The first chapter of BRIAR ROSE:
Inch by inch, the strange powder sifts out of the bag behind the silent figure along the journey around the darkened house. In the distance, a neighbour’s dog wails, as if it senses the foul magic. Perhaps even senses the anger and the loss that brings this person here on this particular night. Once the circle is complete, the ritual words are spoken in a thick whisper as fingers nervously clutch the paper and eyes squint to read the faint type. Then it is done: the curse is laid. It was easy, just as the conjure woman had said it would be. Still trembling, the solemn figure walks into the darkness, leaving behind the legacy of bitterness that will bear ill fruit.
Empowered, the curse stirs to life now, the powder glistening like molten silver in the moonlight. It seems to dance for a time above the withered grass, and then sinks deep into the ground, claiming one of those within the house as its own.
Over the years this curse will remain vigilant, growing in strength, changing course as needed. Then, when the time is right, it will fulfil its calling. Sate its near-human desire for revenge.
No mercy. No second chances. Only more tears to feed the bitterness.
A prolonged bugle blast echoed across the heat-drenched field, followed by the raucous applause of over a hundred bystanders. Briar Rose sighed in relief – the re-enactment of the Battle of Bliss was finally over.
Groaning, she rolled over on her back on the hard-packed earth, her head throbbing and throat parched. The Deep South July sun beat down unmercifully, and when coupled with the soaring humidity it was Georgia’s version of a sauna.
The annual re-enactment of the battle between a ragtag bunch of rebels and a contingent of General Sherman’s forces always brought tourists to Bliss. Over the years, various members of Briar’s family had taken their turn at portraying their famous ancestor, Private Elmer Rose. This was her year to do Elmer’s ‘run’, a futile sprint across the battlefield to deliver a message begging for reinforcements. A message that never reached its intended recipient and resulted in Sherman’s troops sacking and burning the town on their way to Savannah.
‘Good job, Briar,’ one of the re-enactors called out, limping along as the final whiffs of smoke cleared over the battlefield.
A shadow passed over her, bringing brief respite from the sun. Briar blinked up at a fellow rebel soldier. The eldest of the three Quinn brothers, Joshua had curly brown hair, which was mussed around the edge of his cap. His face was sweaty and his mismatched butternut-coloured uniform spotted with red clay.
Their families had a history, as the locals would say. Some of it had begun before either of them had been born – their parents hadn’t really liked each other for as long as she could remember – but she and Joshua had been friends until the day they’d both nearly drowned at the mill when they were six. After that awful day her folks had told her not to go near him, and his had said the same. Briar had never understood exactly why, but when her mom had grounded her for a week for trying to talk to him at a softball game a few weeks after the accident, she’d decided Joshua Quinn was more trouble than he was worth.
‘Nasty people, those Quinns,’ her grandmother used to say. ‘That boy’s momma’s not right in the head, blamin’ all her troubles on us. She brought it on herself.’
Because of the animosity between their families, Joshua rarely came near her, mostly because his mom had ordered him not to. When he’d broken that rule, which wasn’t often, he’d paid dearly. Or least that’s what Briar had heard from some of her friends. The not being near that Rose girl proved difficult since they were in the same class in high school and rode the same bus. Still, they’d managed to keep their distance ever since first grade.
Above her, Joshua hesitated, and then offered his gloved hand to help her up.
Briar froze. That she hadn’t expected from a Quinn.
‘What are you doing?’ she demanded.
‘Helping you up,’ he said simply.
‘Go away! I don’t want to get into trouble.’
Uneasy now, Briar stood and did a quick scan of the field around them, knowing people were watching them. Some of them would be happy to call up either set of parents and deliver the news that the ‘kids’ were seen together.
Briar’s head continued to pound, which meant she’d not had enough water. She really wanted to unbutton her uniform coat, but no girl wanted to be seen all sweaty and gross. Instead she stripped off her cap, which really didn’t help much.
When her balance faltered, Joshua’s gloved hand touched her elbow to steady her. It quickly retreated at her glare. She made her way to the huge oak tree in the centre of the field, the one that had been there since before the original battle, and slumped beneath it.
Joshua crouched down near her. ‘You OK?’ he asked, sounding genuinely concerned.
