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Magnificent Maggie Fontaine has been around the mysteries of magic all her life. But when she wakes up with an underage hangover and a talking press-on priestess tattoo on her arm, all Mag wants is for both things to go away. When Aunt Fabulous turns out to have vanished overnight, and it’s up to Mag to find her guardian, will the strange talking tattoo be a help or a hindrance?

Aunt Fabulous and the Talking Tattoo

by Valerie Brook

Copyright © 2017 Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.

Published by Kickit Press/kickitpress.com

Cover and Layout Copyright © 2017 by Kickit Press

Cover Art Copyright: Irina Alexandrovna/Shutterstock.com

This is a work of fiction. Name, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction, in whole or in part in any form.

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BUTTERY YELLOW SUNLIGHT spread between the edges of the drawn curtains, melting in pools of light on the hardwood floor of the Victorian bedroom, on the morning that Magnificent Maggie Fontanne woke up with an underage hangover and a talking press-on priestess tattoo on her right forearm.

It was the same Monday morning that her Aunt Fabulous happened to vanish, too—but Mag didn’t know that yet.

Mag reclosed her eyes and groaned. Sorry, but no. The ink under her skin was not liquid, and the priestess was not whispering an urgent hello.

All Mag knew, in these miserable seconds after waking, was that the bright sunrise made her eyeballs feel as if they were bathed in battery acid and orbiting the room on a collision course with the floor. 

Oh bother. 

The digital alarm clock on the nightstand glared a red-eyed countdown: twenty-nine minutes to get up, get dressed, and hustle to first period honors physics. 

And ten minutes more to be late anyway, because hustling wasn’t happening.

Mag yanked the blankets all the way back over her head and escaped into the soothing darkness of her feather pillows. 

This hangover—the first official hangover she’d had in her whole sixteen years of life—vividly accentuated her stance on the stupidity of underage drinking. 

And why she was against bad judgment.

And how even just a few illegal beers could damage brain cells enough to hallucinate a tattoo coming alive—the fake tattoo that Mag’s best friend, Sherman, had gotten out of the rusty Gas ’N Go gumball machine for a quarter—the tattoo that moments ago had magically moved under the surface of her pale, white skin.

Not that real magic couldn’t make a tattoo come to life, it was just that Mag didn’t have that level of magical talent. She could levitate things. 

That was mostly it.

And to be honest, if she could make tattoos come to life, Mag would have already rushed to The Zink Parlor to get a real tat of her mom in full photographic portrait. It would be as if her mom’s death more than three months ago had never happened.

Wait—the more Mag groggily imagined it, the more bizarre it would be to have her mother returning from the recent grave to live on her arm. 

Because who would ever have any privacy?

Scratch that creepy thought.

In the dark cocoon of woolen blankets, which smelled vaguely of solvent after that nail polish accident, Mag dared to run the soft pads of her curious fingers over the press-on priestess on the inside of her wrist. The delicate skin itched super bad, as if the temporary colors had actually been manufactured out of mosquito juice. 

Then Mag curled her fingers, unable to resist nail-scratching the itchiness—and yanked her hand away fast, holding her breath in the dark cocoon of blankets.

Had the ink design just fluttered again underneath Mag’s fingers? 

She listened for that same voice she’d hallucinated upon waking. The silvery little voice that had urgently whispered: Hello?

Not a sound.

Then, bellowing up from the residential street below, a delivery truck’s engine bellyached with a combustible roar. The world went quiet again.

Mag exhaled, calming down. Her mouth tasted like dirty socks and vinegar. See? Her electrolytes were probably way off. 

She oozed out of the bed covers, shielded her eyes with the back of her palm against the nuclear blast of sunlight, and stumbled like a zombie into the oceanic blue-and-white tiled master bathroom to submerge in hot water.

When Mag had moved in with Aunt Fabulous, this three-story Victorian had been negatory in the furniture department.

As in, Just Signed the Papers.

They’d air-mattressed the first night by the fireplace, chatting up long-lost family history, and the next day they’d hit the antique stores. 

Aunt Fabulous had an eye for authenticity and the pocketbook to acquire it.

House becoming home over the months, the rooms now had a population of spoon-backed velvety armchairs, Carrrra-marble-topped side tables, ornately carved bookshelves, (cradling Mag’s full suitcase of paperbacks, because some teenagers did read), and a hall tree by the front door that held the coats and apparently doubled as a cast iron royal throne.

