I know we’re not supposed to talk about writing here, it’s not a business space. But a big part of my ReFabbing for this year has been exactly this; remembering who I am as a writer. I lost that for a long time, and I wrote not one but two drafts of this book that got thrown away. 120,000 words over the course of a year. The book is eight months late. My editor has probably had quite enough of me and is sorry she ever signed me. She’s a wonderful, talented, smart woman and I wouldn’t blame her a bit for feeling that way. A Little Night Magic took the life out of me, and it went through so many painful revisions to get where it finally ended up that I was sure I’d lost whatever it was that I had in the first place that made me a writer. My career was over, my identity was shifting, I was no longer who I used to be. Then I proceeded to flounder through the next book, rendering the hard work she’d done on the first one pretty much useless. This next book will be so late that we’ll in essence be starting over, and that sucks for her.
At the same time, I’m standing here on the other side incredibly proud of myself. From Thanksgiving of 2008, when I first consciously acknowledged the fact that my first marriage was in a world of hurt, to now, living in a different state and blissfully remarried to a wonderful man, I changed, drastically. Many of you rode that ride with me on the Lucy March blog. And then, when that experiment was over, I disappeared. I’d opened so many veins during those years, strained so hard to change and grow and rebuild my decimated tower, that I had nothing left.
And in that circumstance, I tried to write.
I’m not surprised it didn’t work. I had zero confidence, and I kept trying to write the book from the outside in, thinking about it logically rather than feeling my way through it. That doesn’t work for me. Finally, after years of learning and stretching and growing and trying so damn hard, I stopped trying. I let it come to me.
And it did. I found my magic again. I went to the WIP with excitement instead of dread. And now, here I am on the other side, with a manuscript I wrote in three months, which I’m actually happy with. I don’t know if it’ll be enough to mend my relationship with my publisher or get my editor’s respect back. I don’t have control over that. I adore both my publisher and my editor and I have no defense except to say that had I any idea what I was in for, I never would have signed that contract. Being unprofessional makes my teeth grate, and looking back on everything, that’s what I hate the most. I’m a great writer. No, scratch that; I’m a fabulous writer. The only thing I can say in my defense is that I did the absolute best I could, and I worked my ass off. And now I have a book that I’m proud of, and even if I never work in this town again, that’s worth it. That’s a Win.
So, because of that, I feel that sharing the first scene with you, the first words I wrote that crooked their finger at my magic and seduced it back, is legit in this space. I won’t talk more about the business, I won’t make it about me and my book, I’m not using this space to promote. This is a celebration, and dead proof to anyone else here who writes (or does anything creative) that every spark can be relit, even the ones thought long dead.
And with that, here’s my opening scene. Hope you like it.
THAT TOUCH OF MAGIC: CHAPTER ONE
“Magic’s kind of high maintenance,” I said in low tones to Deidre Troudt as we huddled over the tiny purple potion bottle that sat between us on the linoleum booth table at the back of 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. “EULA me up. 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 mid-air to stare at me with those piercing brown eyes, and in a heartbeat, it felt like I was back in her high school English class. 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 think that’s relevant.”
She lowered her coffee cup and quirked her head, then motioned to the vial between us. “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. To the untrained eye, Nodaway Falls seems like any other small, backward, and economically failing upstate New York town. It wasn’t, but those of us in the know tried to keep that as quiet as we could, even from some of the fellow residents. People who don’t want to believe in magic will do most of the rationalizing work for you; your job is to give them as little as possible to rationalize.
Ms. Troudt huffed, then said, “Okay. Whatever,” and took a sip of her coffee.
“Right,” I said, and sighed. “Second rule—”
“No, wait,” Ms. Troudt said, and set her cup down. “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. So, are you sure you believe in one true love?”
She pushed her glasses up her nose. “Yes. I do.”
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. Her anger issues were legendary, but she was smart and kickass and she had all us kids in her class scared to death of her, which made me kind of love her. I almost felt bad taking her money for something like this.
Almost. I had car payments.
“Okay, then,” I went on. “The other thing: No messing with free will. You can’t dump this in anyone’s coffee and make him love you. Doesn’t work like that.”
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. “Well, right. Because it’s made to show you your one true love, right?”
I craned my head around her, hoping Liv would notice my pain and bring me a refresh on my coffee, but it was lunch rush and I was in the back and she was moving so fast she left motion trails behind her as she raced through the dining room. Sometimes it was great being best friends with the waitress; sometimes it meant being the last to get my coffee refilled.
