Tom walked down the still unfamiliar neighborhood and tried to think of something, anything that would keep him from having to go home.
His options were limited. School? Over and done with. Even after staying late and finishing all his homework in the counselor's office, he'd still only managed to kill an extra hour. Anything else around cost money- which he didn't have.
He watched the houses as he went. They were all basically the same shape and size, and all were definitely the same shades of white, tan, and tanish-red. Any differences were subtle and arbitrary: the sorts of flowers lining the walk, the type of mailbox, whether or not there were toys in the front yard signifying the presence of children. Things like that. Behind the houses, almost invisible to anyone who'd grown up in the valley, were the hills. The neighborhoods here were practically going up the side of them.
They all look, he thought, just like Nick's house. Which wasn't making the walk home any easier.
Nick. He shuddered and tried not to think about Nick.
There has to be something else to do.
When he was either three streets or four away from the house, he saw her.
She was a girl. He could tell she was a girl because she was dressed up in a ruffly pink thing that only a girl would wear. She was sitting out in the middle of the road, coloring with chalk.
Well, talking to a girl was better than talking to Nick, he supposed. Even if she was wearing pink.
"Hey," he called. "What are you doing?"
The small blond head moved up, revealing a small pale face. "Colorin'," she said.
He didn't move. "You're gonna get hit by a truck."
"No I won't," she said. The mass of yellow hair turned down again, disinterested. "I made sure of it."
After a good three minutes spent fighting his mother's strategic conditioning, Tom stepped out onto the road. He still looked both ways, though. He hadn't gone completely crazy.
She ignored him when he walked over. Feeling decidedly awkward, Tom stood over her and peered over her shoulder.
"What is that? A dog?"
"Cwn Annwn." She didn't look up. "My uncle's friend Gwyn got me one."
"Oh. Cool. Are his ears really purple like that?"
The girl stopped coloring and squinted up at him. "No," she said slowly. "Red. I just think purple looks prettier. You can see me?"
"Um. Ye-es. . . We just got done talking. . . " She kept squinting at him. "I asked you what you were doing, remember? I walked over. . ."
A broad smile split her face. "But I wasn't sure. You coulda been talking to someone else." She swept all the chalk away into her pack and then got to her feet. "I figured nobody around here could really see me. I just kinda answer anyways, even when they're not really talking to me, y'know? It's so trying, being ignored all the time." She stuck out a hand to be shaken. When Tom didn't immediately offer his back, she grabbed his arm and started shaking his elbow.
"What's your name?" he said for lack of anything else.
She tilted her head slightly, reminding him strongly of Nick's dog.
"What a strange question. I don't have one."
Uhm. .. "Do you live around here?"
"Oh sure. I live around here. I live around there, I live around the middles and the almosts and the places that aren't finished yet-" Here she broke off into giggles.
Tom smiled. He couldn't help it. She was crazy, yes, but it looked like it was going to be the entertaining sort of crazy. Anything was better than home.
"Left of always and half past never, that's me."
"But do you live in an almost and always and middley place that's around here?"
She frowned, thinking. "Well, there's a hill I like. Nice, tall grass. There's a fence."
"A hill. With a fence."
She grabbed his wrist. "Come on, it's great! I'll show you."
Before he could say a word, Tom found himself being dragged off. It didn't matter that the girl was half a head shorter than he was, or that she was twig-skinny. She had a grip like death and had to at least been as strong as his big brother, Matt.
He allowed himself to be dragged and followed her to the hill.
* * * * *
The hike to the top of the hill was a short one, but steep. The girl chattered nonstop along the way, but it was odd, almost disjointed chatter and Tom found struggling to keep up with the stream.
"So then he was going to try and catch the whole horde of butterflies to take them all back, right? Because one of them had to have been his sister, even if he couldn't tell which. So he went to the lion again and this time asked for some of its mane to make a net, but the lion was sober this time around and wasn't going to do it for free-"
He nodded, unable to speak. It was a very steep hike, and the tall dead grass was thick with burrs, foxtails and spiky brown plants Tom didn't know the name of. The girl didn't seem at all bothered by it, though.
