Imogen Taylor: Artist. College dropout. Gamer. Screwup.
I had big plans for art school in California, but when the best mom in the world—mine—needed help, I came home to Arbolito, Arizona instead. I even got my old high school job back, making smoothies at the Desert Freeze…in winter.
So, yeah, by day, my life is a cold, tropical-hued hell. But at night, I escape reality by plugging into my favorite video game, Legendelirium, to become a powerful, sexy witch, going on epic quests while vanquishing baddies.
Until a cute guy from my gaming world shows up at work, gives me the worst kiss ever, and my reality and fantasy lives get blended by purple goo laced with lethal, nanorobotic technology.
Now, I’ve got powers—strange, witchy ones. Scary people are after me, and I don’t know who to trust. And, get this. Somehow, it’s up to me to defeat them, or it’s game over.
Enter the fast, fun, urban fantasy adventure of the BUTTERFLY WITCH series, where magic and science become one—mostly accidentally.
* This is a standalone first book in the brand-new BUTTERFLY WITCH series. Contains swearing, some intense action scenes (low gore), super-slow-burn romantic interest (also low gore), and does not end on a cliffhanger—but, yeah, there’s more to come! *
A towering black-cloaked monolith of a man stalked me through my dreams. I ran, but too slow, my steps and my heart pounding to the ominous beat of The Imperial March…
I cracked an eyelid, fumbled for my phone, and swiped my thumb across the clock app. Shit. Somehow I’d snoozed Darth Vader twice already and now had only fifteen minutes left before the start of my shift as manager at the Desert Freeze. I swung my feet to the floor.
And I stepped on Gwumpki.
With a vicious hiss, the ugly brown monster with his cabbage-green eyes buried all twenty-one claws in my bare ankle.
I yelped and flinched back, accidentally flipping the damned polydactyl menace—still clinging to my foot—up onto the mattress. For one yowling heartbeat, I was tangled in fleece blanket, various wires trailing to my gaming system, and half-feral feline. “Motherf—”
A rap at the door. “Imogen! Are you up? You’re going to be late for work.”
As if I didn’t know that. “I’m up.” Sort of, but not like anybody was watching.
The damn cat had probably sneaked in yesterday while I was at work, hunkered down while I gamed all night, just so he could attack me this morning while I was weak.
I wriggled my foot out of his clutches after one last, nasty scratch across the back of my hand. Under the blanket, Gwumpki growled, brown tail lashing across my phone.
I snatched the 3G embarrassment of a phone out from behind him. “Hate you too.”
In the bathroom, the menthol odor of Mom’s CBD cream was almost as sharp as claws in my nose. She must’ve had a hard night, but I hadn’t heard anything through my headphones. Guilt bit into me even harder.
Holding my breath, I peed, washed my hands, slicked my wet fingers through my hair to pull every long brown strand into a ponytail per the Desert Freeze employee handbook rules, and tugged on jeans and yesterday’s “Freeze Your Life Away!” t-shirt. It wasn’t that dirty.
Except for the smear of blood. But that was fresh. “Dammit, Gwump.” I swabbed at the stain, mostly making it bigger.
“Imogen! Breakfast is ready!”
“Coming.” The thick sizzle-smell of scrambled eggs and veg was like quick-set concrete I had to wade through down the hall to the kitchen. I checked my texts, saw the one last night from Swann, and quickly stuffed the phone in my back pocket. Ugh, couldn’t think about that right now.
“No time to eat, Mom.” I grabbed a travel mug from the drying rack next to the sink and poured myself half the coffee.
“If you didn’t stay up so late…” Coming around the end of the kitchen counter, she held out a small container. The reusable plastic was scarred from thousands of baked zitis over the decade that she’d been a psychiatric nurse on the late shift. “You can’t keep playing your life away, Imogen.”
“I’ll just grab something from work,” I said as I backed away from the leftovers.
Her shuffling steps were too slow to catch me, and I darted out of the kitchen, grabbing my bag from the low table in the front hall. It was like high school all over again.
