On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and most weekends, Iris and Jolie met at Faith’s house. Sometimes their friend Mickey and her little girls joined them, but mostly it was just the three of them. Jolie would have been happy to help Faith out for free, but Iris always found a way to slip a little something into the front pocket of Jolie’s backpack, which gave Jolie a little independence and stability, and meant that she didn’t have to worry so much about her mom forgetting to save some of her tips for Jolie’s lunch.
Iris was in charge of all Faith’s financial affairs since Faith had left Mae’s, from buying the new house, managing investments, groceries, appointments, and dealing with insurance companies. But the relationship went beyond practicalities. They had history. They had become a family.
Jolie or Iris often spent an afternoon reading to Faith from one of her favorite books; something by Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, or Maya Angelou. Some days they played cards. They talked, read, listened to music, cooked, and ate together. But most of all they laughed: the brilliant, sharp-tongued Iris, sweet, wise fragile Faith, and the hard-shelled teenager, whose shell was falling away. They were not commonplace friends. Separated by decades, their love of interesting conversation and good music bonded them, giving each the support to grow.
Fashion conscious Iris bought an iPod and now had playlists that included Iron and Wine, Norah Jones, and Bon Iver, while Jolie had gained an appreciation for the warmth of vinyl records and the classic crooners. Iris brought Jolie quirky and cool fashions from her endless closet of designer clothes, collected during years spent in the New York fashion world. Jolie felt safe in their company, physically and emotionally. If she had a question, the older women seriously tried to help her find an answer.
Jolie walked up to Faith’s. A 1960′s Harley motorcycle was parked in the driveway next to Iris’ classic black Cadillac.
Sean, Jolie thought, her heart thumping like a rock band’s bass drum. Sean’s back.
Faith’s errant grandson had taken off right after New Years without a word to any of them. When he finally called, Faith and Iris had been so relieved they hadn’t challenged his lame excuses. But trust came hard to Jolie Figg, and Sean tossing that trust aside and running off made her feel uncomfortably vulnerable.
“Why would he do this? Why would he just abandon us?” she had demanded. “He knows how much we need him.”
“Sean’s not a thinker, Jolie. He doesn’t plan,” Faith explained. “He just gets something in his head and does it. It isn’t meant to be hurtful. He just forgets to think about the rest of us.”
Jolie didn’t buy it. “It’s wrong to make people you care about worry like this.”
“You’re right, Jo, but it won’t do any good to scold him. He’ll just get defensive and run off again. Tell her Iris,” Faith sought her friend’s support.
“Don’t look at me.” Iris pursed her lipsticked mouth together until it looked like a tiny red cabbage. “I’m with Jo on this. I think Sean acted like a spoiled jerk.”
Faith turned up her hands in a helpless gesture. “I’m not blind to it, but it’s not my place to judge him. When he gets it right, he’s a delight, and when he doesn’t--. Well, he knows that I’ll be there waiting for him when he comes back around. I always have. He counts on that.”
Well then he’s in for a big surprise, Jolie thought to herself. Because one day, he’s going to come running home, and you won’t be here.
She hated to think about it, but she knew it was true. Faith was more frail every day. Of course, Jolie would never have said that out loud.
Too late, she realized. She didn’t have to. Faith had probably heard her thoughts. The old woman looked up at Jolie with sad eyes, confirming Jolie’s suspicion.
But even if I am not here for him, you will be, won’t you, dear? They seemed to say.
Jolie broke the link between them, ashamed.
Sean and Jolie had no official relationship, beyond friendship. Everything else between them had been casual flirting and teasing, except on Solstice when they fought side by side to thwart the darkness. There had been a connection that went beyond this life, and both had seen it. For Jolie, the existence of connection elevated Sean’s self-absorbed character flaw to the level of willful abandonment. Faith was kinder.
“He’s just young,” she explained as if that excused all of her grandson’s self-centered misbehavior.
“He’s older than I am,” Jolie protested.
“Only chronologically,” Iris argued. “You’re an old soul, Jolie. You’ve probably forgotten more in this life than Sean will remember in his next three.”
“I don’t know, Faith. You know how you said that souls travel together through many lifetimes?” Jolie countered. “Well, I “saw” Sean. I saw who he really is and he is so much more than this irresponsible overgrown kid.”
