Amelia’s town was magic.
Or cursed, depending on how you looked at it.
The town had a fixed border in all directions, one that ran along paved county highways; through thick hedges and briars; atop fields dotted with cows and clover; across the rocky stream where teenagers gathered for picnics and late night parties.
The border couldn’t be seen, but everyone knew it was there. It brought resentment to some, heard in anxious whispers in the voices of some of Amaranth’s younger townspeople. It brought regret to others, felt in the hearts of those who for one reason or another had chosen to leave or stay. But to most, its presence brought a strange calm, seen in contented smiles on the faces of the town’s young, old, and in-between.
Like a magnetic field from a superhero movie, or an encampment of soldiers from a war film, the line couldn’t be broken.
Most people in Amaranth believed that the magical, mostly appreciated, maybe cursed, imaginary line originated with the Callaway women. And the women themselves didn’t dispel the notion.
Amelia, the oldest of the Callaway’s youngest generation, had heard stories of the border since childhood. Her grandmother, mother, and aunts told stories around winter bonfires and at intimate dinner parties of the line.
“It was a dark and stormy night,” they’d start, laughing, when the guests at the fire or dinner table were not relatives. They’d tell of a great-great-aunt (Amelia had lost count of the greats) who hedged the town in protection, or (if the wine flowed more freely) of another who’d protected their friends with fire or wind or water from outsiders.
The stories also, though, came up on sunny Summer afternoons and during casual conversations over toast and coffee at breakfast.
“It’s a good thing we don’t need to leave,” her mother commented just yesterday, waving a newspaper at Amelia. “The rest of the world’s gone crazy.”
The Callaways liked the air of mystery that surrounded them, but at home, to them, everything felt--was--normal.
Their home, right off the town square, brought a mixture of stares and wonder from their neighbors. The tall turrets hinted at magic, while the wide porch promised hospitality.
The Callaways were nothing if not Southern.
Amelia’s Gramma, Aunts Rose and Nora, and mother welcomed friends to the porch, talking about the newest business opening down the street or gossiping about the latest town romances.
And they occasionally counseled the ones who’d decided to leave.
Everyone had to find their own way, they said; they didn’t begrudge any decisions.
Amelia had decided years ago, and never wavered from the thought, that Amaranth felt good and right for her.
It didn’t hurt that Amelia often felt anxious about going to school, or to a homecoming dance, or anywhere that strangers might appear; the idea of venturing past her town’s walls was a true stretch.
She felt content with the camaraderie of her family and best friend Nic.
She looked around her tiny bedroom in the top of the house’s main turret, and at the tortoiseshell cat sitting atop her favorite bookshelf, and she felt totally, truly fine.
She considered the outfit she’d wear tomorrow when she and Nic joined others at the send-off gathering for those who’d decided to leave.
It was the one day--discovered haphazardly about a hundred years ago by a family that had tried in vain to leave before, but decreed through magic many generations before by the Callaways--that you could leave Amaranth, Virginia.
The one day during the year that one could leave. Or could come back.
Amelia, along with most others in the town, celebrated the fairness of the plan. It gave everyone the chance to chase their dreams outside Amaranth if they so desired.
Amelia was glad she didn’t have any of that to worry about.
For today, she focused on her plans with Nic and--even more pressing--on what she prayed would happen tomorrow beyond the gathering for the three townspeople leaving.
Tomorrow was Amelia’s 18th birthday, a coincidence never lost on the women in her family or with the town in general.
Amelia shared her birthday with the one day the barrier broke.
Her mother and aunts said it made her special; they’d made big productions of her birthday over the years, celebrating with giant cakes and costume parties. As she entered her teen years and lost patience with large crowds, her family created small, magically-infused gatherings instead--a backyard garden party with clusters of bright pink butterflies, a brunch with self-refilling mimosa flutes, a sleepover with music wafting in off the breeze.
The plans for tomorrow’s birthday eclipsed all others, as Amelia looked forward to the awakening of her own Callaway magic.
She’d talked her family into allowing Nic’s attendance, since she’d known for awhile now that Amelia shared something special with her relatives. She’d questioned the gloves Amelia had started wearing to school on warm Spring days, and soon after noticed the small sparks on her best friend’s fingertips.
Amelia didn’t quite know what the finished product would be, what the sparks and heat and golden glow meant. But tomorrow, if tradition held, she would get her answers.
A buzz from her cell phone interrupted her eager thoughts and she pulled it out of her back pocket to see a message from Nic.
She was thrilled to be coming to Amelia’s private celebration, while also anticipating the possibility of seeing Mason at the gathering tomorrow.
The third member of their best friend group had left Amaranth last year to be reunited with his father, and they’d been happy for Mason despite missing his before-school coffee runs and habit of breaking into showtunes.
His big personality and unflappable optimism made his success in the outside world a given, but Nic yearned to know that he was okay. Amelia’s mother had received word that he and his father were doing well, but Mason himself still hadn’t given them an update.