Mag cringed when she remembered her boozy Shakespearean reenactment last night with full supporting cast: the long black Trench, the furry Parker, and the blue wool Pea. 

If no one was there to observe an act of embarrassment, was it still embarrassing?

Thank heavens her falsetto hadn’t woken Aunt Fabulous, sleeping in the attic bedroom upstairs. Aunt Fabulous had promised to continue Mag’s magical training while she stayed her sophomore school year in this rainy little town of Arcata, California. Mag loved her mom’s sister and didn’t want to disappoint her by being irresponsible.

That meant no trouble—magical or non-magical.

Mag shed her fleecy skull-and-crossbones pajamas, dropping them onto the cold tiled floor. Her bare feet squeaked. She climbed into the soaker tub.

Water gurgled into the sulfur-stained basin, warming her black nail-polished toes. 

Okay, just ten minutes to lie back and relax. Armrests were molded into the tub sides for the ultimate spa situation.

A bar of oatmeal soap sitting on the lip of the tub suddenly slipped underwater like an Olympic tobogganer going for gold. Never mind.

Eyes closed. 

Let the irresponsible beer vapors ooze out and be gone forever.

Tendrils of lazy steam rose up, moisturizing Mag’s cheeks, clearing her sinuses.

Okay, this was stupid ridiculous. 

Just look at the fake tattoo already. Stop being scared and deal.

Better yet, just scrub the damn thing off super quick and be done with it.

Mag sat up, plunged her left hand underwater, snagged the Olympic soap, and flipped up her right inner wrist, oatmeal bar poised in the air and ready to strike down on the target zone like a jet fighter—except the tattoo was gone. 

Mag froze.

This situation had just notched up higher on the creepy scale. 

She inspected her previously tattooed arm, turning it every direction. Then her other arm. Then checked her stomach, ribs, legs and ankles, and the bottoms of her feet.

No tattoo. 

Had the water dissolved it?

A slight itchy sensation—a mosquito bite sensation—grew between her shoulder blades. The bath became suffocating. The water went cold.

“This is not okay at all, do you understand?” Mag whispered. “You can not walk on me behind my back. Come out where I can see you.”

“Not as you brandish a weapon,” the silvery voice said in a nervous tone. “And for the sake of Mamosa, this is cheap ink.”

Mag stood up in the tub. A shiver raced down the trunk of her body.

Water rolled off her naked skin like big jungle raindrops. She caught her skinny reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror and twisted her torso. There it was on her upper back—the renegade priestess tattoo, three inches tall, cowering between a bony shoulder blade and thoracic vertebrae.

The priestess wore a giant red flowing cloak, layers of color shifting from a deep mahogany to a bright cherry as the fabric eclipsed her body. Long brown hair and a delicate white face peered out of the hood. The tattoo’s hazel eyes blinked wide and alive.

Mag recalled the temporary tattoo wrapper label: High Priestess. Easy to apply! Non-toxic and waterproof. Lasts 1-3 days before fading.

Those instructions were crumbled up with the beer cans in the plastic garbage bin outside.

They said nothing about coming to life.

“Am I just still just completely blitzed?” Mag asked.

“The imperative validity of my existence is non-negotiable.” The priestess defensively tightened the cloak around her shoulders. “Now please stop this washing-off nonsense right this moment.”

Mag tightened her grip on the slippery soap. How could she stab her back? Then slowly, softly, her eyes fell on the reflection of the loofah brush resting by the tub faucets, firm bristles ready to scrub from the perch of a long bamboo handle.

The hazel eyes of the high priestess widened even more. 

Mag’s eyes narrowed, darkly. 

The tattoo made a break for it and ran up Mag’s neck, red cloak billowing in desperation, just as Mag splashed forward, water sloshing over the lip of the tub in a tidal wave.

Mag snatched the long smooth handle but it was too late, the mosquito itch had buried under the blackened forest of her straight wet hair, totally hidden.

“I’ll shampoo,” Mag threatened. She pointed the loofah threateningly at a bottle of anti-dandruff suds. “Everywhere.”

“Then I’ll hide up an orifice,” the silvery voice called out.

Mag froze again. “Which orifice?”

“A nostril. Or behind your eyeball.”

“You’re lying. You won’t fit.” 

But Mag lowered the loofah to her hip and let it slip into the water to join the drowned Olympic soap, anyway.