‘Just really hot. I’m kinda dizzy. I didn’t eat much breakfast.’
His battered canteen came her way. When she didn’t take it, he scowled, unscrewed the cap and took a big drink. ‘See, no poison.’ Then he wiped off the rim and offered the canteen again.
Briar felt her cheeks burn in embarrassment. ‘No. Sorry,’ she murmured. ‘It’s just . . . your mom is so . . .’
‘My mom? Yours isn’t any better,’ he came back. ‘They’re both crazy.’
Crazy? ‘You leave my mother out of this,’ she said, defiant.
‘Yeah, whatever. It’s never a Rose’s fault, is it? It’s always us Quinns who are wrong.’
Scowling, he pushed a stray curl off his face, which only made his big brown eyes more noticeable. No doubt about it, Joshua Quinn was cute, even if his family were the enemy.
Briar looked around again, increasingly worried. ‘You should go before—’
‘Yeah, maybe I better,’ he said, stripping off the glove and tucking it under his belt. ‘This was just a waste of time.’ He held her eyes for a moment, like he wanted to say more, then hiked off, no doubt to collect his horse.
Briar sighed in relief. Why had he done that? He’d stayed away from her for years, going to elaborate efforts so they never came near each other, even faking stomach flu to avoid partnering with her in gym class. Still, she’d always been aware of him watching her, but never coming close.
Confused and still lightheaded, she slowly unbuttoned her uniform jacket and let the steamy air collide with her skin. It didn’t offer that much relief, not when you were in the middle of a dusty field where there wasn’t a breeze.
Usually the place for impromptu softball games, for four Saturdays each summer, this stretch of ground became the Battle of Bliss with Union soldiers on one side, locals and a small contingent of Confederate soldiers on the other. They even had cannons. Though the re-enactors were very particular about period details, the real Elmer Rose had died in the winter of 1864 during Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea. It was the single most important episode in the town’s otherwise dull history and that’s why it had never been forgotten.
To ensure that the tourists would share that history (and their much-needed dollars) the town council had proclaimed that the re-enactment would be held during the summer, rather than in December, when it had really happened. As Briar’s dad had put it, ‘There’s nothing quite as entertaining as watching people dying in the baking sun.’
After this summer one of the cousins would take over the role of Elmer, much to Briar’s relief.
‘There you are,’ a voice called out.
Briar smiled at the sound of her best friend’s voice. Reena Hill’s corkscrew curls bounced as she walked closer. She was a senior, a year older than Briar, and the eldest of the four Hill kids.
‘Hey there,’ Briar said, annoyed that her head was still buzzing from the heat.
‘I saw you talking to Josh,’ Reena said. ‘You’re risking the wrath of the parentals doing that.’
‘Tell me about it.’ Reena and Joshua had no such restrictions, so they’d been friends for years. That had proved to be awkward on occasion.
‘What did he say?’ Reena asked.
‘Not much.’ Briar pointed at the full bottle of water in her friend’s hand. ‘Is that mine or are you just torturing me for the fun of it?’
‘It’s yours,’ Reena said, tossing it to her.
Instead of gulping the water down immediately, Briar held the chilled plastic against her forehead. It felt glorious as the condensation ran down her face. She screwed off the cap and took a long drink.That’s better.
‘Did you see me bite the dust?’ she asked.
‘Sure did. Better than yesterday’s run. Practice makes perfect.’
‘I didn’t look too fakey?’ Briar asked.
‘No. The twitching was a nice touch.’
‘Good, I wasn’t sure how far to push it.’
As a few tourists wandered by, Briar could tell she and Reena were attracting attention. It wasn’t often you saw a tall, athletic African American girl in running shorts and bright red tennis shoes chatting with a shorter, sweaty white girl in Confederate garb. It couldn’t get any more anachronistic than that.
‘Is that it?’ her friend asked, looking around at the milling bystanders. Some were talking to the re-enactors while others bought souvenirs or snow cones. In the distance, the heat shimmered above ground like an undulating serpent.
‘Yup, let’s get out of here,’ Briar replied. ‘Can you drive me home and turn the air conditioner down to Arctic? The heat is killing me.’
