PART OF THE PROBLEM, Nita thought as she tore desperately down Rose Avenue, is that I just can’t keep my mouth shut.
She’d been running for five minutes now, jumping fences, squeezing sideways through hedges, but she was losing her wind. Behind her she could hear Joanne and Glenda and the rest of them riding furiously down the street after her, shouting abuse and threatening to replace her last, now-fading black eye with a new and shinier shiner. Well, Joanne would come up to her with that new bike, all chrome and silver and gearshift levers and digital speedometer-odometer and toe clips and water bottle, and ask what she thought of it. The problem was that it was almost exactly the bike that Nita had thought she was getting for her last birthday – and instead got nothing but clothes.
So you thought you’d have a little fun rubbing that in, Nita thought, panting, as she took a short cut down the driveway of the house at the corner, around the house, through its back yard and over the low fence behind it into the back yard of the house on the opposite block. Naturally it had never occurred to Joanne that after what she did to Nita last week, and with all her gang hanging around to back her up, Nita would dare do anything but stand there and take it. And I really thought I could do that and not care if those idiots laughed. But the laughter stung worse than she’d thought it would… and suddenly Nita found herself telling Joanne in scathing detail what she thought, not of the bike, but of her. The result was predictable.
“Don’t know what ‘supercilious’ means, Callahan,”Joanne yelled as she rode around the corner at the head of her gang,“but when we catch you I’m gonna look it up in your little dictionary and then shove it down your throat!”
Nita paused for just a second in the next back yard, just time for one sharp laugh and no more: getting her breath was harder by the moment. Vocabulary’s never been her best subject, has it, she thought. But right now it was tough to find this as funny as usual. Avoiding getting beaten up again was more on Nita’s mind. They’re stuck with their bikes. Right now I can go where they can’t. But when I’m close to the house, I’ll have to use the street to get home. They’ll catch up with me fast. And then...
Then the whole scene at home would play itself out again. Her dad wondering loudly enough for the whole house to hear, “Why didn’t you hit them back?”; her little sister making belligerent noises over Nita having picked up yet another set of non-battle scars; and her mother just shaking her head and cleaning up the hurts in silence, because she understood what was going on inside Nita’s head. That sad look would hurt Nita more than the bruises and scrapes and swollen face, because sometimes understanding just wasn’t enough…
Nita ran on down the grassy length of the neighbor’s back yard, making for the chain link fence at the back of it – but it was hard to catch her breath now, and a pain was starting up in her side. Crap! Can’t keep this up much longer. Gotta hide somewhere and wait them out. But where? She was running out of neighborhood yards that were easy or safe to run through, and there was nowhere close by where it’d be safe to hide. In the cul-de-sac at the end of the next block was Old Crazy Swale’s house with its big landscaped yard, a place the neighborhood kids avoided. There were rumors that weird stuff happened in there, and Nita had herself noticed that the guy didn’t go to work like normal people. He might even be there now. …But that idea could keep Joanne & Co. out, too! If I ducked in there just for a few minutes till they left, if I stayed by that big hedge around his yard and didn’t go near the house, it might be okay—
The clanking of bike chains and the whirr of wheels coming from the far side of the fence and yard in front of her warned Nita that Joanne and her crowd had turned the corner into the next side street. Too late. I’m cut off. Better double back—
Nita ran back the way she’d come, pausing just briefly behind the neighbor’s house to make sure no one had lagged behind to watch for her. Nope. Clear. But they’ll figure it out real quick. Just have to figure out where to go next. Nita dashed down the house’s driveway and back up Rose Avenue … and the answer to her immediate problem suddenly presented itself to her in the shape of a little brown-brick building with windows warmly alight—refuge, safety, sanctuary: the little bungalow that housed the town library. It’s open! I forgot it was open late on Saturday!
The sight of the place gave Nita a new burst of energy. She ran across the library’s tidy lawn, took the five stairs to the front porch in two jumps, bumped open the front door, and banged it shut behind her.
The library had been a private home once, and it hadn’t lost the look of one despite the crowding of all its rooms with bookshelves. The walls were paneled in mahogany and oak, and the place smelled warm and brown and booky. At the bang of the door, Mrs. Lesser, the large kind-eyed brunette lady who worked in the library at weekends, glanced up from her desk across the room with the beginnings of a sharp expression. Then she saw who was standing there and how hard Nita was breathing.
Mrs. Lesser wasn’t the kind to miss much, and the quick rueful grin on her face said she understood what was going on. “Nobody’s downstairs,” she said, nodding at the door that led to the children’s library in the single big basement room. “Get down there and keep quiet. I’ll get rid of them.”