Faith sighed. “Maybe not this time.”
Remembering Sean’s trespasses, Jolie’s initial excitement about his return faded.
“I don’t care how happy I am to see him. I’m going to throttle him,” she growled as she stomped up the driveway. “It’s just me,” she announced, entering. She dropped her backpack by the door.
“Jolie,” Faith called back. “Come see who’s here.”
Jo entered Faith’s sitting room, an area between the kitchen and the family room. It was the sunniest place in the house, with a big plate glass window looking out at a desert oasis backyard that had been lovingly planted by the previous owner.
Faith was holding court from her chaise lounge, her white hair framing a face with tissue-paper skin stretched over delicate bones. She wore the silk dressing gown that Iris had bought her when it became too difficult to get dressed every day.
“A woman deserves to look good whatever she feels like.” Iris had insisted, lifting the robe from its tissue papered box.
“You shouldn’t have spent the money, Iris.” Faith said, smiling at the lovely material. “The last thing I need is more things.”
“Just because Las Vegans think that dressing up means wearing socks, doesn’t mean we all have to lower our standards,” the aged fashion icon stated. “This, my dears, is real silk.” Iris gently pressed the material against her friend’s cheek. “Not that cheap polyester stuff they try to pawn off on people these days. It’s as soft as a butterfly’s wings but will wear like iron. You could wear this robe every day for the rest of your life--” she stopped abruptly, her eyes wide with horror at what she had said.
“It’s all right, Iris. None of us gets out of this alive. I have no illusions about my future,” Faith assured her with a smile. “Oh, it is a pretty thing, isn’t it? Jolie, will you put my old bathrobe in the Goodwill bag? Iris, help me into this lovely little bit of gossamer. I’ll feel like a fairy queen when I wear it. What a wonderful gift, my friend.” She had worn it almost every day since.
Faith and Iris sat opposite Sean, looking up at Jolie with a sense of great expectancy, foolish grins pulling their faces sideways.
Jolie’s eyes met Sean’s, and she knew that something was wrong.
“You shaved,” she said bluntly. His signature blue jeans and leather jacket remained, but his usual tee shirt had been replaced by a ludicrous “business casual” cream-colored button down. Sean’s eyes flickered to his left and Jolie realized there was a fifth person in the room. A willowy blond sat next to Sean.
“Hey, Jo.” He crossed to Jolie and crushed her to his chest. The scent of his skin flooded Jolie with memories: the uncertainty of her home life, the danger they had faced together, the safe zone he had become for her. Now, here he was, back again, but he was not alone. What did it mean? Jolie pushed him away, glaring at the slim intruder.
“This is Adrianna.” Sean scratched the back of his neck, looking awkward and uncertain. “Adrianna, this is Jolie. She’s a friend of the family.” The young woman stood and offered Jolie, her hand. Jolie didn’t take it.
“I’m very glad to meet you, Jolie. I’ve heard so much about you.” There was a charming foreign lilt to her voice. Jolie hated it.
I’ve never heard anything about you; she wanted to say. Instead, she said, “You’re French?”
“I’m American, but my father is in the diplomatic corps, so I lived in France until I was thirteen.”
“How nice for you.” It sounded rude even to Jolie.
Faith smoothed the blanket spread across her legs.
“Jo, could you be a dear and make us a little tea?” “Coffee for you, Sean, and some cookies or cake?” she asked.
“Don’t go to any trouble for us, Mrs. McBride,” Adrianna said, politely.
Jolie glared. Us? Us? When did she and Sean become an “us”?
“It’s no trouble,” Faith demurred. “Jolie knows where everything is. The three of us have a little tea together most days.” She smiled at her grandson, but the message was clear. Jolie was there. Sean was not. “Jolie has become my right hand since I left Mae’s. She helps me out in so many ways. I wouldn’t be able to live here on my own if it weren’t for her and Iris.” Sean looked down at his hands, guiltily. “Jolie, please, see what we’ve got in the kitchen for our guests.” Faith’s clear blue eyes directed Jolie to the kitchen. I know Sean bringing this girl is a shock. Give yourself a moment,” she said, silently directing her thoughts at Jolie.