“Huh?” I glanced back at Ms. Troudt.
She gave me the same look she used to give me when I drifted off in her class. “It reveals your one true love to you, right?”
“Yeah. Right. But sometimes people try to use it on the loved one, and it’s bad news, so I just want to be super clear. You can’t mess with free will. You give someone a… homeopathic solution without their free will and it’s gonna backfire, big time.”
“All right.” She reached into her bag and pulled out her wallet. “Is that it?”
“No,” I said. “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 the One.”
Ms. Troudt nodded. “Fair enough. Anything else?”
“You’ve got a week before it loses its power. After that, it’s expensive Kool-Aid. Oh, and you’re gonna get your strongest results on the day of a new or full moon. There’s a full on Friday.”
“Friday,” she said, staring at the vial with this weird look on her face. It was uncomfortable seeing her like that, almost vulnerable and everything.
“Look, Ms. Troudt—”
“Knock it off with the Ms. Troudt stuff, Easter,” she said. “You’re selling me magic potion so I can deal with my love life. Call me Deidre.”
“Fine, Deidre.” That was weird. I hesitated, then pushed it. “You can call me Stacy, you know.”
She snorted. A predictable response, but that’s what I liked about her. She’d never spent a day being polite in her life.
She was kind of my hero.
I leaned forward. “It’s not too late. You don’t have to buy this from me. I’ll sell it to someone else before the week is out. It’s no big deal.”
She stared at me for a moment, then said in the same tone she’d used to send me to detention back in the day, “Oh, I’m buying it.”
“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.
“—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. Who ever 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 love screw with that. This guy I’ve been seeing is… well, smart. And funny. He makes me laugh. He’s above average in the sack. To be honest with you, it’s starting to make me a little nervous. If I know he’s not anything too special, then I can keep him.” A small smile lighted on her lips, and then she squelched it. “If he’s The One, I need to beat him to death with my Dyson. And I really like my Dyson.”
“So you want him to not be the one?”
She grimaced. “For fuck’s sake, Easter, don’t split your infinitives. It’s like nails on a chalkboard.” 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. You know how annoying that is?”
I snorted. “I do not. That was ten years ago.”
“Oh, please,” she said. “You got a rack that kicks ass and an ass that takes names. Something in your genetics just flips both time and gravity off. I’ve seen your mother. It’s unnatural and you know it, which is why I think you dress like that.”
“What’s wrong with the way I dress?” I stiffened and glanced down at my outfit; jeans, a blue cotton button-down shirt some guy had left in my bedroom, a white tank underneath, and work boots.
“No offense, but you’ve always been one of those girls. The girls who roll out of bed with perfectly tousled hair and have men standing in 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 finger, 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. “And any woman can get any man she wants. She just can’t care if he stays past the good part.”
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. Okay, fine. What color will it be?”
“I don’t know. Blue, maybe.” I couldn’t be sure what Deidre would see. Liv saw blue when she tested it for me with her boyfriend, Tobias. I was taking her word for it.
“And if I see nothing?” she asked.
“Then he’s not The One.”
She stared at the vial, deep in thought. I glanced up to look for Liv, but she was by the front door, talking to two men. One, I could tell from the shiny back of his bald-ass head, was my brother Nick. The other guy was a little taller, a little thinner, with dark brown hair that looked like it had been cut with a weed wacker. One of Nick’s friends in for the wedding? That wasn’t until Saturday, though. Seemed a little early for—
“Okay. What the hell, right?” Ms. Troudt opened her wallet. Then the guy with my brother turned to glance around the restaurant, and the rest of my world shut down.
There, existing in my world as if he had the goddamn right, was Leo North.
He looked different. Older. He also looked exactly the same, that lopsided face and pointy chin and permanent five o’clock shadow and the 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 flipped. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.
But mostly, more than anything in the world, I wanted to sink down under the table and hide until closing.
“Easter?” Ms. Troudt snapped her fingers in front of my face. “Easter, if you’re going to hurl, aim that way, okay? This is a new skirt and I’m on a teacher’s salary.”
I blinked a few times, and my lungs started to work again. My surroundings returned and the panic hit as I slumped down in the booth.
“Easter?” I must have looked pretty bad, because Ms. Troudt almost looked concerned, and this was a woman who once snatched a pregnancy test from a girl and made her wait until the end of class for the results.
“You don’t have an umbrella or anything, do you?” I whispered.
She stared at me. “Clear skies. Why the hell would I have an umbrella?”
I swallowed. “Maybe he’ll leave. Maybe I can just sit here really still and he won’t notice me. That works sometimes, right?”
