The sun was just starting to set when Rayvin’s beaten red Plymouth Horizon passed the sign indicating the exit for Talbot. The back of the vehicle fishtailed slightly in the thin slush coating the highway as she made the turn, in spite of several suitcases and boxes weighing down the hatchback, tied down and tarped on the roof. The loaded small trailer covered with a second tarp and a web of bungee-cords followed suit, wavering from side to side for a moment as she adjusted her speed. Reaching back to rub the nape of her neck, the back of her hand pushed against the carved hairpin keeping her long, curly auburn hair in its bun; the pin slid free, falling somewhere behind her seat as the locks spilled down around her shoulders. Sighing, she changed hands, keeping one firmly on the wheel while the other gingerly patted the boxes and bags crowding the backseat, searching for the hairpin. Her eyes stayed on the road, though she wasn’t concerned about the route. No matter that half a lifetime had passed since she had last travelled this road; she still knew exactly where each hill would be, the precise moment when a curve began and when the pavement straightened again.
Time seemed to have slowed in this relatively remote corner of northeastern Ontario — the environment seemed unchanged since she had last travelled this route, determined never to come back. Memories came wandering unbidden and unwelcome to the forefront of her mind, as she gave up on the search for the hairpin and draped the length of her hair over the headrest to keep it out of her way.
When Rayvin had hitch-hiked her way out of Talbot, ten years earlier, she had vowed to cut her hair as soon as she had settled. It would be part of her fresh start, her new life; she would change the colour, bleach it away to platinum blonde, trim the curl down to a sleek pixie — anything but the straggly, flaming mane that, she felt, marked her so clearly as different. It had been a banner, attracting attention — she felt clearly the hostility on people’s faces as she passed them on the main street for the last time, chin high, heading for the beginning of the highway and whichever motorist would be kind enough to help her begin her journey to a new life. She had walked away from the only home she’d ever known with only a backpack, filled to bursting and carving painful red marks into her shoulders. The whispers from onlookers peering out of open shop doors had followed her like the malevolent humidity, both urging her on and dragging her down. Her chest had felt so tight, her eyes dry and burning, when she had passed the boy with the deep brown eyes — if anyone would have believed her, she liked to think it would have been Grant Michaels.
They had rarely spoken, but she had liked the sound of Grant’s voice, the things he had said. The way he had looked at her when they passed in school, with appreciation, interest, and respect. She would have liked to have gotten to know him better, to have been friends. They might even have dated, were it not for his interfering, perverted friends. But he had turned his back on her, just like the rest, after her disastrous date with his best friend. The appreciation, interest and respect she had felt from him had changed in one night into hatred, anger, and disgust. Maybe even fear. Rayvin had always felt his regard for her in the background and taken it as a comfort; after every thing that happened, she missed it terribly. Without the kindness of a nice boy, her world felt that much smaller and colder. Not even Andrea, her dearest friend and almost-sister, could fill that sudden emptiness. It felt much like when her mother had died.
So, unwanted and under pressure, Rayvin had left Talbot the day after her nineteenth birthday.
In her vehicle, her hands resting on the wheel, she recalled the sudden feeling of liberation as she had crossed the town limits, the glorious rush of hope and freedom that had filled every cell of her body when she had felt herself to have achieved her escape from accusation, anger, and fear. She could reinvent herself, and she would, in a place where anonymity was a gift. And she would start with her hair.
But when the moment finally came, weeks later in the city, she couldn’t do it — her hair was too much a part of her identity. Maybe Talbot was, too, in spite of history. Her throat tightened as she wished once more that she had some other alternative than to come back, and prayed to Goddess that time had healed what she could not.
It hadn’t been for lack of trying. She had gained her abilities as a healer from her mother, and after Jason got hurt, she had at least attempted to do the right thing. But she had forgotten her mother’s final lesson. Some things cannot be fixed, with medicine, or with magick. Things like terminal cancer, and broken vertebrae.
“It’s just how things are, my darling,” Rowan Woods had whispered from her hospital bed. She’d looked so small and pale, her beautiful red hair thinned on her scalp, that she had frightened her daughter. “I will miss you growing up, and you will need me but I will not be there, physically.”
“We haven’t tried everything,” Rayvin had protested. “There are still a lot of herbs, and spells, way in the back of the book!” The tears filling her eyes blurred her vision, making her mother look like she was surrounded by a halo.
Rayvin smiled sadly at the memory. Her determination to put a broken body back together had been just as strong when she was seven, but it had taken a second failed attempt to make her realize the limits of her power. She still wondered if her own feelings toward the injured had interfered, in spite of her efforts to put those emotions aside. No-one aside from Andrea had known that she had tried to heal Jason, so at least the humiliation of her failure hadn’t spread like the other rumours about her. But if it had worked, she wouldn’t have had to leave the only life she’d ever known.
She wouldn’t have had to walk away from the woods where her mother had taught her to respect magick. Rayvin had never grown to love the silence and the solitude of the bush, as her mom had, but she had gained an appreciation for it. She thought she might still be able to find the trails where her mother had shown her how to recognize helpful and harmful flowers, roots, berries, trees, and herbs.
