“Little house or big house?” I ask, my arms full of several small boxes fresh off the moving truck.
“Little house,” Jake instructs, his arms straining with the weight of a recliner chair.
Little and big, as I learned when we arrived, are relative. More like Buckingham Palace for the big house. The little one would still be too big for my own neighborhood.
“But first you must pay the troll,” he says, laughing and setting down the recliner. I know the routine already. I lean in for a kiss. Well, if you can call it a kiss. Light and quick, there’s no point in even closing my eyes. It’s nice, sure. But nothing like the one we had by the fire.
Just respecting the grans, he sends as he pulls away. He picks up his chair again and heads toward the little house at three times my pace.
Show off, I send, then catch up with Anna.
I’ve lapped her several times already. She’s out of her wheelchair and using a cane, which is just freakin’ amazing, but it’s not like we need her to help with the moving. She insists that it’s good for her to work out the kinks in her stiff limbs, however slowly she moves, and even if all she can take is a dust mop in her one free hand.
“Kisses from a boy,” she says with a sigh. “I remember that.”
I don’t reply, but I’m sure my stupid smile says everything her mind reading doesn’t already know. Besides, I have other things I want to talk about. Like, every other thing. Bea admitted that she and Anna had purposefully kept me guessing by disagreeing on things they actually really agree on. She said it was so they could be sure I wouldn’t piece together what was really going on. But that blew huge holes in the little understanding I thought I had. It’s like I’m starting all over again.
“Now that you are acting Keeper of Magic,” I ask, still trying to get all the rules straight, “I don’t have to obey Helene or anything like that, do I?”
“She is your teacher now,” Anna replies, not half as out of breath as I am. “‘Obey’ is a strong word. But ‘listen’ would be both appropriate and smart.”
Not what I wanted to hear, but not totally surprising, either. “Do you think it will take the full year before I am ready?” Given there’s a minimum of three months, and a maximum of a year, I’m shooting for four, maybe five, months. Three could be wishful thinking, but a year would outright kill me. I’m sure of it.
“She’ll draw it out if she can,” is all Anna seems willing to commit to.
“And there’s no way for you or Bea to teach me, even second hand, like with Michael?”
She shakes her head firmly. “Letter of the law and Spirit of the law, my dear Mayden. We do not want to offer a valid path in which she could challenge her challenger.”
“Mayden” again. I can’t help it. I have to ask. “Why do you call me Mayden? Why not Julie?”
“I don’t know. It is how we have always referred to you, from the time you were little. Our maiden-to-be. It fit so perfectly, I suppose it just caught on.”
“Did I ever meet you when I was little?”
“Of course not! The potency of our meeting would have set your Magic off far too early, as it did with Michael. But I was sent pictures each year. Mia was so good about keeping us informed about your every milestone. I especially liked the one from your birthday party at the bowling alley when you were ten, though you looked absolutely miserable. I remember saying to myself, in time, Anna, in time. And now here we are.”
I have to take a minute to think about that. All those years, thinking I was on my own. Having no real sense of family, let alone a clan. And now I have a full 1,452 “bona fide” members all supporting me, at least according to Bea.
“It’s funny, I thought I was hiding my identity when I introduced myself to Bea and Jake as ‘Mayden’ that first day. They must have known who I was right off.”
“Yes, it is often like that with Magic. We do things just right, even when they feel wrong, without ever knowing it is because we are being guided and helped. Yet we are. We surely are.”
I continue in silence, pondering that and a thousand other things. I don’t ask her how it feels to be in power again, even if it’s only until Helene or I take her place. Or why she’s moving into the little house, even though the Keeper normally gets the big house. Or how there were more than 150 boxes and eight rooms of furniture behind the door of that tiny shack in the woods. Or how I’m going to live with Sally now that she knows about all this, and Dad, who apparently doesn’t.
There’s a lot I don’t get, but one thing I feel sure of: Dad knew about Mom’s family. That’s why he didn’t want me with Aunt Mia more than one week a year. He knew he was up against a twelve-hundred-year tradition and some pretty powerful matriarchs, and he was trying to hold off on everything as long as he could. We’ll talk about it someday. Just not before I’ve defeated Helene. He’d feel compelled to help, Bea insisted, and that would only make things harder for me.
No, I can wait on all this simple stuff. I can even set aside my ever-standing questions of “What is Magic?” and “What is it for?” Those questions, I am beginning to see, have no easy answers. At least for a beginner like me. But there is one thing I have to ask while I have Anna right here beside me, even if she isn’t willing to go there.
“How will I defeat her?” I don’t have to remind her that Helene has ten thousand times more experience in Magic or that she’ll use forms of Magic I simply will not stoop to. Anna knows all that, better than anyone.
To my surprise, she doesn’t hesitate to answer. “You will be brave and true and sincere. You will be cunning and strong and passionate. You will be fire and water, earth and wind, and even the fifth element, which is all that we have not yet seen. In other words, you will be you.”
“But, Anna,” I have to argue, “I’m not all that.”
“Oh, but you are, Mayden, dear. Oh, but you are!”