“Magic’s kind of high-maintenance,” I said in low tones to Deidre Troudt as we huddled over the tiny purple potion vial that sat between us on the booth table in Crazy Cousin Betty’s Waffle House. “If you don’t want this to bite you in the ass, you’ve gotta follow a few rules.”
Ms. Troudt waved her hand at me impatiently. “Give me the disclaimers, Easter, but be quick about it. My lunch hour’s only an hour.”
“Okay. Well, one, you’ve gotta really believe in one true love.”
Ms. Troudt had been lifting her coffee cup, and halted it in midair to stare at me with those piercing brown eyes, and in a heartbeat, I felt like I was back in her high school English class. Her anger issues were legendary, but she was smart and kickass and she’d had all us kids in her class scared to death of her, which made me kind of love her. I almost started spouting a stream of crap about the themes of passion and transgression in Ethan Frome.
“Of course I do,” she said. “Why? Don’t you?”
I gave her a flat look. “I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
She lowered her coffee cup and tilted her head to the side a bit. “But you made the potion—”
“Homeopathic solution,” I said over her, raising my voice just enough to drown her out as I glanced at the tables around us. While the magic element in Nodaway Falls was fairly mundane, we made an effort to keep it under wraps as much as possible. No need spooking the locals.
To the untrained eye, Nodaway seemed like any other small, backward, and economically failing upstate New York town, and I guessed in most respects it was. We had a small grocery, a waffle house/diner, and a bed-and-breakfast. The magic, in all honesty, wasn’t that big a deal most of the time. Power in most magicals manifested as quirks more than serious mojo. Take Betty, for instance, the septuagenarian owner of CCB’s: She could make baked goods out of thin air. It was kinda neat when you really needed a brownie, but it wasn’t anything truly mind-blowing. Olivia Kiskey, one of my best friends and a waitress at CCB’s, could make living creatures out of random household objects. Her boyfriend, Tobias Shoop, had some darker powers, but he never used them if he could avoid it.
And then there was me. I’d taken up conjuring to keep the lights on when I got laid off from my job as a county librarian last fall. For the most part, even when the magic got hot, most of the people in town tended to accept our rational explanations, like when I insisted in public that the low-level magical potions I made were homeopathic solutions. Honestly, I didn’t care what we called it, so long as I got my bills paid.
“No, wait a minute.” Ms. Troudt set her cup down, her expression a mix of annoyance and confusion. “How can you make the po—I mean, solution—if you don’t believe in it yourself?”
“My job is to mix the stuff,” I said, keeping my voice low. “It’s perception magic, so it’s about your perception. It really has nothing to do with me.”
“Oh.” She shrugged. “I still don’t get it, but if you say so, I guess I’ll take your word on it.”
That was as big a gesture of trust as Ms. Troudt ever gave, so I took it. “What’s important is that you believe in one true love. Do you?”
She nudged her glasses up on the bridge of her nose. “Absolutely.”
I sighed, a little disappointed. No one in the free world had been dumped on by love more than Deidre Troudt. She’d been left at the altar three times, two of those times by the same guy. If I was a better person, I’d talk her out of spending her hard-earned money on a potion that would only confirm that yet another man wasn’t worthy of her time.
But I wasn’t a better person, and I had car payments.
“The other thing,” I went on. “No messing with free will.”
She gave me a surprised look. “How would I mess with free will?”
“You can’t dump this in anyone’s coffee and make him love you. Doesn’t work like that, and there are consequences for using magic to manipulate people.”
“Consequences?” Her brows quirked under her wild fringe of mud-brown hair, a non-style she’d been using to telegraph that she didn’t give a crap since as far back as I could remember. “What kind of consequences?”
I hesitated. The truth was … I wasn’t sure. It was just what I’d been told, and it meshed well with my personal sense of right and wrong, so I made sure all my clients were clear that they were not to dump potions intended for them into someone else’s drink.
