Leave your shoes at the door, brush your teeth before bed, and most importantly, no spells in the house. Those were Aunt Imelda's rules whenever the children came to visit.
Aunt Imelda lived in a small blue cottage with a white picket fence. She had bushes of yellow roses on either side of the gravel path that led to her door. Dark green vines creeped along one side of the house, peppered with small white blossoms in the shapes of stars. Her cottage sat at the edge of a forest on the outskirts of the small town in which she lived. A cheerful stream, just inside the trees, sang as it tumbled against the smooth gray stones.
Every summer, the Meadowsweet children would visit their aunt. There were five children in all. Annika was the eldest at 15, a quiet, bookish girl with a heart for adventure. Lydia, her younger sister, was 12 and already questioning the person she wanted to become. Their brother was Wyatt, the youngest of the group at 8, a boy of sharp intelligence who had yet to grow the confidence to speak up for himself. These children belonged to Imelda's older sister, Laurel. Two cousins accompanied Laurel's children. Juniper (14) and Ember Moon (13), who were Celeste's—the younger sister's—children.
The children found Aunt Imelda… strange. Her brown curly hair floated wildly around her face. Her feet were always covered in a thin layer of dirt from walking barefoot in the garden, and she had a small tattoo of a crescent moon at the nape of her neck. Her dark eyes sparkled with mischief and her lips always held the hint of a smile, as if she had just tasted a delicious secret she was dying to share.
Not only was Aunt Imelda strange, but the children had to leave behind the necessities of their daily home life. Juniper was appalled the first time they visited when he learned that she did not have wifi. Wyatt was devastated to learn that her small TV couldn't support the graphics for his video games.
"I need WiFi," Juni insisted grumpily as he tried to persuade Aunt Imelda to purchase the service.
"Go, play outside," Aunt Imelda urged the shocked children. "Don't come home till dark. But remember, leave your shoes at the door, brush your teeth before bed, and never cast spells in the house!"
"I want to go home," Lydia confided to Annika, who nodded her head in sympathy.
Of all of the children, only Ember seemed to take to Aunt Imelda's style of supervision. She helped Aunt Imelda make chocolate chip cookies from scratch and helped her pick vegetables from the garden in the backyard.
"Why do you encourage her?" Juni snapped at his sister as they were going to bed one night. Aunt Imelda had turned the attic into a large bedroom with five beds covered in quilts and the walls lined with old chests and shelves of dusty books. "If she sees we're all suffering, then maybe she would let me have wifi and let Wyatt have TV."
Ember Moon glared at her brother. "I like her," she said defiantly. "She's weird." And for the 13 year old, this was the highest compliment she could give someone. She pulled the blanket up to her chin and flopped onto her side.
"Why do we have to be here anyway?" Wyatt asked. He propped himself up on his elbow and rested his head in his hand.
"Because our parents are on a business trip and your parents are celebrating their anniversary with a trip to Iceland," Juniper said glumly. He glared at the wooden beamed ceiling.
"And besides," Annika added as she looked up from her book. "I heard Mom telling Dad something about how Aunt Imelda can't have kids even though she really wanted to. Maybe this makes her feel better?"
"But why do we have to stay the whole summer?" Lydia asked. "Mom and Dad are only going to be gone a few weeks."
"I don't know," Annika sighed. She pushed her glasses high on her nose and returned to her book.
"All I know is I'm not going the entire summer without internet or TV," Juniper said firmly. He looked at his sister. "No more playing nice with Aunt Imelda until she gets us wifi."
Ember rolled her eyes. "Fine," she said. "But she's actually pretty cool. You don't have to be so mean to her."
The next morning the five children trudged downstairs in a perfect picture of misery. Even Ember feigned discontent. Despite her feelings for Aunt Imelda, she wanted her brother to be happy, and she was committed to helping him. After all, this was the longest either of them had gone without internet access and she had to admit that she was starting to miss it too.
"What's this?" Aunt Imelda asked when she saw their wretched faces.
"We miss the internet," Juniper said. "I can't play my games or talk to my friends."
"Nonsense!" Aunt Imelda chuckled. "You are surrounded by friends. And there are all sorts of games you can play outdoors. Off with you!" She ushered them out the kitchen door.
"Well that didn't work," Lydia said as she stared at the vegetable garden before them.
Juniper scuffed his foot unhappily on the stone step. "I hate this!" he shouted. "I want to go home!" He marched away from the cottage toward the forest.
The other children watched him go, unsure how to help him.
"What does Aunt Imelda mean when she says no spells in the house?" Lydia asked Annika later that day. They had gone back up to the attic after lunch—Annika to read and Lydia to sketch in her notebook.
"No idea," Annika muttered. She turned to a new page and continued to read.
"Do you think she believes in magic or something?" Lydia persisted.
Annika sighed. "I don't know. Why don't you just go ask her?"
Lydia set her pen in her notebook to hold her place and stood up from her bed. She wandered around the attic, peeking inside the old chests and leaving trails in the dust where her fingertips skimmed across the bookshelves. She found a large and particularly old book and pulled it from the shelf. A cloud of dust floated in front of her face and Lydia coughed. Annika shot her younger sister an annoyed glance.
"Sorry," Lydia said. She took the book back to her bed and opened it.
The script looked handwritten in delicate, looping letters. Lydia peered at the words, but she couldn't make sense of them. She wasn't sure if it was because the handwriting was illegible, or if it was written in a different language. It was hard to describe the feeling, but it was almost as if the words that Lydia was looking at were slippery… as if her mind couldn't quite grasp them.
She turned to a new page and tried to sound out the words she saw there. The syllable felt foreign as her mouth and tongue tried to shape them.
Lydia felt something like a cool gentle breeze rush through the attic and thought she saw a flash of light in the corner of her eye. She frowned. "Annika, did you see--" She cut off mid sentence. She had turned to face her sister, but her sister had vanished. Sitting on the bed right where Annika had been was a tortoiseshell cat with wide green eyes. The cat pawed at the pages of the book in front of it before looking up at Lydia and letting out a soft, panicked mewl.
Lydia's mouth worked soundlessly, her eyes wide and disbelieving.
The cat hopped off the bed gracefully and approached Lydia, this time with a new chirp that almost sounded annoyed.
Lydia walked backward until her legs touched the edge of the bed. Her knees buckled and she sat down. Her heart thundered and her hands shook. The cat leaped into Lydia's lap and Lydia screamed.