These Witches Don’t Burn – Isabel Sterling

THEY SAY THERE’S A fine line between love and hate. I used to think They were idiots. Most people are. What could some faceless They know about love? Or hate for that matter. But then I dated Veronica Matthews. Veronica. Matthews. The girl who pulled me out of the closet so fast and so completely my head was still spinning weeks later. Our first kiss was life-changing. Identity-altering. Even after a year of dating, I still don’t have the right words to describe it. My parents were surprised, though they recovered quickly, when I walked into the kitchen the day of the kiss to announce, “Mom. Dad. Turns out, I’m gay.” Dad dropped his sauce spoon on the floor.

He blinked a few times, then shrugged. “Oh, well, okay then.” Mom picked up the sauce spoon and rinsed it in the sink. “Want to talk about it?” I remember shrugging. Dad and I do that a lot. “Nope. Just thought you should know.” And that was that. Veronica Matthews taught me about love, and I guess They were right. There really was a fine line to cross to hate.

The same girl who dragged my ass out of the closet later tore my heart from my chest with her meticulously manicured nails. I hate her. The stupid, self-centered— Someone clears their throat in front of me. I tear my gaze away from Veronica, who’s in the back of the shop by the prepackaged potions, flirting with a girl whose name I can’t remember. She looks familiar, with her warm brown skin and a tumble of tight black curls. I think she was on the cheerleading squad with Veronica. Evan Woelk, a tall, skinny white boy with guyliner thick around his dark brown eyes, stands on the other side of the counter. He smiles when I finally turn my attention his way. “Hey, Hannah.” He drops a pile of merchandise next to the register and shoves his hands deep in his front pockets.

“Find everything okay?” I ask, stifling a cringe as Veronica giggles. Even the lavender incense burning on the counter behind me can’t calm my nerves when she’s around. Evan nods and watches the total go up and up as I scan his items. Black candles. Twine for binding rituals. A book on hexes. Incense. An all-black athame, both edges of the knife sharp even though the blade is only used for directing energy. I fight the urge to roll my eyes. Yet another Reg playing at being a witch.

I ring up the last item and glance at Evan. He has the whole goth thing going on—black jeans, a tight black shirt, and rings on every finger—which makes this all the more ridiculous. “Eighty-four ninety-five.” I bite my lip as he swipes his card. Part of me wants to warn him. Even if Wiccan magic is child’s play compared to what I can do, it’s still dangerous to mess with forces you don’t understand. Not that I’ll actually say anything. To expose my secret is to risk banishment. Or worse. Evan accepts his bag with a tight smile.

He shifts on his feet, not leaving. I plaster on my work smile, but I’m itching for him to go. Veronica’s still giggling over something What’s-Her-Face has said. I don’t want to deal with her, but I can’t leave the counter with a customer in the shop. I never considered myself the jealous type, but if those two don’t get out of here soon, I’ll— “Is that Veronica?” he asks, pointing at the pad of paper in front of me. The one with my halffinished Veronica-turned-evil-demon sketch. “I heard you two broke up.” Heat burns at my cheeks. I crumple the page and toss it in the trash. “I really don’t want to talk about it.

” Of course he’s heard. The whole school gossiped about our public breakup for weeks. “Forget I asked.” Evan brushes his dark hair out of his eyes. It’s a wasted effort, as it flops right back into place. “Are you going to the bonfire tonight?” I offer a half smile, my thanks for the subject change. “I think Gemma wants to go.” And if my best friend wants to go to the annual end-of-school-year bonfire in the woods, there’s no way she’ll let me skip it. “I take it you’re going?” “Wouldn’t miss it.” He raises his bag of magic supplies, the athame poking out through a small tear in the plastic.

“See you tonight.” “Later,” I say, but I roll my eyes once Evan is gone. I get enough of the wannabes from the tourists who visit Salem. It’s even more annoying when the locals do it, too. They act like it’s all about the wardrobe and accessories. Here, buy a necklace and a few candles. That totally makes you a witch. If they had any clue what real witches were like, what we’re capable of . They probably wouldn’t sleep very well at night. Veronica’s laugh trickles through to the front of the store.

