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The Witch's Empathy (One Part Witch Series Book 8) by Iris Kincaid (1)

CHAPTER ONE

Some people think that the most disturbing and anxiety-provoking birthday would be one’s fortieth. Younger individuals might even feel their blood pressure rising as they contemplate thirty. But for some years, Erin Sweeney had known that thirty-eight would be a particularly loathsome trial. She was not alone in that. For hundreds of thousands of people annually, the thirty-eighth year coincides with the dreaded twentieth high school reunion.

In all fairness, there are more than a few individuals who look forward to this event with nostalgia and genuine anticipation. They look back fondly on “the best years of their lives” and hope to relive the wonder and intensity of a time in life when everything felt new, thrilling, and desperately important.

They are tingling with curiosity about how their first boyfriend now looks, and how did the prom king and queen fare? Who went bald, who gained weight, who turned into a golden success story, and who was now serving up fries? Who was already divorced? Who had racked up multiple divorces?

It would also be a chance to show off—Look at my gorgeous wife. Take a look at my amazing kids. Can you believe that our eldest tested at 140 IQ? We were thinking about sending her to Juilliard, but now we’re not too sure whether a brain like hers should be wasted on music.

The twentieth reunion was an event, with a capital E. It was a milestone at which a certain level of accomplishment and happiness could be measured and flaunted. It was not to be missed. Except by those who really, really wanted to give it a pass, like Erin Sweeney.

Erin didn’t have glory days and blissful memories that tempted her to walk down memory lane. Rather, back when she was turning eighteen, she’d had to fend off glances of pity and concern as the high school community became generally aware that she was preparing to have a defective kidney removed.

To anyone who had asked how she was doing, she’d stoically responded that one kidney was all anyone ever really needed. They knew better than to ask what would happen if her remaining kidney should also happen to malfunction. Her life depended on the avoidance of that particular scenario.

When Erin looked back on her high school days, her most vivid recollection was the anxiety she felt over her future and the overwhelming, never-ending feeling of being immersed in a big, overflowing vat of envy. She envied everyone with two healthy kidneys. She envied everyone with just one good healthy kidney. She envied seniors buzzing with their college plans and their dreams of seeing the world.

She envied the girls her age who were not referred to as “the girl with the bad kidneys.” She envied the strength and blooming health of the high school athletes—she had been ordered her entire life to avoid strenuous activities. She envied the unlimited range of dreams and options the other kids had for their careers. Back in those days, there wasn’t a single individual in the entire town whom Erin would not gladly have traded places with. Everyone else’s life sparkled with more happiness, more belonging, more security, and more future.

The greatest upside of high school graduation was no longer having the happiness of her cohorts rubbed in her face. Oh, she knew that they were out there in the world, enjoying nightclubbing, falling in love, travel, marriage, babies, and exciting careers. Most of her peers had left Oyster Cove. Even though it was enjoying newfound prosperity as an artsy touristy boomtown, it still didn’t offer the widest range of high-status positions, and most graduates needed to go further afield to satisfy their ambitions.

From a distance, Erin’s deep envy was allowed to subside, somewhat. She reconciled herself to remaining at home and chose a job that was undemanding, albeit with a decent salary and somewhat flexible hours, as a dental assistant for a semi-retired dentist who only worked three days a week. It gave her enough money to contribute “rent” and expenses to her family, and it didn’t tax her strength. She didn’t want to overextend herself with long hours or a stressful position. She had to baby her remaining kidney, minimize all potential threats to it, and do everything in her power to prevent a second catastrophic failure.

But fail it did, though she was granted another ten years’ reprieve of declining health before the second kidney was finally removed. During the last five years of that time, she was put on an organ transplant waiting list. Unfortunately, kidneys are a hot commodity, the list is miles long, and the best chance of receiving an organ is a direct donation from the compassionate generosity of a relative or friend. And that was where Erin Sweeney’s life most definitely fell short. Though she had a mother, a distant father, and three siblings, none of them took any interest in making the sacrifice to provide her with lifesaving security.

