“It’s not that,” she said, in a voice both soft and firm, “it’s just . . . there comes a point when you want something more.”
“More than what?” I said.
She shrugged. “Just . . . more. Something else. Something other. Something beyond.”
I shrugged back. “It’s the weather.”
We kept walking, silent now. I didn’t see how it could be anything but the weather. The sky was deep, old blue behind a haze of silver-gray clouds, thin and sailing high. Leaves fell in shimmering, gold curls, whispering on grass and pavement. The late afternoon air carried the smell of brown and bursting things: flowers dying, weeds drying, and a whole season of new life and growth coming to an end.
Part of me always felt that I should be sad, somehow, during the autumn-time. After all, summer was over. The nights turned cold and any tree with any kind of sense to it turned inward, faking death until the earth came back around to the proper angle. But I never felt sad. It was more . . . excitement. As though the change and the colors and the chill were all conspirators together – to celebrate life in a way spring never could: to laugh in the face of coming winter with the most extravagant display of golden, green, and crimson beauty, the most lavish production of fruit and crop. I relished autumn every time and it was my own feeling, of relish and excitement, that I attributed to my friend.
“No,” she said suddenly, halting on the sidewalk.
“No what?” I kept walking, hands tucked into the pockets of my jean jacket. Jean jackets are not cool. Jean jackets are long out of style and must never be worn, especially if you’re already wearing denim pants, like I was. I know these sorts of rules – I just . . . kind of forget them. Okay. Pretend they don’t exist.
“It’s not that, either,” she said.
“Excitement. It’s more than that too. It’s a stirring, yes, but it’s deeper than mere excitement. It’s more and it wants more.”
My friend’s words brought me to a halt this time, and I turned to look at her sharply, one eyebrow raised high above the left lens of my glasses. “I beg your pardon?”
A few cars rumbled past us, the breeze whipping up fallen elm leaves and tugging at our respective hair. Mine went everywhere, naturally, while hers, held mostly in a French braid, simply waved at the wisps. In the time it took the cars to pass us, she’d flushed deeply. “I’m sorry, Dell.”
“Lauren . . .” I sighed. “Did you seriously just read my mind?”
“Just a little.”
“What did you give me?”
Her face, still tanned from summer sun, lit up with her smile as she grinned at me. “Dell, it’s the most marvelous thing! I came up with it last night and it’s oh-so-lovely. I only wanted to see if it worked.”
I rolled my eyes, mouth-corners lifting in spite of myself. “Why’d you always test it on me?”
“Oh, well . . .” She tripped toward me, and linked an arm through mine. “You’re the only one I can trust.”
I grunted and we set off again, in step. It was my way of saying I forgive you. There was no need to say more – not after two years. Curiosity began to pull at me. “When’d you give it to me?”
Lauren laughed. “It was so easy! I blew it at you out of my hand when you were watching that plane. It’s fine as dust and invisible in good sunlight.”
“Use it on a boy next time.”
“Ihh.” She wrinkled her nose. “Well, come on; ask me how I made it.”
“In a minute.” I glanced around to make sure no other strollers had caught up to us. “You’ve got to let me guess, first.”
Lauren huffed. “Fine.”
I thought a moment, scuffed my boots on the pavement. “A hair from Mrs. Tabitha.”
Lauran huffed again. “There’s always a hair from Mrs. Tabitha.”
“Of course. I discovered its properties and it works awesome.”
“Well, there’s more than that.”
“I know – give me a sec.” I thought a moment more. “Boiling water.”
“Tap or distilled?”
“Neither. You got it when it rained last, in that little clay mug from your mother.”
Lauren nodded like she grudged me my skills. “Are you finished?”
“Nope. My guess is you used a bit of pine needle – white?”
I frowned. “Why?”
“Ah. And some wind – from around a sharp corner, I’d say – something very whipping.”
Again, Lauren nodded. “And . . . ?”
“And what? That ought to be enough.”
She broke into a grin for the second time, chin lifting. “There’s one more thing. And the wind was from the tops of some white pines rather than a corner.”
I shrugged, begrudging her skills, in my own way. “There’s one more thing?”
