Do you have any idea how hard it is to focus on spell casting with Jingle Bells running in your head?
Hard. Trust me.
Still, this was my favorite part, despite the subject and content, endless chatter pulling my focus, scent of pumpkin spice and pine dominating the air in the bullpen. Maybe that meant something about me, how enjoying the process of uncovering things people thought hidden brought me joy and peace, far more than carols or the holiday season or eggnog lattes.
And maybe it just meant I was good at what I did.
I focused on the way the pencil felt in my hand, the weight of my sketchbook perched on my knee, the rhythm and tone of the old man’s voice as he spoke past the endlessly irritating Christmas songs playing at someone’s desk. Allowed the power within me to block out the sounds of the police department, how my stomach growled for a gingerbread cookie I spotted on the way in, into the words the elderly homeless Unk Jay-Jay used to describe his attacker.
I always compare the beginning to blowing a bubble, the skin of the surface of the spell shining, catching light as though created from the sparkling edge of a rainbow, moving in a slow dance across the surface as it grew and enveloped first the speaker, then drew me inside, washing across me in the gentlest sigh of welcome.
The. Best. Part.
Being inside someone else’s experience had its downfalls, especially in cases like this. Witnessing the attack he’d undergone the night before, seeing the source of the bruise on his left cheek, certainly had nothing pleasant about it. And yet, there was this delicious connection, a deeply abiding contentment to sharing in the moment I would never, ever take for granted.
And, of course, once I was in, I had control of the memory, so I didn’t have to live through the pain of the blow that carried poor Unk to the ground. Instead, I stepped into that instant in time, and took a look around.
The dark alley’s only illumination came from a streetlight at the far end, just enough whitewash cast to throw shadows and highlight bits and pieces of the scene. I stepped around Unk and the rusting shopping car piled high with the possessions he deemed worthy, skimming across a puddle of something oozing from the bottom of a dented dumpster. There were faint, warbled sounds in the frozen moment, distorted by the stillness of time, a scent that translated from his experience to mine, though not a breath of air. I could even vaguely taste from his perspective, though I tried not to focus on such details. I wasn’t here to be him. I was here to know what he knew, even if he couldn’t remember.
The mind endlessly fascinated me, knowing how much we absorbed while only consciously registering a fraction of the massive amount of information available at any given moment. Sucked when someone tried to recall, but worked well with my particular little talent.
Normal people had no idea how powerful words could be. But I knew.
The attacker wasn’t big, though he had at least four inches or so on me. Mind you, I wasn’t what you’d call tall myself, barely the five-foot-one I claimed on my driver’s license. I had the immediate impression of youth from the image, of a slender body inside that dark hoody and jeans, sneakers new enough but unremarkable in their branding. Of course he wore a ski mask, disguising his features. Sometimes I could see past the thick weave of cloth, but only if the victim had personal contact with their attacker, subliminal cues missed in the moment but easily uncovered when I stepped into their memory. This time, it was clear to me either Unk had no previous contact with the young man who’d struck him down and stolen from his cart or any such possible interaction was, instead, casual and momentary enough it didn’t stick in Unk’s head.
I sighed over the lack of detail, the light not sufficient to identify eye color, though they did appear dark to me, the lashes long and thick enough most girls would envy them. The lips had a unique shape at least, a small scar marring the right side of the cupid’s bow, tugging it slightly askew. A detail that could help in the long run.
Circling the memory didn’t help much, Unk’s lack of information meant there was only darkness when I tried to look behind the young man, the solid line between what he’d seen and what he hadn’t an endless source of frustration.
“How’s it going over here?”
I jerked in surprise, crying out a little, dropping my pencil. The return to the bullpen hit me in a blow of disorienting reality, sights and sounds washing away the crystal clear moment I’d been lost in. Part of me hated coming back to the real world. The quiet and stillness of memory had such an anchoring sensation, being forced to return meant a solid ten seconds of blinking and being the weirdo I knew I was in plain view of everyone.