“Thanks!” Nita said, and went thumping down the painted cement stairs. As she reached the bottom, she heard the crash of bikes being dumped out on the front walk, and then the bump and squeak of the front door opening again.
Nita paused to try to hear voices and found that she couldn’t. Doubt they can hear me either, she thought. But for safety’s sake she walked quietly anyway as she made her way into the children’s library, smiling slightly at the books and the bright posters.
She hadn’t been down here in ages; no self-respecting thirteen-year-old would let herself be seen down in the little-kid zone. But she privately still loved the place as much as the upstairs library, or (for that matter) any library anywhere. There was something about all that knowledge, all those facts waiting patiently to be found, that never failed to give Nita a shiver. When friends couldn’t be found, the books were always waiting with something new to tell. Life that was getting too much the same could be shaken up in a few minutes by the picture in a book of some ancient temple newly discovered deep in a rain forest, an image of a blue sunrise above a crater on Mars, or a prismed picture taken through the faceted eye of a bee.
And I just about lived down here till I got out of elementary, Nita thought as she moved softly through the dimness, among the low tables and chairs. She’d read everything in sight, fiction and nonfiction alike—fairy tales, science books, horse stories, dog stories, music books, art books, even the encyclopedias.
Of course as soon as some of the other kids noticed this, the trouble began. Bookworm, she heard the old jeering voices go in her head, four-eyes, Little Miss Dictionary. Smartass. Walking encyclopedia. Think you’re so hot. “No,” she remembered herself answering once, “I just like to find things out!” And she sighed, for that time she’d found out about being punched in the stomach.
But maybe not today. For the moment Nita just strolled between the shelves, looking at titles, smiling as her gaze fell on old friends—books she’d read three times, or five times, or a dozen. Just a title, or an author’s name, would be enough to summon up happy images. Strange creatures like phoenixes and psammeads, moving under the smoky London daylight of a hundred years before, in company with groups of bemused children; princesses in silver and golden dresses, princes and heroes carrying swords like sharpened lines of light, monsters rising out of weedy tarns, wild creatures that talked and tricked one another; starships and new worlds and the limitless vistas of interstellar night, outer space challenged but never conquered....
I used to think the world would be like the stories when I got older. Exciting all the time, full of wonder. Instead of the way it is....
Something stopped Nita’s hand as it ran along the bookshelf. She looked and found that one of the books, a little library-bound volume in shiny red buckram, had a loose thread at the top of its spine, and her finger had caught on it. She pulled the finger free, glanced at the book’s title. It was one of those “So You Want to Be a ...” books, a series on careers. Also on the shelf were So You Want to Be a Pilot there had been, and So You Want to Be a Scientist ... a Nurse ... a Writer...
But this one said, So You Want to Be a Wizard.
Nita pulled the book off the shelf, surprised both by the book’s title and the fact that she’d never noticed it before. I thought I knew every book down here. Yet this wasn’t a new book. The page edges were yellow with age, and the top of the book was dusty. SO YOU WANT TO BE A WIZARD. HEARNSSEN, the spine said: that was the author’s name. PHOENIX PRESS: the publisher. And then, written in white ink in Mrs. Lesser’s tidy handwriting, 793.4: the Dewey Decimal number.
This has to be a joke, Nita said to herself. But the book looked exactly like all the others in the series. She opened it and turned the first few pages to the table of contents.
Normally Nita was a fast reader and would quickly have finished a page with only a few lines on it; but what she found on that contents page slowed her down. “Preliminary Determinations: A Question of Aptitude.” “Wizardly Preoccupations and Predilections.” “Basic Equipment and Milieus.” “Introduction to Spells, Bindings, arid Geasa.” “Familiars and Helpmeets: Advice to the Initiate.” “Psychotropic Spelling.”
Psychowhat? Nita turned to the page on which that chapter began, and stared at the boldface paragraph beneath its title.
Spells of power sufficient to make temporary changes in the human mind are always subject to sudden and unpredictable backlash on the user. The practitioner is cautioned to make sure that his/her motives are benevolent before attempting spelling aimed at...
I don’t believe this, Nita thought. She shut the book and stood there holding it in her hand, confused, amazed, suspicious—and delighted. If it was a joke, it was a great one. If it wasn’t...
Oh, come on. Don’t be an idiot!
But if it isn’t...?
People were clumping around upstairs, but Nita hardly heard them. She sat down on one of the low tables and started reading the book in earnest.
The first couple of pages were a foreword.
Wizardry is one of the most ancient and misunderstood of arts. Its public image for centuries has been that of a mysterious pursuit practiced in occult surroundings, usually at the peril of one’s soul. The modern wizard, who works with tools more advanced than bat’s blood, and beings more complex than any pop-culture demon, knows how far from the truth that image is. And wizardry, though exciting and interesting, is no glamorous business—especially in most of today’s cultures, where most wizards must work quietly so as not to attract undue attention.
