If I ride my bike to work, it takes three minutes; walking takes ten.
I chose to walk.
The sun broke over the lake in a fury of gemlike flames. Halfway is a lake made in heaven, and the town curls around it like a jealous lover. At five in the morning, it’s sleepy and quiet, with only the occasionally rowdy goose or loon breaking the silence. The only humans moving around other than me and a few bakers are fisherman; they have the excellent sense to limit their noise and speech under the auspices of not scaring their prey. I applaud that kind of dedication to avoiding human contact before you’re fully caffeinated.
I unlocked the diner’s side door and slipped into the quiet cool. This was the magic hour before any other employees were around, and the entire space was mine. Three days a week Louis would be waiting to greet me—he started baking at two in the morning, but not today. There was no aroma of flour or sweets and coffee, just the welcoming stillness and a lingering hint of something fried and delicious. Glynna and Pat would arrive later; between the two of them they could organize the invasion of a modest country. They’re both seasoned veterans who know that coffee comes first, chit chat is second, and smiles are constant. It’s no surprise that getting a job here is rare, but keeping it is common.
I set coffee to brew, wrapped a snow white apron around me, and slid easily into the kitchen to begin the dance of preparing for an onslaught of bustling customers who came to eat, relax, and gaze out at the brightening surface of the lake. There are some mornings that I lose time; it’s as if the muscle memory of my job takes over and bliss descends to move my hands in a familiar pattern of cooking, and plating, and smiling at the general joyous chaos that erupts from the moment we open our doors. Most of the time, I love my job. Other days I tolerate it, but this was not one of those days. This day was going to be interesting.
I looked up from the grill and froze. Usually, the diner—that’s the Hawthorn Diner, known to everyone in town simply as The Diner– is filled with a nice mix of tourists and locals. You know the types. There are tourists wearing all manner of vacation uniforms with the occasional sunburn mixed in for good measure. Dads wear khaki shorts, white sneakers, and an expression of relief when their kids start eating. Tourist moms wear anything that’s clean, drink coffee like their lives depend on it, and always seem the smallest bit worried. Our locals wear baseball caps and an air of infinite patience, waiting for me to cook their waffles just so without a hint of hurry.
So, when I looked up and saw six clowns sitting at the counter, I took a moment. Okay, if you want to get technical, I froze. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not scared of clowns. As a witch, I actually find them sort of relaxing when compared to the paranormal nasties I deal with now and again; a little face paint and red noses don’t frighten me. But still, I just took a moment.
Glynna smirked at me while she filled a row of coffee cups; apparently even clowns enjoy a hot cup of joe. I nodded politely, looking down at my current batch of home fries that were happily sizzling away, then turned to add onions and mushrooms to an omelet that was nearly done. Despite my, ah, stature, I can cover a lot of ground in the kitchen. I may not be tall, but I’m really busy, and that goes a long way towards making me efficient. I like that. So do our customers.
“Circus in town?” I asked Glynna, who began to hang tickets in the window with a robotic efficiency. You’ve probably seen someone like her before in a diner somewhere. Glynna is fifty, slender, has hair color that changes like the weather, and brown eyes that are cheery and bright. She’s an inveterate coffee and sugar addict, and she avoids vegetables, meat, and milk like one would a dodge a radioactive badger. Glynna is fueled by caffeine and sweets. I really need to look into her diet someday, if she’ll ever stand still long enough to let me take notes about her eating habits outside work.
She pointed at the array of clowns and nodded sagely. “It is. Rolled in overnight. They’ve set up near the park, although I’d say it was more like a carnival. They’re nice guys; they were giving away tickets at the lakeshore before they came in here to tank up on waffles.”
The lakeshore meant the walkway that followed a rough outline of our park, which snugs up to the water. We’re are exactly halfway between the beginning and the end of the Adirondack chain of lakes, hence our name, and the park is your basic giant green lawn that acted as a picnic spot, music venue, and general meeting place for friends, lovers, and the occasional dog who wanted to stretch it out and run for a bit. My town is compact, idyllic, vibrant during the summer, as all touristy places are, and frigid for the winter.
It’s also lousy with magic.
Now, clowns aren’t from the Everafter, they just dress that way. Trust me, if you’ve ever seen an actual Faerie Queen, you’d think she got her wardrobe at yard sales held during the disco era. Just because you’ve got royal fae blood doesn’t mean you have taste. I know this from experience, and I’ve only just stopped laughing at a printed pantsuit that a fae court member wore during a fight with a rogue Werebear. If it hadn’t been dangerous, I would have been too busy taking pictures for posterity. I don’t care if your beauty is magically enhanced; when you combine stripes and spots, I’m going to laugh at you.