I met Ms. Troudt’s eye, gave her a dark look, and lowered my voice. “You don’t want to know. Just don’t do it.”
Whatever foreboding I’d put into my voice seemed to miss the target, because Ms. Troudt waved a hand in the air. “Fine. Whatever.”
I craned my head to look around her, hoping Liv would be available to bring me a refresh on my coffee, but she was by the front door, talking to two men who had just come in. The first one, I could tell from the shiny back of his bald-ass head, was my older brother, Nick. I wondered what he was doing here. Bernadette Peach, the third in the best-friend triumvirate with Liv and me, had my brother running all over the place preparing for their wedding this coming Saturday. So why was he hanging out in CCB’s with some random guy? From the back, I couldn’t even recognize who the random guy was, which was weird. I’d been born and raised in Nodaway and I could identify most of our tiny population at a hundred paces. The random guy was taller than any of the guys in the wedding party, with dark brown hair that looked like it had been cut with a weed whacker. There was something familiar about him, though, and my gut did a roller-coaster lunge as if it knew something I didn’t …
“Hey. Easter.” Ms. Troudt snapped her fingers to get my attention, much as she’d done whenever I’d drifted off in English class.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry, what?”
She reached into her bag and pulled out her wallet. “Is that it?”
“No.” I set my cold coffee mug down and turned my attention to the matter at hand. “When you’re ready, drink it all at once, like a shot. Then you’ve got twenty-four hours to get into the same room with your guy.”
“Simple enough. Anything else?” Ms. Troudt stared at the vial with this weird look on her face. It made me uncomfortable seeing her like that, almost vulnerable and everything.
“Look, Ms. Troudt—”
“Knock it off with the Ms. Troudt stuff, Easter,” she said, her eyes still locked on the vial. “You’re selling me a magic potion so I can deal with my love life. Call me Deidre.”
“Fine … Deidre.” That felt weird. I hesitated, then pushed it. “You can call me Stacy, you know.”
She snorted rudely, but that was a big part of why I liked her so much. She’d never spent a day being polite in her life. She was my hero, and I loved her, and I didn’t want her to get hurt over some stupid guy.
“It’s not too late,” I said, annoyed with myself for being such a soft touch. Soft touches get their new yellow VW Bugs repossessed. But it was Ms. Troudt, so I forced the words out. “You can back out. I don’t have to sell this to you today.”
She shook her head, determination on her face. “Oh, no. I’m buying it.”
I leaned forward. “Look, if you don’t know if a man loves you, then your problem is the man, not the knowledge.”
She gave me the same dead-eyed look she used to save for the dumb kids. “You think I don’t know that?”
“I don’t know what you know,” I said, feeling a touch of professional indignation, “but you’re buying a potion—”
“Homeopathic solution,” she corrected automatically.
“—from me, and it’s part of my ethics to be sure you know what you’re doing before I hand it over. This is powerful stuff, and I want to know you’re going to use it right.”
I sat back, damn proud of myself. Ms. Troudt eyed me with a look of grudging respect.
“Good for you.” She hesitated a moment, then leaned forward. “Look, I believe in The One, but I don’t have the time or the energy for him. Whoever my One is, he waited too goddamned long, and now I’m forty-eight years old and I’m pissed off and I’m tired. I’ve got a few good years left to have a mediocre time in bed, and I have no intention of letting Real True Love screw with that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not following.”
She sighed. “You know the guy I’ve been seeing? Wally Frankel?”
“Sure. The new pharmacist at the CVS, right?”
“Right. So, he’s smart. He makes me laugh. He’s above average in the sack. He has this one move where he—”
“Yeah, that’s enough.”
“People over fifty have sex. Deal with it. Anyway, it’s all starting to make me a little nervous. If he’s The One and he made me wait this long, I need to beat him to death with my Dyson, and I really like my Dyson. If I know he’s not anything too special, then I can keep him.”
“So you want him to not be The One?”
