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THE FOREVER GIRL, by Rebecca Hamilton: FREE SAMPLE View all buying options at

{chapter one}

MY MOM DIED DURING AN EXORCISM on my eighteenth birthday. On that same day, an ever-present static moved into my head like a squatter I couldn’t evict. Ever since, I thought getting rid of the noise would be my best shot at survival—like all I needed was silence, even if only within myself, to feel at home again. I was wrong. I crossed the black-and-white tiled floor to the jukebox, hoping Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ would drown out the wasping in my mind. “Sophia!” Mrs. Franklin’s high-pitched, singsong voice cut into my thoughts. Bound by my waitressly duty, I gripped the sides of the jukebox and turned my head toward her. “Yes?” She smoothed invisible wrinkles from her paisley, ankle-length dress. “Check, please. I’d prefer to leave before any secular music touches my ears.”

I walked to the register, printed her check, and headed over to the red vinyl booth where she sat. “Anything else, Mrs. Franklin?” “I was hoping you’d reconsidered my offer on your house.” Of course I hadn’t. Why would I sell my inheritance unless I would make enough to leave this rotten town? “I’m not interes—” She grabbed my arm, and I forced my glare from her whitening knuckles to her scowling face. I considered pulling free, but if we caused a scene, I would be the one to go down. The customer’s always right, after all. She leaned closer and lowered her voice. “Your mother would have wanted it that way,” she said sweetly. I stared back, uncertain what to say. But I didn’t need to say anything. She gave me a long, condemning glare, then released my arm, gathered her purse, and hurried to the checkout counter. I get it, I thought at the back of her head. You think it’s my fault Mom died during the exorcism. Why not? Everyone else did. After all, it’d been my touch that killed her. At least they weren’t blaming me for my father’s murder, but that was likely only because I was six at the time. On my way back to the kitchen, one of the two boys sitting at table four flagged me down to request a milkshake. I tried focusing on the order as I ran the blender, but I couldn’t tell where the sounds in my head ended and the sounds of the real world began. “I heard she’s a witch,” the older boy whispered loudly. His friend grinned. “She’s blonder than your sister, even . . . and probably twice as dumb.” Right. Sophia Parsons, town idiot. Pale, blonde, and brown-eyed. As bland as oatmeal, yet somehow I was still the rumor mill’s hot sauce.

I wanted to dump the boy’s shake over his greasy little head, but instead, I recalled the Wiccan Rede that had so long guided me: An it harm none, do what ye will. Too bad my Colorado State University education was proving fruitless. Apparently, no one wanted to hire a twenty-two-year-old fresh out of college to teach history. The greasy-haired boy nodded toward the diner’s front door. “Let’s get out of here. She’s giving me the creeps.” Though they left, the itchy feeling of their judgments did not. I blew a stray hair from my eyes and gazed past the booths, out the window to the Rocky Mountains on the horizon. Belle Meadow was thirty minutes from Denver but ages from the modern day. This town was a trap, a collection of crazies. Including myself. If Colorado was the heart of the southwest, Belle Meadow was a clogged artery. The ding of the diner’s front door opening brought me back to reality: burnt grease and coffee on the air, along with my duty to serve whoever strolled in. It just so happened that ‘whoever’ was Sheriff Locumb. He entered the diner with a purposeful gait, scanning the room before heading my way. “Hey, Sheriff.” I righted an upside-down coffee mug and began to pour. “Anything besides the usual?” His mustache twitched. He brushed some crumbs from where his stomach bulged against his brown police uniform and lifted his gaze. “Miss Sophia Parsons?” I stopped pouring mid-cup. Hello? I serve your coffee every day. “Yeah?” Jack came up beside me, drying his hands on a towel. “Hey, Sheriff. What’s going on?” Locumb cleared his throat. “I’m, uh, afraid I need to ask Miss Parsons to come with me.” Jack and I stared at each other and then back at the sheriff. “Is this a joke?” I asked. I didn’t really think he was joking. Sheriff Locumb wasn’t the joking kind. Everyone in the diner watched. Even the jukebox went silent.

