It was dawn when she woke, the sky just beginning to brighten in the east, night's shadows still draping the trunks and limbs of the big shade trees in inky layers. She lay quietly for a time, looking through her curtained window as the day advanced, aware of a gradual change in the light that warmed the cool darkness of her bedroom. From beneath the covers she listened to the sounds of the morning. She could hear birdsong in counterpoint to the fading hum of tires as a car sped down Woodlawn's blacktop toward the highway. She could hear small creaks and mutterings from the old house, some of them so familiar that she remembered them from her childhood. She could hear the sound of voices, of Gran and Old Bob, whispering to each other in the kitchen as they drank their morning coffee and waited for her to come out for breakfast.
But the voices were only in her mind, of course. Old Bob and Gran were gone.
Nest Freemark rose to a sitting position, drew up her long legs to her chest, rested her forehead against her knees, and closed her eyes. Gone. Both of them. Gran for five years and Old Bob since May. It was hard to believe, even now. She wished every day that she could have them back again. Even for five minutes. Even for five seconds.
The sounds of the house wrapped her, small and comforting, all part of her nineteen years of life. She had always lived in this house, right up to the day she had left for college in September of last year, a freshman on a full ride at one of the most prestigious schools in the country. Northwestern University. Her grandfather had been so proud, telling her she should remember she had earned the right to attend this school, but the school, in turn, had merited her interest, so both of them should get something out of the bargain. He had laughed, his voice low and deep, his strong hands coming about her shoulders to hold her, and she had known instinctively that he was holding her for Gran, as well.
Now he was gone, dead of a heart attack three days before the end of her first year, gone in a moment, the doctor said afterward--no pain, no suffering, the way it should be. She had come to accept the doctor's reassurance, but it didn't make her miss her grandfather any the less. With both Gran and Old Bob gone, and her parents gone longer still, she had only herself to rely upon.
But, then, she supposed in a way that had always been so.
She lifted her head and smiled. It was how she had grown up, wasn't it? Learning to be alone, to be independent, to accept that she would never be like any other child?
She ticked off the ways in which she was different, running through them in a familiar litany that helped define and settle the borders of her life.
She could do magic--had been able to do magic for a long time. It had frightened her at first, confused and troubled her, but she had learned to adapt to the magic's demands, taught first by Gran, who had once had use of the magic herself, and later by Pick. She had learned to control and nurture it, to find a place for it in her life without letting it consume her. She had discovered how to maintain the balance within herself in the same way that Pick was always working to maintain the balance in the park.
Pick, her best friend, was a six-inch-high sylvan, a forest creature who looked for the most part like something a child had made of the discards of a bird's nest, with body and limbs of twigs and hair and beard of moss. Pick was the guardian of Sinnissippi Park, sent to keep in balance the magic that permeated all things and to hold in check the feeders that worked to upset that balance. It was a big job for a lone sylvan, as he was fond of saying, and over the years various generations of the Freemark women had helped him. Nest was the latest. Perhaps she would be the last.
There was her family, of course. Gran had possessed the magic, as had others of the Freemark women before her. Not Old Bob, who had struggled all his life to accept that the magic even existed. Maybe not her mother, who had died three months after Nest was born and whose life remained an enigma. But her father ... She shook her head at the walls. Her father. She didn't like to think of him, but he was a fact of her life, and there was enough time and distance between them now that she could accept what he had been. A demon. A monster. A seducer. The killer of both her mother and her grandmother. Dead now, destroyed by his own ambition and hate, by Gran's magic and his own, by Nest's determination, and by Wraith.
Wraith. She looked out the window in the diminishing shadows and shivered. The ways in which she had been different from other children began and ended with Wraith.
She sighed and shook her head mockingly. Enough of that sort of rumination.
She rose and walked into the bathroom, turned on the shower, let it run hot, and stepped in. She stood with her eyes closed and the water streaming over her, lost in the heat and the damp. She was nineteen and stood just under five feet ten inches. Her honey-colored hair was still short and curly, but most of her freckles were gone. Her green eyes dominated her smooth, round face. Her body was lean and fit. She was the best middle-distance runner ever to come out of the state of Illinois and one of the best in history. She didn't think about her talent much, but it was always there, in much the same way as her magic. She wondered often if her running ability was tied in some way to her use of the magic. There was no obvious connection and even Pick tended to brush the suggestion aside, but she wondered anyway. She had been admitted to Northwestern on a full track-and-field scholarship. Her grades were good, but it was her athletic skills that got her in. She had won several middle-distance events at last spri
ng's NCAA track-and-field championships. She had already broken several college records and one world. In two years the summer Olympics would be held in Melbourne, Australia. Nest Freemark was expected to contend for a medal in multiple running events. She was expected to win at least one gold.