‘I would if I had a car,’ Reena replied as they drifted across the field to the changing tent. ‘The littlest bro has a toothache so Mom had to haul him to a dentist in Savannah. I’m on foot today.’
‘I swear, my parents are never going to let me get my driver’s licence,’ Briar complained. ‘Every time I mention taking driver’s ed, my mom freaks out.’
‘I don’t mind hauling you around,’ her friend replied.
‘I know, but still. My parents act like I’m ten or something. It’s getting old.’
A few minutes later Briar had stripped down to her shorts and tank top, her tennis shoes replacing the cracked and weathered brogues. Usually she wore her curly blonde hair in a ponytail during the summer, but it was so long it still cloaked on her shoulders. Today she’d pinned it up to fit under the uniform cap, which meant the sun had permission to do its worst to her neck and back.
As re-enactors and their families scattered to the picnic benches for a late lunch, Briar adjusted her tattered backpack to allow for the additional weight of the uniform and shoes.
‘OK, I’m ready. Let’s get out of here.’
‘Here, drink,’ her friend insisted, handing her another full bottle of water she’d bought from one of the vendors. ‘I am not carrying your butt back to town.’
Briar knew better than to argue, having grown accustomed to Reena’s take-no-prisoners attitude. Somehow they’d become friends, despite being total opposites: Reena was tall and thin, loved knitting, movie marathons and NASCAR racing. Briar wasn’t that good with sports, tended to be more rounded than svelte, and was never keen about getting all sweaty. Reena was a realist and was convinced daydreaming was for little kids. Briar was a hopeless romantic. Still, somehow they’d built a solid friendship, one she hoped would never end.
As they cut across the field and on to the gravelled path that led towards Bliss, a couple of young boys on bikes flew by them, kicking up dust in their wake. In the pine woods to their right the jewelweed was blooming, bright yellow flowers against the rich green foliage. The birdsong tried to compete with the sounds from the field behind them, and failed. In the distance Briar could see one of the cotton fields, though the bolls hadn’t headed out yet. Soon it’d be a sea of white.
‘What did folks do before AC?’ she grumbled, wiping sweat and grime off her neck. A long shower was in her future.
Her friend smirked. ‘They roasted and got eaten by the bugs.’
‘Ugh.’ Georgia had a lot of good things to its credit, but the midges and the deer flies were pure torture.
‘That’s why I’m not into that dress-up thing you guys do,’ Reena continued. ‘You have to be ten kinds of fool running around in wool or hoop skirts when it’s ninety-eight in the shade.’
‘You’re just lucky you’re not a Rose. If you were, you’d be out there like I was.’
‘You could have refused,’ Reena countered.
‘And get guilted forever? You know my relatives. Thirty years from now one of them will be sure to remind me that I didn’t uphold “the family tradition”.’
‘Some tradition. Running around and playing dead.’
Briar shrugged. ‘It was our big moment in history.’
‘Which failed, but the town still worships Elmer like he was a saint.’
‘Don’t remind me.’
Briar sucked down more of the water, pleased that her head was clearer now.
‘I’m getting nailed with the same family tradition guilt,’ her friend admitted.
‘Gran Lily after you again?’
‘Yup. She says I need to learn a few more conjures before she crosses over.’ Reena rolled her eyes. ‘Like she’s ever going to die.’
Lily Foster wasn’t actually Reena’s grandmother – more like her great-grandmother. Depending on who you asked, she was somewhere between eighty and a hundred and twenty years old. Briar had only been around her a few times, and each time Mrs Foster had spooked the crap out of her.
Though folks didn’t talk much about it, there was a rich hoodoo tradition in the South. Carried across the oceans with the first slaves, mixed with Christianity and Native American traditions, it’d found a home in the backwoods of Georgia. Unlike voodoo, which was a religion, hoodoo was folk magic, pure and simple.
‘You doing more spells now?’ Briar asked, pleased that Reena was starting to open up about this. Usually her friend was reluctant to talk about that part of her life.
‘Yup. We’re getting deep into the rootwork.’ Reena looked around like she was about to confess to some sin. ‘It’s kinda cool, but don’t you tell anyone I said that, OK? Not all my family is good with this.’
‘You mean like your Uncle Matt?’
