“Well, I suppose with a name like ‘Marceline Starlington’, you can’t help but have a story,” Marceline Starlington says, looking out the window of the truck as she rides into town, intent on celebrating one last Halloween before making an earnest attempt at something that’s always been just outside her grasp: a normal life. But a chance encounter leads her to a mysterious bookshop, and the women she meets there offer a chance at something that could change her life forever, making this a Halloween she’ll never forget.
It was about midday on a Friday and there hadn’t been a passing car for what felt like hours when that beat up old truck came puttering down the road. I exhaled slowly and held out my hand, my thumb outstretched and hoping for the best. The guy pulled over right away.
“Where you headin’, sweetheart?” he asked me, looking me up and down. He was older than me, but not by much – somewhere between thirty and forty and definitely old enough to know better. A little unkept, greasy, but nothing a shower and a good night of sleep couldn’t take care of. His attitude, however… well, I had a hunch it would go this way. It almost always does.
“Town,” I said, holding up my hand. His eyes glazed over, and he sat quietly transfixed on my palm. “And you’re going to take me there without incident.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said slowly, his eyes focusing. “Hop on in.”
“In silence,” I added. Men like this are always so easy to control.
I threw my duffel in the back and kept the other bag on my lap. I was heading into town for Halloween, just like I always had with my mom, but he didn’t need to know that. The ride was quiet except for the drone of the road against his crackly radio, some twangy country sound going in and out of reception. His collection of keys jangled against a metal keychain shaped like an electric guitar that said ‘Nomad Life’. He was attentive to the road, and behaving himself at that, so I decided it would be alright to strike up a little conversation. Truth be told, I was starting to get bored.
“What’s that from?” I asked, pointing to the keychain. He struck me more as the type of guy who never made it out of his hometown than a nomad. He looked at me and then back to the road.
“Oh, right,” I said, waving my hand and allowing him to speak.
“It’s from my days on the road running lighting rigs in the concert circuit,” he said, finding his voice again. “I’ve seen almost every part of this country, north and south, east to west. It was fun while it lasted, but then I settled down… came back home.” He paused. “What about you?”
“Where d’you call home?”
“I guess… I don’t really have one,” I said. “Not one that most people would call a home, anyway.”
“You do strike me as a girl with a story,” he said.
“Well, I suppose with a name like ‘Marceline Starlington’, you can’t help but have a story,” I said, looking out the window.
“Oh,” he said. “So that’s your name?” I could tell he was fishing for more conversation.
Why not, I thought to myself.
“You know, it’s funny,” I said, watching the drooping trees covered with Spanish moss pass in a blur. ”You never think there’s anything… peculiar about yourself, or off. You’re just you, plain and simple. But only when you look back, does it all come together… and it starts to make sense. Life, I mean.
“It’s all about how people look at you,” I said, looking at him. “It’s just… they look at you funny, you know? The neighbors across the street when you go to get the mail, the other girls in class on the playground when they won’t let you join the group, the boys in the bars when they bring you a drink, stumbling back when they get that one, good look at who you are…
“My mom moved us around a lot. She always said we followed the autumn wind, but I figured there was something more to it. And my dad was never around, you see, and everywhere we went, every new town, every new school… it was only a matter of time before they all looked at us with that same, funny look. People have a way of knowing.
“She passed a few years ago, so I’ve been on my own more or less ever since. Still following that autumn wind, but in my own way… moving around from place to place, seeing the world,” I said. I nodded toward his keychain. “So in a way, I guess, I’ve had my own nomad life.”
He bobbed his head sympathetically and we drove for awhile longer in silence again. After another half hour or so, we were just outside of the city limits and pulled into a gas station.
“Don’t you ever get lonely?” he asked, putting the truck in park. “I mean, I know when I was on the road…”
“Oh, all the time. But I’ve still got enough of her grave dust with me, so…” my voice trailed off as I gently patted the bag in my lap.
“What’dya mean by that?” he asked, confused.
“Well, so long as I have grave dust, I can still conjure her spirit from time to time for a chat or a check in,” I explained. “Really, it’s all you need to summon anyone’s ghost.”
“W-what?” he asked.
“Oh, didn’t you guess? I’m surprised,” I said with a smirk. “I’m a witch, sugar. A sorceress… Enchantress. A daughter of darkness, if you will. I thought for sure you’d figured it out. But I guess not… you haven’t looked at me like all the others.”
I raised my hand and his eyes again glazed over as he fell under my influence. He was silent.
“Don’t worry ‘bout it,” I said, calmly. “You won’t remember a thing.”
