Pepper Johnson and the Book of Magic

Garrett Johnson closed the cabin door and stirred the fire.

“Mary, wake up! I fear your brother has raised a mob.”

His wife opened her eyes and sat up in the bed. “I wasn’t really asleep. He is coming?”

“Yes, and it appears the whole town is with him. I see the glow of torches in the mist.”

Mary looked down at their sleeping children. “Their lives will never be the same.”

“I know. Their only hope is to get to my cousins in New Edgarton.”

“But the weather? It’s only October and the snow has already come.”

“It’s their only hope, Mary.” He lifted her face to his. “Little Mary knows the way. She has the gift. She’ll see they all make it safely.”

“I hope so.” She knelt beside the children, “Little Mary, Samuel, Abigail it’s time to go.”

Mary woke first. Her bright blue eyes were clouded with sleep, but her chubby cheeks were rosy, and her wavy brown hair covered by a tight fitting linen bonnet. She was twelve. The next to wake was Samuel who was ten, then Abigale seven.

“Mama, Papa must we go?” asked Abby, rubbing her eyes.

Garrett looked down at his youngest daughter’s gray blue eyes and dimples. “Yes Abby. You won’t be safe if you stay. Listen to your sister and help her all you can.” He turned to his son. Samuel’s hair was as dark as Mary’s, his eyes just as blue but his face thinner.

“I’m relying on you to take care of your sisters.”

“I will Papa. I promise.”

He motioned to a large orange cat sitting on the hearth. “Barnabas come,” the cat jumped down and ambled to his side. “Go with the children. I want you to do everything in your power to protect them. Remember, Mary has to get to New Edgarton.”

“Prissy,” called the children’s Mother. “You’ll go as well.” A long haired gray cat walked over and sat beside Barnabas. “I’m putting my trust in you.”

“But Mama,” said Mary. “Without Prissy and Barnabas, you and Papa will be weakened.”

“We know,” her Mother replied. “That’s not important. Hurry, you must be gone before your uncle arrives.”

Her Mama handed Mary a shoulder bag with food and ushered she and her siblings toward the door. She tapped Mary on the shoulder. “Just one more thing.”

“Yes, Mama.”

She handed her a small book. “You’re to take this as well.”

“But Mama?”

“Don’t argue Mary, it can never fall into your Uncle Peter’s hands.” She kissed them all on the cheek.

“Very well, now go. Get to New Edgarton and find my cousin Nathanael, he’ll see you are cared for.” Their Father pushed them out the door and shut it behind them.

Once outside Mary pulled her cloak closed and took Abby’s hand. “We better hurry.” They followed Barnabas and Prissy away from the cabin, past the family’s small barn and out into the forest. Mary knew as long as she could see the moon she could guide them, but Barnabas and Prissy knew the way too.

“Let’s put as much distance between ourselves and Uncle Peter as we can,” suggested Mary. “After that, we’ll rest.”

The children’s parents sat holding hands in the dim firelight. “Are you sure we did the right thing?” Mary asked.

Garrett nodded. “Yes. If Young Mary can get to New Edgarton and join with Cousin Nathanael. Their combined powers should be enough to stop your brother.”

“I know, but it’s…so, drastic.”

“These are drastic times. Peter’s power has grown stronger and faster than we anticipated. I’m afraid this is the only way.”

The door to the cabin burst open and Garrett and Mary found themselves swarmed by angry townsfolk and shackled. Peter stepped in through the doorway and walked up to his sister.

“Where’s the book, Mary?”

“What book?”

Peter put his lips to her ear and said quietly. “You know what book I’m talking about.”

“No I don’t. I have no idea.”

Peter scanned the inside of the cabin. “Where are your children?”

“We sent them away,” Garrett replied. “We knew you would come, and we wanted to keep them safe.

“You gave it to them, didn’t you?” A curious expression crossed his face. “Where are your cats?”

“Cats?” replied Mary.

“Your cats!” sneered Peter. “You sent them with the children didn’t you?” He spun back to the crowd. “Take them to the gallows! They’re guilty of witchcraft.”

The crowd seemed confused. Mary noticed the ring on her brother’s left hand glow. “You’re wearing Gandrick’s Ring! Father warned us never to touch it. He said it was full of dark magic and would consume whoever wore it.”

Peter shook his head. “Father was weak,” he flicked the ring, “Take them away.” He watched as the mob forced his sister and her husband into the cold, dark night. He looked down at the purple glowing ring and spoke quietly. “I know we’re not safe as long as the book exists… Yes, I think she gave it to the children, too. He put his hand down and walked toward the door… No, I’m not worried. What can a few children do against the power of your ring?”