“Of course, Faith. Excuse me,” Jolie headed for the kitchen, a model of civil behavior.
“I’ll help.” Sean bolted through the doors before anyone could stop him.
Jolie and Sean stood at opposite ends of the kitchen; the linoleum floor stretched between them like a battlefield.
“What are you doing here, Sean?” Jolie demanded.
“What do you mean? I came to see Faith, and you, of course.”
“Four months. Four months you’ve been gone.” Jolie turned away, got out the tea tray, and began throwing open cupboards, pulling out packages of cookies and muffins, and tearing them open like they were Sean’s head.
“I told you, I went north to look for work.”
“No, you said you were thinking about going north to look for work. There’s a big gap between thinking about it, and leaving without telling anybody.” She retrieved a silver tea set and china cups out of another cupboard. They rattled and clinked as she set them down a little too forcefully. “What if Rick had put some bad juju on you, so you crashed your motorcycle, or strung you up and cut your heart out, or some crazy shit?”
“How were we supposed to know that?”
“Maybe you could use your amazing psychic powers,” Sean bit back.
Jolie hurled a muffin at him. “Do you have any idea how worried your grandmother was--how worried we all were?”
“I needed to get out of town, Jo--away from Rick and his crowd. Grandma understood that.”
“You had to get away, but it was okay to leave us here with Rick prowling around, trying to sort out who was responsible for Rory’s death, and the rest of that mess on Solstice?” Jolie filled half a plate with cookies, stacking muffins on the other half. “Yeah, you’re a real stand-up guy, Sean. Let the old ladies and the girl take care of it. I’m out of here.” She set the water on to boil.
“I couldn’t sleep. I was going crazy. I kept having these dreams....” Sean left the sentence dangling. Jolie understood about the dreams.
“Yeah. I have them, too,” she admitted, her voice softening.
“There are pictures in my head from that night that don’t make any sense,” Sean confessed.
“We saved them,” Jolie said firmly. “That’s the part we need to remember.”
“We didn’t save Rory.”
Jolie’s jaw set. “Rory didn’t deserve saving.”
“No one deserves that kind of death,” Sean protested.
Jolie wondered what Sean had seen when Rory died. How much did he really understand?
“What happened to Rory was on him, not us,” she insisted, firmly. “He should never have been doing any of that shit. He was in way over his head.”
Sean walked to the kitchen window and looked out. “I should have known that something was wrong about him--I mean before all of that stuff came down there at the end. How come I didn’t know the guy was such bad news? It was my fault--all of it. I’m the one who introduced Rory to Aunt Mae. If I hadn’t done that, none of it would have happened, but I didn’t see him for who he really was until it was too late.”
“Nobody did, except Faith,” Jolie pointed out. “He fooled all of them.”
“Not you. You had him pegged from the moment he walked into Mae’s that first afternoon, didn’t you?”
Jolie shrugged. It was true. None of the others had recognized Rory’s egocentric evil. She had always thought that spells were a historic hangover from the dark days of medieval witch hunts. They made no sense in a science-based worldview, but the events of last winter had led her to question her assumptions. Something had blinded Mae’s and Faith’s friends to Rory’s true nature. Something had kept them from voicing any concerns about him when they did come up; right up until the spell was broken.
Sean was studying the toes of his boots.
“Sometimes, I think it was all a hallucination. Like somebody put something in the Kool-Aid, you know?” He looked up, desperate for an explanation that made sense in the everyday Western world.
“It may be hard to accept what happened, Sean, but it did happen. Pretending it didn’t isn’t going to make you sleep better.”
“It might,” Sean mumbled.
Jolie resisted calling him out as a coward. “So, did you follow me in here to tell me that you found your dream girl; Adrianna ‘is the one’?”
A crooked grin screwed up half of Sean’s face. “I don’t know, maybe.”
Jolie spun around ready to spit out a stream of jealous girlfriend put downs. Instead, she took a breath, walked over, and tugged playfully on the collar of the cream-colored shirt.
“It won’t last you know. She’s not your type.”
“Adrianna picked it out.” Sean looked embarrassed.
“I can see that.”