A few minutes later, he drove out of the parking lot without so much as a glance back in my direction. I smiled; he was nicer than I’d expected him to be. I guess people can still surprise you.
I tossed my bag over my shoulder, his ‘Nomad Life’ keychain clanging against the others I’d collected from the strangers kind enough to give me a lift over the last few years. Right now, I was just a fuzzy memory, like someone in a dream you can’t place, and by tomorrow, he’ll have no memory of me whatsoever… just like all the rest.
That night, once I was settled in the little two bedroom bungalow I’d be calling home for the next week or so at least, I decided I was overdue for a chat with my mother, and an important one at that. I set the candles in a circle on a low coffee table and drew the symbols in white chalk, just like the ritual called for, and hummed to myself quietly. I lit the candles one by one, and it wasn’t long before the room was bathed in an eerie, flickering glow.
“Well, let’s get this over with,” I said to myself, carefully retrieving the pouch of grave dust from my bag. I sat down next to the table and began to mutter the spell that I’d long since memorized.
Once I finished with the incantation, I reached deep into the black leather pouch, my fingers scraping the bottom through what little remained of the dust inside. I closed my fist and drew my hand back out, tossing a small handful into the air. I waited a moment in silence, listening to the wind in the trees outside and the subtle crack of the burning candle wicks.
Suddenly there came a familiar breeze through the room and the dancing flames shrunk, the candles on the table remaining just barely lit. I looked up as the dust in the air began to swirl around, faster and faster. She was on her way.
“Hello, Marceline,” the ghost of my mother, Viviane Starlington, said once she came into view atop the table. She looked around the room with a raised eyebrow. “Where do you have me now?”
“Can’t you tell? It’s almost Halloween,” I said. She was just as beautiful as a ghost as she was when she was alive; tall, statuesque, and now bathed in an ethereal, blue glow that lit up the room like her smile did when she was among the living.
“I thought this felt familiar,” she said, floating down from the table. “What can I do for you, dear heart?”
“We need to talk,” I said. She looked at me in the cold way ghosts can look at you when they’re trying to be attentive. “I’m done with all this… this moving around, having to go from place to place. I’m tired of being the girl everyone whispers about, I’m tired of not being able to have friends, a community, being able to put down some roots… and it all comes from the magic, Ma.”
“What are you saying?” she asked.
“What I’m saying is this: after Halloween, I’m done. I’m renouncing my magic.”
The candle flames flared and a violent wind kicked up, blowing my hair every which way and a chair in the corner blew back against the wall, splintering against the exposed brick. I knew she wouldn’t take it well.
“No!” my mom’s ghost shouted. “You are Marceline Starlington – the last of the Starlington witches! Magic is who you are! You are descended from one of the great lineages of witchcraft, and a founder of the Coven of the New Moon. Don’t turn your back on all of that!”
“Like they turned their back on us?”
“Come on now, Marceline,” she pleaded with me. “You know it wasn’t that simple…”
“What’s a pair of witches without their coven, Ma?” I demanded. “Truthfully.”
She again looked at me with that cold, ghostly stare; it almost rivaled the glares I got as a little girl whenever I found myself in trouble, which, as it was, happened on more than a few occasions.
“I‘ve thought this through,” I continued. “And I know that magic’s like a muscle. If I stop using it, it’ll eventually…”
I trailed off, and she was quiet.
“You won’t be able to conjure me anymore,” she said quietly.
I looked at her sadly.
“Look,” I said. “I didn’t call you here tonight just to deliver news I knew you wouldn’t want to hear. I’m in town for Halloween! I thought we could carve our pumpkins… like old times.”
She nodded and I made a circular motion with my hands, drawing two large, bright orange pumpkins into being. I pulled our old carving kit out of my bag and she sat beside me.
For the next hour and a half, it was just like the Halloweens I used to know. We listened to a few of our favorite old records and carved pumpkins, just as we did every year around that time. I told her about the guy I’d hitched a ride into town with and we laughed about some of our old adventures. But as the candles burned down low, she started to fade from view… just as she always does when the spell’s about run its course.
“It’s almost time,” I finally said.
“I know,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed this. I’m so glad you still wanted to celebrate Halloween, even though…”
“Listen, I – ”
“Don’t give up on your magic just yet, Marceline,“ she said, her voice little more than a whisper. The candles on the table had started to burn out, one by one. “There is something entirely special about you, and you never know when you’re just on the cusp of…”
The last candle extinguished with a puff of smoke, and she was gone.