Familiar pangs of desire work down my spine, but the ice in my veins squashes the feeling. I want her out of this shop. I want her out of my life long enough for me to get over her. But no. If only I were so lucky. The selfish, gorgeous bane of my existence belongs to the same coven as my family. Which was great while we were dating, but now . “Oh, Hannah. I forgot you work here.” Veronica sidles up to the counter with a small basket of candles and incense, the lie falling effortlessly from her glossy lips.

“How are you?” I reach for the candles she deposited on the counter and ring them up. “What are you doing here?” “Shopping.” She smirks and shares a look with What’s-Her-Face, who snaps her gum. “This tourist trap overcharges, and you know it.” I shove the candles into a paper bag, letting my shoulder-length brown hair fall past my face. It creates enough of a barrier to keep from looking at her. “Maybe I wanted to see you.” Veronica’s voice is sweet like honey, but I can hear the poison beneath her words. “You’re not returning my texts.” “Yeah, well, take a hint.

” I place the last of the incense in the bag. “That’ll be forty-four ninetythree.” She hands over cash, her fingers lingering on mine. A shiver crawls along my skin, but I won’t let her see that. I can’t let her know she still affects me that way. “It doesn’t have to be like this, Hannah.” She almost seems sincere. And the way my name sounds rolling off her tongue? I have to swallow around the lump in my throat before I can speak. “Thank you for visiting the Fly by Night Cauldron. Have a nice day.

” “Come on, Ronnie, let’s go.” What’s-Her-Face, who Veronica never bothered to introduce, pivots and hurries toward the exit, her heels clicking against the floor. But Veronica pauses. Lingers. As if there’s more she came to say. My heart pounds in my chest, and I’m sure she must hear it. I tug at my uniform again. “Since when do you let people call you Ronnie? You hate that.” My ex watches her friend leave, and when she’s sure we’re alone, she leans against the counter, staring up at me through her lashes. “Be careful, Hannah.

I might think you’re jealous.” A deliberate breeze brushes my neck, laced with a current of Veronica’s power. The smoke from the incense swirls its way between us, caressing my cheek and slipping along Veronica’s collarbone, drawing my eye to the bit of exposed skin. “What the hell are you doing?” Even though I don’t see anyone else in the shop, I keep my voice low so no one overhears. “If Lady Ariana caught you using magic in public—” “Relax, Hannah. It’s not like she’d ever step foot in a place like this. No one’s going to know.” She fixes me with her emerald stare, but I back out of reach. Using magic in public is a surefire way to lose coven privileges. And I, for one, don’t want my training delayed because my obnoxious ex is careless.

Veronica sighs and pushes away from the counter, releasing her hold on the air. The wind dies and resumes a more natural path. “Happy?” I don’t dignify her with an answer. She knows what would happen if a Reg caught us. If our high priestess found out. “Listen, Hannah.” Veronica fusses with her bag of candles. “I wanted to know . Are you coming to graduation tomorrow? I think I finally perfected my speech.” “Really?” I cringe at the encouragement in my voice.

Instincts from a lifetime of friendship are hard to quell, no matter how much she hurt me. I cross my arms and glance around the shop to make sure we’re still alone. “No, I’m not. I’d rather let the Council strip my magic than sit through that.” The words hang in the air between us, charged with more power than Veronica’s manipulated wind. Her lips part, but nothing comes out. I wonder if she’s thinking about the day we went shopping for her graduation dress. If she remembers what we did the night she was officially named valedictorian, after her parents went to bed. Guilt clutches at my chest, but I push it away. It’s her fault we’re not together anymore.

She’s the one who hurt me. Veronica shifts the bag to her other hand, and a mask settles over her features. Gone is the hurt. Gone is the girl I loved, replaced by the one who broke my heart. What’s-Her-Face leans back into the shop. “Everything all right in here?” “Of course.” Veronica smiles her perfect smile, brandishing it like a weapon. “Just thought I forgot my receipt. Let’s go.” She turns away, loops her arm through her friend’s, and disappears out the door.

