The effect was instant and painful. The whole cavern seemed to ring like a bell, and Mary shrieked, falling to her knees.
Once again, she started to flicker, part Mary, part Romy. Maya watched her, eyes wide.
"Where's the witch?"
"That's her," I said, breathing hard and pointing at Romy where she knelt on the ground. "The ghost is in her, it...it possessed her."
Maya was holding some kind of herbs in one hand and an ancient-looking book in the other. She let both drop to the ground. "Oh, hon," she said, so sad. "Then there's nothing I can do. The witch and the ghost, they have to be separate for this ritual to work."
Romy was writhing on the floor as though the salt was burning her. There was nothing of the girl I knew in her face, but I couldn't bear the thought of having to kill her. Not when she'd painted my toenails and made me laugh and been the first person I'd ever called friend.
Maya came to my side, holding out the small silver dagger she'd brought, Just in case.
Automatically, I tried to shove the dagger back toward her, but Maya gently pressed the hilt into my palm. "Sweetheart, she's in pain. A lot of it. If this doesn't work, you need to set her free."
Bile rose in my throat.
"Do you want me to do it?" Maya asked, and next to me, both Dex and Anderson stared.
"Do what?" Anderson asked just as Dex said, "I know you're not suggesting what-"
But I ignored them both. This was my fault. If I'd done something the instant I'd found out Romy had summoned Mary, maybe there would have been enough time. Maybe we could've fixed it before Mary got so strong. And if this didn't stop now, every person in Ideal would be in danger. Mary's rage would get stronger and stronger, her desire to hurt even more intense. This had to end.
And I had to be the one to end it.
My hand closed around the hilt of the dagger, but before I could take it from Maya, a voice rang out in the cave. "Dexter?"
The four of us turned slowly to see Dexter's Nana. She was wearing a sweatshirt embroidered with kittens, and the firelight turned her glasses into glowing orbs.
"Nana, I can explain," Dex said, as his gaze swung from me and the dagger back to Romy, crumpled on the floor, and back again.
"Oh, dear," Nana said, stepping forward. "I believe this may be all my fault."
"Nana, how on earth could this be your fault?"
She nodded at Romy. "There's...there's a ghost in that young girl, isn't there?"
Dumbly, all four of us nodded.
Nana sniffed. "Yes, that's what I thought. Mary Evans. You know, she was the local legend when I was a girl growing up here. There were rumors she was a witch and..." She broke off with a chuckle. "Well, maybe I sympathized with her. I had always done the odd little charm myself."
She stopped suddenly, moving closer to Dex, who was watching her with a mixture of horror and confusion. "I didn't mean to do it." Her hand, as it cupped his cheek, was trembling. "But you were lying there on the floor, and you couldn't breathe."
Dex reared back slightly. "What?"
Nana shook her head, tears sliding down her face. "Your chest, it-it kept moving, but no air was getting in, and your eyes..." She gave a shuddering sigh. "Those beautiful eyes were so scared. I'd been doing hedge magic all my life. Bringing back plants, doing the odd luck spell. It's why my cooking is so good. So in that moment, I just...acted. Said the words to a spell I'd done a hundred times to make my petunias bloom."
Clearing her throat, she reached into her handbag and pulled out a tissue. As she dabbed at her eyes, Nana said, "And then you were back. Just like that. Killed every plant within a ten-block radius, but you were back. So I put my silver bracelet on you, and I...I hoped." She nodded at the bracelet. "That's what anchors the spell, what anchors your soul in your body."
"But it wasn't enough," I said softly, remembering Maya just that evening, bringing our basil plant back to life.
Nana gave a little laugh. "No, it wasn't. A human soul is a powerful thing, Izzy. It takes so much power to hold it. And no matter how many plants or birds or stray dogs I drained, it was like I could feel Dex's soul flickering. So I looked to other spell books, tried other rituals."
"And ended up summoning a really pissed-off ghost."
"An unfortunate side effect," she sniffed. "But really, I've just been delaying the inevitable. Until an entire human life force is drained off, given to Dex, his existence is just...temporary."
Finally I understood what I'd sensed when I had touched Dex. No wonder he'd felt both magic and non-magic. Magic was keeping him alive. In his own way, he was a ghost. Or a zombie. Which meant I'd kissed...
No, definitely a ghost.
Dex was shaking his head and blinking, backing away from his Nana. "No," he said, hands trembling. "No, no, no, that is not possible. I can't be dead, and this"-he hooked one finger under his bracelet-"can't be the only thing keeping me alive."
Nana calmly regarded him through her glasses. "Take it off, then."
"No!" I cried, as Dex started to tug at the silver around his wrist. But he froze, finger coiled around the metal. "I can't."
"Compulsion spell," Nana said. "I didn't want to risk anything."
Knees giving out, Dex sunk to the floor, head in one hand. "No," he said, but I could see a tear splash down into the salt. When he lifted his face, his eyes were red. "Nana, how could you do something like..." Trailing off, he looked at Romy, crumpled and sobbing, clearly in pain. "That's because of me. Mr. Snyder, a-and Beth Tanner, and the gym. And now Romy, the first friend I made at that stupid school, is possessed by a freaking vengeful ghost that you summoned because you were so busy trying to keep me alive."
