“Well, it’s not without its charms,” I insisted. “Once you get past the driving issue and the strange tea. I told you, the people are quite nice here.”
“I was talking about Kilcairy.”
“Well, why wouldn’t I want to live there? My whole family is there.”
“Yes, your family,” he said in a tone he might have used if he were saying, “Yes, toe fungus.” It was difficult for Stephen to understand how large families worked. He saw his own parents for holidays and the occasional fly-by dinners, and that was the extent of their relationship. He had no siblings, no uncles or aunts or cousins, and his grandparents died when he was in primary school. It was easy to understand why my family overwhelmed him. Although it didn’t hurt my feelings any less.
“Stephen, I need to get off the phone. It’s late here, and I need to get some sleep. I have work tomorrow.”
“Fine,” he said with a sigh. “Fine. I’ll call you in a few days. I love you.”
“Me, too.” I rolled over, tucking my pillow over my chin, feeling vaguely sick to my stomach. How had the conversation gone from sweet to sour so quickly? How could Stephen seem to know me so well one minute and then not at all the next? How was I going to fix this? I couldn’t go running back home, abandoning a sacred duty because my boyfriend was peeved.
Stephen was just going to have to deal with it.
I awoke to the sounds of pounding and hammering on the walls outside my bedroom. I started awake, rolled out of bed, and landed on my face. “Oh, what in the—” After stumbling to my feet, I shoved the window sash up and shoved my head outside. Men on ladders seemed to be ripping off the wooden siding in places, while others were climbing on the roof and tossing damaged shingles into the yard, where yet another man scooped them up and threw them onto an open-top wagon. At the edge of the yard, I could see a woman (who I later learned was the much-beloved Iris Scanlon) directing the delivery of several hydrangeas and rosebushes.
Jed was on the ladder just a few feet from my window, yanking a rotten shingle away from its moorings. And, of course, he was shirtless, his tanned skin glistening as he moved under the morning sun.
So far, this was a mixed bag in terms of a wake-up call.
“What in bleeding hell is going on?” I called to him.
He grinned brightly . . . or perhaps he was amused by my bed hair. “Mornin’! I don’t know what you said to Mr. Cheney, but he had Sam hire four new daytime guys to come out and put a rush job on the renovations. He said, and I quote, ‘Fix everythin’ up. Make it nice for her. No detail is too small. And don’t skimp on the flowers in the front flower beds.’ Also, there’s an exterminator coming out this afternoon. And if you don’t mind, I’m gonna come in tomorrow and paint the downstairs rooms. Dick said you can stay with him for a few days if the fumes bother you.”
“Huh.” It was a brilliant, eloquent response, I know. Dick had explained the night before that Mr. Wainwright had sold his family home sometime in the 1970s and, for convenience’s sake, moved into the apartment above his shop. The new owners had divided it into apartments and neglected the house terribly before selling out to Dick the year before. Because of what Dick would only call “Jane problems,” he hadn’t had time to fix it up before now. Why the sudden rush after meeting me? And what did he mean, I could stay with him and Andrea if the paint fumes were too much? I barely knew these people. Why would I impose on them in that way?
If I’d had the energy, I would have whacked my head against the window frame.
“You know he’s married, right?” Jed said.
“No—I mean, yes. I’ve met his wife. I just guess I’ve made a good impression on him, is all,” I said, frowning while I recalled his inappropriately friendly greeting at the shop.
First, the hugs and face squeezing, and now this? What was with Dick Cheney? Had I developed my very own vampire stalker? I wondered if it was a good idea to stay in this house. Dick had keys. As my landlord, he had to give me notice before he entered, but I doubted fair rental laws would do much to protect me from an obsessive vampire. I would have to talk to Jane about this.
And if I ever woke up to find him watching me sleep, like that creepy Edward What’s-his-name, I would not be responsible for my actions.
“Did you meet him wearing just a towel, too?” Jed asked sourly, yanking me out of my reverie. When I shot him a filthy look, he appeared vaguely contrite and added, “Well, you got me job security for the next few months, so thanks for that. You go on back inside; we’ll be done with the loudest work by the end of tomorrow.”
Mumbling indignantly, I backed into my room, searching for my robe. There was a scraping noise against the outside wall and a series of metallic clangs. Suddenly, a disembodied tanned hand slipped through the open window and dropped a small sprig with a fist-sized cluster of hydrangea blossoms onto the sill, then disappeared. I laughed, retrieved the offering from the sunny sill, and pressed my face into the velvety blue petals.
Construction time estimates being what they were, the job went on for weeks. I would wake up in the early morning to the sounds of men scraping off the outer layer of the house. Before leaving for Jane’s shop, I’d make breakfast and coffee, which I magnanimously offered the work crew, since they were decent enough not to look into my windows while I was in the house. Then again, Jed did imply that Dick had threatened the crew within an inch of their “miserable mortal lives” if they were anything less than courtly.
After a week or so, I established a sort of schedule. Each day, I would spend the afternoon searching through Jane’s shop and sales records, looking for any sign of the Elements, under the watchful eye of Zeb Lavelle, Jane’s best friend since childhood. Jane made this concession after a few nights of my research being interrupted by customers who thought I worked at the shop. Using the store’s off hours allowed me to concentrate on my task, and I didn’t mind Zeb serving as my babysitter. He was a kindergarten teacher, after all, and seemed fit for the task. When he wasn’t reading comics or sorting through school-supply catalogues, he offered me random, sometimes sensible tips on how to survive interactions with supernatural forces. His first and foremost tip: walk softly and carry an econo-sized can of vampire pepper spray.