Barnabas and Prissy jumped on a stump and looked back the way they’d come. “I can feel him,” said Barnabas. “His power is very strong.”

“Yes,” Prissy agreed. “The children need to go faster. He’ll catch us if they don’t.”

“They’re going as fast as they can.”

Prissy stared at him with her big green eyes. “We’re not going to make it, are we Barney?”

Not unless we do something to slow Peter down.”

“Barnabas? Prissy? Where are you?”

“We’re over here Mistress.” They heard the children crunching through the snow and watched them appear from the darkness. The big cat looked up at Mary with yellow eyes. “You can feel him, can’t you Mistress?”

Mary nodded.

“Oh.., Mary. What are we going to do? asked Abby.

“I, I don’t know?” she replied breathlessly. “But, but don’t worry, I’ll think of something.” A wolf howled in the distance. “I know,” exclaimed Mary. “I’ll ask that wolf for help. I’ve seen Mama use nature spells before. I think I can remember the intonation of her voice, and her hand gestures.”

“That’s a good idea, Mistress,” Barnabas agreed.

Mary rubbed the feeling back into her fingers. She looked up at the moon and waited until her breathing calmed. “Very well, here goes.”

“Wolf of the forest who howls at the moon,

come to our aid in our time of doom.

“There, that’s all I can do.”

“Do you think it worked?” asked Samuel.

“I don’t know,” Mary replied, shaking her head. “But we can’t wait to find out. Come, let’s be on our way.”

The children traveled as fast as they could but Prissy and Barnabas always had to stop and wait. Each time they did, they felt Peter getting closer.

“What now?” asked Prissy. The cats had come to a fast moving river to swift and wide for the children to cross.

Barnabas paced the bank and swished his tail. “I don’t know. We have to find somewhere for them to cross.” He looked upriver and down, “But which way do we go?”

Prissy jumped on a nearby boulder. “The river narrows downstream. I believe we’ll have a better chance if we go that way.”

The children emerged from the trees and the two cats hurried to meet them.

“The river’s too wide to cross here, children. I think we’ll have better luck downstream.”

Mary nodded. “Give us a few minutes to catch our breath, and we’ll follow.” The snow made the rocks slippery, and the going slow. The farther downstream they traveled the narrower the river became. Eventually its banks were so steep they couldn’t go any further.

“Look Mistress,” directed Prissy. “There, atop the high bank, a tree has fallen across the chasm.”

Mary looked at the steep bank and realized it was their only hope. She turned to Samuel and Abby. “Do you think you can climb this?”

“I, I don’t know,” Abby replied. “It’s so steep.”

“You can do it, Abby,” assured Samuel. “I’ll help you. “You’ll see.”

Abby looked at the hillside and back at her brother. “I’ll do my best, Samuel. I promise.”

“We’ll lead the way.” The cats scampered up the hillside and the children followed. It was a difficult climb, but they eventually made it to the top and the fallen tree.

Prissy and Barnabas circled in front of it. “It doesn’t look to sturdy, Mistress.”

The river’s roar filled Mary’s ears, and its mist felt cold on her skin. She kicked the tree. “You’re right Prissy, it doesn’t look too solid.” She bit her lip. “But I don’t think we have a choice.”

Barnabas jumped onto the log and walked across and back again. “It’s more solid than it appears. I think if you go one at a time you’ll be safe.”

Mary glanced at her brother and sister. “I’m the heaviest. If it holds me, it should hold you.” She stepped onto the tree and stuck her arms out. Don’t look down. She told herself. Don’t look down. She put one foot in front of the other and slowly and carefully made her way across. When she reached the other side, she jumped off and breathed a sigh of relief. When she turned back a full moon was glowing in the night sky; and a dark purple glow was advancing up the hillside.

“He’s coming,” she pointed and screamed. “Uncle Peter’s coming! Hurry and get across, it’s your only hope.”

Prissy and Barnabas jumped onto the fallen log, but Samuel and Abby froze. “Hurry.” Mary yelled, but they didn’t move.

When their uncle reached the top of the bluff Abby and Samuel scrambled onto the makeshift bridge. “Come on. Hurry,” Mary urged. When they were about halfway across the log made a cracking sound and both children disappeared into the river below.

Mary stared down into the torrent and couldn’t believe they were gone.

Her uncle raised a glowing hand and shouted. “Give me the book, or you’ll meet the same fate!”

Mary looked up slowly and shook her head. “No, I’ll never let you have it!”

