As I got to my feet, I scanned the area for the owner of the top hat but didn’t find anyone.
“I fell,” I muttered.
“True,” Conroy agreed. “What happened?”
I pulled the owl pendant out from beneath my shirt so that he could have a look around. Maybe he’d spot something that I hadn’t. “I don’t know what happened. One minute I’m running and the next I’m falling.”
“Did something trip you?”
“I don’t think so, I don’t remember tripping. Earlier, when I stepped into the hole that Garret had dug and covered with pine needles as a trap designed to trip someone, I understood falling. But this time there was nothing.” I pointed at the top hat. “What do you make of that?”
“It’s a hat.”
Sometimes Conroy exercises his penchant for stating the obvious.
I approached the head covering cautiously. I crouched down so I could get a better look at it without actually touching the item. “You don’t think it’s weird that I’ve encountered both a magician’s hat and a white rabbit?”
A wild banshee scream startled me from behind. Without looking, I rose into a roundhouse kick designed to prevent my attacker from reaching me. My leg arced through the air with power and deadly aim.
I didn’t see his face.
Only the flash of yellow.
Time slows down for me when I’m fighting someone. Or more specifically their time slows down, mine continues at normal speed. Instinctively, in the split second that I realized I was about to strike Richie, I twisted myself away from him. The momentum of my motion threw me off balance and I landed face-down on the ground.
“Tag! You’re it!” The boy crowed victoriously as he slapped my shoulder blade. He was totally oblivious to my failed attack.
Spitting out dirt, gravel and pine needles, I rolled over onto my back and looked up at him.
“I’m blind! I’m blind!” Conroy wailed, panicked.
I wiped the dirt off the stones that made up his eyes.
“I win!” Richie threw his arms into the air and did a jubilant dance as I tended to my necklace.
“You won.” I sat up slowly and began to wipe off the forest floor debris that clung to my clothing. “But now you have to go home. I have grownup stuff to do.”
“Can we play again later?” Richie asked hopefully.
He ran a few yards away and looked over his shoulder. “Thanks, Smoosher!”
“Could you please not call me that?”
With a laugh he disappeared into the woods.
Stiff and sore I got to my feet carefully and returned to examine the top hat. “Did you trip me?” I asked it.
I know, I know, it’s weird to talk to inanimate objects, but I’m someone who talks to a necklace, a penny and a tattoo on a regular basis.
“Technically no,” the hat replied in a voice that reminded me of a stereotypical New York City taxi driver from the 1970s. “I did not trip you.”
“Technically?” I asked, bending down to get a better look at him. His brim was dented and the edging of his red ribbon was starting to fray. He might have been dapper at one point but now he’d seen better days.
“No telling tales, Erich,” a voice warned from behind me.
I straightened and turned to face Sol who was emerging from the woods. His lavender shimmer was muted like he was exerting great control over himself.
“Did you hurt yourself when you fell?” he asked with concern.
“Of course not.”
The corners of his mouth quirked like he was trying to hide an amused smile.
“Yours?” I gestured toward the hat on the ground.
Sol tilted his head to the side and shrugged. “Not quite.” He held out his hand and the hat flew through the air, landing in his palm.
I didn’t bother to hide the shiver of revulsion that ran through me. Magic. I hate magic. Everything that’s ever gone wrong in my life was due to magic. Buddy was dead because of it. Mildred was haunting me. Nothing good ever came from magic…at least where I was concerned.
Sol’s eyes narrowed as he took in my reaction. “Something wrong?”
“Nice trick,” I drawled drily, loading my tone with disdain.
“I did tell you I was a magician.” He said it with a half-smile, like he was trying to win me over.
I spun around on my heel and stalked away from him, back toward the camper van.
“I tried to tell you—” Conroy began.
“Tell me what?” I snapped at the necklace. “All you said was that he’s a step away. A step away from what?”
“Real magic,” Sol said, suddenly appearing beside me.
Startled, I jumped away from him, unsure if he’d physically caught up with me or used magic to transport himself to land beside me.
“You do believe in real magic, don’t you?” He tapped the hat against his leg nervously.
“Sure,” I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster. “You’re a regular Master of Illusion.”
He blinked. “But—”
“Leave me alone.” I began to walk away from him. This time I listened for his footsteps following and heard them as he accelerated to draw abreast of me.
“You believe,” Sol said with conviction.
I stopped and stared down at the ground, clenching my fists, trying to figure out what I could say to convince him to leave me alone. I wanted no part of his magic.
“What’s your name?” he asked so softly that I found myself looking up at him to confirm he’d spoken.
He shook his head. “What’s your real name?”
I looked away as a cold cloak of dread settled over me. That was a question I’d asked myself many times. Amnesia does that. It steals everything from you…memories, relationships, identity. The truth was I didn’t know what my real name was.
I swallowed convulsively as I was forced to remember that painful fact.
He placed one finger on my chin and gently turned my head so that I was facing him. “What’s your name?” he whispered softly.
I saw genuine curiosity gleaming in the depths of his dark gaze. His shimmer had grown more intense over the course of our conversation and now its energy practically pulsated. He was experiencing a strong emotion, but I couldn’t tell what it was.
I shook my head. “I told you.”
“You’re lying.” He dropped his finger from my chin and stepped back. “Why?”
I stiffened, not liking that he’d accused me of being a liar. “That’s what everyone calls me.”
“But it’s not your name.” He squinted at me. “You show up claiming to be the daughter-in-law of the mortal enemy of Tess and you won’t even say what your name is.”
“I don’t know what my name is!” I found myself shouting, the words echoing against the trees that surrounded us.
He blinked. “Oh.”
“Oh?” I raged. “You harass me and then all you can say is “oh”?” I began to march away from him. “You and your stupid hat need to stay away from me!”
“Erich was just trying to protect you,” Sol called after me.
I stopped and asked, “Protect me from what?”
When I didn’t get an answer, I turned around.
No one was there.