Jack leaned closer to the sheriff, lowering his voice. “What’s this about, Jerry?” Locumb sniffed. “Can’t discuss it. We just need to ask Sophia some questions.” My heartbeat picked up. Sheriff Locumb could be a nice guy . . . in a diner. But I didn’t want to be on the other end of his questioning. Not again. Not ever. Trying to appear calm, I removed my apron and gently placed it on the counter. “Okay,” I said. “Let me get my stuff.” After promising Jack I’d make up my shift over the weekend, I headed to my Jeep and pulled up behind Sheriff Locumb’s cruiser. I spent the drive to the sheriff’s office in a cold sweat. No handcuffs, no reading of my rights. At least this time I wasn’t under arrest. He was even allowing me to follow him to the station. That whole thing with Mr. Petrenko—that was long over with, right? I’d only found his body. I hadn’t killed the man. No matter what anyone thought.  SHERIFF LOCUMB AND I sat in a small room with a table and two chairs and a cheap light embedded into the suspended ceiling overhead. I wiped my palms on my pants, but the sweat kept coming. He pulled up a picture on his cell phone. “Look familiar?” Maybe he should’ve gotten an eight-by-twelve print. What was the picture of? Wood? A reddish-orange figure eight and a cross? I frowned and shook my head. “Should this look familiar?” “Someone spray-painted this on the abandoned grain elevator,” he said coolly. “Why don’t you tell me what you know?” “What I know about spray-paint?” “Look.” He leveled his gaze at me. “Mrs. Franklin said one of the women in her

congregation—well, her daughter got sick. They think you had something to do with this.” “Mrs. Franklin thinks I have something to do with everything.” “Well?” he asked. “Well, what? I didn’t get anyone sick.” He puffed his cheeks and blew out a breath. “I’m not saying you got anyone sick, Sophia. They think you hexed their child by spray-painting this satanic symbol.” “You think I hexed someone? You’re kidding.” Belle Meadow might be a small town, but surely it wasn’t so dull that they needed to call me down to the station for this. “You’re here because Mrs. Franklin suggested you might be the one who vandalized the abandoned grain elevator, not because you ‘cursed’ someone.” “And?” I asked. “Well, did you?” “I’m Wiccan.” He stared blankly. “What’s that have to do with the case?” “Wiccans don’t believe in Satan.” “Listen, lady. I don’t care what you believe in. Why don’t you just tell me where you were when the offense took place?” “Which was when?” “May tenth.” “At Colorado State, taking my senior year finals.” Something a few minutes of research would have told him without dragging me down here. Besides, how did Mrs. Franklin know the date? Did she take daily drives around town with her calendar and journal, looking for signs of demonic worship? Sheriff Locumb leaned back in his chair, slapping his hands against his knees before standing. “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind waiting here while I check with the school?”

I gestured toward the door. “Go ahead.” I would like to say I enjoyed the silence while he was gone, but there was nothing but the constant hushing in my brain the entire time. Sheriff Locumb returned with a cup of coffee and an apology. I didn’t drink the coffee, but I did ask him about the sick kid, and he told me it’d just been a case of chicken pox. Not a demonic plague or anything like that. After squaring everything away, I returned outside to my Jeep and gripped the steering wheel. I couldn’t deal with Mrs. Franklin’s crazy accusations and the damn hissing. Something had to give. Taking three deep breaths, I pushed the hissing as far into the back of my skull as possible. I wasn’t about to go back to work. Someone was bound to interrupt my relaxation efforts with a request for a drink refill or a complaint that their jalapeno loaf was too spicy or their ginger-lime chicken wasn’t chickeny enough. As I drove home, I concentrated on the road—on one mailbox after another, on the way tree branches laced overhead, even on the glare of traffic lights, counting the seconds until they turned green. Anything to distract me from the noise. My Jeep shushed along the pavement, but the roll of the road didn’t do me any good. The quieter the world around me, the louder the buzzing in my brain. Coping was no longer a viable option. At the last major cross street before my neighborhood, the noise in my head roared. I slammed my palm against the steering wheel, gritting my teeth. Enough was enough. I flicked my turn signal in the other direction and veered onto the highway before my courage fled. It was time to turn away from caution and toward Sparrow’s Grotto. Toward something that might silence the hissing forever.  THE FORTY-MINUTE DRIVE to Cripple Creek, home of Sparrow’s Grotto, was worth spending the bit of cash I made at the diner. A Wiccan shop would not fare well in Belle