Her uncle waved his hand and a stream of dark purple magic sizzled across the chasm. Mary’s hands flashed in front of her face. The middle finger on her right hand was held down by her thumb, and her left showed only four fingers. She shouted, “Malevolence revert!” Peter’s dark magic hit her arms and flashed back knocking him to the ground.

Mary studied the positions of her fingers and arms. When did I learn how to do that?”

Peter got to his feet and brushed the snow from his clothes. “You won’t be able to deflect this one!” He raised his arms and a large ball of magic swirled between them. Mary froze in terror, and a giant wolf silently stepped from the shadows.

My spell! It must have come in answer to my spell. “Noble beast,” she whispered. “Tear that man’s glowing hand off and drop it in the river.”

The giant wolf leapt in front of the moon and ripped the hand from her uncle’s wrist. It carried it to the chasm and flung it into the darkness. The swirling ball exploded, and Peter slammed into the ground. The wolf waited a few seconds then pounced on him and tore at his throat.

The wolf snapped and pulled the flesh from his body, swallowing without chewing. Blood spurted, and misty vapor floated up in the icy air as it gorged itself on the still warm corpse. When it finished, the wolf walked to the edge of the chasm. It stared at Mary with cold dark eyes. Her uncle’s blood making crimson dots as it dripped slowly from the wolf’s bloody jowls.

Mary retched until there was nothing left in her stomach. She spit bile from her mouth, wiped her lips with the back of her hand and said weakly, “Thank you.”

The wolf raised its head and howled at the moon. When the echo faded, the wolf turned and disappeared back into the shadows.

“Mistress,” Barnabas called running up beside her. “How did you do that? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Mary staggered over to a large rock, brushed the snow off and collapsed. “I don’t know. I don’t remember Mama ever teaching me that.”

“That’s because it’s dark magic,” explained Prissy. “How did you learn dark magic, Mistress?”

“I don’t know?” Mary spit more bile from her mouth and stared down at the ground. “It just came to me.”

“It was the book,” purred Prissy. “It’s chosen you.”

She turned to the cat. “Chosen me? You mean the book is alive?”

“I’m not sure? Maybe?” answered Prissy.

“How do you know so much about it, Prissy?”

“I was a kitten when your grandfather defeated Gandrick and took his ring. The book chose him too.”

“Gandrick? The book chose him. What do you mean?”

“In the past witches and humans lived side-by-side,” explained the cat. “Together we built some of the wonders of the world. Then Gandrick, a power hungry witch decided because of our magic we should be in charge.” Prissy shook her head. “There was a huge war and all the witches took sides. Some chose Gandrick’s, and some the humans. Eventually, both sides realized they were only hurting themselves and signed a peace treaty. All except Gandrick. He wouldn’t give up until your grandfather destroyed him.”

“So what about Gandrick’s ring?”

“It’s all that was left after the battle.” Prissy gazed up into Mary’s eyes. “It’s said the ring contains all of Gandrick’s evil. I think your uncle was wearing it.”

“The purple glow!”

Prissy nodded, “Yes Mistress. I think the book knew.”

Mary glanced at her uncle’s body. “I know the wolf saved my life, but I didn’t expect it to be so vicious.”

“Magic is very unpredictable, Mistress.” Barnabas replied. “There are always consequences when you invoke it.”

“Like Samuel and Abby,” she replied. “The wolf saved my life, but not theirs.”

“Yes Mistress,” Barnabas answered. “There was nothing you could do.”

“I was supposed to keep them safe…I didn’t do a very good job.”

“They hesitated,” noted Prissy. “The log bridge wasn’t strong enough to carry them both.”

“I know, but still…” Mary’s expression changed, she reached into her bag. “Maybe the book can help?”

“Oh, Mistress,” said Prissy. “Are you sure? It could be dangerous.”

Mary looked down at the small innocent looking volume. “I have to do something.” She opened the book and a light so bright she had to shield her eyes poured out. When her eyes adjusted she saw there were letters swirling on every page, but no words. The letters changed colors and style. Most were neatly written in black, but sometimes they were scrawled in bright red blood.

Mary clapped the book closed and stared at its cover.

“I told you Mistress, the book has chosen you, but it’s also very dangerous.”

“I just wanted to help Abby and Samuel,” she glanced down at the cats. “Now it looks like I won’t be able to.” The book flipped open startling Mary so that she slid off the boulder. She picked the book up from the snow and sat back down on the rock.

“Resurrection by Daylight?” She looked at the cats. “The book opened to a spell called ‘Resurrection by Daylight.’”

