High school. They say it’s the best time of our lives. A time of exploration and endless possibilities. We can try out for any sport, dabble in any form of artistic expression. And by the time we walk across the graduation stage, we’re supposed to know exactly who we want to be.
They say a lot of things, but as I sit in my dead father’s car, parked at the back of the student lot for the first day of senior year, I can’t help but call bullshit.
Salem High isn’t a place to discover who you are. It’s a place to survive and move on. A place where the swing from celebrity to outcast is only one misstep away. Especially for a girl like me.
I cut the engine and check my hair in the visor mirror, brushing the bangs out of my eyes. Even though the local news never mentioned my name, it didn’t take long before everyone figured out that their top story—Recent Salem High graduate Benton Hall arrested on charges of attempted murder—was about me. The entire school probably saw the gruesome re-creations of Benton’s makeshift pyre, where he tied my ex-girlfriend Veronica and me to a stake and tried to burn us alive.
If any of my classmates managed to miss the news, and the social media fallout it created—whichdid mention my name—I’m sure they’ll find out the second they step onto school grounds.
Not that any of them will be able to guess why Benton did what he did.
The only people at school who know that Veronica and I are Elemental Witches—the only ones who know about the Witch Hunters trying to kill us—are the handful of covenmates who go here, my Blood Witch girlfriend, and my best friend.
A sharp knock raps against my window. I flinch, nearly stabbing myself in the eye as my hands jolt away from the mirror.
“Sorry, Hannah!” The muffled voice of said best friend penetrates the closed window, and its familiarity calms my pounding heart. “Are you coming in?”
“Just a sec, Gemma.” I grab my backpack from the passenger’s seat and force out a slow breath, counting to ten as I exhale.I can do this. I’m okay. When my ragged heartbeat has calmed to a more normal rhythm, I leave the safety of Dad’s car and lock the door behind me.
Gemma follows me toward the school, using her fluorescent pink cane to reduce some of the pressure on her leg. Veronica and I weren’t the only ones the Witch Hunters hurt this summer. Gemma was with me when Benton forced my car over a bridge. He didn’t know Gem was in the car, but the door crushed her leg anyway. My magic was the only thing that saved us from drowning, and there was nothing I could do to hide it from her. Gemma saweverything, leaving me no choice but to explain.
If the Council finds out what Gemma knows though . . .that could be the end of my magic. It could end Gemma’s life, too.
Despite the danger of her knowledge, being my whole self around her has brought us closer. I wouldn’t change that, even though I wish I could take away the lasting damage done to her leg. I wish I could repair her ruined dreams of a professional dance career.
It could be worse, a voice inside reminds me. At least Gemma’s still alive. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to fight the rising panic. Fight the constant reminder whispering at the back of my head.
Dad didn’t survive.
“Hannah?” Gemma’s voice pulls me from the edge of drowning grief, and I focus on the aggressive pink of her cane. She doesn’t use it all the time, only on her bad days. Which are usually after she pushes herself too hard in physical therapy. When I glance up, she’s watching me, the space between her brows pinched with concern. “Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
I flash a smile, far brighter than what I feel inside, and head toward the horde of students mingling outside the school. “I’m good, Gem. I swear.” I slow to match her pace and lower my voice so no one overhears. “Besides, Mom already vetoed my plan to drop out of school and fight the Witch Hunters.”
“Your mom is such a buzzkill.” Gemma goes quiet as we pass through the crowd of students. Dozens of conversations dry up and turn to dust when they spot us.
When they spot me.
I try to smile when I see familiar faces, but there’s so much pity in the rise of their brows that I have to look away. I can’t stomach the obvious hunger for gossip that has infected the entire high school. Can’t bear to see the glimmer of morbid curiosity shining in their eyes and the reminder of why they watch me like an impending car crash.
Missing Dad is too heavy. It hurts too much. I can’t let myself think about it. About him.
Yet as Gemma and I move past our classmates, and whispered conversations pick up in fits and starts, some small part of me wants to knowexactly what kind of rumors are circulating.
Everyone loved Benton. He was easily the most crushed-on senior last year. I saw at least three people cry when he signed their yearbooks back in June. No one wanted him to leave for college. But now that he’s accused of attempted murder, have they turned on him? Or have they found a way to forgive the charismatic boy they used to know?
I reach for my magic, shoving past the strange barrier that’s been there ever since Benton drugged me to suppress my power. My magic resists my call, and I push harder, asking the air to bring their conspiracy theories close enough to hear.
Pain lances up my spine, sharp and fast, when I reach too hard. I stumble on the steps and grab the handrail to steady myself. Tears burn, and I shut my eyes against the shame as my magic crumbles inside me. It shouldn’t be this hard. Such a tiny, simple piece of magic shouldn’t hurt like this. It’s so small it isn’t even against Council laws, since no one would ever notice.
This time, it isn’t Gemma who’s calling for me. It’s Morgan. My girlfriend’s Blood Magic vibrates deep in my bones, soothing away the sharpest parts of the pain, and then she’s there, reaching for my hand. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I say, but I let her thread her fingers through mine as I climb the rest of the stairs. “Between the two of you, I should get that tattooed on my forehead.”
Morgan shoots me a look, one that says she’s acutely aware that things arenot as fine as I’d like to pretend they are. Once we’re inside, she leads us into a still-empty classroom. “You don’t have to pretend with us, Hannah. I know this summer has been hard on you.”
