Beautiful Redemption by Kami Garcia


  The other smell was chocolate. Not just chocolate, but the densest, darkest chocolate around, which meant the inside of Amma’s Tunnel of Fudge cake, my favorite of all her desserts. The one she never made for any contest or fair or family in need—just for me, on my birthday or when I got a good report card or had a rotten day.

  It was my cake, like lemon meringue was Uncle Abner’s pie.

  I sank into the nearest chair at the kitchen table, my head in my hands. The cake wasn’t for me to eat. It was for her to give, an offering. Something to take out to Greenbrier and leave on my grave.

  The thought of that Tunnel of Fudge cake laid out on the fresh dirt by the little wooden cross made me want to throw up.

  I was worse than dead.

  I was one of the Greats, but a whole lot less great.

  The egg timer went off, and Amma pushed back her chair, spearing the charm bag with her needle one last time and letting it drop to the table.

  “Don’t want your cake to dry out now, do we, Ethan Wate?” Amma yanked open the oven door, and a blast of heat and chocolate shot out. She stuck her quilted mitts in so far I worried she was going to catch fire herself. Then she yanked out the cake with a sigh, almost hurling it onto the burner.

  “Best let it cool a bit. Don’t want my boy burnin’ his mouth.”

  Lucille smelled the food and came wandering into the kitchen. She leaped onto the table, just like always, getting the best vantage point possible.

  When she saw me sitting there, she let out a horrible howl. Her eyes caught me in a fixed glare, as if I’d done something deeply and personally offensive.

  Come on, Lucille. You and me, we go way back.

  Amma looked at Lucille. “What’s that, old girl? You got somethin’ to say?”

  Lucille yowled again. She was ratting me out to Amma. At first I thought she was just trying to be difficult. Then I realized she was doing me a favor.

  Amma was listening. More than listening—she was scowling and looking around the room. “Who’s there?”

  I looked back at Lucille and smiled, reaching out to scratch her on the top of her head. She twitched beneath my hand.

  Amma swept the kitchen with her eagle eye. “Don’t you be comin’ in my house. Don’t need you spirits comin’ around. There’s nothin’ here left to take. Just a lot a broken-down old ladies and broken hearts.” She reached slowly toward the jar sitting on the counter and took hold of the One-Eyed Menace.

  There it was. Her death-defying, all-powerful wooden spoon of justice. The hole in the middle looked even more like an all-seeing eye tonight. And I had no doubt it could see, maybe as well as Amma. In this state—wherever I was—I could see plain as day that the thing was strangely powerful. Like the salt, it practically glowed, leaving a trail of light where she waved it in the air. I guess things of power came in all shapes and sizes. And when it came to the One-Eyed Menace, I’d be the last one to doubt anything it could do.

  I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. Lucille shot me another look, hissing. Now she was getting bratty. I wanted to hiss right back at her.

  Stupid cat. This is still my house, Lucille Ball.

  Amma looked my way, as if she was seeing straight into my eyes. It was eerie, how close she came to knowing right where I was. She raised the spoon high above the both of us.

  “Now you listen. I don’t take kindly to you stickin’ your nose inta my kitchen, uninvited. You either get outta my house, or you make yourself known, you hear? I won’t have you intrudin’ on this family. Been through nearabout enough already.”

  I didn’t have much time. The smell from Amma’s charm bag was making me kind of sick, to tell the truth, and I didn’t have a whole lot of experience at haunting—if this even qualified. I was completely out of my league.

  I stared at the Tunnel of Fudge cake. I didn’t want to eat it, but I knew I had to do something with it. Something to make Amma understand—just like Lena and the silver button.

  The more I thought about that cake, the more I knew what I had to do.

  I took a step toward Amma and her cake, ducking around the defensive spoon—and stuck my hand into the fudge, as far as I could. It wasn’t easy—it felt like I was trying to grab a handful of cement minutes before it hardened into actual pavement.

  But I did it anyway.