“Be careful,” warned Barnabas. “Are you sure you can trust the book?”

“It saved my life.”

Barnabas put his front paws on her knees. “Yes Mistress, but how do you know the book wasn’t just saving itself?”

Mary looked at the moon setting behind the trees. “I didn’t think about that.” She glanced down at the book and read the spell silently. She read it again. “I’m going to try it. What do you think?” She rotated the book, but the page went blank. She turned it back and it reappeared. “I guess I can’t show it to you.”

“Are you sure, Mistress?” asked Prissy.

Mary read the spell again. “I’ve read it over, and over and I can’t see anything wrong.” She glanced at the two cats. “I need to do something. I promised Mama and Papa I’d get them to New Edgarton safely.”

Mary cleared her throat and held the book so she could read it.

May those who died in the night,

now appear with the new days light.

“That was pretty simple. I can’t see where anything could go wrong with that.”

“Perhaps not, Mistress. But be wary of the book. You’re young and inexperienced.”

“I’ll be careful, Prissy.” The glow of dawn began to show above the treetops. Mary stood and stretched. “It shouldn’t be long before I know if it worked.”

The colors of the tree’s Autumn leaves exploded in the early light of day. Mary looked out over the sea of color and her thoughts drifted from whether the spell worked, to how beautiful the trees looked.

“Mary. Mary.” She turned and saw Samuel and Abby running from the direction of the river. Her heart leapt and she ran toward them laughing with delight. “I’m so glad to see you. I thought I’d lost you forever.”

“We thought we’d lost you too, Mary,” said Samuel. “The last thing we remember was trying to cross on the fallen tree.” She saw him look toward the river gorge. “Where’s the tree?”

Mary hugged them close. “It collapsed when you tried to get away from Uncle Peter. But don’t worry, I brought you back. Everything’s alright.”

“Did we die?” asked Abby.

“I’m not sure,” she smiled. “But you’re safe now. Everything will be fine. Are you hungry?”

Both children nodded and Mary gave them some of the food their mother had packed. They resumed their journey and she explained what happened to their uncle and the wolf.

The three children and the cats traveled through the forest until they came to a well-worn path. After that, the cats kept to cover and the children walked alone. The sun was low in the sky when they crested a rise and looked down on their destination.

New Edgarton was constructed on a large estuary. Its location offered safe harbor for ships, a broad valley for growing crops and timber covered hills for firewood and lumber. The town was mostly log buildings but there were also a few of sawed lumber.

As they descended into the valley, they caught up with a man hauling firewood. “Good evening, sir,” greeted Mary. “Could you please tell us where Nathanael Johnson resides?”

“Nathanael Johnson? You mean the Tin Smith? He and his wife live right in the town. You can’t miss their shop, there’s a sign above the door.

☠️☠️☠️

“Is this it Mary?” asked Abby. “If it is, I hope Cousin Nathanael has something to eat. I’m famished.”

“According to the sign it is.”

They pushed open the door and found the shop full of everything you could make from metal. Pots and pans were suspended from the ceiling and implements of all kinds hung on the walls.

An older man appeared behind the counter wearing a leather apron. “May I help you?”

“Yes sir. Are you Nathanael Johnson?”

“Yes, I am he.”

“Do you have a cousin called Garrett who lives in Ruction?”

“Yes, I have a cousin Garrett that lives in Ruction. He’s married to a fine woman named Mary.”

“He sent us to see you sir, we’re his children. I’m Mary, and this is my younger brother Samuel and sister Abigail. He said you’d take care of us.”

“Did he,” his eyes narrowed. “Why would he need me to do that?”

“It’s our Uncle Peter, sir,” replied Samuel. “He gathered a mob to attack us.”

“Yes sir,” Mary added. “Mama and Papa said he was growing too powerful. They hoped that together we could defeat him.”

Cousin Nathanael’s eyes glanced around the storefront. “Wife.” A woman of about his same age emerged from the doorway behind him.

“Yes Husband?”

“Would you please get the small pottery jar from the sideboard drawer.”

She looked at the three children and nodded.

“Wait here until she comes back,” he directed. “I have a test I want to give you.”

“Very well,” Mary replied. She rubbed her right index finger on the countertop and motioned with her eyes to Samuel and Abigail. She lowered her hand and made a gesture over her right hand with her left. The tip of her index finger glowed light green. She and her siblings nodded and looked back at the shopkeeper.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Mary replied. “But you can’t be too careful.”