“Look, I know that you and Grandma and Iris are disappointed in me, and I guess I deserve that. I’ve been selfish, but I can change.” Sean straightened up, losing his habitual slouch. “I’ve changed already.”
“Yeah, you let some girl pick out preppie clothes for you at Banana Republic.”
Sean winced but let it go.
“The point is, Jo, you don’t need me. You do fine on your own. You proved that on Solstice.”
So that was it. Jolie could read it on his face. It was there in the air around him. Sean had come back to say goodbye.
“Solstice didn’t prove anything except that bad things can happen to good people without them having any idea about what’s going on.” Jolie tried to keep the emotion from her voice.
“And there are good people who will stop those things from happening,” Sean countered.
“If they’re there," Jolie protested. “I didn’t fight that battle by myself, Sean. I had help: you and Tru, Marty and Mickey, Faith and Iris--you were all a part of it.”
“I remember.” His tone made it clear that it was not a good memory. “And if it weren’t for you, we would all have been in deep shit.”
Jolie wiped her hands over her face and sighed. She was just a kid that Sean knew; a friend of the family he had said. That was all. What did she expect?
“So that’s it? You’ve decided. You’re going?”
Sean crossed the room and pulled her into a reluctant hug. “You’ll be fine. You’re the bravest hard-ass I know, outside of my grandmother,” Sean tried to soothe and quiet her, but it wasn’t his voice Jolie heard. It was not even his touch she felt caressing her hair. The vision took over, and it was Mem’s.
“You’re going to be just fine,” Mem crooned in her refined contralto. It was sunny, the air smelling of wet earth, savory herbs, and lush flowers. The bees were buzzing in the fruit trees overhead.
Jolie had fallen and skinned her knee. Mem had answered her cries, and already it didn’t hurt so much. Her grandmother had always been there to fix things for her and then suddenly; she wasn’t.
Jessie had woken Jolie in the middle of the night and spirited her away. With Mem gone, there had been no one to fill the void in Jolie’s life until Faith had pulled the confused teenager into her own family circle.
“Mem’s here,” Jolie’s grandmother had stroked her granddaughter’s brown hair. “Mem will always be here.”
That was a lie; grown-up Jolie thought as she was transported from Mem’s garden, re-emerging in Faith’s kitchen.
She pushed away from Sean.
“You’re such a douche.”
“I don’t mean to be,” he apologized. “Uncle Robert used to say that Trouble liked the way my name tickled its tongue. I’m trying to be better now, Jolie, really. Adrianna is helping me.”
Jolie snorted. “To be what, her toy poodle?
Sean frowned. “Don’t do that. It’s unbecoming, and it’s not fair. Don’t blame Adrianna for what’s wrong between us.”
“There is nothing wrong between us, Sean,” Jolie spit back. “Because there is no “us”, there’s just you and what you need--what “you” want. Trouble doesn’t have your name--that’s just more of your charming bullshit. It wasn’t just Faith you dragged into this mess with Rick and Rory. You got me into it, too, remember? I’m going to impress my friends by getting Jolie to be the Solstice virgin,” Jolie mimicked Sean’s voice. “I’ll introduce her to Faith. Everyone loves her. There’s no way Jolie will say no to Faith.”
“Oh come on, Jo, you have to admit that part worked out pretty well, even if you and I didn’t.” Sean took a cookie and popped it into his mouth.
The water began to boil reminding Jolie of her task. She took the pot off the stove and poured the hot water into the tea pot.
“Don’t flatter yourself, Sean. This isn’t about some disappointed schoolgirl crush,” Jolie cautioned him as she worked. “I’m not falling apart because you needed some comfort between the sheets and I was too young to do the job. I never expected you to wait for me to grow up, but I did expect you to be a friend. For Faith’s sake, and for your own, you should stick around. Faith can’t take any more of your little backsliding episodes. She’s not well.”
“God, I wish everyone would stop talking about my grandmother like she was half dead already,” Sean complained. “Faith’s the strongest woman I know. She’ll probably outlive us both.”
Jolie just looked at him. “You’re a friggin’ idiot. She won’t be able to get out of bed tomorrow, and maybe not the day after that.”
“Why? Because of me?”
“There’s only so much energy left in her--only so many heartbeats.”
