No, that was a rationalization. I’d been completely taken in. I was a moron, a moron who would be taking a voluntary moratorium on dating for the foreseeable future.
Wherever Jed was, I hoped that burn mark on his arm really stung.
Yes, I was committed to doing no harm first, but screw it, Jed had taken advantage of me. He’d known exactly what he was doing. If anybody had some magical blistering coming, it was him. If that meant I was sending bad energy out into the universe, so be it.
I worked. I sulked. I searched. After I finally cooled off, I spilled my sorry tale of floor busting and betrayal to my vampire friends. While Jane stroked my head, Gabriel practically had to climb onto Dick’s shoulders to hold him back from marching out of the shop and “whipping that boy’s ass!” It is really difficult to explain to your vampire ancestor why it’s not OK to smash your sort-of-boyfriend’s lying face in for betraying you to another magical family. It’s even more difficult to explain that it is not a legal reason to evict someone from the house he’s renting from you.
Dick settled for showing up later at my side of the house with a copy of The Notebook, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food, and a bottle of wine, dropping them off on my doorstep, patting me on the head, and departing without another word. I was really starting to love that man.
Jed’s proximity didn’t seem to be much of an issue, as I hadn’t seen him since the “handprint incident,” as Jane had dubbed it. His windows remained dark and the driveway empty, other than my car. The house felt empty, too, as if I could sense the absence of his energy from the other side of the walls. I tamped down the sense of loss and longing I felt. It didn’t make any sense to miss someone I barely knew, someone who had only been sent to track me. With the Kerrigans clearly close on my trail, I needed to focus on my efforts to find the athame and the bell—not tracking down my erstwhile neighbor and shaking answers out of him.
The one person who seemed thrilled with this situation was Penny, who answered the news that I’d recovered the intact Earth plaque with a whooping cry that woke up her husband, Seamus. She even took back her previous mockery. She was concerned to hear about Jed’s part in it, however, and insisted on sending some reinforcements to the Hollow.
“No, I’ve got all of the help I need here,” I told her as I parked my car in front of the house. “Indestructible vampire help that won’t end up being used against me as some sort of bargaining chip.” Over Penny’s protests, I added, “Just keep an eye on the Kerrigans still in country, let me know if they start traveling in large groups or stockpiling spell supplies. Speaking of which, how go the preparations for the binding?”
“We have everything we need except for the Elements,” she said. “Everyone here is very proud of you, Nola. I know it’s difficult, spending all of your time searching for something that you don’t believe makes a difference, but it means a lot to us that you’re trying so hard.”
I made a noncommittal noise as I walked across the yard. Could I deny the validity of the Elements or the magic my relatives practiced, now that I was creating mini–water spouts and setting sleeve fires with my mind? Something inside my head, the logical, resistant way I looked at the world, was shifting. And I wasn’t entirely sure I was comfortable with that.
“And look how far you’ve come!” Penny exclaimed. “Two down already. We know you’ll be able to find the next two before the deadline. You just need to stay focused, keep your eye on the ball, stay on target, follow through the swing.”
“That’s enough of a pep talk, Pen.”
“Oh, thank goodness. I was running out of cheerful sports metaphors.”
I bid Penny good-bye as I approached the front porch. As was usual lately, my side of the house was lit, but Jed’s half was dark. I was actually a bit nervous about walking across the darkened steps. But I made it to the front door unscathed and was in the process of unlocking the new new locks when a sleepy voice mumbled, “Nola?” from the porch swing.
I cried out at the familiar voice, turning toward the porch swing, hands raised. “Stephen? What the bloody hell are you doing here?”
Never sneak up on an irritated witch, sorceress, or conjurer.
—A Witch’s Compendium of Curses
At least I avoided punching anyone’s breasts. I did, however, blow up the glass globe on the porch light. This time, it was not my fault. People really had to stop sneaking up on me.
Stephen was sitting on my porch swing with his raincoat folded over his suitcase and flowers clutched in one hand.
“I just had to come see you, darling,” he said, his voice sleepy and hoarse from the strain of his long flight. “I know we left things in an awkward place. I wanted to apologize in person.” He pressed the flowers into my hands, a pretty but generic arrangement of roses, the sort of thing you could buy in one of those airport vending machines by the arrival gates. “Aren’t you happy to see me, at all?”
I offered him a stilted smile, accepting the flowers. “I just wasn’t expecting you.”
That was the feckin’ understatement of the century. I felt guilty. I’d expected to feel annoyed and embarrassed if I saw him again. But the interesting thing was that I wasn’t embarrassed at the thought of Stephen meeting my friends and judging them. I didn’t want them to meet him. He no longer fit into my life, which had expanded and changed and become so much more complex since the last time I’d seen him.
It would have been so easy to relent, to apologize for having been harsh with him, to go back to him and reclaim some sense of normalcy. Clearly, things weren’t going to work out with Jed, and I didn’t have a talent for being alone. But I couldn’t do that to Stephen. I was still angry at him, on some level, but he was a good man. I didn’t want to make him a consolation prize. At one point, I’d seen our future together, bright and clear, but I couldn’t look at him that way anymore. We were just too different. I’d spent so much of my time working to make him happy so he would stay with me and give me the kind of love I wanted so badly. I didn’t think about whether that made me happy or not.
