Dick’s strange attentions were another sore point. I’d tried to talk to Jane about the renovations to my house and whether Dick’s intentions were honorable. But she only assured me that I was perfectly safe, but she’d promised Dick that she’d let him talk to me himself. I found this to be cryptic and unhelpful.
If I were home, I would have taken a walk down to the cliffs to clear my head with cold sea air and blessed quiet. In the Hollow, I had only the somewhat decrepit area surrounding the shop. So I wandered the streets in the late-afternoon sun, worrying over my problems like a surreal jigsaw puzzle.
What was I doing wrong? Did the magical world smell the stink of desperation on me? Generations before me had found the Elements. But they’d searched as pilgrims, with open, curious hearts. Was I so slow to progress because I was too businesslike in the approach? Or should I be even less sentimental? Approach the issue like one of those crime procedural programs with spreadsheets and forensics and such?
Early one evening, after I cleared the block, I turned right and slowed my pace. The light was warm and pleasant. And the fresh, book-dust-free outdoors was a definite plus. I couldn’t say I was comfortable with the neighborhood, all darkened storefronts and abandoned streets, but I was wearing sturdy shoes and jeans. I could outrun a bloody cheetah if startled properly.
It was interesting to see how the dividing line of commercial success ended at Paxton Avenue. On the opposite side of the intersection, I could see a prosperous town square, with restaurants and quaint little shops. But in this area, there was little bustling besides Jane’s shop. The consignment shop on Prescott was flanked by a defunct comic-book store and an empty barber shop. The one business with lights blazing was a corner store that looked as if it had once been an eyewear shop. It now displayed a sign advertising “Half-Moon Hollow Community Walk-In Clinic. Services Free.”
I walked closer to the door, where a small yellowed sign read, “Help Wanted,” in bold red letters. I pushed the door open to find . . . complete feckin’ chaos. I was bombarded by the sensations of nausea and chills rolling off of the crowded waiting room. There were women lined up five deep at the registration desk, with no nurse to check them in. Children sat slumped against chairs lining the walls, listless and pale, scratching halfheartedly at reddish spots on their arms and legs. One boy had stuffed his head into the wastebasket and was puking for all he was worth. It took me a minute of deep breathing to keep myself from rushing to the wastebasket and tossing my own breakfast.
It was after eight P.M. Every single child in this room had chicken pox. Everybody was talking at once, demanding answers, demanding that someone come out and help them. And no one seemed to be in charge.
Finally, a situation I was prepared for.
“Right.” I rolled up my sleeves and slipped in past the door marked “Staff Only.”
Down the hall, I could hear an older man’s voice as he told a Mrs. Loomis to keep Tyler hydrated and covered in calamine lotion and to give him a cool bath if his fever spiked. I assumed this was the doctor, so at least we had that going for us. I rummaged through the mess of papers until I found a sign-in sheet. At the sight of someone who seemed to know what was happening, the would-be patients and their mothers surged forward, surrounding me like something out of an itchy zombie movie.
“Excuse me,” I called over the din of questions and complaints. “Excuse me, if everybody would please just—” No one was listening to me. They were too busy attempting to storm the registration desk. Finally, I yelled, “Oy!” over the noise. “Oy! If everybody would just shut it for a moment and line up like good boys and girls, we will be able to get everybody signed up to see the doctor as quickly as possible. Now, if you haven’t filled out an intake form, I suggest you do so right now.”
For a moment, everybody just stared at me as if I were speaking Greek.
And then one mother handed her son off to a woman I assumed was his grandmother, marched over to a desk behind me, and found some clipboards. Two more mothers searched through their enormous purses until they found ink pens and distributed them to the others. Eventually, a single-file line was formed, and I managed to determine which kids were worst off. Every time a patient emerged from the doctor’s office, I sent another kid down the hall.
This was a different, more frustrating experience than working in my clinic. Despite cousin Ralph’s illegal efforts, I wasn’t licensed in the state of Kentucky and couldn’t practice there. I wasn’t covered by the clinic’s malpractice insurance. So I could not ethically make any sort of judgment calls regarding patients. I couldn’t so much as slap a Band-Aid on a boo-boo. I could, however, place my hands over some of the lesser cases’ foreheads when their parents registered them, and if their fevers happened to drop before they went back to the exam room, what a wonderful coincidence that would be.
Eventually, the waiting-room crowd dwindled to a half-dozen children. A frazzled-looking elderly man in a white coat wandered behind the registration desk. Well, his coat was white once upon a time. There was a distinct orangey splash across the breast pocket, almost obscuring the swirly embroidery that read, “R. Hackett, MD.”
The good doctor was what Penny would have called a silver fox, or he would have been, if he’d had a full head of hair. He had a perfectly trimmed salt-and-pepper Van Dyke and a head as bald as an egg. He was wrinkled and wizened but cute as a button, with steely-gray eyes and a tanned face with distinct laugh lines.
Dr. Hackett’s eyes narrowed when he saw me sitting behind the desk, sorting the various reports into piles. “Who the hell are you?”
Maybe those weren’t laugh lines.
