Chapter Twenty-Two

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The coffee shop on the corner by Trinity was a charred mass of wood and melted glass. Flames still licked around the structure, but they seemed to be teasing the spectators: all the damage was already done. I spotted Cindy clutching her barista apron and sobbing. Firefighters were on the scene, but their hoses seemed worthless. It was eerily like the destruction I'd dreamt about before meeting Kali, and I shuddered, pushing that thought from my mind. Whatever had happened had nothing to do with Red magic. Steam hissed up into the air to join the inky smoke, and I crossed the street to see what had happened.

"Darlena!" I looked up, startled. Justin pushed through the crowd.

"What are you doing here?" I demanded as he got closer.

Instead of answering, he pulled me into a tight hug, crushing my ribs. "I thought you were inside!"

I looked at him, stunned. "Why would you think that?"

"Your text."

Suddenly, I realized why he was worried. I had texted him after leaving the movie theater to let him know I was going to hang out with Rochelle. He had texted back that he'd meet up with me later. He must have assumed we'd gone to our usual spot. I looked up at what was left of the building and suppressed a shiver.

"We were at her house. I was just walking home when I smelled the smoke."

He hugged me again. "I'm glad you're okay." He shifted his concerned gaze to the scene in front of us. "I wonder what happened?"

"That girl over there, that's Cindy. She worked here. Maybe she knows something."

Justin steered me through the crowd and I hesitantly tapped Cindy on the shoulder. Her eyes were puffy from crying, but I thought I saw a flicker of fear when she recognized me. Then she started crying again, and I wasn't sure.

"Cindy, what happened?"

"What happened?" She screeched loud enough that people around us turned to look. "What happened? Why don't you tell me, you crazy freak?"

I looked at Justin nervously. "I don't know. I just saw the smoke and walked over."

She shook her head. "I don't believe you. I saw you flip that car over, and you knew I saw you. You cursed me!"

Stunned, I took a step back. "Why would I do that?"

"Cause you're some kind of satanic freak! You hexed me, and I'm lucky to have made it out alive!" She started sobbing again, and I felt a wave of fear. Cindy had seen me use magic on that car, but I would never have done anything like that on purpose. People were watching us, and I wondered when Cindy's voice would be enough to draw the attention of a police officer. I swallowed nervously.

Justin tried to come to my defense. "But what caused the fire? Darlena was nowhere near here when it happened."

Cindy shot him a dirty look. "Yes she was. I made her order ten minutes before the whole place went up in flames."

***

I looked at Justin. He was sitting beside me on my front porch, tapping the ground with his shoe. "Please say something."

"Darlena." He sighed, but then stopped as if he didn't know how to go on. After a minute, he finally said, "I trust you."

I exhaled, unaware until that moment that I had been holding my breath. "Thanks. I—"

"But," he held up his hand to stop me, "something happened today that I can't explain." He looked down at his scuffed tennis shoes. "I know you've hexed people before. You've never hid that from me."

I stared at him, dumbfounded. "So you think I hexed Cindy? Why would I want to do that?"

"Were you angry that she saw you cause the car accident?"

I recoiled as if he'd hit me. He had no idea what it had felt like when I'd realized I'd caused that horrific accident. I glared at him, and he repeated his question quietly.

"I don't know. I was confused." I tried to think back, to remember everything I'd felt that day. "I think I was too scared to be angry."

Justin nodded, still not meeting my eyes. "So why does she think you put a hex on her? And why does she remember seeing you right before the fire?"

I shook my head. "I don't know! But Justin, you have to believe me. I was at the movies with Aphrodite all day." I ignored his raised eyebrow to continue. "And then I went straight to Rochelle's house. I left her house and then I saw you. How could I have been at the coffee shop before the fire?" He had to believe me. I'd done some nasty things, true, but I would never have burned down the coffee shop.

He shrugged. "The point is, someone who looked like you was there. Cindy believes it was you. How often do you go to that shop?"

"Every morning, practically, before I got kicked out of Trinity. I haven't been back since the accident, but Rochelle and I used to eat breakfast there."

Justin looked sad. "So Cindy knows what you look like. She wouldn't have mistaken a stranger for you, not if you were one of her regulars." He stood up to leave, his jaw clenched.

"Justin! Listen to me. I don't know what's going on, but something isn't right here. I promise you I'm telling the truth." Tears threatened to overwhelm me, but I tried to keep my voice steady. I needed his support; if I lost Justin now, after Mom and Dad had been brainwashed, I worried that I might go insane.

He shook his head and turned away from my house. "I don't know, Darlena. I need some time to think, and you make that hard. When I'm with you—" He drew a deep breath and stopped. When he spoke again, his words were soft. "Don't call me tonight, Darlena. I need some space from all this ... chaos."

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