Hubert’s wife, Mindy, was a tiny powerhouse of a woman with a halo of wild blond hair and eye makeup so complex it took me a while to locate her pupils. She was clearly the brains of the operation, such as it was. And I was distinctly uncomfortable with the way she was eyeing Jed. But I was starting to think her threats to sell the plaque on eBay were a bluff, because they didn’t appear to have a computer. And given the length of Mindy’s nails, I doubted she spent much time typing sales information.
“Can I get y’all anything?” she drawled, her voice smooth and silky as custard.
“I’d appreciate a sweet tea, ma’am,” Jed said, plucking at the hat in his hands. Mindy turned to me, expectant.
“Oh, please don’t go to any trouble,” I said, trying like mad to keep the grimace from crinkling my face at the thought of liquid diabetes.
“No trouble at all, shug,” she said, teetering toward the kitchen on see-through plastic wedge heels. Hubert gave us an awkward smile, settling back into his Barcalounger.
“What did she call me?” I muttered out of the side of my mouth.
“Shug,” he said. “It’s short for ‘sugar’; it means she likes you. Or, at least, she likes the money you’re about to pay her. If she called you by your first name, she’d be indifferent. If she called you Miss Leary, she’d have already written you off.”
“Good to know.”
Mindy came toddling back into the living room with two hot-pink plastic tumblers of iced tea. She put a little extra wiggle in her step when she served Jed’s. He offered her a bland smile and took a long drag from his glass. How was he able to do that without gagging? But I was ever so grateful that her attention was directed otherwise, because it meant no one noticed when I poured my tea into her potted plant. Which turned out to be plastic.
Mindy shot a sultry look over her shoulder as she disappeared into the back of the house.
“Well, we’re real grateful to you for being so understanding about Mama Ginger’s wedding gift,” Jed said carefully as Mindy carried a gift bag with a cabbage rose pattern into the living room.
“You’re lucky you called when you did, ’cause we were going to use this as a backup ashtray when Mindy’s mama comes to visit,” Hubert said, his tone magnanimous.
I nodded. “I appreciate your restraint.”
“Course, I couldn’t just hand it over,” Mindy said pointedly. “Not without some sort of fair trade. After all, it was a wedding present. There’s sentimental value.”
“Right, sorry,” I said, digging into my purse. I handed her the envelope of cash I’d prepared to save myself the awkwardness of counting it out. I pressed the envelope into her hand. Meanwhile, Jed started a conversation with Hubert about “the Dawgs” and their chances in the playoffs. I didn’t know what sport they were referring to, but Hubert lit up at the chance to discuss his beloved Dawgs and engaged in a spirited debate. Mindy’s attention could not be swayed.
“Of course, with you payin’ us, that would only mean we broke even. Still leaves us without a wedding gift.”
“You want me to buy you a blender?” I asked. I was grateful to get the plaque back, but these people were getting on my last nerve.
“No, at this point, we’ve got the whole house set up,” Mindy said. “It would be nice to have a little extra cash, in case we wanted to splurge a little.”
“Would a hundred be enough?” I asked flatly as I plucked a bill from my wallet.
“Well, we are pretty close to Aunt Ginger,” Hubert hedged. “She’d probably want to give us at least two hundred.”
I slapped the two extra bills into Mindy’s hand with a humorless smile and took the bag from her hand. The plaque tumbled into my hands, wrapped in a wad of pink tissue paper. I had a hard time containing my giggle. I didn’t want Mindy to decide I was too happy with my purchase and owed her another hundred.
The cool weight of the plaque was wondrously solid against my palm. Jane was right; it was rather blobby. The acorn-cap pattern barely stood out under the patina of aged clay. But even if it smelled of old pennies, it was unchipped and intact. That was all I cared about. I whispered, “Thank you.”
“Happy to help.” Mindy smiled, tucking the cash into her bra. “Y’all are welcome to stay for supper, if you’d like.”
I frowned at the display of cleavage and the implications of staying for “supper.” Oh, I could only imagine the extravaganza of hospitality that would await us, right down to Mindy changing into something “more comfortable.”
“That’s mighty kind of you, ma’am. But we have to drive home yet tonight,” Jed said. “Work, you know?”
“Maybe the next time you’re in the neighborhood, then.” She simpered, batting her eyelashes for all they were worth.
Having wrapped up the “happy to meet yous,” Jed and I booked it out to the truck before Mindy decided she wanted a matching dinette set, too. My blood thrilled in my veins as we climbed into our seats.
“I can’t believe I have it.” I sighed, pressing the tissue-covered bundle to my chest. “Two down, two to go.”
“What do you mean by that?” he asked, starting the engine.
“Oh, it’s just a project I’m working on with Jane. Personal interest.”
He gave me a long speculative look. “Well, I am too tired to drive any farther,” he said. “There was a motel just outside of town. Does that work for you?”
“I have proven myself to be untrustworthy driving on the right side of the road, so yes,” I said, clicking my belt into place as we roared onto the main street. “You really went full-on Bubba, didn’t you?”
“I warned you.”
“Nothing could have prepared me.” I chuckled, shaking my head. “That poor deer.”