Officer Cooper Hudson was already bending to retrieve my pencil, his tall, muscular self brushing against my left knee, the scent of the delicious but subtle cologne he wore another layer of reality that helped bring me back despite myself. His apologetic grin with those perfect white teeth and the utter focus in his pale green eyes always made me blush for some reason.
Maybe because I wasn’t used to being the center of anyone’s attention. Not with the family I came from.
“Sorry, Phoebe,” Coop said in that lovely bass voice of his, handing me my pencil, the tip broken from its contact with the tile floor. He hesitated, noticing at the same moment I did, regret surfacing on his expressive face. One thing about Coop, I never had to wonder what he was feeling. A heart that big had trouble disguising itself.
“It’s fine.” I took the pencil, tucking it under the flap of my satchel. “I think we’re done anyway.” It was the first time since exploring his memory I looked up and met Unk’s eyes and found him grinning past his heavy silver beard, his sharp, blue gaze flickering back and forth between me and Coop fast enough I knew what he was thinking.
Which made me blush all over again.
“You two make a cute couple,” Unk said before hiccupping. The faint scent of alcohol reached me, his red nose lined with broken capillaries and the shaking of his hands clear indication he’d be seeking another drink or many the moment I was done with him.
I looked down at the sketchbook in my lap, the image I’d drawn with my body while my spirit had been lost in the bubble of his memory. Turned the book around to show Unk who nodded with enthusiasm before sighing another aromatic breath.
“That’s him,” Unk said. “That’s the creep.” His pale eyes brimmed with tears, snuffle following, one dirty gloved hand rising to swipe over the tip of that bulbous red nose. As though the fabled Santa Claus had somehow fallen on hard times. “Didn’t see his face, like I told the detectives.”
I smiled my encouragement. “You did great, Unk,” I said, while Coop whistled at the image.
“No wonder you’re our favorite sketch artist,” he said. Blushed himself. Leaned back and cleared his throat, arms crossing over his uniform shirt. “Nice work, Miss Monday.”
“Officer Hudson.” He perked instantly at the sound of his name, left in a rush but making sure to take a moment to smile at me with that glowingly optimistic mindset of his making him practically shimmer to someone like me. I couldn’t help but watch him stride off to the other side of the bullpen, though I swear it was his aura that held my attention.
Not looking at his well-formed and rather ridiculously attractive backside.
Unk chuckled and I blushed again, darn it. I really had to get that under control. While the old man winked at me.
“Ah, young love,” he said. Before his face fell, sorrow swallowing joy, memory surfacing in a rush, the bubble of it almost taking me.
I had to shake off the connection to keep from diving into the entirety of his life, the lure of living another’s memories—especially once I’d done so—a bit like an addiction. Instead, I shifted my focus which meant, instead of his past, I got to see glimpses of his future.
A sad and tragic day unfolded for him in my mind’s eye, flashing forward in an instant while the world stood still around me. Being chased off by a store owner while he scrounged for a bit of food, having his belongings scattered when a car struck his cart, a binge on alcohol that led him to a deep stupor inside a cardboard box as night fell.
Step back, Phoebe. See the bigger picture.
There, branching from this moment, another option. And a second, a third. Infinite possibilities chasing lines of choice and luck spreading in a fan of futures that flickered in hope of creation, waiting for his next decision. Except, it was clear from the solidity of the one I’d just seen he was on a path to choose the worst of his fates, not the best. Not even the next most hopeful.
One thing I knew for sure. His beliefs, his patterns of being, held him in thrall. But I could also see that all it would take to shift him into something more positive was a little nudge.
And so, despite knowing what it would cost me, I tapped into my most powerful—and most frustratingly tempting—power and used the benevolence of synchromysticism to shift his luck.
Just a little, knowing the slightest change in the moment made the biggest difference down the road. Watched as the path before him collapsed into that same flickering possibility as the others, heard the sigh of choice, and exhaled with a whisper of my own.
Instead of dumpster diving behind the restaurant, his path took him to a different place now, a café a block over, a simple decision, the smallest of choices. That owner gave him a sandwich and drink, paused for a kind word which timed his interaction with the person who almost hit his cart instead handing him a ten-dollar bill. And while he still fell into sleep with a bottle in his hand, it was to happy memories and peace.
