A Little Night Magic (Chapter 1)

There's magic linoleum at Crazy Cousin Betty's Waffle House.

Okay, maybe it's not magic, exactly. It's this one weird sparkly blue square, in the midst of all the solid, checkerboarded blues and whites. I first noticed it when I was six, and I remember tugging on Betty's periwinkle blue skirt and pointing down at the floor. Betty, who'd seemed ancient to me even then, knelt down to level her wrinkled eyes with mine.

"Oh, that? It's a magic square," she'd said. "Step on it. Make a wish. It'll come true."

"Really?"

She winked. "You bet. But don't go just stepping on it every time you want a new doll, or a motorcycle. Magic's not to be messed with, Olivia." And then she stood up, mussed my hair, and moved on.

I didn't believe her. Even at that tender age, I could tell bullcrap when I heard it.

But then, right after I'd started working at CCB's, I desperately wanted Robbie Pecorino to ask me to prom. On a whim, I stepped on the square late one night, and boom – two days later, he asked me. So, that was cool. But then there was the time I wished my college boyfriend, Charlie, would give me a little more space, and he ended up dumping me to date his roommate, Neil. Finally, six years ago, when I was twenty-two, I used it to wish my mother didn't have cancer anymore.

Two months later, she died.

I stopped wishing after that. I mean, I didn't really believe that it was magic and could grant wishes, but … I kind of believed it was magic and could grant wishes. And that it was a sadistic little bastard, to be avoided at all costs. Whenever I took orders at Booth 9, I always stood either too close or too far away, just in case I absently wished for anything while standing on the square. Still, on that Friday night in June as I swished my mop over the square, I considered, just for a second, making the wish that would finally help me get my stupid act together.

"You're not done yet?"

I looked up from where I was standing in the middle of the dim and empty dining room, mop handle in my hand as one white-Kedded foot hovered over the square, and there was Tobias Shoop, CCB's night cook, his broad form clad in his standard outfit of crumpled jeans and a black T-shirt. He had a smile that was a little too big for his face, and one of his front teeth sort of overlapped the other, and his five o'clock shadow came in almost while you watched, but I loved him, goddamnit. And I had to do something about that, because loving this man was gonna kill me. I couldn't wish the love away with him standing right there looking at me, though, so I pulled my foot back and started mopping again. "Do I look like I'm done?"

His bulk nearly blocked all the light streaming from the kitchen into the dining room as he leaned against the doorjamb, simply watching me in that way he had of simply … watching. He gave me one of his classic Tobias looks – a combination of total focus and mild smolder that I had been stupid enough to mistake for romantic interest – and strode toward me. "You need help?"

"Nope." I set the mop aside and looked at him, his dark hair glinting with premature strands of gray at the temples. My fingers itched to run through that hair, to indulge in the same traitorous instinct that had screwed everything up in the first place.

"I'm almost done," I said coolly. "You go. I'll lock up."

His response to this was to cross to Booth 9, haul himself up on the table, and stare at me.

I continued mopping. "You can leave, you know. Believe it or not, before you got here, I used to lock up by myself all the time."

"I don't mind."

I do, I thought. I swished my mop over the square, wishing he would just go away and leave me alone. Tragically, I wasn't standing on the square at the moment I wished it and so he remained right where he was.

"You ever going to stop being mad at me?" he asked.

"I'm not mad," I said automatically, then swished my mop over the square again. I wish you'd break out in boils. Swish.

"I'm not an idiot, Liv. I know you're pissed." He let out a long sigh. "Can we at least talk about it?"

"I'd be happy to, but I don't know what you're talking about." Swish swish. I hope your ear hair grows freakishly long. Swish.

"Bullshit."

I stopped mopping and looked at him. "If you're trying to get on my good side, you suck at it."

"I'm not trying to get on your good side," he said. "I just want us to be like we used to be. You know. Before you got all mad."

Grow a clubfoot. "I'm not mad."

