside Secret Hallow than those within.
After what an eternity in which Rowan believed they’d drop through the rotted bridge into the depths of the murky river below, they emerged out the opposite side. The pickup growled around a final bend in the narrow road to allow Rowan her first glimpse of her home village in six years.
Unlike the rusty sign on the bridge, the wooden sign at the edge of the village identifying the hamlet as “Secret Hallow” looked as though it had gotten a recent touch-up, as did the gingerbread Victorians lined along Main Street. Everything sparkled, and it wasn’t just the glow of nostalgia making everything so beautiful.
That was the magic intrinsic to Secret Hallow. The magic that she had been trying to escape for so many years.
Like it or not, Rowan was home.COLLAPSE