Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
Cinnamon will attract prosperity and wealth.
The knock came at midnight. Sharp and staccato, it cracked open the silence of the house. Marigold Lafleur nestled farther under the blankets, but her eyes popped open all the same, her heart keeping pace with the rap-tap-tap that had awoken her.
Someone was here.
The stillness of sleep gave way to the softest of sounds behind the thin walls—covers rustling, arms stretching, heads lifting. Lou groaned from the room next door, and Birdie exhaled a tiny breath. Mama’s footsteps pattered past. All the while, Marigold wondered who dared to turn up on their stoop.
No one came to Lilac Cottage in the daylight. In truth, no one had come much at all ever since the earthquake. Whoever was at the door needed something, and they needed it badly.
Marigold slid off the edge of her mattress. Through her open window the moonlight was a ribbon of silver rippling over her dresser tucked under the eaves, and the single bed that just fit inside the narrow walls. Tiptoeing across the room, Marigold shrugged on a robe. She crept down the hall, careful to avoid the creaky floorboards on the other side of her bedroom door.
Staying pressed against the wall, Marigold snuck halfway down the stairs and stopped before the landing where the stairs turned toward the front door. She peeked her head around the corner and spied Tara Ricketts in the doorway. Her brown hair was messy and tangled, and her face was streaked with tears. Behind her, the night stretched out like the ocean behind it, dark and full of secrets.
“He’ll never straighten up. It doesn’t matter what I do. He can’t hold a job to save his sorry life. We’re broke. We might lose the house.” Tara was sobbing so hard, her face had disintegrated into the wrinkles and folds of a crushed flower petal.
Mama clucked in sympathy, ushering Tara into the front hall. “You could look for opportunity elsewhere, leave Luna Island.”
“I’ve got nowhere to go,” Tara said.
Mama took a deep, slow breath, her shoulders rising with the movement. It was a telltale sign. She was smelling Tara’s fears. “I’m guessing you’re most worried about that baby daughter of yours.”
Tara nodded. “I want her to get off this island someday.”
“I might have something to help, but it comes at a price,” Mama said.
Marigold shrank back, her stomach dropping like a stone in water. Mama was tampering in someone else’s life. Again.
“I’ll pay, whatever it is. My mama gave me some money. You can have it all.” Tara’s voice creaked out, high-pitched and clogged with tears.
“The cost I’m referring to isn’t related to money. There’s a price for changing one’s future, and I can’t predict what it will be,” Mama said.
Mama called them vexes—the consequences for altering fate. She could fix one part of Tara’s life, but a vex might make something awful happen to another part. It was the unpredictability and danger of aromagic.
“I don’t care,” Tara said in a defiant tone. She held out several crumpled green bills.
Mama plucked the money from Tara’s hand. “You’d better come on back, then.”
Marigold’s mouth flooded with a sour taste. Sure, they needed the money, but what Mama did to get it—Marigold couldn’t excuse it, not after last spring. She pushed back into a corner of her mind the memory of the ground shaking and a pale, still face.
Mama cleared her throat and called up the stairs, “I wouldn’t count on winning the role of a spy anytime soon.”
Stupid. Marigold should have known Mama would catch her. Mama couldn’t remember to lock their back door, but she always knew when someone was watching. Marigold stepped out from behind the wall.
“Since you’re awake, why don’t you come on down?” A half smile tugged at Mama’s lips.
Marigold’s nose flooded with the scent of wildflowers and herbs, memories of the past overwhelming her senses. She pictured Mama beaming at her above the burner, the tingling of Marigold’s fingertips as she concentrated on the flame. It was powerful and exciting and… wrong. Marigold pressed her heels into the wooden floorboards and reminded herself she wanted nothing to do with aromagic anymore.
Birdie appeared beside her on the landing, hands on her hips. Her pajamas hung in a creaseless line on her thin frame, and her auburn hair was swept up in a perfect ponytail even though she’d just been asleep. “Marigold needs her rest. It’s the first day of school tomorrow.”
“As far as I can see, she’s already awake,” Mama said.
“?’Cause of all the commotion,” Lou said, pushing past Birdie on long legs corded with muscle. She sat down on the bottom step. “Half the island could hear you carrying on down here.”
“I’m sorry,” Tara said quickly.
Birdie didn’t even look at Tara, her gaze burning into Mama as she strode down the remaining stairs. “Marigold needs to get back to bed like any other normal seventh grader. Not that there’s anything normal about this family.”