“Something great,” I finished. She used to say that to me all the time when I was little. “I know, I know.”
I sat in the dark room collecting my thoughts for a good while before I cleaned up our mess from the pumpkins and went to bed.
The next day, I put on a loose minidress with a sheer cardigan and grabbed my favorite wide-brimmed hat, all in black of course. I pulled on my boots and finished the ensemble with an amethyst pendant necklace, tossing a kiss to the jack-o’-lanterns still sitting on the table from the night before as I walked out the door. I hadn’t bothered too much with fixing my hair, figuring the humidity, even this late in the season, would unleash my natural waves no matter what effort I put into taming them.
Halloween was in just a few days and I was heading out to explore all of the festivities that were kicking off around town. The irony wasn’t lost on me that I was more or less dressed as a typical modern witch, something I would have desperately tried to avoid even just a few years ago in an effort to be seen as normal. But trends come and go, and the best way to fit in these days was my witchy best; I’m usually pretty good at blending in.
I was lagging about a half a block behind a walking tour in the Cobblestone District, half listening to the yarn of history the guide was unraveling with my thoughts wandering, when an old woman carrying a stack of books rushed right into me. I jumped back as the books went flying, my arms outstretched in an effort to keep her from falling. The books were scattered everywhere.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” I said, quickly. “Let me get these for you.” I knelt to the ground and started stacking the books. They were old, heavy books that were bound in leather.
“Pardon me, dear,” she said, looking up to my face. “It’s all my fault, really! I was rushing and… not watching where I was going. Are you new in town?”
I stood to assess her, cradling the stack of books in my arms. She was short with an old, embroidered shawl draped over her shoulders and a dress with flowers on it; her hair was gray and stringy, sticking out under a black straw gardening hat and I was immediately intrigued by the bejeweled spectacles that rested on her hooked nose. If I didn’t know better…
“Just here for the holiday,” I said. “Here’s your books.”
“I hate to ask, dearie,” she began slowly, “but would you be so kind as to help me get these to a bookshop down the road? I was just heading to drop them off, and they were getting so heavy… if it’s not too much trouble?”
She batted her eyelashes at me over those sparkling glasses. I looked over her head to see if I could still catch the tour group, but they were gone.
“Sure,” I said with a smile, hoping it looked genuine. “Lead the way.”
“Ohh, excellent! Spellbound Books is only about a block or two this way, follow me!” she said, clapping her hands quickly and scampered off down the street.
She turned this way and that, darting in and out of the crowds while I did my best to keep up with her. I was trying to keep an eye on where she was going while also making sure not to drop the books again. They were pretty heavy already, and I found myself wondering how she’d managed to lug them herself from wherever she’d come from.
I stopped a moment to shift the weight of the books from one arm to the other, and when I looked up, she was gone.
“Ma’am?” I said aloud, though no one walking by stopped. “Where’d you go?”
I looked up and down the street, and was just about convinced she’d disappeared entirely when I caught the faintest glimpse of her floral print dress sweeping past a large wooden door into a book shop about six stores away. I shook my head in disbelief that she’d managed to get so far so quickly; she was a spritely old thing, that was for sure!
I walked toward that book store with purpose, eager to drop those books off and get on with my day. With any luck, I’d still have time to get to the town square to watch the start of the annual Halloween bake-off. I reached the steps and looked up to the sign.
“Spellbound Books” the old wood sign read in carefully painted lettering over a large book opened down the middle, with purple swirls coming from its pages.
“Well I guess this is the place,” I said to myself, walking up the steps. I pushed the heavy door open with my shoulder, and stepped inside, a bell ringing to announce my presence.
“Hello?” I called. No one answered.
The shelves that lined the walls and the display tables scattered about were filled to the brim with books. Halloween banners hung from the ceiling with trinkets spaced throughout, and there was instrumental music playing softly from a speaker on the counter. To the right of the register, a short flight of stairs led to an upper area in the back that was just visible from the entrance. Light streamed in through a wide, industrial window along that back wall that had had a few of its panes replaced with stained glass in vibrant colors.
There was no sign of that old woman.
I stood for a moment, unsure of what to do and shifting the weight of those books from one arm to the other, when I heard footsteps coming down the stairs along the wall from the second story. A girl with long, braided hair came walking down, her shoes clacking on the wooden steps. She was followed by another, this one blonde with a tight ponytail and looking like she’d just smelled something foul. Neither of them could have been much older than me, and I could tell they had both gotten the memo about dressing the part of a modern witch: all in black, with a free-spirited style that was impeccably chic and accessorized just so.
