Aunt Imelda was going to kill her. Lydia stared down at the cat in her lap. The cat that should have been her sister. Lydia was so dead. And when her mom found out that she turned her sister into a cat she was going to be extra dead. Double dead.
With trembling fingers, Lydia stroked the cat's soft fur. Her sister/the cat looked at Lydia with annoyance and rolled her shoulders as if to shrug off her hand. Then the cat's pupils grew large and black and round, and a soft rumble emanated deep in her chest.
The pur seemed to startle her, because the cat abruptly stopped and glared at Lydia. It let out a series of loud high meows and Lydia raised her hands in a gesture of peace. The cat sounded just like Annika when Lydia spilled her drink across Annika's book and Lydia received a ten minute lecture.
"I'm sorry!" she cried.
The cat hopped off her lap and trotted back to the book Lydia had read aloud. She stared pointedly at the book, and then back at Lydia.
"I'll figure it out," Lydia promised. "Just let me think…" She bit the inside of her cheek. She had no ideas how to reverse what she did. And if she tried to read something else aloud who knows what would happen?
"Come on," she muttered, half to herself and half to Annika. Lydia stopped pacing as an idea struck her. "Oh."
She grabbed the book and scooped the cat into her arms. The cat squawked and hooked her nails instinctively into Lydia's sleeve. Lydia sprinted out of the room. If she had waited just a moment more, she might have noticed the crack in the window glass draw out toward the corners like a spiderweb. But the girl and the cat we're gone before they could have noticed.
Lydia ran down the stairs and towards the back kitchen door. She was almost there when she heard a voice behind her.
"And where are you off to in such a hurry?" Aunt Imelda asked.
Lydia tucked the cat and book into the inside of her jacket and faced Aunt Imelda with a grin. "Just going to find Ember and Wyatt and Juni. Annika is reading upstairs and I was getting bored."
"Then why don't you take some of these cookies with you?" Aunt Imelda held out a tray of large chocolate chip cookies.
"Thanks!" Lydia grabbed a few of the still warm cookies and, in spite of herself, her mouth watered. She shoved half of one into her mouth. "So good!" She said around a mouthful of delicious warm cookie. "Gotta go!"
Aunt Imelda chuckled as she watched her niece sprint out the door and toward the forest. Her heart felt warm having her nieces and nephews here and a smile grew on her lips. She turned toward the sink to finish cleaning the dishes.
She paused for a moment as soapy water collected in the basin. For a second, she thought she heard something strange. A whisper. A hint of danger. Aunt Imelda listened, but as suddenly as it appeared, it vanished.
Lydia found her cousins and brother near the stream. Wyatt was tossing pebbles into the water and watching the current sweep away the ripples. Ember was lying in a patch of sunlight with her eyes closed. Juni was sulking a short distance away.
"Lydia?" Juni asked as she crashed to a halt. "What's wrong?"
Wyatt dropped his pebbles and turned to look at her. Ember opened her eyes and raised her head.
"You don't look so good," Ember said.
Lydia leaned against a tree as she caught her breath. She wordlessly handed the cookies to Wyatt and pulled the book and her sister/the cat from inside her jacket.
Annika's eyes were wide, and if it was possible for cats to look nauseous, she looked about as close to that as she could.
"Hey, where'd you find a cat?" Wyatt asked. His mouth was full of cookies and his face was smeared with chocolate.
Lydia explained everything and as she did, her brother and cousins expressions grew more incredulous and horrified.
"So Aunt Imelda is a real witch?" Ember asked excitedly.
"I thought it was just another weird thing grownups said to kids," Juni confessed.
Wyatt sat down next to the cat, and she pawed across the leafy forest floor and nudged him with her head. "What about Annika?"
Lydia held up the book. "Something in here should change her back. But I can't tell which page."
"We could always tell Aunt Imelda," Ember suggested.
"No way," Juni said. "She'll think we did it because she wouldn't give us what we wanted."
"I'm not sure," Lydia said.
"We can figure this out," Juni said. "Which page did read?"