She grimaced. “For fuck’s sake, Easter, don’t split your infinitives.” She sipped her coffee, then sighed. “I’m sorry. That was rude. My therapist tells me I should take responsibility when I’m rude, so … I apologize. Sometimes I forget you’re an adult now. You still look like you did when you were in my class.”
“I do not,” I said. “That was ten years ago.”
“Oh, please,” she said. “You’ve got a rack that kicks ass and an ass that takes names. It’s unnatural and you know it, which is why you dress like that.”
“What’s wrong with the way I dress?” I glanced down at my outfit: jeans, a blue cotton buttondown shirt some guy had left in my dorm room back in the day, a white tank underneath, and work boots.
“You’ve always been one of those girls,” she went on. “The girls who roll out of bed with perfectly tousled hair and have men waiting in a line just on the slim chance you might deign to kick ’em in the balls. You’re not like the rest of us, Easter. You snap your fingers, you can have any man you want. The rest of us have to work for it, and even then, more often than not, what we work for still drips on the toilet seat.”
“They all drip,” I said.
Ms. Troudt put her hands up. “Hey, don’t get defensive.”
“Then don’t be offensive. Christ. If I had a nickel for every woman who told me I wasn’t like the rest of you, I’d have all the nickels. Speaking of which”—I nudged the vial toward her—“that’ll be fifty bucks.”
Ms. Troudt picked up her purse. “Look, I’m sorry if I was rude. Again. But women like you don’t understand what it’s like to get your heart smashed in a million pieces.”
Right, I thought, but then decided it wasn’t worth it. Deidre had done me a favor by pissing me off; I was going to enjoy taking her money now, no guilt.
“So,” she said, motioning to the vial, “I drink this on Friday, and the next time I see Wally…?”
“You have to see him physically in person within twenty-four hours, and if he’s The One, then you’ll see a glow around him, like an aura.”
She snorted, then her eyes widened as she looked at me. “Oh, you’re serious. And what if I see nothing?”
“Then he’s not The One.”
She stared at the vial, deep in thought. I raised my hand to wave for Liv to come refresh the coffee, but she was still talking to Nick and the other guy. Just at that moment, she shifted her gaze around the room until her eyes landed on mine, and that was when I saw the tense look on her face. Liv had been through a lot in the last year, and she wasn’t set off easily.
Something was going on.
“Well, what the hell, right?” Ms. Troudt said, opening her wallet. “You only live once.”
“Yeah,” I said absently, my eyes still on Liv, who was focused again on my brother and Random Guy.
Then Random Guy turned to glance around the restaurant, and everything else faded out of existence.
There, existing in my world as if he had the goddamn right, was Leo North.
He looked different. Older. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been tall and lanky; he’d filled out a bit, his shoulders broader and his posture straighter. But as different as he looked, he also looked exactly the same, that slightly dopey smile and permanent five o’clock shadow and that long, stupid nose. I had kissed that nose, a thousand times. Marked it.
It was my goddamned nose and he had taken it with him, the bastard.
My lungs froze in my chest and I couldn’t take any air in. My stomach muscles clenched tight, sending waves of pain straight through to my back. I had an instinct to both laugh and cry at the same time. I snatched one of the menus from the holder behind the napkin dispenser and held it up in front of my face.
“Crap, crap, crap, crap,” I said, peering up over the menu.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Ms. Troudt said, following my line of sight. “Is that Leo North? You know, he’s one of the few students I ever actually liked. Hey, North!” She waved in the air.
I let the menu flop down and stared at her. “What the hell is wrong with you? Why would you do that?”
Her eyes widened. “What?”
I released a breath, pushing the panic away. If I couldn’t escape, I had to be cool. I put both hands lazily on either side of my coffee mug as Leo walked over. He was smiling at Ms. Troudt, his affable, unassuming manner unchanged, even after all this time. He was the kind of guy no one looked at twice, so incredibly ordinary and average in every way except …
… except that he was my Leo, and I knew better.