“Nola,” I said, reaching out to shake his hand. “Leary. I am a nurse practitioner, and I run a small family clinic in my hometown. I’m here on an extended visit. But I know how to move people through a waiting room. You were drowning. I threw you a lifeline. You’re welcome.”
Dr. Hackett cast a glance around the desk and scowled. “Did you move things?”
“Yes,” I said, looking around at the neat stacks of files and papers. “Lots of them.”
He frowned at me. “Are you mentally unstable, a drug user, a gossip, or looking for a senior-citizen sugar daddy to keep you in spray tanning and designer purses?”
“No, to all of those,” I said, shaking my head.
“We haven’t been open this late in ten years, but one of the local day cares had a chicken-pox outbreak like a biblical plague. I’ve been on my feet for sixteen hours, and I’m too damn old for that, let me tell you. We normally open at eight A.M. and close at five P.M. Does that work for you?”
“I’ll pay you. It won’t be much. We’re funded through donations from different civic groups, but the budget does provide a small stipend for clerical support. In the future, try not to move things without asking first,” he griped, and called for his next patient.
Did he just hire me? Did I even want to work here? Would I treat patients, or would I stick to administrative work? What would my hours be? Would it interfere with my search for the Elements? Exactly how much was not much in terms of payment?
“Don’t you want to see some references?” I asked as he moved down the hall. “Some identification? Anything?”
“We’ll get to it later,” he said, waving me off.
I sat back in the half-padded office chair, which was apparently mine now.
“First, Jane falls into her job at the bookshop, and now, this,” I muttered. “Doesn’t anyone do job interviews in this town?”
No happy story has ever included the words “Ouija board.”
—A Guide to Traversing the Supernatural Realm
Although I was sweaty, disheveled, and drained, I was serenely happy as Miranda’s car rolled up the driveway to the Victorian just before one A.M. I’d stayed at the clinic long after the last patient had been released, clearing off the front desk and putting the waiting room back to rights. Dr. Hackett had given me keys after I filled out my employment paperwork. After informing me that everything valuable or prescribable had been locked up tight and that this was a test of my character, he marched out the front door at midnight.
And then, because I’d left my car keys on the counter in the bookshop and was embarrassed to admit such a blunder to an exhausted Dr. Hackett, I’d called Miranda. To my surprise, my favorite chauffeur to the undead was already awake. She’d done the “lost keys/embarrassing emergency walk of shame” enough times that she was happy to help out another damsel in frequent distress.
“You’re just lucky I keep vampire hours,” she told me. “And that Collin is in the middle of a History Channel marathon on the War of 1812 on his TiVo. I love him dearly, but I will use any excuse to get out of watching that.”
“I am ever so grateful to serve as that excuse,” I told her, closing my eyes and resting my head against the seat rest.
My bones ached. My feet were screaming. There were substances I preferred not to think about on my clothes. And I was dozing off in the front seat of Miranda’s SUV. All I wanted to do was shower and crawl into bed.
“Wow,” I heard Miranda say from the driver seat. I opened my eyes and saw her staring through the windshield, her expression one of delighted awe.
My own mouth fell open in astonishment. It was the first time I’d seen the house in its fully refurbished state. My home looked like something out of a fairy tale. The siding had been replaced and painted a fresh, vibrant yellow that shone in the weak light of the fingernail moon. The roof had been reshingled. The porch had been painted to match the trim. Dick’s work crews had added flower boxes to the railing, bursting with a profusion of pansies in yellow, purple, and white.
I knew about the changes to the interior. My rooms had been painted a cheerful pale pink. The dark wood and gothic wall sconces had been replaced with what Andrea called comfy farmhouse chic. The huge bank of cabinets in the kitchen was gone, and in its place was an old-fashioned tin-front pie safe. The appliances were new, and the tub upstairs no longer threatened to fall through the ceiling. The remaining cabinets had been painted white and artistically distressed. I’d drawn the line at Dick buying me new bedroom furniture. I was truly frightened by the prospect of what he would choose.
I climbed out of the car, marveling at the changes Jed’s crew had made. “Thanks, Miranda!”
“No problem, babe,” she called. “There’s a whole series of specials on the Spanish American War next week. Call anytime.”
I waved at her as she backed out of the driveway, then returned to staring at the house in the moonlight.
“You know, you keep your mouth open like that, you’re gonna catch mosquitoes.”
My jaw snapped shut. I turned to find Jed, wearing an actual shirt with sleeves, standing in his front door.
“I thought that was flies.”
He smirked. “Not around here.”
“You do beautiful work,” I told him. “It’s just gorgeous altogether.”
“Thanks,” he said, his smile boyish and pleased as we circled each other. “We’re finished here and movin’ on to Dick’s house. Andrea saw some of the things Sam did here and wants them for their house, too. It’s roofin’ tomorrow, which means an early start before the hottest part of the day. It’s a shame. I liked being able to take my coffee breaks in my own kitchen. So what have you been up to? I haven’t seen you in a few days.”
“I accidentally started a new job tonight.”
He frowned. “Accidentally?”
“It was totally unintentional. I fell right into it.”
“Oh, honey, you didn’t answer one of those ads on Craigslist, did you?” he said, his eyes wide and intentionally shocked.