“I’m staying at the Sleep-Tight Inn, aren’t I?” I muttered. “That’s adventure enough for me.” Glancing up the trail, I saw a decrepit whitewashed church in the distance. Its bell clanged loudly, although there was no one to yank the pull.
“Where are we?” I asked as he adjusted his dark-blue neckerchief.
“South America?” he guessed. “I hate to belabor the point, but it’s your dream.”
I hissed as a banana leaf snapped back and thwacked me across the face. “So what nonhelpful advice do you have to offer me this time?”
“Never trust a man with the middle name Wayne,” he said.
He grunted, hacking his way through a clump of banana leaves. “You never said the advice had to be related to the Elements.”
“Why am I even bothering?” I sighed, following him. “You know, I managed to find two of the Elements on my own. I don’t need your help.”
“Of course you don’t,” he said as a large yellow butterfly fluttered past his shoulder. “But you’re the one who keeps bringing me back here.”
“Mr. Wainwright,” I growled.
“You’re still not going to call me Grandpa, are you?” he said sadly.
“Not for a while,” I told him. “I don’t know you that well yet.”
“I hoped that spending time at the shop would help you get to know me.”
“I thought you were a figment of my imagination. Do figments hope?”
He snickered. “Touché. You know, this might go a bit faster if you used a little . . .” He waggled his fingers as if casting a Las Vegas magician’s spell.
“Really?” I scoffed. “You want me to use magic because you’re having trouble with some landscaping?”
“No, I want you to use magic because it can be fun,” he said, gesturing to building-scale trees towering over our heads. “Maybe just peel all the greenery back like curtains. Or make the trees dance around like those ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ mops in Fantasia. I just want to see what you can do. It’s not like I ever got to watch you perform in a ballet recital.”
“I never took ballet. And didn’t Nana tell you anything about our magic?” I asked.
“She said your family’s talents were a gift, not that you were only allowed to put them toward practical purposes,” he said. “Just think of how boring life would be if you received gloves and car-detailing kits every Christmas.”
I thought back to my grandmother’s many, many lectures on magic. She had never told me that magic wasn’t supposed to be fun. In fact, I remembered several lessons in which she taught me to create shapes in colored smoke through concentration. Or to make fire dance. But the fire-dancing lesson had ended in tears and damaged drapes. So we’d stuck to the area in which I excelled, which happened to be healing. There aren’t a lot of laughs to be had in curing rashes and boils.
Come to think of it, in addition to the motel sleeping bag, Stephen had also given me gloves and a car-detailing kit for Christmas.
“I think you’re being too hard on yourself,” Mr. Wainwright said. “I think the search for your Elements is a bit like keeping a grip on that altar plaque. If you try too hard to hold on to it, you’ll break it.”
“So I need to relax.” I snorted. “In the face of an impossible task and a looming deadline, I’m supposed to relax and have fun.”
“It couldn’t hurt.”
“I’ll try. Thanks, Mr. Wainwright.”
“Still not budging on that ‘Grandpa’ issue, are you?”
I shook my head but grinned at him and squeezed his hand. “No.”
Mr. Wainwright squeezed my hand tightly, then turned on his heel and commenced chopping through the jungle plants again.
“Nola?” he called as he pushed into the brush. “Take it easy on Dick. He means well.”
Muttering to myself about unhelpful figments, I woke up with my head propped on my arm and the bare expanse of Jed’s back turned toward me. He was up on one elbow, holding something, shifting it back and forth in his hands.
“Are you all right?” I asked. Startled, he turned, and there was a strange, unfamiliar expression on his face. Sadness, regret, a touch of anger. I’d never seen those emotions on Jed’s sunny, open face. He looked down at me, a quick grin spreading across his features, chasing the sad expression away. “Yeah, just fine.”
“So this is incredibly awkward,” I said. I sat up, with the sheets pressed to my chest. I looked over Jed’s shoulder to find that he was holding the altar plaque in his hands, turning it over and over. “What are you doing?”
“I just didn’t get a very good look at it last night,” he said, turning onto his back and pulling me with him so I was splayed across his chest as he toyed with the plaque. “It’s just a chunk of clay. I was tryin’ to figure out what was so special about this that Jane Jameson would send us all the way down here for it.”
I carefully retrieved the plaque from his hands and wrapped it in the unbleached cloth I’d packed for just such a purpose. “I think it was the principle of the thing. Jane got really pissed at the idea that Mama Ginger had not only stolen from her but had also used ill-gotten goods to get out of shopping for a present. Reclaiming the gift would embarrass Mama Ginger, so the effort was worth it.”
“But why send you?”
“I’ve spent a lot of time at the shop lately, and I haven’t stolen anything from her yet. It fostered a sense of trust.”
“Not for me,” he said. “I plan on pattin’ you down after you get out of my truck.”
“Well, I was also one of the few people she knew who could make the trip down here,” I said. There was a pause, not awkward, just pleasant. I pressed a finger into the little divot in his chin, making him dip his head and bite down on my fingertip. I laughed and drew it away, but not before his rasping tongue on the ridges of my skin sparked some rather pleasant tingles between my thighs. “So last night . . .”
