So, reason number 572 why living with a wicked witch sucks? Sometimes it’s a gorgeous summer Saturday, and instead of getting a well-deserved break from Sarmine’s weird witchy chores like dusting the dried newts, you end up as an unpaid babysitter for a party full of little witches.
I set out the plates and forks for the birthday cake while surveying the swimming pool full of witch-kids. From up here they looked like any small children having fun—laughing and splashing and squealing and biting. Except, if you got close enough, you could hear them threatening to turn each other into frogs.
Around me, Witch Sarmine and all her nasty witch friends hovered around the pool like we were the first course at this birthday party. In a way, I suppose we were.
“My little girl is already hexing the mailman,” cooed a witch with flame-red hair. “You won’t believe what she can do with some earwigs and a bit of pumpkin puree.”
“The twins have grown out of earwigs,” drawled a dark-haired witch. “I mean, they’re all right, if you’re not skilled enough yet to use squirrel droppings.”
“My daughter wouldn’t be caught dead with squirrel droppings,” said the redhead. “She has too much class.”
“Ladies and token gentlemen,” said a platinum-blonde witch wearing a skimpy pink bikini. “Please raise your glasses of fermented pixie juice. We are here to toast my precious mother Rimelda, who turns …one hundred today. Rimelda?”
A bony witch who looked about a hundred and fifty nodded sourly to all of us from her plastic lounge chair, martini in hand. See, witches look the age they feel on the inside, and apparently Rimelda was not happy with her current state of existence. “Happy Birthday to meee,” she slurred. “Ain’t life a—”
“All right, kids, everyone in the pool!” trilled the blonde witch. The last couple kids cannonballed in, splashing everything.
My guardian, Sarmine Scarabouche, moved closer to me, drink in hand. Alone among the witches, she was definitely not wearing a swimsuit, or even any sort of—heaven forbid—shorts. Her silver bob was untouched by the heat. Her eyebrows drew neatly into a point as she glared down at me.
I wanted to get in that swimming pool about as badly as I wanted to get in a tank of sharks. But Sarmine has a way of dealing out revolting punishments, like making everything I eat taste like brussels sprouts dipped in horseradish, and if I wanted to live to see tenth grade in the fall, I’d better do what she wanted.
I set down the plastic forks and slid into the water.
The water felt good on the hot summer day. It would have been a lovely afternoon if there had been anyone my age at the party. Oh, and if they weren’t all witches. One of them bit me.
“Ready the pool!” said the blonde witch.
A pile of tiny inflatables shaped like octopi rained down upon us. They were muddy green, about the size of my palm.
“Ooh, look at the cutie-pies,” said the little girl next to me. She was wearing solid pink, from her ruffled swimsuit to her pigtail bows, and looked about four. “Such sweet little baby krakens.”
“Watch out,” I said. I blew at the one floating towards me. “They may look like toys now, but you know what the witches are like. That blonde witch has something unpleasant planned for us, I’m sure of it.”
“That blonde witch is my mom,” said the pink girl. “Esmerelda.”
“Ah,” I said. “Well. Be warned. This is one of those awful, fake, pretend-it’s-not-a-competition competitions. I can tell.”
Pink looked down her nose at me, an expression I had seen many times from my guardian. “Of course it is,” she said. “Where’s your pouch of ingredients?”
“I don’t have ingredients,” I said back with as much scorn as I could muster to a pink glitter bomb. “I am not a witch.”
She raised a skinny arm out of the water and displayed the waterproof pink pouch buckled to it. A pink wand with a giant star on the end was tucked inside. “Sucks to be you,” she said.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the witches ringing the pool, each one standing near her kid. Sarmine’s familiar ice-chip glare froze my bones. She mouthed: “Don’t humiliate me.”
Esmerelda blew a dusting of some sort of powder over us—it looked like cinnamon—and raised her wand. “Release the krakens!”
The tiny pool inflatables came to life.
Okay, maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad. The little krakens were kind of cute, as Pink had said. Their menacing arm-wavings were tiny and adorable.
And then I looked closer. Surely that kraken had been the size of my palm before? Now it was definitely the size of a dinner plate. “They’re growing!” shrieked one of the witch-kids at the other end of the pool.