He let out a shout of genuine delight. “Ms. Troudt? Hey! Good to see you.”
Ms. Troudt got up from her side of the booth and shook his hand, and she happened to angle herself away from me, which happened to angle him to face me, and our eyes met and he froze. I was trapped, unable to melt into the floor and unable to climb over the booth and run, so I gave a quick wave. He seemed to choke a little on nothing, the air I guess, which I found kind of gratifying. Ms. Troudt released his hand and he took a moment to pull his focus off me and make eye contact with her again. It was enough time for her to look at me, then at him, then back at me.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” She nudged Leo on the shoulder. “We know. She’s pretty. Stop staring.” She turned to me and gave a cocky quirk of her brow, as if to say, Told you so. I couldn’t work up a reaction; she turned back to Leo.
“Hey, didn’t you run off to become a Tibetan monk or something?”
“Catholic priest, actually,” Leo said, his voice still a little choked.
“Same difference. And you’re not the first of my former students to turn to God. I’m trying not to take it personally. Where the hell have you been?”
“South Dakota,” I said, unable to keep the edge out of my voice.
Ms. Troudt looked at me, and she seemed to finally pick up on the fact that something was going on here.
“South Dakota. Wow.” She shifted her focus to Leo. “What brings you back here?”
Leo cleared his throat. “Um, Nick and Peach’s wedding, actually,” he said, not taking his eyes off me. I don’t know how long we froze there, just staring at each other, but it was long enough for Ms. Troudt to become visibly uncomfortable.
“Yeah. This is weird. I’m done here.” She put a fifty-dollar bill in my hand, swiped the vial off the table, and tucked it into her purse. “I’ve got to get going. Those mouth-breathers in summer school aren’t going to terrify themselves. See you kids later.”
It took a moment for Leo to respond, but then he smiled at Ms. Troudt and nodded. “Right. Later.”
She shot one last look at me, rolled her eyes, and left. Leo stood where he was.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I said.
He sank into the seat across from me. I wanted to kick him in the shins under the table and throw myself into his arms and cry. At the same time.
“So, Father Leo,” I said, keeping my voice as cool and light as I could. “Nick said you weren’t coming in for the wedding. Did you change your mind? Are you officiating now or something?”
“You don’t need to call me Father,” he said.
“You’re not wearing your collar.”
He released a deep breath. “Yeah, I’m aware of that.”
“Are you allowed to not wear it? Isn’t that against the rules or something?”
“Seems like the kind of thing that would be against the rules. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to mass, but as I recall, they’ve got rules for pretty much everything. I hear they’re frowning on the whole Jesus-in-the-potato-chip thing now.”
“Stacy.” He reached across the table, then hesitated, his fingertips close enough to mine that I could feel the warmth coming from them. That’s probably scientifically impossible, but I used to be able to feel him when he was around the corner in the high school hallway, and I could feel him now, damnit. Still.
Then, on their own power, our fingers intertwined, so naturally, as if ten years hadn’t gone by without a word between us.
As if none of it had ever happened.
Leo smiled. “I had no idea it would be this good to see you again.”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. My heart was pounding and my legs felt wobbly and I kinda wanted to throw up, but I couldn’t let go. It felt too good to be connected to him again, like water after so many years in the desert I’d forgotten what water was, let alone how much I needed it.
“Well, don’t let it be too good to see me,” I said, trying to recover my usual swagger and succeeding only the tiniest bit. “I’m very sure that’s against the rules.”
One side of his mouth quirked up a bit; his eyes focused on our hands. “Actually … that’s not my life anymore.”
I didn’t feel a response to that at all, although I knew I would later. I would feel all of this later, it was going to haunt me for days if not weeks if not months if not forever, but for the moment, a strange calm was settling over me. The wave of the tsunami was huge and hovering over my head, but for the moment I was dry in the curl of it, although it was inevitably going to crash on me. The only question was when.
“You left the priesthood?” I asked, almost choking on the words.