However, for those willing to assume the Art’s responsibilities and do the work, wizardry has endless rewards. The sight of a formerly twisted growing thing now growing straight, the satisfaction of hearing what a plant is thinking or a dog is saying, of talking to a stone or a star, is thought by most to be well worth the labor.
Not everyone is suited to be a wizard. Those without enough of the necessary personality traits will never see this manual for what it is. That you have found it at all says a great deal for your potential.
The reader is invited to examine the next few chapters and evaluate his/her wizardly potential in detail: to become familiar with the scope of the Art: and finally, to decide whether to become a wizard.
It’s a joke, Nita thought. Really. And to her own amazement, she wouldn’t believe herself—she was too fascinated. She turned to the next chapter.
An aptitude for wizardry requires more than just the desire to practice the Art. There are certain inborn tendencies, and some acquired ones, that predispose a person to become a wizard. This chapter will list some of the better-documented wizardly characteristics. Please bear in mind that it isn’t necessary to possess all the qualities listed, or even most of them. Some of the greatest wizards have been lacking in qualities possessed by almost all others and have still achieved startling competence levels....
Slowly at first, then more eagerly, Nita began working her way through the assessment chapter. Wow, there’s so much of this to keep track of! She got up to get a ballpoint pen and some scrap paper from the checkout desk, then softly pulled out one of the low chairs from the table she’d been sitting on, settled down onto it, and started making notes on her aptitude. A few minutes later Nita was brought up short by the footnote to one page:
*Where ratings are not assigned, as in rural areas, the area of greatest population density will usually produce the most wizards, due to the thinning of worldwalls with increased population concentration....
Nita stopped reading, amazed. “Thinning of worldwalls?” Are they saying that there really are other worlds, other dimensions, and that things, or even people, can get through into this world from them?
She sat there and wondered. It wasn’t just a question of all the TV shows that featured the idea these days. The concept was old. All those fairy tales about people falling down wells into magical countries, slipping backward in time or forward into it— Could it be that somehow the news that wizards did such things be the source of the stories? And if you can actually go into other worlds, other places, and come back again....
Nita stared at the page and shook her head. Oh, come on. If somebody said they’d come back from some other universe, even if they brought back what they said was proof—pictures or something—nobody’d ever believe them! You’d think right away that they’d faked it.
Yet the page just sat there with its bald black-and-white words, as if it had nothing to prove. And a sudden fierce feeling rose up inside Nita and said, But who cares! If only it could be true! Even with all the things that were wrong with it, a world with truths like that in it would be really worth living in….
She turned her attention back to the book and went on reading. Nita was doing her best to hang onto her skepticism, trying to treat this whole concept as if it was a joke or a game. But abruptly it stopped being a game, with one paragraph:
Wizards love words. Most of them read a great deal, and indeed one strong sign of a potential wizard is the inability to get to sleep without reading something first. But their love for and fluency with words is what makes wizards a force to be reckoned with. Their ability to convince a piece of the world—a tree, say, or a stone—that it’s not what it thinks it is, that it’s something else, is the very heart of wizardry. Words skillfully used, the persuasive voice, the persuading mind, are the wizard’s most basic tools. With them a wizard can stop a tidal wave, talk a tree out of growing, or into it—freeze fire, burn rain—even slow down the death of the Universe.
That, of course, being the reason there are wizards. See the next chapter.
Nita looked up from the page and stared unseeing at a Big Bird poster hanging between the bookshelves across from her. The universe was running down; all the energy in it was slowly being used up. She knew that from studying astronomy. The process was called entropy. But she’d never heard anyone talk about slowing it down before.
She shook her head in amazement and went on to the “correlation” section at the end of that chapter, where all the factors involved in the makeup of a potential wizard were listed. Nita worked her way down the checklist. I’ve got a lot of these. More than half. If that means I could be a wizard…!
In slowly rising excitement, she turned to the next chapter. “Theory and Implications of Wizardry,” the heading said. “History, Philosophy, and the Wizards’ Oath.”
Fifty or sixty eons ago, when Life brought itself about, it also brought about to accompany it many Powers and Potentialities to manage the business of creation. One of the greatest of these Powers held aloof for a long time, watching its companions work, not wishing to enter into Creation until it could contribute something unlike anything the other Powers had made, something completely new and original. Finally the Lone Power found what it was looking for. Others had invented planets, light, gravity, space. The Lone Power invented death, and bound it irrevocably into the worlds. Shortly thereafter the other Powers joined forces and cast the Lone One out.
