My motorcycle sputtered and shook under me as I slowed down on the almost abandoned two-lane road to address the young man and woman standing next to a motionless car with its hood popped open. The guy waved his arms in the air like a maniac while his companion scowled at her cell phone.
Raising the visor on my helmet, I reveled in the fresh air that smelled heavy of humidity and heat. Memories flooded my senses, squeezing my heart.
“Excuse me, can you help us?” The guy pulled my attention back to his current predicament. If he remained polite, maybe I could overlook his surprise that underneath the helmet existed a girl.
His wife or girlfriend chimed in before I could respond. “Our cell phones don’t seem to work.” Her lower lip extended her pout another millimeter. As the guy opened his mouth to explain, she continued, still staring at her uncooperative phone. “It’s the craziest thing. We were driving down this road I guess because the GPS wasn’t working right or something. And it ends with a small barricade and a sign. No warnings before that.”
The guy nodded. “So we turned around, but as we were driving back, our car just gave out.”
“Who doesn’t post up warnings that it’s a dead-end road? I thought that was the law or something. Maybe it would be if we weren’t out here in the sticks.” She shook her phone in frustration.
It took her a few more seconds before Miss Pouty finally looked up and noticed me. My lips grinned with false friendliness. She scowled back at me.
Best to kill her with kindness instead of hex her with hate. Smiling harder, I thickened my accent. “Bless your hearts, I guess you haven’t had much of a Southern welcome. I do apologize for that.”
The man gave a sheepish grin and raised his hand. “It’s my fault. I’m the one that wanted to drive down the smaller roads and see where they took us.”
“You got us lost. And our car sits here broken down miles away from any kind of civilization.” The girl narrowed her eyes and examined me up and down. “I don’t suppose there’s anything you can do about it.” The tiny sniff at the end of her sentence punctuated her point.
Oh, the list of possibilities of what I could do was long. Make her face break out into the worst case of pimples? Not nice, but not the worst idea I’d ever had. Cast a love spell and steal her boyfriend? Okay, I wasn’t that evil. Plus, not sure he’d be worth the effort.
Show them that she was messing with the wrong girl by teleporting her into the nearby swamp area? Okay, that tempting option passed through my mind…more than once. But no need to blow through the last of my magical reserves by being spiteful. As Nana always said: an ounce of spite is worth a pound of unicorn manure.
Also, I didn’t need the hassle of being arrested by the magical wardens of the area. Again. My return already came with significant obstacles to overcome. No need to add another brick in that wall.
Turning off the bike and parking it in the middle of the road, I dismounted, took my helmet all the way off, and locked it down on the cracked leather seat. “Sure.” I plastered a wide smile on my face. “I’d be happy to help y’all. Let me see what I can do.”
Moving around to the front of the car where the opened hood blocked their view of me, I made thoughtful noises as if actually inspecting their engine.
“I should help her,” the guy offered, and my heart raced. He needed to stay put if I had a chance to work my magic. To help out the situation, I wiggled my butt a little in their direction, keeping the rest of me out of sight under the hood.
“Derek, don’t you dare. You will stay right here next to me,” the girl demanded with a clipped tone. A little natural jealousy beat out a spell any day.
Focusing my energies on the engine, I waved my hands over the hunk of metal. “Pay attention to the magic I yield. Over this car, create a shield. Get these people on the road, and help me not turn her into a toad.”
Magic poured out of my fingers and palms, forming a liquid blanket that wrapped itself around the engine block and all the metal, rubber, and wires. As the shimmering layer grew in size and strength, my already-low energies depleted even more. Once all of the parts under the hood were covered, I willed the end of the spell and took a brief second to gather my wits so I wouldn’t pass out as soon as I stood up.
“Try it now,” I yelled out from under the hood. The car dipped as Derek got in. It took a couple of tries and some minor magic sparks, but eventually, the engine roared to life.
Closing the hood, I wiped my hands on my jeans as if getting rid of the stain of non-existent oil. The girl raced around the trunk and hopped in the passenger seat without so much as a murmur of thanks or a murderous glance.
I took cautious steps to the driver’s side and bent down to talk through the window. “That should do it. Y’all be careful from now on. Sometimes getting a little lost can get you into trouble.”
“Let’s get out of here.” The girl tossed her phone on the dashboard and crossed her arms. “Now.”
Poor Derek. He flashed me an apologetic look and mouthed his thanks as he rolled up his window. I stood in the middle of the road until the red of the tail lights disappeared.
Well, looky there. My spell worked perfectly. I didn’t turn her into a toad after all.
With a chuckle, I returned to the motorcycle. My smile faded when it refused to start. “Come on, Old Joe. You gotta work.” Three more tries. Still nothing. Karma. Ain’t she a witch. “I swear, I wasn’t really going to turn her into a toad. I just needed something to rhyme with road,” I shouted into the air. Only the buzz and clicks of cicadas in the trees answered me back.