Mrs. Johnson returned with a small brown pot and handed it to her husband. He removed the pot’s tiny lid and dipped his finger into its contents. “Would each of you please hold out the palm of your hand?” The children held their hands out and he put a dab of liquid in each. “Close your hands and count to ten.” The children counted together, when they’d finished he put the lid on the tiny brown pot. “You may open them.”

Samuel and Abigail’s palms each had a light blue dot, but the dot on Mary’s palm was a deep emerald blue.”

“There’s no doubt about it, you’re Garrett and Mary’s children. He lifted Mary’s hand, “I’ve never seen a blue this dark. You must have an extraordinary ability for magic.”

Mary thought about the book but didn’t say anything. “Mama and Papa told me that too. They hoped we could join together to defeat Uncle Peter, but we don’t need to anymore.”

Nathanael frowned, “Why?”

Mary looked down at the counter. “He’s dead. Last night I summoned a wolf and it killed him.”

“Tell me exactly what happened,” ordered Nathanael.

There was a scratching sound on the shop’s front door. “I bet it’s Barnabas and Prissy,” guessed Abby. She hurried to the door and the two cats ran inside.

They raced to the front of the store and jumped up on the counter. “Nathanael, Biddy it’s nice to see you,” greeted Prissy.

“Yes,” added Barnabas. “You both look well.”

Biddy went around to the front door and locked it. “I think we should all go to the back. Besides, you all must be starving.”

“Yes. Yes,” agreed her husband. “I’ve been a terrible host. Please join us for some food and drink.”

Barnabas and Prissy affirmed what the children had already said.

“So Peter was using Gandrick’s Ring?”

Both cats nodded. “Yes, we believe so,” answered Prissy. “I know the children’s Grandfather Johnson had the ring in his possession before we sailed to the New World.”

“It would have been easy for Peter to steal it,” added Barnabas.

Nathanael ladled more stew into the children’s bowls. “I don’t think we need to bother. I’m sure Peter had the ring.”

“Does anyone want more bread?” asked Biddy.

“I would please,” answered Samuel.

“May I have more too, please,” added Abby.

“What do we do now, Cousin Nathanael?” Mary asked.

“I don’t think we need to do anything.”

“We don’t do anything?” replied Barnabas.

“Not about the ring anyway,” said Nathanael. “I don’t think anyone could find it.”

“So what do we need to do?” said Prissy.

“We need to find out what happened to the children’s parents. It’s possible they need our help.”

Cousin Biddy came in with the bread plate and a candle. She lit the candlesticks on the table and Samuel and Abby disappeared.

Mary choked on her mouthful of food.

“Do you know something about this?” asked Nathanael.

Mary swallowed, looked to the two cats and then her cousins. “Ahh, well I should probably tell you about Mother’s book.”

☠️☠️☠️

Gramma J. closed the scrapbook and set it on the coffee table. “That’s all there is Pepper.”

“But what happened to the book, and what happened to Samuel and Abby? Oh, and what happened to Barnabas and Prissy?”

Pepper’s real name was Mary just like her Gramma J’s. So was her grandma J’s and her grandma J’s. and her grandma J’s. The ‘J’ was for Johnson. There had been a Mary Johnson in the Johnson family since the 1600’s when the family first arrived in the New World.

“I’m sorry Pepper, that’s all there is. I guess the rest of the story got lost. It was written down in 1745, and I think we’re pretty lucky to have this much of it.” She looked at her 12 year old granddaughter’s chubby cheeks, deep blue eyes and unruly brown hair. “Why don’t I fix some tea and cookies?”

“What kind of tea?”

“What would you like?”

“Rose hip?”

Gramma J. smiled. “Sure.”

Pepper watched her gramma walk into the kitchen and looked around the interior of the 200 year old farmhouse. This was different than her house in New York. Things had changed since the death of her mom nine months earlier. She and her dad had left the city and moved in with Gramma and Grandpa J. He’d said it was because he didn’t feel comfortable raising a girl on his own; and his parents were getting older and it was time he helped with the family business.

Gramma J. was great. She wasn’t that old, and Pepper thought she looked kind of like Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac. Her hair was long and graying, she wore dangly earrings, a lace shawl, and her dresses looked a lot like Stevie’s too. Gramma J. was also big on wild herbs and plants from the forest. She even had a secret garden where she picked weird stuff like Calendula, Yarrow, Foxglove and Belladonna.

Pepper guessed living out in the country was ok. Except they didn’t have cable tv, or the internet. Gramma J. and grandpa usually just listened to Public Radio. She was getting used to it. She liked the stories she heard on Morning Edition with Bob Edwards and Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She even liked some of the classical music, but it got old after a while.