I groaned. Here I was, minding my own business, and I was about to be boa-constricted by an oversized pool toy for the witches’ amusement. Worst birthday party ever.
I glanced over at my new friend. Young Pink was not as confident as she had pretended. She tossed a yellow powder at the kraken, pointed her wand, and pronounced some magic words with a wary, defiant look on her face. Nothing happened. Her face fell. She saw me watching her and turned away, fumbling in her pouch as the kraken plumped larger and larger. “I meant to do that,” she mumbled.
I felt bad for her, but I had my own gigantic kraken to deal with. It was now the size of an overfed housecat and it was advancing, tentacles waving.
And I had no magic.
Didn’t want to have magic. Never had wanted to have magic.
…Okay, so it would have come in handy right about then.
I waved my arms at the kraken and muttered, “Shoo. Abracadrabra. Beat it.”
It kept coming.
Across the pool, the other children were dispatching their own monsters and climbing happily out of the pool to their applauding mothers. One had made his kraken super-heavy. It sunk to the bottom of the pool in a small whirlpool of bubbles. As I watched, another turned hers into smoke, and it vanished. It was down to me and Pink, and each of our krakens was now the size of a Great Dane.
An air-filled tentacle wrapped around my arm. Another grabbed my leg. My back was against the pool wall—I couldn’t go any farther.
No more time to lose. Scrabbling around on the ground behind me, my fingers landed on a small chipboard box. Another tentacle found my neck. Choking, I pulled the box forward, straining to see what I was holding. The plastic forks. Forks scattered everywhere, bobbing up and down on the waves of the kraken-infested pool. I scooped up a handful and plunged them into the kraken bearing down on me. “Die, die, die!” I shrieked, stabbing at the inflated beast with a pile of plastic prongs.
It shouldn’t have worked, except that the plastic had been stretched really thin as the mini-inflatable had become a giant monster. On the fifth “Die,” the prongs went all the way through, plunging me down into the water with the force of my blow. The kraken collapsed as the air wheezed out of it. I looked up in triumph.
The witches were cackling behind their hands and Sarmine was shaking her head in shame.
Not how you’re supposed to do it. As usual.
I clambered out of the pool to where Sarmine stood, arms folded. “Why didn’t you use the Reversion Spell I left out for you to study last week?” she said. “It would have sent the giant krakens right back to the witch who cast the spell. The ingredients are even right here at hand. One blade of grass. One splash of chlorinated water. One—”
“Wow, that sounds brilliant,” I said, rolling my eyes. Sarmine never lets facts like my not having witch blood stop her from loading me down with witchy things to learn. She’s so certain that if she just finds the one thing to get through to me, I’ll magically (ha) become like all her loathsome witch friends, and spend the rest of my life causing chaos wherever I go.
Poor Pink was still facing down her kraken. She had managed to turn it blue, and it was emitting a strong scent of skunk. She pulled one last powder from her pouch. It was bright orange.
“You can do it, honey,” called Esmerelda from the side of the pool. Pink looked up at her mother, and a nod passed between them. Pink sprinkled a pinch of the orange powder all over the kraken and pointed her star wand, shouting confidently, “Vilikoo!”
The kraken, which had been growing relatively slowly, gave a huge groan and doubled in size. Then tripled. Then it was the size of the pool. “Eep,” squeaked Pink, and then I couldn’t see her under the inflatable.
Esmerelda squealed. “My baby!” She grabbed a pinch of something from her purse and sprinkled it on the giant kraken, flicking her wand and muttering words as she did so. There was a loud pop—and the kraken was no more. Esmerelda hoisted her little pink girl out of the water. “Oh, my darling,” she cooed. “Did the wriggly thing almost get you? Mama helps.”
A disheartened Pink shrugged off her mother’s hands. She looked humiliated.
The little dark-haired girl who had been first to dispatch her kraken was presented with a prize of a necklace strung with three leprechaun teeth. She looked ecstatic.
One of the two male witches at the party clapped his hands for attention. “Now kids, the grown-ups have a lot to talk about. Run along to the pool house for a bit before we bring out the cake.”
“Camellia’s in charge, kids,” called the redhead. “Try not to hurt her.” The others laughed snidely and my face flamed. Sarmine pretended not to hear them.