I breezed through the remainder of my shift in a happy fugue, stepping out of the door at just past two in the afternoon. Actually, I took two steps, because I’m just brushing five feet tall and my legs are appropriately long; that is to say they reach the ground. Barely. My eyes are gray, my hair is black, and I love my Doc Martens as much as any inanimate object on the planet save my charm bracelet, which acts as a sort of repository for my excess magic. I’ve got a hidden witchmark behind my right ear; from it springs hair of every human color you can imagine, and a couple that I’ve only seen on really unusual cats. I use the hair for spells, on occasion, and the witchmark as a sort of early warning system for everything nasty that find witches to be delicious or interesting. I couldn’t blame the beasties, since my hair smelled of the grill, my clothes were speckled with waffle batter and I needed a shower in that welcome sort of way you get if you love your job. I do. I’m lucky like that.
So, I’m a witch, and I come from a long line of witches. My Gran is sort of the de facto leader of all things magical in our area; her decades of experience make her the go-to for all questions about the arcane. I seem to be the designated hitter in terms of pest control; I don’t know whether I should be flattered or angry that I spend so many of my days off traipsing around the woods hunting down errant demons, ghouls, or undead tax accountants. The spread of evil knows no bounds, it would seem, so until you’ve had to cast spells at a guy with blue skin, a pocket protector, and fangs, don’t you dare judge me.
Part of being a witch means having a familiar. Mine is a cat named Gus. He’s of the Maine Coon variety, which means that his size rivals mine, and his favorite hobbies include giving me the stinkeye, complaining, and trying to smother me with his tail when I take naps. In other words, he’s your basic cat, just three times larger and more attuned to my magical needs. Gus is the only other occupant in my home; it’s a small bungalow that’s close to the diner, and it once belonged to my parents. They’ve retired and headed for the sunsets of New Mexico, leaving me my childhood home.
I love everything about my house. I love the deep cool of the cellar where I perfect my magic; I love the green expanse of the lawn, and the lonely apple tree that marks the eastern corner of my yard. Its branches are few but heavy with fruit each September, and I pick each apple with a reverent memory that stretches back to the first years of my life. I’m twenty-one years old, and I’ve never known another place. I belong here, and I love that fact, too. All of these things push together in my heart and leave me full and happy, a fact which naturally irritates the rare cynic I’m forced to deal with. Those people are inevitably customers who are cursed with real or imagined special dietary needs. Egg white omelets make me sad, but the people who order them make me angry.
I stepped through my door and tossed the keys on a tall table that hugs the left hand wall. Gus waited to greet me from his usual perch on the fireplace mantel; I refer to it as The Dais of Judgement due to his unblinking stare and haughty bearing.
Then again, he’s a cat. They’re built for that kind of subtle insult, so maybe I’m just overly sensitive since he’s so confident. I admire that kind of moxie in an animal who is frightened of my sneakers if I dare to leave them in a different position. He’s a creature of habit, as am I, but you won’t see me shedding like a cheap sweater when I get upset. Big difference.
Gus interrupted my thoughts with a single deep mroooowwwt.
“Yeah, yeah. You big galoot. I’ll get it.” I moved unerringly to the fridge and pulled out a pitcher of actual cream— my snobby cat won’t drink anything but the good stuff. After I filled a dish large enough to swim in, I started peeling off clothes and heading towards the bathroom. I took an experimental sniff as I passed my bedroom, sensing the lingering essence of Wulfric, my boyfriend. He’d left just before dawn to go on what amounted to a patrol of his lands. I should probably explain why I have a boyfriend who needs to patrol anything, so here goes.
Wulfric is a thousand year old half-vampire, half- Viking who guards a section of the forest so that mortal hikers don’t get turned into undead monsters by an evil spring that we sometimes call the Fountain of Youth. He also has a daughter, Emilia, with a no-good skank named Anna who is actually a Werepanther, hula-hoop addict, litterer, and general malcontent. Anna’s also really hot, which means that for the most part she got away with all manner of anti-social behavior, but absconding with my boyfriend’s kid puts her squarely on my shit list, and I’ve got news for that trampy little kitten.
I’m not scared of any kind of cat. I live with Gus.