With my last attempt, I closed my eyes and wished very hard, holding back the curses on the tip of my tongue. The bike rattled and vibrated under me before it gave out. “Yes. Come on, Old Joe. You can do it. We’re so close to home. Your home. Don’t you wanna get there?”
As if the object perked up at the promise, it sprung to noisy life with a little more oomph. Taking it off the kickstand, I eased it down the road toward the proverbial dead end. The large sign hammered onto a dilapidated wooden barrier loomed ahead. With slow deliberation, I inched Old Joe closer to it.
Light tingles worked their way down from the tip of my head to the bottom of my boots. Revving the engine a couple of times, I drove the bike forward and straight into the barrier.
Like a puff of smoke, the glamour disappeared around me, and the two-lane road extended ahead as I drove through. Live oaks rose from the ground on either side and spread their branches like a canopy over the old pavement. Spanish moss hung down in grey-green strands, blowing in the breeze. The last of the day’s sun dappled between the waving leaves, the effects of light and shadow lulling me into a drowsy state.
Pixie poop, I’d forgotten to ward myself from the final protection barrier. Any non-magical being who somehow stumbled in and made it that far would fall into a deep slumber and wake up sometime much later, somehow transported to a different destination far from this area.
Without needing words, I willed a simple spell to block the effects. A feeling of emptiness in the pit of my stomach warned me that I couldn’t keep that up for much longer, so I leaned over the handlebars and cranked the gas to move as fast as the motorcycle would allow. Which, turned out, wasn’t very fast as the rumbles and trembles underneath me grew increasingly sporadic.
Old Joe huffed and puffed and wheezed its way to the border security gate. As it rolled next to the gatehouse, it spluttered one last time before dying with an undignified shudder.
“License, please,” a squeaky male voice requested from the small open window. “Well, bless my beard and boots. If it ain’t Miss Charlotte Goodwin come back. This really is turning out to be one big ol’ homecoming week here in Honeysuckle.”
“Evenin’, Mr. Flint.” After digging in my pocket, I held out my license. “Isn’t it First Night festivities? Guess you drew the short straw.”
Taking a wand from his breast pocket, he waved it over the small rectangle of plastic. “Somebody has to stand guard. I don’t mind. My girl’s bringing me goodies.” Sparkling runes and geometric signs floated above the surface of my license, but he barely glanced at them and winked. “It’s just a formality. Everyone knows you belong here.”
A scoff escaped me before I could stop it. “We’ll see about that. I didn’t leave on exactly the best terms.”
He stroked his beard. “Well, come to think of it…no, you didn’t. But there’re more than a few who understood and a sight more who will welcome you back with open arms.”
“And a few who might curse me where I stand the first glance they catch.” My head spun as I stated the truth that had my gut churning the whole day of travel.
An unnaturally high- pitched woman’s voice broke into our conversation. “Why Flintmore Hollyspring, can’t you see this dear girl here is running on vapors? For such a nice gnome, you really are a genuine numskull. Not sure you deserve this bevy of good fixings that I brought you.” Pink fairy dust peppered down from Gossamer’s agitated wings as she bobbed in the air, handing off a large cup to him and balancing a plate loaded with all kinds of food that had my stomach growling.
“Flinty, pass her the sweet tea.” She waved her free hand at me, more fairy dust flying and a chicken leg threatening to fall. “Hey, Charli. Long time since your path brought you home. You staying for good this time?”
Lifting the cup to my lips with a shaky hand, I took a long, hard gulp. The sweet nectar of the South ran over my tongue and down the back of my throat. My heart beat heavy inside my chest. Home. “Don’t know yet. But I didn’t want to miss out on this year’s Founders’ Day celebrations.”
After another couple of icy gulps, my energy meter ticked up a few notches. “Although I might not be moving anywhere fast. Think I’ve been gone too long for the old protection spells to still be working on my bike. Actually, Dad’s bike. Was his bike.” Patting the faithful piece of machinery, I blinked away the mist of tears on my eyelashes. “Seems that the barrier protections might have gotten to Old Joe here.”
“Let me take a look.” Flint jumped down from his seat, and his whole body disappeared. Only his pointy hat rose above the window. Pushing the door open, he sidled up beside me, inspecting the bike.
“Well, you missed a huge event while you were gone,” Gossamer insisted, flying over and handing me a large square of cornbread.
“Indeed, you did.” Flint leaned down and inspected every inch of the motorcycle, his brow furrowed.
“What’d I miss?” I held back an obscene groan from a bite of the yellow crumbly goodness.