“Have a good day,” she called from the kitchen. “Love you, honey.”
“Love you too.” But I was already shutting the door between us.
The chilly desert morning air was like a slap in the face—one of those light slaps an evil lord gives his soon-to-be-dead minion, halfway between amused and alarming. Not that Arbolito, Arizona had a lot of evil lords. It didn’t have a lot of anything besides strip malls. Mom bought half the Mission Revival duplex in this suburban subdivision for its magnet school, not its originality.
Not that it ever got that chilly. But fifties was cold enough for my thin blood that I wished I was still snuggled in my fleecy blanket.
Except Gwumpki was there, wrapped up like the ground chuck cabbage roll he was named after. And now I had, like, ten minutes to get to work.
With a sigh, I balanced the coffee in the crook of my arm while I wrestled with the Fiesta’s finicky lock. Wouldn’t it just be my luck if the key broke off?
The top popped off the travel mug, and black coffee sloshed…
But I caught it with just a tiny splash across the back of my claw-marked hand. “Ha!” No caffeine lost.
It’s the little victories in life that matter.
And I made it to the Desert Freeze with two minutes to spare.
As manager, I was supposed to model a good work ethic for the other employees. According to the handbook. How I wished I didn’t know the handbook so well, but two years of working there in high school and now my humiliating return post not quite two years of college meant I knew everything about the pastel-painted box at the corner of I-Gotta-Get-Out-of-This-Place Street and I’m-Gonna-Die-Here-Aren’t-I Avenue.
Back when I was in high school, the extra money had paid for the gaming components I wanted without having to argue with Mom about the expense. Now, the raise that came with my manager nametag meant we didn’t lose the house.
And I was close enough to get home in minutes if Mom needed me. The last time she’d fallen, I’d been at school in LA, ten long Greyhound hours away. If the snowbird neighbors on the other half of the duplex hadn’t heard her yelling… Well, they’d be leaving in a few months, before the heat, going back to their summer home on Lake Superior.
Meanwhile, I’d be staying here.
Rique was standing by the Freeze’s front door as I parked, his pastel freezie-swirl shirt tucked in and baseball hat pulled low on his forehead, staring hard in my direction. Ready to go was Rique.
I rolled my eyes. Everyone knew Rique was gunning for my job. How I wished I could give it to him.
I took a long drink from my coffee before getting out of the car and sauntering toward him. He checked his watch—who wears a watch anymore?—before glancing back at me. “Morning, boss.”
He could’ve flipped me off instead and I wouldn’t have blamed him. I was a terrible boss, no question.
But Shirleen, the owner, liked me. She’d cried when I told her about Mom’s accident and begged for my old job back. I might’ve been crying a little too because I just didn’t know what to do with all the scary second and third notices piling up on the kitchen counter. Shirleen put the keys to the Desert Freeze in my hand and smeared my cheek with a violent pink lipstick kiss.
I was a “good girl.” Her words.
I didn’t feel good. Standing in front of this place I’d been so sure I’d never see again, I felt evil.
“Start with the fruit and veg prep,” I told Rique as I unlocked the door.
Another day in pastel-hued hell.
First came the gym rats with their endorphin-fueled get-up-and-go. They kept me busy enough bending out the drive-thru window with their matcha and pear smoothies that I didn’t have to think too much. A couple of hours in, I traded spots with Rique so he could handle the moms shouting their orders for extra celery or cucumber over their screaming kids too young for preschool. The teenagers wouldn’t hit until early afternoon, begging for extra shots and sprinkles. Once upon a time, the place had served only crushed ice in three colors. But everything had to change with the times.
In a lull, I went outside and called home. My hands smelled like bananas. My shirt was splattered with raspberry juice, and so were my Vans. At least now I couldn’t tell which was the blood stain.
Mom’s speech came slow and sleepy as she told me about the true crime murder mystery she’d borrowed from the library. I cursed under my breath. We’d been rationing those pills since the doc said he couldn’t give us any more. I didn’t know if I was worried for her or worried for me. What would happen when the pills were all gone?