He hopped off the table and grabbed my arm, and I felt the electricity rush through me, the way it always did at his touch. I pulled my arm away and forced myself to look at him, doing my best to maintain an expression of steely indifference, but likely landing somewhere between abject adoration and poorly suppressed rage.

"You're saying we're fine, then?" he asked, his tone thick with skepticism.

"Yep."

He crossed his arms over his chest, challenging me. "Then come over tonight and watch The Holy Grail."

I looked at him, softening for a moment, remembering all the nights we'd spent over the last year and a half watching stupid movies, talking for hours about nothing and everything. Then those memories had a head-on collision with the memory of what happened during Movie Night last Friday, and I stopped softening.

A clubfoot and a hunchback. "Can't. I have to pack."

He released my arm. "Pack? For where?"

I took a breath, feeling a little nervous but keeping what I hoped was an air of confidence in my tone. "Scotland."

He drew back in surprise. "Scotland? Why?"

"Because that's where the dart landed," I said, keeping a sharp tone of defiance in my voice. "I'm starting in Scotland, anyway. I'm going to travel all over Europe. You know, like college kids do after graduation."

"What? Backpacking?"

"Yeah. The idea just popped in my head, and at first I thought, Wow, that's insane, but the more I think about it the more awesome it sounds. I've got money saved up, and between that and the sale of the house – "

"You're selling your house?"

" – I should have a good six months before I have to settle down and get a job somewhere, but by then I figure I'll know where I want to be. I'll waitress again, maybe, but this time in Italy, or Vienna. Or, if I have to come back to the States, maybe Atlanta, or San Diego. Somewhere warm, I think."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

I stopped to look at him, taking him in. He was broadly built, and had the kind of quiet strength about him that no one ever tested. He was smart, confident, and thoughtfully quiet, until you got him talking about the things that fascinated him, like sci-fi/fantasy novels and the way conspiracy theories spread like viruses of the intellect. He was the simultaneous symbol of everything that was right with my life and everything that was wrong.

And it was time to let him go.

"I'm talking about leaving. Going. Good-bye."

He absorbed this for a moment. "If this is because of what happened between us last week – "

I snorted, a little too loudly. "Back it up, Superego. Not everything is about you."

"The timing seems a little conspicuous, that's all."

I shrugged. "I mean, yeah, sure, throwing myself at you after a year and a half of waiting for you to make the first move, only to be rejected and then completely ignored for three days – "

"Christ, Liv, I said I was sorry."

" – might or might not have inspired me to print out a picture of you and put it on my corkboard, and I might or might not have thrown a dart at you and missed, hitting my world map poster by mistake."

"Well," he said flatly. "At least you're not mad."

"I will neither confirm nor deny any of that, but the fact is, when I blew the plaster dust off my world map and saw that gaping hole next to Edinburgh, it hit me what a great idea it was." I sighed and looked at him. "I'm twenty-eight, Tobias. I'm tired of waiting for my life to come find me, so I'm gonna go find it."

He stared at me. "This doesn't make any sense."

And suddenly, insanely, I felt tears come to my eyes. "I have to leave first."

He shook his head. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about you." The terror on his face sent a jolt of pain through me, and I held up my hand to keep him from saying anything, not that he was jumping at the chance. "Don't worry. I'm not going to kiss you again. I've learned my lesson."

"Liv – "

I held out my hand to stop him from talking. "You're not a small-town guy, Tobias. Someday you're going to leave, and when you do, if I haven't left first, I'm going to spend the rest of my life pining away for you. That's what happened to my mother with my father. I never even knew the son of a bitch, but whoever he was, he took part of her with him and she never got it back and that's not going to happen to me."

There was a long, horrible silence in which my heart sputtered along on the hope that he would take me in his arms, tell me that the rejection last Friday was all a misunderstanding, and wherever I went, he wanted to go with me. But all he said was, "When are you leaving?"

I curled the mop into my grip, holding it against my shoulder. "I'm giving myself some time to get the house on the market, and get all my stuff sold or into storage."

He took a step closer. "When?"

"My flight leaves on August tenth."

"You bought your ticket already?"

I shrugged. "Spontaneity without commitment is just wishful thinking."