“This is my first Inversion. Stop trying to foolishly wash me off,” the priestess said. “That’s all I’m asking, for some civility, may we agree?”

Mag leaned her palms on the tub’s edge and slowly stepped out, feet slipping on the small ocean of escaped water, legs wobbling over the blue tiles as she walked. Her bewildered face grew larger than life in the medicine cabinet mirror as she splashed up to the sink. Pale white skin, one eye that got smaller when she smiled—except her reflection wasn’t smiling.

The cold air pinched her skin. 

The open peppermint mouthwash made the air taste nauseating. 

Mag swallowed a swell of uneasiness. Her fingers clutched the edge of the sink, red tips turned white. 

“Who are you?” Mag whispered. “Are you bad magic, or good?”

But the priestess remained silent.

Mag waited for a response. No response came. She was becoming increasingly late for honors physics—and the more she thought about her recent choices, the more dishonorable she felt.

She couldn’t wake up Aunt Fabulous right now; given her aunt’s magical abilities, she might sense Mag’s hangover. That might put Mag’s whole new living arrangement in jeopardy.

“I’m not allowed to use magic in public, it’s part of the Statutes. In fact, my aunt made me promise to keep all aspects of my magical training totally secret, even from friends.” Mag said. “So if I don’t wash you off, then you don’t speak until spoken to.” Mag pulled her wet, shoulder-length hair into a tight ponytail. 

It seemed that the tattoo’s silence signaled an agreement. 

There was no other choice but to rush to keep Mag’s normal routine.

Back in the bedroom, on the bedside table, the red-eyed alarm clock warned of teenage consequence in a language as old as time.

Mag threw on her standard gothic fare—black pleated skirt and pink spaghetti-strap camisole, black velvet hoodie, and the knee-high, metal-studded, New Rock platform boots, of course.

The morning air was crisp as a slap in the face. 

Her boots sounded like a Clydesdale horse’s clomping hooves when she hurried along the sidewalk outside. Mag avoided looking across the street at her uncle’s house (whom she hated), tried not to notice her headache, or think about the strange, tiny woman hiding in her hair.

Twelve minutes late. 

A glare from the honors physics teacher when Mag cracked open the classroom door and scurried to her desk. An entire day of trying not to madly scratch an annoying itch, trying not to experience a spike of dread every time a student said hello, and worrying that the talking tattoo was going to crawl across her forehead in the middle of drama practice for the spring performance of Macbeth.

Mag’s best friend, Sherman, agreed to meet at her house after school—after his mandatory detention. 

And when the final afternoon bell rang, it did not ring soon enough.

* * *

Mag hurried home.

Yelling everywhere in the house, and finding no one, was Mag’s first moment of realization on that sunny Monday that something bad had happened to Aunt Fabulous.

That she had vanished.

It started as a feeling of foreboding—that slow crawl of wrongness that winds up the spine, even before the wrong can be identified—as Mag called out her aunt’s name to no avail, and slowly pushed opened the attic bedroom and found the bed blankets in an unusual whirl. 

Aunt Fabulous normally kept her room immaculate.

A beside lamp had fallen to the floor and shattered. A paperback novel was smashed against the wall, pages bent.

Downstairs, Aunt Fabulous’s cell phone lay abandoned on the kitchen counter. Plugged in and shut off. In the garage sat her famous bicycle (the skinny Harley Davidson look-alike, complete with ape-hanger handlebars and pedals instead of a real engine)—parked forlorn. And on the hall tree hung her aunt’s only jacket, a soft leather flight jacket with a million silver zippers. Totally abandoned.

Aunt Fabulous never left the house without her flight jacket. 

Rain or shine.

Mag locked the front door deadbolt with a thud. Then she ran though the house, boots clomping on hardwood, and locked the flimsy back door latch. She checked all the windows, then ran upstairs to her bedroom and closed the door.

“High Priestess?” Mag whispered. Then before she heard an answer, she ran into the blue-tiled bathroom, boots sloshing through the watery remains of the morning’s shenanigans, and shut that door, too. “Umm…hello?”

Mag leaned with both hands flat on the door and tried to look up at her hair—but her eyes crossed dizzily. 

She hurried to the mirror and released her ponytail, hair now dry but holding the phantom memory of being brutally restrained. “I’m really very sorry I tried to wash you off. Please come out.” 

Mag fluffed her hair and it cascaded softly onto her shoulders. “You just freaked me at first, coming alive. But now I’m more scared of something else.”