Sean glanced back at the closed door. “She looks fine.”
“She’s thrilled that you’re here. I think she was worried that she wouldn’t see you again.”
“First, you’re pissed at me because I’m not here, and now you’re going to guilt trip me because by coming I’m making her tired? I just can’t win with you, can I?”
“You could. You could stay and take care of her until she crosses over; be the grandson she deserves.”
Sean hung his head. “I’m no good at taking care of other people.”
“You’re not so good at taking care of yourself either, but you are her grandson. You have history--that means something, and no matter how much affection she has for me, or Iris, we can’t take your place. We shouldn’t have to.”
“What about Aunt Mae? She’s family.”
“That woman will never come close to Faith again. Iris will see to that. Now, it’s time for tea, so put your Mister Roger’s smiley face on and let’s go give your grandmother a nice memory.” Jolie donned her own poker face, picked up the tea tray, and pushed through the swinging door into the sitting room. “Tea, ladies,” she announced.
None of the women said anything about whatever they might have overheard from the kitchen, but a sadness shadowed their polite smiles. Like a favored princeling, Sean had returned, but he would not be staying. Jolie sat straight-backed on a dining room chair watching as the others chatted about whatever was safe and unimportant, carefully avoiding any hard truths that might take the conversation somewhere real or honest. She felt trapped; like someone had sawed off her legs.
Faith said that the four of them had been born and re-born into different roles throughout many lives. Jolie knew it to be true as surely as she knew she had five fingers on each hand because she had “seen” it. Maybe, that was why Sean was attracted to someone like Adrianna; a woman who didn’t come with expectations built up over lifetimes, who wasn’t waiting for him to become something greater than just a pretty decent guy with minimal baggage. Maybe sometimes a soul got tired of fighting the good fight and just wanted to phone it in for a life or two. Jolie didn’t know much about the spiritual world, but she was pretty sure there was a karmic price to pay for that kind of spiritual wimping out.
“So, Grandma, I’ve decided to go back to school,” Sean announced as he took the last muffin. “I’m going to study engineering.”
“Here at UNLV?” Faith asked, hopeful.
“No.” Sean hesitated. “I’ve been looking around. I think I like the University of Washington.” He glanced at Adrianna. “I’m planning to start there next term if you’re okay with that?” he added, quickly.
“That’s what your grandfather always hoped, that you would get a solid degree once you figured out what you wanted to do with your life,” Faith replied, trying not to show her disappointment.
Sean looked at Adrianna. “And now I know.”
Jolie’s heart twisted. She had been so sure that she and Sean’s destinies were entwined--so sure that they were perfect as lovers and helpmates, but Sean just wanted to escape.
In what life did you become such a coward, Sean Flahretty? She asked, silently.
Faith leaned forward and took Sean’s hand. “He’d be so proud of you, Sean. Are you staying the night? I have a guestroom.”
“No thanks, Grandma.” Sean glanced at Jolie. “We don’t want you to go to any extra trouble.”
“We have reservations at the Bellagio,” Adrianna explained.
“But I’ll come back in the morning and straighten out the trust fund stuff and all that if that’s okay?”
“Iris takes care of that,” Faith informed her grandson.
“I’ll notify the bank that you are coming, so they know to expect you,” Iris replied in her curt, businesslike manner.
Sean and Adrianna rose, and Sean kissed Faith’s cheek.
“Don’t come too early tomorrow,” Iris cautioned Sean in a low murmur. “It takes her awhile to get going in the morning, especially after a day like today.”
“When have you ever known me to be early, Aunt Iris?” Sean smiled, nervously glancing at his grandmother.
“I’d better get going, too.” Jolie stood and began to clear the dishes. “I’ve got homework and a friend’s coming by later.”
Sean and Adrianna were out the door before Jolie had finished washing up. He looked back at the house and waved at the kitchen window, and then he was gone.
“Goodbye, Sean,” Jolie whispered. Maybe next time there would be a different ending for them.
Iris came into the kitchen, giving Jolie a sympathetic smiled. “Come on. I’ll give you a ride home.”
The long spring twilight was still lingering when Iris dropped Jolie off at the apartments.
Jolie had showered and was drying her hair when the trouble started upstairs.