“No,” he said. “I left before it got that far.”
“You were gone ten years.”
“I left the church before I took my vows, about three years ago. I’ve been working in construction, actually.”
“Construction?” I nodded, trying to process it all. “Well, that explains the shoulders.”
He gave me a confused look. “I’m sorry?”
“You should be,” I said, the words coming out more biting than I had intended, but what the hell? Leo was back and he wasn’t a priest.
His expression softened, and he leaned forward a little, his hold on my hand tightening. “Look, Stacy—”
I held up a hand to stop him from talking. “Not yet. Can’t do that yet. If ever.”
He nodded, and sat back again. “Okay.”
“So,” I said, forcing a brittle laugh. “Construction. That’s kind of a jump from being all Man of God and whatnot, huh?”
The words were coming out. Were they making sense? I had no idea. I was holding Leo North’s hand in CCB’s. Nothing made sense.
“I needed to do something else for a while,” he said. “I had a lot of stuff to figure out.”
“I bet. Why’d you leave?”
He released a breath. “It’s … complicated.”
“Everything’s complicated,” I said. “Don’t think. Just answer. Why’d you leave?”
He met my eyes and smiled, but it was a small, sad smile. “I guess I … kind of lost my faith.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. It had been ridiculous, because I knew Leo hadn’t left me for the church. The church was just something he did after leaving me, but I’d always felt like the church was the other woman. All these years, every time I walked past St. Sebastian’s, I kind of wanted to throw a drink at it and call it a whore.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to laugh. It’s not funny.”
“Sure it is, a little.” That was my Leo. Always kind. Always understanding. Always forgiving. Such a good man.
“Still.” I took a breath. “I’m sorry. I really am.” I meant it, mostly.
He met my eyes, and put his other hand over our joined ones. “Stacy, the shock of this is going to wear off in a minute, and once that happens, I don’t know if we’re going to be able to speak to each other.”
“Why wouldn’t we be able to speak to each other?”
He shrugged. “You’re going to be mad. And you get … you know. Kind of hard to reach when you’re mad.”
I let out the most awkward and unconvincing laugh of my twenty-nine years. “Dude, don’t flatter yourself. I’m over it. What’s your name again?”
He kept his eyes on mine, that small, sad smile still on his face. My throat felt tight and my vision was going dark at the edges; he was the only thing in the world all of a sudden, just my Leo looking at me, and for that split second, everything was like it used to be.
And then Liv showed up and refilled my coffee mug and Leo released my hand and a brick wall of pain hit me hard. It was almost funny. I hadn’t seen him in ten years, and suddenly not touching him hurt. What the hell was that about?
“Hey,” Liv said, watching me carefully. “I’m sorry. It’s been really busy. Is your coffee cold?”
I didn’t say anything. My heart had stopped dead in my chest, and I couldn’t breathe, and I had maybe thirty seconds before I passed out.
“Leo, so good to see you again,” Liv said quickly. “I think maybe you should go now.”
Liv’s protectiveness was so stark, it almost made me laugh. Of course she would be protective; she had been the one to peel me up off the floor when Leo left, and she’d had to practically nurse me through that first year. She had invested a lot of energy in gluing me back together, and there was no way in hell she was going to let Leo North shatter me into a million jagged pieces again. She stood at my side of the booth, her arms crossed and her stance wide, her long dark curls flowing over her shoulders, making her look like a warrior goddess, and her message was clear: Get out or die trying to stay.
“Okay,” Leo said, and he seemed barely able to get the word out. “I’ll, um … I’ll see you guys later.”
A few moments, and the bells on the door chimed; he was gone. I tried to take in a deep breath, but I couldn’t. My heart was beating again, though, so that was good.
Leo North. Leo goddamned North.
Liv slid into the seat he’d vacated and leaned over the table. “I called Brenda. She’ll be here to cover for me in fifteen minutes, then I’m taking you home and we’ll talk, okay?” She reached out and touched my hands. “Are you okay?”
