Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
STEAM FILLED THE WINDOWS OF Mischa’s parked car as we sat in the parking lot of Tallmadge Park on Christmas Eve, discussing the deadly predicament we were in.
“We have to consider the possibility that we might have been wrong.” I chose my words carefully, not wanting to set Mischa’s temper ablaze. Once she was upset about something, calming her down was quite a task, and we didn’t have any time to spare. Or, more accurately, she didn’t have any time to spare. “I don’t think the locket was connecting Violet to the curse. You might actually…” I trailed off, earnestly wishing I didn’t have to say the words that followed. “Still be next.”
We were the only people at the park, which had been dusted with snow that morning before the temperature dropped into the single digits. Although I’d been back in Willow from my boarding school for two days already, it had taken some effort to convince my mom to allow me to leave the house with a friend. To be fair, my mom’s concern that I was going to get myself in more trouble while home for the holidays from the Sheridan School for Girls was a valid one.
In fact, it was a pretty safe assumption that trouble was once again on the horizon ever since Mischa had sent me a letter at school—e-mail was not allowed at Sheridan—in which she’d mentioned that she’d heard Violet was giving kids tarot card readings and was telling them how they were going to die… similar to a game of Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board.
And that game was how this nightmare had started in the first place. At the beginning of the school year, Violet had predicted the deaths of our friends Olivia and Candace with such eerie accuracy that we’d concluded she’d actually caused their deaths with her predictions. I’d gotten myself expelled from Willow High School with my attempt to prevent Violet from ever killing anyone else using the same method. I was only back in town for winter break and had been planning on spending my time at home trying to mend my relationship with my mom. Now it seemed like every second that I didn’t dedicate to figuring out how and why Violet had killed my friends—and was rumored to still be predicting deaths—increased the probability that Mischa could die at any second.
We had just eight days to stop Violet, and that was if Mischa lived past the next new moon.
Mischa stared straight ahead through the windshield for a long moment. “Impossible. It had to be the locket, McKenna. Everything feels normal now. You guys broke the curse. It’s over.” She hesitated before adding, “Besides, I’m still alive. That has to mean something, right?”
I could understand why Mischa was eager to believe that the curse had been broken. She was supposed to die after Candace, according to the order in which we’d all taken turns playing the game at Olivia’s birthday party. Back in September, Violet had just moved to town, and we’d thought we were being nice by inviting the shy new girl to hang out with us. We’d had no idea that we’d welcomed a killer into our social circle.
“Maybe it was never the locket,” I mumbled. “And maybe there isn’t even an object connecting her to the curse. We could have been wrong about all of it. It’s not like Trey and I are experts in ghost stuff or anything.”
Desperate to prevent Mischa from dying after Candace drowned in Hawaii in October, my boyfriend Trey and I had researched curses and tried to piece together clues we’d gathered from communicating with spirits using a Ouija board. We’d tried—and mostly failed—to understand messages from the spirit that had been haunting my bedroom since September, which we assumed to be that of my friend Olivia. Olivia had been Violet’s first victim in our town, killed in a grisly car crash the night of a big football game. Her visits had grown increasingly violent as she attempted to help us prevent Candace’s death. Curiously, she hadn’t seemed to follow me to Sheridan, for which I was grateful. It would have been awkward to explain to my roommate the urgency of my need to decipher clues from a vengeful ghost, even though she was a self-professed fan of horror movies and claimed to know a lot about witchcraft. I had assumed Olivia’s ghost had abruptly left me alone when I’d left home because we’d broken the curse. But now that I realized Violet had tricked us, I was afraid that Olivia was just fed up by my failure.
“But didn’t Father Fahey tell you that an object connected her to the ‘other side’?” Mischa asked in a high-pitched voice that suggested she was getting herself worked up. “Why would a priest lie?”
I thought back to the day when Trey and I had gone to St. Monica’s parish to seek out help from Father Fahey, the priest who had baptized both of us. He’d been reluctant to help us, claiming that he didn’t want to involve himself in anything dangerous for fear of jeopardizing the safety of the other priests who lived above the rectory. “He may have just been speculating.”
Father Fahey had convinced Trey and me that Violet had acquired her power to issue death sentences from something in the spirit world, and that a tangible object was the conduit of power between the spirits and her. We’d both gotten ourselves into a ton of legal trouble when we stole her locket and led local police on a wild car chase across central Wisconsin. It turns out that parents on school boards don’t like when moody guys known for mouthing off to teachers and daughters of women who are considered to be town eccentrics threaten pretty girls on the pom squad.
