Marmalade and Magic Book 1: The Last Witch of Kalhoun Holler
Jemma and Tad moved to the woods to get away from it all and start fresh. Nothing takes your mind off the past like a new mystery
“Why’s it got to be so damn hot here?” Jemma Nox muttered as she peered toward the sun between the pine trees around the house. It glared down, mocking her. She searched the sky, but no signs of rain were visible. She glanced down. The grass all over the property was brown. It had been an unusually dry season.
Summer was at its peak. The August air was as hot and sticky in Kalhoun County, Tennessee as it had been in Jemma’s former home in the suburb of Hendricks, Indiana. The sixteen-year-old swiped dark auburn hair out of her sweaty face and sighed. The cool of autumn couldn’t come soon enough.
Something about her new home seemed to perpetuate the heat. It just wouldn’t end. The summer had been long, hot, and strenuous. In former years, Jemma Nox would have been more than happy to have summer last forever, but this year was different. She had two years of high school left, and she wanted nothing more than to leave this simmering summer behind and get on with her life.
New beginnings were ahead, and she didn’t want to think about her past life anymore. She was tired of everything that had happened before. So damn tired.
“I need a nap,” she grumbled as she trudged up the front porch steps of her new home. Though they had begun the moving process a week ago, they had made little progress on unpacking since their arrival. She walked in and had to maneuver around piles of unopened boxes. She frowned. Her father hadn’t done a very good job of marking the boxes. She had no way in hell of telling which box held which items, and ones marked Fragile were overturned or set precariously on top of other boxes.
Jemma sighed, wishing for the nap she’d been thinking about all morning. She made her way around the box obstacles into the tiny kitchen, which was combined with an even smaller dining room. Her father sat at the round table. For some reason, he had unpacked a red and white checkered tablecloth but little else.
Jemma shook her head but couldn’t help smiling. Her father, hearing her soft footsteps on the wooden floorboards, looked up. She leaned against the doorframe between the kitchen and the living room, arms crossed. She was tall like her father and had similarly shaped features. Her auburn hair and light brown eyes, however, had been inherited from her mother.
Thaddeus Nox went by the nickname “Tad.” It was so normal among his family and friends that even his daughter used it rather than “Dad.” He looked up, his dark eyes meeting Jemma’s. His brown hair had grown almost to his shoulders, and his new beard was streaked with gray. He hadn’t had long hair or a beard the entire time he was married to Jemma’s mother, but he was trying “a new look.”
Jemma tried to suppress her thoughts about this new Tad since one of her greatest weaknesses was her inability to keep her feelings from showing on her face. He looked like a mountain man, which, she decided, made sense, given their new surroundings.
“Hey there, Jem. Look at this.” His voice was cheery as he beckoned her in. Jemma liked being with her father when he was cheerful. It was a good change after the years of depression he had endured as she watched helplessly. He scooted a stool over for her to sit on. Jemma didn’t know where it had come from, but she sat on it and leaned forward. Her father extended a pamphlet.
Jemma sighed. “I’d rather not talk about school for another two weeks.” She leaned back. The pamphlet read Solomon’s Cross High. That was the institution her father wanted her to begin attending in two weeks when the fall semester started. “I wanted to be homeschooled for the rest of high school. You know that.”
The thought of starting over had been a relief to Jemma at first, but the whole “making new friends at a new school thing” wasn’t at the top of her list of desirable new experiences.
“My whole life was in Hendricks,” she complained as if she’d had a former life in the suburb outside of Indianapolis to lament. She’d had few friends, and they had been around more for the sake of convenience than anything else. She doubted any of them would keep in touch with her for longer than a month.
“I know, sweetheart, but you’ll become a hermit like your old man, doin’ that,” Tad told her with a kind smile. He squeezed her shoulder.
Jemma shrugged. “I can make friends. I just don’t want to make them at school.”
Tad chuckled and shook his head. “Try it, Jem. For me? Just try.”
Jemma couldn’t help but grin and give in. Her father used the same words she had used when trying to convince him to move out of Hendricks. “Try it, Dad. For me? Just try.” She had said those words day after day until, at last, he had agreed to move.
“Where to, Jem?” he had asked her.
“Anywhere you want. Anywhere you think will make you better,” she had replied.
Tad Nox had chosen to move them to Kalhoun County, Tennessee, to a small one-bedroom house with a loft nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. It wouldn’t be so bad, Jemma thought. Anywhere was better than the small suburban town where running into her mom was a possibility at any given time. Here, she could go to a grocery store or the movie theater without having to worry about seeing the one person who stirred up a confounding amount of resentment and anger within her.
