Part 4 of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions
Vonna gradually became aware of her physical self, climbing out of a dream where she was trying to introduce someone whose name she’d forgotten. She rolled onto her side, pulling herself free from the blankets, swung her legs over the edge of the mattress, and sat up. Just after five a.m., for heaven’s sake. Why in the world did she always wake so early? She yawned and stretched and got up.
After she had moved her bedroom downstairs, she also had to remodel the first floor bathroom, which had previously just been a powder room. Now she walked into the revised space, with its spacious walk-in shower and upgraded finishes. It seemed like a good idea at the time, emptying and closing off the upper floor and attic, and learning to live on the first floor, but there were times Vonna regretted it. The downstairs bedroom still felt unfamiliar, as though she were a guest in someone’s house. There were other things Vonna regretted, and Nance was one of them.
When she forbade Nance to discuss magic, it had seemed to be the only thing she could do, but ever since, a wall had come down between them, and now Vonna felt more alone than ever. There was no one she could really talk to. About anything. The Gift had a way of isolating her, making her constantly aware that she was Not Like Other People. She had powers that most folks might have envied, but she was all too aware of their limitations and unexpected consequences. The times when things went horribly wrong.
She pulled on a robe and shoved her feet into slippers and walked across the living room to her desk. Here she paid bills and made lists and kept her computer. Not one to do everything on her cell phone, Vonna had a large desktop screen and full keyboard, and here, every morning, she caught up with email and Facebook and the Associated Press news. The news was constantly depressing. She also read Dear Abby and Miss Manners on a regular basis. This morning a letter writer asked for advice about her husband, who was always grumpy at gatherings, often to the point of ruining a party, and then always apologizing on the ride home, when it was too late to retrieve the situation. The writer wanted to know how to change him. Abby advised talking to him, as if that hadn’t already been tried, probably a million times. I’d leave the old curmudgeon at home, Vonna thought. Give everyone a break. People don’t change lifelong habits unless they really have motivation.
Motivation, that’s what she had, but she still didn’t know what to do about it. She longed to talk to Antonia about The Gift, but she kept dithering. What if the girl wasn’t going to inherit these powers? She wasn’t in the direct female line. And Vonna knew so little about the history of this magic. Her mother only hinted about it at the very end of her life, and Vonna only knew for sure that it had passed from Grandma to Mom, but what about before that? Had Great-Grandma also possessed The Gift? Where had it come from originally? There was nowhere to turn to get the information.
Vonna had never even attempted to test the limits of her power. She had always been afraid to go too far. Her ‘suggestions’ to people were small, and kind, and always out of an attempt to help them solve their own problems. Yes, she had pushed Drew to take over the property management more or less against his will, but that was working okay, wasn’t it? The arrangement was beneficial for everyone, right? And she did know from experience, that you couldn’t push anyone past a certain point. You couldn’t make them change their essential nature.
She thought about her various tenants on Juniper Row. Every one of them had been the beneficiary of her advice in one way or another. It was she who suggested to Rona that it would be feasible to open her restaurant, The Dining Room, just three days a week, serving a limited menu of specialties. Rona already had a thriving business as a YouTube chef, her restaurant could be the incubator for new recipes. And yes, Vonna had suggested to several locals that they might make regular visits, so that the number of customers would always be good. But it was a success, wasn’t it? Rona loved what she was doing, and everyone loved the food.
And Ryan and Amy, the musical duo who performed on Sunday evenings at The Dining Room. They lived in the cottage next to Nance. She had encouraged them to turn the big family room which had been added to their cottage in the 1990s into a studio for producing their own recordings, and look how well that had turned out. And when Amy suffered from depression during menopause, Vonna had been a friend and mentor, helping to give back Amy’s self-confidence.
As far as she knew, every important suggestion she’d made had worked out. Until this tiff with Nance. Yes, there were times when Vonna used The Gift for her own advantage. To get out of a speeding ticket (she hadn’t been going THAT fast). To persuade an overloud talker to quiet down a little. To encourage a vendor at an antiques fair to sell that basket for ten dollars less. Little things that didn’t hurt anyone. But sometimes she wondered what she might be able to do if she really tried. How far would she be willing to go? Sometimes it seemed as if she’d spent her life trying to avoid confrontation. How well would she hold up in a fight, if it ever came to that? And was she going to spend the rest of her days always being fearful of The Gift? Would she ever feel in real control of it?