  I scooped out a big piece of chocolate cake, letting it topple off the side and slide onto the burner. I might as well have taken a bite out of it—that’s pretty much what the gaping hole in the side of the cake looked like.

  One giant ghostly bite.

  “No.” Amma stared, wide-eyed, holding the spoon in one hand and her apron in the other. “Ethan Wate, is that you?”

  I nodded, even though she couldn’t see me. She must have felt something, though, because she lowered the spoon and dropped into the chair across from me, letting the tears flow like a baby in the cry room at church.

  Between the tears I heard it.

  Just a whisper, but I heard it as clearly as if she had shouted my name.

  “My boy.”

  Her hands were shaking as she held on to the edge of the old table. Amma might be one of the greatest Seers in the Lowcountry, but she was still a Mortal.

  I had become something else.

  I moved my hand over hers, and I could have sworn she slipped her fingers between mine. She rocked in her chair a little, the way she did when she was singing a hymn she loved or was just about to finish a particularly hard crossword.

  “I miss you, Ethan Wate. More than you know. Can’t bear to do my puzzles. Can’t recall how to cook a roast.” She wiped her hand across her eyes, leaving it on her forehead like she had a headache.

  I miss you, too, Amma.

  “Don’t go too far from home, not just yet. You hear me? I’ve a few things to tell you, one a these days.”

  I won’t.

  Lucille licked her paw and rolled it over her ears. She hopped down from the table and howled one last time. She started to walk out of the kitchen, stopping only to look back at me. I could hear what she was saying, as clearly as if she was speaking to me.

  Well? Come on, already. You’re wasting my time, boy.

  I turned and gave Amma a hug, reaching my long arms all the way around her tiny frame, as I had so many times before.

  Lucille stopped and cocked her head, waiting. So I did what I’d always done when it came to that cat. I got up from the table and followed.

  CHAPTER 8

  Broken Bottles

  Lucille scratched at the door to Amma’s room, and it slid open. I slipped through the crack in the door right after the cat.

  Amma’s room looked better and worse than it did the last time I saw it, the night I jumped off the water tower. That night, the jars of salt, river stones, and graveyard dirt—the ingredients in so many of Amma’s charms—were missing from their places on the shelves, along with at least two dozen other bottles. Her “recipe” books had been scattered across the floor, without so much as a single charm or doll in sight.

  The room had been a reflection of Amma’s state of mind—lost and desperate, in a way that hurt to remember.

  Today it looked completely different, but as far as I could tell, the room was still full of what she was feeling on the inside, the things she didn’t want anyone to see. The doors and windows were laden with charms, but if Amma’s old charms were as good as they come, these were even better—stones intricately arranged around the bed, bundles of hawthorn tied around the windows, strands of beads decorated with tiny silver saints and symbols looped around the bedposts.

  She was working hard to keep something out.

  The jars were still crowded together the way I remembered them, but the shelves weren’t bare anymore. They were lined with cracked brown, green, and blue glass bottles. I recognized them immediately.

  They were from the bottle tree in our front yard.

  Amma must have taken them down. Maybe she wasn’t afraid of evil spirits anymore.
Or maybe she just didn’t want to catch the wrong one.

  The bottles were empty, but each one was stopped up with a cork. I touched a small bluish-green one with a long crack down one side. Slowly, and with about as much ease as if I was pushing the Beater all the way up the hill to Ravenwood on a summer day, I edged the cork out from the rim of the bottle, and the room began to fade….

  The sun was hot, swamp mist rising like ghosts over the water. But the little girl with the neat braids knew better. Ghosts were made of more than steam and mist. They were as real as she was, waiting for her ancient grandmamma or her aunties to call them up. And they were just like the living.

  Some were friendly, like the girls who played hopscotch and cat’s cradle with her. And others were nasty, like the old man who paced around the graveyard in Wader’s Creek whenever there was thunder. Either way, the spirits could be helpful or ornery, depending on their mood and what you had to offer. It was always a good idea to bring a gift. Her great-great-great-grandmamma had taught her that.