Meadow, but, thankfully, the surrounding towns had pulled themselves into modern America. I shrugged off my seatbelt and grabbed my list from the glove compartment before stepping out of my Jeep. A wad of fingerprinted gum blocked the parking meter slot. No way was I hunting down another space. I dug the gum out with the blade of my car key and forced a quarter past the sticky residue. There. Twenty minutes for me. I stared at the shop I’d first set foot in when I was sixteen—the place that always provided answers. Doctors hadn’t been able to help with the noise. Tinnitus, they’d said, as if this were only a ringing in my ears. Tinnitus, my ass. But I’d gone to them first because magic was something I turned to only when necessary. After today, I was convinced this was one of those times. I shoved my thoughts aside and headed into Sparrow’s Grotto, where coyote figurines prowled the shelves, patchouli and sandalwood infused the air, and notes of Celtic music relaxed my nerves. The wall opposite the checkout counter was stacked with books, and the center aisles were filled with herbs, oils, candles, chalk and salts, small dishes, and other ritual implements. Athames, bolines, and other sharp objects were kept locked in the back. Paloma, the shop owner and my long-time mentor, burst through a beaded curtain, her out-swung arms breaking the image of bamboo shoots. Her long hair, brown as coconut husks, tangled in her large, gold hoop earrings. “Oi, Sophia!” she said. “It’s been far too long!” “You’re telling me. How’ve you been?” Following a quick bout of chitchat, she reviewed my list, her gaze only interrupted for a moment as she wiped a stray hair from the sun-weathered skin of her forehead. “What sort of ritual do you have in mind?”

“Something for positive energy.” Less demanding than a ritual for silence; I never felt right making demands while using magic. “Ah,” she said, tapping a finger against her lips. “I’ll see what I can do.” She disappeared behind her beaded curtain while I admired a few antiques on a shelf near the counter. A small violin charm made me smile. I set the charm beside the cash register. It would be a perfect addition to the bracelet Grandfather Dunne had given me shortly before he died. He’d even removed several links so it wouldn’t slip from my wrist. Paloma returned with four plum-colored herbal pouches strung shut with thin black cords. “I hope you don’t mind, but we’re out of agrimony. I’ve substituted with eyebright.” “I thought agrimony was best for banishing negative energy?” “The eyebright will bring balance. My mother used this for a similar ritual in Belém when I was young. In Brazil, we grew agrimony in our garden. The sweet apricot scent is lovely.” I bit my lip. Eyebright was not part of the plan, and I hadn’t come all this way for air freshener. Mental clarity might help, but it generally wasn’t suggested to rush into a ritual. That included changing details at the last minute. One herb could change everything, and I didn’t have time to redo all my research. But I needed the noise gone—yesterday. “Have I ever steered you wrong?” she pressed. She had a point. “One more thing,” she said, retrieving a large book from under her counter and handing it to me. “A gift. For you.” The leather binding displayed a labyrinth of leafy spirals and branches of laurel. A handwritten cover page read Maltorim Records, Volume XXVI, Salem Witches. “Are you sure?” I asked. Gifts always made me feel as though I needed to do something nice in return, and I could never figure out what. “It looks . . . valuable?” “You mean it looks old? That’s why I’m giving it to you.”

“You’re giving it to me because it’s old?” She waved me off. “You know what I mean. You study those ancient texts and all, don’t you?” “Paleography,” I said, surprised she remembered the special interest I’d had in college. If the book was handwritten, I’d certainly enjoy analyzing the text. “I’ve no use for it,” she continued. “In some people’s hands, that book would end up as a gag gift and eventually a door stop in some old man’s house with too many cats and too many back copies of newspapers, not to mention that one woman who used to come here to buy books just to burn them.” “You mean Mrs. Franklin?” I asked, only half-joking. “I’m rambling again, aren’t I?” She let out a brief sigh and gestured toward the book. “Consider it an early birthday present.” Early was an understatement. The start of September was a far cry from December st

21 . “Thank you, really.” I pulled some crumpled bills and a few Tic-Tac-sized balls of lint from my pocket. Paloma tapped several keys on her register. “A discount, since I didn’t have the agrimony,” she said. “Now how about a cup of tea before you get going?” We chatted in the back room, the light aroma of green tea hidden beneath the scent of hot ceramic. I smiled at the mismatched crockery stacked high in Paloma’s pale blue, doorless cabinets and her eclectic selection of orphaned pieces of dining room furniture. For the first time all day, I could almost relax. Almost—if only the hissing in my head would stop blotting out my thoughts. Paloma wanted to hear more about the ritual, but every time I opened my mouth, I told her about something else instead. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell her about my curse—yes, a curse. The incessant hissing was too dreadful to think of as anything else.

After we caught up, she saw me to the door and made me promise to call if I needed anything. “Anything at all,” she pressed, closing the door behind me. I wasn’t halfway down the walk before I told myself I’d misread the concern in her voice.

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