I followed the troop of witchy ankle-biters over to the pool house. It was pretty swanky: fitted out with a big-screen TV and fluffy towels and a rock-climbing wall over a hot tub. Hanging from the ceiling were a couple dozen stuffed black bats.
“Grandmother’s old familiars,” Pink explained as she tugged on her pink sundress. “She saves them, if they haven’t been, like, exploded or something.” It did give the pool house that certain witchy je ne sais quoi.
The gaggle of holy terrors ran for the rock-climbing wall, while Pink and I plopped down on a waterproof couch in front of the TV. She looked despondent.
“Cheer up,” I said. “I bet you’re not the first little kid to lose that contest. Besides, you’re what, four? You’ll catch up with the others.”
Pink glared at me. “I’m ten.”
Oops. “Forgive me,” I said. “You look about four.”
“I feel about four,” Pink said glumly. “Mom always tells me my spells are only as good as a preschooler’s. She even snuck me that orange powder today, though that’s technically cheating.” Her shoulders slumped. “Not that it helped. It was supposed to shrink the kraken. I couldn’t even do that right, and the powder was already prepared for me.”
Two of the children came wandering over from the rock-climbing wall. They had identical dark curly hair, and one was the little girl who had won the teeth necklace. She sniffed. “I never let someone else prepare my own powder,” she said. “How do you know what’s in it?”
“Must be nice to be perfect,” muttered Pink.
The little girl and her brother plopped down on the couch next to us. “I’m Alejandra, and this is Alberto,” she said to me. “We’re six. And I want to know what the grown-ups are doing. Don’t you?” She unzipped a camo-patterned pouch around her thigh and began rifling through it for powders and spices.
“Yeah,” I said. I watched Alejandra mix ingredients with intense concentration. Her secret ingredient seemed to be a tiny glitter shaker. After she added a shake of that, she poked her wand in her palm and flicked her fistful of glittery stuff all over the TV.
The swimming pool came into focus. “Can you turn up the volume?” I said.
Alejandra looked at me pointedly. “You’re sitting on the remote.”
“Oh.” I dug it from the couch cushions and unmuted the TV.
“Poor Mother is in the dumps,” Esmerelda was cooing. “I mean…just look at her. It’s her hundredth birthday party and she looks…well.”
“About a hundred and fifty,” piped up the redhead.
“Darling,” said Esmerelda, patting her mother’s hair. “It’s not you. It was that mean old librarian.” The TV magically panned to a close-up of Rimelda, who looked annoyed by both the anecdote and by her cooing daughter.
“Ugh, she’s awful,” I said. “She’s like the suburban mom from hell. She even gives witches a bad name.”
“Again, that’s my mom,” said Pink.
“Rimelda’s my grandmother,” she said. “The school librarian thought she was my great-grandmother.”
“I can see how that would be upsetting.”
“Especially to my mom. She can’t imagine herself as twenty-five if her mom looks a hundred and fifty. The strain is wearing on her. She even flipped out and started cussing at the librarian, and she never does anything that tacky. The cracks are beginning to show.”
I watched the platinum blonde on the big screen as she told the same story that Pink had just told. She carried it off with a laugh, but when she got to the fatal words “great-grandmother,” Pink was right. Her mask slipped just a little. She went from twenty-five to seventy and back again in a blink.
“So you see,” said Esmerelda. “We need to cheer Rimelda up. I propose we get back at this revolting librarian.”
Witches are always up for being nasty for no particular reason. The others lifted their martini glasses and cheered the blonde on.
Well, except for Sarmine, who is a law unto herself. One silver eyebrow raised and she said superciliously, “Oh, come now, Esmerelda. This isn’t about your mother. You just want to get your digs in.”
“Excuse me, I forgot you weren’t a real witch,” said Esmerelda.
Sarmine rolled her eyes. “Forgive me if I save my powers for producing actual change in the world, and not for retaliating against a librarian who truthfully pointed out the fact that you are older than dirt.”