She had a funeral to go to this morning. One of her tenants, a widower named Robert Fratelli, had died after a bad fall. It was very sad, and she especially missed her friendship with Nance over the past few days. Vonna put on her only black dress, a mid-calf number with colorful Boho embroidery around the neck, cuffs and hem. She just didn’t own any funereal clothes. She twisted her thick white hair into a knot, added handmade wire-and-bead earrings and black suede boots.
Ordinarily, she and Nance would have ridden together to something like this. In fact, they both walked out to their cars at the same time, and clearly saw each other across the street, but Nance pretended she didn’t and just drove away without even waving.
Robert’s son Travis was going to take his father’s ashes back to Oregon, where he lived, but Robert’s local friends still wanted to say their good-byes at a memorial service. Everyone gathered at the church and crowded into pews. Vonna found herself right next to Nance, stuck in the midst of other folks, but she saw that her friend was still avoiding eye contact. Hymns were sung, the minister spoke, and Travis got to his feet to say a few words about Robert’s service in the military, his career as a builder, times they spent together. He spoke about his parents’ marriage and his attempts to get Robert to move West after he was widowed. “I never could persuade him,” he said, “but I’m glad he was happy here and able to rebuild his life.”
As he finished, Ryan and Amy got ready to perform on the piano and cello, when suddenly Vonna heard a deep vroom-vroom sound, as if a motorcycle were revving up right next to her. People’s heads turned as if on a swivel. Nance gasped and fumbled in her purse, pulling out her cell phone to silence it. But as she did so, she dropped the darned thing and it fell on the floor and slid under the pew in front of them. Vroom-vroom, it went, vroom-vroom. Vonna dove down and retrieved it and Nance managed to turn it off. Everyone stopped craning their necks and Ryan and Amy smoothly began an instrumental version of Time to Say Good-bye. Beside her, Vonna felt Nance shaking with suppressed laughter.
“Idiot,” Vonna whispered. Then she started to shake as well. Oh my golly, she thought, we’re making absolute fools of ourselves in front of everyone. But at least we’re doing it together.
They sobered up before the song finished. Indeed, many people were teary-eyed by the end. Afterward, people gathered in the community hall where Rona was serving coffee and cake. Travis came up to thank Vonna for helping to arrange things and her sense of guilt began to build. It was she who persuaded Robert to move into the little cottage, thinking at the time that it was a good setting for him, not aware of Travis’s efforts to get him to move West. Robert never said. Maybe she’d been a stumbling block. Once she’d worked her spell, of course he wouldn’t have considered going to Oregon. All her fault.
She headed home and dispiritedly walked into the house. As she started to close the front door, she saw Nance pulling into her own driveway and, on an impulse, hurried across the street. The two women cautiously eyed each other as Nance got out of her car.
“Who was on the phone?” Vonna asked, forcing herself to give a grin.
“Oh, just my sister. The one in Wisconsin. Obviously, she didn’t know I was at a funeral. I forgot to put my phone on Silence.” Looking down, Nance made a wry face. “Probably I should change my ringtone.” She moved as if to go into the cottage.
“Nance, listen,” Vonna began. Oh, how to say this? “Look, I feel like things are screwed up between us. Are you mad at me?”
“No,” Nance replied. She drew a design in the gravel with her shoe. “I just find I don’t have much to say, lately. It’s weird. Just a weird feeling. Like I’m blocked or something.”
“It’s my fault. I’m sorry. I just . . .” Vonna’s words wound down, but then she stepped forward and touched Nance on the arm. “Sweetie, look at me.” Nance met her gaze warily. “I made a mistake. You can talk to me about anything. Any time. Whatever you want, whatever questions you have. You’re my friend. You can say anything.”
Nance blinked, and then said, “I can talk about anything. You’re my friend. Of course, you are.” She smiled and seemed to relax. “Look, why don’t we get together tomorrow for lunch. We could go to Fresh Chef. Or maybe Sports Page. Okay?” But then, without waiting for an answer, she abruptly turned and went into her house, closing the door.
Vonna stood, uncertain, for a few minutes and then went home. Had it worked? She never tried to reverse a spell before. Had she ruined their friendship?
The next day, they decided to have a pizza delivered to Vonna’s instead of going out. “I just feel so tired in this cold, wet weather,” Nance declared. “All my joints ache.”
“It’s depressing as hell,” Vonna agreed. “I look out at the rain and just want to go back to bed. Poor Travis, dealing with everything. I offered to help him go through Robert’s things but he’d rather do it himself.”