Now I sincerely doubted it would.
“Penny told me all about you discovering your grandfather and your family here. I’m sorry you felt like you had to lie to me about it. I suppose that I deserved it, though, after the things I said.”
I arched an eyebrow. Why didn’t Penny tell me she’d told Stephen where I was? It wasn’t like her to share information with him at all. I stared him right in the eye as I said, “Yes, you did. But I am sorry for the things I said. If I had been thinking clearly, I would have hung up and called back the next morning.” I opened the door and ushered him into the living room. “Tea?”
He nodded. “Please, and then I’d like you to explain a few things to me.”
“I will; I just need something to do with my hands.”
I put the kettle on to boil and pulled out the bags of oolong, which he preferred. As my hands moved, I tried to figure out exactly what I wanted to tell Stephen. My chronically unhelpful brain was coming up blank. So I went with the “let it all just tumble out of your mouth” method.
“I didn’t tell you about coming here to meet relatives because I didn’t want you to have one more thing to hold against my family. I could almost hear you in my head. ‘Here we go, another dramatic debacle, courtesy of the McGavocks.’ You say those things so often I don’t think you even realize you’re doing it.”
“But even you make jokes at your family’s expense,” he protested.
“Yes, but I’m not serious when I do it,” I said, trying to think of a way to explain the principle of “it’s OK when I pick on my family, but no one else should try” to someone whose parents used an intercom to communicate dinner plans. “You know there are large portions of my life that I hold back from you—hell, I hold them back from myself—because I am afraid that you can’t handle them. And it’s not fair to either of us. I’ve only given you a partial, watered-down version of myself, and you shouldn’t want that. I want better than that for you, better than a half-relationship with a half-person. I just don’t think what we have works anymore.”
“Wait, I thought you were just angry on the phone. Are you really breaking it off with me?”
“I’m sorry, Stephen,” I said, rethinking the wisdom of handing him a cup of boiling-hot tea.
“Haven’t you wondered why I haven’t introduced you to my parents?” he sputtered. “I kept waiting for the weird shit I had to put up with to bottom out. I wanted to know how bad it could get. But it just kept getting worse! You want to know why I wanted to move with you to Dublin? Because I wanted to know whether you were someone I could consider proposing to. But you just kept putting me off! It doesn’t have to be this way,” he insisted. “If you could just draw some boundaries with that band of loonies, then—”
“Do you realize you’re actively making my point for me?” I asked.
“All right, all right,” he said. “I’m sorry, darling, I’m just upset. I don’t want to lose you. I will learn to watch my tongue, but you have to make some changes, too. We can make this work. Don’t you see how easily we could fit into each other’s lives?”
“Maybe it’s not about fitting into each other’s lives but making one life together. I shouldn’t have to feel like I should hide things from you. I can’t keep compartmentalizing and tucking away the bits of my life I’m afraid will upset you.”
“But I came all this way to see you.”
“I didn’t ask you to. And I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
And round and round we went, until I lost track of the time and our tea grew cold. We hashed through every angle of our relationship, my inability to separate from the family, his unwillingness to take my job seriously or meet my family halfway. Stephen got more and more upset as the conversation went along and I didn’t budge on splitting.
“I refuse to accept this,” he spat. “We love each other. If we’re not going to be together, it won’t be caused by something so silly. Lots of people don’t get along with their in-laws.”
I nodded to his cold tea. “Would you like me to warm that up for you?”
“Why do you keep worrying about tea at a time like this?” he asked, exasperated.
I cupped my hands around the mug, closed my eyes, and thought of what I’d thought and felt right before burning Jed. I dredged up that hurt, the red-hot singe of anger, and pictured the energy flowing from my heart down to my hands. I imagined heat traveling from my skin, through the mug, and into the liquid, moving the water molecules around at such a pace that the water boiled. I could see the surface rippling, steam rising from the cup. I could feel the energy building, gathering, pushing through my flesh and bone to do my will.
I opened my eyes and saw Stephen, mouth agape, horror-struck, as he watched his tea bubble and boil. It popped and hissed merrily even after I moved my hands away, the steam curling up toward us like misty fingers. I jerked my hands away from the ceramic before it split or exploded.
“This is what I am; this is what I can do,” I told him. “To pretend to be anything else would be wrong.”
“I didn’t know,” he whispered. “I knew your family claimed that they had mystical whatnot, but I never imagined. Have you always been able to do that? All this time?”
“Yes. Do you still want me, Stephen? Do you? Because I’ve been twisting myself into knots trying to keep this from you, but I can’t anymore. The people I’ve met here, they’ve shown me that you can’t shut yourself up and pretend to be something that you’re not. I’ve acted shamefully toward my own family because I was afraid of disappointing you or scaring you. You believe in facts and figures, and that’s fine. I don’t disagree that algebra exists. But you’re missing a whole big world out there. You’re blind to it because you’re afraid of what you might see.”