part one is here

part two is here

part three is here

(of course, the whole story is in the Eclective’s Holiday Collection, featuring authors Shea MacLeod, Julia Crane, Lizzy Ford, Alan Nayes, Talia Jager, PJ Jones, M. Edward McNally, and Jack Wallen.  And me.  for 99 cents!)

This is the last section of the story.  Let me know what you think!

***

“I have no idea,” Sarah told me, flipping through the pages of the album. “I mean, this guy—” she paused, planting a finger to a handsome man with wavy blonde hair— “He kinda looks familiar. But I don’t know these people.”

“Hmm.” I leaned forward to get a better look at the man. He must have been a son of the couple, because he looked like his daddy.

Sarah shrugged, closing the album gently. “No one has lived in that cottage for like twenty years. Since the fire.”

“Is there a way to find out who did live there?”

Sarah tapped a finger to her chin, thoughtful. “The library?”

* * *

The roads were still bad, but I pushed on anyway, taking my time as I navigated down the cliffside asphalt and back into Waterford. Sarah was certainly organized—her driving directions, in neat block letters on notebook paper in my passenger seat, got me from her front door to the library in less than twenty minutes.

The library was housed in an old, converted chapel on Main Street. It was white and small, with a tall steeple. As I pulled into a parking space on the street, the bells housed beneath the shutters of the steeple were ringing three o’clock.

I was met at the door by a smiling teen with the wildest head of red curls I had ever seen. She chirped, “Good afternoon! How may I help you?”

“I was interested in property records. Does the library keep any such thing?”

“Sure,” she answered, popping her chewing gum. She pointed to my left. “Go visit the help desk back in the corner. Nolia can help you.”

I thanked the girl and squeaked in my wet boots in the direction she pointed.

Like most good libraries, this one was silent as a tomb. And very empty. I passed a couple of teen girls hunched over books at a table in the corner, and an older gentleman in a business suit perusing the “Law” aisle. Other than that, no one else until I reached the help desk.

Nolia was an older woman with a long gray braid tossed over one shoulder and thick Harry Potter-type glasses. She was waif-like and tall with pale skin and a vaguely British accent. “Hello, dear. How may I help?”

“Property records. I’m trying to find out who lived in my house before me.”

“Ah.” She stood, gesturing for me to follow with her long fingers. “Just moved to town, did you? I’ve not seen you before.”

“Yes, I’m new here.” I sincerely hoped she wasn’t about to try and draw my life story from me. I’d had plenty of that lately, thank you.

“Wonderful. I hope you enjoy Waterford. It’s a great little town.” She led me to a computer at the end of a dim tunnel of books, where she sat and clicked the mouse. A search screen appeared.

“What is the address?”

Shit. “I have no idea, I’m sorry. I didn’t even think to ask.”

One of her thin eyebrows arched. “You don’t know your own address?”

I laughed, wrapping my hands around the ends of my scarf. “That does sound weird. I’ve just moved into the old caretaker’s cottage on the grounds of Mayor Koenig’s home.”

“I didn’t know there was a cottage near their home,” Nolia said, her fingers moving swiftly over the keyboard. “I’ll run a search for their physical address and see what we come up with.”

In the ensuing silence, I figured I should try for polite. “I’m Mena, by the way.”

She glanced up with a brief smile before going back to the computer. The screen reflected on her glasses. “It’s nice to meet you, Mena. I’m Nolia, if you hadn’t already seen.” She chuckled, tapping her nametag.

More silence. I should really learn how to do small talk.

“Oh! Look, I found it,” Nolia said, sounding surprised. “It was built in 1852 by an Edward Koenig. It says it was leased to a Melvin Coomer.”

“Who was the most recent inhabitant?”

Nolia scanned the computer screen, the mouse clicking as she scrolled down. Her eyes widened. “Well, I’ll be darned. Margaret Hopper.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Who?”

She turned in her seat, chuckling. “She opened the Diner about thirty years ago. That place has withstood the test of time.”

I thought of the photo album, sitting innocuously on my backseat, and the night I stopped at that very same Diner—and met Sarah. Who gave me my home…and Margaret’s photo album.

“Thank you, Nolia. Where does Margaret live now, do you know?”

“Oh, dear.” Nolia frowned, touching my hand where it rested on the back of her seat. “Margaret has been living in Waterford Plums for several years now.”

“Waterford Plums?”

“It’s a nursing home. Margaret has Alzheimer’s.”

* * *

On the drive over, I couldn’t help but marvel at the serendipity.

As a witch, I worship balance in the universe. For every light, there is dark; for every opposite, there is a reaction. There is no such thing as a coincidence in my world, and I was certain that Margaret Hopper and I had been joined for a reason.