“When I kick the bucket, just give it all to Goodwill. Believe me, my sisters won’t want it.’
They sat at the table, looking out the front window, as they ate. “So…,” Nance said. “Have you heard anything more from Antonia? I . . . I feel as though I’ve been wanting to know.”
“No. Not that I really expected to. I was more afraid I’d hear Oliver bellowing all the way from Charlotte. But not a peep.”
“Now that Robert’s cottage is going to be empty,” Nancy said, warily, “have you considered asking her to move in? I mean, it might need some fixing up, but . . .”
“I don’t know. I still don’t know what to tell her.”
Their eyes met. Finally, Nance said, “Why don’t you try to explain it to me?”
They sat for a long time. Vonna told her what little she knew about The Gift. “It’s not like Harry Potter, you know. I don’t have a wand, I never attended a place like Hogwarts. I don’t even know anyone else like me. I try not to use The Gift at all, unless I can really help someone out. Although that can backfire.” She told Nance about urging Robert to move into the cottage after his wife died. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. He loved fishing from his pier and working in that garden. But now I’m worried that I kept Robert and his son apart.”
Nance slowly shook her head. “Girl. Do you really like torturing yourself like this? All these doubts and guilt. Boy, if I had such an ability, I’d be making much better use of it. I’d have hordes of handsome men, fighting for my attention. I’d travel all over the place, in real life, not just online. Seriously, girl, what a waste!” She made a goofball face. “At the very least, I’d convince that guy from Yellowstone to move in. Rowrrrrrr. That ‘gift’ is absolutely wasted on a wuss like you.”
“So am I!” Nance sobered up and said, “So you really just don’t know – and won’t know – if Antonia will have this . . . this sorcery ability. And she won’t know, even if you tell her about it, because it won’t show up until after you die. Have you ever done any research on it? Tried to find any accounts of other people, real ones, not fictional, who have reported such stuff?”
“Where would I even look?”
“I don’t know. Google. Wikipedia. Don’t be a wimp, find out about your condition.”
Vonna sighed. “Well, just remember, you can’t tell anyone.”
“Oh, don’t worry! I don’t want to be hauled away to the funny farm. You know, I feel like we’ve had this conversation before.”
“Really? Hmmm.” Vonna wondered exactly how much Nance could remember about the last time they talked. Maybe not a lot. Oh, she was so tired of being uncertain all the time!
Three days later, Nance showed up at her doorstep, bearing a sheaf of papers. “Here,” she said, thrusting them at Vonna. “I’ve been doing some research.”
They went inside and Nance showed her a long list of links to websites. “Look, there are people doing actual scientific studies about things like telekinesis and mind manipulation and extra-normal abilities. Those might be places to start. There are all kinds of books on the subject, too. I haven’t yet found anything exactly like your situation, but there are essays on where to start to test your own abilities. I think that might be the way to go. If you want to pass on knowledge and wisdom to Antonia, you need to expand your own, first.”
Oh, no, Vonna thought. I should have known better. Nance and her obsessions! Now she would be like a hunting dog on the track of a fox, sniffing things out. And at the same time, she’d be dangerous, walking with big, spiked boots through a tissue-paper world. Nance continued to talk and show her research notes, proposing a list of experiments to determine the extent of Vonna’s powers.
“You know, we just start small and see what happens. You’ve always been such a weenie, but it’s time to break the walls of this little prison you’ve created for yourself. You could start with people you already know are receptive to your suggestions and see how far you can take them. I mean, like we already know you can create a more realistic travel dream for me. You made some old memories of mine come to life. What if you try to magic me into a travel dream that WASN’T based on a memory? Like maybe a trip to Bruges. I’ve researched it and watched videos, but have never been there before. If we find I have a realistic dream, then man, we’re off to the races!”
“Oh, Nance, you don’t know what you might be risking! It could be dangerous!”
“I’m willing to try. Come on, right now, before we chicken out. Tell me to imagine a trip to Bruges. I’ve certainly seen enough videos to be able to picture it. Say it, say ‘Nance, you will imagine a great trip to Bruges, with a handsome man for company’. Say it!” She pressed Vonna’s arm. “As long as you only tell me to imagine it, what could be the harm? Try it!”
Stunned, scared, intimidated, Vonna met Nance’s gaze and whispered, “Nance, imagine a great trip to Bruges, with a handsome man for company.”