“Pfft,” said Esmerelda drunkenly and dismissively. She looked around and her eyes lit on the banana bread Sarmine had baked for Rimelda. “We’ll send her that,” she crowed. “An ‘apology’ gift for my unkind words to her. Everyone, put your worst hex in it.” She glared at the witches in turn. “Remember, this affects all of us. Look at you poor women, worn down by thousands of micro-aggressions of people presuming you’re aging. If not for those horrible people, you all would look like me.” She smoothed her pink bikini. “Well. More like me, anyway.”
The witches crowded around the cake, cackling. “I’m putting in toads,” said one. “Sting rays,” said another. The screen went to a nice wide-angle shot of all the witches closing in.
“This is terrible,” wailed Pink. “I like the librarian. Everyone likes her. And she always lets me sit on the pink beanbag and read when I want to get away from the other kids.”
“Are the other kids mean?” I said.
Pink sniffled. “They think I’m weird. You know.”
I did know. A weird home life is just the sort of thing the other kids pick up on. I’ve spent my whole life trying to hide that I live with a wicked witch. One slipup like your mom delivering poisoned baked goods to everyone’s favorite librarian and your life is shot.
I couldn’t do something about my own witch.
But I could help Pink.
I jumped to my feet. “We won’t let her destroy your life,” I said. “We’re going to stop her.”
Pink just looked at me. “My mom’s embarrassed by me because my spells stink, in case you’ve forgotten,” she said. “And you’re not even a witch.”
“We’ve got eight more kids here whose spells don’t suck,” I said. I wheeled to face the room. Alejandra and Alberto had lost interest in the TV and had returned to the rock-climbing wall. Several more kids were busy dunking one of the stuffed bats in the hot tub. Another two were compounding some sort of potion that smelled like rotten eggs. “Hey,” I said. “Hey, all of you!”
The rotten eggs potion bubbled up in a gust of yellow. The bat started to disintegrate in the hot tub.
“Listen up!” shrieked Pink. The kids’ heads momentarily swiveled toward us.
“We’re going to stop the witches from delivering that banana bread,” I said.
“Why?” shouted one of the kids.
“I like hexed bread,” shouted another.
“It’ll be fun,” I said. “See if you can get one up on your parents.”
“Nuh-uh,” said Alejandra. “My mom likes to stick me on top of the chimney if I cross her.” She went back to rock-climbing, using her brother’s curly head for a stepping-stone. “Besides, today she’s probably happy with me,” she said over her shoulder. “I won the pool party.”
“You wouldn’t have if you didn’t steal my pepper!” shrieked Alberto.
“Well, think of poor Pink,” I tried. “Can you imagine how much her life will suck if the kids find out her mom is a wicked witch?”
Alejandra looked scornfully down at Pink. “Why do you care what the other kids think, Primella? You should be proud to be a witch.”
Pink and I just looked at each other. If we couldn’t explain that then there was no hope.
“I guess I’ll get used to being an outcast,” said Pink mournfully. “And I was just starting to make a friend or two.”
“Nonsense.” I scrunched up my nose, thinking. Time for all my years of babysitting to come into play. What was going to work on these little terrors?
“Well, I guess you’re right,” I said to Pink. “It was a dumb idea. The witches are way too powerful for us.”
“And way too clever,” added Pink. She was quick.
“I can’t imagine how we’d get the bad bread away from them,” I said.
“You could do, like, a levitating spell,” said one of the kids in the hot tub. He clambered out of the water and dripped on our feet. “I mean, if you were gonna do it.”
“I don’t know how to do a levitation spell,” I said.
“Duh, you don’t know how to do any spells,” said another kid. “It’s just rutabaga, parsley, and three ladybugs.”
“Can you do that?” I said to Pink.
She shook her head mournfully. “Everything I do comes out wrong.”
“Anyway, we don’t got rutabaga,” said the first kid.
“Well, what do we have?” I said. “You guys have some powders there. And you each have a few spells you know how to do.”
“A few,” scoffed Alejandra.
“Well, start listing them,” I said. “Things that you can do and you have the ingredients for.”
A cacophony of voices rose up from the children.
“Make your pants so heavy they fall off.”
“A pretend chair that looks like a real one so you fall through it.”
“Annoying ringing noises from a cell phone you can’t find to turn off.”
“Invisible pushpins on your chair.”
I nodded thoughtfully as the list of spells grew. “I’ve got an idea.”