Whether that pepper spray was used against loved ones and acquaintances was a matter of discretion, he told me.
Strangely enough, Jane happened to have a large rolling whiteboard, like the sort used on Law & Order, in the stockroom. I used to it record any potentially germane receipts, addresses, or notations I found in Gilbert Wainwright’s records. Well, officially, I didn’t find any of those things, but Iris was impressed with the way I divided the board into four sections and created a graph for cross-referencing. Iris was a girl who appreciated the obsessive need for order.
By turns, Dick, Andrea, Jane, and sometimes Jane’s husband, Gabriel, or Zeb’s wife, Jolene, would rotate into the shop to inquire about my day’s progress. Zeb was sunny and adorable, like a man-sized Labrador puppy. Jolene, on the other hand, was intensely beautiful and seemed surrounded by this odd crackling energy, as if she was always on the verge of becoming something else. When I turned my powers to that mystery, all I could discern in her was an all-consuming, gnawing hunger.
They were an odd and motley crew of humans, vampires, and whatever Jolene was, but all very nice people. And they didn’t seem fazed by the odd and urgent circumstances of my situation. Apparently, they had considerable experience with the odd and urgent. They simply divided the store by sections, rolled up their sleeves, and helped me sort through the stock.
I discovered an unexpected joy in spending time with Jane and Andrea. It was a bit like spending time with Penny, only they had less tact and restraint, if that was possible. They had an unnatural obsession with seeing me do magic and wouldn’t accept my “wonky powers” excuse or the fact that I didn’t want to do damage to the shop. I was considering pulling a rabbit out of a hat just to get them off of my back.
Both women were slightly left of center, looking at the world from a skewed but extremely funny perspective. They didn’t fall into hysterics when there were obstacles or emergencies. They cracked a joke, made a plan, and moved on. And after Jane dropped by my house to deliver a casserole from her mother—ogling Jed shamelessly, I might add—teasing me about my comely shirtless neighbor became a regular source of humor for them.
They loved fiercely, from their spouses to their friends, and yes, even Jamie, the irritatingly beautiful teenage boy Jane had been forced to turn the previous year. Once you were accepted into the “pack,” you were in for life, and woe betide the fool who crossed you. Zeb told me it was a bit like the Mafia, only with snarky insults instead of cement shoes.
Now that I’d found one of the Elements, a bit of the pressure I was under eased. I was far more aware of my surroundings, the sultry heat of late afternoons, the sunshine. Clothes that I had previously worn once, on holiday in Spain—tank tops, sundresses, light sweaters, and sandals—were now the main staple of my wardrobe. My skin, previously an insistent milky white, was now lightly tanned. I made sure to get some out-of-doors time each day to recharge my internal batteries with vitamin D. But I missed the wind. While I enjoyed the novelty of the heat, I missed the constant stirring of air, the whisper of the sea.
Still, I felt at home. Most people were friendly, if slightly baffled by my accent. I found myself having to repeat things, not because they didn’t understand me but because they wanted to hear me say certain phrases with my inability to properly pronounce Rs. And the more time I spent around vampires, the more I could focus on fine-tuning which parts of my brain interacted with living tissue in other people. With Dick or Jane, I could feel parts of my mind reaching out to their energetic bodies, seeking out injuries and illness. When I felt my mind “pinging” off empty space, I found I was able to turn off the reaching. It made going to Walmart on crowded Saturday mornings a lot less painful.
Jed was an unabashed morning person, singing off-key country songs and letting the sunlight soak into his skin as he worked. He continued his cheerful, ladder-bound flirtations at my bedroom window each morning, usually teasing me about my “epic” case of bedhead or asking me about my agenda for the day. I would have taken offense, if not for the sprigs of hydrangea that found their way onto my windowsill, wrapped in a damp napkin and foil and tied with a white ribbon. I kept the bouquets on my nightstand, in a sweet blue pressed-glass bud vase I’d found in a thrift store down the street from Specialty Books. By the third bouquet, I was beginning to worry for our poor hydrangea bushes and their impending baldness. But they were still lush with blooms. I did notice that our neighbors’ bushes were looking a little patchy.
It’s the thought that counts.
Late nights were blissful experiments in prolonged sleep. I was so used to being on call, just in case some medical emergency came up, I hadn’t realized I was down to four or five hours of sleep per night. Here, I outfitted my bed in thin summer-weight quilts and lush cotton sheets. I built myself a veritable fort out of pillows, fluffing them into the most comfortable configuration possible before entering a semicomatose state.
It was odd, living for myself for the first time. For years, I’d taken care of Nana and run the clinic. I never realized how much energy I expended diagnosing people—intentionally or otherwise—and the additional stress of keeping the clinic running. In her e-mails, Penny kept me updated on patients and assured me that everyone was fine, the clinic was running smoothly, and it was her turn to take care of things for a while. Still, it pricked my conscience not to be there helping her.
At this point, who knew when I’d be returning? After another week of searching, I’d found nary a clue to the other three Elements. I’d composed a list of pawn shops and noted which were closest to the bookstore. I’d contacted the list of buyers Jane described as Gilbert Wainwright’s “whales,” but they seemed interested primarily in books. We hadn’t managed to find the ledgers that listed any specific items sold, although it seemed unlikely that Mr. Wainwright would not have kept a record of such sales. The early success of finding the candle had made me cocky, I suppose. Now my lack of progress was a bit unsettling.