Many versions of this story are related among the many worlds, assigning blame or praise to one party or another. But none of the stories change the fact that entropy and its symptom, death, are here now. To attempt to halt or remove them is as futile as attempting to ignore them.
Therefore there are wizards—to handle them.
A wizard’s business is to conserve energy—to keep it from being wasted. On the simplest level this involves such unmagical-looking actions as paying one’s bills on time, turning off the lights when you go out, and supporting the people around you in getting their lives to work. It also involves a lot more.
Because wizardly people tend to be good with language, they can also become skillful with the Speech, the magical tongue in which objects and living creatures can be described with more accuracy than in any human language. And what can be so accurately described can also be preserved—or freed to become yet greater. A wizard can cause an inanimate object or animate creature to grow, or stop growing; to be what it is, or something else. A wizard, using the Speech, can cause death to slow down, or go somewhere else and come back later—just as the Lone Power caused it to come about in the first place. Creation, preservation, destruction, transformation—all are a matter of getting the fabric of being to do what you want it to. And the Speech is the key.
Nita stopped to think this over for a moment. It sounds like, if you know what something is, truly know, you don’t have any trouble working with it. Like my telescope—if it acts up, I know every piece of it, and it doesn’t take long to get it working again. To have that kind of control over live things – over the world, even... She took a deep breath and looked back at the book, beginning to get an idea of what kind of power was implied there.
The power conferred by use of the Speech has, of course, one insurmountable limitation: the existence of death itself. As one renowned Senior Wizard has remarked, “Entropy has us outnumbered.” No matter how much preserving we do, the Universe will eventually die. But it will last longer because of our efforts. And since no one knows for sure whether another Universe can or will be born from the ashes of this one, the effort seems worthwhile.
No one should take the Wizards’ Oath who is not committed to making wizardry a lifelong pursuit. The energy invested in a beginning wizard is too precious to be thrown away. Yet there are no penalties for withdrawal from the Art except the knowledge that the Universe will die a little faster because of energy lost. On the other hand, there are no prizes for the service of Life—except life itself. The wizard gets the delight of working with the only true magic, and routinely getting a good look at the foundations of the Universe and the way things really work. It should be stated here that some people consider the latter more of a curse than a blessing. Such wizards usually lose their art. Magic does not live in the unwilling soul.
Should you decide to go ahead and take the Oath, be warned that an ordeal will follow -- a test of aptitude. If you pass, wizardry will ensue....
Yeah ? Nita thought. And what if you don’t pass?
“Nita?” Mrs. Lesser’s voice came floating down the stairs, and a moment later she came through the door. “You still alive?”
“I was reading.”
“So what else is new? Anyway, they’re gone.”
“Thanks, Mrs. L.”
“What was all that about?”
“Just Joanne picking another fight.”
Mrs. Lesser raised an eyebrow at Nita.
Nita smiled back at Mrs. Lesser shamefacedly. She didn’t miss much. “Okay… I might have helped her a little.”
“I guess it’s hard to resist,” Mrs. Lesser said. “I always had trouble just taking it when the mean kids went after me. Fighting back ought to be the right answer, but it can backfire… and trying to be nice and not descend to their level can be tough when a bunch like that is on your back.” She sighed, glanced down at the book Nita was holding. “That the only one you want today, or should I just have the nonfiction section boxed and sent over to your house?”
“No, this is enough,” Nita said. “If my father sees too many books he’ll just make me bring them back.”
Mrs. Lesser sighed. “Reading one book is like eating one potato chip,” she said. “Never mind, you’ll be back Monday. There’s more where that came from. I’ll check it out for you.”
Nita felt in her pockets hurriedly. “Oh, crap. Mrs. L, I don’t have my card.”
“When you’re in on Monday, I’ll stamp it then,” she said, handing Nita back the book as they reached the landing. “I trust you.”
“Thanks,” Nita said.
“Don’t mention it. Be careful going home,” Mrs. Lesser said, “and have a nice read.”
Nita went out and stood on the doorstep, looking around in the deepening gloom. Dinnertime was getting close, and the wind was getting cold, with a smell of rain to it. The book in her hand seemed to prickle a little, as if impatient to be read.
She started jogging toward home, taking a circuitous route—up Washington from Rose Avenue, then through town along Nassau Road and down East Clinton, a path meant to confound pursuit. She didn’t expect that they would be waiting for her only a block away from her house, where there were no alternate routes, no way to escape. And when they were through with her, the six of them, Nita’s non-black eye was blackened, and the knee Joanne had so carefully stomped on felt swollen with liquid fire.