“. . . Was not a one-time occasion,” he informed me. “That was new for me. The whole talkin’ and actually tellin’ you what I think, instead of what I think you want to hear—I don’t do that with everybody. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. This is a beginning, not a brush-off, understood?”
I nodded. “Still, it is incredibly awkward.”
“Did you have a good time?” He leaned across the sheets and pushed my hair back from my face. I nodded. “Do you think I’m easy?”
I burst out laughing. “No.”
“Good. I don’t think you’re easy, either. I think you’re sexy and fun and bendy in all the right places.”
“I told you, ‘bendy’ is a selling point.”
“Honey, I saw all kind of potential in you last night.”
The drive back was pleasant enough. I ended up sleeping for a good portion of it, which made Jed snicker about having worn me out. I snarked back that I was just trying to avoid further trauma from Atlanta traffic. We only made a few stops for coffee and Sno-Balls, and by midafternoon, we were rolling back into town.
I liked that despite the fact that we’d seen each other naked, nothing seemed to change. He still made inappropriate jokes. I made vague threats to his manhood. It was lovely, relaxed. But I felt strange that I didn’t feel worse. I’d fought with Stephen, but I wasn’t sure if I’d broken it off with him officially. He’d left me ten voice-mail messages, most of which I’d ignored. As far I knew, he was ordering bloody apology flowers and sending them my way. If so, I was a terrible girlfriend. But what bothered me the most was that I didn’t actually feel bad. Physically, I felt good—balanced, limber, and untroubled. The last time I felt this loose was after getting a massage at one of those day spas when Penny got married and insisted on a girls’ do.
I was a morality-free zone.
Still, it was hard to feel bad, knowing that the plaque was resting comfortably in my overnight bag. Jed pulled the truck into the driveway and slowed to a stop. “So, frankly, I’m sick of the sight of you,” he told me with a distressingly straight face. “Get out of my truck, and definitely do not come to my side of the house for dinner.”
“You are truly a bizarre man,” I told him.
“Is pizza OK?” he asked, grinning.
“Fine, pizza, with a potential side order of repeat sex.”
He climbed out of the truck and craned his head back through the door. “If I place the order that way at Pete’s Pies, the lady who answers their phones will pass out.”
“But she will remember the order.”
“I’ll get the bags,” he called from the truck’s tailgate. “Can you grab my mail?”
I was halfway to the door-mounted mailbox when I heard Jed yelp, “Shit!” and then a crunch. When I rounded the truck, I saw him standing over my suitcase, which was lying on its side in the gravel.
“What happened?” I asked, fumbling with the zipper. I’d placed the plaque inside a zippered pocket on the outside of the bag. I could only hope that Jed hadn’t dropped the bag on that side.
Jed’s expression was stricken. “It just slipped out of my hand.”
I scrambled through my overnight bag to find the cloth bag I’d wrapped around the plaque. My heart sank as the bag tinkled and crunched in my shaking hands. The clay was shattered. There were three or four pieces the size of my thumb, but everything else was practically dust. It wasn’t surprising, I supposed, considering how old the clay was. I took deep breaths and tried to keep myself centered. I couldn’t risk having a meltdown and blowing up Jed’s porch lights.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, his face ashen. “How bad is it?”
“Bad,” I told him, holding up the clay shards. I took a deep breath and forced my voice to stay steady. “Accidents happen, Jed. It’s not your fault.”
Jed bent to examine the bits in my hand. The outsides of the larger pieces were distressed and old, but the interiors were just as bright and fresh as a new penny. Maybe the hum of magic that had cloaked the plaque all those years had formed some sort of stasis?
“How angry is Jane going to be?” he asked, taking one piece and turning it over in my palm. “I can tell her it was my fault.”
“Jane won’t be angry at all,” I told him honestly. I tried to manage a smile for him, so he wouldn’t beat himself up over this. “It’s just an ashtray.”
Later that evening, I tried to piece the plaque back together like a jigsaw puzzle. I managed a flat, vaguely round shape, but that was it. I even tried to use the plaque’s own magic to get the pieces to call out to one another, to re-form to its original state, but it didn’t respond the way I thought a magically infused item would. They were just bits of clay. Instead of contaminating those bits with the fumes of Super Glue, I decided I would take them to the shop, put them in an unbleached cotton bag, and close the lot up in a drawer full of good Kilcairy soil. That was the extent of what I could do.
I heard Jed walk out his front door and listened for the sound of his truck, but I got distracted when the phone rang. My dear Penny didn’t have an opinion about whether the plaque would “work” when it was broken. It was possible it wouldn’t work, but at the same time, I felt sort of free. The Kerrigans couldn’t get all four items. They couldn’t bind us, which would ease my family’s anxiety and keep the clinic running smoothly. Of course, we couldn’t bind them, but that was another problem entirely. Still, I’d failed to protect centuries of family history. And I was depressed beyond the telling of it, and Jed was embarrassed. The evening I’d hoped would be spent having the aforementioned bendy-straw sex was spent in separate quarters. I sat in the kitchen, staring down at the dust, trying to figure out what to do.