“Hi there,” the first one said cheerfully as she reached the main floor. “Thanks for coming in! Is there anything we can help you with today?”
“I was helping somebody actually, an older woman… She was bringing these books here and asked that I help her carry them… Did either of you see her? Flower-print dress, bedazzled glasses…”
The two of them looked at each other and then back to me.
“Mirabella,” the second girl said, rolling her eyes as she walked to the counter, pulling her hair into a tight ponytail.
“Here,” the first girl said, reaching out to take the books. “Let me take these for you. I’m Mary, by the way. Mary Ellis. And we call that one Elizabeth.”
The second girl smirked at her from behind the counter.
“What’s your name?” Mary asked.
“That’s beautiful,” she said warmly.
“What is this place?” I asked as Mary placed the books in front of Elizabeth, her bracelets clanking against the counter. “Who’s Mirabella?”
“Mirabella Honeycutt is a bored old witch with not much else to do but tinker around in her gardens at the Caldwell Estate and pop into town whenever it strikes her fancy to pester those of us who have a job to do,” Elizabeth said.
“That is a delightful way of saying she is one of the elders of our coven,” Mary said, glaring at Elizabeth, who shrugged, and then turning back to me.
“And this is Spellbound Books! We’re one of the oldest purveyors of the written word, magical and mortal alike,” she added with a wink. “The store was founded and run by the Coven of the Midnight Garden to this very day.”
“So you’re all, I mean, both of you are witches, too?” I asked carefully.
“Of course,” Mary said. “Couldn’t you tell?”
“Well, I’d guessed, but…”
“So what’s your story?” Elizabeth asked from the register, looking up from the catalog she was flipping through. “You and your coven fly into town for Halloween? Or are you just one of the tourists with a big hat and a couple of crystals in your pocket.”
I casually flicked a few of my fingers and the catalog in front of her slammed shut, causing Elizabeth to jump back in surprise.
“Definitely not just a tourist,” Mary said to herself quietly.
“No coven,” I answered curtly. “Just in town for Halloween.”
“Oh!” Mary said with excitement. “Do you have any plans for Halloween night?”
“None at the moment,” I said.
“Great!” she said. “You should join us at the Caldwell Estate!”
Elizabeth has moved on from the catalog to clicking around on the computer.
“It’s our covenstead out in the country,” she explained. “It’s one of those stately old mansions you see in all the movies, it’s been in Olympia May’s family for generations. She and a few of the ladies still live there, even.”
“Olympia May Caldwell, our High Priestess,” Mary clarified. “I know she’d be delighted if you joined us for the evening!”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
“I’m sure that’s why Mirabella led you here,” Mary added. “She doesn’t crash into just anyone with those heavy old books, you know, and she’s always saying she’s on the lookout for new blood…”
“Blessed be, Mary Ellis, let the girl alone!” Elizabeth called from behind the computer screen. “If she wants to do her own thing solo for Halloween, then let her do just that.”
“Well, excuse me for being the slightest bit welcoming to a new witch in town,” Mary spat back to Elizabeth. “Not that you’d know the first thing about being – ”
My own thing solo, I thought. I had been doing my own thing solo for so long, I’d almost forgotten what it was like to feel included, especially by other witches.
“Actually,” I said, “I think I will join you ladies for Halloween. That sounds nice.”
“Excellent!” Mary said, clasping her hands together and blasting a triumphant smile toward Elizabeth, who had once again cracked open the catalog. “Oh, the others will be so excited! We have such a great time every year with the music and a bonfire and, oh! You’ll have to try Vera’s mulberry pie – it’s award winning!”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” I said with a smile.
I spent the next hour or so in that book shop getting to know both Mary Ellis and Elizabeth Dautrieve, learning about the other ladies and the history of their coven when they weren’t helping other folks who’d wandered in. They showed me a few of their favorite magic books, and I showed them a spell or two of my own.
When I was getting ready to leave, Mary told me to come back to the shop on the afternoon of Halloween in a few days and we could trek out to the countryside together. She also made sure I knew that I was welcome to return before then if I wasn’t busy with anything else in town. Elizabeth even mumbled that it was nice to meet me as I pulled the heavy door open to leave.
Who knows? I thought to myself. Maybe I’ll win that one over yet.
And as I walked back toward the Town Square to catch whatever was left of the annual Halloween bake-off, it occurred to me that maybe I was nearing the end of my time living a nomad life, just like that guy in the truck did. Maybe I was just on the cusp of something great. And maybe I wouldn’t be renouncing my magic after all.
My mother was going to be beside herself.