No one knows I keep a picture of the witch that cursed me. I cut it from Mom’s yearbook when I was ten, after getting a long, weepy lecture about inner beauty. Like I don’t know that’s just something mothers say to their kids. Inner beauty means exactly nada to the kids who throw carrots and call me Wascally Webecca. Or to the teachers who barely hide their laugher while telling the kid who drew the nasty picture that it can’t be me, because the ears aren’t big enough. My whole life I’ve imagined confronting that witch, dreamed of putting her in Pasthel Penitentiary, fantasized about the apologies she’d shriek as they dragged her through the gates in chains. Inner beauty is for doormats. Smarts though – smarts and persistence get justice. All I had to do was track the witch down.
It never occurred to me she’d already be in prison.
Pasthel looms. Its walls stretch up, completely indifferent, in that faded sort of white that’s somehow even less inviting than the maze of razor wire fencing. Maybe my plan isn’t so smart after all. They say this place can break anybody, and I’m already sweating. At least the witch can’t run.
I shut off the engine and pull the locket from my shirt, flicking the catch. I smile at the family portrait in the Home frame like they can see it before I focus on the round, puckered face of the witch. I hold the Journey frame toward the prison, putting my thumb over her picture. It tingles, cold and repellent against my skin. She’s definitely inside.
Pain crawls through my teeth and I open my jaw, moving it back and forth to force the muscles to relax a little as I slide from the car. Grinding my teeth has gotten to be a bad habit. It’s just too bad it hadn’t made them any smaller.
At the registration desk I hand over my ID and locket to a somber, freckled guard. His clear gaze measures me against my photo for so long, I almost check my watch to see if I accidentally triggered the Stoptime. At least it’s summer and I have a reason for the sweat trickling down my neck. There’s no way he could know I’m just seventeen and that I didn’t technically have permission to take the car across the country. No way. The ID only has to hold up to scrutiny this once. It was worth every penny if it holds up this once. Then he sets my license aside, prying open the locket to take the imprint while I sign the ledger. From the corner of my eye I see him swipe a thumb over the witch’s frame. I gulp and hope he doesn’t press too hard. If he feels the chip, the gig is up.
“Aren’t you a little young to be Journeying?”
“Oh, I’m not. Not really. It’s just to keep me from getting lost on the way here. You know, GPS for people who can’t remember car chargers.” I shrug, trying my best to look witless.
“Any relation?” He frowns at the witch’s picture again, like he’s trying to place her.
“Godmother.” I can hardly say the word, but it does the trick. He grimaces and snaps the locket shut, handing it back without a word. He’s old enough to remember the days before curses were outlawed. Almost everyone had a relative or two from those days who’d been – altered. There are still a dozen or so sanctuaries for victims who aren’t ever going to change back. Most of them can’t take care of themselves. Some of them aren’t even conscious.
“She can’t do magic in here, you know.” The guard reminds me with a shrug of a shoulder. “I don’t know who in your family she turned into a toad, but you’ll have to live with it until you can get a reparation order from Oberon. And good luck finding him. That would take a full out quest and you know wizards hate working with kids.”
I just nod. Of course she can’t cast, that’s the point of Pasthel. There’s enough Magitech here to absorb anything. Anything but passive fields, that is, and one dormant little Freeztech chip that I’ve been assured will slip through. The female deputy checks me for weapons and tech while I stand there like a starfish. I can barely breathe as she waves the wand over me. It’s one of the hybrid metal and magic detectors that can identify over fifty types of spell components and illusion fields. Magic got really sophisticated when nerds from mage families figured out how to bond it to silicon. Gaming on our computers is a whole new world – literally. Hackers can even send love spells as an email attachment, just like viruses. The wand squeals over my Magitech watch and it goes into a basket for safekeeping, along with my keys and phone.
The wand barely reacts to the locket. They’re standard to my kind – passive – and as personal as toothbrushes or underwear. I fake a yawn to hide a sigh of relief when the deputy doesn’t confiscate it. At her nod, the somber guard buzzes us through to the salmon-colored cells of Pasthel. A cry, high-pitched and punctuated with giggles, breaks through a persistent murmur.
I feel the deputy’s warm palm on my back, nudging me on, before I realize I’ve stopped in the middle of the corridor. My skin prickles into goose bumps and I shuffle forward, trying to ignore the flickers at the edges of my vision. I start reciting multiplication tables in my head, trying to focus my thoughts away from whatever history the memory paint is about to dredge up. I have to stay calm. Unfortunately, the visitor room is coated in the orangey-pink stuff too. It’s meant to make the prisoners relive what they’ve done, or tattle on them if they’re planning something naughty. It can’t distinguish between memory and fantasy. It can’t pick and choose whose memories it splashes all over the walls like a grainy, mismatched dream sequences. You have to stay calm to keep from triggering it. By all accounts, it gets really weird here. I don’t know why they don’t repaint.
“Corie might be a little off,” the guard warns me as I settle at one of the tables, “She’s been in the song room for a week after picking a fight with one of the fairies. The stupid thing dusted half the room with an itch hex before we got them separated.”