She turned off the shower, stepped out onto the mat, grabbed a towel, and dried herself off. She tried not to think about the Olympics too often. It was too distant in time and too mind-boggling to consider. She had learned a hard lesson when she was fourteen and her father had revealed himself for what he was. Never take anything in your life for granted; always be prepared for radical change.
Besides, there were more pressing problems just now. There was school; she had to earn grades high enough to allow her to continue to train and to compete. There was Pick, who was persistent and unending in his demand that she give more of her time and effort to helping him with the park--which seemed silly until she listened to his reasoning.
And, right at the moment, there was the matter of the house.
She dressed slowly, thinking of the house, which was the reason she was home this weekend when her time would have been better spent at school, studying. With her grandfather's death, the house and all of its possessions had passed to her. She had spent the summer going through it, room by room, closet by closet, cataloguing, boxing, packing, and sorting what would stay and go. It was her home, but she was barely there enough to look after it properly and, Pick's entreaties notwithstanding, she had no real expectation of coming back after graduation to live. The realtors, sensing this, had already begun to descend. The house and lot were in a prime location. She could get a good price if she was to sell. The money could be put to good use helping defray her training and competition expenses. The real estate market was strong just now, a seller's market. Wasn't this the right time to act?
She had received several offers over the summer, and this past week Allen Kruppert had called from ERA Realty to tender one so ridiculously high that she had agreed to consider it. She had come after classes on Friday, skipping track-and-field practice, so that she could meet with Allen on Saturday morning and look over the papers. Allen was a rotund, jovial young man, whom she had met on several occasions at church picnics, and he impressed her because he never tried to pressure her into anything where the house was concerned but seemed content just to present his offers and step back. The house was not listed, but if she was to make the decision to sell, she knew, she would almost certainly list it with him. The papers he had provided on this latest offer sat on the kitchen table where she had left them last night. The prospective buyer had already signed. The financing was in place. All that was needed was her signature and the deal was done.
She put the papers aside and sat down to eat a bowl of cereal with her orange juice and coffee, her curly hair still damp against her face as golden light spread through the curtained windows and the sun rose over the trees.
If she signed, her financial concerns for the immediate future would be over.
Pick, of course, would have a heart attack. Which was not a good thing if you were already a hundred and fifty years old.
She was just finishing the cereal when she heard a knock at the back door. She frowned; it was only eight o'clock in the morning, not the time people usually came calling. Besides, no one ever used the back door, except ...
She walked from the kitchen down the hall to the porch. A shadowy figure stood leaning into the screen, trying to peer inside. Couldn't be, could it? But, as she stepped down to unlatch the screen door, she could already see it was.
"Hey, Nest," Robert Heppler said.
He stood with his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his jeans and one tennis shoe bumping nervously against the worn threshold. "You going to invite me in or what?" He gave her one of his patented cocky grins and tossed back the shoulder-length blond hair from his angular face.
She shook her head. "I don't know. What are you doing here, anyway?"
"You mean like, 'here at eight o'clock in the morning,' or like, 'here in Hopewell as opposed to Palo Alto'? You're wondering if I was tossed out of school, right?"
"Naw. Stanford needs me to keep its grade point average high enough to attract similarly brilliant students. I was just in the neighborhood and decided to stop by, share a few laughs, maybe see if you're in the market for a boyfriend." He was talking fast and loose to keep up his confidence. He glanced past her toward the kitchen. "Do I smell coffee? You're alone, aren't you? I mean, I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
"Jeez, Robert, you are such a load." She sighed and stepped back. "Come on in."
She beckoned him to follow and led him down the hall. The screen door banged shut behind them and she winced, remembering how Gran had hated it when she did that.
"So what are you really doing here?" she pressed him, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the kitchen table as she reached for the coffeepot and a cup. The coffee steamed in the morning air as she poured it.
He shrugged, giving her a furtive look. "I saw your car, knew you were home, thought I should say hello. I know it's early, but I was afraid I might miss you."
She handed him the coffee and motioned for him to sit down, but he remained standing. "I've been waiting to hear from you," she said pointedly.
"You know me, I don't like to rush things." He looked away quickly, unable to meet her steady gaze. He sipped gingerly from his cup, then made a face. "What is this stuff?"
Nest lost her patience. "Look, did you come here to insult me, or do you need something, or are you just lonely again?"
