“Twenty more minutes, Hector,” I say, “and I’m free of this hellcrater.” Hector, whose tawny eyes flared open when I spoke, now only flashes his needlelike teeth at me as he yawns. He blinks once, then curls back into sleep, his tail covering his front paws.
Hellcrater is not exactly a fair description, I concede as I look around my grandmother’s bookstore, making sure nothing is out of order. But hellcrater has become my favorite word lately. I have to go to the hellcrater, I like to say to my roommate, Agatha, whenever I’m summoned home for a holiday or for the weekend. Agatha always gives me a blank look in response.
“I think it must have been so awesome to have grown up in a commune,” she ventured once.
I didn’t bother explaining how it’s not really a commune. I can kind of see how it might sound like one from the edited descriptions I’ve given her. A big rambling stone farmhouse in upstate New York, with a revolving door of cousins and aunts and uncles and the adjoining barn and fields and gardens, which fuel the family business, Greene’s Herbal Supplies. All presided over by my mother and grandmother in their long, colorful skirts and shawls and strings of beads.
“I mean, I grew up Pine Park, Illinois, Tamsin. Come home with me sometime and you’ll see a hellcrater. And by the way, that’s not even a word.”
“I’d love to,” I answered eagerly at the time. And I meant it. I would love to see what it’s like to be part of a real, normal American household. Where your mother and grandmother aren’t reading tea leaves and entrails every other second. Or making strong-smelling brews from the garden herbs for dozens of village girls and women. They come after dark, rapping timidly on the back door, begging for something to slip into some man’s coffee or beer when he isn’t looking. The women’s eyes fill with grateful tears, those same eyes that’ll skitter away from meeting yours if you cross paths in town during daylight.
In a real, normal household people celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas or Hanukkah. Halloween is for the kids to dress up in costumes. It’s not a holiday when your whole family gathers in the deep woods behind your house and builds a bonfire and burns sweet herbs on the altar built to the four elements. Not a holiday when your whole family dances until the first fingernail of dawn scrapes at the hills and finally you can stumble home, bare legs scratched and bruised, hands and feet freezing, sick from Uncle Chester’s homemade wine.
“Hellcrater,” I say again now with feeling, as sheets of rain splatter against the oversize windows. At least there’s only one more week until I can take the train back to Grand Central. I yawn, stretch my fingers to the polished tin ceiling. The bell over the door chimes three notes softly and I drop my arms midstretch, startled. I’m not the only one. Hector leaps off the counter, lands with a disgruntled meow, and disappears between two stacks of poetry books that I just remembered I was supposed to re-price and shelve in the half-off section.
But instead, I glance at the man who has just entered. He’s tall, and since I’m tall myself, this is saying something. Tall and thin and muffled up in a dark overcoat that seems to overlap his frame. He politely folds his umbrella and puts it into the copper planter that serves as a stand by the door. His eyes find mine across the room. “Sorry,” he says, and his voice is a nervous wisp almost blown away by the wind.
The door swings shut, sealing us in.
“For what?” I ask lightly. “You haven’t even met me yet.” In my mind, I can hear Agatha groan. She despairs of me and my obvious one-liners.
He indicates the area around his feet. Puddles are spreading across the hardwood floor, trickling from the wet hem of his raincoat and sleeves.
“Oh,” I say. And then all my wit deserts me. “I . . . have a mop,” I finish brilliantly.
He nods, shakes his coat a little, then looks abashed as more rainwater drips onto the floor. “Are you about to close?”
His accent is faint but familiar, and I try to puzzle it out. “No,” I lie gamely, because after all he is a customer and I’ve made somewhere around twenty-two dollars in sales today.
I move behind the cash register and begin to straighten the stack of ledgers there, pretending not to watch the man as he drifts past the new fiction display. When he moves a little closer to the occult and arcane section, I feel the familiar prick of resignation. So he’s one of those. An out-oftowner, definitely, who thinks that magic can be found in a book. I sigh. Believe me, I want to shout at him, if magic could be found in a book, I would have found it long ago.
I fiddle with the cash register tape, then look up again, expecting to see the man fully immersed in Starling Ravenwood’s latest book, Spells for Living a Life of Good Fortune, our current bestseller. But he is nowhere to be seen.
I crane my neck, balance on one foot. Suddenly, he materializes from between the poetry shelves and makes his way toward me while holding up a slim bronze-colored book. Inexplicably, I find myself taking a step backward. My elbow grazes the coffeemaker that I insisted my grandmother buy if I was going to work in the store all summer. The pot gives a hiss, its oily contents sloshing a little as I jerk my arm forward. “Ouch.”
The man doesn’t seem to notice. Up close, I see the glints of gold stubble on his chin and that his thick, rainsoaked hair is dark blond. His stylish black-framed glasses reflect the light back at me but don’t allow me to see the color of his eyes. I put his age at about thirty. He’s not conventionally good looking, but there is something about him, something that makes me look away, then look back again.
“Do you have any more like this?” he asks, and the origin of his accent niggles at me again. The clipped syllables, the perfect enunciation. English, I decide. That definitely adds to the attraction factor. Agatha, for one, goes crazy for accents.
I flip open the cover, flick through the pages. “This is one I haven’t read,” I say, surprised because I’ve read most everything in the store. At least everything worth reading. The book seems to be a photo montage of my town’s origins. Pencil sketches and ink drawings of early mansions give way to glossy photos of autumn foliage, the town square, the waterfalls, and the cemetery. Underneath each photo is a brief paragraph or two of text explaining the history. “Interesting,” I say with a noncommittal smile, handing it back to him.
He adjusts his glasses on the bridge of his nose and says, “Interesting is one of the most banal words in the English language. What does it mean, really?”
My smile freezes in place. “It means I don’t have anything better to say so interesting comes in handy.”
He shakes his head once. “Somehow I don’t think you’re the kind