Hot, humid air clung to my skin and coated the tree I was crouching behind, drops of condensation wetting my fingers. My nose wrinkled at the musky, earthy scent of the wetlands. A mosquito landed on my arm. I slapped it, the sound echoing like a crack of thunder.
My heart lodged in my throat, choking my airways. I silently cursed my idiocy as I waited to be discovered.
I was thinking of doing something incredibly stupid.
Not as stupid as what got me into this situation in the first place.
One little book and a whole lot of desperation were the ingredients for my spell of doom.
The swamp. It was primitive, murky, and isolated. Darkness hovered in every corner and shadows crept along the brush.
It was the perfect setting for voodoo rituals.
And voodoo was what I needed.
A house sat nestled in those shadowy arms. Water tupelos and cypress branches dripping with Spanish moss blocked the moonlight. The watchful, silvery glowing eyes of nocturnal animals made the hairs on my arms stand on end.
I wiped sweat from my forehead, smearing it on my shorts. My tongue had been replaced by a lump of jerky, and my bottom lip was growing numb from the constant gnawing.
Why did I wait until the last minute to search for a way out of this mess? My eighteenth birthday was in three weeks, two days, and fifteen hours. Something most people referred to as a rite of passage I called doomsday.
A screen door banged open, and my body froze. I didn’t even blink.
A cherry burned brightly as smoke drifted in the summer air. The silhouette of a tall figure appeared on the porch, scanning the trees. Another one materialized, the same height, but a few inches wider.
“Ah, I don’t see nothing,” one of them said, yawning into the night.
“You look with more than your eyes, yeah?” The other voice was gruff and deep, a sharp edge of danger slicing his words.
My pulse spiked.
Both men had thick Cajun French accents that made them stick out even in Carrefour, Louisiana. That wasn’t the only thing that labeled them different in our small country town. One, they were hotter than sin, and sin was all you were going to get. And two, they practiced voodoo.
I wasn’t talking about their religion. They could do magic.
At least that was the talk around town. And there was a lot of talk about the Benoit brothers.
“It’s four o’clock in the morning.” The leaner one took another pull off his cigarette. “I ain’t seeing jack, either way. The next thing I’m seeing is my pillow. I’m going back to bed.” The screen door slammed again.
I dared not move. The other brother was still out there, scrutinizing the yard as if he sensed my presence.
There was a very good reason why I was standing in the middle of the swamp, debating on asking Bastien and Étienne Benoit for help in the voodoo department. I’d made a very rash but unavoidable bargain when I was ten.
And it was almost time to pay the price.
I chewed my bottom lip, agonizing over my decision to seek help. Maybe I had it all wrong, and the talk around town was just that. Talk. The brothers couldn’t help me one bit. They were either going to laugh or call the law to haul my skinny ass off to the loony bin for a seventy-two-hour lock-up.
Or they were some kind of voodoo sorcerers, and they were going to curse me for sneaking onto their private land.
Either way, I was screwed.
Ghostly fingertips skimmed my spine, and I held my breath, my gaze trained on the single silhouette of a brother. An eerie glow burned through his eyes as he searched the trees.
And then, they landed directly on me.
My veins quivered beneath my skin, and my fingernails dug into my palms. Every breath I took felt like a flashing beacon signaling him to my spot.
I licked my dry lips. Maybe I should let myself be known, ask for help like I’d planned on doing when I snuck out of my house in the wee hours of the morning.
But the longer he stared, the more my body wanted to back away and run as far and as fast as I could. Those eyes seared into me, burning a pit in my very soul. It was a warning. A threat to stay away.
I gulped while cold sweat cut a line down my bloodless cheek. My muscles were still frozen, feet sunken into the soft ground. Electricity pulsed through the air, raising the hairs on my nape. Rustling stirred the underbrush followed by the vibrations of a rattle.
There was only one thing that made that sound in the swamp.
A reptilian head poked through the foliage, cold eyes directed at me.
I slapped my hand over my mouth, stifling a scream. I stumbled, slamming into a tree trunk. Pain radiated across my back.
So much for being stealthy.