"So then he went to go get the tooth back from the witch, but since he drank the water out of the gold ladle instead of the tin one, Undine's present didn't do him any good and she turned him to stone lickity-split."
The reached the top of the hill and started going down into the small valley below. "Then what happened?"
"Nothing. He's a statue, iddn't he? They don't do much. I expect he's probably still in her garden."
"That's a horrible story."
"Really? How come?"
"Because they're all stuck! He's a statue, she's a butterfly, Undine's still in that pond,lion doesn't have his teeth- the story didn't have an ending, it just ended."
She shrugged. "It's the way it happened. I can't make stuff up. Oh look, we're here!"
Tom had just enough time to see a smile break out across her face before she went sprinting down the rest of the hill, to the fence below. He hurried to catch up with her.
"See?" she said, jumping onto the fence. "Isn't this nice?"
The fence wasn't much. Just half-rotted posts sticking up out of the ground with a few longer posts going cross them. It went on, over the hill either way, but it didn't look like it could keep anything out or, for that matter, in.
"It's definitely a fence," he said.
She skipped to the fence and crawled on top of the nearest post.
"I don't know why I like fences so much," she said. "I guess it's cause everyone thinks they can keep stuff in and out, then I come along and just say 'nuh-hun'. See?" She hopped onto the other side of the fence and flashed him a toothy grin. "Don't you just love it?"
He shrugged. "I dunno. Never thought of it before."
She hopped along the fencepost, her arms waving wildly to keep balance. Leaves tossed around her, caught up in the breeze. Her peals of laughter filled the air.
He looked around at the tall grass surrounding them. It was perfectly still. There weren't any trees around. He didn't know where the leaves could have come from.
"What are you doing?" he said.
She leapt off the fence and landed a few feet in front of him, her hands tucked into the pockets of her skirts.
He glanced down at the grass.
"Uh," he said, not quite how to put it.
"Yes?" she said.
"There's something wrong with your shadow."
She glanced down. "Looks fine to me."
She stood there, her hair tossing slightly in the breeze, but otherwise straight and still. Her shadow danced and skipped flat on the grass, tethered to the spot where she met ground, but otherwise ignoring her. It kicked and twirled and waved its arms.
"Oh. It- does it do that a lot?"
The shadow gave a mock bow, then continued to dance.
"Yes. Only when its feeling silly. Which is actually a lot of the time." She gave him an appraising look. "Huh. I'd figured you'dve known about shadows."
"I know lots about shadows. I know that they're not supposed to do that." He pointed at the shadow, who was practicing handstands.
"I meant the real kind. My mama said most witches know about shadows."
"I'm not a witch," he said.
"No no, of course not," she said. "You're a boy, aren't you? You'd be a wizard. A sorcerer." She spun, sweeping out her arm. The wind kicked up and she leapt back onto the fence, landing one-footed atop a post. "A magician, an enchanter! Witching is for girls."
"But I'm not any of those things!"
"Well, no. But you could be. I could teach you!" She clapped her hands as though it were the best idea she'd ever had. "I'd love to teach you! I come from a long line of teachers, you know."
Tom didn't believe it.
"I don't believe it."
"Oh but it's true! My family's been teaching people for centuries. We taught Merlin and Shakespeare and Morganna and all sorts of famous people."
"Suuuuure," he said. "I just bet." Tom looked up. The sun was setting, and the whole hillside was painted in shades of orange and pink.
"Gosh," he said. "It got late fast. I think I'd better go home before my family misses me."
"Aww, do you have to?"
"I think so, yeah." he thought about how mad Nick had been when the counselor called and shuddered. "I'm already in pretty bad trouble back home."
"Well, when can you come back?"
He thought about it. If Nick didn't kill him tonight, either for being late or for anything else, then he had all of the weekend to look forward too. "Tomorrow, maybe. If I'm not dead."
"Oh, that won't be a problem," she said, waving a hand. "I can find you then. It's if you aren't that I'll have trouble."
"Tomorrow, then. I'll be here." He headed off through the field, smiling. Maybe things wouldn't be so bad here, after all.
