As night wore into dawn others showed up at Teresa’s home, until they were virtually a party in her perpetually overburdened kitchen. Niles came around after waking to find himself alone in bed. Kara followed the same logic as Clair, only slightly delayed, and arrived after checking out all of Henry’s other usual haunts. Sofia and Lola were even allowed to stay and watch, after being told to go to bed several times, on account of their mother’s general level of distraction. She lit candles, and set them in a wide circle around the room. She pored over texts. She washed her hands.
In the meantime, the man of the hour sat silent on the dining table. Henry had his shirt off, and his bandages removed. It had been a while since he looked at his wound. At some point it had become his custom to change the dressing in the dark, or while he looked resolutely away. The black rot looked ever more like a bubbling tar spill, running from his shoulder all the way down his chest. Breathing burned. His vision swayed and faltered. But despite his sober mood and questionable health, the atmosphere in the kitchen was joyous. Kara and Niles chatted happily about plans for another art exhibit. Clair entertained the girls with inappropriately gory stories. Lola continually pitched the idea of breaking out a puzzle, but everyone artfully pretended not to hear.
Henry’s nerves jangled like bolts in his stomach, making him queasy. He closed his eyes and tried to still himself. Tried to concentrate on something—anything—other than what was about to happen. All that came to him was that intrusive thought: he couldn’t feel anything. There was no magic about them.
Eventually Teresa closed her notebook. “I am ready.”
“Do you think it’s going to work?” Henry asked.
“This will be my only time trying this particular spell. But I understand how it works.”
“There’s no magic.” He didn’t need to say the rest. By waiting too long, he had inadvertently chosen Emmaline’s path. The wound would slowly eat through him, as perhaps she had always intended, and one day it would be his bones ambling down the village’s terrified streets.
She smiled. “I’m not mending skin or setting bones, dear. I never did explain the details, did I? I’m attacking whatever wicked thing has nestled itself into your shoulder. And knowing Emmaline, I think it will not go without a fight. Now everybody stop talking, I need silence.”
The background hum ceased. Nobody moved a muscle. Pale purple light, the first rays of a new day, illuminated the window—and Teresa began her spell. Her eyes drifted shut. She hummed something, a poem or a song, under her breath. Then with a deep exhale she placed her steady hands on Henry’s shoulder, and for several long moments nothing happened. Clair cast a sideways glance at Kara. Lola looked away. Niles bit his lip.
Teresa’s fingers shook, and glowed. Faintly at first, then brighter and brighter until they were like ten blinding headlights searing into his skin. Henry pulled away but she followed, knocking him flat on his back on the table to keep her hands in place over his wound. Steam, white and fluffy like dissipating snow, billowed from the rot. It filled the room in rolling waves, more foam now than snow, and extinguished all thirteen candles. The only light was that of her molten hands, battling against the occlusion of the mist they spewed. The only noise was screaming.
Henry shut his mouth to make it stop, but he was not the source. Teresa shouted like a wounded animal, or else like someone strangling a despised foe.
The door clattered open, and closed. Sofia and Lola had seen enough. Niles surged forward, unsure of what he was doing but committed at least to trying to help, but he faltered in amazement at the edge of the table. Where Teresa’s hands passed over Henry’s flesh, the rot shrank away. She started near his stomach, at the faintest edge, and worked upward. When she got to the shoulder, to the deep and long festering bullet hole, she cupped her hands and pressed.
White blanketed them. The light went out. Nobody could see—not even Henry, who was only inches away from Teresa. Her hands went slack. They slipped off his chest, and the first noise to break the stunned silence was her hitting the floor.
“Teresa?” Kara said. A blind, groping search began, in which the most that was accomplished was the bumping of many heads against one another, until Niles finally discovered and opened the window. The thick white fog caught the breeze, slipping outside. By degrees the room cleared.
“She’s okay. Henry, help me lift—Henry, oh my god!”
“What?” he asked.