What would her life have been like, if she’d been able to heal Jason? If he’d never been hurt in the first place? She might still be living in the gable room in Andrea’s house, her door across from Andrea’s door. She might have avoided some of the pain that she was now hoping to leave behind her. She would have tended her mother’s grave as faithfully as she’d once vowed. Andrea had promised to look after it, but Rayvin still felt guilty about abandoning her mother’s remains. Visiting her would be one of her first priorities, once she got settled in.
Lost in her thoughts, the appearance of red and blue pulsating lights in her rearview mirrors escaped her attention for a full five minutes. A brief pulsing siren woke her up. Shock and disbelief exploded in her chest and throat, as much from interrupted anticipation of the journey’s end as from embarrassment. Her heart accelerated with adrenaline, and she had to fight the urge to accelerate. “Breathe, Rayvin,” she told herself, aiming the vehicle for a section of straight road shoulder. Braking carefully, she laughed ruefully — she had never gotten a ticket before. Magick had nothing to do with it; she was simply good and careful. Made it a general rule to avoid problems with civil authorities. And here she was, not twenty minutes away from her destination, already being cited or warned or fined or whatever — not an auspicious start.
She should have remembered to check her almanac. It was probably a waning moon.
Waiting with her hands on the wheel and looking straight ahead as her driving instructor had advised, so many years before, her eyes couldn’t help but stray to the tall, well-proportioned male figure in dark navy blue striding along the pavement to her car door. The bulky standard-issue padded jacket enhanced his broad shoulders; corded muscle and tendon were thrown into brief relief above the collar as he got closer, and the gun belt slung almost casually around his narrow waist suggested a healthy contrast in size between shoulders and abdomen. Clearly, this was neither a sergeant close to retirement or a fresh recruit. And then he was there, tapping gently on the glass with the butt of a long-handled flashlight. At his gesture, she lowered the window, squinting against the orange glare of the sunset. Unable to make out a face from the officer silhouetted against the dying sun, she looked directly at his mirrored glasses. The convex angle distorted her nose and the wrinkle of skin above it, produced by her squinting; she hoped that she didn’t look as hag-like as Smokey suggested, and tried to relax her vision as she asked the inevitable question.
“What’s the problem, officer?
The silence stretched a trifle longer than it should have, and just on the edge of discomfort, the policeman responded. “License and registration, please.”
She shivered slightly, trying to pretend it was only from the chilly air that was quickly invading her car. The presence of the police officer, so close to Talbot, was forcing up flashbacks that were taking her breath away. The strobing lights, primary colours casting shadows against her bedroom walls. The degradation and disgrace of interrogation, first in front of her foster mother in the spacious living room of the house she had come to love after her mother had died. The further humiliation as she was marched out, in handcuffs, and had seen her foster sister’s tearful expression reflected in the hallway mirror. Rummaging through her purse first for her wallet, and then leaning across to the glove compartment, Rayvin fought down rising panic, recalling the glaring, accusatory stares of the neighbours, gathered in little bathrobe-dressed groupings, muttering acidly amongst themselves as a firm hand pushed her head gently under the edge of the car door. The officer shifted his posture, and something metallic clinked against her car door, echoing the cold sound of a key locking her into a sterile, tiny isolation room. Restrained by the seatbelt, Rayvin had to strain slightly to reach the papers she needed; the movement pulled her sweater up her body, a hands-breadth from the waist of her low-rise jeans, and as she wrestled the insurance papers from between maps and Canadian Tire money, she felt a perceptible change in the atmosphere — almost as though the cop had suddenly sucked air through his teeth, and she had heard the slight sound register only in the most primal part of her brain.
Her heart thudded. Magick flooded her body, an instinctual survival tactic. She closed her eyes, pretending to fumble with the document, struggling now for control. Great Mother, if she lashed out now, she’d be back where she’d started in every sense of the term. The radio came to life for a heart-stopping few seconds, crackling with static, as a field of energy built around her and rang in her ears. She trembled with the force of it, and then the momentum ceased as she regained control of her breathing. The yoga classes and meditative visualizations had been worth every penny of her tips, if they helped her to avoid repeating history.
Rayvin swallowed uncomfortably as the officer scanned her papers, pulled a pencil and pad out of a pocket and wrote something down. He shifted his stance, and with an effort, she stopped biting her lip. He was probably trained to see that as an indication of guilty behaviour or something, she thought to herself. Attempting to keep her forehead smooth as she strained to see past the shadows on his face was impossible. Maybe if she appeared to be furrowing her brow in concern he might be more lenient. “What’s the problem, officer?” she finally asked, half-embarrassed at the way the cliche sounded — it felt phoney, but the silence had stretched to the breaking point. Mentally running through the last moments of her driving, she recalled the speed limit — she’d been within five kph over or under, she was sure — and the last time she’d checked, all her lights were functioning, no dents or broken glass. Her stickers were up to date. Maybe he just had to fill a quota before the end of the month, or something.