* * * * *
Tom did make it to the hill the next day.
The girl was there, perched on the fence like a bird. A flock of crows was lined along side her, with a few on her head and shoulders, as though they were the most obvious places to be. One was resting on her arm and held out in front of her. It cawed and clucked and ruffled its feathers, and she cawed and clucked right back at it. They appeared to be in deep conversation. All of the other crows craned their heads around to see them better, apparently just as interested in the conversation as the speakers.
Tom approached slowly, unsure is it was wise to interrupt.
"Hello?" he said eventually.
As one, the girl and all the crows swiveled their heads to see him. Her smile split ear to ear when she saw him.
He relaxed slightly and came closer, returning the smile weakly. "Barely."
She peered at him, leaning forward enough that the crows grumbled their displeasure and had to readjust themselves. "How come the spot 'round your eye's all gray?"
"I fell down," he said with a completely straight face. "On the way home yesterday."
"Really?" she said, her voice awed. "The ground must've been pretty mad at you!"
"Yeah it was," he said. "It came right up in the shape of a wolf and tried to steal my backpack."
The girl dropped down so that she was sitting on the fence. The crows on her shoulders squawked angrily and flew off. The one on her head remained seated, apparently unfazed. "Then what happened?"
Tom tried to stop himself from smiling. "I ran to the neighbors house and got their water hose. I sprayed the dirt wolf and it turned into a giant moving mud-monster. It tried to smash me, but then I ran into another house's swimming pool and it got stuck in there and turned all sloshy." He pointed to his eye. "I got my bag back fine, but not before it gave me this."
"That's amazing," she said. She looked at the crows. "Isn't it, don't you think?"
The crows all nodded. A few left their positions on the fence and flew onto his shirt. Their claws pinched into his arms, but he didn't shoo them off.
"Aww, they like you."
"Do they bite?"
"Only if they don't like you."
"Can I pet them?" he asked shyly.
He did. The bird eyed his hand warily for a moment, swiveling its head back and forth to get a better look. Finally, it allowed Tom to touch the top of its head. After which, it proceeded to make its way up from his shoulder and scramble onto the top of his head. The crow's feet raked across his neck and cheek, but he didn't mind in the slightest.
This is so cool!
"Hey," she said, leaping off the fence and doing a flip in the air. The crows complained loudly as she landed several feet away. "Wanna play a game?"
"Sure," he said. The crow on his head was leaning over and looking at him like it was thinking about pecking his nose. "What kind?"
"The kind where I do this."
She let out a hearty caw and all the crows flew up into the air. With another caw, she went over and grabbed both of Tom's hands. "Hold on!"
The birds began to fly around them, all in one direction. They started slow at first, but with each complete circle, they grew a little faster, and faster, a faster, until Tom found himself in the center of a black tornado. The wind picked up, growing stronger as the birds kept going.
"You ready?" said the girl. Her hair whipped around in the wind.
The birds suddenly scattered, and Tom and the girl were thrown into the air in a miniature whirlwind. Their feet shot out from under them and they clutched onto each other for dear life, spinning like a propeller. She laughed. He screamed. After a hang time that seemed to last much longer than it should have, they slowly spun back down to earth.
The girl let go of him a few feet above the ground and gently landed on her feet. Tom hit the grass with a thump, landing on his belly. The crows al watched them from the fence.
"Well?" she said, helping him to his feet. "Whad'ja think?"
He looked up at her, his heart trying to beat through his chest. "I think. . . " He stood up and said, smiling ear to ear, "I think I wanna try that again!"
She laughed, and the crows began to circle them again.
* * * * *
Almost every day that summer, Tom went up to the hill and played with the Girl. They developed a sort of pattern.
On days he wasn't in trouble, he'd leave right after breakfast and wind up on the hill around mid morning.
The rest of the day would always be interesting. Once, they were playing a game of tag with her shadow when things got out of hand. She and Tom spent the entire afternoon chasing after it. Another time, she made the grass grow as thick around as flagpoles and as tall as trees so they could pretend they were in a corn maze. When she could, she brought her red-eared dog with her and they'd play with him, though he could never stay for very long. One moment they'd be in the middle of a game of fetch, and the next the dog would start to whine, warble, and then fade out into nothing.
