Marcia screwed the letter into a tight ball and threw it against the wall. "Sod all rotten money-hungry bank managers," she growled through clenched teeth. "How's a writer supposed to survive when bank managers won't help?"
The paper ball rolled into a patch of sunlight by the window, disturbing her large tabby cat, which reached out and shredded the paper with sharp teeth.
Jan helped herself to a cup of coffee. "Overdraft in the red again?"
"Yes!" Marcia scowled. "Curses on the lot of them."
"So, why don't you?"
"Why don't I what?" Marcia leaned back in her chair.
"Put a curse on the lot of them," Jan said, giggling. "Might be fun. I could think of all sorts of diabolical things."
For a moment Marcia just stared at her friend. "Mum used to say one of her ancestors had been burned at the stake," she said finally. "We never believed her, but she had this book that she said was her book of spells. I've never looked at it, but it's around somewhere."
"Well, go get it," Jan said. "I'd love to see some real magic."
Marcia hurried into her bedroom, where in the corner beside her computer desk was a pile of boxes still packed with her mother's bits and pieces. She hadn't opened any since the day she packed up her mother's flat, but she knew the top box was full of books.
As if it were waiting for her, the top book was leather-bound. The leather was soft to touch and Marcia had a sudden vision of her mother curled up by the fire on a winter's night rustling through these pages. She carried the book back to the kitchen where Jan waited.
"There you are, have a look at that." She placed the book on the table.
Jan reached out and drew the book closer. " 'Make Magic With Herbs,'" she said. "I thought you were joking. I didn't think you believed in magic."
"I don't, but your suggestion of putting a curse on the bank manager gave me an idea for an article. Kids these days seem obsessed with spells and magic, and I might make a few dollars if I could get it in the right magazine."
"Did your mother ever use the spells? The book looks well worn."
Marcia laughed. "She always said she could find a cure for everything we had wrong with us, and even some things we hadn't. Poor old Mum. We laughed at her behind her back."
"Did any of her spells ever work?"
"Don't think so."
Jan sipped her coffee. "Why don't you try one? Listen to this. Mint: Gender: Masculine," she read. "Planet: Mercury. Powers: money, love and travel. Hey, how about trying that one?" She looked up with a grin. "It's Sarah's party on Saturday and I don't have a date. You could try to make someone nice turn up for me. He doesn't have to be rich or handsome or anything, just nice.
" "I'm not into making spells," Marcia protested. "I was only going to use the book as the basis of an article."
"But if you made one," Jan said, "you'd be able to describe it better, wouldn't you?" She stood up, carried her cup to the sink and rinsed it under the cold tap. "I must run. See you soon."
After Jan left, Marcia moved a chair to the sunny window. With the cat purring on her lap, she opened the book.
It went into great detail on making spells to avoid snakes and nightmares, to prevent dogs barking at you, to break a hex. Marcia found it fascinating. No wonder kids were becoming more interested in learning about magic. There were so many possibilities if you believed in it.
She worked through the book chapter by chapter, reading parts of it aloud to the cat.
"What a shame you're not black, Sophie. I could turn into a witch and you and I could travel around at night on a broomstick. How would you like that?"
A pair of amber eyes stared at her, as if Sophie understood the words and didn't like the implications.
She turned a page and came to "Mint," and remembered Jan. Mint: Masculine. Well, that was Jan, no doubt about it. The girl seemed obsessed with men, but she'd never found a decent one yet. Should she try a spell? Nothing would happen, because it was just fantasy. Magic wasn't real, but at least it would make it easier describing the steps for her article. It seemed simple enough; needing only a shady spot and something to work on. The oak in the corner would be perfect and the moss-covered seat beneath could act as the workbench. Mint was easy to procure, the tub was full of it. Maybe she would try it tomorrow.
That night Marcia dreamed she was standing at the edge of a clearing in a large forest. A figure dressed in a long dark cape appeared from the trees and beckoned to her. Marcia tried to run, but her feet were like the trees, rooted to the ground.
"Marcia, Marcia," the figure whispered. "Come with me, Marcia." It shuffled closer. "Don't fight it, take the gift, my gift to you." The draped figure lifted its arm and a blue flash arrowed from her fingers and stabbed into Marcia's side.
"No!" Marcia shrieked, holding her side. "No, I don't want it. Take it back. Go away. Leave me alone."
"Too late, my little one." The whisper surrounded Marcia. "It's yours now to use as you will."
Marcia sat up screaming. She fought off the blankets, yelling, "No! No!" Gradually she realized it had been a dream. She reached over and switched on the light, and saw Sophie standing in the doorway swinging her tail and hissing.
Next morning the memory of the dream remained, but Marcia tried to put it out of her mind. It was only a dream, magic was a lot of rubbish, all in the mind, and she'd prove it.