However, since arriving back at home in Willow, I had two plausible reasons to believe that Trey and I had failed to completely break the curse. The first was that someone had anonymously sent me a mysterious lunar calendar with the dates of Olivia and Candace’s deaths circled on it to suggest a pattern, along with obituaries of kids from Lake Forest, Violet’s hometown. I would never have guessed that the moon had anything to do with my friends’ deaths, but if I was right about the logic suggested by the dates circled on the calendar, Mischa should have died exactly as Violet had predicted: before the most recent new moon.
The second reason I doubted that we’d actually broken Violet’s curse had been provided by Mischa, herself. Although Mischa’s parents had transferred her out of Willow High School and enrolled her at St. Patrick’s in Ortonville to put distance between her and Violet, her boyfriend, Matt, was still at Willow. He was the one who’d told her about the tarot readings that Violet gave in study hall. “I mean, if we really broke the curse, then why is she still making kids play games with her?”
Mischa demanded, “Let me see that moon thing again.” I handed her the piece of paper that I’d been carrying around, folded in my back pocket, for the last two days. She squinted at the five columns organized by phases of the moon, and the dates circled in red pen. “This just looks like a bunch of moon shapes and circled dates. Who did you say sent this to you?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Someone just put it in my mailbox addressed to me the day I got home. There wasn’t even any postage on the envelope. But if you look at the dates they circled, it’s like they’re trying to suggest someone Violet’s predicted a death for dies during each moon cycle, between one new moon and the next.”
Mischa frowned and raised one eyebrow at me. “No offense, but I think you might be reading too much into this. This just looks like someone’s trying to track down a werewolf.”
There was another reason why the lunar calendar had me on high alert about Violet’s continued game-playing while I’d been away. Students at my boarding school weren’t allowed to have cell phones. So from the second my mom had given me back my phone for the duration of my time in Willow, I’d been voraciously researching the connection between the moon and witchcraft, as well as paranormal powers. Most practitioners of witchcraft believe that the phases of the moon play a significant role in the success of casting spells. Furthermore, I read that some people who believe in psychic or mystic abilities think that anyone born under a full moon has a greater likelihood of developing those kinds of strengths.
There had been a full moon the night before my twin sister, Jennie, and I were born.
And Olivia’s ghost had chosen to haunt my bedroom, or perhaps had only been successful in catching my attention.
“It’s simple,” I said, annoyed by Mischa’s insistence that I was turning the lunar calendar into a bigger deal than it was. “One death for every cycle of the moon.”
“Look, sorry to disrupt your astrological theory, but according to this, I should have died before the new moon on November twenty-sixth. But I was at school that day. In fact, I had to bring a stupid sweet potato casserole for a Thanksgiving potluck lunch. The curse has to be broken. How else could I still be alive unless it skipped me or something?” She wiped her nose on a crumpled tissue from the pocket of her winter jacket and turned the car’s engine back on so that she could run the heater.
“Maybe something prevented the curse from reaching you before November twenty-sixth—you know, like some kind of spiritual force field,” I suggested. “Think back to last month. Were you doing anything to, like, protect yourself?”
Mischa rolled her eyes at me. “You mean like bathing in holy water and wearing garlic around my neck? No. Of course not! I wasn’t doing anything because I thought I was safe. Besides, I’ve been kind of busy acclimating to my new life. You’re not the only one who got carted off to a new school, remember?”
“I know, I know,” I replied, aware that Mischa probably couldn’t fathom how much worse my new educational environment was than hers. It wasn’t fair of me to even expect her to try. “But seriously, maybe being at St. Patrick’s every day is a form of protection. You’re basically, like, surrounded by nuns there, right?”
She fell silent for a moment, thinking hard about what might have been safeguarding her life since early November. “The principal, who’s a nun, had me come in for an interview before I was allowed to register. She’d heard about both Olivia and Candace dying and wondered if my transferring had something to do with all that. So I told her the truth—I mean, not the whole truth, but that they were my friends, and that I thought one of my classmates in Willow was responsible.”
“You told her about the game?” I asked, surprised. Trey and I had been very careful about which adults we’d confided in about our suspicion that Violet had killed my friends. Poor Candace had run her mouth all over town and had been shipped off to the psychiatric ward for treatment before Violet’s prediction for her came true in Hawaii. I was very aware that I’d sound like a lunatic too if I went around blabbing about a girl who could dictate exactly how someone would die simply by telling a story.
“I didn’t tell her any details!” Mischa insisted. “I actually wanted to get admitted to that school, not be banned for life. I just said that we might have unintentionally dabbled in some evil stuff with bad repercussions. She didn’t ask any questions. But she did make me go to a special mass before I was allowed to enroll in classes. Kind of extreme, right? Making a Jewish girl attend a Catholic church service?”
“What kind of church service?”
Mischa exclaimed, “I have no idea! Are there different kinds?”
It was just as well that Mischa didn’t know what type of mass she was asked to attend since my mom and I had stopped regularly going to church when my twin sister had died eight years earlier. I was hardly an expert in Catholic votive services. “Maybe that was enough to protect you from the curse for the last few weeks. Do you think?”