Pepper put the scrapbook with the story back in the bureau and saw there was also a small very old looking book setting on the same shelf. She put the scrapbook down and was about to pick up the book.

“What are you doing in there, Pepper?” Gramma J. came in carrying a platter with a copper teapot, flowered china cups and a plate of cookies.

“I was putting the scrapbook away. She picked up the little book. “What’s this?”

“That’s a very old book.” She answered setting the tray down. “It’s been in the family for years.” Gramma J. walked over, took the book and sat down. “It’s full of recipes and potions to heal you and keep you well. It’s kind of a first aid manual that was written hundreds of years ago.”

“What kind of potions?”

“Most have to do with getting rid of itchy skin. I think it would have helped if they bathed more.” She raised her eyebrows. “Anyway, after we have our tea and cookies would you ride down to Irving’s Store and get a four pack of toilet paper? I thought we had more, but we’re all out.”

“Ok.”

After they finished Pepper went to the bathroom, eyed the partial roll and used sparingly. She pulled her hair away from her eyes with a pink hair band and inspected her bib overalls for stains. She didn’t see any and went to get her windbreaker.

“Ok Pepper get the cheapest kind. I’ll get more when I do my regular shopping in New Edgarton.” Gramma J. handed her two one dollar bills. “Here’s two dollars. You can keep the change.”

“Thanks Gramma.” Pepper climbed on her bike and rode down the gravel road under a canopy of multicolored Fall leaves. It was a beautiful Autumn day; the sun was shining, and it was cool but not cold.

Irving’s Store was older than the farmhouse she lived in. Her Dad said it was almost three hundred years old and used to be a tavern and an inn. Pepper leaned her bike against the hitching post and pulled open the business’s scarred front door.

“Hi Mary.”

Pepper cringed. “Hello, Reverend Prewett.”

The Reverend was dressed in a long sleeved gray shirt and blue jeans. He was carrying two bottles of pop and a candy bar. “I hope to see you at our Sunday service tomorrow.”

“Are you going camping or something?” Pepper asked.

He looked down at himself. “Oh no. I’m going metal detecting.” He nodded. “I’ve been meaning to ask your grandparents if I can search around their place.”

“Mm. I don’t know.” Pepper looked down the aisle. “I came here to get toilet paper.”

“I’ll let you go then. Remember about our service tomorrow.”

Pepper nodded and picked up a four pack of Best Value two ply. When she got to the cash register, Reverend Prewett was waiting behind a boy and girl holding a small gray tiger striped kitten.

“But if you won’t let us have the can of food, our kitten will die,” explained the boy.

“I’m sorry children,” the storekeeper replied. “It’s only fifty cents. Why don’t you ask your mom or dad for the money?” He set the can of food behind the register. “I’ll keep this here until you come back.” The children stepped to the side and Reverend Prewett took their place.

“Is this all for you, Reverend?”

“Yes, thank you, Wash.” He handed him a couple dollars. “You know you’ve never given me permission to metal detect around your place.”

“Sorry Reverend, I keep forgetting to ask Martha. She’s very particular about things like that.” He handed back his change and put the pop and candy in a paper bag. “I’ll ask her this evening.”

“Thank you, Wash.” He turned back to Pepper. “Our service starts at 10 o’clock.”

She nodded, “Ok thanks.”

The Reverend picked up his sack and walked out of the store.

Pepper put the four pack on the counter.

“Just the toilet paper young, lady?”

“How much does it cost, Mr. Irving.”

“$1.45 plus tax.”

“Can I get the cat food, too? I have two dollars.”

“You’d still be a few pennies short. Wait, I think I have a few cents in the bottom of my pen cup.” Mr. Irving took the pens from an old white coffee mug and dumped four pennies into the palm of his hand. “There, perfect.”

“Thank you, Mr. Irving.”

“No, thank you young lady.” He smiled and handed Pepper a sack containing the cat food and toilet paper.

Pepper turned to the boy and girl. “Here, this is for your kitty.”

“Thank you. We knew you would help us,” the girl replied.

“Yes, thank you,” agreed the boy

“I didn’t want your kitty to go hungry.” Pepper turned and walked toward the door.

“You’re new here aren’t you?” the girl asked following her.

“Kind of, I’ve been here since June.”

“Yeah, we saw you riding your bike. We’re staying down the road from your grandparents. I’m Sam and this is my sister Abby.”