When she said “Love you, honey” again, I ended the call with “Yeah.”
The notification for Swann’s text was still on the screen: Heyoo! Just found out all the interns here are getting sent to LA next week for a few days to prep for a show. Need my Mojimo fix! Can you get away from classes? Miss you <3
Okay, yeah, I’d been avoiding my best friend. ‘Cause, see, I wasn’t at the Laguna College of Art + Design anymore. I was still here, back where we’d been kids together. Avoiding reality, one day at a time.
Swann would understand about my mom, of course. But she’d also say optimistic things like this was just a temporary glitch in my digital design dreams. Or she’d urge me to find a way to get my art out there anyway. Out there was the idea that I had any creativity left after working all day at the street edge of a strip mall.
My only out these days was gaming from the time I got home from work until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. And hope I didn’t dream at all.
And it just so happened that some people—a rare, lucky few, yeah—made money from gaming, live-streaming while they did it. The best I could hope for was to become one of those. I had thirty-nine followers so far, including a troll and the fake account I set up for my mom. If I told Swann, I’d break forty. So, hey, upside.
It was time to fess up. My thumbs were poised over my phone screen’s keyboard.
I’m still in AZ with Mom
All I had to do was hit the arrow to send…but I just didn’t wanna. I knew what would happen. She’d text back for details. Then call me. Or worse, call my mom. And as my soul had been blended into the last round of avocado-chia seed-honey-yogurt smoothies, I didn’t have the strength to go into it all.
I held down delete until the cursor ate my words. And tried again.
I need my Swann too. Must chat soon but can’t right now. I hesitated, then added, BTW, I met a boy
It was what politicians called a pivot. More like a pirouette in this case. Overkill? It was true. Sorta. Maybe. A MageLord calling himself SunSummoner gamed at night, too, and he lived not forty-five minutes away in downtown Phoenix. Small world.
We’d messaged on Discord, mostly, and Snapchatted a few times. He was cute in a pale, tall and skinny, geeky way. His real name was Brayden Price. He seemed to like me. If we could get in close proximity, there might be some chemistry between us.
I hit the arrow and waited a beat. And then, as I expected, my phone went off.
See, my life didn’t suck so bad. Not in texts anyway.
A gif came in—a cartoon couple with big heads and pounding hearts for eyes.
Too soon, I typed back.
Another gif—a naked butt gyrating—filled my screen.
First date pending. I’ll keep you posted
That would hold her for now, but I had to come clean before she went to LA next week. A week in freezie time might as well be a year, but I had a feeling the days were going to fly by fast.
Gotta go or my phone will be confiscated, I typed. Confiscated by me, the manager of the Desert Freeze.
When I got back inside, Amanda had shown up—I checked the time on my phone—forty minutes late for her shift. Her makeup was perfect, dark hair curled in a side pony, lemon-yellow tee knotted at the base of her ribs to show a band of skin above her high-rise jeans.
She had her excuse ready. “I had an Earth Day Club meeting after school.”
I stared at her.
“The environment is very important to me.”
The Freeze was slow in January. Come May, when the cars wrapped around the kiosk, exhaust fumes strangling us, I couldn’t afford to put up with lateness, environment be damned.
“Try to call next time and let me know,” I said. Very managerial. “To help you remember, you can start with cleaning out the mixers.”
It was a bitch of a task, and I was just the bitch to assign it.
Her gaze went dull, as if she were deeply, incredibly bored, but she shuffled into the back.
Kids these days.
Movement outside had me turning around. A car was pulling into one of the Freeze’s few parking spaces. Unless the drive-thru line was too long—and that only happened in summer—people rarely came inside. We had two tiny tables on the public side of the counter, and employees on break mostly used them to eat or do homework.
I squinted to see better as a guy quickly got out of the car.
Tall. Pale. A sandy-brown mop of fine hair. Looked kinda like a cute computer geek.
I almost didn’t recognize him without the Snapchat filters. Brayden.