It was a devastating realization. She understood, of course, that even siblings are no guaranteed match for organ transplants. But an elaborate system is currently in place of organ switches, like maybe Erin’s brother’s kidney wasn’t a match for her but was a match for person A. Person A had a friend or cousin or sibling whose kidney wasn’t a match for them but was a match for person B. And person B had a kidney that was a match for . . . Erin. So, three donors would wind up on the operating table, and every transplant recipient would get the kidney that they needed. There have been a large number of these kinds of multi-way operations performed nationwide.

But after Erin’s family regretfully informed her that they were not good organ matches, they didn’t have the enthusiasm for the multi-way organ switch that Erin had hoped for. Instead, they were full of excuses.

Her brother Tom wanted to become a triathlete one day. He’d never be able to accomplish that with just one kidney. Her sister Brianna had to confess that she would feel like less than a complete human being if something that large were removed from her. Her sister Tori wanted to be a beauty queen and did momentarily toy with the idea of how self-sacrificing and admirable a kidney donation would sound to pageant judges. But the scar would absolutely ruin her swimsuit competition.

As for Erin’s mother, Erin had been especially hopeful that maternal instincts would leap to her rescue. But that hope soon withered on the vine, like so many others.

“Without your father here, the security of this family is riding on my shoulders,” her mother huffed. “It would be irresponsible of me to do anything to weaken myself when I have four kids think about.”

“But you’d still have one healthy kidney. It’s a lot different than when I had only one kidney. It was a bad kidney. But one good, healthy kidney can last a long lifetime. That’s what the doctor said,” Erin said, terrified that she was running out of familial options.

“I think we need to just hope for the best, get you on dialysis, and pray that you move to the top of the donor waitlist. We knew . . . we always knew that this was probably what was going to happen. We’ve had a long time to become mentally prepared for this.”

Erin’s mother would have to speak for herself. Dialysis had been Erin’s worst nightmare. The reality of it was unpleasant enough, especially getting used to the needles. But it was the thought of it, the concept of it, the reputation of it. It made people flinch at the sound of it. It made Erin hyperaware of having a defective, dependent body that couldn’t survive on its own for more than a few days. And it was the biggest bucket of cold water that could ever be thrown upon a potential romance.

Politics, religion, and sex are the three forbidden subjects of new acquaintances. To which Eric could easily add dialysis. Of course, she wouldn’t dream of mentioning it on a first date, or even a second. But by the third date, her conscience demanded full disclosure, although she always tried to present the information in a way that minimized its importance.

“It’s not a big deal. I just have to get hooked up three times a week. And I just watch a little television. Catch up on some movies, and it’s over before you know it. It’s not nearly as bad as everyone thinks.”

This information was almost always greeted with a physical leaning away from Erin and a painfully palpable attempt to disguise their revulsion.

“That’s . . . that’s so . . . brave. I really admire you. I really do.”

These expressions of admiration were never followed by another date. If only Erin had gotten a satisfying amount of dating out of her system during her one-kidney years. Or even her two-kidney high school years. But her boyfriends have been few and far between, and of brief duration. It was usually she who ended things, never able to shake the idea that she had been approached by a few insecure boys who thought her options were so few that they were unlikely to be rejected.

Thank goodness almost all of these nanosecond boyfriends had left town. Erin was spared the discomfort of running into them, or any other familiar high school faces, for that matter. But what are the odds of being spared this discomfort indefinitely?

On this particular day, Erin’s inattentive stroll down the boardwalk was punished by running smack into Isabel Ferreira, a hyper-energetic blast from the past, eyes widened with amazement at the sight of Erin.

“Erin Sweeney? Oh, my God. You look . . . gosh. How great to see you again. You’re obviously . . . you’re obviously . . . uh . . . how’s it going?”

It was always pretty transparent when Erin ran into an old schoolmate that they had braced themselves for her early demise. They were often genuinely unnerved to find her still among the living. To their credit, almost all were a bit relieved, although still with far more pity in their expressions than Erin could tolerate. And then when it dawned on them that Erin might try to talk them into a kidney donation, many would beat a hasty exit.