My gaze snapped toward the porch. The silhouette was gone and stalking through the yard with a powerful, menacing gate.
Adrenaline hemorrhaged through my veins, shocking my muscles back to life like a jolt of electricity on a dead car battery. I pivoted and ran, heading for the long dirt road back toward civilization.
* * *
I collapsed on my bed, my breathing ragged as my lungs gulped in the clean scent of my room. I couldn’t shake the image of those glowing eyes. It wasn’t natural.
Seeking out the Benoits had been a stupid move spurred on by recent nightmares. Time was ticking, and I was desperate.
At least my best friends weren’t here to witness my crumbling sanity.
My eyes flicked to my cell phone on the bedside table to see if I had any missed calls from Riley or Lana.
I could be in Spain right now, forgetting all my troubles while lounging on a beach. Instead, I had an overprotective mother and one stubborn Puerto Rican grandmother.
My mother burst into my room, auburn waves wild and puppy dog medical scrubs rumpled. I was pretty sure the top was backward. Her faced pinched when she found me in bed. “What are you doing?”
I bolted up, checking my feet for mud or any other indication I’d had a late-night stroll in the swamp. “W-What?”
“It’s time to get up. You’re going to be late for school.” She ripped open the curtains overlooking our sprawling backyard.
I squinted against the bright light streaming in through the wide windows of my bedroom, cursing the glaring morning sun. “Mom, it’s summer,” I mumbled and collapsed back on the pillows. “I graduated Saturday, remember?”
Her sharp intake of air echoed through the room. “Oh, baby, I’m sorry. I forgot.”
“It’s okay.” I pulled the covers up to shield my eyes. This wasn’t the first thing she forgot, and it wouldn’t be the last.
A shadow formed above me, and the covers were gently tugged down, revealing my mother again. “Are you still mad?”
I gave a noncommittal shrug. “It’s fine.”
Her long fingers brushed a lock of dark hair out of my eyes. "I just don’t think it’s safe for you to go to another country alone without anyone but you three girls.”
My mother and grandmother didn’t think anywhere was safe except Carrefour. Not where I was concerned. “I get it, Mom. It’s fine.” A forced smile curled my lips.
The small voice in my head—AKA my conscience—told me a trip to Spain was a bad idea with doomsday looming on the horizon. I tended to ignore the voice of reason though.
Her expression relaxed. “Since you’re up, why don’t you make breakfast for your grandmother? That would be nice.”
Abuela—grandmother in Spanish—would have a different opinion on that.
“Mom.” I gave her a pointed look. “We’re talking about Abuela here. Do you comprehend the words you spoke, or have you forgotten the last time I tried to cook for her?”
She winced. “Oh, right.”
I had been chased out of the kitchen with a wooden spoon.
My grandmother loved to cook, and she loved getting us involved, but never—under any circumstances—could we cook without permission. Expect punishment with several whacks to the ass. I was still picking out splinters.
I pinched the material of my mom’s scrubs. “This is on backward.”
Her hazel eyes glanced down, sighing. She pulled her arms in and twisted it around. “At least I didn’t make it out of the house this time.”
My nose wrinkled at the spot toward the bottom and the astringent smell she couldn’t detect. “I think you may have worn these already.”
A line formed between her brows. “Why do you say that?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s a pee stain.”
Her lips curled as she examined it. “Yep. You’re right.” She tossed her hands in the air and shrugged. “What’s new?”
I couldn’t hold in the laughter. My mom wasn’t a dirty person. Erica Rosario was simply a very dedicated veterinarian—the parish’s only veterinarian—and her mind was on the furry patients, not her laundry.
She pressed a kiss to my forehead. “I’m off to work. Enjoy your first summer as a high school graduate.” She stood and trailed toward the door, glancing over her shoulder with a wink. “Soon you’ll even be an adult.”
Sand filled my mouth, and bugs wriggled in my gut. She waved and disappeared, oblivious to the effect of her words. The impending day hung over me, the numbers counting down like a bomb threatening to explode.
And that bomb? It was the deal I made with the voodoo king when I was ten. If I didn’t find a way to break it before my eighteenth birthday, I was dead.