He gave her his hurt puppy look. "None of the above." He glanced down at the real estate papers, which were sitting on the counter next to him, then looked up at her again. "I just wanted to see you. I didn't see you all summer, what with you off running over hill and dale and cinder track."
"Robert, don't start ..."
"Okay, I know, I know. But it's true. I haven't seen you since your grandfather's funeral."
"And whose fault is that, do you think?"
He pushed his glasses further up on his nose and screwed up his mouth. "Okay, all right. It's my fault. I haven't seen you because I knew how badly I messed up."
"You were a jerk, Robert."
He flinched as if struck. "I didn't mean anything."
"You didn't?" A slow flush worked its way up her neck and into her cheeks. "My grandfather's funeral service was barely finished and there you were, making a serious effort to grope me. I don't know what that was all about, but I didn't appreciate it one bit."
He shook his head rapidly. "I wasn't trying to grope you exactly."
"Yes, you were. Exactly. You might have done yourself some good, you know, if you'd stuck around to apologize afterward instead of running off."
His laugh was forced. "I was running for my life. You just about took my head off."
She stared at him, waiting. She knew how he felt about her, how he had always felt about her. She knew this was difficult for him and she wasn't making it any easier. But his misguided attempt at an intimate relationship was strictly one-sided and she had to put a stop to it now or whatever was left of their friendship would go right out the window.
He took a deep breath. "I made a big mistake, and I'm sorry. I guess I just thought you needed ... that you wanted someone to ... Well, I just wasn't thinking, that's all." He pushed back his long hair nervously. "I'm not so good at stuff like that, and you, well, you know how I feel ..." He stopped and looked down at his feet. "It was stupid. I'm really sorry."
She didn't say anything, letting him dangle in the wind a little longer, letting him wonder. He looked up at her after a minute, meeting her gaze squarely for the first time. "I don't know what else to say, Nest. I'm sorry. Are we still friends?"
Even though he had grown taller and gotten broader through the shoulders, she still saw him as being fourteen. There was a little-boy look and sound to him that she thought he might never entirely escape.
"Are we?" he pressed.
She gave him a considering look. "Yes, Robert, we are. We always will be, I hope. But we're just friends, okay? Don't try to make it into anything else. If you do, you're just going to make me mad all over again."
He looked doubtful, but nodded anyway. "Okay." He glanced down again at the real estate papers. "Are you going to sell the house?"
"Well, that's what it looks like."
"I don't care what it looks like, it's none of your business!" Irritated at herself for being so abrupt, she added, "Look, I haven't decided anything yet."
He put his coffee cup in the exact center of the papers, making a ring. "I don't think you should sell."
She snatched the cup away. "Robert ..."
"Well, I don't. I think you should let some time pass before you do anything." He held up his hands in a placating gesture. "Wait, let me finish. My dad says you should never make any big changes right after someone you love dies. You should wait at least a year. You should give yourself time to grieve, to let everything settle so you know what you really want. I don't think he's right about much, but I think he might be right about this."
She pictured Robert's father in her mind, a spectacled, gentle man who was employed as a chemical engineer but spent all his free time engaged in gardening and lawn care. Robert used to call him Mr. Green Jeans and swore that his father would have been happier if his son had been born a plant.
"Robert," she said gently, "that's very good advice."
He stared at her in surprise.
"I mean it. I'll give it some thought."
She put the coffee cups aside. Robert was annoying, but she liked him anyway. He was funny and smart and fearless. Maybe more to the point, she could depend on him. He had stood up for her five years earlier when her father had come back into her life. If not for Robert, her grandfather would never have found her trussed up in the caves below the Sinnissippi Park cliffs. It was Robert who had come after her on the night she had confronted her father, when it seemed she was all alone. She had knocked the pins out from under him for his trouble, leaving him senseless on the ground while she went on alone. But he had cared enough to follow.
She felt a momentary pang at the memory. Robert was the only real friend she had left from those days.
"I have to go back to school tonight," she said. "How long do you have?"
He shrugged. "Day after tomorrow."
"You came all the way home from California for the weekend?"
He looked uncomfortable. "Well ..."
"To visit your parents?"
"You can't say it, can you?"
He shook his head and blushed. "No."
She nodded. "Just so you don't think I can't see through you like glass. You just watch yourself, buster."
He looked down at his feet, embarrassed. She liked him like this--sweet and vulnerable. "You want to walk over to Gran and Grandpa's graves with me, put some flowers in their urns?"
He brightened at once. "Sure."
She was already heading for the hall closet. "Let me get my coat, Mr. Smooth."
"Jeez," he said.
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