“I’m sorry,” he said, softly, stepping back out of range. “I can’t deal with this.”
“I know,” I told him. “It’s all right. I can barely deal with it. I’m sorry I lied to you.”
He stepped back to the kitchen table, slumping against it. “No, no, I should have guessed, I suppose. Your family took this far too seriously to be faking it,” he said, staring off into space.
A long, heavy silence hung in the air between us.
“So . . .” he started. “As far as breakup stories go, this will be different from my friends’ tales of sad-face text messages and requests that we ‘still be friends.’ ”
“Do you still want to be friends?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No.”
“All right, then.”
Stephen had questions, lots of them. I answered as many as I could without telling him about the Elements or the Kerrigans. I had the feeling that might make his head explode. By the time we finished talking, it was two A.M., and I felt guilty asking him to leave. He was calm and collected. He was Stephen, Lord of Rational Thought. So I made up the couch for him to sleep on.
The next morning, I heard him up before I rose. He left without saying good-bye. Not that I could blame him. This was an awkward way to end a relationship. I will say that he was classy until the end. He folded up the blankets and placed them at the foot of the couch. Nothing in the house was disturbed. We were over.
At least, that’s what I thought.
Without the distraction of Jed and with no leads at the shop, I threw myself into working at the clinic. I learned all of the patients’ names, their family histories, how they fit into the puzzle that was the Hollow community. It was nice interacting with normal people in a normal way, no magic, no intrigue. Dr. Hackett was no friendlier than he’d ever been, but he seemed to respect my skills.
Jed didn’t return to the house for nearly a week. He didn’t call. I didn’t see his truck parked outside. One might think this would be a good thing, that his absence would help me forgive and forget. But the less I saw him, the angrier I got. And then, of course, he did come home (to find a less-than-legal eviction notice on his door), and he was careful to avoid me. But every morning, I would find on my doorstep beautiful spherical bunches of little blue flowers—hydrangea—with a note that said, “I’m sorry.”
I took an inhuman amount of glee in practicing my mental firestarter powers on the flowers and leaving the wreckage on his doorstep. Efforts to confront him directly were met with silence and darkened windows. The man was far sneakier than I gave him credit for.
Unfortunately, my floral abuse resulted in overexerting myself, and I ended up draining myself completely for a few days. I was out of balance in so many ways, and it was definitely affecting the reliability of my powers. Some days, I nearly set the porch aflame with Jed’s floral offering, and others, I could barely warm a mug of water.
I redirected my anger into cleaning rather than pyromania, so the shop and the clinic were spotless. Well, the lobby and the reception area were spotless. Dr. Hackett didn’t need me to clean his office. Why he could keep that room perfectly organized but not the rest of building, I had no idea.
My energy continued to alternate between bottoming out and spiking at inopportune moments, like water sloshing over a dam. No lightbulb, ceramic cup, or window was safe around me. Jane informed me that destroying one shop window in a fit of witchy temper was written into my employment contract, but I would have to pay for the next one. This was odd, considering that I didn’t remember signing an employment contract. In hopes of finding some way to rid myself of Penny’s binding, I started reading more books from Jane’s shop on magic and psychic senses, faith healing, and holistic medicine. I read about magical bindings and how to undo them, noting how important psychology was to the process. I found several location spells, but they involved darker magic than I was willing to attempt. Whoever first looked at baby teeth and thought, “You know what, these could have magical applications,” was a sick, sick person.
I decided to try something counterintuitive. I stopped actively searching for the Elements. So far, Fire and Earth had fallen into my lap through bizarre coincidence, the latter accompanied by a sort of life lesson. (Never trust attractive, shirtless men in pickup trucks.) So instead of trying to force the issue, I was going to go with the flow.
For three days. And then I would go right back to my obsessive ways.
I had two weeks left. Two weeks, and I could go home. I missed my family with an ache so acute it sometimes stopped my breath. I would never take them for granted again. I would never again wish for Uncle Seamus to be struck dumb during football season. Or for Penny to stop trying to charm me into a happy love life. I wouldn’t wish for silence or solitude, because I’d had plenty of both since I’d arrived in the Hollow. They weren’t all they were cracked up to be. And I wouldn’t wish to be normal, because that was something I would never be. I was a witch. And as soon as I accepted that, my life would get easier—or whatever qualified as easier for a girl with magical powers and vampire relatives.
Of course, in keeping with the rules governing lost car keys and remote controls, the moment I stopped looking so desperately for the Elements, one of them fell right into my lap.
It had been a long day at the clinic, involving everything from stitches to psoriasis to a six-year-old who had managed to lodge a tiny Lego component in his ear. I locked the front doors to the lobby, shut down my computer, and shuffled my way back to Dr. Hackett’s office on tired, aching feet. Still, there was a smile on my face. I was happiest when I was working with patients, and I’d worked with a multitude that day.
Tugging a pen from my loosely twisted hair, I knocked on the door and poked my head into his office. “Dr. Hackett, I have those supply forms ready for your signature. By the way, some of the things you were trying to order are no longer manufactured. We’ve come a long way since leeches and quinine.”
“Smart-ass,” he muttered as I handed over the files.
