“Are you telling me you fell off your undead boyfriend while having sex and landed against a nightstand, bruising your ribs?”
She shook her head. “I blew the dismount.”
“I don’t think I want the details of his dismount,” I said, laughing. I held my hand against her ribs as she snickered in response. The bones felt sound. It would be a simple enough thing to heal, but I needed to stay under the radar. So I gave her my best serious, professional expression and told her, “Ice and ibuprofen. Deep-breathing exercises and gentle stretching if you feel up to it. Just take it easy. If the pain gets worse or it becomes difficult to breathe, go to your doctor right away.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief as we climbed into the car. “I was really afraid I’d done myself permanent damage this time. What do I owe you for the consult?”
“Tell Collin to be more careful with his breakable girlfriend,” I told her as she blushed crimson again. “You shameless sex maniac.”
As Miranda started the car and backed out of the car park, I waited for her to relaunch her verbal barrage. But in her embarrassment, she seemed to be concentrating on maneuvering the car safely, so I took advantage of the silence. I breathed deeply, trying to center my thoughts and regain the energy it had taken to check Miranda’s ribs.
Being a medical empath was not an easy gift. Often, when I came across people with medical problems, I felt a “tug” of pressure in my own body reflecting the area of their body where they were ailing. And I came across a lot of people with medical problems. And sometimes, if I did nothing to heal them, or at least talk to them about how to improve their problem, the pressure would get worse, and I would get sick myself.
My gift was the reason I couldn’t practice in a large hospital setting. The discomfort and “tugging” were so draining that I would keel over by the end of the day. It was easy to spend time with Stephen because he was a health nut who rarely came down with so much as a cold.
Being a hereditary witch is like inheriting frizzy hair or an unfortunate nose. I had no choice in the matter. For my family, witchcraft wasn’t quite a religion. It simply was. It was part of our lives, the way we saw and interacted with the world. I couldn’t turn it off, no matter how I tried. Believe me, I tried. I couldn’t always control it. And there was nothing I could do, take, or try to make my ability easier to use. Sometimes it was particularly embarrassing, trying to broach the topic of sensitive medical problems with people who didn’t want to discuss such things with complete strangers. But Miranda seemed happy with the outcome of our conversation, and I don’t think I’d heard a story more embarrassing than hers.
In some cases, it would have been easier to use magic to heal my patients. But I’d learned that illness had a purpose. Bodies have to go through the pain to get to the good part, the healing. It’s the payment portion of the process and shouldn’t be skipped over.
My relationship with magic was complicated. At one time, I had been Nana Fee’s prize student. Like most witches, I had a smattering of talent in most magical areas but excelled in a particular skill. In my case, I was a gifted healer. My instruction started at a later age than that of most of my cousins, but I had taken to it like a duck to water. The problem was that I had a little too much “oomph,” an erratic excess energy. When I tried a simple exercise intended to restore a withered mint plant to its former glory, I overdid it on the roots, which grew so spectacularly that they burst the pot and peppered the walls with shattered clay and potting soil. And then there were the fires. After that, I limited myself to harmless glamours and spells that made everyday life a little easier. I was too timid to try advanced spells, because I could pose a threat to myself or others.
I tended to limit friendships to members of my family or the village, because I could never quite trust outsiders with “everything.” Either they’d think I was bonkers and drop me, or they’d want to use me to their own ends—quick fixes to money problems or love spells, which frankly never worked the way people hoped. I lost more boyfriends than I cared to admit over the years, because my abilities drove them away. If I lost my temper, things tended to explode. And then there was the boyfriend who was stupid enough to contract an infection when he cheated and then got indignant at me for “spying” on him using my empathy. Not to mention that shared psychic itching was just disgusting. Even the men who had no problem with my family’s history became suspicious of whether I was using spells on them. Were their feelings for me real, they wondered, or the result of a potion? Eventually, they got tired of wondering and left.
Magic always muddied the waters. There was only so much “weird” that men could take, even the ones who claimed to be open-minded. And so when I’d met Stephen months before, and he turned out to be someone I thought could be “the one,” I’d decided against using magic anywhere near him. I saw Stephen as my chance at a seminormal life. He was a straight, single, employed, functional adult who was also sweet, considerate, smart, and funny. He had treated me with nothing but kindness since meeting me at a nursing conference in Dublin the previous year. (His brokerage firm was holding a summit at the same hotel.) He remembered my birthday and sent me a huge bouquet of roses for Saint Valentine’s. Coming from a family where sensible was in short supply, that was incredibly attractive. We’d heard that men like him existed, but actually laying eyes on one in person was a once-in-a-lifetime event. He was the Sasquatch of boyfriends.
Stephen always said he knew what he wanted and how to get it. I was just grateful that he wanted me. Stephen said he wanted to marry me, to raise a family with me. And the way he described our life together in a sweet suburban house with a play set in the back garden, it seemed to be everything I wanted.