The walls sprang to life, playing the fight back like a movie. Two figures struggled in the middle of a greenish cloud for just a moment before the image flickered away again. “Sorry,” the deputy murmured, scratching at her neck.
Just the mention of an itch hex makes me need to rake my fingernails over my scalp and arms, taming a dozen tickling and crawling sensations that hadn’t been there a second before.
“What’s the song room?” I ask before I start clawing at my skin in earnest. That wasn’t on their website.
“Oh, magic types like solitude a little too much for isolation to be effective. So now we just keep ‘em in a small room with kid show songs turned up loud and on a loop. Makes even the surliest wizards toe the line. Mostly.”
The door cracks and a second guard escorts the witch to my table. My Fairy Godmother, Corie Salvo. Her stringy blond hair hasn’t been combed and her little blue eyes glitter with hostility. “What do you want?”
“Why did you do this to me?” The words come out squeaky and sad, instead of tough.
“I’m Becca. Becca Finn.” The flat indifference on her face makes me squirm. “You stuck me with an ugly curse at my christening. A little baby. Why?”
A loud snort contorts her face before giving way to a confused laugh. “Who told you such a crazy thing?”
“It’s not crazy!” Pain stabs through my palms as they slap the table. How dare she ruin my life and just laugh about it like it doesn’t matter? I bang the table again. “Look at me. I’m so ugly my parents had to throw out all the mirrors to protect me from my own face.”
“Settle down,” the guard warns me.
I fold my arms back against my body, but the damage is done. The Memorpaint, as implacable as only Magitech can be, spools my life into one grotesque reel: the day I find out about the curse; the first day I want to hide my face; a stream of taunts; the hours spent alone, in tears; the counselors; the hours in the mirror, trying to find the combination of hairstyle and makeup that could make my nose and ears look smaller, my skin less splotchy; refusing to smile so my teeth don’t show; the night that Mom made Dad throw out every mirror in the house; her careful avoidance of the word pretty; the morning I ran away; the old man who gave me a job at his bakery; his shy son, Trevor, whose breath always smelled like burnt onions except on the day he kissed me, because he’d been eating mints; the ID I bought to make me old enough to get inside the prison; the Freezetech charm I’d hidden in my locket, to give the witch time to fix me.
Tears splash the table and the guards have the locket off me before I can even cringe that I’d tattled on myself.
The witch’s nostrils flare as she points one finger at me. “I’d get rid of the mirrors too, if I had an obsessive little narcissist for a daughter. Maybe then she’d learn to do something besides mope.”
“What?” Heat flashes over my skin and my ears roar. An image of my fist smashing the witch’s nose flashes across every surface. A hand seizes my arm, pulling me from the chair.
“Time to go.” Every trace of friendliness is gone from the deputy’s eyes.
“I’m not a narcissist! You can’t tell me what I am. You don’t know.” I strain against the pull on my arm, my sneakers squeaking against the floor, voice getting louder with every word.
“Why not? You let everyone tell you you’re ugly.”
“You’re.” I stop, my mind sifting through words so fast they scroll across the wall. Crazy. Stupid. Evil.
“Right.” The word comes of my mouth with a whimper. My belly clenches, hard and cold, and I can taste bile in the back of my throat. A smug little cackle from the witch makes my fingers curl into fists. Streaks of red writhe over the walls. “Fine, you’re right. But you have to fix me.”
“There’s nothing to fix. I did cast an ugly curse, but not on you. It was for some obnoxious twit that kept pestering me about fixing her kid’s unibrow. I thought she’d be a bit more empathetic if she had a few hair issues herself.” A remorseless, delighted giggle shakes her frame when the walls show my mother’s face. “I can’t help it if the gossips were factually challenged.”
“Mom? But, she’s beautiful.”
“Oh, that took a few years.” A picture of her back during some kind of electrolysis treatment rolls over the walls. “And some surgery. Didn’t she tell you?”
She had. She’d told me over and over that I wasn’t cursed. I just never believed it. My teeth were so big, and my ears – I run my hands under my hair. I’d tried so hard to flatten them.
“The kids, the names,” I gasp and trail off into silence.
All those years.
“What do I do now?”
“Get an Orthodontist. Learn to moisturize. Or not. It hardly matters.”
“No buts, kid. No do overs. What do you want?”
The minted kiss floods through my memory again, cool and sweet. Trevor’s face scrolls across the wall, followed by the acceptance letter to Amherst, and me hugging my mother. All the places I wanted to visit, all the adventures I wanted to have, whirled around me as I considered the question.
“Well, then,” the witch drawls, “you’d better get started. Funny how your face didn’t even make the list.”
It hadn’t. A strange sensation swept through me, like something heavy was melting away. It couldn’t be that easy, could it? To just leave it all behind?
“Some people are just jerks, Becca. If you were beautiful, they’d have a different excuse.” The witch stands and her escort opens the door.
“I guess you’d know.”
She laughs. “That’s the spirit, kid.”