As the bell jingles their departure, my heart threatens to burst. The tears sting, but I won’t let them fall. I won’t give Veronica the satisfaction. If she thinks she can show up at my work all summer, she’s sorely mistaken. Because when it comes to holding a grudge, I’m an Olympic champion. 2 AFTER I CLOCK OUT for the day, I swing by the dance studio to pick up Gemma from her ballet class. She’s easy to spot, standing nearly a head taller than her classmates. When Gemma hit five ten in ninth grade, everyone tried to get her to join the basketball team, but her body is built for dance. Even walking is a performance; she practically floats into my car. “You ready to rock the hell out of this bonfire?” Gemma slides on her seat belt and pulls her blonde hair loose from its bun.

I shrug and pull into traffic. Gemma scowls. “I know that face, Han. What’d Veronica do?” There isn’t a single subject change that’ll distract Gemma when she’s wearing that expression, so I fill her in on the Veronica Incident. Minus the whole Veronica-doing-magic-in-public thing. The only secret I’ve ever kept from Gem is my status as an Elemental Witch, and that’s a secret I’ll take to my grave. When I finish my story, there’s a murderous gleam to Gemma’s eyes. “You should ask your boss to ban her from the store.” “That seems a little extreme,” I say as I make the final turn down my street. “Everything about Veronica is ‘a little extreme.

’ You need space.” Gemma reaches for my hand when I throw the car in park. “At the very least, promise you’ll enjoy the bonfire tonight? Party until you forget all about her?” “Promise.” A few short hours later, as the sun dips and the sky blushes, Gemma has succeeded in step one of our mission. We’re ready to party. The crackle of the bonfire greets us moments before we step through a thicket of trees into the hidden clearing that has hosted generations of Salem High students. Beside me, Gemma scans the party. “Is it me, or does everyone look hotter out here than in class?” I survey the dancing teens. I’ll say one thing for sure: there’s a lot more skin showing here than in school. “How do you have beer goggles already? I’m pretty sure you have to drink first.

” “I’m serious. Maybe it’s the firelight.” Gemma heads for the keg, where she fills a cup, takes a swig, and grimaces. “That good, huh?” “The first drink is the worst. You’re too sober to forget how shitty it tastes.” She raises the cup but pauses before taking another sip. “Are you okay?” “I’m fine.” I force myself to focus on Gemma instead of the growing crowd around us. I refuse to spend the entire night searching for Veronica and What’s-Her-Face. Gem levels me with a look, and I sigh.

“I will be. Promise.” Behind us, someone adds more wood to the bonfire. The flames snap and crackle along the logs, and I turn to look. My skin tingles with untapped magic as I near the fire, drawn forward like a bug to a zapper. I can’t let myself give in to its song. Not here, surrounded by Regs. Gemma follows, and we stand together beside the bonfire, swaying to the music pouring from someone’s truck. I step closer to the flames, until I feel the lick of heat against my face. The energy cascades over me, through me, driving out the lingering hurt from seeing Veronica.

Numbing bad memories like a magical novocaine. Gemma touches my elbow. I turn, half-dazed, and she nods in the direction of Nolan Abbott. Nolan will be a senior next year, like us, and the new soccer captain has his eye on my best friend. “Looks like someone has an admirer tonight.” I nudge Gem in the shoulder. “Are you interested?” I waggle my eyebrows. She returns Nolan’s appraising look. “Not my usual type,” she says at last, “but what the hell. A summer fling never hurt anyone.

” But then she pauses, biting her lip. She glances back at me. “I can’t abandon you.” “It’s fine. I’ll hang by the fire.” “Are you sure?” Gemma flashes me a look, and I nod. “When I come back, I want to see you in full party mode. No moping about you-know-who.” I raise my middle three fingers to the star-speckled sky. “Scout’s honor.

Now go.” Gemma grins and glides across the clearing to Nolan, who’s trying to look like he’s not waiting for her. He grins wide when Gemma arrives, and I turn back to the fire. “Hannah?” I hear my name but don’t look. Instead, I lose myself in the flicker of flames and the pulse of music. “Earth to Hannah. Come in, Hannah.” The voice is closer now, a teasing edge to the deep timbre. I grin when I realize who’s disturbed my fire gazing and turn to greet him. “Hey, Benton.

Excited for graduation tomorrow?” “Excited. Relieved. Contemplating my place in the universe.” He laughs, showcasing the dimples that sent Gemma into full-on crush mode back when we were freshmen and Benton was the new sophomore in Salem. “It still feels so surreal, you know? I can’t believe I’m done.” I nod, even though I still have another year left. “Art class won’t be the same without you.” “I’m sure you’ll manage.” Benton’s eye twitches like he meant to wink but thought better of it halfway through. He stares at the fire instead of looking at me.