“And the mail,” I added, placing the scant stack of letters on the lovely green leather blotter. Dr. Hackett was definitely old-school in terms of desk accessories. On one side of the blotter, he had arranged an aged Montblanc pen and a large glass globe paperweight. On the other, he had an antique silver picture frame, holding a picture of four young men sitting around a card table.
He reached into his drawer and pulled out a letter opener.
A letter opener with a long silver blade, a black enamel handle, and a milky blue stone set in the hilt.
“Sonofabitch!” I cried, staring at the athame as it flashed in the light.
Dr. Hackett jumped at my oath, dropping the blade onto his desk.
“I’ve been working down the hall from it all these weeks?” I exclaimed.
Dr. Hackett raised an eyebrow. “Beg pardon?”
I cleared my throat. “Dr. Hackett, where did you get that letter opener?”
Dr. Hackett glanced down at the athame, and his papery cheeks flushed. I glanced at the photo and realized that I recognized one of the figures in the photograph. “Dr. Hackett, did you know Gilbert Wainwright?”
Dr. Hackett grinned sheepishly. “Yes, we were classmates at Half-Moon Hollow High. We played cards every week with our buddies, Jimmy Mayhew and Bob Puckett.” He nodded toward the framed photo. “I found the letter opener at Gilbert’s shop, mixed in with some antiques, right after he died,” he said. “Miss Jane was clearing out the storeroom at the time, and there were boxes all over the store. It seemed like something that someone should hold on to, that it was special to Gilbert, or should have been. So I offered Jane a good price for it. I don’t think she wanted to sell it to me. She wasn’t finished with her inventory, and she wasn’t sure where the knife had come from. And I may have played the ‘old friend’ card a little bit. To be honest, I haven’t felt right about taking it since the moment I walked out the door, but I thought returning it would seem silly. I hardly ever take it out of the desk.”
She said she’d never seen it before! I was going to kill Jane Jameson-Nightengale.
“Would you mind if I took it back to the shop? It’s part of a personal collection, and we’ve been looking for it for some time. I can reimburse you whatever you paid for it,” I said.
He pursed his lips into a frown. “Why would you want it?”
He stared at me for a long time, studying my face. “Consider it a thank-you gift,” he said, pressing the hilt into my hand. “You have been a great help to me here in the clinic. And now I don’t have to get you flowers when you leave.”
I threw my arms around him in a fierce hug.
“You must really like knives,” he said, patting my back hesitantly. “Go on, have a good night.”
I raced to my desk, pulled an unbleached cloth out of my purse, and wrapped it around the blade. Three down. I’d found three Elements. Maybe if I wandered through random car parks in the Hollow, I would eventually trip over the bell.
“Thank you, Dr. Hackett!” I called.
“Good night, Nola,” he responded, sticking his head out of his office doorway. “And Nola?”
I paused on my dash to the front door.
Dr. Hackett grinned at me. “You have his eyes.”
“Jane! You’ll never believe it!” I called, racing into the shop. The door was unlocked, but I couldn’t see anyone on the sales floor, which was unusual. It was only 10:20. Someone had turned off all of the lights, with the exception of the track lights over the coffee bar. “Hey? What’s with the lights? If you close up shop, it’s a good idea to lock the door, you know!”
No response. I glanced down at the security-system panel over the light switch. It was scorched black, as if someone had zapped it with a cattle prod. In the darkened shop interior, the brass fixtures of the coffee machine dully reflected the street lamps. I reached for the light switch, and the hair on my arms rose. Before my fingers could make contact with the switchplate, I was nearly doubled over at the sudden throbbing pain in my head. It felt as if someone had kicked me across the temple with a steel-toed boot. Dizzy and sick, I swayed into the shop, bracing myself against the surface of a coffee table.
I heard a soft, wet moan from behind the coffee bar. I struggled to move my feet forward. There was someone here, someone in pain. I mentally shielded myself to keep from being incapacitated by the person’s pain.
“Jane?” I whispered, dropping the athame on the bar.
I turned the corner to find a slim male form with sandy hair.
“Zeb!” I shouted, dropping to my knees next to his crumpled body. He lay on his side, curled inward. His face was battered and bloody. His knuckles were bruised and swollen, as if he’d managed to fight back. I placed gentle hands on his shoulders, and suddenly, he was coughing and heaving, blood dribbling from his lips.
“Shh.” I pressed my hands gently against his ribs, trying to discern cracks or breaks. The blood appeared to be from a smashed lip and not any rupture to his lungs. “Try not to move too much.”
“Somebody hit me from behind,” he wheezed. “But I got a few swings in. One. I got one swing in.”
“Someone hit you over the head? How many times?” I asked. I crouched over him, examining him thoroughly.
“Don’t know,” he said.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on his body, bones, heart, lungs. He was bruised and battered, but nothing seemed torn. Still, I wanted him to be checked over. I could be missing something. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911, barking out the address and a brief description of Zeb’s injuries.
I placed my hand over his head and tried to picture his brain, the tiny networks of nerves and veins, the bones of his skull. I pictured smooth, solid bone and healthy tissue, but I couldn’t seem to settle long enough to send any energy his way. I could feel the heat gathering underneath my skin, but I couldn’t direct it outward. I shook my hands, as if they were faulty cigarette lighters, and tried again. But the magical signature was even weaker.