"So … six weeks, then?"

"Yeah."

He nodded, then leaned back against the table at Booth 9, one foot absently resting on the square as he did. I would have worried, but Tobias wasn't the kind to make idle wishes. If he wanted something, he just went after it.

And if he didn't, he didn't.

He cleared his throat. "Every time you see a goat, I want a picture. You with the goat."

"What the hell are you talking about?" I said.

"Europe's lousy with goats. That way you won't forget."

Our eyes locked for a few moments, and I lost all reason. In a flash, a dozen scenarios rushed through my head. Him asking me to stay. Me asking him to come with me. Us together, giving the camera to a local, standing next to a goat, every scenario ending in a kiss …

… but that kind of thinking was exactly what I was trying to get away from. I swished my mop over the magic square again, and wondered if I could wish this love away through the mop, rather than through my feet.

"Liv?"

I looked up at him. "Go home. I can't do this with you standing right there."

"Do what? Mop?"

I glanced down at the square, then back at him. "No. Wish."

"Wish for what?" he said, and then the bells on the front door jingled.

"Oh, thank god you're open!"

I looked past Tobias's shoulder to see a short, roundish, middle-aged black woman standing in the open door, a swoosh of hot summer air ruffling the skirt of her bright orange sundress as it went into battle with our underpowered air-conditioning. "I took the first exit I could off the Thruway, but there is not a single light on down Main Street except yours. Ten o'clock at night. Y'all have some kind of power outage or something?"

"Welcome to nightlife in Nodaway Falls," I said, then looked at Tobias and whispered, "I must have forgotten to lock the door."

The woman smiled. "Nice name for a town, Nodaway Falls. I like a town with a nice name." Her voice had a tinge of Southern honey, and her face sparkled with goodwill. "I'm so glad you're open, as I just happen to have the most unnatural craving for waffles."

She took a stool at the counter and without so much as a look toward me, Tobias headed for her.

"Menu's gonna be kind of limited," he said. "We were just about to close, so most everything is put away, but I can whip up some quick waffles for you. You'll be done before Liv finishes mopping, anyway."

He gave me a lame half-smile, and I returned it. Ordinarily, a comment like that would have warranted some sort of rude gesture, but there was no ordinary for us now. Where we had been comfortable and rude before, now we had awkward politeness between us. The realization made me so sad that I had a sudden strong urge to curl up under Booth 9 and cry for a little while.

The woman raised a dismissive hand in the air. "Don't you worry, baby. I don't even need a menu. You just give me the sugariest, most fattening thing you've got."

"That'd be the chocolate Belgians, with hot fudge, vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream. You want the cherry on top or is fruit too healthy for you?"

The woman leaned forward. "Are they those little radioactive red ones, all soaked in sugar and artificial dye?"

"Maraschino?" he said. "Yep."

She ruminated, then said, "Give me four. And some coffee, please."

"You got it," Tobias said, and pulled out the baby coffeemaker the morning waitress, Brenda, kept under the counter for days when she had to open at the crack of dawn; our industrial coffeemaker didn't deliver the goods fast enough for Brenda. I set the mop in the pail and hurried over.

"I got it," I said, quickly rounding the counter and taking the coffeemaker from him. "It'll go quicker if we work together."

He eyed me for a moment. "Go home. I got this."

"Quit arguing and cook." I plugged in the baby coffeemaker, flipped open the filter basket, and grabbed the carafe to fill it with water. By the time I looked up, he'd already disappeared into the kitchen. I stared at the door, then was overcome by a strange tickle inside my nose. I sneezed, turning my head into my shoulder in classic waitress style.

"You feeling all right, baby?" the woman asked, watching me intently, as she set her purse, still open, on the counter next to her.

I picked up two mugs and set them on the counter, shaking my head to rid myself of the tingly sensation in my sinuses. "Yeah. Guess it's a bit of hay fever."

"I see," she said, her eyes still on me. "You get hay fever often?"

"Not typic – " and then I caught a scent of something sharp and sneezed again. I sniffed a couple of times and sneezed again. "Hell," I said once I recovered. "What is that?"