Waterford Plums was much nicer than the nursing home where my Granny had lived out the last of her years—before Alzheimer’s took her. I was buzzed into a bright, clean lobby where patrons of all shapes and sizes were crowded on soft, poofy couches watching Oprah reruns with wide eyes.

I walked to the reception desk and gave the nurse my best smile. “Hi. I’m here to see Margaret Hopper?”

“Name?” Her bored tone bothered me. She didn’t even look up from the book she was reading—something with a suspiciously Fabio-looking character and a blonde with her ta-tas half hanging out on the cover.

“Mena McGinty. I’m not actually family. I think I may have something of hers.” I lifted the top of my satchel and extracted the bulky album, dropping it to the gray counter. Dust arose from it, and the nurse raised an eyebrow.

“Sign in,” she said, sliding a clipboard over to me. The pen was connected with a piece of yarn and duct tape.

Really? Brand new furniture and crystal chandeliers, and they use duct tape?

I signed my name as the nurse wrote me up a nametag. I took off my coat, and obediently slapped the sticker on my red-plaid flannel shirt.

“Just so you know, Margaret may not comprehend anything you say, Miss McGinty.”

I nodded, hefting the album into my arms and tucking it against my chest. “I understand.”

“Room 215. Take the elevator around the corner.” And she went back to her steamy romance novel.

I found Margaret snoozing in front of her television. An incredibly loud and obnoxious episode of Friends was playing. It was one of those cult sitcoms that I never could get into. The only TV I ever watched was because of my husband, so I didn’t have that great of a relationship with it to begin with.

I hit the volume control and turned the show down, then sat in a chair beside Margaret’s snazzy pink wheelchair, wondering what the Hades I was supposed to do. I would feel like a total ass if I woke her up.

Margaret was much older than I expected. She was small and round, with pure white hair and a wrinkled face reminiscent of a bulldog. I couldn’t tell if she was the woman in the pictures or not. It’s funny how age can change a person.

Her head dipped continually down, her chin coming to rest on her chest. She would snore once, and jerk her head up. The cycle continued a good five minutes. I had finally leaned down to shove the album in my bag and leave, when she opened her eyes.

We caught each other’s gaze. She looked vacant… Nobody home. But then, something happened. Like a completely different person took over. Her face smoothed and her eyes lit up. “Hello! Should I know you?”

I shook my head, putting the album back on my knees. “No ma’am, you shouldn’t. But I think I have something of yours.”

Her eyes flicked to the album and back to my face. “Yes?”

“Mrs. Hopper, did you ever live in a small cottage on the Koenig family’s land?” I kept eye contact with her, willing her mind to focus. To remember.

“Well, of course! My Walter and I moved into that quaint little house after our youngest married. We rented.”

I smiled. I was looking at the woman in the pictures. It was kind of neat. “I’m living there now. I found this album in an old trunk and tracked you down.”

She lifted her hands from her lap as I passed the book over to her. I hoped it wasn’t too heavy for her knees.

Her gnarled hands brushed across the black leather, then opened the cover. When the tears began to roll down the crevices of her face, I felt a little choked myself.

“It’s been so long,” she murmured, touching the wedding photo. “That’s my Walter. He died in ‘85, not too long after the Koenig’s property burnt and we had to move.”

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Hopper.”

The old lady laughed as she turned another page. “My Jason. He’s a soldier, stationed in Germany right now. Him and his wife have given me five grandkids. He’s my youngest.”

“You have a beautiful family,” I said softly, touching the back of her hand. Her skin felt so thin and soft.

“Thank you, dear. What was your name again?”

“Mena.”

“Mena. So pretty.” She closed the album and lifted her teary eyes to mine. “Tell me, Mena, why you have that bruise on your face.”

My heart pounded. What was it with these people? I was in the north. I left the south to get away from the busybodies.

“Was it a man, Mena?”

I looked away, pretending fascination with the fake palm plant in the corner. “Yes.”

Margaret leaned forward in her chair, one hand resting on a lifetime’s worth of memories and the other landing on my knee. “Mena, life is sometimes truly, truly unfair. Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.”

Her fingers moved from my hand to my cheek, touching the bruise gently. “There is no rhyme or reason to why things happen, but always remember—She loves you. She only wants the best for you. And if she brought you to Waterford from whatever southern state that cute accent hails from…” She paused, patting my cheek. “Then, darling girl, it was for a reason. And she brought you to me for a reason.”

I wiped the tears from my face, the tension so tight in my chest I wanted to throw something. Instead, I clutched my satchel and tried not to sob.

“You’ve made this old woman happy, girl,” she went on. She spread her hands over the album. “I may not have much time left in this world, Mena, but now, well, that’s alright. You’ve given me something to hold on to.”