The image of Delilah Nox’s face flashed across her mind. She pushed the thought of her mother aside for the time being. She had more important things to face. “What’re we having for dinner, Tad?” She stood and began rifling through the boxes piled in the kitchen.
For the past several weeks, the two of them had lived on takeout, delivered pizza, untoasted Pop Tarts, and cereal without milk. Jemma was ready for a home-cooked meal. It didn’t seem like that would be possible tonight. None of the dishes had been unpacked. The boxes containing them weren’t even in the kitchen.
“You’ve got your ‘annoyed with Dad’s packing skills’ face on again,” Tad remarked with a chuckle.
Jemma gestured at a box while trying to smile. “I don’t understand why the oven mitts are in the same box as your tools and your socks and the TV remotes? Where is the TV?”
Tad shifted, his eyes drifting about the kitchen and into the darkened living room. “I’ve been wondering the same thing. I have a game I want to watch.”
Jemma glowered, which made Tad laugh more. She continued to search the boxes. Now that the task was begun, she didn’t see an end in sight. The thought of food was driven clean out of her mind. She wanted to sleep on a bed tonight with sheets and pillowcases, dammit. What she did not find in the next box, however, was sheets or pillowcases.
She frowned. “What’s all this shit?”
“Jem—” her father started.
Before he could rebuke her language, Jemma added, “Really, Dad? Why?” She pulled out a pile of faded papers, pictures, and small miscellaneous items. There was a plethora of things: printed photographs, handwritten letters, ticket stubs, and more. There was even a perfume sample of the scent her mother always wore.
Jemma’s suspicions about the items were confirmed when she found the last of the collection: a ring box. She doubted it was empty. The glittering diamond wedding ring had long since left her mother’s finger and been returned to the box. Her father was still holding onto things from his failed marriage, and that was the last thing he needed to be doing.
Jemma gave him a reproachful look. Tad stood up, looking sheepish. He scratched his head and plunged his hands deep into his pockets. He opened his mouth to give some excuse, but Jemma didn’t let him. “You promised a fresh start. You promised me you wouldn’t bring these things.”
There was a hint of sorrow in her father’s expression. It wasn’t until she saw the conflicting emotions in his eyes that Jemma realized her posture had stiffened and her face revealed her disappointment. She softened her features. Her father didn’t deserve any more admonishment than he had been given in the past two years.
The proximity of her mother in Hendricks, Indiana had done Tad more harm than it had Jemma. Not only had her mother chosen to abandon them for a “better life,” but she hadn’t even had the decency to move away. She had stayed in town, the very town she had grown up in where the people were her people, not Tad’s. Tad gradually became a stranger to the people he had once called close friends.
On several occasions, Jemma had come home from school to find her father sitting in a dim living room, nursing a bottle of liquor or a cigarette. Whenever this happened, Jemma knew he had seen her. He had seen his ex-wife Delilah Nox in a grocery store or at a gas station and been reminded of the joy and pain he had experienced during their twenty-year relationship. Jemma was determined not to allow her father to succumb to any form of addiction. They had to get away.
So here they were in Tennessee, and she still wasn’t sure what had drawn her father to this place. She didn’t know why he had chosen to move here.
“I’m sorry, Jem. I broke my promise to you,” Tad replied. He did look remorseful.
I need to throw the damn things away and be done with it, Jemma thought, but then pity for her father overwhelmed the anger stirring within her—the anger that bade her get rid of any sign of Delilah having ever been a part of their lives. What followed her pity was a pang of guilt at the thought of throwing away her father’s property without his permission, even if the property was doing a damn good job of poisoning him emotionally.
Tad gave her a wan smile. “I’ll look up what’s in town, and we’ll find somewhere to go eat.”
Conversation over, he left the room. Jemma waited until his footsteps faded into his bedroom before she crept up to the loft with the items from his marriage in hand. A mattress sat on the floor amid boxes she hoped held all of her belongings. To her left, at the top of the ladder, was a closet. She opened it and was greeted by a billow of dust. She coughed and waved her hand until it cleared. Jemma peered in. Cobwebs lined the corners. The space didn’t look like it had been used in a very long time.
Jemma bent down and wrangled things around. She moved boxes she had tossed in the day before without opening them. Her goal now was to hide her father’s belongings in the corner and cover them with her clothes. When she pushed farther into the closet, she thumped against its back. She cried out in alarm as the panel came down upon her.
“That fucking hurt!” she hissed, hoping her father hadn’t heard the ruckus from his room below. She paused and listened. No reaction came. She stood up, moving the panel off of her as she straightened. Now she was both sweaty from being outside and dusty from the closet. Further, the loft was suffocatingly hot since they hadn’t been able to get the air conditioning working yet.