"Hmmm?" She reached for the ceramic bowl filled with sugar packets.

"That … smell. It's kind of tickly, like pepper but it smells more like … licorice, maybe?" I looked up to find the woman watching me, one eyebrow raised. She took her purse off the counter and set it on the stool next to her, then pushed the sugar packet bowl away with a sound of disgust.

"What is wrong with women these days, filling their bodies full of unnatural chemical substances until they're nothing but skin and bones? Let me tell you something, baby. Any man who can't appreciate a woman with a little meat on her doesn't like women much in the first place. You got any real sugar?"

It took me a moment to realize she'd asked me a question. "Oh. Sure." I reached under the counter and grabbed the sugar dispenser, then got some half & half from the cooler and set that in front of her as well. I pulled the carafe from the coffeemaker, poured us each a cup, and put it back. I left my coffee black, sipping it while she loaded up her mug. I don't really like black coffee, but the calories in cream and sugar weren't worth it, and it wasn't like I could dump my usual sugar-free nondairy creamer in my cup after her little speech.

"So, what's your name, baby?" she asked as she stirred.

"Olivia." I glanced down, motioned to my name tag. "Most people call me Liv."

"Davina Granville." She held out her hand, and we shook, and then she watched me for a moment. "Pretty name, Olivia." She sipped her coffee, keeping her eyes on me. "Are you named for anyone in your family?"

"Not from my mother's side."

She stopped stirring. "What about your father's?"

"I never knew my father." Behind me, Tobias slid a plate onto the pass and dinged the bell. I went to the pass, and when I reached for the plate, he tugged it back.

"Go home," he said.

"Give me the plate or neither one of us is ever going home," I said. He hesitated a moment, then released his grip on the plate. I slid it in front of Davina and said, "So, are you staying in town or just passing through?"

She angled her head at me. "I haven't decided yet, but I think I might be staying."

"Oh, there's a great bed-and-breakfast over on Augustine Street, just two lights down that way, take a left, there's a big, yellow nineteenth-century Victorian there, you can't miss it. Grace Higgins-Hooper and Addie Hooper-Higgins run it, and they've restored it completely to the period. It's amazing." I leaned in and spoke in a hushed tone, even though we were alone. "Come here for the breakfast, though. Addie puts flaxseed in everything she cooks."

Davina laughed, took a bite of her waffles, and closed her eyes. "Mmmm."

I smiled; I loved seeing people eat Tobias's waffles for the first time. "He's pretty good, huh?"

The metal kitchen door swung open, and Tobias came out. He sidled up next to me at the counter and bumped my hip with his, nudging me toward the door.

I straightened up. "All right. That's it. Go home. You're driving me nuts."

He took me by the elbow, pulled me aside, and said, "You go home."

"I need to finish mopping."

"I can mop."

I gently pulled my elbow from his grip. "You want me to not be mad at you anymore? Stop hovering. I'm not twelve. I can close by myself."

He looked at Davina, then back to me. "Fine, just … be careful, okay?"

"Yeah, whatever. Good night."

He let out a sigh, headed to the door, and finally left. I walked back over to the counter and leaned against the wall, then looked up to find Davina watching me in a way that made me kind of wish I hadn't sent Tobias home so quick.

She put her fork down. "Tell me something, baby. Do you believe in magic?"

I took a moment to adjust to the conversational whiplash, then said, "What? You mean like, magicians? Illusionists?"

"No." Her eyes were wide and, now that I got a good look, just a bit crazy. Not that I wasn't used to a fair amount of crazy – I'd lived in Nodaway my whole life, you wouldn't believe the bell curve we had on insanity here – but at that moment, it was making me a little uncomfortable.

"I need to mop." I headed out from behind the counter toward the mop bucket, where I figured I could finish my work and by the time I was done, she'd be done.

I finished mopping under the tables, then crossed back toward the booths and the magic square, figuring it couldn't hurt to wish this woman would finish up quickly and go. I glanced over to make sure she wasn't watching me.