Nita just lay there for a long while, on the spot where they left her, behind the O’Donnells’ hedge; the O’Donnells were out of town. There she lay and just cried into the ground, as she would have died rather than do in front of Joanne and the rest, as she wouldn’t do again until she was safely in bed and out of her family’s earshot… though it was more likely that by then she would have settled down to a more tear-free form of misery. Whether she provoked these situations or not, they just kept happening. Joanne and her hangers-on had found out that Nita really didn’t like to fight, wouldn’t try until her rage broke loose—and then it was too late to fight well: the pain of getting beat up pushed all the self-defense lessons out of her head. Joanne and her crew knew it, too, so at least once a week they found a way to sucker her into a fight. Or if that failed, they’d simply ambush her for fun. All right, she’d purposely baited Joanne today, but there’d been a fight coming anyway, and she’d chosen to start it rather than wait, getting angrier and angrier, while they baited her. But this would keep happening, again and again, and there was nothing she could do about it. Oh, I wish we could move. I wish Dad would say something to Joanne’s father—no, that would just make it worse. If only something could just happen to make it stop!
But there was no chance of that, and the knowledge made her feel stupid for lying here crying. Finally she ran out of tears and pushed herself up on her forearms a little to squint painfully around and see where her glasses had gone after Joanne punched her in the eye. They were just a foot or two away, but they looked wrong somehow. Nita reached a hand out to them and picked them up by one earpiece. Her glasses immediately fell apart in two pieces, broken at the nose, and the shattered lenses rained down onto the wet grass in many small sharp pieces.
Nita moaned under her breath. Though her eyesight wasn’t incredibly bad, there was something weird about her eyes that meant she couldn’t have contacts, laser surgery was out of the question till she was older – not that the family could have afforded it – and her complicated prescription made the glasses expensive. Mom’s gonna kill me so dead, she thought, and dropped her forehead to her arms again in complete despair, simply not being willing to look at the world right now.
But as she did, underneath her, where it had fallen, the book from the library dug into Nita’s sore ribs. The memory of what she’d been reading suddenly flooded back through her pain and was followed by a wash of wild surmise. If there are spells to keep things from dying, then I bet there are spells to keep people from hurting you....
Then Nita scowled at herself in contempt for actually believing for a moment what couldn’t possibly be more than an elaborate joke. She put aside thoughts of the book and slowly got up, brushing herself off and discovering some new bruises. She also discovered something else. Her favorite pen was gone. Her space pen, a present from her Uncle Joel, the pen that could write on butter or glass or upside down, her pen with which she had never failed a test, even in math. She patted herself all over, checked the ground, searched in pockets where she knew the pen couldn’t be. No use; it was gone. Or taken, rather—for it had been securely clipped to her front jacket pocket when Joanne and her group jumped her. It must have fallen out, and one of them picked it up.
“Ohh…!” Nita moaned, feeling bitter enough to start crying again. But she was all cried out, and she ached too much, and it was a waste. She stepped around the hedge and limped the little distance home.
Her house was pretty much like any other on the block, a white frame house with fake shutters; but where other houses had their lawns, Nita’s had a beautifully landscaped garden. Ivy carpeted the ground, and the flowerbeds against the house had something blooming in every season except the dead of winter. Nita trudged up the driveway without bothering to smell any of the spring flowers, went up the stairs to the back door, pushed it open, and walked into the kitchen as nonchalantly as she could.
Her mother was elsewhere, but the delicious smells of her cooking filled the place; veal cutlets tonight. Nita peered into the oven, saw potatoes baking, lifted a pot lid and found corn on the cob in the steamer.
Her father looked up from the newspaper he was reading at the dining-room table. He was a big, blunt, good-looking man, with startling silver hair and large capable hands—”an artist’s hands!” he would chuckle as he pieced together a flower arrangement. He owned the smaller of the town’s two flower shops, and he loved his work dearly. He had done all the landscaping around the house in his spare time, and around several neighbors’ houses too, refusing to take anything in return but the satisfaction of being up to his elbows in a flowerbed. Whatever he touched grew. “I have an understanding with the plants,” he would say, and it certainly seemed that way. It was people he sometimes had trouble understanding, and particularly his eldest daughter.
“My Lord, Nita!” her father exclaimed, putting the paper down flat on the table. His voice was shocked. “What happened?”
As if you don’t know! Nita thought. She could clearly see the expressions going across her father’s face. My God, they said, not again! Why doesn’t she fight back? What’s wrong with her? He would get around to asking that question at one point or another, and Nita would try to explain it again, and as usual her father would try to understand and would fail. Nita turned away and opened the refrigerator door, peering at nothing in particular, so that her father wouldn’t see the grimace of impatience and irritation on her face. She was tired of the whole ritual, but she had to put up with it. It was as inevitable as being beaten up.