  The house was just up the hill from the creek, like a weatherworn blue lighthouse, leading both the dead and the living back home. There was always a candle in the window after dark, wind chimes above the door, and a pecan pie on the rocker in case someone came calling. And someone always came calling.

  Folks came from miles and miles to see Sulla the Prophet. That’s what they called her great-great-great-grandmamma, on account of how many of her readings came to pass. Sometimes they even slept on the little patch of grass in front of the house, waiting for the chance to see her.

  But to the girl, Sulla was just the woman who told her stories and taught her to tat lace and make a butter piecrust. The woman with a sparrow that would fly in the window and sit right on her shoulder, like it was a branch on an old oak.

  When she reached the front door, the girl stopped and smoothed her dress before she went in.

  “Grandmamma?”

  “I’m in here, Amarie.” Her voice was smooth and thick—“Heaven and honey,” the men in town called it.

  The house was only two rooms and a small cooking space. The main room was where Sulla worked, reading tarot cards and tea leaves, making charms and roots for healing. There were glass canning jars all over, full of everything from witch hazel and chamomile to crows’ feathers and graveyard dirt. On the bottom shelf was one jar Amarie was allowed to open. It was full of buttery caramels, wrapped in thick wax-coated paper. The doctor who lived in Moncks Corner brought them whenever he came by for ointments and a reading.

  “Amarie, you come on over here now.” Sulla was fanning a deck of cards out on the table. They weren’t the tarot cards the ladies from Gatlin and Summerville liked her to read. These were the cards Grandmamma saved for special readings. “You know what these are?”

  Amarie nodded. “Cards a Providence.”

  “That’s right.” Sulla smiled, her thin braids falling over her shoulder. Each one was tied with a colored string—a wish someone who visited her was hoping would come true. “Do you know why they’re different from tarot cards?”

  Amarie shook her head. She knew the pictures were different—the knife stained with blood. The twin figures facing each other with palms touching.

  “Cards a Providence tell the truth—the future even I don’t want to see some days. Dependin’ on whose future I’m readin’.”

  The little girl was confused. Didn’t tarot cards show a true future if a powerful reader was interpreting the spread? “I thought all cards show the truth if you know how to make sense a them.”

  The sparrow flew in from the open window and perched on the old woman’s shoulder. “There’s the truth you can face and the truth you can’t. You come over here and sit down, and I’ll show you what I mean.” Sulla shuffled the cards, the Angry Queen disappearing into the deck behind the Black Crow.

  Amarie walked around to the other side of the table and sat down on the crooked stool where so many folks waited to see their fate.

  Sulla flicked her wrist, fanning the cards out in one swift motion. Her necklaces tangled together at her throat—silver charms etched with images Amarie didn’t recognize, hand-painted wooden beads strung between bits of rock, colored crystals that caught the light when Sulla moved. And Amarie’s favorite—a smooth black stone threaded through a piece of cord that rested on the hollow of Sulla’s neck.

  Grandmamma Sulla called it “the eye.”

  “Now pay attention, Little One,” Sulla instructed. “One day you’ll be doin’ this on your own, and I’ll be whisperin’ to you from the wind.”

  Amarie liked the sound of that.

  She smiled and pulled the first card.

  The edges of the vision blurred, and the row of colored bottles came back into view. I was still touching the cracked bluish-green one and the cork that had unleashed the memory—one of Amma’s, trapped like a dangerous secret she didn’t want to escape into the world. But it wasn’t dangerous at all, except maybe to her.

  I could still see Sulla showing her the Cards of Providence, the cards that would one day form the spread that showed her my death.

  I pictured the faces of the cards, especially the twins, face to face. The Fractured Soul. My card.

  I thought about Sulla’s smile and how small she looked compared to the giant she seemed to be as a spirit. But she wore the same intricate braids and heavy strands of beads snaking around her neck in both life and death. Except the cord with the black stone—I didn’t remember that one.