Then I was really crying. Messy, loud crying that was probably scaring the other patients of the home. Margaret was rubbing my back soothingly, whispering nonsensical words. She let me sob… and sob. I kept it up until there just wasn’t anything left.

Silence stretched in the room.

“Mena, you are home,” Margaret said, her eyes faraway as I sat up, wiping my face on my sleeves. “She told me so.”

“Margaret, when you say She …”

The old lady winked at me. “Blessed be, Sister.”

* * *

As I parked the car in the Koenig’s driveway, Sarah appeared at the front door and waved at me.

I opened the door, waving back as I stepped from the car. “Hey!’

“Mena! You have a phone call.”

The only person who knew where I was staying was my mother, so I assumed it was her. I followed Sarah into the house.

“Did you find the album’s owner?” she asked me, leading me into the den.

I smiled. “Yeah. I’ll tell you about it after I talk to my mom.”

“I don’t think it’s your mom,” Sarah said, surprised. “She sounds really young.”

Frowning, I lifted the receiver. “Hello?”

“Mena? This is Officer Melissa Thomas.”

My heart dropped. It was my husband’s parole officer.

“Mena? I got this number from your mother, I hope that’s alright.”

I took a shaky breath and braced myself for the worst. My voice came out stronger than I felt. “Am I in trouble?”

Her laugh tinkled across the line. “No, Mena, you’re not in trouble. You hit him pretty good though, huh?”

I couldn’t help the smile. “Yeah. I did.”

“He spent a couple days in the hospital being observed. A concussion.” She chuckled. “A cast-iron skillet?”

“He’s lucky I didn’t kill him.”

“I know.” All laughter was gone as the officer sobered. “That is a great segue into why I’m calling, Mena.”

I didn’t respond.

“Tyler was recently arrested on murder charges.”

“Oh.” My skin broke out in goosebumps. “Anyone I know?”

“I don’t think so. It looks like a drug deal gone bad. There was a busload of witnesses—literally. Broad daylight. And of course, he can’t afford a lawyer so the state is providing him one that isn’t quite so great. The chances don’t look good for him.”

“Good for me?”

“Yes, Mena. Good for you. Not to jump the gun, but he is probably going away for a long, long time.”

The weight that had rested on my shoulders for the last month—no, the last three years—was magically gone. No transition. Just…gone.

Officer Thomas went on. “I would suggest you hire yourself a lawyer and get those divorce papers drawn up.”

It took me a couple seconds to realize she had spoken again, but when I did, I nodded. “Yes. Yes, I’ll do that. Thank you for calling.”

“Believe me, Mena, it was my pleasure.” She paused. “You take care now, you hear?”

“I will.”

Sarah was still standing in the doorway, her hands clasped in front of her. “Was that about your husband?”

I nodded, replacing the receiver. “He’s been arrested for murder.”

“Oh my God, Mena!” Sarah rushed to me and wrapped her long arms around me. “Are you okay? So, he’s going away?”

I nodded, pressing my face into her hair. “He’s going away.”

For the second time that day, I burst into tears.

I was making up for lost time.

* * *

There was a cat waiting at my back door when I got home.

He was a mess. His long fur was matted to his skinny body; I was positive he was supposed to be white but he was so covered in dirt it was impossible to tell. As I walked up the pathway in the dim evening light, he meowed pitifully.

“Well, hello,” I said softly, pausing several feet from the door as our eyes met. I didn’t want to scare him away.

He meowed again, sauntering down the path as if he owned the place, and started rubbing his little body on my boots.

I laughed, walking forward, and ignored him. If he wanted me, he’d follow me.

And he did. He let me shave him after I walked to the main house and borrowed an electric razor from Larson. We then had a very ugly bath in the kitchen sink, accompanied by yowling so horrendous you’d think I was killing him.

But the end product was…well, sad but, for the moment, clean.

As I had this thought, sitting on my couch with the oil lamp lit and a cat I had named Solstice purring on my lap, I realized that was me, too.

Sad. But clean. The negativity that had rested on me for so long had been scrubbed away—first, by my encounter with Margaret Hopper, fellow Goddess-worshipping witch, and then by the phone call from Officer Thomas.

Solstice turned sleepy yellow eyes to me, his purr reverberating through my body.

The old grandfather clock in the corner chimed 7:30 p.m. It was sundown on December 21st… the Winter Solstice had begun.

I ran my hand over my new pet’s shaved body. The longest night of the year stretched before us…

But the darkest night of my life was behind me.

***

Mena McGinty is the protagonist of my upcoming Hedgewitch mystery series.

The first book, “Mother of All”, is set for a late January release!

The second book, “The Energy Within”, is tentatively set for release in March.

Blessed be, reader.  Have a merry Solstice, and I hope the light returns swiftly for you and yours.