I’d take it.
And the punishment to follow.
Time started again. Unk blinked at me, his aura now warm and a little pink at the top, the heavy gray softened. He’d never know what I’d done, and I was okay with that.
“Thank you, Miss Monday,” he said.
I smiled as he shuffled off, sighing to myself before standing, sketch in hand.
Time to share what I’d learned with the detectives before something terrible happened.
I made it two steps before I tripped over my shoelace and almost faceplanted into the side of a desk. My sketchbook wasn’t so lucky, flying forward and skidding to a stop at the feet of the startled detective who looked up as I caught my balance and shrugged with a weak smile at my clumsiness.
Not my fault, but whatever.
I hurried forward, not seeing the passing officer who, naturally, ran right into me, the fresh cup of coffee he held spilling over the two of us in a shocking hit of heat. We quickly batted at each other with offered napkins from laughing police personnel, my penchant for being a klutz well documented in the department.
I hoped Unk Jay-Jay appreciated his good luck. Because I was in for a very uncomfortable twenty-four hours at his expense. Not that I regretted the choice, not in the least. If the price I paid to ensure the dear old fellow had a chance at some hope was making an idiot of myself, well. I’d pay it and that was that.
The last ten feet I had to cross felt like a minefield, but I made it without further incident, though I was sure the wincing expression on my face was the reason they grinned at me.
Detective Anna Morales handed me my sketchbook, the image I’d drawn already removed for her file. The gorgeous Latino detective who really could have had a successful career as a model sat on the edge of her partner’s desk, statuesque height, flawless skin and amber eyes making her a standout. And yet, she usually wore her thick, black hair in a tight ponytail or bun in a no-nonsense way that mirrored her choice of jeans and dress jacket with a fitted button up beneath. Detective Morales broadcasted all business, while the softness of her aura made me adore her for the kind heart within.
“Great job, as usual,” Anna said, mild alto cultured and without accent despite the fact I knew she spoke perfect Spanish.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.” I retrieved the book, instantly dropped it. Sighed just a little, bent to retrieve it again.
At the exact moment she did.
Not quite the sound of cartoon coconuts meeting when we bonked heads, but close enough.
Her partner, Detective Nathan Sallow, guffawed. I’d never heard anyone laugh the way he did, always wondered what an actual guffaw sounded like. Sallow had the market on that term cornered.
“Smooth,” he said with a huge grin, leaning back in his creaking office chair, sausage hands folded over the bump of his potbelly, ugly Christmas tree tie so garish it was almost cute loosened at the neck of his unbuttoned collar. Where Morales was a stunning beauty, Sallow had that TVesque slovenly stereotype about him that made me think of old police dramas. “Once more from the top, with feeling this time.”
Morales kicked his chair with the toe of her boot, sour expression at his attempt at comedy turning to another smile for me while I carefully stepped back a half pace to distance myself.
I’d managed to pick up the book, at least, so go me. Tucked it into my satchel without incident, yay to that. Was zipping up my puffy coat over my clothes without catching anything important in the closing metal teeth, so hey, wins all around, when Anna spoke.
“Thanks for your hard work,” Anna said. “Have a great Christmas.”
I perked, remembering what I’d brought, fished in my bag and retrieved the packages my mother prepared. Handed the red one to Anna (without dropping it, Mom’s magic at work) and the green one to Sallow. “Merry Christmas.”
Sallow tore his open instantly, the first chunk of cinnamon chocolate toffee gone before Anna could say thank you. He groaned his pleasure, savoring it a moment while I relaxed despite my lingering bad luck. Mom’s suggestion had been a great one and I was happy she’d tucked the two small boxes into my bag before I’d left the house.
Nice to know she not only approved of my work but liked the normal people I worked with.
I left them then without further mishap, taking my time weaving through the busy space, reaching the foyer of the station in one piece and only slipping once on the steps, toe catching a single tiny patch of ice. Caught myself in time with a mouse squeak and giggle of resignation, only to feel someone’s hands catch me when I slid yet again.
Looked up into those amazing green eyes and felt myself heat up inside my winter coat despite the chill in the air.