For the rest of the afternoon, the children took turns reading from the book. Ember managed to make the stones from the stream rise into the air before becoming so surprised that she stopped halfway through a word and the stones splashed into the water. Juni changed all of the leaves on one tree to violet. And when Wyatt insisted on having a turn, he called a hundred butterflies that bounced and fluttered in the air around them for nearly half an hour before drifting away.
But try as they might, they were unsuccessful in transforming Annika back to her normal self.
It was getting late and the sun was starting its descent toward the horizon and Lydia was beginning to panic.
"It's not working," she said. Her throat felt tight and her eyes swam with unshed tears. She wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand and sniffed.
The cat walked over to Lydia and nudged her with her head. Lydia looked down at the cat. Her sister. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
"Maybe it'll wear off on its own?" Juni asked. "Maybe in the morning she'll be back to normal?"
Lydia shrugged, feeling more guilty and more miserable than ever.
Ember gently picked up the cat while Juni helped Lydia to her feet.
"If she's not better in the morning we'll tell Aunt Imelda," Juni assured her. "She's okay for the night, right Ann?"
The cat gave Juni an annoyed look and a flick of her tail.
In the distance, they heard Aunt Imelda calling them for dinner. The children made the trek back to the cottage. Not one of them had any idea what awaited them that night.
The children are their dinner and washed up and went to the attic, telling Aunt Imelda that they were tired from being outside all day, and that earlier Annika has said she wasn't hungry.
After dinner they lay in their beds. No one was tired yet, but they didn't have any desire to do anything else.
The crack in the window had grown, but none of the children had noticed it yet. If they had, maybe they could have prevented what was going to happen. But maybe they couldn't have.
"I can't believe magic is real," Juni said to the ceiling.
"I can't believe my sister's a cat," Lydia groaned.
"I can't believe how glum you guys sound," Ember said. "Magic is real. That's exciting!"
There was no life in Lydia's voice as she responded. "Yeah. Okay."
"Hey, do you hear that?" Juni said. He propped himself up on one elbow. "It sounds like something is scratching on the roof."
The children grew quiet and when it happened again, they all heard it. It was faint but definitely there, a soft scratching of something like sharp nails on the roof.
"It's probably a squirrel or something," Ember said, but her expression was worried.
"It sounds bigger than that," Juni said.
"Raccoon, maybe?" Lydia asked.
Before Juni could respond, there was an ear-splitting crash from the window by Juni's bed.
Something large and dark and misshapen tumbled into the room and landed near Juni's bed.
The children screamed and the cat hissed. Before Juni could move, the creature, with surprising speed, leaped into Juni's bed.
Its skin was decaying, a sickly grayish green color. Its crooked yellow teeth were chipped, but sharp. It stared hungrily at Juni with lifeless eyes. A slimy line of drool dribbled down the creature's chin.
There was another bang, this one even more thunderous than the first as Aunt Imelda kicked the attic door from its hinges and strode into the room.
The creature on Juni's bed whirled around and leaped toward Aunt Imelda with its teeth bared. Aunt Imelda performed a sweeping motion with her arms and the creature changed its trajectory mid flight. It smashed into the bookshelves, sending books and trinkets crashing down around it.
Au t Imelda's voice was calm but her eyes were bright with adrenaline. "Children, go downstairs. Wait for me in the sitting room please."
They did not need to hear it twice. All of the children (and the cat) bolted for the stairs. As the stumbled and tripped their way to safety, they heard the sounds of more scratching on the roof.
Pale and trembling, the children huddled together on the couch in the sitting room. They listened to the crashes and thuds of the conflict being waged over their heads.
Lydia nearly suggested that they go to help her, but what exactly could they do to help? Lydia had the sinking feeling that this was all her fault.
As abruptly as they started, the sounds of conflict ceased. Footsteps, soft and even, as someone descended the stairs.
The door to the sitting room clicked open and Aunt Imelda appeared. Her eyes still shone with fire and her hair was floatier than usual but other than that she was unscathed.
When she spoke her voice was soft, but held all the power of distant thunder. "They are gone. No harm will be done to you now. But I must ask… who among you cast a spell on this house?"