“I’m Pepper.” She picked her bike up and put the brown paper bag in its handlebar basket. “What’s your kitty’s name.”

“We don’t know yet?” Abby replied. “We’re still waiting to find its owner.”

“You’re waiting to find its owner?”

“Yeah,” said Sam. “We think we know who it belongs to, but we’re not sure.”

“That sounds weird.”

“I guess it does,” agreed Abby. “But it’s really not. Do you want to hold her?”

“Sure.” Pepper replied.

“I’ll push your bike,” volunteered Sam.

“She’s so tiny.”

“She likes you,” said Abby. “I can hear her purring.”

“Oh, you’re a pretty girl,” Pepper held the kitten up to her cheek. “She’s so soft.”

They walked back up the gravel road until Sam and Abby stopped. “This is as far as we go.” Sam pointed to an overgrown path with part of a shingled roof visible through the colorful foliage. “This is where we’re staying.”

“I didn’t notice this before,” said Pepper.

Abby took the kitten. “Why don’t you come back tomorrow? Bring more food too, please.” Abby peered into the little cat’s green eyes. “We don’t want her to go hungry.”

“You can’t feed her?”

“Not really,” Abby replied. “We’re just watching her until her owner comes to pick her up.”

“Can’t your parents help?”

“They don’t know about her,” answered Sam.

“That’s not very responsible,” noted Pepper. “Why did you agree to take care of the kitten if you couldn’t feed it?”

“Don’t worry,” said Sam. “She’ll be well taken care of.” He and Abby started up the path.

“Remember,” Abby reminded. “Come back tomorrow.”

Pepper peddled the rest of the way home thinking of the two children and the little tiger cat. It just seems strange.

“I’m home Gramma J. She put the toilet paper on the kitchen table, folded the paper bag flat and put it in the bag drawer.

Gramma J. came in from the living room. “Thank you, Pepper. Did you have any trouble?”

“No…oh,” she filled a glass with water from the sink. “Reverend Prewett invited me to church again; and he wants to metal detect the yard.”

Gramma J. “Hmphed. I don’t trust that man. Something about him is not right.”

“I know,” Pepper replied setting her glass down. “There was a little boy and girl with a kitten. They wanted to buy a can of cat food, but they didn’t have fifty cents. The Reverend was right in front of me in line, and he didn’t even offer to help. Luckily I had change left over from the toilet paper money. Mr. Irving even put in four pennies to pay the tax.”

“That was nice of you, and him.” Gramma J. opened the toilet paper and took a roll out, she put the rest in the pantry.

“They asked me to come back tomorrow and bring more food. That’s kind of weird isn’t it?”

“It does sound unusual.” Gramma J. stared at the roll of toilet paper in her hand. “Maybe their family is struggling financially and can’t afford any extras.” She looked up. “How much can a little kitten eat, anyway? I’ll clean out the refrigerator.”

“I have some money saved,” Pepper added. “I could give them three dollars.”

Gramma J. smiled. “We’ll make a kitty care package you can take with you. I’ll send some food along for their family, too.”

☠️☠️☠️

After lunch the next day, Pepper loaded her bicycle basket with the food she and her Gramma had packed and peddled back to where she’d left the children.

When she got to the overgrown path she parked her bike and called: “Sam. Abby. I got the food.” Nobody answered. She lifted the bag of food from her bike’s basket and walked up the path toward the house. When she emerged from the bushes she found it was just a ruin. The only part of the roof still standing was the part you could see from the road. Otherwise, it was collapsed into the center of the house.

Pepper shouted, “Sam, Abby, are you here?” An orange cat and a long haired gray cat came out from behind an old rock wall, but there was no reply. She heard meowing coming from the dilapidated building and carefully made her way inside.

The tiger stripe kitten stood up against the inside of a cardboard box when it saw her. Pepper picked up the kitten and found a note.

Pepper,

Alice is yours. We know you’ll take good care of her.

Thank You,

Sam and Abby.

Pepper looked into the kitten’s light green eyes. “Is your name Alice?” She dumped the refrigerator leftovers into a handy bowl and let Alice eat until she was full. She waited until Alice finished and gone potty, then picked her up and walked back to her bike.

Prissy and Barnabas watched Pepper leave before coming any closer. “She left us some food,” said Barnabas.

“That was nice of her.” Prissy looked back the way Pepper had gone. “Do you think she’ll give Alice a good home, Barney?”

“I’m sure she will. Samuel and Abigail think so too.”

“I know. But Alice is my baby. She’s probably the last kitten we’ll ever have.” Prissy turned to the big orange cat. “We’re not getting any younger, you know.”