Under the fluorescent lights, I fight to keep my eyes from shimmering with tears. I shove the grief down, down,down until it’s so deep I can’t find it. “I’m fine,” I repeat, keeping my voice steady.
“No, you’re not. Your heart rate shot through the roof.” Morgan casts a worried look at Gem, and I get the distinct impression my best friend and my girlfriend are about to gang up on me.
This is one of the few downsides to dating a Blood Witch, besides the strange looks my fellow Elementals give me: it’s impossible to hide my feelings when she can sense the literal rhythm of my heart. Morgan can’t sense that for everyone, just people whose blood she’s touched, and if my coven knew that I’d voluntarily given her access to mine? Well, the weird looks would be the least of my problems.
The worry on Gemma’s and Morgan’s faces lingers, and I shift nervously. “Really, I’m good. I tripped on the stairs. It’s not a big deal.” I nudge Morgan with my shoulder, aiming to distract her with flirtation. “Not all of us have impeccable grace.”
Morgan flushes a satisfying shade of pink as the first warning bell clangs through the halls, effectively ending their interrogation.
We melt into the flow of student traffic and head deeper into the school. The press of shifting bodies sends a tremor of unease through me, but I do my best to keep it hidden. To bury it deep enough that Morgan won’t notice. I see Benton in every tall, dark-haired figure that passes the edge of my vision and have to remind myself to breathe. The Benton I knew in these halls, the friend I joked with and confided in, is gone. The Witch Hunter he became, the boy who tried to kill me—whose parents murdered my dad—is rotting in a jail cell while he waits for his trial.
Fresh nerves turn my stomach. Jury selection begins in less than a month. Twelve strangers who will determine his fate.
Gemma heads for her locker on the other side of the school, and I look for a distraction. “Are you nervous?” Since it’s Morgan’s first day at Salem High, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like she swallowed a migration of butterflies this morning.
Morgan shrugs, a movement so graceful that walking beside her makes me feel like a robot, all stiff limbs and mechanical expressions. “I miss my friends,” she says as we turn a corner. “But it could be worse. I have Gemma and Kate and the other people from dance.” Morgan tucks a red curl behind her ear. “You’re not half-bad, either.”
“That’s the goal. A half-decent girlfriend and a not-terrible friend.”
She laughs and watches the locker numbers tick up and up until we reach hers. It takes her two tries to spin the combination correctly, but soon the door pulls free with a violent shudder. “You know you’re great.”
“If you say so.” I lean against the locker beside hers and reach for my necklace. I’m still not used to the way she tosses out compliments like she has an infinite supply. I run the bit of black tourmaline crystal along its thin silver chain. The crystal was a gift from my boss, Lauren, and Mom empowered the stone to increase its calming and protective qualities.
Before she can reply, two boys turn the corner and walk down the hall toward us. “Did you seriously spend the whole summer doing community service? Thatsucks, dude.”
Nolan Abbott, soccer star and all-around asshole, has the audacity to soak up his friend’s sympathy. “It was shit. I tried to do my hours at the animal shelter, but that stupid cop wouldn’t go for it. He made me pick up trash and scrub graffiti like a delinquent.”
I barely suppress a laugh, and it comes out as an undignified snort. Detective Ryan Archer is not only the “stupid cop” who busted Nolan for smashing a rock through my front window, he’s also the Caster Witch who helped rescue me from a fiery death. Archer denied Nolan’s shelter pick on my request. Nolan didn’t deserve to spend a summer walking puppies.
Unfortunately, my moment of petty satisfaction attracts Nolan’s attention. He glances up, and when he spots me for the first time, his expression goes stormy. “Something funny?”
“Besides your face?”
Nolan scowls. “Sick burn. Did Benton teach you that when he tied you to a stake and set you on fire?”
His words drain the blood from my face and leave my knees weak.
Morgan slams the locker and props the books on her hip, pressing her free hand against the small of my back. Blood Magic floods my system, invisible to them but numbing the rising pain and panic that’s threatening to swallow me whole. It blots out the memories before they can fully form, leaving nothing but wisps of smoke in their wake. “Come on, Hannah. He’s not worth it.”
I let her steer me away, but even with her power flowing through my veins, I can’t stop my hands from shaking.I’m okay. I’m safe. I force myself to breathe, inhaling for five steps, exhaling for ten.Benton’s in jail. I’m okay. By the time we make it to my locker, my fingers are steady enough to spin the combination and store my things inside.
“You can let go,” I whisper as we head toward our homerooms, which are across the hall from each other. Morgan isn’t touching me anymore, but she must know what I mean. Her magic falls away, leaving my jagged nerves exposed again. “Thank you.”
The softest shadow of a smile graces her lips. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m good. I promise.” I step back toward my homeroom, the last few stragglers maneuvering around us. “I’ll see you at your locker before lunch?”
She nods and slips into her class as the final bell rings. I hurry in before the clanging stops, and all eyes turn to me. The silence is heavy with expectation.
I force a smile and ease down the aisle, finding a seat near the back. My whole body is tense under the weight of their attention, but I keep my spine straight. I remind myself to breathe. Remind myself not to feel too strongly. I hide my still trembling hands under the desk.
I’m okay. I can do this.
If I can survive the Witch Hunters, I can survive high school.