Ten minutes later we were creeping up to the pool area. The witches were steadily getting more sloshed as they threw powders onto the loaf of banana bread. “A pig nose!” shrieked Esmerelda, giggling. “A thousand purple pimples!” They seemed to have completely forgotten about calling us back for dessert. Rimelda’s birthday cake sat sadly by the pool, and Rimelda herself looked grumpier than ever, unimpressed by the drunken horde.
“Okay, everyone have your pouch of ingredients?” I said. “Wands at the ready?” My army of children flicked their wands out. “Alejandra, you first. Go.”
Alejandra combined several things from her pouch and held it out to her brother to spit in it. I must have looked grossed out because Pink gave me a shrug like: whatever works. Alejandra dipped her wand in her palm and flicked it over the pile of fluffy bath towels.
They turned invisible. We each picked one up and draped it over ourselves.
“Excellent,” I whispered. “Now you, Alberto.”
Under cover of the invisible bath towel, Alberto snuck all the way up to the table that held the banana bread. Meanwhile, another couple kids in their bath towels went around to the other side of the pool. We waited, breaths held, until they had set their spells. Super-irritating cell phone ringtones started playing from the other side of the pool. While all the witches turned their heads to look, Alberto made an illusion banana bread that looked exactly like the real one. It would only last a few minutes, but that was just enough time—I hoped.
Alberto grabbed the real banana bread, covered it with his towel, and hurried back to us.
Meanwhile, the twins’ mom had gone to investigate the mysterious cell phones. (“One of those is my mom’s ringtone,” whispered Alejandra.) We held our breaths, hoping she wouldn’t stumble on the towel-covered kids. But she was stopping for a different reason.
“Ew, Esmerelda, your daughter’s exploded kraken is everywhere,” she said. “Can’t you teach her how to master a basic shrinking spell?”
A very drunk Esmerelda laughed. “Oh, let me see. Did I give my snoogie-woogums the wrong powder? I feel terrible.”
Several witches laughed—cheating is considered fair play among witches, and this evidence of double-cheating was even better.
Pink and I just stared at each other. I gasped at the horribleness of it as Pink’s eyes welled with tears. “She deliberately gave me the wrong stuff!”
“She wanted you to fail,” I said, shocked. Across the pool I saw Sarmine frown as she, too, was working this out. “Pink,” I whispered. “You’re part of her plot. Your mom wants you to stay little so she can stay young. She wants you to stay four.”
Pink’s trembling lips set in a firm line. Her witchy side asserted itself. “I am not taking this lying down,” she said. She seized the hexed banana bread and motioned us over to the other end of the pool, where Rimelda’s birthday cake sat on a little rolling cart. She nodded to Alberto. “Can you make the bottom of that cake heavy?” she whispered. “Very, very heavy?”
He nodded and, concentrating, mixed up a powder and inscribed a rectangle in the bottom of the cart, under the birthday cake. It was just the size of the banana bread. He pointed his wand at it, and as we watched, the rectangle grew so heavy that a long crack ran right around it as if invisible hands were popping out a perforated section. It broke out of the cart. Alejandra shoved one of the invisibility towels under it as it thumped to the ground, dampening the sound. Some cake came with it—just about the right amount.
Carefully Pink wrangled the hexed banana bread up into the hole of the birthday cake. “Someone make it stay,” she whispered at us. The twins looked at the table, considering.
But that one I could do. I grabbed several paper plates and wedged them into place. Nothing like a little non-witchy ingenuity for saving the day.
“And one more for luck,” Pink said fiercely. She pulled out the orange powder her mother had given her, the horrible orange powder that made everything get bigger, and sprinkled it all over the white-frosted cake. It sparkled like sugar crystals in the sun.
We were just backing away from the birthday cake cart when I saw Sarmine looking our way. We were invisible, so she couldn’t have seen us—right? Had she heard the bottom of the cart fall? Her eyebrows drew together and her lips pursed.
I ran back to the kids. Not a moment too soon.Esmerelda tipped back the last of her martini and made her way over to the birthday cake. She wheeled the cart up to her mother. “A hundred today, but not a hundred forever,” she said tipsily. “We’ll take care of you.”
“Whee,” said Rimelda.