“What?” I made a dismissive gesture with one numbed arm. “I’m fine.” I felt my left eyelid twitch, but Liv didn’t seem to see it; she was glancing at her watch.
She turned back to face me. “Fifteen minutes. I swear, and then I’m coming for you.”
“Sure, great,” I said.
The bells on the front door chimed again, followed by some gasps in the dining room, so I looked up. Peach was in her wedding dress, looking like Bridezilla Barbie, down to the platinum-blond hair and the blue eye shadow. Eleanor Cotton, Nodaway Falls’s seamstress laureate, trailed behind Peach, cursing and holding up armfuls of tulle and satin as best she could. Peach glanced around, one hand holding her veil to her poufy coif, the other clutched around her phone. She saw us, and headed over, dragging Eleanor in her wake.
“Oh, thank God!” Peach said. “I was at my fitting when I got a text from Nick!”
“No kidding,” Liv said flatly, and I would have laughed if I had it in me. I was still, for the moment, huddled up dry in the curl of a tsunami wave, awaiting the moment when it would inevitably crash down on me.
Peach put her hand flat on the table, leaned over toward me, and stage-whispered, “Leo’s in town!”
“We know,” Liv said, but Peach didn’t acknowledge her. It was a dramatic moment, and those didn’t happen too often around here. This was Peach’s horse, and she was gonna goddamn ride it.
Peach stood up straight and put her hand to her forehead. “He just showed up. He RSVP’d that he wasn’t coming, then he called Nick this morning from the airport. Totally out of the blue. I swear, I didn’t know until just now, or I would have told you.”
“Fuck!” Eleanor stuck her thumb in her mouth, apparently bitten by one of the thousand pins in Peach’s dress. She glared at Peach. “I’m adding hazard pay to your invoice,” she said around her thumb.
Peach pulled Eleanor’s hand out, looked at the thumb, and gave it back. “Oh, please. I’m an obstetrics nurse. Don’t complain to me until you’re seven centimeters dilated.” She turned to me. “Did you hear me? Leo’s in town.”
“We know,” Liv said again, a little louder this time. “He was just here.”
Peach’s eyes locked on me in alarm. “Oh. God. Stace! Are you okay? Do you need a drink? Happy Larry’s opens at noon.”
“I’m fine.” I forced a laugh that sounded hollow even to my own ears.
Liv pushed up from the table, looking wretched. “I really have to go. Brenda will be here soon and we’ll go back to my place, okay?”
“No, guys, really. I think I just want to be alone,” I said, but no one was listening.
“Okay,” Peach said to Liv. “I’ll stay here with you until Liv’s ready, and we’ll all go.”
“You’re not going anywhere in that goddamned dress,” Eleanor said, amping up the Brooklyn in her accent.
Peach turned on her. “Can’t you see we’re in crisis here?”
Eleanor narrowed her eyes. For a seamstress, she was pretty scary. “You wanna be in crisis? Try going somewhere in that dress.”
“Really,” I said. “Guys, I’m fine. It was ten years ago. Stop making such a big deal out of it.”
Liv looked at me, nibbling her lip, and Peach crossed her arms over her middle. They glanced at each other doubtfully, and I managed to get up from the table all by myself, which I thought was pretty impressive.
“I have a load of work to do,” I said, stepping around Peach’s huge dress. “And I’m tired. I think I might nap.”
I kissed Peach on the cheek. “Thanks for coming so fast.”
I patted Eleanor on the shoulder. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”
I reached out and squeezed Liv’s hand, pressing the money from Deidre Troudt into her palm. It was a hell of a tip, but I didn’t care. I just needed to get out of there, fast. I didn’t have time to do the math on two cups of coffee and personal bodyguard services. “I’ll call you later.”
They might have responded to me; I don’t know. As I walked out of Crazy Cousin Betty’s, I couldn’t hear anything but a big, crashing wave.
Copyright © 2014 by Lani Diane Rich