The tattoo itched her way toward Mag’s left eye and peeked out from the protective forest of hair follicles. The red cloak billowed and concealed all but her delicate white face. 

“All is forgiven,” the silvery voice said. Yet the edge of nervousness remained.

“Who are you?” Mag asked, leaning in toward the mirror to get a closer look.

Now it seemed the tattoo was not only moving along the two dimensional plane of Mag’s skin, but also taking on a third dimension of depth.

“More important is the why of it all,” the tattoo explained. “Every apprentice in your tradition has a familiar. Though ordinarily when we manifest, we are respected, and dare I suggest, even at times, loved for what we do.”

Mag realized her mouth had opened and was hanging agape.

She really needed a new night guard; she was chiseling her teeth flat from grinding at night.

“You’re a familiar?” Mag said. “Like one of those supernatural entities that help in the practice of magic?”

“Indeed.” The high priestess bowed. “At your service. Though that’s more of an antiquated belief—since I’m here by choice, anyway. Despite your attempts to scour me away.”

“Can we move on from that now?” Mag asked. “All the scouring is over.”

The high priestess shrugged. Then she cautiously stepped out onto Mag’s forehead, immensely long cloak flowing behind her in those ever-shifting red colors. 

For the first time, Mag noticed the tattoo had an air of prestige. And that the high priestess was a young woman, perhaps in her mid twenties. A woman accustom to privilege, but whom also knew privilege could be lost.

Mag swallowed. “So you have your own magic?”

“I do.”

Mag wished she had a magnifying glass. “This is so weird. It’s kinda like having a movie on my forehead, but super small. You could be, like—from The Lord of the Rings.”

“I’m not familiar with his Kingdom.”

“Ahh, okay?” Mag said. “Yeah, it’s just a story.”

The high priestess shrugged again. 

“I mean, how did you find me? You came from a gumball machine, my friend bought you.”

“Custom-made for you, one of a kind.” The tattoo smiled. “Keep studying magic. We are taught what we are ready to learn. But if it’s easier for now, just think of me as merely a sentient tattoo.”

Mag let out a long breath. “Right.”

They were both silent for a moment.

“Your aunt is missing,” the priestess reminded. 

Then, all the fear slammed back into Mag’s body, as if she’d just been tackled by an entire Super Bowl team. The words rushed out. “I think she could have been kidnapped. There are signs of that, at least. And I wouldn’t have heard anything, because I was drunk.”

The priestess didn’t show signs of judgment. She just said, “Who would have done this?” 

The image of Mag’s evil Uncle Daniel came to mind. She ran out of the bathroom, ran across her room, tripped on the toe of her big badass boot, and slid across the final length of her bedroom on her knees like she’d meant to do that.

It was kinda a cool move.

Maybe she should practice it more.

Mag cracked the blinds. The powdery-blue Queen Anne across the quiet street lay silent as a coiled snake in the sun. Uncle Daniel’s dark green Volvo was parked in the driveway. Even in the midafternoon, shadows were beginning to gather under the northern gingerbread spandrel panels and decorated gables.

Mag slid the blinds back into place. “He’s home,” she whispered.

“We should keep an eye on him.”

“I agree.”

Just then the doorbell chimed.

“Oh my God, hide,” Mag said.

Mag jumped up and ran across her room, ran down the stairs and through the long hallway, arriving at the front door unable to speak for lack of breath.

The doorbell chimed again.

When Sherman identified himself through the thick wood, Mag still made him answer three security questions before she unlocked the front door and ushered him in, slamming and locking it behind him again.

“What are you now, an online bank?” Sherman said. “Shall I set a passcode?”

He stood there all muscly, wearing his favorite faded AC/DC T-shirt, curly blond hair naturally doing the perfect faux LA-surfer thing around his boyish face. Sherman wore a burnt orange Brixton snapback—that’s what the new name was for an ordinary ol’ baseball cap—a snapback.

Because the back snapped. 

Mag just grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him upstairs into her room. With that door now shut and locked, she walked over to her bed and fell over backwards in a deadfall.

“Okay,” Sherman said. He slung his backpack off, walked over to the bed, found a respectable distance away, and fell over backward, too. They both stared up at the ceiling.

One of those big delivery trucks barreled up the hill, engine bellyaching.

Mag caught that annoying whiff of nail polish solvent.

“Sorry about the smell,” she said.