‘Him in particular. He doesn’t seem to understand you can be Christian and a rootworker at the same time. He keeps confusing it with voodoo. I think he does it on purpose, just to get a rise out of Gran.’
‘So what are you doing? Are you laying tricks on people?’
‘No, right now I’m working a conjure to protect folks from evil.’
‘Evil, in Bliss?’ Briar snorted. ‘Wasting your time there, my friend. Evil requires too much effort.’
Reena gave her long look. ‘Oh, you’d be surprised.’
Briar felt a shiver course up her spine. She shook it off. ‘OK, name one evil thing in Bliss, and you can’t count Mrs Quinn because she’s just nuts.’
‘All right,’ Reena said, rising to the challenge. ‘Remember Old Man Clayton, the guy who used to beat his wife every Sunday morning before he went to church because he thought it made him more righteous in the sight of God? Lily put a trick on him so that every time he raised his hand to hit his missus, it’d go numb. Eventually he figured it out and stopped being a douche.’
‘Really? That rocks,’ Briar exclaimed.
Reena reached into a pocket and tugged out a small fabric pouch. It was muted green with a subtle tapestry pattern to it. ‘Gran had me make up a gris-gris bag. Says I’m supposed to carry it for protection.’
‘Seriously? What’s inside it?’
‘I’ve got a John the Conqueror root in there to draw away evil. I also have a Saint Michael’s sword to defeat any bad stuff that comes my way. And something for good luck.’
‘Anything for love?’
‘No. Not going there.’
‘Oh, come on – if I could do some spell to make a handsome prince come my way, I’d be all over it.’
Reena sighed. ‘I’m too busy checking out colleges. Don’t need a boyfriend. Not right now.’
‘Your grades are good. You’ll get a scholarship, no sweat.’
‘Don’t know about that. What about you?’
‘Mom refuses to talk about college. Period. So my dad and I do when she’s not around.’ Briar shifted her backpack to keep it from rubbing against her shoulder. ‘My mom went to see your gran a few times. She wouldn’t ever tell me why. I only found out about it because my grandmother mentioned it.’
‘Was Lily able to help her?’
‘I don’t think so,’ Briar replied, pushing aside a damp strand of hair. ‘Mom’s been getting weirder over the last few months. She was always protective, but now she has to know where I am at all times or she freaks out, and all she does is bake stuff, twenty-four/seven. We have two big freezers full of cookies and brownies.’
‘If there’s a zombie apocalypse, I know whose house I’m hiding in.’
‘It’s not funny. She’s been crying a lot, when she thinks I don’t know. I asked my dad what was going on and he says it’s no big deal.’
‘Your dad always says that,’ Reena replied. ‘He’s got an ostrich personality. If he can’t see it, it’s not a problem.’
‘Yeah, I know. He seems so mellow about everything, especially when it comes to Mom. I’m really worried about her.’
‘I think you should be.’
That wasn’t comforting, not coming from her best friend. ‘There’s something else,’ Briar said, then hesitated.
‘I’ve been having this nightmare. It’s the same one over and over.’
Reena halted in the middle of the path. ‘What is it about?’
‘I’m walking on the old road at night then – bang – I get hit by a car. I wake up at two nineteen a.m. every time. Is that creepy or what?’
Her friend was frowning now. ‘Did you tell your parents about this?’
‘No . . . Dad would just say it was something I ate and Mom, well, she doesn’t need any more hassles.’
They started walking again. ‘How long has this gone on?’
‘It started about a month ago. I tried waking up right before two nineteen. No go. It’s like I’m destined to have the nightmare every night.’ Her friend’s mouth was a thin line now, the muscles in her jaw tight. ‘Do you think Lily could do some sort of magic that would stop it?’
‘Don’t know. I’ll tell her what’s going on,’ Reena replied quietly.
Briar could tell it was time to change the subject – her friend took this kind of stuff way too seriously. Cheers came from the field behind them – apparently the baseball game was about to start.
‘You going to the lake tonight?’ Briar asked.
‘Definitely. It’s the closest thing to a sixteenth birthday party I’m going to get. Anyway, he might be there.’
‘He being Patterson Daniels?’ Reena asked, smirking.
‘Of course. Who else would it be?’