“M-hm. It made all the difference.”
My mind flicked through a number of possibilities before I discarded them all and shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Lauren grinned mysteriously. “It was the eyes of a young man.” Her brows bobbed up and down at me.
I started, a vision of bloody orbs bubbling in a simple kitchen pot suddenly filling up a good portion of my head. “What?”
Her pupils rolled. “I mean it was a look, Dell. In Finance today, I turned around to look at the clock and caught him staring right at me. It was such a direct look, mind – it took me a couple seconds to break contact. I was sure some of his gaze ended up in my hair, so after class I came straight back to the apartment and combed it out. It went right in with the rest and made it all perfect.”
Her tone requested me to tell her she was marvelous, but I pressed my lips together instead. “You know what this means?”
“That I’m . . . marvelous?” she said, spinning about in place.
I rolled my own eyes. “It means we need a new Rule.”
Lauren stopped mid-spin, scowling. “Another rule?”
“I’m sick of rules.”
I shrugged and frowned at her at the same time. “Doesn’t matter. You asked me to teach you everything I know and I agreed, but on condition that you’d take up the Rules just like I did.” I shrugged again. “If you don’t like it, then you can just figure this stuff out on your own.”
“But I can figure this out on my own.”
I started to say something, but the next moment her scowl disappeared, replaced by a worried expression. “I’m sorry, Dell. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. It’s just that, sometimes, it’s like this isn’t even fun for you.”
“It’s about more than fun, Lauren.”
“Really?” She cleared her throat, and began counting on her fingers. “Rule One: Never tell anyone.”
I sighed. “The best way to keep a secret –”
“Is to keep it yourself, I know. But you told me.”
“I had to tell you. You’re . . . like me. You have the ability. It’s different.”
Lauren pursed her lips, then continued. “Rule Two: never harm anyone.”
My eyes narrowed. “With magic. You can punch anyone you want in the face, but as soon as you start using magic to hurt other human being things get real nasty and complicated. And ‘harm’ means –”
“Any kind of harm: physical, emotional, spiritual, all of it. Rule Three: Never help anyone.”
“With magic. People have been getting along without it for hundreds of years and I see no reason for us to interfere with it. Once you say yes, even if it’s just one time, it gets harder and harder to say no. And then you have to decide who and when and how and what and it just – it’s better to let it be. As it would be otherwise.”
“Curses, Dell – then what’s it for?”
“Lauren . . .” I caught my hair in my fist. “It’s for us. To discover, savor, remember. That’s all it needs to be for.”
“But we could do so much.”
“I know, Lauren. That’s the whole reason for the Rules. We could do so much. It scares me.”
Her voice shrank a little. “Dell, I – I only saw your mind for a tiny bit. It’s fading already and it’s almost impossible for me to sort out what goes on in there anyway. It’s not so much.”
“Light,” I said, after a pause. Or perhaps a hesitation. “Afternoon sun reflected off a steamed-over mirror. It’d bore right into the hidden places and bright it up like blue sky.”
“Oh, Dell . . .” Her eyes shone. “That’s brilliant – I never would have thought of that.”
I flushed, pleased in spite of myself. “It might not work.”
“No. I know it will. It sings in my head – all together. I always know it will work when that happens.”
I looked at her. Sings in my head. “You’re going to be more powerful than me, Lauren. Maybe you already are.”
She looked back. Hard. “You don’t . . . you don’t trust me, do you?”
I frowned. “I didn’t –”
“I know what you’re thinking, Dell. Really.”
I grimaced. “Thought you said it was through.”
“It is now. But a moment ago you –”
“I trust you, Lauren. I do, okay. I always have. It’s why I broke Rule Three. Every Rule has exceptions.” I kicked at a leaf. “Know what?”
“Why don’t you make Rule Four, okay? You can think about it, if you need to.”
“I don’t.” Her eyes were lit up, but her face was very serious. “I know it.” She raised one eyebrow, looked at me and beyond me. I knew, suddenly, that her feeling would never go away – that it would always niggle at her, and that she would never be able to name it. I could name it, though. It’s what made us different.
“Rule Four: Every Rule has exceptions.”
And slowly, I nodded.