Mama closed her eyes a second too long at Birdie’s jab. Marigold tried to think of something to say to dissolve the tension blanketing the room. Yet Mama was already shuffling Tara down the narrow hallway covered in peeling flowered wallpaper and past the crooked stairs stretching up in a maple-patterned jigsaw puzzle.
“I’m sorry for getting up, but we haven’t had a visitor in a while.” Marigold scampered down to where Birdie and Lou stood. She couldn’t wait to tell Sam about this the next day.
“You go on to bed, M,” Birdie said. “I’ll keep watch over Mrs. Ricketts. I don’t know what Mama is thinking. Heading into the basement to work and planning to leave some woman we barely know alone in our kitchen in the middle of the night.”
“Stop worrying for once,” Lou said, exasperated. “We all need sleep, and Tara Ricketts isn’t going to hurt anything. She’s too much of a mess.”
“Exactly. She’s in no shape to make a reasonable decision. Someone needs to keep an eye on her,” Birdie said.
Lou rolled her eyes. “Fine, I’ll come with you. I’m not going to stick you alone with Mama’s latest bad decision.”
“If you’re both going, I’m going too,” Marigold declared. Now that her sisters were awake and staying up, she didn’t want to miss any of the action.
Birdie held up her hand to stop Marigold.
“I’ll go to bed right after.” Marigold clasped her hands together in a plea. “I know it’s late, but at least we’re all up late together. It’s an adventure.” If this were a movie and Marigold were the star, she’d sweep into the kitchen with her white nightgown swirling behind her. With the power of her own persuasion she’d convince Tara to dump her no-good husband.
Marigold deflated as Birdie frowned instead of answering. Sometimes it seemed as though Birdie helped Marigold, only to boss her around a minute later.
Lou cuffed Birdie on the arm. “Oh, let her stay. No one can fall asleep now. Although…” She tapped her lip, pretending to think. “We could wrap this up early by locking Mama in the basement.”
“Yeah right. Mama would kill us,” Birdie scoffed.
They all knew not to mess with Mama’s aromagic. The only time Marigold could remember Mama yelling at her was when Marigold spilled all their rose water while attempting a friendship charm without permission.
“Don’t worry. We’ll let her out by morning,” Lou said, winking at Marigold.
“I’ll even throw down a pillow,” Marigold said, and grinned. “And maybe a blanket.”
“Well, sure. We don’t want her to get cold,” Lou added.
Birdie sighed. “You two are hilarious. Can we get this over with?”
“You’re no fun,” Lou said, sticking her tongue out at Birdie.
“So you’re always telling me. All right, M, you can come,” Birdie relented.
Marigold linked her arm through Birdie’s and nestled close to her side. “I’d never really lock Mama in the basement.”
Lou linked herself to Birdie’s other side. “I definitely would but only if you weren’t home.”
Birdie looked at Lou, her mouth twitching. She began giggling. Lou and Marigold joined in as they pulled one another down the hall.
By the time they reached the kitchen, Mama was already gone. Tara was slumped over at the kitchen table, her head in her hands. Their small kitchen was tattered and peeling, with splintered cabinets and chipped paint, but it had gleaming wooden countertops that Birdie polished with lemon oil every night, and vibrant green herbs lined the window in terra-cotta pots. Lou had hung her game schedule on the refrigerator beside Birdie’s Highest Grade Point Average certificate. Several photos of the three sisters decorated the remaining space of the metal doors. The room might have been ragged, but Marigold loved it all the same.
Birdie grabbed the dinged-up kettle from the stove, bustled over to the sink, and filled it with water for tea. Behind her the back porch lantern glowed, and fractured fingers of gold light reached into the shadows. There was a banging downstairs, and the rich scent of cinnamon rose through the floorboards.
“Prosperity charm,” Lou whispered. “Got to be.”
Marigold shivered. Faint echoes of lilac-tinged smoke followed the pungent cinnamon as it curled up from the basement; the tendrils wound their way around Tara’s calves and seeped into her skin. Though Tara couldn’t see or smell Mama’s charm yet, it was already working its way into her life. She shifted in her seat, uncomfortable but not knowing why.
Tara had said she needed money, but prosperity charms were notoriously difficult to control. The outcomes were unpredictable at best and horrible at worst. Greed and money were usually intertwined, and changing fate because of greed never led to anything good.
“If you need money, you should borrow it,” Marigold urged Tara. “A lot can go wrong if you use Mama’s charm for money.”
“I didn’t ask for money,” Tara said, her eyes bloodshot and bleary. “I’m trying to help Ray get a job. That’s all I want.”