“I was in a fight,” she said, the second verse of the ritual, the second line of the scene. Tiredly she closed the refrigerator door, put the book down on the counter beside the stove, and peeled off her jacket, examining it for rips and ground-in dirt and blood.
“So how many of them did you take out?” her father said, turning his eyes back to the newspaper. His face still showed exasperation and puzzlement, and Nita sighed. He looks about as tired of this as I am. But really, he knows the answers. “I’m not sure,” Nita said. “There were six of them.”
“Six!” Nita’s mother came around the corner from the living room and into the bright kitchen—danced in, actually. Just watching her made Nita smile sometimes, and it did now, though changing expressions hurt. She had been a dancer before she married Dad, and the grace with which she moved made her every action around the house seem polished, endlessly rehearsed, lovely to look at. She glided with the laundry, floated while she cooked. “Loading the odds a bit, weren’t they?”
“Yeah.” Nita was hurting almost too much to feel like responding to the gentle humor. Her mother caught the pain in her voice and stopped to touch Nita’s face as she passed, assessing the damage and conveying how she felt about it in one brief gesture, without saying anything that anyone else but the two of them might hear.
“No sitting up for you tonight, kidlet,” her mother said. “Bed, and ice on that, before you swell up like a balloon. Look at these marks around your eye, what on earth made those?”
Nita pulled the busted glasses out of her pocket and put them sadly on the counter. Her mother looked at them with dismay.
“Oh, now this is just wrong,” she said softly. “Nita. What is it with these kids…”
“I couldn’t stop them, mom,” she said. “They think it’s fun to smash my stuff. Remember my MP3 player?”
Her mother sighed and pulled a paper towel off the roll, wrapped the bent frames in them, and slipped them quietly into a drawer. “We’re not going to be able to afford new ones this week,” she said. “Or maybe even next…”
“I can get by,” Nita said. “I’m not blind. Reading’s harder, that’s all…”
“Well, reading won’t be high on your agenda today, I don’t think,” her mom said, putting up a hand to stroke Nita’s hair a little away from her face, and picking a muddy leaf out of it.
Oh please, Nita thought, reading’s what I need more than anything just now! Even without the strangeness of the book she’d brought home, the thought of just being able to retreat from this world into some scenario more ordered and sane, just for a little while, was irresistible. But she wasn’t going to put up a fight and add the you-know-straining-your-eyes-gives-you-headaches element to this situation. Things were bad enough.
“What started it?” her dad asked from the dining room.
“Joanne Virella,” Nita said. “She has a new bike, and I didn’t get as excited about it as she thought I should.”
Nita’s father looked up from the paper again, and this time there was discomfort in his face, and regret: he could clearly hear what she hadn’t said. “Nita,” he said, “I couldn’t afford it, really. Earlier on I was so sure I could get that one you wanted, but you know how things’ve been at the shop lately… I just couldn’t. I wish I could have. Next time for sure.”
Nita nodded. “It’s okay,” she said… though it wasn’t. She’d wanted that bike, wanted it so badly. But Joanne’s father managed the big chain hardware store on Nassau Road, and could afford three-hundred-dollar bikes for his children at the drop of a birthday. Nita’s dad’s business was a lot smaller and prone to what he called (in front of most people) “cash-flow problems” or (at home with the family) “being broke most of the time.”
But what does Joanne care about cash flow, or any of the rest of it? I wanted that bike!
“Here, dreamer,” her mother said, tapping her on the shoulder and breaking her thought. She handed Nita an icepack inside a Zip-Loc bag and turned back toward the stove. “Go lie down or you’ll swell worse. I’ll bring you something in a while.”
“Shouldn’t she stay sitting up?” Nita’s father said. “Seems like the fluid would drain better or something.”
“You didn’t get beat up enough when you were younger, Harry,” her mother said. “If she doesn’t lie down and lose some of the tension, she’ll blow up like a balloon. Scoot, Nita.”
She scooted, around the corner into the dining room, around the second corner into the living room, and straight into her little sister, bumping loose her the topmost textbook in the small pile she was carrying, almost making her drop the laptop underneath them, and scattering half her armload of pink plastic curlers. Nita bent to help pick things up again. Her sister, bent down beside her, gave Nita just one look and then said under her breath, “Virella again?”
Nita sighed and just nodded. Dairine was eleven years old, redheaded like their mom, gray-eyed like Nita, and precocious; she was taking tenth-grade English courses and breezing through them, and Nita was teaching her some algebra on the side. Dairine had her father’s square-boned build and her mother’s grace, and a perpetual cocky grin. As far as Nita was concerned Dairine was a great sister, even if she was a little too smart for her own good.
“Yeah,” Nita said. “Look out, runt, I’ve gotta go lie down.”