“Tomorrow’s gonna be epic,” the text read.
Nic believed that Mason would surprise them tomorrow and visit for the allotted few hours before returning to his new home away from Amaranth. Amelia hoped so as well, but didn’t want to dash her friend’s expectations; she knew from experience that once people left town, they rarely reconnected.
It was as if they’d found a better place, then forgot their friends.
If that was how the world outside affected relationships, then she felt even stronger than ever about her decision to stay in her hometown.
“Can’t wait,” she responded, following the message with a flurry of emojis (smiles, birthday cakes, a party hat, and a magic wand).
Her fingers sizzled slightly as she typed, a tingle of electricity stretching and building. She set the phone down, turned her hands palm side up, and closed her eyes. She’d never been properly taught how to manifest anything, instead relying on what her mother and aunts insisted was a natural intuition.
Eyes closed, she thought of light and sparks and energy; eyes open, she transferred the thoughts onto her hands and soon witnessed a small ball of fire cackling and spinning in each palm.
The accomplishment stunned Amelia.
“Mom!” she screamed, slamming her bedroom door and turning to race down the stairs.
She tripped on a rug at the top of the stairs, slowing her progress, and saw her grandmother, mother, and aunts huddled over the coffee table. They sat on the couch in the living room, their heads pushed together in a circle.
For a moment she thought they might be doing an incantation, but then imagined they were plotting something for her birthday party.
She slowed her walk down the stairs, deciding to sneak into the accompanying kitchen for a cup of tea. No need to interrupt their plans, she thought; there’d be plenty of time to share her latest accomplishment.
Amelia quietly poured her cup and sat at the table, when the voices next door rose in volume.
“How many more of these days are we going to have to go through?” her mother asked, loud enough for Amelia to hear. “Now that she’s of age, there’s no more reason to do so.”
“We have to keep having the gatherings,” Rose answered. “It gives everyone a sense of freedom.”
“Or we could simply increase the suggestion spell,” Nora added. “I don’t know why we never used it at full power anyway.”
“Because,” Gramma stated, her voice growing quieter and calmer than her daughters, “I never wanted to take everything away. As it is now, our friends still feel like they have a choice.”
“Friends,” Amelia’s mother answered, in an unfamiliar, scoffing voice. “I think they stopped being that a long time ago.”
Amelia rose from her seat, inching closer to the doorway separating her from the conversation. She wished she could get a look at the women’s faces; certainly they’d each have expressions of lighthearted joking.
“When do we tell her?” Nora asked. “She needs to know.”
“Or, we could increase our suggestion on her?” Rose added.
Amelia’s understanding of the conversation was murky, but those words--said in a cutting, adamant tone--jerked her further to attention.
“Nonsense,” Gramma answered. “She’s an adult now. A Callaway. She can handle it, and she’ll understand.”
Amelia shook her head, thinking that perhaps she was still in her bedroom; that she was just waking from a dream; that the magic she’d performed and been so excited about moments ago had somehow muddled her mind.
Suddenly, though, she knew it to be true.
She didn’t understand the details, but the magic inside of her began to clear the cobwebs.
Opening the door to the living room, she stared at each of the women. She raised her hands--accusatorial and magical--and they knew she understood.
She grabbed her keys from the peg next to the front door and stormed to her car; no clear plan came to mind, but she knew somehow that she needed to drive to the edge of town.
The women stood now on the front porch, staring at Amelia. Gramma cried softly, but the others lifted their faces and hands toward her.
She pulled away from the house and drove.
Amelia’s hands now glowed with an inarguable ball of light. When she held onto the steering wheel, the warmth moved to the car; sparks of electricity emanated from the clock console and glove compartment.
The town’s square and business district began to fade behind her as Amelia drove further to the edge of town. She knew that more turns and stop signs and traffic lights marked the several miles ahead of her.
An anger still seethed inside her. She considered the years (the generations, really) of lies...to the people of Amaranth, to her friends, to her.
The more she drove, the more the magic emerged, the more she knew.
Lies about her town, her family’s abilities, and ultimately her own magic.
At the next stop sign she hesitated, released her grip on the wheel, and looked again--mesmerized--at her hands. A larger ball of light lifted from each hand, but now resembled fire.
She clinched them in an attempt to stop the heat, and lowered her head.
The anger inside her melted into tears.
Her tears grew loud inside the confines of her car; she cried for the knowledge she'd gained.
She looked back into the tear-stained reflection of the town she’d left behind; the outlines of the buildings looked as if lightning had struck them. A transformer to the west exploded, shards of fire bursting into the sky.
She saw the final traffic light in front of her. Parallel to the light was a fence line that marked the very edge of town; it now crackled with electricity, as sparks spread from one fence post, to the next, to the next.
The barrier appeared to be coming down a day early.
The light turned green.