Dex was crying, but he got up off the floor, dusting the salt from his pin-striped pants. "I'm not letting that happen. If I die, will this stop? Will the-the energy or whatever is powering the ghost shut down?"
Behind him, Maya shook her head no, but Dex was already tugging at his bracelet again. "Because I'll take this off. If me dying means that Romy can be okay, then I'm fine with that. Apparently I've been living on borrowed time anyway."
His whole body was shaking, but he held his chin high and his gaze was steady. He would do it, I had no doubt.
Nana stepped forward, trying to cup his face, but he flinched from her touch. "No, sweet boy," she said gently. "This isn't all your fault. It's mine. I just..." Her voice wavered, and this time, when she tried to touch him, Dex let her, albeit reluctantly. "I just loved you so much. And I'm so sorry I've hurt people, but I'm so glad I got this extra year with you."
Confused, Dex shook his head, but Nana was already moving toward Romy. Kneeling down, she patted Romy's hair and then reached into her handbag and pulled out a tiny blade. I stepped forward, but Maya caught my arm.
In a series of quick moves, Nana sliced an X into her palm and laid her bloody hand on Romy's back. Then she smiled at Dex. "I love you," she told him.
Dex, still shaking, only stared at her.
Nana looked to Romy, who had flickered back to Mary. "I'm sorry," she told her. "I should have let you rest. I had no idea what had really been done to you, or how angry you were."
"Nana-" Dex said, but she just ducked her head and whispered something. The light that filled the cave was blinding and sudden, and came with a concussive boom that made us all stagger backward.
When I could finally see again, Romy was sitting up, blearily shaking her head while Anderson knelt down next to her. "Um, ow," she murmured, and it was so clearly Romy-only Romy-that a sudden sob of relief welled up in my throat.
But then there was another sob. Dex was on his knees by his Nana. Her eyes were closed and she was smiling slightly, but there was no doubt she was gone.
He lifted his tearstained face to me and Maya. "What happened?"
Maya shook her head. "I'm not sure. I've never heard that spell she used before." Crouching down, she gently lifted Dex's hand from Nana's back. His shoulders were heaving, and I wanted to say something, do something, but I had no idea where to start.
Without warning, Maya flicked the clasp on Dex's bracelet and I darted forward, hand out. "Maya!"
The bracelet fell harmlessly to the ground, but Dex stayed right where he was. Still breathing-well, wheezing actually. He fished his inhaler out of his pocket and jammed it into his mouth, eyes on the bracelet.
Once his breathing sounded normal again, Maya laid a hand on his shoulder. "That's what I thought. She knew that the only way to stop Mary was for her to die. But whatever that spell was, it didn't just kill her, it...transferred her. Put her life energy into you."
Dex lowered the inhaler. "So, I'm...not going to die?"
Shrugging, Maya picked up the bracelet and pressed it into Dex's palm. "Well, eventually you will, just like we all will. But not today." With that, she pulled Dex into a hug.
In shock, Dex raised his arms almost numbly and draped them around her neck.
"Nana did the right thing in the end," Maya said. "And she did it for you."
If Dex replied, I couldn't hear it.
"So, you were...dead."
"Romy," I warned, but she just shrugged and pulled the blanket tighter around her.
"Look, I get that he's traumatized, but hey, I am, too."
"We all are," Anderson muttered.
The four of us were sitting in my living room, Romy and Anderson huddled on the couch, me in the one recliner we had, and Dex at my feet, his arms wrapped around his knees, a blanket over his shoulders. He hadn't said anything since we'd left the cave.
But now he looked at Romy, and a ghost of his old grin crossed his face. "Yeah, I was. And still better looking than any of the other guys at Mary Evans High." His voice wavered a little on the end, and he went back to chewing his thumbnail. I wanted to lay my hand on top of his head or pat his back. Something. Instead, I crossed my arms over my chest.
"So he was dead," Romy reiterated, nodding at Dex. "And you"-she looked at me-"you're some kind of awesome monster slayer."
"I don't feel so awesome right now," I muttered. Maybe because no monsters had been slain. Sure, we'd stopped the hedge witch and brought an end to the hauntings, but this didn't feel even a little bit like winning. Not when I looked at Dex's shattered expression. His Nana hadn't been evil. Just wrong. And to be honest, I wondered if she'd even been that. What would I have done to bring Finley back if I could've? Or my mom if something happened to her? When you don't have much family left, you'll do anything to protect what you have.
The front door opened and we all jumped, but it was just Maya.
Dex stood up as she came in. "You took care of her?" he asked. "You didn't just...leave her there?"
Maya had stayed behind at the cave to, in her words, "put things to rights." Now she patted Dexter's arm, sympathy written all over her broad face. "I did. With respect. She was a sister, and we have ways of handling these things."
Confused, Dex stared at her. "A sis-Oh, right, because you were both witches. Because that's real. That's a thing that really happens, and my Nana was one."