Gossamer’s wings flapped so hard that her pink dust got in my nose and made me sneeze. “We got married!” she tittered. “I’m now Mrs. Gossamer Hollyspring. Could you just die?”
Genuine happiness fueled my wide smile. How long had it been since that had happened? “I am so pleased for the two of you. Congratulations.”
Gossamer nearly bowled her husband over hugging me around the neck. “Thanks. I’m sorry you missed the festivities. But hey, I’m glad you’re back. So much has changed.”
“And I’m sure a lot has stayed exactly the same.” In fact, I was counting on that. “We’ll see how everything goes. So Mr. Flint, what’s the verdict?”
He wiped the sweat from his brow and shook his head. “It ain’t your magic bindings. They’re weak but still there. Strong enough to get you through. Nope. Looks like you’ve simply run out of gas.”
My hand smacked my forehead with enough force that it stung. In all my excitement to get back, I’d forgotten the one crucial thing left that I needed from the human world.
“You just leave your bike thingy parked here by the gatehouse. No one will mess with it, and you can come back for it later. For now, finish your tea and get on into town. You’ll catch the tail end of tonight’s potluck in the park. Lots of tasty food made by fine folk waiting for you,” Gossamer suggested.
I stared down the long and darkening roadway towards town. “Any chance you can put me on the fairy path?” Any shortcut would be appreciated so that I didn’t arrive a hot, sweaty mess from all the walking.
Gossamer kissed Flint on the cheek as he meandered back to his seat and dug into the plate of food. “Sure thing, honey. On one condition.”
She scrunched her nose. “You let me spruce you up a bit. You look…a little road weary.”
My hands went straight to my hair. If it looked as bad as it felt, it might take some serious magic to help. Wearing a helmet did as much damage to its condition as the heavy humidity. “Is it that bad?”
Gossamer nodded. “And maybe a little change to your clothes. Just a temporary one. Long enough for you to—”
“Go to the ball?” I finished, clapping my hands in mock excitement. “Oh thank you, Fairy Godmother, thank you. Does it change back at the stroke of midnight?”
Flint choked on a piece of chicken as he tried not to laugh. Gossamer placed her hands on her hips, her wings quivering in agitation. “No, Miss Sass. At best maybe an hour or two.” With a flourish of her hand, a pink wand appeared, and more pink dust whirled in the night breeze. She lifted an eyebrow in my direction as if waiting for permission.
After a sigh, I acquiesced. “Go ahead. Bibbity Bobbity get ‘er done.”
A current of wind swirled around me, and my body tingled from the potent magic of the tiny fairy. It tickled like mini feathers poking me all over. When the sensation ceased, I looked down at her results. Instead of a sweat-stained T-shirt, a pink and white checkered peasant blouse flattered my curves. A clean pair of jeans that fit like a glove replaced my older ones. I wiggled my toes free from the boots now clad in some sandals. My pink toenails practically sparkled all on their own. Patting my head, I no longer felt an untamed mess.
“Thanks for not putting me in heels.” I winked at Gossamer. “Love the color.”
“It’s my signature hue. Now come on. Park your bike, and I’ll open the path for you.”
I wheeled Old Joe to a safe place behind the gatehouse. Taking out the keys and shoving them in my pocket, I opened one of the saddlebags and tugged out a smaller leather backpack, slinging it over my shoulder.
“That’s all you’re taking with you?” Gossamer asked.
I shrugged. “I left with very little, and I’m returning with pretty much what I’ve got on me.” I looked down at the glamour of new clothes. “Well, sort of.”
Waving her wand again, a pink vertical line formed in the air and straight down to the ground. With her hand, she dug her fingers into the line until it ripped open. The sound of laughter, talking, and music floated through. The familiar sight of the end of Main Street right before the park shimmered on the other side.
In a soft voice, Gossamer urged me. “Come on, Charli. You don’t want to miss your homecoming.”
Doubt crept into my gut, and I questioned my choice. Once through, there would be no turning back. Literally. Unless I wanted to walk the few miles all the way back to the border. As the night grew dark. Alone. Well, me, a few hundred cicadas, and whatever else lurked in the woods.
A cool breeze blew across my face, the moss in the trees bending to its will. Balling my fists, I did my best to summon my courage. Was I a Goodwin or was I a mouse? I ignored that tiny voice in the back of my head telling me that I was indeed small and squeaky with big ears and a long tail. Faking every ounce of bravery, I plastered a smile on my face, told that voice to shush, and walked toward the fairy’s shortcut.
Right behind the rip in the air stood a large wooden sign in peeling white paint. Its old-fashioned black lettering needed a touch-up. But it loomed there like a grand announcement…or a big warning.
Welcome Home to Honeysuckle Hollow
Stepping onto the path, I hesitated as something on the sign caught my eye, goosebumps breaking out all over.
Did the population number on the sign just tick up by one?