She returned to her mother's book and found the page she wanted. She read the instructions again, making sure each step was clear. First, the herb was to be enchanted. Feeling rather foolish, and hoping her neighbor wasn't watching from an upstairs window, Marcia began.
"I gather you mint," she whispered, "herb of the sun, to help Jan find the man of her dreams at the party."
The shredded mint drifted slowly into the bowl and vibrations rose. Marcia knew she should move away, not let this go any further, but her hand moved toward the bowl and she gently stirred the contents. Lazy spirals of light played over the plant. Her fingertips tingled and throbbed. The garden took on a dreamlike quality. Trees faded into a green blue, and even the birds were silenced.
Again the chant.
"Mint, mint, make love grow in a perfect partner for Jan."
Time ceased to exist. Marcia entered a world of hazy colors and shapes that formed then dissolved into a soft grey mist, which gradually cleared.
She turned from the bowl and noticed Sophie watching, but the cat's tail was twice its normal size, the tabby fur distinctly ruffled. Sophie spat at Marcia and raced up the tree.
That night Marcia dreamed again of the forest. Again the hooded figure appeared and beckoned. Marcia stepped forward, and the figure retreated further into the haze. Marcia moved forward, but something pulled her back.
She awoke to find Sophie at her side, growling, fur electrified, eyes glowing like amber traffic lights.
Two days later Jan arrived at Marcia's door, but this was not the well-groomed Jan that Marcia was accustomed to seeing. Jan's face was scratched, her hair was a tangled mess and there was a tear in her pink silk blouse.
Marcia poured them both coffee. "Drink this," she said, putting an arm around Jan's shoulders. "What on earth is the matter?"
Jan pushed the mug away, put her arms on the table and sobbed. "Oh, Marcia, it's been awful."
"What's been awful? Tell me!"
Jan lifted her head. "I went to Sarah's party. I was sitting on the couch when this guy came over. I couldn't believe it. There were some gorgeous guys there that night, but I got landed with Charlie."
"He's a weirdo, Marcia. He won't leave me alone. Keeps ringing me, and telling me I'm his dream lady. I had to hide in your hedge until he'd gone past. He followed me here," she snapped. "He's followed me everywhere since Saturday night. I can't get rid of him."
Marcia swallowed hard, determined that Jan wouldn't see her mirth. She remembered times when Jan had treated her men in just the same way.
"You've got to take the spell off!" Jan pleaded. "I know you worked a spell, or I'd have never ended up with Charlie. Take it off!"
"Oh, come on, Jan. You can't blame me for this. Magic's all a load of hooey!"
Jan stared at her. "Did you do a spell?" she demanded.
"Well, yes, but..."
"Then look at that book of yours and see how to reverse it! Find me a decent man, not this weirdo who wants me to read books and newspapers. I want a man who'll spend money on me, take me places, buy me flowers and presents!"
That night Marcia tried to make a start on her article, but as she typed the letters they floated across the screen like the spirals of light from the bowl of mint. The letters formed into unrecognizable combinations, then dissolved into the familiar soft grey mist. She turned off her computer, deciding she was tired and blamed the man across the road.
Every morning at four he would start his truck and leave it running. The throb, throb of the engine surged through Marcia's house, making sleep impossible. This morning she'd been making tea as he came out and climbed into the cab, and he'd had the nerve to wave as he sat there, revving the engine and sending a barrage of noise around the kitchen. Marcia had become sick of his barbed comments about "unemployed who spent their days lazing around the house while others worked;" and he made it clear that he included her amongst his version of the unemployed because she didn't work regular hours as he did.
The book of herbs was lying on the table. Perhaps there was a spell that would puncture one of those large tires, preferably when the truck was going up a hill. The book opened at "G";Grass: psychic powers. Rub a flat, round stone in freshly cut grass. Imagine the source of your power transferring to the object you wish destroyed. Bury the stone under a tree."
What had happened to Jan was a coincidence Marcia knew that. Jan hadn't exactly ended up with her dream man as she had hoped, but then Jan never looked below the surface. Charlie wouldn't be half so bad as Jan's description. Marcia decided to give the herbs one more try. A puncture would only be a nuisance.
Finding a flat stone was easy, and she cut a handful of grass, chanting, "I gather you, herb of the sun, to increase my psychic powers." The blades of grass fell slowly into the bowl, and the vibrations rose. She held the stone and rubbed it with the grass, making a mark of vivid green on the grey surface. Marcia pictured the large, noisy vehicle, black smoke pouring from the exhaust, laboring up a steep hill. One back tire was flat.
She dug a deep hole in the soft earth around the oak tree and laid the stone on a bed of grass then covered it with soil.
Sophie gave a loud hiss and bounded up the tree, where she sat with her tail swishing angrily.
Marcia smiled as she drew the curtains that night. The truck was not parked on the road opposite. She might just get a good night&'s sleep.
Two days later she took her breakfast out to the patio and was feeding Sophie pieces of toast when her neighbor's head appeared over the fence.