"He's just a little one," she said apologetically. "He doesn't know how to stay solid for very long. He's probably back home now, trying to get back to us."
Tom was fine with it. While the dog had seemed nice enough, there was something about the way its yellow eyes kept studying him that made him feel uncomfortable.
Most days, he'd be able to tear himself away from the games and make the trudge back home in time for curfew. Some days, he didn't.
On days where Tom was in trouble, the girl would come to him around midday after waiting in the hills. Together they'd play videogames in his room and he'd tell her stories of how he'd gotten the new bruises on his arms or face or any other place where there were bruises.
"This one happened last night. A giant bat-thing came out of my closet and tried to eat our dog. I had to beat it up with a baseball bat and chase it out the window."
"This one happened this morning. My bowl of cereal grew ten times bigger and started beating me up with the spoon. I had to get a stack of pancakes to grow as big and fight it off."
And so on. The girl devoured these stories, and seemed to believe every one of them. Tom didn't feel guilty about lying. He liked the look she gave him when he fought off dragons and bears and whatever else he could think of. Nobody had ever looked up to him before.
* * * * *
"Hey, Tom? How come you never talk about your family?"
It was a quiet day. They were lying down in the tall grass, looking at clouds. Or rather, he was lying down in the grass, she was hovering approximately three inches above the grass. He didn't bother asking how she was doing it. Her puppy was lying down between them, half curled on his back with his legs sticking out awkwardly into the air.
"What?" he said.
"You're family. What're they like?"
Tom hadn't been expecting that. He sat up.
"What makes you ask?"
She frowned. "Well, you've been telling me all these neat things you do, but you never mention them. Whenever I go to your house, it's either empty, or there's other people and we stay in your room. How come?"
He shuffled uncomfortable. Jeez, he hoped she wouldn't be like that snoopy counselor at school. "Well, my brother Matt's usually busy. He's a lot bigger than me- he's in high school and he's got football and a girlfriend and stuff. We don't really get to talk much."
"Is he nice?"
Tom nodded. "He's the nicest. He lets me have the prize in the cereal box, and lets me use his stuff when he's not using it, and whenever he thinks somebody's picking on me, he always helps."
"Then how come he doesn't help you with the bears and things?" she pointed to a bit of bruise that showed through the collar of his shirt.
"You said flies did that one, right?"
"Yep. A whole bunch of them all gathered up and turned into a person. I had to-"
"The flamethrower. Right. But how come your brother didn't help?"
"I. . . I don't want him to get into trouble. If I told him, he'd just try to take the bugs on all by himself. He'd get hurt."
She nodded, as though she understood completely. "And your mom? Your dad?"
"I don't have a dad," he said. "If he was still around, he would've helped. He'dve beaten them up black and blue. My mom's nice, but she doesn't like thinking about monsters and bears and things. If I told her, she'd just get scared or start to cry."
"So you fight monsters all by yourself?" Her blue eyes were wide. Trusting. Gullible. For the first time, Tom felt a twinge of guilt. "Yeah, well. I do my best."
She got to her feet and remained hovering above the grass. "Well not anymore!" she said. "I'm going to help you from now on."
"Oh, you don't have to-"
"But I want to!" She crossed her arms stubbornly. "You're my friend, right? So I should be there to help you fight monsters."
Tom smiled. "Okay," he said, lying back in the grass. "You can help me fight monsters all you want. It'll be good to have some help."
* * * * *
He stayed home the next day. Not because he was in trouble, but because Nick had enlisted both his and Matty's help in fixing the gutters. It was their job to hold the ladder steady and hand over any tools Nick might call up for.
This was actually more difficult that in sounded.
"The thing. You know, the thing with the thingy on it."
Matt held up a hammer. "This thing?"
"No, the other thing. The thing I need for this thing here."
Tom sighed and kept vigilance by the ladder, trying not to yawn. It didn't help that the ladder was put right in the direct sunlight, meaning that within minutes of being out there, he was hot, slightly sticky, and had to squint.