“I noticed that,” Sherman said. “Might want to wash your sheets?”

“Might.”

“So what’re we going to do today?”

“Catch my breath.”

“And after that?”

“Find Aunt Fabulous because she’s been kidnapped.”

“Really?” Sherman shot up. “The Fab has been kidnapped? As in call-the-police kidnapped?”

Oh my God the police. Of course Mag should call the police. But wait, if she did involve the authorities, they might decide that since she was a minor with her deceased mother’s final testament in dispute, she could not stay in a house without a guardian, and send her instead to stay with her only other known living relation—Uncle Daniel across the street.

“It’s too soon to call the cops. My aunt doesn’t count as legally missing yet. I have a different plan.” Mag sat up. “We’re going to stake out my uncle’s house. I know he’s involved, he has to be.”

The stakeout involved ordering pepperoni-and-black-olive pizza for delivery. 

They sat on the floor by Mag’s upstairs bedroom window and took turns manning the spyhole. Mag picked off all her nasty olives and tossed them onto Sherman’s paper plate.

Mag kept halfway raising her hand to scratch her right temple, and stopping midair. What would happen to the now-silent talking tattoo if the ink was grazed or damaged?

They talked in hushed tones about the aunt versus uncle custody dispute, the two contested versions of Mom’s last will, and the ten most classic 1980s horror movies. 

The sun quickly sank over the Pacific ocean, brushing the sky in orange and purple watercolors before a big spill of blue-black paint began to wash in from the east and dusk fell.

The yellow lights winked out in Uncle Daniel’s tower and a minute later the porch lights winked on. His front door flew open in a rush and the uncle emerged wearing a musician’s suit and tie, a new cello case in hand and his John Bull top hat on his head.

“He’s late for something,” Mag said. “Come on.”

“I would drive, but someone took my ride, and hasn’t given it back.” Sherman commented.

“Do you think you deserve those keys?” Mag unfolded and stood up quickly.

Sherman didn’t further mention the poor driving judgment that had caused Mag to confiscate his keys in the first place—he just shrugged. 

“It’s a rattle-trap anyway,” he mumbled. “And my pop hasn’t even noticed I’m not using it.”

Mag was already clomping down the stairs like a herd of buffalo.

“But if he notices, then I need it back,” Sherman called out. Then he hurried after her, light as a feather on his swift feet, a practiced skill honed in the high school wrestler’s ring.

It wasn’t that Mag deserved Sherman’s car, either—considering she’d found the unopened beer cans for last night’s solitary debauchery in his trunk while cleaning out his empty cans—Mag was pretty sure this qualified her as a total hypocrite.

However, some truths were fleeting. And better yet, unspoken. And teenagers were supposed to experiment along the way to figuring out what was right, right?

She was never doing the underage drinking thing again. 

End of story.

Because if her aunt was hurt, it was because Mag was her apprentice, and Mag had been foolish in a dangerous world. She knew there were dark forces in this town. And she knew they’d had their eye on her.

Best she not go creating more vulnerabilities than she already naturally had.

Mag and Sherman slid out of the back door into the shadow-draped backyard, and oozed off the deck to inch along the side of the house, the rosemary bush perfuming as they ruffled its dark spiny arms, slinking like professional agents trained in international spy craft—until Mag tripped and fell into the metal trash can with a cosmic clatter.

Neighborhood dogs started howling.

Sherman laughed out loud until Mag punched him in the shoulder. 

The Volvo’s red brake lights flashed, bloodying the driveway across the street. It reversed in a hurry, popping gravel, then shifted into first and squealed away. A brief glimpse of the uncle portrayed a face etched in aggravation, shoulders tense, yelling into a cell phone.

Sherman couldn’t seem to stop chuckling, so Mag just pulled him by the elbow and they raced down the little front lawn to the black Ford Escort parked along the street.

Mag wheeled the rust-trap in a U-turn and they managed to keep the dark green Volvo in sight, even in the fading daylight, as they merged onto the coastal Highway 101 and merged off again in the nearby town of Eureka.

Uncle Daniel leapt out of his Volvo in front of the valet service, pulling his cello from the trunk, at the most famous historical Victorian in Northern California—The Carlby Mansion. The building looked as if it had proudly walked right out of the late 1800s in living color. 

Every shade of pea soup green, to be exact. 

There was some kind of shindig going on tonight. The Victorian was lit up like a renegade spring Christmas had banished the rainbow and gone all white. Even the bushes were sparkling. 