“You okay?” Coop released me, looking even bigger in his own puffy uniform jacket, blond hair covered in an adorable dark blue toque with the department logo on the front.
I shrugged, tried to laugh it off while my hormones—traitors all—did a shiver dance. Now that I was outside the spell, back in the real world for solid, awkward and well-worn me smothered the genuine version in a layer of embedded familiarity I wished I could shake. “Wouldn’t be Phoebe Monday if I didn’t make a fool of myself.”
Coop’s quick frown of denial warmed me further, the sweetie. He could have been pushy about his attraction to me, never was. And that aura. If he glowed with more blues and pinks and lovely yellows, he’d be a saint, I was sure of it.
And he liked me.
Poor boy had no idea.
I really needed to get home and hide in my room for the next day and suffer my punishment where no one would see me collapse in a heap of why me.
“It’s pretty cold,” he said then. “Do you need a ride?”
I didn’t, had walked on my own two feet the ten blocks just an hour ago when it hadn’t been this cold and I wasn’t cursed with bad luck. Which would now likely mean a very uncomfortable return trip. That I’d earned, don’t forget.
“I’m happy to give you a drive.” So much hope in those lovely green eyes I didn’t hesitate. Who was I kidding? There were a lot of reasons—like his broad shoulders and handsome face and big hands and how he smelled so good—I made the choice I did.
“Sure,” I said. “Thank you.” Touched his arm on impulse, knew I was smiling like an idiot.
Which was okay. Because so was Coop.
Coop grinned next to me, the warmth of the police cruiser’s interior almost immediate, the squawk of his radio transmitting the occasional call out he ignored—hopefully not to his detriment, though he didn’t once seem like he’d chosen me over his job. By the time we reached the brownstone, I had put from my mind the lingering dread that hung over me when I used synchromysticism and triggered my luck’s turns for the worse.
Nice not to have to say a word the whole five minute drive, to let Coop chatter on, vague flashes of his plans for Christmas with his parents in the suburbs to his favorite team winning the hockey game, mention of how fun the precinct holiday party had been and he missed seeing me there a welcome layer of normal.
Not that Coop cared I was quiet. I think he liked having someone to talk to. His aura always warmed when I just listened, so I was happy to continue, partly because a lot of my life I wasn’t able to divulge anyway. And besides, I loved the sound of his voice.
Liked! Liked the sound of his voice. Ahem.
He parked, engine running, grinning at me. “If I don’t see you, Phoebe, have a great Christmas.”
“Thanks, Coop.” Darn it, why hadn’t I asked for three boxes from Mom? He would have loved her candy. Well, maybe it would be an excuse to see him once my bad luck wore off.
“You guys celebrate, right?” He seemed hesitant then, smile failing a little. Sweet of him to think of such things. Not like I could hide the fact we leaned toward an alternative (to us traditional) belief system. “Sorry, I shouldn’t assume or anything.”
I laughed at that. “As my grandmother says, we’re pagans, dear, not savages. Of course we celebrate Christmas.”
Coop’s chuckle made my heart skip. This was a terrible idea and I really should have just gotten out of the car then and there and asked Mom or Isolde or my sister to whip up some kind of spell to help me dodge the bullet—no pun intended—that was Cooper Hudson. After all, my family wasn’t known for their prolonged relationship status and the men in the lives of the Monday women tended to either tragic ends, devious betrayals or hideous punishments to last a lifetime.
Mind you, I wasn’t a typical Monday, but still. I’d have hated for something to happen to someone as lovely as him.
Instead of the good and kind thing, I stayed put, enjoying him a few moments longer, while he cleared his throat, sudden nerves showing in the sparkling glow of him. A blush crawled through his aura, so apparent my breath caught and I had to smother my a blush myself.
Yes, it was very clear to me he was interested. And yes, it was very clear to me I was conflicted. And yes, not doing something about the situation made me a very bad person. But I’d never had anyone treat me the way Coop did, and he was honestly the nicest guy I’d ever met. So I guess I couldn’t blame myself for wanting just a bit more of him in my life despite knowing that was all I’d have.