But at Tara’s words, an acrid scent hit Marigold’s nostrils. She froze and breathed out, trying to dispel the smell and stay calm. Yet the burning aroma only grew stronger until it filled her brain. Not now. But her nose wouldn’t listen.
“Gambling,” Marigold blurted out.
Birdie sighed. “Not again.”
“Gambling?” Lou asked, and peered closer at Tara. “Yep, I can see it.”
“What are y’all talking about?” Tara asked in a tight voice.
“It’s nothing,” Birdie reassured Tara while frowning at Marigold.
“I’m sorry. I tried to stop,” Marigold rushed. Her gift always surfaced at the exact wrong time. “I’m an utter failure!”
“More like, dramatic failure,” Lou said, her mouth quirking up at the corners.
“That’s not true,” Birdie said, her eyes softening in Marigold’s direction. “But you need to try harder. We’ll work on it. The goal is normal, right?”
“Right,” Marigold said, hanging her head. “Normal” was good grades and Daddy back on Luna Island. “Normal” was not blurting out the secrets you smelled.
“What did you mean by ‘gambling’?” Tara asked, looking guiltier by the second.
Silence thickened in the room. The kettle screamed into the quiet, and Birdie hurried to take it off the stove. “Where is Mama?” she mumbled, glancing at the basement door.
“Whatever you heard, it’s not true.” Tara’s throat worked to swallow. “I don’t gamble.”
Tara was lying. Marigold pushed aside the image of Tara playing poker online. Sometimes the smell of someone’s secret was so strong, it conjured up a picture as clear as her own face in the mirror.
“It’s none of our business.” Birdie set a mug of tea in front of Tara.
Mama finally appeared, halting the conversation. She carried a glass spray bottle filled to the brim with golden liquid. Marigold knew it contained a charm of cinnamon for wealth, mint for success, and honeysuckle for good fortune. It also was full of Mama’s intentions; her best guess at what Tara needed and wanted. While Marigold knew it was a part of her mother’s nature to help others, Mama recognized the need to pay their bills, especially with Daddy gone and fewer townspeople seeking her charms. Yet even now Marigold could see the nearly invisible smoke wafting from the edges of the bottle and crawling up Tara’s arms, entwining around her throat, forever altering her future. An unsettling feeling stirred deep down inside Marigold.
Tara’s eyes went wide. “What’s that?”
“A special blend of spices and herbs. Ray will get that job. All you have to do is spritz this into the air around him, and you’ll have what you want.” Mama smiled and held out the bottle.
Birdie’s mouth tightened, and she gestured to her sisters. Lou pulled Marigold out of her seat and pushed her toward the door. None of them looked at Mama.
“We’re going to bed,” Birdie said in a crisp voice.
Mama’s smile faded. “If you’ll give me a minute here, I could make us some more tea.”
“No need,” Lou added.
Mama looked at her two eldest daughters, their gazes turned toward the hallway, and sighed at the warning she saw on their faces. “All right, then.”
Marigold followed her sisters back up to their room. The twin beds were nearly touching, but there was a small space in the middle that was the perfect size for Marigold.
“Can I sleep in here tonight?” Marigold asked.
Birdie and Lou exchanged a glance. Then Lou was shoving her field hockey equipment under the bed and Birdie was grabbing her extra quilt and spreading it on the floor.
Birdie surveyed Marigold’s spot between the beds. “You’ll sleep better in your own room. You have a big day tomorrow, and all the research says we go into REM sleep faster—”
“Birdie, no one cares.” Lou flopped down onto her blue-and-white-striped comforter.
“Hey, some people think research is cool,” Marigold said with mock seriousness, sinking down into her cozy nest.
“Oh man, I’m really in trouble if you two start telling me how to be cool,” Lou said, smiling wickedly and clicking off the light.
The front door closed with a distinct thump. Tara was gone, but Marigold couldn’t help wondering what would happen to her. What about Ray and her daughter and the secret gambling? What kind of price would fate require?
Marigold pulled the covers up past her chin, over her nose, until only her eyes peeked out. The image of Tara at her computer seared into her mind once again. Marigold closed her eyes and listened to her sisters’ breathing deepen. She smelled Birdie’s sweet gardenia and Lou’s spiced vanilla scents. Her limbs relaxed, her lashes fluttered. Slowly everything faded to black. No use thinking about Tara anymore tonight. She was safe here in the darkness between Birdie and Lou, cozy and warm, sharing the same breaths, the same smells, the same heartbeat.
Marigold always felt safest with her sisters.