“Are you avoiding a bear? Then yes.” She eyed me, looking uncomfortable. “Are you about to have an emotional thing? I’m not good with that. Let me get Liv.” She raised her hand to motion toward Liv at the front of the restaurant.
“What are you doing?” I sat up and grabbed her hand, pushing it down to the table top, then grabbed 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 so 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 Leo, and that made him permanently, irrevocably, the most special man in the world. At least my world.
He let out a genuine laugh of 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, and then Ms. Troudt released his hand and he took a moment to pull his eyes off of 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, and she turned back to Leo.
“Hey, didn’t you run off to become a Tibetan monk or something?”
“Priest, actually,” Leo said, his voice still a little choked. “I… uh… yeah.”
“No kidding. Well, you’re not the first of my old 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 notice and become uncomfortable.
“Yeah, I’m done here.” She reached out to me, putting a fifty dollar bill in my hand, and then 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 guys later.”
It took a moment for Leo to respond, but then he smiled at Ms. Troudt and nodded. “Right.”
She shot one last look at me, rolled her eyes and left. Leo slid into the seat she’d vacated. We stared at each other in silence for a while, and 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.”
“Stacy.” He reached across the table and touched the tips of his fingers tentatively to mine. Instantly, as if on their own power, our fingers intertwined, so naturally, as if ten years hadn’t gone by without a hint of contact. He smiled. “God, 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. I couldn’t get up and walk away. 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 a very little 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. “I left.”
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 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?”
“No,” he said. “I left before it got that far.”
“You were gone ten years.”
“Takes a long time to become a priest.”
I stared at him, not sure how to process it all. I hadn’t really thought about it too much. A few months after Leo disappeared, Nick had said he went off to South Dakota to become a priest, and I had told him never to talk to me about Leo again, and to his credit, he hadn’t.
“Wow,” I said, marveling at it all. “When did you leave? Why?”
“Three years ago.”
“Three years?” I felt a little dizzy. “And what? You don’t write, you don’t call?”
“I needed some time,” 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. I slapped my free hand over my mouth and spoke from behind my fingers. “I’m sorry. That’s not funny.”
“Sure it is,” he said, smiling, and that was my Leo. Always kind. Always understanding. Always forgiving. Such a good man.
“Still,” I said. “I’m sorry. I really am.” I meant it, mostly.
He met my eyes, and put his other hand over our joined ones. “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’m not going to be mad. I was mad. I was livid. You missed that part.” 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. 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 Leo smiling 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 in the face. It was almost funny. I hadn’t seen him in ten years, and 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. I couldn’t. My heart had stopped beating.
“Leo, so good to see you again,” Liv said quickly. “I think 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 first 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 knock me into a million shards 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. Hell, even the empty circular tray under her arm looked like a shield, and her message was clear.
Olivia Kiskey was not a woman you messed with.
“Yeah,” Leo said, and he seemed barely able to get the word out.
And then, he was gone.
Liv slid into the seat where he’d been 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, and my hand flopped awkwardly at the end of my wrist. “I’m fine.” I felt my left eyelid twitch, but Liv didn’t see it. She was glancing behind her at the clock.
She turned back to face me. “Fifteen minutes. I swear, and then I’m coming for you.”
“Yeah, 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, with Eleanor Cotton, the dressmaker, cursing and holding up armfuls of skirt and train as best she could. Peach glanced around, one hand holding her veil to her platinum blonde head, the other clutched around her phone. It took a moment of glancing around, but then she saw us and darted 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 in the curl of the wave, awaiting the crash.
Peach put her hand flat on the table, leaned over toward me and whispered, “Leo’s in town. He just showed up. He RSVP’d that he wasn’t coming, then calls Nick this morning from the airport. I swear, I didn’t know until just now, or I would have told you.”
“Fuck!” Eleanor said and stuck her thumb in her mouth, apparently bitten by one of the thousand pins in Peach’s dress. She glared at Peach. “I’m raising my fee.”
Peach waved a dismissive hand at her, but kept her eyes on me. “Did you hear me? Leo’s in town.”
“We know,” Liv said. “He was just here.”
Peach straightened, her eyes locked on me in alarm. “Oh. God. Stace. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I forced a brittle laugh that sounded hollow even to my own ears.
Liv pushed up from the table. “I really have to go. Brenda will be here soon and we’ll go back to my place, okay?”
“Okay,” Peach said. “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 fifty dollar bill from Deidre Troudt into her palm. “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.