Coop inhaled abruptly, green eyes wider than normal. “I was wondering…”
“My parents have this Boxing Day party,” he rushed into the rest like he knew what to expect but couldn’t help himself. “I told them about you and they really want to meet you. So, I was wondering if you’d like to come.” I’d never heard anyone swallow before. Even without his aura visible, it was clear he’d put himself out there in a way that meant I could either make his day or break his heart.
Thing was, the guy might have been delicious to look at and could have been an arrogant jerk who treated women like objects. I’d certainly met enough men his age—and younger, and older—with that attitude, who let their genetic lottery win carry them instead of working hard, being respectful, open and caring, trusting their own compassion. Part of me knew I needed to say no, though in truth I was the only one who thought so. My family encouraged me, not the other way around. Still, how could I invite the disaster that was a relationship with a normal person when I was so far from ordinary it hurt sometimes?
I caught myself nodding, smiling despite myself. “Thanks,” I said. “I’d like that.”
I might as well have told him I’d marry him.
“Awesome.” He beamed like a small sun, almost puppy wriggling in his seat. “They’ll be super excited. I told them what an amazing artist you are.”
My turn to squirm. “Thanks for the ride,” I said. “Just message me the address and time.”
He shook his head with the most adorable of nose wrinkles. “I’ll come get you,” he said. “It’s the least I can do.”
This boy. Honestly.
And then he had to go and lean across my lap to the glove compartment of the car and open it, freeing a small box wrapped in beautiful silver foil with a dark blue ribbon and bow hugging the shining paper. When he offered it to me, shy smile already endearing, I took it without thinking, blinking unexpected tears.
“But I didn’t get you anything,” I said.
Coops face turned serious, and with complete authenticity, he said, “But you give me something every time I see you.”
We both laughed at the same moment, in the same breath, our cheeks matching pink while I kicked my twenty-four-year-old self so she’d stop behaving like a teenager and tucked the box between my mittened hands, against my chest. Honestly, you’d think I lived in a tower and never dated or something. He just… gave me that giddy feeling inside that melted me into a puddle.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Merry Christmas, Phoebe,” he said.
With nothing left to say, I climbed out, stumbling, naturally, laughing over it though rather than feeling that resigned acceptance I usually did. Coop waved, beeped the horn as I bypassed the front entry to the brownstone’s family storefront, The Heathenry and the requisite Christmas décor—a little extravagant thanks to the efforts of my mother.
I turned down the side alley to the sound of Coop driving off.
Maybe I was wrong and the Monday tendency to male inclusion didn’t apply to me. Was there a chance I might find a sort of happily ever after with someone like Coop? A nice thing to ponder, and though I’d pretty much exclusively dated guys from my walk of life, the idea of spending the rest of my days with the handsome officer?
More appealing than maybe it should have been.
I almost missed the figure at the end of the alley who leaned into the brick wall, one knee cocked with the sole of his foot pressed behind him, smoking a cigarette past the hoody over his face. The only reason I noticed? Bad luck almost tumbled me to the ground near the door. The near fall meant I half-turned toward the alley and looked up at the right moment.
Had a flash of a memory, and without any control, was suddenly remembering standing in front of him, Unk beside me, in a darker space than this one, reliving what I’d only just left behind with a whoosh of understanding.
Before I could break free, the mysterious young man caught me staring and, tossing his smoke to the ground, strode off in a sudden and hurried stride, out of sight and my reach before I could inhale and reclaim myself.
I had zero proof it was the same young man. And with my luck, I could easily misread what just happened. Probably had. It was simply the proximity of the memory, the state of my power, the familiar look of his dress that drove me back into the recollection I’d shared.
I unlocked the side door with my mind whirling, wondering if I should call the detectives. Sighed as I realized I really wanted to call Coop. And made the choice to let it go.
After all, I wasn’t a police officer. What business did I have chasing a possible suspect? None, that’s what. Especially in my condition. I’d only make things worse and maybe damage my relationship with the department. That I couldn’t live with. Time to retreat and endure my personal bad luck spell without hurting anyone else.