“Don’t call me runt. Want me to beat up Virella for you?”
“Be my guest,” Nita said. She went on through the house, back to her room. Bumping the door open, she fumbled for the light switch and flipped it on. The familiar maps and pictures looked down at her—the National Geographic map of the Moon and some enlarged Voyager photos of Jupiter and Saturn and their moons.
Nita eased herself down onto the bottom bunk bed, groaning softly—the deep bruises were starting to bother her now. Oh jeez, she thought, what made me say that? If Dari does beat Joanne up, I’ll never hear the end of it. Dairine had once been small and fragile and even more subject to being beaten up than Nita—mostly because she’d never learned to curb her mouth either—so Nita’s parents had sent her to jujitsu lessons at the same time they sent Nita. On Dari, though, the lessons took. About a month and a half after Dairine’s lessons started, one or two overconfident kids had gone after her and had been thoroughly and painfully surprised. These days Dairine was more than confident enough—and protective enough—to willingly take on Joanne and throw her clear over the horizon. Nita covered her eyes at the thought, wincing. The news would be all over school in seconds. Nita Callahan’s little sister beat up the girl who beat Nita up: wait’ll you see the video! And the trouble wouldn’t stop there…
Her door opened slightly, and Dairine stuck her head in. “Of course,” she said, “if you’d rather do it yourself, I’ll let her off this time.”
“Yeah,” Nita said, “thanks.”
Dairine made a face. “Here,” she said, and pitched Nita’s jacket onto the end of the bed, and then right after it chucked the book at her. Nita managed to field it while holding the icepack in place with her other hand. “Left it in the kitchen,” Dairine said. “Gonna be a magician, huh? Make yourself vanish when they chase you?”
“Yeah, right. Go curl your hair.”
When she was gone, Nita sat back against the headboard of the bed, staring at the book. But why not? If this was—if it’s real, who knows what kinds of spells you could do? Maybe I could turn Joanne into a turkey. Like she’s not one already. She laughed under her breath, though it hurt. Or maybe there’s a spell for getting lost pens back.
…Though the book made it sound awfully serious, as if the wizardry were for big things. Maybe it’s not right to do spells for little stuff like this? And anyway, you can’t do the spells until you’ve taken the Oath, and once you’ve taken it, that’s supposed to be forever.
Oh, come on, it’s a joke! What harm can there be in saying the words if it’s a joke? And if it’s not, then...
Then I’ll be a wizard.
Her father knocked on her door, then walked in with a plate loaded with dinner and a glass of cola. Nita grinned up at him, not too widely, for moving her face was hurting worse all the time. “Thanks, Dad.”
“Here,” he said after Nita took the plate and the glass, and handed her a couple of aspirin. “Your mother says to take these.”
“Thanks.” Nita took them with the Coke.
Her dad sat down on the end of the bed. “Nita,” he said, “this scene is getting a little too familiar, don’t you think?”
He looked somewhat lost for words. “Once or twice, sure, this kind of thing can be expected to happen while you’re going through school. Personality conflicts. I had a few when I was your age. But it’s been getting to be a couple times a week, lately. You want me to speak to Joe Virella? Ask him to have a word with Joanne?”
Nita’s father stared at his hands for a moment. “Then what am I supposed to do? We can’t let this keep happening. Pretty soon I’ll have no choice but to take it up with the school—”
“No, please don’t! It won’t help.”
“Nita. Something has to change. Why does this keep happening? You had the lessons! Why don’t you hit them back?”
“I used to! You think it made any difference? Joanne just got more kids to help.” Her father gave her a stern look: Nita flushed. “Daddy, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell. But fighting back just gets them fixated on you. It doesn’t help.”
“It might help keep you from getting mangled every week, if you didn’t give up so fast!” her father said. The anger in her voice surprised her. “We can’t take them on for you, Nita! Don’t you think I wish I could? I hate to admit it, but I’d enjoy seeing somebody give that obnoxious rich kid a taste of her own medicine...”
So would I, Nita thought. That’s the problem. She swallowed, feeling guilty over how much she wanted to get back at Joanne somehow. “Dad, this isn’t some personality conflict. That maybe could get fixed. But Joanne and her crowd just don’t like me, and it’s partly because I don’t care if they do! I’m not interested in the stuff they like, and I don’t want to be. Which makes me a target, because in their own heads, they’re a big deal. Anybody who doesn’t agree with that makes them mad every time they see them. That’s all it is.” She sighed. “Some day they’ll find somebody they like even less and get bored with me…”
Her father shook his head sadly. “Some day? I’m tired of seeing you hurt right now.” He looked at her again. “Sweetheart, I don’t know... if you could just, I don’t know, pretend to be a little more like them...” Then he trailed off, running one hand through his silver hair. “What am I saying?” he muttered. “Look. We’re going to have to stop this, one way or another. We’ll sit down and make a plan when you’re feeling better. But for the moment, if you do think of anything I can do to help, you’ll tell me?”