Barnabas rubbed the side of his head against hers. “I know. Now why don’t we try some of this delicious looking food?” Barnabas’s ears pricked up. “Do you feel it?”

Prissy’s eyes looked worried. “Gandrick’s ring!”

“Yes,” Barnabas nodded. “Someone’s found it!”

Pepper heard a car coming and steered her bike as far as she could to the right. Mr. Irving whizzed past in his old red truck leaving her and Alice in a cloud of dust. When her grandparent’s house came into view, his truck was parked in front of it.

She put her bike away and carried Alice and the food inside. “I’m home!”

Her dad came out of the kitchen. “Pepper, I can’t explain now but I need you to go to your room.”

“I got a kitten. See.”

He took the food and nudged her toward the upstairs stairwell. “Great, great. It’s real pretty. Now, go upstairs until we call you.”

“What is it Dad?”

He shook his head. “I can’t tell you but it’s an emergency. Now, get upstairs.”

I wonder why they can’t tell me. I’m not a baby, I’m almost thirteen. Pepper flopped onto her bed and lay Alice on the blanket. Whatever!

Pepper put her headphones on, lay back on her pillow and turned her iPod to MMMBop by Hanson.

“Mary.” Pepper blinked.

“Mary.” She pulled her headphones off. “Who said that?”

“Mary.”

Pepper turned the iPod off and searched the room with her eyes.

The voice came again. “Mary.”

“Mistress, someone is calling you.”

Pepper looked down and saw the gray tiger striped cat staring up at her. “Alice?”

She nodded. “Someone is calling you, Mistress.”

Pepper slowly moved off the bed and away from the kitten.

“Mary.”

What’s happening?

“Aren’t you going to see who it is, Mistress?”

“You can talk?”

The kitten nodded, “Yes Mistress, I’m your Familiar.” She walked toward the edge of the bed. “You need to see who’s calling.”

“Familiar?”

“Yes Mistress. I’m here to be your companion and help with your magic.”

“My magic?”

“Yes Mistress.”

“Mary.”

“Who keeps calling my name?” asked Pepper.

“I don’t know, Mistress.” Alice slid off the bed. “Why don’t we go see?”

Pepper looked down at the tiny kitten. “Maybe I should carry you. Is that ok?”

“Oh yes Mistress.”

Pepper gently picked up the kitten and waited for her name to be called again. When it was, they followed it downstairs to the bureau where the scrapbook was kept.

“Whoever’s calling you must be in the cupboard Mistress,” said Alice.

“Alice if you’re my Familiar, does that mean I’m a witch?”

“Yes Mistress.”

“I’m a witch?”

“Yes Mistress.”

“Mary.” The voice called again.

Alice looked up at her. “Aren’t you going to see who it is?”

Pepper took a deep breath and slowly opened the cupboard door.

☠️☠️☠️

“Yes, Wash I feel it too,” answered Gramma J. “But what can I do?”

“You have the book,” Mr. Irving replied.

“I know. I know. But unless Gandrick’s ring has a bad itch, the book I have is useless.”

“It has to be the same book!”

“If it is? I must not be the chosen one like the Mary in the old story.”

Pepper knocked on the kitchen door jamb.

Her dad jumped to his feet. “I thought I told you to stay upstairs until we called you, young lady?”

“How come you never told me I was a witch?”

“You’re a witch? Who told you that?”

“Alice did.”

“Who’s Alice?”

“My Familiar,” Pepper moved her arm indicating the kitten.

Gramma J. jumped out of her chair. “You have a Familiar?”

“Yeah, it’s the kitten those two children were buying the food for. Her name is Alice. You remember, don’t you Mr. Irving?”

The storekeeper nodded.

Gramma J. stepped closer. “Hello Alice. May I pet you?” The tiger striped kitten didn’t say a word.

Pepper looked down at her. “Aren’t you going to say something?” The kitten remained silent. “Geez Alice, now everyone thinks I’m crazy.”

Pepper jumped like she’d been shocked. She handed Alice to her Gramma J. and reached into her pocket. “Oh yeah, I forgot.” She pulled out the tiny old book from the bureau. “This book told me to pick it up and read it. When I did, all I saw was swirling letters.”

Everyone in the room gasp.

“Oh my gosh,” exclaimed Gramma J. “Do you know what this means?”

“Yes,” answered Alice. “It means the book has chosen Pepper.”

They all stared at the kitten.

“See,” Pepper said. “I told you she could talk.”

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Pepper Johnson and the Phantom in Irving’s Cellar