All of those things fell away, however, when Jemma realized where the panel had come from. There was a false back to the closet. Whoever had used it last hadn’t put the panel back on properly, and it had shifted at her first contact with it. The real back of the closet was shallow and full of dust and cobwebs, just like the front, but Jemma bent down. There was something in the new space.
Her fingers traced the outline of a small old chest. It just fit in her hands. The outside was covered in dust, and it looked as old as the ancient trees outside. A feeling of intrigue filled Jemma. She had a feeling she wasn’t supposed to have this box in her hands, but she opened it anyway.
Faded black and white photographs covered the bottom of the chest. The subjects of the photos were an extended family gathered together at the edge of a wooded area in clothing that looked at least a century out of style. There was also a tattered leather book.
Jemma blew the dust off it. There was a name imprinted on the bottom corner, but it was so faded that she couldn’t read it. She opened the volume to find loose scraps of paper filled with writing in a thin, cramped script. She frowned. The light was bad, but she knew that even if she sat in front of the window, she wouldn’t be able to make out what was written. Whoever this had belonged to was long gone from this house and probably thought they had lost it.
She examined the words once more, which were written in a spidery scrawl. The hand looked hurried. Jemma couldn’t help but be curious. She was more of a science nerd than a history geek, but the idea that what lay before her was the hidden memoir of someone who lived in this particular corner of the United States compelled Jemma to a greater curiosity than she would have believed.
Jemma heard rustling below, followed by her father’s cheery voice. “Found a place in town, Jem. There are only two.” He chuckled. “I’m ready to go when you are.”
Jemma peered over the edge of the loft. “Soon,” she replied and turned back to the newfound objects in her hands. A panicked rush of conflicting emotions filled her. She had no clue why.
Why don’t I want Dad to see me right now? she wondered. For some reason, all her instincts told her she should keep this to herself. Without thinking about it, Jemma shoved her father’s divorce contraband into the closet with her foot and placed the ancient box on top. She kept the photo album in her hand. She didn’t want to keep the whole thing from Tad. This was the first interesting thing she’d encountered since they’d arrived, and she wanted to share it.
Tad met her at the ladder. He had climbed up while she was hiding things in the closet. “You good up here, Jem?”
She turned to find his eyes smiling and his lips parted. She nodded. “All good.” Instinctively, she closed the closet door and stood in front of it. She didn’t want to tell him about the false back, either. She didn’t want to lie to her father, but she also didn’t want him to see where she had stashed his box of marriage mementos.
Tad seemed to notice none of these things. He did, however, see the photo album in his daughter’s hands. “What’s that?”
She extended it to him. “I found it up here. It isn’t ours.”
Tad opened it and glanced at the photographs. He squinted at them through his round glasses. “Very cool, Jem. Very cool,” he murmured as he traced his fingers over the images. He shrugged. “Maybe we can find out who this belongs to when we go to town.”
Jemma nodded, then tilted her head and observed her father for a long moment. “I think it belonged to whoever lived here last. I wonder why they didn’t take it with them?” She also wondered why it had been left hidden behind a false back in the closet. Whoever had stashed it hadn’t wanted anyone to find it.
Tad scratched his head. “I bought this home a few months ago, as you know, but I never told you how much of a mystery it was.”
He had Jemma’s interest. “What do you mean?”
Tad sighed. “The real estate broker told me this house had been sitting empty for some time but had been kept from falling into disrepair by a handyman who had a long contract with someone to keep the place ‘in good order.’”
Jemma’s brows knitted. “Contracted by who?”
Tad shrugged. “Beyond me. He told us we had the option to keep the handyman if we wanted. I haven’t decided. I haven’t even met the man.”
“Who owned it before us?” Jemma asked.
“A woman named Mabel Doire, I believe, was the name he gave me.” Tad looked down at the photo album. “I wonder if this Ms. Doire is one of the women in the photographs?” He glanced at his daughter. “We’ll bring this along to dinner.” He went back down the ladder. Jemma followed, not wanting the photo album to leave her sight. She couldn’t put her finger on why. Possessiveness toward it overcame her.
“I’m ravenous!” Tad exclaimed, grinning as he exited their house. They got into his truck and made their way into town, the closest thing in the area of Solomon’s Cross to a downtown center.
Jemma glanced in the rearview mirror as they pulled out of the gravel driveway. The woods on the left of the property struck her as familiar. As their home disappeared in the distance, she realized why. The photographs of the people in the album had been taken in front of those trees.
I can almost feel the humid summer of the south all around me. Whose treasure has Jemma found and why was it hidden away? All these questions and more will be revealed on April 29th, 2022 when Marmalade and Magic Book 1: The Last Witch of Kalhoun Holler is released. Until then head over to Amazon and pre-order today.