He didn’t need to look down at himself to know that was true. His shoulder felt whole in a way it had not in nearly a year. That constant pain, which long ago he had disassociated with the condition of his shoulder and begun to think of as a fundamental value of life, was gone. He felt strong enough to fling Teresa over his arm—which presently he did, transporting her to the couch.
They roused her with cold water, and covered her in blankets. They cheered and bellowed and generally acted like wild people. Clair insisted that she make breakfast. Everybody forbade Teresa from moving. She repeatedly told them that she felt fine, but each time she tried to leave the couch somebody pressed another glass of water into her hand.
Henry sat dazed in the corner, holding Niles’ hand. His friends afforded him that space.
Taylor leaned back in his chair, and fiddled with the badge pinned to his chest. It didn’t sit quite straight, lilting off to the left or right depending on how he adjusted. In time he left it lopsided. He lifted his hand, and snapped his fingers. “Nothing. No matter how hard I try, nothing. It’s not coming back, is it?”
“No,” Henry said. “I don’t think so.”
“I’ve been going down to the shore in the evenings. Watching the tortoises. I guess they’re around to stay. And the pigeons, and the gulls. Squirrels. I kind of forgot that squirrels even existed. It might not seem like a good trade, to most people.”
“But to you?”
“Well, it’s not really about me, is it?” He tossed a copy of the tell-tale issue of the Tortoise Bay Examiner on the desk between them. “You’ve caused quite a sensation with that.”
Henry frowned. The man was no Leia Thao, but there was no doubt that he could cause enough trouble on his own. “That wasn’t my intent.”
“It’s garbage. A tabloid. Don’t understand what anyone sees in it. You know some of the villagers even believe this stuff you write?”
He worked hard to master the impulse to smile. “It’s just a warning, then?”
“If you did these things you said you did, and Noel Gauthe wanted to press charges, then maybe we’d be talking about something more than a warning. But seeing how it is…”
“The mayor doesn’t want to press charges?”
“Don’t know. Nobody can find him. Empty estate, just like the Brihtes. At least we got instructions on what to do with their stuff.”
“So Lucy and Beth really left.”
Taylor squinted at him. “You haven’t heard? I figured you had a hand in that one. They donated the proceeds of the estate sale to cover the new Tortoise Shell.”
“And Aria let me go on thinking that she was paying for that out of the goodness of her heart.”
“Maybe a journalistic test for our preeminent newsman? You seem to have failed.”
Henry grabbed the paper, and shoved it into his pocket. “I’ll be sure to practice a more moderate hand in the future. You know me—it’s not my fashion to stir the pot. But am I free to go? I’m running late for something important.”
The sheriff squinted again. Maybe he thought it was intimidating. “You can go. I don’t want to see you in here again though, alright?”
He departed with an ironic salute, and broke into a jog the second he hit pavement. Passersby waved and called his name, but he was stopping for nothing. He made it to the edge of the village in record time, and there met the usual crew just as they were starting the goodbyes. Niles wrapped him in a warm embrace, and planted a kiss on his forehead.
Kara pressed his charms back into his hand. “Now that they’re nothing but jewelry?”
“Of course. Thank you.”
“Thought you were going to skip out on us. Bus schedules wait for no man,” Clair said. A heavy pack was strapped to her back. Sofia stood beside her, with an almost identical pack on hers. A red-face Lola was hugging tight onto Teresa’s leg.
“Never imagine it,” Henry said. “What are you guys going to do first?”
“Probably get a burger. See how bars not run by Jamal operate. My guess: better. But we really have to run!”
The farewell party stood watching on the grassy slope leading down to Tortus Bay, waving away their friends. Tears shone in their eyes, and smiles on their faces. It was a beautiful, clear day. The perfect sort of day to start something new.
Clair and Sofia trailed down the road until they were little more than distant blobs on the blue horizon. Then Clair paused, turned, and kicked off into the air.