‘Someone who isn’t a jerk, maybe?’ At Briar’s glare, she added, ‘Oh, trust me, he’ll be there. Daniels wouldn’t miss an opportunity to flex his planet-sized ego in front of an adoring audience.’
‘Whoa, that was a slap down.’
‘Damn right. God, you have the worst taste in boys,’ her friend replied, kicking a small stone down the path.
Pat and his family had moved to Bliss right after Christmas last year – his dad was in shipping or something – and they’d bought the Ashland Plantation. The old house hadn’t been occupied for over twenty years, so Mrs Daniels was busily having it restored, which told everyone in town the family had a bucketload of money.
Pat had immediately made a mark for himself. A football star in his Ohio hometown, he’d proved to be just as talented on the basketball court here in Georgia. No ‘new kid’ awkwardness for him. Pat was smart and a total hunk with gorgeous brown eyes and if this were a fairy tale, he’d be cast for the role of Prince Charming in a heartbeat.
‘Daniels is too full of himself,’ Reena added. ‘Did you know he was hitting on your cousin the other day?’
‘No way. Saralyn is just making that up. He would never pay attention to her.’
‘Yeah. She’s just saying that to get to me. She knows I think he’s cool.’
Briar had no intention of letting her cousin steal away the most eligible boy in school. Not that Pat was hers, but maybe that would change tonight.
Since most of her classmates couldn’t drive yet, gathering at the lake had become the thing to do. They’d bring food, build a huge bonfire and there’d be tunes. Even some making out, not that any of their parents knew about that. As long as they kept an eye out for the occasional alligator, they were golden.
Briar had her first kiss at the lake last summer with Teddy Jenkins. It had been seriously unimpressive. So blah that she made sure never to let Teddy kiss her again. There’d been more fooling around at the lake during her short, but spectacularly doomed, relationship with Mike Roth. Which had led her to wonder why some boys were better at kissing than others. Just one of life’s mysteries. She knew Pat would be a good kisser because anything he did, he did well. As she daydreamed about exactly how wonderful that might be, Reena jogged her elbow.
‘Helloooo? You still there? Let me guess, you were redecorating the castle, right?’
It was Reena’s way of poking fun at Briar’s ‘obsession’, as she called it. It was her father’s fault: when Briar was four, he’d read her ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ at bedtime. She’d come away from that experience with a true love of fairy tales and a morbid fear of wolves. From there she’d gone through the Disney phase where all fairy tales ended happily ever after. Now she was solidly in the Brothers Grimm camp, where happy endings usually required a few corpses just to even things out.
Then Patterson Daniels had moved to Bliss, every inch a Prince Charming.
Briar wasn’t about to admit to her friend she’d been daydreaming about him sweeping her off her feet, how they’d melt into each other’s arms as they left Bliss in the dust.
‘No, I was just . . . thinking about—’ she began.
‘Give it up, girlfriend,’ her friend cut in. ‘You keep chasing after guys with big egos and you’re going to get burned. Trust me on this.’
Briar frowned, knowing this cold shower had nothing to do with her. This was fallout from Reena’s last big crush, a hunky guy from Savannah she’d met at a track-and-field meet. Convinced he was the stuff of legend, she’d fallen for him hard, though he was a couple of years older than her. He’d made all the right moves at first, but it had ended badly when he’d taken her for an unscheduled ride – in a stolen car.
‘Doesn’t mean anything bad will happen to me,’ Briar said quietly.
Reena shook her head in exasperation. ‘I know – I just want you to find a nice guy. Someone whose brain isn’t in their pants.’
‘Like who? There’s no one like that in Bliss except maybe Joshua Quinn and that’s only because he’s more interested in horses than girls. Anyway, it would be a cold day in hell before I let him kiss me!’
Reena rolled her eyes. ‘Forget it. Josh is hot and he’s not an asshat like Pat. You’re just too blinded by your weird family grudge to notice.’
Unbidden, the darker memories came now, how when she and Joshua were small they’d played together at pre-school, then in kindergarten. They’d spent every minute together, until one of them had died and come back to life. It had never been the same from that day forward.
And it never will be again.
(c) 2013 – Jana Oliver
Jana is an international & multi-award winning author in several genres including young adult, paranormal romance and urban fantasy.