His head whipped around. Nick was still trying to describe the thingy to Matt, who was still trying to understand what Nick was saying. neither were paying any attention to him.
"Tom!" said the small voice urgently.
"I can't play today," he whispered, hoping that neither Nick nor Matt would hear him. "I'm busy today."
A cool breeze flitted past. Tom smiled gratefully and enjoyed the relief from the heat.
"Who's that man, Tom?"
"My stepfather," he whispered.
"No, I said the other thing- you had your hands right on it! No, it's next to that one. that one there. Can't you see where I'm pointing?"
"Tom," she said slowly. "His hands are big."
"Hmm? yeah, I guess so." They were bigger than his, at any rate.
"I've seen hands that size before."
There was a definite sinking in his stomach. "Oh?"
Suddenly she was in front of him, eye to eye. He hadn't noticed how tall she was before. In one smooth motion, she grabbed his arm and pulled his sleeve up, revealing a large, vaguely hand-shaped bruise where someone had once grabbed him too hard.
She gaped at him.
"Listen, I can explain-"
She shook her head. "You can't fight monsters, can you?"
He looked down at his feet. "No," he said, his face burning red. "I can't."
"No, the other one. Dammit," said Nick. "I'll be down in a second."
Tom risked looking up and saw the girl watching Nick, a strange look in her eyes. "Monster," she said simply. With that, she was gone.
"Wait!" said Tom.
"Wait what?" said Nick.
From there, things seemed to go in slow motion. First, Nick was on the top of the ladder, mid step. Then, out of nowhere, a gust of wind. The leaves in the trees didn't move. The grass didn't move. Only the ladder was touched, and that came falling down. Unlike the ladder, which merely toppled over, Nick was flung a good six feet away onto the cement driveway.
Both Tom and Matt ran to his side.
The leg was broken. Even Tom could tell that. It was twisted around at unnatural angles and there was something jutting out, causing an odd bump in the pant leg. Tom tried very hard not to think of what it could be.
"Son of a-" Nick went off on a stream of creative and colorful curses not limited to the English language. Matt didn't bother to stay and learn them all and ran to find his mom. Tom stayed with Nick and tried to say soothing things. By the time his mother had got there, he was as ill looking as Nick, as though he had been the one to fall.
"An ambulance is on its way," said his mother.
"Little fucker!" he snarled at Tom. "I told you to hold the ladder!" He tried sitting up, then fell back down again, hissing in pain. "Fuck."
"Honey. . ." said Tom's mother.
"You saw it! The little shit did it on purpose!"
"Nick!" she said, shocked.
Tom backed away. His hands were shaking. Why were his hands shaking? And why couldn't he get them to stop? For some reason, this seemed to worry him more than anything else. It was cold. But it was hot at the same time. He couldn't breathe.
He's not going to get you now, he thought quietly. Not here. Not with Mom and Matt. Not when he's hurt like that.
"I have to go," he said.
"Tommy honey, you know he didn't mean it. We all know it's not your fault." His mother got up to hug him.
Tom turned tail and ran. "I'll be back later," he shouted over his shoulder. He'd no idea if they believed him or not. If they chased after him, or if they stayed sitting, waiting for the ambulance. He didn't look back.
* * * * *
He found her dancing on the hillside, hurling up handfuls of grass into a dust devil. Her face lit up when she saw him. The wind died immediately.
"Tom!" she said. "Hi, Tom!"
He didn't bother saying hello back. "You did that on purpose!" He was quite red in the face.
She didn't ask what he meant. "Of course I did," she said. "He was a horrible man."
"You could have killed him!"
She frowned. "Huh, you're right. Why didn't I think of that? I'll have to remember next time. Be sure to remind me." She leapt into the air and did a few flips before landing several yards away.
"No!" he said. "You can't!"
"Why not? He hurt you, didn't he?"
"Yeah, but you can't just go around killing people! It's- it's wrong!
She tilted her head and gave him an appraising look. "Huh. You really think that, don't you?"
"That's so weeeeeeird. Do all you people think like that?"
He stared. "You really don't know the difference, do you?"