“I’m fine. Just enjoying the good weather that’s finally arrived.”

“So, did you ever get . . .?” Isabel gestured at her own midsection.

“A new kidney? Nope. Still on the waitlist. Just something you have to be patient about.” Erin didn’t want to mention the dialysis. Let Isabel fill in the blanks for herself.

“So, you’re probably wondering what I’m doing in town,” Isabel said teasingly.

“I can’t imagine. Visiting family?” Erin ventured, sure that Isabel was bursting to discuss a more interesting reason.

“I’m the official organizer for Oyster Cove High’s twentieth high school reunion!” Isabel bellowed. “Can you believe it? Oh, I know you must have gotten your invitation in the mail. Didn’t hear from you, and I was worried . . .”

Nope, I’m still alive.

“Well, this is fantastic. You’re here in Oyster Cove and there’s no way that you’re not going to go to the reunion. I’ll come over your place and drag you out if I have to. Everyone is going to be so thrilled to see you.”

Thrilled, meaning equally dumbfounded that I’m still alive?

“June 19. The opening mixer is right at the high school, at the new swimming pool. It’s state of the art, something the whole school will be proud of. And then there will be events all week long. We decided to go all out—lobster bake, bowling nights . . . you should come to everything. Aren’t you so excited to see everyone again?”

No. Nope. Nope. Nope.

“There have been so many marriages and so many babies. Two of my own. Here, let me find a good picture for you. Both girls. Little angels. So, so many pictures. I’ll see if I can find that last birthday party picture.”

Erin was so bad at fake oohing and ahhing over family photos. Why hadn’t she spent just fifteen minutes longer at lunch? Why hadn’t she stopped off at the hardware store to pick up more lightbulbs? What cruel convergence of coincidences conspired to cross her path with Isabel Ferreira’s, who blessedly had thought that Erin was dead? And the dead are not expected to attend reunions. Or to ooh and ahh over other people’s happiness.

“Oh, they’re so . . . adorable.”

“Do you remember Kira Davenport?”

Prom Queen. Hadn’t really been in Erin’s social network.

“Oh, her twins have been earning money as print models! Ever since they were in diapers. Can you believe that? Of course, I’m in Boston now, but if I were in New York, I would’ve done the same thing with my girls. They were so freaking cute when they were in diapers. Here, I think I’ve got some old pictures still on the phone I can show you.”

Erin furiously brainstormed good excuses to be on her way and to worm her way out of the reunion. “Oh, you know, I do actually remember getting that invitation now. I remember that it was $300, wasn’t it? And money is really tight with me right now, so that was why I had to pass on it.”

“This is wonderful! It’s the luckiest coincidence. Invites have been going out now for six months. Nonrefundable. And we just got one cancellation. So, I feel bad for him, but . . . Nonrefundable. So that means there’s a paid for slot that now has your name written all over it. No. Don’t thank me. It is my pleasure. Let me get down all your info. You have a plus one? No? Aww, that’s okay. This is going to be great.”

Gosh, this odious event was actually making dialysis look like an enjoyable evening.

The reunion was still a few weeks away when Erin Sweeney had another and even more momentous encounter during a boardwalk stroll. This one involved her tripping over an uneven break in the sidewalk.

“Hey, are you okay?”

A strong feminine grip helped her to her feet. Erin had expected to see a stranger but it was an oddly familiar face. It was Martine Cadet, the local celebrity weather girl. She had quickly developed a reputation for freakishly accurate weather forecasts. No one would think of planning an outdoor event without checking in with her first.

She even looked like a celebrity—thick dark curls and a luminous brown skin that was such a contrast to Erin’s own pale, still under the influence of winter skin. It was a contrast that made Erin feel . . . well . . . deeply envious. But she couldn’t understand why Martine Cadet was examining her with such fascination.

“Are you, by any chance, scheduled for a kidney transplant?” Martine asked.

