Part of the problem, Nita thought as she tore desperately down Rose Avenue, is that I can't keep my mouth shut.
She had been running for five minutes now, hopping fences, sliding sideways through hedges, but she was losing her wind. Some ways behind her she could hear Joanne and Glenda and the rest of them pounding along in pursuit, threatening to replace her latest, now-fading black eye. Well, Joanne would come up to her with that new bike, all chrome and silver and gearshift levers and speedometer/odometer and toe clips and water bottle, and ask what she thought of it. So Nita had told her. Actually, she had told Joanne what she thought of her. The bike was all right. In fact, it had been almost exactly the one that Nita had wanted so much for her last birthday -- the birthday when she got nothing but clothes.
Life can be really rotten sometimes, Nita thought. She wasn't really so irritated about that at the moment, however. Running away from a beating was taking up most of her attention.
"Callahan," came a yell from behind her, "I'm gonna pound you up and mail you home in bottles!"
I wonder how many bottles it'll take, Nita thought, without much humor. She couldn't afford to laugh. With their bikes, they'd catch up to her pretty quickly. And then...
She tried not to think of the scene there would be later at home - her father raising hands and eyes to the ceiling, wondering loudly enough for the whole house to hear, "Why didn't you hit them back?"; her sister making belligerent noises over her new battle scars; her mother shaking her head, looking away silently, because she understood. It was her sad look that would hurt Nita more than the bruises and scrapes and swollen face would. Her mom would shake her head, and clean the hurts up, and sigh...
Crud! Nita thought. The breath was coming hard to her now. She was going to have to try to hide, to wait them out. But where? Most of the people around here didn't want kids running through their yards. There was Old Crazy Swale's house with its big landscaped yard, but the rumors among the neighborhood kids said that weird things happened in there. Nita herself had noticed that the guy didn't go to work like normal people. Better to get beat up again than go in there. But where can I hide? She kept on running down Rose Avenue, and the answer presented itself to her: a little brown-brick building with windows warmly alight -- refuge, safety, sanctuary. The library. It's open, it's open. I forgot it was open late on Saturday! Oh, thank Heaven!
The sight of it gave Nita a new burst of energy. She cut across its tidy lawn, loped up the walk, took the five stairs to the porch in two jumps, bumped open the front door, and closed it behind her, a little too loudly.
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 thump of the door Mrs. Lesser, the weekend librarian, glanced up from her desk, about to say something sharp. Then she saw who was standing there and how hard she was breathing. Mrs. Lesser frowned at Nita and then grinned. She didn't miss much.
"There's no one downstairs," she said, nodding at the door that led to the children's library in the single big basement room. "Keep quiet and I'll get rid of them."
"Thanks," Nita said, and went thumping down the cement stairs. As she reached the bottom, she heard the bump and squeak of the front door opening again. Nita paused to try to hear voices and found that she couldn't. Doubting that her pursuers could hear her either, she walked on into the children's library, smiling slightly at the books and the bright posters.
She still loved the place. She loved any library, big or little; there was something about all that knowledge, all those facts waiting patiently to be found, that never failed to give her 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, a fuzzy photo of Uranus with its up-and-down rings, or a prismed picture taken through the faceted eye of a bee.
And though she would rather have died than admit it -- no respectable thirteen-year-old ever set foot down there -- she still loved the children's library too. Nita had gone through every book in the place when she was younger, reading everything in sight-fiction and nonfiction alike, fairy tales, science books, horse stories, dog stories, music books, art books, even the encyclopedias. Bookworm, she heard the old jeering voices go in her head, four eyes, smart-ass, hide-in-the-house-and-read. Walking encyclopedia. Think you're so hot. "No," she remembered herself answering once, "I just like to find things out!" And she sighed, feeling rueful. That time she had found out about being punched in the stomach.