A few men in tuxedoes and women in giant round dresses were unloading themselves from shiny classic cars, wearing period clothing that could have been raided from a professional Hollywood set.

Stragglers to a big-time party that had already started.

A placard advertised: Carlby Coffee and Import’s Annual Spring Gala!

Mag managed to find a place to parallel park five blocks away—and then she even managed to back-and-forth into it without damaging private property or killing a passersby. Sherman only complained of mild whiplash.

Meg just took hold of his elbow and off they ran back to the mansion through the rapidly approaching night.

“We don’t fit in with this scene,” Sherman noted. “Not even if we stole a ticket.”

“I know my uncle is involved. There is no other way my aunt’s kidnapping makes sense. She just moved here a few months ago, not long enough to make enemies—except him. We have to get inside.” Mag’s eyes focused upward. The Victorian’s roof rose up in a multitude of dangerous peaks, but the highest point had a rail and landing. 

“I’ll buy that,” Sherman said. “Your legal guardians have the major feud thing going on. But can’t we wait until he gets home later tonight to grill him?”

“He’s scary, Sherman. It’s best not to talk to him when he’s home, in his element. I’ve been there, done that. I didn’t win.” 

Mag’s head itched like crazy. She needed to talk to the talking tattoo. But there was no way to do that without breaking the Statutes. Unless she ditched Sherman for privacy, which she wasn’t going to do.

“Sherman, you know you’re a total delinquent.” That sentence didn’t come out the way she meant it.

His tropical-island-blue eyes blinked at her. A streetlamp’s white light fell softly around his shoulders in the dark.  

“I mean, not that you’re a bad delinquent. But I mean, you’re always on the very edge of getting kicked off the team, you know?”

“So what’s your point again?”

A sudden pouring of raucous laughter carried in the air. Inside the windows of the mansion, people from the nineteenth century mingled. The sound of classical music flowed out onto the sidewalk—classical music with a cello. 

“My point is that my mom taught me magic back in Chicago,” Mag continued, “and my aunt is a modern witchy-type person, and I’m totally forbidden to tell you any of this, and you must think I’m totally strange because who on Earth actually still believes in ancient magic? So we have to have like, mafia rules, or whatever, right now. And you have to do everything I command without question.”

Sherman stepped closer as he examined Mag, like a daredevil might lean over a rocky outcrop to a deep, dark pool and assess if it was safe to jump.

“Command?”

“I mean ask—politely,” Mag said.

She almost rabidly scratched her hair and stopped midair for the thousandth time.

“I get all that except the mafia part,” he said.

“We can go over the mafia-type loyalty stuff later.”

“Okay,” he agreed. Exemplifying admirably the stature of Best Non-Magical Friend.

“I totally love you,” Mag said—and then paused—“I mean, theoretically. Like I love pizza without olives. But we always order olives for you.”

“Exactly. Me too.”

They quickly walked away from the hubbub around the entrance of the fancy shindig, following the sidewalk to a quieter side of the building. Tall green privacy shrubs blocked the view of a gated parking lot: For Members Only. 

“Here.” Mag pointed at the ground where some kind of furry city animal had created a little path. They crawled and ended up on the darker, illegal backside of the mansion.

“So, remember I was saying about magic—” Mag trailed off. “So, I can kinda levitate things.”

Sherman smiled a hit-me-with-it smile.

So Mag looked left and right, nobody watching. Safety first and safety second, her mom always used to say. Then she levitated them both straight up in the air alongside the mansion, noses almost scuffing a third-story stone gargoyle.

They landed on their feet on a square wooden maintenance deck. 

Pipes on the peaks beside them expelled steam. It smelled like beef sirloin. In the far corner, a door to a stairwell. Beside it a brown-and-white sign: Ladder Access. Mag took a few steps and tested the doorknob. Locked and alarmed.

Sherman reached out for the wooden railing, not really to lean into it, just to touch something. “That was smooth, Mag.”

A curious feeling rose up like tiny needles on Mag’s neck. Maybe this wasn’t Sherman’s first magical rodeo? But there was no time to go there.

“High Priestess?” 

The tattoo flowed out of Mag’s hair and onto her forehead. “Had I not previously agreed to your terms of silence—”

“Oh shit,” Sherman cried.

Flying hadn’t bothered him, but the sight of a talking tattoo, much less the press-on he had given Mag yesterday afternoon, seemed to nearly wipe his feet out from under him. “Yours came to life?” 