So three months before I came to the Hollow, when Stephen began talking about moving in together, I asked Penny for a favor. I asked her to place a binding on me. We tried to be clever about it. She worded the spell so that the binding prevented me from “doing harm,” meaning I could still heal and diagnose, but I couldn’t, say, stir the air or manipulate water or any of the sorts of things that might do harm to my relationship.
I should have known better than to trust Penny. I loved her dearly. She was my closest friend, the youngest daughter of Nana’s youngest sibling. At thirty-six, she was a few years older than I, so it was a bit like having a cool older sister. But her magic had always been, well, spotty. Sometimes she could perform beautiful spells that made gardens flourish or wounds heal without any sign of a scar. And then there was the eviscerated sofa and the inexplicable loss of Mrs. McClaren’s eyebrows.
I ended up with the magical equivalent of Mrs. McClaren’s eyebrows. Penny had left me for the most part completely unaffected, but then there were seemingly random times when I had no magic whatsoever, for days at a time, and then, as a result of the “bottling effect” of those lulling intervals, there were terrifying moments in which every bit of power I owned poured forth in torrents of energy that shattered lightbulbs, crockery, and any nearby windows. And unfortunately for me, the most recent of these explosive moments had occurred while I was at dinner with Stephen at a rather posh Italian restaurant. Since I was the only person standing nearby, I ended up paying to replace several Murano glass light fixtures and a rather heavy antique gilt mirror.
Penny had to go in halvsies with me, the twit.
It was as if I had a state-of-the-art, wall-shaking stereo but couldn’t control the volume. The only time I felt remotely in control of myself was when I felt “tugged” by the pain in people around me. Penny theorized that particular grace was only granted because I had no choice in the matter. I couldn’t stop feeling those tugs any more than I could choose to stop blinking or breathing. And fortunately, I had enough nursing training to heal people through conventional means.
We couldn’t seem to undo the spell, no matter how many different approaches we took—countering spells, rituals, prayers, and anointments. Nothing worked. There was no magical “control Z.”
When Nana began my instruction, I’d been disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to make rooms tidy themselves like Mary Poppins or fly on a broom. I’d eventually adjusted my expectations and learned to enjoy manipulating the energy of the natural world. But now I couldn’t even perform the most basic of “fun” magic: no more minor glamours to cover the occasional spot, no more “quick-start” fires on the hearth, no more kitchen magic to cover for my abysmal cooking. Thanks to this colossal blunder of judgment and execution, which we were endeavoring to hide from the rest of the family to prevent panic, I learned that having magic was like having an automatic dishwasher. Once you were used to having some machine do the washing up for you, even unloading the damn thing seemed like a chore. I could see that now, having become accustomed to some other force taking care of life’s little details. I had, to an embarrassing degree, stopped living my own life. So I tried to do as much as I could independently of magic, even when I did have a “witchy” solution.
Nana, who took a dim view of my timidity toward practicing the craft, had told me often that there was no such thing as a “halfway” witch, particularly given my extra ability, and that dabbling would catch up and bite me one day.
I had a feeling that day was coming soon.
I flexed my fingers and toes, feeling my body coming back into balance. I blew out a long breath and gave Miranda my best smile.
“Would you mind terribly if we drove by Paxton Avenue on the way home?” I asked as we rolled through the neon-lit streets of the Hollow’s “mall district.” As we moved farther and farther away from Walmart, the streets grew darker and quieter. The buildings were sort of mashed together, as if they were supposed to prop each other up. Every other restaurant seemed to serve some form of fire-roasted pig. And most of the business signs were intentionally misspelled, which seemed odd.
Miranda arched her dark brows. “Sure. Any particular reason?”
“There’s a bookshop in that area I was hoping to visit after I’ve settled in,” I said, working to keep my tone casual. “I’d just like to know how to get there.”
“Specialty Books?” she said. “That’s where my book club meets! You’ll love it.”
I blinked at her. “Your book club meets at an occult bookshop?”
Miranda gave a startled laugh. “How did you know about that? I mean, it hasn’t been an occult bookshop for a few years, not since Jane took over.”
I could only assume she meant Jane Jameson, who was now listed as the shop’s proprietor on the updated Web site. According to what my cousin Ralph could find in county court records, Jameson had taken over the store a little more than a year before, when Mr. Wainwright left it to her in his will. I couldn’t find much information about Ms. Jameson online. Her Facebook privacy settings were stringent. She had no Twitter account. In 2002, she gave a comment for a Kentucky Library Association newsletter article about electronic card catalogues. At the time, she was listed as a youth service librarian for the Half-Moon Hollow Public Library, but the library now listed that position as “vacant.” Other than the Specialty Books Web site and a memorial Facebook page on the Half-Moon High School reunion group, her Google presence was virtually nonexistent.
“The Internet,” I said. “I try to find little independent bookshops whenever I can. They usually serve great coffee.”
“Well, if Jane offers to make it for you, wait for Dick or Andrea Cheney.”
“My landlord works at this bookshop?” I asked as she turned the SUV toward Paxton.
That seemed like a strange coincidence—the man who owned Mr. Wainwright’s former home also worked in Mr. Wainwright’s former shop? What sort of connection did Dick Cheney have to Mr. Wainwright?