“Um . . . do I know you? I mean, of course I do. You’re Martine Cadet. But how do you know me?”

The real answer was messy and complicated, and not one that Martine was in the habit of sharing with anyone. She was a fledgling witch and had acquired her powers through a bone marrow transplant from a woman who, before being murdered, had been Oyster Cove’s most powerful witch. Her name was Lilith Hazelwood and her organs were so potent and infused with her abilities that any time they were transplanted into a human body, some portion of Lilith’s powers bloomed and spread and manifested itself in a multitude of ways. In Martine’s case, she was able to see someone’s future by simply touching them.

Which is why she was now having a flash of Erin’s future and knew that it would involve a transplant of Lilith’s kidneys, as well as the development of some very potent powers of her own.

“I think I’ve got a set of kidneys for you.”

“How can you say that? Because, you know, it has to be a match for my kidneys. Do you mean a match?”

“A perfect match. And I do mean some seriously top-of-the-line kidneys. Would you like to go see my transplant doctor?”

Two lightning-quick hours later, Erin’s surgery was scheduled for the following day, and she went home in a daze to let her family know.

Brianna and Tori still lived at home. Tom had branched out to his own bachelor pad but was home often to catch home-cooked meals. Their mother could only dream of having an empty nest. None of the girls seemed in any hurry to leave, which was understandable, considering high local rent costs.

In addition to that consideration, obviously, Erin had always had health considerations. Perhaps it was her own paranoia, but she had felt in recent years that her family was rather critical of her inability to move out and establish her own home. Especially the two girls still at home, which seemed rather unfair, considering their own inability to cut the apron strings.

One contentious issue a few years back had been her in-home dialysis treatments. Somehow, being in familiar surroundings helped to lower her anxiety about the procedure. But having her perform dialysis in the middle of the living room skeeved her younger siblings out. She’d offered to move it into her bedroom, but its being under the same roof with them was apparently an off-putting proposition.

“It’ll be so much better for everyone if you just go down to do that at the center. It makes this place feel like an infirmary, you know. And besides, what if something goes wrong? Better for you to be around medical professionals when you’re getting that done,” Tori had asserted.

The others concurred, and that was that.

Erin had never been close to any of her siblings—not since the very early years. Perhaps it was because of the age difference. Tom, thirty-one, Brianna, twenty-eight, and Tori, twenty-two, had all been born seven or more years after Erin. And the other three had a different father, which made them half siblings. That really shouldn’t have made a difference. Erin had been there since their first day and had doted on them as babies.

But in their teen years, she’d definitely felt them pulling away from her. Perhaps that was the natural order of things, but it still hurt. It felt as if her poor health was casting a gloomy cloud over the family and they resented it.

At least today, she would have good news to share. Incredible news. Life-changing, life- saving news.

It was wonderful to see the joy and surprise on their faces.

“I’ve been praying for this for over twenty years,” her mother exclaimed.

“Wow! You’re finally going to be able to have your own life!”

Well, it’s been a pretty crappy life, but it was certainly my own. What?

“You can finally move into your own place. I bet you can’t wait.”

Huh? I hadn’t even thought that far. Um, who can’t wait?

“How long is it going to take you to recover? You’re not gonna need our help, will you?”

What if I do? Just for little while?

“Oh, my God. I thought you’d still be here till you were seventy. Poor Mom!”

Poor Mom? I’m the dialysis queen with no kidneys.

“There are openings in Tom’s apartment building, aren’t there, Tom? You start working full-time hours now and you’ll be able to afford it, no problem.”

Again, that’s getting a little ahead of myself.

“Wait a minute. Kinda need my space. There are plenty of other apartment buildings in town,” Tom protested.

The overall mood was celebratory, but Erin wasn’t sure they were all on the same page about the cause for celebration. She was going to be normal and healthy and no longer have a body that let her down. Her family was already mentally redecorating and repurposing her room. She sat incredulously through a debate on whether it should become a craft room or a mini-gym. Tori had swimsuit competitions to prepare for. The gym won.