He bent over and pulled up the leg of his blue jeans, revealing a press-on black-and-white soccer ball. He thumped it with his finger, but it didn’t talk. “Well, mine’s not alive.”

“—anyway,” the high priestess continued. “Can you not feel the dark magical spires radiating from this building? We’re in danger here. Allow me to depart to bring you assistance.”  

For the second time that day, Mag felt her jaw hang agape. Cold air swirled around her teeth. “You mean you can crawl off my skin?”

“As long as I don’t damage this terrible cheap ink,” the high priestess confirmed. “And I have a surface to traverse. I’m a swift runner. And as I explained this morning, I can abscond through any orifice.” Her tone shimmered with a flash of humor. “Please place your finger to the crack in the door.”

“But where are you going?” Mag protested. “Can you help us find my aunt?”

“I’m your familiar, remember? That’s why I manifest in your world—to assist you like no one else can,” the high priestess explained. “Trust me.”

“I don’t know, I’m not great in the trust department.” 

But Mag reluctantly raised her index finger, pushing the pad to the doorjamb. 

The mosquito itch charged off Mag’s forehead, ran down her neck and arm and shot off like a bullet in a red billowing cape, transferring from round fingertip to flat wooden door, molding to the surfaces she moved along—bright, liquid ink spilled and flowing and gone.

She disappeared through the crack in the door.

It was really quite strange.

“Wow.” Both Mag and Sherman said it at the same time.

Then Sherman said, “I wish I picked that one.”

Mag chewed her lip.

It did not take long for footsteps to pound the stairwell behind the maintenance door. An electric circuit snapped, the door swung out, and Uncle Daniel stood tall as a redwood tree, his eyes smoldering like dark optical lasers that had overheated the internal circuits. He turned from Mag, to Sherman—and back to Mag.

Mag swallowed a sour taste. 

A tuft of thin brown hair had dislodged out of the widow’s peak of his comb-back. His jaw chewed on itself, muscles straining, before his molten anger cooled into quiet, restrained words that he spoke through thin lips.

“First, you are not in neutral territory here and I cannot protect you. Second, take this itchy thing away.” He held up his index finger and the high priestess stood there, flat as a pancake.

It was impossible to read her guarded expression, except that thin cracks snaked up through her cloak, and she had faded. 

Damn the cheap ink.

Mag held up her finger, touched his, and the high priestess transferred over.

The uncle rubbed his irritated skin against his pant’s leg.

“Third, I had nothing to do with what happened to my sister. And so you know, I disapprove of it. I was informed only an hour ago that I would be escorting Fabulous home tonight. And lastly, when you stupidly poke at people with enormous power, Magnificent, they may become annoyed and swat you away. A reckless teenager, who still needs magical training wheels, will get herself bloody hurt.”

Mag felt as if she were shrinking in her boots. She wanted to say she didn’t need training wheels. She wanted to say she hadn’t poked anyone.

But she nodded instead.

“Ten minutes,” Daniel spat, “then take my card and use the maintenance elevator to subbasement B. She’ll be waiting. Leave the way you arrived.” 

“No problem,” Mag managed to say.

The Uncle extended a black key card with a magnetic strip.

Mag pinched the opposite end of the plastic, but he didn’t let go. He just stared at her with his stone-brown cold stare, as if all the angry circuits inside him were going to heat up all over again.

Then he let go and the card made a snapping sound.

Just like that he turned and walked away.

Sherman caught the door before it slammed shut and locked them outside again. The clank and clatter of the party seemed to grow and pound, pound, pound—until Mag realized it was her heartbeat in the back of her ears.

The hot air in the building rushed out into the dark night, tickling her cheek with a strand of hair. 

“Let’s do it,” Sherman quietly said, checking his wristwatch. “Just go down there, come back up here. No problem, okay?”

Mag nodded. The pounding in her ears faded. The tattoo flowed up to her forehead perch to ride shotgun.

Mag got shivers when she stepped through the doorway threshold, as if she’d just pressed through a magical veil of darker intentions, transgressed a boundary where she didn’t belong, because she wasn’t that way.

“I don’t like this club,” she whispered to Sherman. “It’s not what it looks like on the outside.”

“We’ll rescue the Fab and get out of Dodge, okay?” 

The cast iron stairwell wound down in a circle, moss green walls illuminated with weak lamps that cast hangman shadows on the steps, and dead-ended in a wallpapered hallway—a paisley green design. 