"Between killing people and not. Between- I don't know. Right and wrong?" He took a step back. "I knew you were different. I knew you were a little off, but I didn't think it was that much."
She snorted. "There's no such thing as right and wrong. Mama says that's just stuff you guys made up to make you feel better about dying all the time."
"Shut up!" he shouted. "You just shut your stupid face!"
"Well I was only trying to help you since you're just a liar and can't help yourself! 'Oh I fight dirt monsters! I fight dragons! I fight bear sand shadows and giant bowls of cereal!' You don't have the guts to fight a fat man on a ladder!"
"No, you!" A gust of wind tossed him backwards, and he went sprawling in the grass.
"Go back home to your stupid little family then," she said. "You don't want my help? Then fine! I won't help you at all. I won't ever speak to you again. How'd you like that, huh?"
"Fine!" he shouted, getting to his feet. "You just go play with your stupid birds and leave me alone!"
The air around them froze. Suddenly everything seemed very quiet.
"You really mean that?" she said.
She looked down at her feet. Her shadow stood still, it's head bowed contritely. For the fist time since he'd know her, it was mimicking its mistress. The wind picked up, whirling around her in a miniature tornado. He threw an arm up to shield his eyes. He just managed to catch a glimpse of black feathers and autumn leaves before the torrent stopped. When the rush was over, there were no signs she'd ever been there at all.
Above, a flock of crows flew off deeper into the hills.
* * * * *
For the next few days, she plagued his mind.
You were right, he thought. You were completely in the right. She was the one who nearly killed Nick, it's all her fault. You've got nothing to feel bad about.
All the same, the look she'd given him, the utter hopelessness behind it- he had to force himself not to run back up to the hill and apologize.
Why should he apologize? It was her stupid fault.
But you wanted it, said a slick little voice in his head. Admit it. When he fell. You were scared, but you were excited. You wanted him to hurt.
Tom shut the voice out and continued with his homework.
* * * * *
It wasn't until the third day that he noticed the crows.
They followed him everywhere. They hung out on the telephone wires and watched him on his way to school. They sat in the trees in front of his house.
At school, they took to sitting on the roof of whatever building he happened to be in at the time.
"Weird, isn't it?" said Markus, a boy from his class. It was lunch, and a group of them were sitting at one of the picnic tables. The birds watched them intently from their vantage point atop the cafeteria proper. "You'd think they'd make more noise or something."
Jameson snatched the unopened milk from Markus' tray. "You guys notice that they're looking right at us?"
Tom ate in silence.
He was fairly certain they flew behind him on the bus ride home.
* * * * *
A week after the falling out, the crows decided silence wouldn't be enough. They began to call out to him.
"Such noisy bastards," said Matty one day at the dinner table.
"Don't curse," said his mother.
"I wonder what's got them so worked up?" said Nick.
"Whatever it is, it ain't right. Crows aren't nocturnal, are they?"
"Don't say ain't," said Nick.
Tom asked to be excused. None of them noticed how pale he'd grown. As soon as he stood up, the crows seemed to grow louder, as though they knew he'd moved. They let him go, though his mother worried that he might be feeling ill. He smiled weakly and told him he just needed a little fresh air.
He opened the back door, and the crows went berserk. Despite all their talk on the matter, none of his family heard what the crows were really saying.
"Taaawm," they called. "Taaawm! Taaawm!"
* * * * *
"All right!" he shouted. "I'm here! What do you want?"
He was on the hillside. The horde of crows had followed him in silence once they'd seen where he was going. It had taken him the better part of an hour to get there: all the usual path's he'd take had been spontaneously overgrown through the night, and the ones that were left wound up leading nowhere at all. In the end, he'd had to tromp though thicket and nettles to get there, and he was covered all over with burrs and scrapes.
She appeared out of nowhere and stepped onto the grass.
"I was worried you wouldn't come," she said shyly, her hands clasped behind her back. The dog appeared beside her and gave a cheerful wag of its tail when it caught sight of Tom.
"I almost didn't."
"Look," she said. "I know you're upset, and I know it was something I did, but I think I can make it up to you."
He crossed his arms. “Oh really?”