She was. She had turned around on the stool, her back to the counter, her eyes sharp on me as if she was searching me for something. It was creepy. I wrapped one hand tight around the mop handle. She had size on me, but I had a hefty industrial mop and youth on my side.

"It's getting late," I said. "Why don't you just finish up and we can both get out of here?"

At that moment, without a word, she pulled something out of her purse and lobbed it at me. On instinct, I moved forward, one hand still on the mop handle, and grabbed it out of the air; it was an old gym sock, filled with some sand-type of substance and tied in a knot in the middle.

"Ugh." I pinched the cuff between my fingers and held it up and away from me, then looked at her. "Okay. You just busted the bell curve."

And then I sneezed. And I sneezed again. The weird peppery smell from earlier came back stronger, overwhelming my senses, and my eyes watered and I sneezed again.

"Yeah, I thought so," Davina said, and through my sneezing and watery eyes I could see her advancing toward me. "Now don't be alarmed, but you know it had to be done. It wasn't right, them not letting you be what you are."

I stared at her through watering eyes, my sinuses screaming. "What I am?" I sniffed and tried to blink away the discomfort in my eyes. "What am I?"

She stopped about a foot away from me, and angled her head, amazement in her smiling eyes as she watched me. "Why, you're magic."

"No, I'm not. I'm a wait – achoo! – waitress." The sharpness in my sinuses intensified, and I shook my head, trying to rid myself of it all, but it only got worse.

"Oh, you're much more than that, Olivia," she said, and took the sock from me. I backed away from her, sneezing again. She tossed it toward the stool where she'd been sitting, a good ten feet away, but still, I couldn't stop sneezing, and I was starting to panic. I stepped back again, and this time, my foot landed on the wet strands of mop and I lost my balance. I pulled at the mop handle, accidentally whapping myself in the face with it as my arms flailed like a cartoon character's. Davina shouted something and ran for me, but gravity won out and I fell, cracking the back of my head against the magic square. Dazed, I blinked a few times, then saw Davina leaning over me, saying something I couldn't make out, and looking concerned.

"What did you do to me?" I asked, or at least I tried to ask, but my ears were still ringing from the impact, so I'm not sure if any actual words came out.

"Liv!"

I opened my eyes what seemed like a second later, and there was Tobias, hovering over me.

"Oh. Hey." I pushed myself up on my elbows, and he helped me the rest of the way up, pulling me up by my arms, which were all pins and needles; I must have pinched a nerve or something when I hit the floor.

"What the hell happened?" He helped me up to sit in Booth 9, where I gratefully collapsed, feeling a little dizzy.

I shook my head out and looked at the spot where Davina had been; all that was left was her half-finished meal, and some bills laying next to the plate. No sign of her.

"I … slipped. On the mop."

He leaned over me, put his hands on either side of my face to hold me still as his gaze flicked back and forth between my eyes, as if measuring the pupils or something. The lights felt exceptionally bright, and I squinted, then swatted his hands away.

"I'm fine. I just fell. What are you doing here, anyway?"

"Forgot something. Came back. Found you splayed on the floor." He hit that last bit hard, driving his point home.

"Calm down, drama queen," I said. "I slipped. It's no big deal."

"You lost consciousness. It's a big deal." He surveyed me, looking worried. "You sure you're all right?"

I nodded, although I wasn't entirely sure; I felt a little dizzy, and all my limbs were tingling, but I didn't want him making a big deal out of anything. He'd have me in a hospital ER in a heartbeat if he suspected something was wrong. So I pulled on a smile, met his eye, and said, "I'm fine."

He relaxed a little and straightened up. "Okay. You sit here. I'm gonna clean up and walk you home."

"I don't need – " I began, but then his eyes narrowed and I knew the only thing standing between me and six pointless hours in a Buffalo emergency room was my compliance, so I held up my hands in surrender. "Fine."

He walked over to the counter and started bussing. For a long time, there was just silence, and then he said, "She left you a good tip."

"Yay," I said weakly, then leaned back in the booth and waited for Tobias to take me home.