Mag thought the house could drown a person in greenness. 

A single closed door read Exit Stairwell. On the opposite wall sat the closed elevator. Sherman inserted the black key card into the slot and the doors slinked opened, as if they were whispering, Come hither.

The maintenance elevator smelled like wet cardboard boxes. It was huge enough, could accommodate a pallet jack. Or even a forklift. 

They rode it down, down, and when the doors opened again, Aunt Fabulous stood there in a musty, cement-walled hallway—wearing white cotton pajama top-and-bottoms—leaning on a bouncer guy with a barrel chest and long black beard and arms as thick as steel sausage. 

He had his big hand wrapped around her elbow and he let go.

Sherman caught her shoulders, and helped her slip slowly to the elevator floor.

Steel Sausage man sent the elevator up.

Aunt Fabulous tried to say I’m okay but her words slurred. Dried drool crusted her ashen cheeks and Mag understood her aunt had been beaten and drugged.

Even in the magical world, bullies were still cheats.

Mag hid the tears that fell because her aunt looked so much like Mom—the last time her mom’s eyes were closed.

Outside, on the roof landing, the high priestess said Levitate, levitate—even though Mag already was—and that is how they all came to be rushing down the sidewalk in the dark shadows, avoiding streetlamps, trying to find the parked Escort, levitating Aunt Fabulous in white pajamas with her feet an inch off the ground, probably making a passersby think they had seen two teenagers and a ghost.

If anyone even noticed at all.

* * *

When they got back to the house, they helped Aunt Fabulous walk upstairs to bed because she was still groggy, and Mag sat by her side, and downstairs Sherman opened up a can of chicken noodle soup and kept it warm on the stove just in case.

He said he would wait around on the couch.

He said his dad wouldn’t even notice.

Late—the dark green Volvo skidded into the driveway across the street. Mag watched from the attic window. The uncle carried his cello into the house, and then came out alone and sat on his porch, looking up at Mag in the window.

He waved once.

At first Mag wasn’t going to respond. Then she waved back once, too.

She saw his cell phone screen glowing in the dark. 

Maybe the high powers were calling down and the uncle was racing ’round the track without training wheels.

Whatever.

When Aunt Fabulous finally woke all the way up, her kind eyes focused sharply, and she squeezed Mag’s hand strong and said: Don’t be afraid, I’ve got this. 

Mag helped Aunt Fabulous with her cuts, and Aunt Fabulous spit blood into a tissue, but nothing else seemed wrong except bruises.

Then they sat around the kitchen sipping chicken noodle soup together, and the kitchen seemed bright and cheerful even though Aunt Fabulous shushed all their questions and said: All will be explained in time.

The uncle knocked on Aunt Fabulous’s front door for the first time ever, just an hour before sunrise. He held his lawyerly briefcase. 

To sum up: Evil Uncle Daniel had wanted to apprentice Mag on the dark side, to gain status in his group, and Aunt Fabulous wanted to train her light. 

Being roughed up by powerful evil people was supposed to scare Aunt Fabulous so she’d sign custody of Mag over to her uncle and leave town.

So Daniel signed the legal papers and gave full custody of Mag to Aunt Fabulous. 

He said he already had one dead sister; he didn’t want another. Mag still didn’t like him. But family apparently came first, even for the dark side. Sometimes.

Aunt Fabulous found out about the beer cans.

Aunt Fabulous confiscated the Escort keys. And set an afternoon curfew.

And then Sherman promised he wouldn’t tell anyone anything about magic, and went home, and everyone slept all day. 

Even the high priestess took a nap.

* * *

The lobby of the Zink Parlor smelled like cedar wood incense. Mag sat with Sherman and Aunt Fabulous, flipping through gothic style magazines.

Mag’s familiar had shared that her real name was Adalyn. 

However, her press-on status was on the frightening verge of total fadeout. Fortunately, Adalyn’s facial features were still visible, and she agreed to remain stationary and not scare the bejeweled tattooist by talking while being retraced and upgraded. 

Any upgrade would be good.

Because the itch of cheap ink was driving Mag crazy.

Adalyn explained she was a real person, living in another world. There would be times when the tattoo ink went dormant, and Adalyn would be gone. The tattoo ink would seem dry and lifeless.

That was okay with Mag.

As long as her awesome familiar came back.

Copyright © 2017 Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.

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