“Okay. Let’s think about tomorrow. Will you be up to raking up the backyard a little? I want to go over the lawn around the rowan tree with the aerator, maybe put down some seed.”
“Sure, Dad. I’ll be okay by then.”
“My girl.” He got up. “You finish that up and then get some rest.” He got up and headed out the door, forgetting to close it behind himself as usual.
Nita ate her supper slowly, for chewing made her jaw ache, and she found she had to work to think about something besides Joanne or the book that now lay there on the bed beside her. The Moon’s at first quarter tonight. A good night for the telescope—the shadows in the craters will really show up. Or there’s that new comet. Might have a little more tail than it did last week…
It was completely useless. The book lay there on her bed and stared at her, daring her to do something childish, something silly, something absolutely ridiculous.
Nita put aside her empty plate, picked up the book, and stared back at it.
“All right,” she said under her breath. “All right.”
She opened the book at random. And on the page to which she opened, there was the Wizard’s Oath.
It was not decorated in any way. It stood there, a plain block of type all by itself in the middle of the page, looking serious and important. Nita read the Oath to herself first, to make sure of the words. Then, hurriedly, before she could start to feel silly, she read it out loud.
“‘In Life’s name, and for Life’s sake,’“ she read, “‘I say that I will use the Art for nothing but the service of that Life. I will guard growth and ease pain. I will fight to preserve what grows and lives well in its own way; and I will change no object or creature unless its growth and life, or that of the system of which it is part, are threatened. To these ends, in the practice of my Art, I will put aside fear for courage, and death for life, when it is right to do so—till Universe’s end.’“
The words seemed to echo slightly, as if the room were larger than it really was. And as she finished reading the Oath, Nita suddenly realized something. Without her glasses, everything else in her room was a little fuzzy—but not the words she’d been reading, the words in the book.
With the realization, a chill went down her back. Nita sat very still, wondering what the ordeal would be like, wondering what would happen now. Only the wind spoke softly in the leaves of the trees outside the bedroom window; nothing else seemed to stir anywhere. Nita sat there, and slowly the tension began to drain out of her as she realized that she hadn’t been hit by lightning, nor had anything strange started happening to her. Now she felt silly—and suddenly tired, too. The effects of her beating were catching up with her.
Nita took another look at the Oath. The page was as fuzzy to look at now as any page should have been without her glasses to help. She shook her head at her own gullibility, then shoved the book under her pillow, lay back against the headboard and closed her hurting eyes. So much for the joke, Nita thought. She’d have a nap, and then when it was dark later she’d get up and take the telescope out back. But right now... right now...
After a while, night wasn’t night anymore; that was what brought Nita to the window, much later. She leaned on the sill and gazed out in calm wonder at her back yard, which didn’t look the same as usual. A blaze of undying morning lay over everything, bushes and trees cast light instead of shadow, and she could see the wind. Standing in the ivy under her window, she turned her eyes up to the silver-glowing sky to get used to the brilliance. How about that, she said. The back yard’s here, too. …Next to her, the lesser brilliance that gazed up at that same sky shrugged slightly. Of course, it said. This is Timeheart, after all. Yes, Nita said anxiously as they passed across the yard and out into the bright shadow of the steel and crystal towers, but did I do right? Her companion shrugged again. Go find out, it said, and glanced up again. Nita wasn’t sure she wanted to follow the glance. Once she had looked up and seen— I dreamed you were gone, she said suddenly. The magic stayed, but you went away. She hurt inside, enough to cry, but her companion flickered with laughter. No one ever goes away forever, it said. Especially not here. Nita looked up, then, into the bright morning and the brighter shadows. The day went on and on and would not end, the sky blazed now like molten silver....
The Sun on her face woke Nita up. Someone, her mother probably, had come in late last night to cover her up and take the dishes away. She turned over slowly, stiff but not in too much pain, and felt the hardness under her pillow. Nita sat up and pulled the book out, felt around for her glasses on the bedside table, and then remembered they weren’t there. The book fell open in her hand at the listing for the wizards in the New York metropolitan area, which Nita had glanced at the afternoon before. Now she squinted down to read the first column of names, and her breath caught…not just because once again she found she didn’t need to squint, but at the sight of what she read there on the page.
CALLAHAN, Juanita L.
243 E. Clinton Ave.
Her mouth fell open. She shut it. I’m going to be a wizard! she thought.
Nita got up and got dressed in a hurry.