  I looked down at the empty bottle, pushing back the cork and leaving it on the shelf with the others. Did all these bottles hold Amma’s memories? The ghosts that were haunting her in ways the spirits never would?

  I wondered if the night of my death was in one of those bottles, shoved down deep where it couldn’t escape.

  I hoped so, for Amma’s sake.

  Then I heard the stairs creak.

  “Amma, you in the kitchen?” It was my dad.

  “I’m in here, Mitchell. Right where I always am before supper,” Amma answered. She didn’t sound normal, but I didn’t know if my dad could tell.

  I followed the sound of their voices back through the hall. Lucille was sitting at the other end waiting for me, her head tilted to the side. She sat straight like that until I was inches away from her, and then she stood up and sauntered off.

  Thanks, Lucille.

  She’d done her job, and she was through with me. Probably had a saucer of cream and a fluffy pillow waiting for her in front of the television.

  I guessed I wasn’t going to be able to spook her again.

  As I rounded the corner, my dad was pouring himself a glass of sweet tea. “Did Ethan call?”

  Amma stiffened, her cleaver poised over an onion, but my dad didn’t seem to notice. She started chopping. “Caroline has him busy waitin’ on her. You know how she is, classy and sassy, just like her mamma was.”

  My dad laughed, his eyes crinkling in the corners. “That’s true, and she’s a terrible patient. She must be driving Ethan crazy.”

  My mom and Aunt Prue weren’t kidding. My dad was under the influence of a serious Cast. He had no idea what had happened. I wondered how many of Lena’s family members it took to pull this off.

  Amma reached for a carrot, lopping the end off before she even got it on the cutting board. “A broken hip’s a lot worse than the flu, Mitchell.”

  “I know—”

  “What’s all that racket?” Aunt Mercy called from the living room. “We’re tryin’ ta watch Jeopardy!”

  “Mitchell, get on in here. Mercy’s no good at the music questions.” It was Aunt Grace.

  “You’re the one who thinks Elvis Presley is still alive,” Aunt Mercy shot back.

  “I most certainly do. He can dance himself a mean jive,” Aunt Grace shouted, catching every third word at best. “Mitchell, hurry on up. I need a witness. And bring some cake with you.”

  My dad reached for the Tunnel of Fudge cake on the counter
, still warm from the oven. When he disappeared down the hall, Amma stopped chopping and rubbed the worn gold charm of her necklace. She looked sad and broken, cracked like the bottles lined up on the shelves in her bedroom.

  “Be sure and let me know if Ethan calls tomorrow,” my dad shouted from the living room.

  Amma stared out the window for a long time before she spoke, barely loud enough for me to hear. “He won’t.”

  CHAPTER 9

  The Stars and Stripes

  Leaving Amma behind was like stepping away from a fire on the coldest night of winter. She felt like home, safe and familiar. Like every scolding and every supper I’d ever had, everything that had been me. The closer I was to her, the warmer I felt—but in the end, it made the cold feel that much colder when I walked away.

  Was it worth it? Feeling better for a minute or two, knowing that the cold would still be out there waiting?

  I wasn’t sure, but for me it wasn’t a choice. I couldn’t stay away from Amma or Lena—and deep down, I didn’t think either one of them wanted me to.

  Still, there was a silver lining, even if it was a little tarnished. If Lucille could see me, that was something. I guess it was true what people said about cats seeing spirits. I just never figured I would be the one to prove it.

  And then there was Amma. She hadn’t exactly seen me, but she’d known I was there. It wasn’t much, but it was something. I had been able to show her, just like I’d been able to show Lena I was at my grave.

  It was exhausting, taking a chunk out of a cake or moving a button a few inches. But it had gotten the message across.

  In a way, I was still here in Gatlin, where I belonged. Everything had changed, and I didn’t have the answers for how to fix that. But I hadn’t gone anywhere, not really.

  I was here.

  I existed.

  If only I could find a way to say what I really wanted to say. There was just so much I could do with a Tunnel of Fudge cake and an old cat and a random charm on Lena’s necklace.

 
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