“And someone find a piece of foil for that banana bread,” Esmerelda said. “Boy, wouldn’t I like to be there when she cuts into it. All those hexes activated at once ….” Esmerelda shoved the knife into her mother’s hand as she sang off-key: “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you ….”
When she cuts into it…
My stomach sunk. All those horrible hexes were going to attack Rimelda. Poor, one-hundred-year-old Rimelda, whose only crime was being grumpy at her own birthday party. She hadn’t added anything to the banana bread. She definitely didn’t deserve pig pimples, or whatever it was that Esmerelda had been adding.
“Happy Birthday, dear Rimelda. Happy Birthday to . . .”
I shook off the invisibility towel and ran for the cake. “Nooooo . . .” I began, and everything seemed to go in slow motion, the way those things do. My eyes met Sarmine’s across the way as I ran toward Rimelda. She was raising that knife, looking for a good place to cut.
Sarmine has a million faults, but being slow-witted is not one of them. Her eyes narrowed as she put two and two together, and realized what I had accomplished with the help of a pack of first-grade witches. Quicker than lightning, her fingers flashed into her fanny pack and combined several powders. Quicker than lightning, her other hand scooped up a splash of chlorinated water and added it to the pile.
The wet powder flicked out on the cake, Sarmine’s wand came down, and she whispered some words. Nobody saw her. They were all focused on Rimelda, with a couple heads slowly turning to me and my “Nooooo . . .”
Rimelda’s knife pierced the orange-dusted cake.
The cake parted and out poured a stream of horrors.
Rimelda’s eyes widened. Her martini-addled fingers fumbled for her pouch.
And then she saw that none of the horrors were headed toward her.
A stream of purple pimples shot after Esmerelda. The skunk-smelling frogs hopped after the redhead. Giant green snakes rained down on the twins’ mom.
Witch after witch ran shrieking from the pursuing hexes. They were all too drunk to master any self-defense spells. And the things pursuing them were not little, either. Aided by Pink’s messed-up shrinking spell, the horrors got bigger and bigger as they pounced on the witches who’d created them. Esmerelda was a mass of disgusting purple boils from her platinum hair to her pink-polished toes.
Rimelda’s wrinkled face slowly broke into a smile and then a grin. She fell over, howling large hoots of laughter. As she straightened up, I saw the years slowly fall away—a hundred fifty, a hundred twenty, a hundred. Eighty. She stopped and stretched when she looked about a healthy and fit sixty, around the same age as Sarmine.
“Primella,” she said, and beckoned her granddaughter to her side. Pink was still holding the orange powder, which had clearly been dusting the cake. “Did you do that?”
“Well…” Pink said.
“We all helped,” butted in Alejandra. I gave her the stink-eye. This was not the time for Alejandra to shine. She nodded and said fairly, “But Primella’s the one who made the goonies all huge.”
Rimelda squeezed her granddaughter close. “You’re really turning into an excellent witch, you know that? This is exactly the kind of chaos that makes me feel like there’s a future for our family. The kind of well-deserved chaos,” she said severely, and looked very deliberately at her daughter, who was fighting off a six-foot banana slug.
Pink breathed a deep sigh of pride. “You think so?” As we watched, her legs visibly lengthened. Her seams started popping at the shoulders. The four-year-old’s pink dress was way too small for this ten-year-old girl.
“I know so,” said Rimelda. She stretched out her arms and studied her granddaughter at arm’s length. “You know, we’d better get you some new clothes,” she said. “You’ve completely outgrown that dress.”
I crossed over to where my guardian perched on her lawn chair. Sarmine was her usual stiff-backed, straight-mouthed self, yet her eyes glimmered with amusement as she surveyed the scene. “I saw you with that potion,” I said to Sarmine. “You made all those hexes revert to their creators.” I looked suspiciously at her. “You know that was rather a …nice thing to do?”
“Nonsense,” said Sarmine. “I didn’t want to get attacked by stray purple boils, is all. Such a bother.”
We sat back in our lawn chairs and watched the flurry of grown-up witches get chased by bats and slugs and bears and boils. The witch-kids were eating the entire birthday cake, now cleared of its banana bread hexes.
This might turn out to be a rather pleasant birthday party after all.