“No, I don’t think!” Mischa snapped. Her lower lip was trembling and tears were forming in the corners of her eyes. “I don’t want to think anything’s been protecting me! I want to think that you and Trey saved me from whatever Violet did, and it’s done. It’s over.”
Snow flurries blew around Mischa’s car as if they were dancing on the bitter winter wind. Telling her how afraid I was that she would die within the next twenty-four hours wasn’t going to bring her any comfort, although the thought of my failing to save her chilled me to the bone. Olivia’s death had been a surprise, and Candace’s had been a sickening confirmation of a hunch. But if Mischa died, it would be due to my inability to outsmart Violet. I had known Mischa since preschool, and we were bound together in this hellish game. If I lost her, I’d be the only person remaining who had been at Olivia’s party with Violet the night this all began. The burden of that memory combined with the grief of losing all three of the childhood friends with whom I’d shared that experience would just be too much to bear.
I couldn’t explain to Mischa why I was so sure that we’d failed to stop Violet. But now that I was back in Willow, geographically closer to where we’d played the game at the Richmonds’ house (as well as closer to Violet), I was positive: Mischa’s death was still imminent. It was almost as I if I could smell the doom encircling her, rotten and acrid.
“It’s not over. I’m really so sorry, Mischa. Trey and I tried, but it’s not. And we don’t have a lot of time to end it for real before I go back to school,” I said softly.
“What am I supposed to do if we don’t figure out how she did this to me—and why—before you leave again?” Fat tears rolled down Mischa’s cheeks, and she didn’t bother wiping them away. Her voice dropped into a hoarse whisper. “I don’t wanna die. Not the way she said I would. Turning blue, with blood vessels bursting in my eyes? And my heart feeling like it’s exploding inside my rib cage while I choke?”
I shivered. I remembered that Violet had predicted Mischa would choke, but I hadn’t been paying attention to the details when it was Mischa’s turn to play dead during the game.
“We’re going to figure it out. I promise. We’re going to do everything we possibly can in the next eight days to ruin that bitch.”
“How?” Mischa asked in between sobs. “She’s smarter than us. Look what she’s already done. We don’t stand a chance against her.”
I didn’t want Mischa to know that I had my doubts about whether or not we’d be able to take Violet down. Even though she had every right to be terrified about death closing in on her, I needed her to get motivated to fight. Just as important, I was going to need her to drive me to downtown Chicago, since my license had been revoked by Judge Roberts in Shawano County. “Look, here’s my plan. We need to figure out how and why Violet predicts deaths for people. If we know that, then we’ll have a better shot at making her stop. But now we also need to find out what kept you from dying last month. Maybe someone else died instead of you.”
“This is a small town. If someone else in Willow had died in November, I would have heard about it.”
“Okay,” I said, trying to stay on track. “Then there had to be another reason it skipped you. If someone can help us figure out what that was, then we’ll just keep doing it to buy ourselves more time.”
Mischa stared straight ahead out the windshield at the snow flurries. “How are we going to do all of that in eight days? We wasted so much time in the fall, all for nothing.”
I tried to sound positive. “I said I have a plan, didn’t I? There’s a bookstore on the North Side of Chicago that specializes in witchcraft stuff.”
“I don’t have time to read a book!” She waved the lunar calendar at me and crumpled it into a ball. “This says there’s another new moon tomorrow! That means I might die tonight. Whatever the nuns were doing to protect me back in November, I’m sure they stopped doing it as soon as they let us out for winter break on Friday.”
There was the issue of the new moon expected to rise in about thirty-six hours, a day and a half. I hadn’t mentioned that horrid deadline out of fear that it would freak Mischa out even more than the fact that I was headed back to Sheridan on January first, but I should have known she’d figure that out for herself the instant she looked at the lunar calendar.
“We’re not gonna read books, okay? We’re going to ask someone who knows a lot more about this kind of stuff than we do for their advice,” I said, feeling a strange but familiar tingling sensation spread across my scalp. “My roommate at Sheridan told me about this place, and I looked it up on Yelp. The lady who owns it is supposed to be legit.”
I handed my phone to Mischa so that she could read some of the store’s reviews from shoppers. I didn’t mention to her that saving her life wasn’t the only reason I’d been looking for experts in occult practices and paranormal phenomena. I’d been experiencing weird stuff the entire time I’d been at Sheridan, and had been mystified by why new strange things were happening even though Olivia’s ghost had completely abandoned me. My roommate at Sheridan claimed to practice Santeria. Alecia had ended up at Sheridan because she’d beaten her stepmother to a pulp, so I kept a safe distance from her, but she’d told me about the store in Chicago when I’d politely asked how she became interested in dark magic (which she spelled in her doodles as “magick”).