She nodded. "Yeah. Just hang on."
She raised her hands and took a deep breath. The air on the hill suddenly got a lot colder. A light, gray mist rose up from the dead grass between them. It floated and morphed and shifted until it took on the semblance of something slightly solid and vaguely person shaped.
"Red?" she said, her eyes still closed. "I need your help."
The dog sniffed once, threw back its head, and howled.
The specter solidified into a recognizable shape instantly. He was a tall man, and slightly on the portly side. His face was cheerful and lined from laughing so often. Unlike the last time Tom had seen him, the clothes he wore were simple: a t-shirt and jeans, both with pockets.
For a split second, Tom imagined the t-shirt riddled with bullet holes and bloodstained on the front. But the image was gone as soon as he'd had it. The man before him was whole. New. And he was waving.
Tom felt his eyes prick. "Dad?"
The specter of his father smiled at him and nodded. Without thinking, Tom stepped forward to hug him. It didn't work. He went right through.
"Sorry," said the girl. "I can't make him all solid through."
"Dad. I- I missed you." He swallowed. "We all did. Matty and Mom and me."
His father frowned and ran a ghostly finger over the bruise on his face. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
It didn't matter; Tom knew what he'd been trying to ask. "Oh, that's nothing. Ignore it."
The ghost of his father began to fade.
"I can't hold him here much longer."
"Dad- I love you, Dad. O-okay?"
His father mouthed the words 'I love you' and was gone. The girl collapsed onto the grass.
Tom stared at the spot where his father had been. Red went to stand beside him and nipped gently at his hands until he scratched him dutifully behind the ears.
"Well?" she said, once she'd caught her breath. "Do you forgive me?"
Tom sniffed and nodded. "Yeah," he said. We're cool."
Her face fell. "But you're crying!" she said. "I made you cry! I've made it worse!"
That got a chuckle out of him. "No, it's okay. Sometimes people cry when they're okay."
She went over and wrapped an arm around his shoulder. "You're sure?"
He nodded again. "Yeah. But there is something." He wriggled out from beneath her arm. "You said I could be a witch-"
"Wizard. Sorcerer. Magician-"
"Right. You said I could be all those things if you taught me, right?"
She nodded happily. "Yes! And a whole lot more, too."
"Could you teach me to do that?" He pointed to the charred spot on the earth where his father had been a few moments before. "Can you teach me to- to talk to the dead? To bring people back?"
Her eyes seemed to grow brighter. "Oh," she said. "So you wanna be that sort of wizard. Well sure, easy as cake! Easy like pie!"
"Then will you teach me? I-" he didn't have time to finish. As soon as he'd spoken, she'd leapt forward and wrapped around him in a hug. A cyclone of wind spun about them, whipping her hair and tugging at their clothes. Red was unamused and vanished with a sneeze.
"Oh I'm so glad you asked!" she said, pulling away. "I've never got to be a teacher before. But first. . ."
She skipped backwards a few feet. "There's just something I need in return."
His stomach sank. Here it comes. "What?"
She crossed her arms. "I need a name."
She sighed, obviously annoyed at having to explain. "I need a name. I'm tired of going without. If I had a name, see, I'd be a little more solid, and if I was solid, see, I'd be a better teacher, 'cause everyone knows teachers are one of the most solid sorts around. Y'see?"
Tom thought about it. It occurred to him that this might be his first piece of magic.
"So," he said slowly. "You want something to keep you solid, right? Solid and sensible."
He tried to go about it traditionally. She's mostly wind. Everything's more solid than wind is. Water's better, but not by much. I'd hate to think of what she could do with fire. . .
"I think I've got one for you."
She froze. There was a slight shift in the air around her. The ground rumbled and stilled. She smiled. He caught a glimpse of her eyes: one brown, one blue.
"I think I like it." She lifted a hand, examining her palm. "Yep," she said. "I feel more solid already. This will be so much fun!" Before he could get a word in edgewise, she grabbed his hand and ran. "Come on, I know a great place where we can practice! It's by the highway, it's where the road people dump the dead squirrels and things."
Together they ran down the hill.
A few years later