She strolled between shelves, looking at titles, smiling as she met old friends -- books she had 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 smoky London daylight of a hundred years before, in company with groups of bemused children; starships and new worlds and the limitless vistas of interstellar night, outer space challenged but never conquered; 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... I used to think the world would be like that when I got older. Wonderful all the time, exciting, happy. 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, on which her finger had caught. She pulled the finger free, glanced at the title. It was one of those "So You Want to Be a..." books, a series on careers. 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 not so much by the title as by the fact that she'd never seen it before. She thought she knew the whole stock of the children's library. Yet this wasn't a new book. It had plainly been there for some time-the pages had that yellow look about their edges, the color of aging, 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 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 carefully, so as not to crack the binding, 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 a great deal. "Preliminary Determinations: A Question of Aptitude." "Wizardly Preoccupations and Predilections." "Basic Equipment and Milieus." "Introduction to Spells, Bindings, and Geasa." "Familiars and Helpmeets: Advice to the Initiate." "Psychotropic Spelling."
Psychowhat? ...Nita turned to the page on which that chapter began, looking at the boldface paragraph beneath its title.
I don't believe this, Nita thought. She shut the book and stood there holding it in her hand, confused, amazed, suspiciousand delighted. If it was a joke, it was a great one. If it wasn't. . .
No, don't be silly.
But if it isn't...
People were clumping around upstairs, but Nita hardly heard them. She sat down at one of the low tables and started reading the book in earnest.
The first couple of pages were a foreword.
...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.
Slowly at first, then more eagerly, Nita began working her way through the assessment chapter, pausing only to get a pencil and scrap paper from the checkout desk, so that she could make notes on her aptitude. She was brought up short by the footnote to one page:
Nita stopped reading, amazed. "Thinning of worldwalls" -- were they saying that there are other worlds, other dimensions, and that things could get through? Things, or people?
She sat there and wondered. All the old fairy tales about people falling down wells into magical countries, or slipping backward in time, or forward into it-did this mean that such things could actually happen? If you could actually go into other worlds, other places, and come back again...
Aww -- who would believe anybody who came back and told a story like that? Even if they took pictures?
But who cares! she answered herself fiercely. If only it could be true...
She turned her attention back to the book and went on reading, though skeptically -- the whole thing still felt like a game. But abruptly it stopped being a game, with one paragraph:
Nita stopped short. 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 found that she had a lot of them -- enough to be a wizard, if she wanted to.
With rising excitement she turned to the next chapter. "Theory and Implications of Wizardry," the heading said. "History, Philosophy, and the Wizards' Oath."
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 only takes a second to get it working again. To have that kind of control over -- over everything -- live things, 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.
...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 herself appeared, a large brunette lady with kind eyes and a look of eternal concern. "You still alive?"
"I was reading."
"So what else is new? They're gone."
"Thanks, Mrs. L."
"What was all that about, anyway?"
"Oh... Joanne was looking to pick a fight again."
Mrs. Lesser raised an eyebrow at Nita, and Nita smiled back at her shamefacedly. She didn't miss much.
"Well, I might have helped her a little."
"I guess it's hard," Mrs. Lesser said. "I doubt I could be nice all the time, myself, if I had that lot on my back. 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. "So 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, crud. Mrs. L, I don't have my card."
"So you'll bring it back Monday," she said, handing her back the book as they reached the landing, "and I'll stamp it then. 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 it were 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 to take. And when they were through with her, the six of them, one of Nita's eyes 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 cried, as she would not in front of Joanne and the rest, as she would not until she was safely in bed and out of her family's earshot.
Whether she provoked these situations or not, they kept happening, and there was nothing she could do about them. Joanne and her hangers-on had found out that Nita didn't like to fight, wouldn't try until her rage broke loose -- and then it was too late, she was too hurt to fight well. All her self-defense lessons went out of her head with the pain. And they knew it, and at least once a week found a way to sucker her into a fight -- or, if that failed, they would simply ambush her. All right, she had purposely baited Joanne today, but there'd been a fight coming anyway, and she had 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!
Underneath her, where it had fallen, the book dug into Nita's sore ribs. The memory of what she had been reading 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.
"Aaaaaagh!" 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. MiGod, they said, she's done it 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 1 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."
"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. "Nita," he said, "I couldn't afford it this month, really. I thought I was going to be able to earlier, but I couldn't. I wish I could have. Next time for sure."
Nita nodded. "It's okay," she said, even though it wasn't really. She'd wanted that bike, wanted it so badly -- but Joanne's father owned the big five-and-dime on Nassau Road and could afford three hundred dollar bikes for his children at the drop of a birthday. Nita's father's business was a lot smaller and was prone to what he called (in front of most people) "cash-flow problems" or (in front of his 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 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 as if 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, she'll blow up like a basketball. 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 one of the textbooks she was carrying and scattering half her armload of pink plastic curlers. Nita bent to help pick things up again. Her sister, bent down beside her, didn't take long to figure out what had happened.