It was eleven in the morning, and Trey had told me during our most recent phone call that he would be arriving home in Willow that day. My heart fluttered at the possibility of being reunited with him in a matter of hours—an irrepressible burst of joy at an otherwise morbid moment. The last time I’d seen him had been at the Shawano County courthouse, when we’d hastily said good-bye before being sent off to our respective boarding schools. We hadn’t even had a chance to kiss before courtroom security guards pulled us apart. Without having my phone with me at Sheridan, I hadn’t even been able to look at pictures of him while I was away to keep the details of his face sharp in my mind.
I’d told my mom that Mischa and I were going out for coffee, which wasn’t a lie; we just hadn’t sat at the coffee shop as I’d maybe allowed Mom to believe we would. While we were there, the coffee shop owner had side-eyed me while the barista, who was a sophomore at Willow High School, had made our lattes. I hadn’t realized how much of a local celebrity I’d become, although I shouldn’t have been surprised. The chase on which Trey and I had led police up to White Ridge Lake back in November had been front-page news in the Willow Gazette.
“Look, I wish we could just drive to Chicago right now and get started, but I need to get home because I told my mom I wouldn’t be gone long. But the store’s open until six today,” I said, hoping Mischa would understand the speed with which we were going to have to move if we stood any chance of making progress before the next new moon passed through the sky in our region of Wisconsin.
Mischa asked, “Is your mom going to let you leave the house again?”
“Not sure,” I said honestly. My mom and her insistence on keeping me on the right side of the law may very well have been just as big an obstacle in us saving Mischa’s life as Violet’s secrets were. “I’m going to tell her that I need to go Christmas shopping to buy her a gift. I don’t know if she’ll fall for it, but it’s all I’ve got.”
I had to convince my mom to let me out of the house. There was little chance that Sticks & Stones, the occult bookshop that would be our destination later in the day, or any bookshop for that matter, was going to be open on Christmas Day. There was also pretty much no way Mom was going to let me run wild with a friend when she’d already told me she’d invited her boyfriend over for Christmas dinner. Mom had started dating our dog’s veterinarian, Glenn, in the weeks I’d been gone. Although she hadn’t wanted to talk much about it, it seemed like it had gotten kind of serious, fast.
We were both quiet as Mischa drove me home. She was most likely wondering if Violet’s prediction that she’d choke would come true before December 26.
On State Street, we lingered at the intersection by the shopping center as three consecutive police cars raced past.
“Geez. Has there been a crime wave on Christmas Eve?” I joked. There was practically no crime in Willow, and it was odd to ever see more than one police car at a time except in the parking lot at either the police station or the donut shop managed by Matt Galanis’s mom.
“Stephani deMilo ran away from home,” Mischa informed me. “At least that’s what everyone’s been saying. She went out for a run yesterday morning and never came back.”
The police cars cleared the intersection, and Mischa gently eased on the gas. “That’s weird,” I replied. “Stephani doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’d run away.”
“Yeah, well, I bet it had to do with the whole Shannon-and-Nick thing,” Mischa said, confusing me.
“Stephani liked Nick Maxwell?” I guessed. “I thought she’d been going out with Michael Walton’s brother since they were in junior high.”
“No! God! Have you been living under a rock? Stephani and Shannon were hooking up for, like, a year! It’s not like it was some big secret. But then I guess Stephani just found out that Shannon’s also been hooking up with Nick, and she went ballistic.”
“Stephani deMilo’s bi?” I asked in surprise.
Mischa rolled her eyes at me. “Yes, um, hello. Did you seriously not know that?”
I didn’t remind her that before September, I hadn’t ever sat with the popular girls in the cafeteria before, and I knew precious little about Stephani deMilo’s life. Before Olivia had welcomed me into her circle, I’d been as out of the loop on the details of the lives of Willow High School’s hipster crowd as Principal Nylander probably was. Stephani’s family owned one of the biggest commercial farms in the county, and she drove a powder-blue Mini Cooper convertible to school every day. She dyed the tips of her long dark hair royal blue. “I had no idea.”
Something about the police searching for Stephani troubled me, even though I had bigger things to worry about than a rich senior with a broken heart.
The sun would be setting in less than six hours. But only the tiniest sliver of a moon would appear in the night sky because tomorrow night there would be a new moon. Everything I’d learned about Violet up until that point led me to believe that Mischa would choke before the sun came up again. Violet didn’t like to cut it close with deadlines.
Back in November, when I’d been sent away from Willow, I never would have thought I’d find myself back in this awful situation of racing against time to figure out what Violet had done to my friends—and how. But now it was more urgent than ever to figure it all out, because if I wasn’t able to save Mischa’s life, I’d feel partially responsible for her death.