An SUV approached from the east, heading in the opposite direction; automatically, she turned her head as it passed. The light from the SUV’s headlamps, just starting to wash the road in the early twilight, passed across the cop’s face, clearly illuminating every feature. Rayvin’s heart skipped a beat. It couldn’t be. Please, please, let it not be true. Let this be a trick of the light. She couldn’t breathe. Suddenly, everything clicked into place; time seemed to slow down as he tucked the notepad away and folded her papers. His scent surrounded her now, in the wash from the passing vehicle. She felt heat rising from deep in her thighs, tendrils of warmth sparkling upward through her core, swelling into her breasts and tightening her nipples. No other man had ever made her feel this way, and deep in her heart, she knew no-one else ever would. She had felt the urge to be with him when she was too young to know better, when these feelings had both thrilled and frightened her. She had managed to ignore the strange magnetic pull she had felt then, by ignoring him as much as possible. But it had taken so much strength to stay away from him, to protect him from herself; in this state, she wasn’t sure if she could find it again. Turning to face away, desperate to compose her expression before he saw her, she gripped the steering wheel with both hands, pressing her palms into the raised leather chevrons and curving her fingers until her nails just bit into the sensitive skin folding out beneath the curve at the midsection. Time had passed; they had both matured; she was an adult and could control her impulses. How had she not recognized his voice? It had deepened since the last time she’d seen him, suspicion and hatred rippling from his aura; he’d refused to look at her directly, then, but she’d felt the burn of his gaze against her back. Once more, she could sense him staring at her; how she had blocked his energy before, she wasn’t sure — maybe her exhaustion from the eight-hour drive had something to do with it. But as now she had recognized Grant, and a light was growing inside her that she was powerless to control. Vitality, a powerful earth energy, melded with something not quite tame and entirely masculine, penetrated her awareness, forcing her to concentrate on her own mental and emotional shielding. He was clearly waiting for her to turn and look at him, but in her own vulnerable state, she couldn’t risk looking at him and losing herself. Not again.
“So, where are you headed, miss?” the officer asked gruffly. “If you’re not from the region, you need to be aware of the night dangers this far north.”
“Isn’t that a bit obvious, Grant Michaels?” Ravyin kept her voice low, unclenching her teeth just enough to speak. “Drop the ‘miss,’ you know who I am.”
“Just being professional, Ray. Don’t take it personally,” Michaels replied, leaning down to rest his right elbow on the edge of the window. “But seriously, what are you doing here?”
It was probably driving him crazy, the way she kept her face in profile to avoid looking at him. She remembered how easily he could read truth and lies into a person’s expression; she was denying him the chance to judge. In her peripheral vision, Rayvin saw his jaw clench. He was biting back an urge to order her out of the vehicle, she just knew it. Heat moved through her skin when he finally snapped. “Fine, keep your secrets — that’s nothing new. Ten, eleven years — it’s plain to see you haven’t changed. I’ll find out sooner or later anyway; this isn’t the place you want to be if you want to be left alone. But it’s not like you don’t know that.” His anger stung, but she refused to rise to the bait.
“If I’ve done something wrong, officer, I’m happy to take my ticket,” Rayvin responded. She enunciating each word carefully, her voice filled with ice. “Otherwise, I’d like to have my license and registration back, please, so I can be on my way.”
Silently, without changing his stance, Michaels extended the arm he was leaning against the door, offering the papers just outside of her range of vision so she was forced to turn to see them. She moved to take them, and he pulled them away, just out of her reach. Rolling her eyes, she turned again and lunged, this time catching them firmly.
He didn’t let go.
Exhaling sharply in frustration, she tugged once, and then finally turned her eyes up to his face. Her skin tingled as she took in how very close he was — only inches away, so close she could feel the damp heat of his breath on her skin. The dark brown of his eyes searching her own was nearly irresistible — pulling her in, inviting her even with their fury, or because of it, to explore the passion she could sense just beneath the surface. It was too much. Imperceptibly, he was closing the distance between them, anger turning into something else just as dangerous. Electricity crackled again on the radio, though no power was reaching it from the stilled engine.
“Let go, Michaels.” Rayvin’s voice came out in a whisper, nearly a plea.
His eyes moved to her mouth as she spoke; she saw them widen as she licked her upper lip in nervousness.
For the space of a heartbeat, they were frozen together, a breath from sweet, scorching contact.
Suddenly, he released his grip and stepped back, straightening his posture. Skin burning, eyes prickling in rebellion against her self-control, Ravyin turned away, dropping it all on the seat beside her. Blinking fiercely, forcing aside the feeling of loss and emptiness threatening to overwhelm her, she turned the key in the ignition. He remained standing sentinel as she turned the key in the ignition, hands clenched into fists. Linkin Park blared from the speakers as she pulled away, building up speed. As much as she did not want to look back, she was unable to stop herself. Her gaze flicked back to watch him in the rearview mirror. She held her breath until he finally turned to march back to the police car.
How fitting that the last person she had looked in the eye thirteen years before in this town, was the first to do so again.