"Virella again, huh?" she asked. Dairine was eleven years old, redheaded like her mother, 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. She was a great sister, as far as Nita was concerned, even if she was a little too smart for her own good.
"Yeah," Nita said. "Look out, kid, I've gotta go lie down."
"Don't call me kid. You 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 beginning to bother her now. Lord, she thought, what did I say? If Dari does beat Joanne up, I'll never hear the end of it. Dairine had once been small and fragile and subject to being beaten up -- mostly because she had never learned to curb her mouth either -- and Nita's parents had sent her to jujitsu lessons at the same time they sent Nita. On Dari, though, the lessons took. One or two overconfident kids had gone after her, about a month and a half into her lessons, and had been thoroughly and painfully surprised. She was protective enough to take Joanne on and, horrors, throw her clear over the horizon. It would be all over school; Nita Callahan's little sister beat up the girl who beat Nita up.
Oh no! Nita thought.
Her door opened slightly, and Dari 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 in at her, and then right after it the book. Nita managed to field it while holding the icepack in place with her left hand. "You left it in the kitchen," Dairine said. "Gonna be a magician, huh? Make yourself vanish when they chase you?"
"Sure. Go curl your hair, runt." Nita sat back against the headboard of the bed, staring at the book. Why not? Who knows what kinds of spells you could do? Maybe I could turn Joanne into a turkey. As if she isn't one already. 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 it hurt. "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, while her father sat down on the edge of the bed.
"Nita," he said, "is there something going on that I should know about?"
"It's been once a week now, sometimes twice, for quite a while. Do you want me to speak to Joe Virella and ask him to have a word with Joanne?"
"Uh, no, sir."
Nita's father stared at his hands for a moment. "What should we do, then? I really can't afford to start you in karate lessons again -- "
"Whatever. Nita, what is it? Why does this keep happening? Why don't you hit them back?"
"I used to! Do you think it made a difference? Joanne would just get more kids to help."
Her father stared at her, and Nita flushed hot at the stern look on his face. "I'm sorry, Daddy, I didn't mean to yell at you. But fighting back just gets them madder, it doesn't help."
"It might help keep you from getting mangled every week, if you'd just keep trying!" her father said angrily. "I hate to admit it, but I'd love to see you wipe the ground up with that loudmouth rich kid."
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, Joanne and her bunch just don't like me. I don't do the things they do, or play the games they play, or like the things they like -- and I don't want to. So they don't like me. That's all."
Her father looked at her and shook his head sadly. "I just don't want to see you hurt. Kidling, I don't know... if you could just be a little more like them, if you could try to..." He trailed off, running one hand through his silver hair. "What am I saying?" he muttered. "Look. If there's anything I can do to help, will you tell me?"
"Okay. If you feel better tomorrow, would you rake 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. I'll be okay, Dad. They didn't break anything."
"My girl." He got up. "Don't read so much it hurts your eyes, now."
"I won't," Nita said. Her father strode out the door, forgetting to close it behind himself as usual.
She ate her supper slowly, for it hurt to chew, and she tried to think about something besides Joanne or that book. The Moon was at first quarter tonight; it would be a good night to take the telescope out and have a look at the shadows in the craters. Or there was that fuzzy little comet, maybe it had 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 childlike, 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 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, quickly, 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. 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 at all happened to her. Now she felt silly -- and tired too, she discovered. The effects of her beating were catching up with her. Wearily, Nita shoved the book under her pillow, then lay back against the headboard and closed her hurting eyes. So much for the joke. She would have a nap, and then later she'd get up and take the telescope out back. But right now...right now...
After a while, night was not night any more; that was what brought Nita to the window, much later. She leaned on the sill and gazed out in calm wonder at her backyard, which didn't look quite the same as usual. A blaze of undying morning layover 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 backyard'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 as usual. 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. 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 looked down the first column of names, and her breath caught.
CALLAHAN, Juanita L.,
243 E. Clinton Ave.,
Hempstead, NY 11575
(516) 555-6786 (novice, pre-rating)
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....