"Oh, Marcie, have you heard what's happened to Jim?" Mrs. Lawson was an inveterate gossip, and knew everything about everybody.
"Jim? Who's he?"
"Over there." Mrs. Lawson pointed across the road. "The man with that big truck."
Marcia shrugged. "I know it's been lovely and peaceful these past couple of nights. Has he moved somewhere else?"
"He's lost his job." The woman sounded delighted to be able to impart the news. "His truck got a puncture two nights ago, and the police were called in when it was discovered he was transporting goods his employer didn't know about." She spoke quickly; as if worried that someone might beat her to the telling.
Marcia took her plate and cup inside once Mrs Lawson returned to her own house. Of course it was another coincidence, and the man deserved whatever he got.
So far nothing had happened to prove conclusively that magic worked, or didn't work. She decided on one more spell, this time involving only herself. Then, if it worked, nobody would be hurt.
Money, that was something to try for. With the size of her overdraft she could do with some extra funds, especially after that letter from the bank manager.
Another flat stone, enchanted grass and vibrations. This time Marcia envisaged a new car, a ticket for an overseas holiday, a beautiful new home. She followed the spell through and buried the stone, then went out and bought a lottery ticket. She waited.
The night of the lottery draw came. But the spell didn't work. Not one number on her ticket was drawn from the barrel. That proved it, magic was a load of hooey!
She changed the opening paragraph of her article and began planning the shape it would take. But once again the letters danced across the screen, and the grey mist made it difficult for her to focus. Maybe she should have cast a spell giving her an amazing gift with words, and then she'd be able to control those she tried to type into her computer.
The letter arrived at the end of the week. Marcia groaned, not more complaints from the bank manager. She was tempted to throw it in the rubbish without breaking the seal, but something made her open the envelope.
"It has come to our attention," she read, "that there has been a glitch in our computer accounting system. The error has now been corrected, and your account will show your new balance as at 4 p.m. at the date of this letter."
Marcia stared, fascinated, at the black figures at the bottom of the letter. How many zeros was that? Maybe bank managers weren't so bad, after all.
The knock came at midnight.
Through the glass at the side of the door, Marcia could see a tall figure draped in a long robe. She shivered. Why was anyone visiting at this time of night? Had Jim discovered her part in his present circumstances? Had the bank manager decided that he wanted his money back?
"Marcia? I know you're in there. You've got to let me in!"
She opened the door and Jan stepped inside.
"What are you doing here at this time of night?" Marcia demanded, as she switched on the kettle.
"You've got to take that spell off," Jan pleaded. "I can't take much more of Charlie. He's like a love-sick puppy."
"Then take him to the vet," Marcia replied, chuckling. "Or you might see if the dog pound will take him. I can't take the spell off him."
"Can't?" Jan gasped. "Why not?"
"Because magic doesn't work," Marcia said as she poured their coffee. "It's all a load of hooey. You can convince yourself of anything if the coincidences are there." She grinned. "You've always wanted a man who was totally devoted to you. Now you have one." She swallowed another chuckle at Jan's look of disbelief.
"But I can't be saddled with Charlie for the rest of my life!"
Marcia passed a cup to Jan. "He can't be all bad," she said kindly. "Why don't you give him a chance? You've had no luck with other men you thought were wonderful when you first met them. Maybe Charlie's difference means he's better than any of the others."
"I hadn't thought of that," Jan said thoughtfully. "Okay, I'll give him a chance." She walked to the door, leaving her untasted coffee on the table.
"Aren't you going to hide under your hood?" Marcia asked.
Jan grinned. "No need. Charlie's waiting outside your gate."
Marcia guessed that Jan's future would somehow be happier. As long as she believed that magic had caused her present situation she would do nothing for herself. But now? Well, maybe the spell had worked after all.
The letter from the bank lay in its envelope on the table. Marcia picked it up, tucked it into the leather-bound book of spells and carried them both through to her bedroom.
She glanced at the computer on its desk. She looked again, and stared. Her screen saver had changed to something she knew wasn't even in the computer's memory.
On a dark screen with shadowy trees in the background, two figures in long dark capes stirred a steaming cauldron. A large tabby cat slept by the cauldron. As Marcia watched, one figure raised its head and the hood slipped back. She stared at her mother's image. Then the second figure revealed its identity. The face was her own.
Marcia suddenly knew the shape her article would take. She knew, too, that she would never again face an editor's rejection letter. There would be something in the leather bound book to ensure she produced a publishable work every time. She gripped the leather-bound book tighter, and watched as the two women on screen merged to form one.
About the author, Thelma Pattenden:
Thelma Pattenden has had several stories published, but Spellbound is the first story she's written in the fantasy genre. She and her husband and live with their tabby cat on the East Coast of New Zealand and will be among the first people in the world to see the start of the new millennium.