Nance blinked and took a deep breath. She sat back, her hand still on Vonna’s arm. Her mouth fell open and her body relaxed. Slowly she closed her eyes and seemed to fall asleep. Vonna stared at her, terrified. Oh man, what had she done?
Nance’s head fell back, and Vonna hurried to arrange her in a more comfortable position, with a cushion and a blanket, and wedged other chairs alongside, so she wouldn’t fall. Nance began to gently snore. How long would she be out? Unable to bear watching, Vonna got up and cleared the table of her breakfast dishes and busied herself with small chores that still allowed her to keep an eye on her friend.
Hours went by. Eventually Vonna shifted Nance to the couch. It wasn’t easy, she was a completely dead weight. Her body remained relaxed, and the snoring gave way to deep breathing once she was laid out on the couch. Lunchtime came and went with no sign of change. Vonna did laundry, made a grocery list, watched TV, and still Nance slept on.
She slept for two days. Vonna, in desperation, tried to wake her, but to no effect. She called her name, snapped her fingers, gave her direct orders to wake up. She pried open Nance’s eyelids to try to gain a direct eye-to-eye contact, but it didn’t work. In all that time, Nance had no food or drink, nor did she urinate. She seemed locked into this deep sleep and Vonna began to freak out. Should she call an ambulance? What would they be able to do? Two whole days!
Then, on the third morning, when Vonna was just about at her wits’ end, Nance stirred. She yawned and stretched, kicking off the blanket, and then opened her eyes and sat up. “Oh, man,” she said. “Oh man, oh man, oh man.” Smiling at Vonna, she gave a little laugh. “Oh boy, was that ever a great dream!” And then, “But shit, I have to pee!” She ran to the bathroom and Vonna sat there, completely stunned. It had worked?
Afterward, Nance told her some of the details of the dream. But not all of them. With a sly grin, she said, “Oh baby, that handsome man was something else. What a fabulous lover! That’s all I can say.” She sat dreamy-eyed for a moment. “And Bruges was beautiful. Perfect weather! Wonderful food! The architecture! The canals! Oh, Vonna, it was a fantastic dream! I want to do it again!”
Vonna began to tremble all over. “Do you realize that you were out for two days? Two whole days! I began to wonder if you were ever coming back.”
“It was worth it,” Nance insisted. “Seriously. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Oh boy. Next time, Venice.”
“No next time! Are you crazy! You were completely helpless here. I couldn’t wake you! What if you were out even longer next time? No food, no water! You could get dehydrated and really, really sick. No, never again.” Vonna walked around the room in great agitation. “No more experiments. I won’t take on that responsibility. No more.”
“Oh, don’t be a sissypants. I’m fine. In fact, I feel absolutely great – no back pain, no hunger, lots of energy. And baby, let me tell you, I am so mellowed out.” She grinned wickedly. “Soooooo mellowed out. Believe me, you should try this for yourself.”
Vonna dropped into a chair. “I can’t. The spells don’t work on me. Never have.”
“Well, that sucks, but don’t be selfish. I could go for this at least once a week.”
“Stop! No! I said no more!” Vonna jumped to her feet. “In fact, I think you should go home now. I need some time to myself.”
“Geez, alright. Don’t get your knickers in a twist.” Nance slowly got to her feet and turned to leave. “Just because you can’t – ”
Nance left in a huff, slamming the door and stomping across the road to her house. Vonna put her hands to her head. She felt like she was going to explode. Never again! No magic, ever again! If she had to wear sunglasses the rest of her life, she was never going to risk looking someone directly in the eyes ever, ever again. She absolutely rejected The Gift.
At that exact moment, Antonia, unpacking a boxload of paperback books, felt a strange, sudden warmth run through her veins. Her lips began to throb, and her hair seemed to crackle with static electricity. She dropped to a low stool and tried to think through the sizzling feeling in her brain. Was she having a stroke? An incredibly early hot flash? The feeling receded almost immediately, and she took slow, deep breaths, trying to calm herself. She had never felt like this before.
She went to the employees’ rest room to splash cold water on her face. She looked in the mirror and gasped. Her appearance seemed different. Like a slightly-out-of-focus photo that has been enhanced. Everything seemed clearer, brighter, better. Intensified. Her eyes, her hair, her posture. Even her breasts seemed a bit fuller. She didn’t know what had happened, but she liked it.
She wondered if it would last.
By Carolyn Steele Agosta