I was not familiar with motel tourism. When I’d lived with my dad, we were strictly Holiday Inn or Ramada travelers. The few times I’d traveled overseas, I’d stayed in smallish historic hotels with “character.” (Read: water damage and manky carpet.) And still, the damp-flooring issues were preferable to the comforts of the Sleep-Tight Inn. This was beyond the Bates Motel. It was a brick block building with rusty stains dripping down under the window air-conditioning units. There was a pool . . . and it was full of sludgy green water and leaves.
But the Sleep-Tight was the only motel for the next fifty miles, neither of us had another hour of driving in us, and after paying Mindy off, it fit my cash-on-hand budget. That was the only positive thing I could say about the Sleep-Tight. Jed insisted on being the one to go into the office to rent the rooms. I was concerned that he might have ulterior motives and would come back claiming that there was only one single-bed room available for the night. But it turned out he was concerned that the motel clerk might see a woman alone and “get the wrong ideas.”
It was a manly, almost cavemanly, gesture, but I could see the value in it. Nana Fee would have told me to stand up straight, make direct eye contact, and demand respect. And as healthy as that was, in this environment, demanding respect would have probably resulted in the clerk slapping the “bitch” label on me and doing something weird to the truck. I appreciated the direct caveman approach if it meant circumventing all that.
I dragged our overnight bags out of the back of the truck as he returned with the room keys. “If I am stabbed to death in the shower, I will come back and haunt you,” I told him.
“Fine.” He sighed. “I will come and watch over you while you are in the shower.”
“You completely misinterpreted that.”
My room was connected to Jed’s through an adjoining door. It was spare and outdated, but at least I didn’t see anything crawling across the threadbare orange carpet. Of course, the first thing I did was pull the comforter off of the bed, because there was no way I was going to sleep under that. I pulled out my travel sleeping bag and spread it over the sheets, with a prick of regret for Stephen and his practical gift-giving habits.
I’d showered (without being stabbed) and was seriously considering just going to bed, when Jed knocked on the adjoining door. He yelled through the door, “How do you feel about barbecue?”
“You mean hamburgers?” I yelled back. “I have no particular philosophy about hamburgers.”
There was a long pause. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that.”
There is no such thing as magical glue. Any witch who tries to sell you magical glue is a lying hag.
—A Witch’s Compendium of Curses
We went to a restaurant called High on the Hog. It was careworn but well populated. The green pleather booths were sprung and peeling. The napkin dispensers consisted of paper-towel racks mounted against the oak paneling. Pictures of people holding up large fish and neon beer signs decorated the walls. I could barely see the kitchen through the smoke, but I could make out a huge brick pit in the middle of the space.
It was a bit like a pub, with the same happy, boisterous crowd, people drinking more they were supposed to and most likely flirting with people they weren’t supposed to. Loud country music blared from an old jukebox in the corner. The smell should have been revolting, nothing but smoke and grease and beer. But my mouth was watering to the point where I felt like wiping at it with my sleeve.
Jed ordered for me, because after the hamburger comment, I couldn’t be trusted to do it myself. While the meat was smoky and delicious, it was the side dishes I gorged on. There were things I remembered from my childhood. Corn on the cob and macaroni and cheese. But then there were hash brown casserole, collard greens, and hush puppies, which I had never tried.
“Wow, you are just throwing yourself into that plate, aren’t you?” Jed marveled.
“I know, it’s probably revolting. You’ve probably spent your adult life dating women who eat the cucumber from their salad and proclaim they’re just too full to go on, but I am starving. And this is really good.”
“Naw, hell, I was going to offer you my black-eyed peas if it means you’ll keep makin’ those little sounds in your throat.”
“I’m making little sounds?”
He nodded. “If you stop, I’ll cry. A lot.”
I drank the watery-but-no-one-knew-any-better beer, and I ate my fill. And when a stocky man in a Georgia State T-shirt asked me to two-step, I politely declined. He almost argued, but Jed gave him sort of a no-doubt-terrifying-to-the-male-of-the-species territorial glare, and Mr. Georgia State scampered away.
Two more, I thought. Two more, and I could go home. With the plaque locked up tight in Jed’s truck, I was well and truly relaxed for the first time in days. It was the same relief and euphoria I’d felt after finding the candle. I was getting a little bit addicted to that feeling, and it was leading to some dangerous thoughts.
Those thoughts focused on Jed’s lips and how they’d felt against mine earlier that day. And how relatively easy it was to sit here in this crowded bar and talk about nothing at all with him. I didn’t feel that constant nagging pressure to say the right thing or use the right fork. Because Jed had seen me having a possum-fueled panic attack wearing nothing but a towel. After that, there was nowhere to go but up.
After a bit too much Hank Williams, Sr., and far too much good food, Jed drove us back to the motel. The car park was dark, the night moonless under a cloudy sky.
“I had a really nice time,” I told him as we walked to the doors.
“Try not to sound so surprised,” he chided gently.
“I’m not surprised! All right, I’m a little surprised. Thank you for driving me down here and helping me. Thanks.” I leaned forward and meant to kiss his cheek, but he turned his head at the last minute, and I managed to catch his mouth instead. I gave an exasperated little huff. “Really, again?”