“So . ” I say, wishing I had a bottle or something to occupy my hands. “Any fun plans before college? Are you going to throw another pool party this year?” “I don’t think so. My parents were not pleased with the amount of beer cans they caught me fishing out of the water.” That earns a laugh. There were a ton of people at his place last year. “What if it’s just us? I promise to be a courteous guest.” I nudge him with my elbow. “Come on, there have to be some perks to being your art buddy all year.” Benton’s cheeks flush pink.

“I could probably swing that.” He runs a hand through his hair, and I catch the flash of a tattoo. “Nice ink. Is that new?” I gesture to the black triangle on his wrist. “I don’t remember seeing it in class.” “What? Oh, yeah. It’s an early graduation gift to myself.” “What does it mean?” Someone adds more wood to the fire, and sparks flare into the sky. Benton steps back, shielding his eyes. Reluctantly, I back away, too.

Nothing compares to the gentle lick of flames across my skin, to the rush of power that comes from contact, but this isn’t the place. As an Elemental, fire won’t burn my skin, but I don’t want to attract any questions if my clothes burn and I do not. Benton runs a finger along the triangle on his wrist. “It’s delta. The symbol for change. It’s the only thing in life you can really count on.” I nod and fall silent. Benton doesn’t continue, and I don’t push. Instead, I lose myself to the fire’s dance. Another shot of sparks dots the sky.

Chills tingle down my back. If only I were alone, the things I could do with a fire this size . Benton sidles closer to me, and something in his posture draws my attention away from the flames. I have to crane my neck to meet his stare. “How are you, really?” he asks. “I know things have been rough since you and Veronica split.” He shoves his hands in the pockets of his ripped jeans, but he’s standing well inside my personal bubble. “Rough’s one word for it.” The mention of Veronica is a shot of poison right to the heart. I want to be home, in bed, where I can hide the tears pressing behind my eyes.

Benton should know better. He was there. He saw the shouting match outside our bus back to Salem. He and Gemma comforted me on the horribly awkward ride home. “I’m sorry.” Benton tugs at his hair, which makes it stand on end for a moment before it falls. “Um, so I was thinking. I know the timing sucks, but . do you want to get coffee sometime?” I stare at my friend. Unblinking.

Confused. Slightly horrified. “I totally get if it’s too soon. I do. And normally I wouldn’t ask someone out this soon after a breakup, but I’m leaving for Boston in August, and I didn’t want to leave without trying, and—” “Are you seriously asking me out right now?” Benton falters. This clearly isn’t going the way he rehearsed it in his head. “Um . yes?” “Why?” “Because you’re funny. And kind. And smart.

And—” “And a huge lesbian,” I add before this can get any more awkward. “I thought you knew that.” Benton stares at his shoes. “I did. I do.” “So, what?” I ask, fury and betrayal rising from deep in my gut. “Did you think you could turn me straight?” “No! No, of course not.” He blows out a breath and laces his hands on top of his head. “I feel like such an asshole right now.” The tension in my chest loosens.

A little. “Let’s pretend this never happened.” I hold out a hand. “Friends?” “Friends.” Benton shakes my hand, but his forehead crinkles. “I don’t get why Savannah told me to ask you out. She said you were bisexual. She even said you had a crush on me.” I don’t hear whatever he says next. Savannah.

That’s her name. What’s-Her-Face from the store this afternoon. I grab Benton’s arm. “Savannah told you? When?” Benton glances at the place where my fingers circle his bare skin. I let go. “Like ten minutes ago.” He kicks at a pebble on the ground, sending it skittering into the fire. “This is so messed up.” “No kidding.” I’m already scanning the crowd for her expanse of dark curls.

“Where was she when she told you?” “Over there.” He gestures toward the other side of the clearing, across a throng of writhing bodies. “Great, thanks.” I take off toward the swell of dancers moving their hips to yet another wordless song with pounding bass. The crackle of fire is loud in my ears, but familiar laughter breaks through. My hands ball into fists. “Where are you going?” Benton’s words chase after me. “To find Veronica.” And end this.

.

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