Hallie walked through the marketplace with her head down, trying to remain inconspicuous in the large crowd of people. The day was very warm in the height of spring, and the smell of blossoming flowers mixed with the aromas of food and animals in the market. Hallie pushed past people, her short stature ensuring she could barely see in front of her, since nearly everyone was at least a head taller than her. She didn’t mind being short so much, as it kept her somewhat hidden. She hated the looks. She hated the words.
Finally breaking out of the crowd, Hallie stopped before a stall selling eggs and chickens. She moved her shoulder-length, wavy, dark-blonde hair out of her eyes, frustrated it was always a mess, and sighed deeply. “One dozen eggs,” she said to the merchant, “and two chickens.”
The middle-aged balding man began to prepare the goods and placed them into the basket Hallie had brought with her, which already contained cheese, butter, some meat, and fruit and vegetables. She wrinkled her nose at the sight of the dead chickens, knowing her mother would probably make her prepare them. Her parents had given her more and more responsibilities since she turned sixteen two months ago, although she had already been helping a fair bit before then. She knew they were eager to get her out of the house, find work and move on—or better yet, get married and have children. The thought saddened her, but she didn’t expect anything else. They just wanted her to leave, to be someone else’s problem. Be someone else’s burden.
“There you go,” the merchant said, passing back the basket. “Same price as usual.”
Hallie handed over a few coins from the small purse she held, and the man nodded to her as he put them away. She turned and began to head to another stall when she heard someone laugh loudly from nearby. A chill ran down her spine. Not today. Please, not today.
“Hal-lie,” a voice called, singing her name. “Hal-lie. How does the rhyme go? What do the children sing?”
Hallie looked around her but couldn’t see him. The voice sounded young, like her. She stood frozen in her spot, her heart beating wildly.
The boy laughed again, then came into view, pushing past some others and standing before her. He was tall, skinny, blond, and grinning at her. He reached out and grasped a length of her hair between his fingers. “What’s that song? My sister and her friends sing it. You know the one, Hallie.”
He smiled again, then broke into song.
“Watch out for the little witch, with golden hair on her head.
She’ll say your name and her fingers will twitch, and then you’ll end up dead.”
The boy burst out laughing, and Hallie felt her face go red. She began to shake, and could feel it, could feel the magic inside of her. No! Hold it in! You know what happens when you don’t! She shut her eyes and took deep breaths, but that damn laughing! The basket rattled along her arm, its contents threatening to spill out. Then there was a firm hand on her shoulder, the familiar scent she loved, and she knew she was saved.
“Shut it,” Sean ordered, the red-haired boy towering over both Hallie and the other boy. “She won’t hurt you, but I certainly can. Get out of here.”
The boy frowned. “Why do you always rescue her? We all know what she is. What makes it worse is she’s too afraid to use her magic—she just stands there. If you’re going to be something as filthy as a witch, the least you could do is fight back. She’s weak.”
Sean grabbed the boy by the front of his shirt, pulled him up, and breathed on his face. “What’s weak is picking on a woman. You’re going to get moving, or I’ll have to force you. Remember what happened to Tommy?”
The boy’s eyes widened, and he nodded slightly. Sean shoved him back, and he hurriedly scrambled away, looking over his shoulder as he left.
Hallie put the basket on the ground, covered her face, and began to sob.
Sean kissed her on the forehead. “Come on, let’s get you out of here,” he murmured, putting his arm around her shoulder and picking up the basket.
Hallie looked down as Sean steered her out of the crowd until they were standing in a large patch of grass well past the marketplace. Hallie sat down and leaned against a tree, pulling her knees up to her chest, and sighed.
Sean sat beside her. “You alright?” he asked.
She nodded, not saying anything. Sean didn’t speak either, his arm against hers as they sat together. He was the only person Hallie felt comfortable with, her friend since they were very young. He was two years older than her, but they were extremely close. He stood by her always—when her parents mistreated her, when she was taunted for being a little overweight, even through the incident. He was always there for her. Hallie knew he only saw her as a friend—she was nothing like the couple of girls he’d been with romantically—but she was so glad he was in her life. She longed for more from him, but at least he was with her. At least she had someone.
Sean reached out and took her hand. “Why don’t you fight back, Hallie?” he asked her, a pleading tone in his voice.
She looked up at him, wiping a tear from her eyes. “Not you, too,” she said. “That’s what the boy said.”
“I don’t mean it like him,” Sean said, running a hand through his short hair. “He was just an idiot. But I’m not always going to be there. I don’t mean to fight back with magic, but you don’t have to let people speak to you that way. Why don’t you see how strong you are on the inside? Why don’t you see how brave you are?”
Hallie felt a few more tears fall from her eyes and moved her hand away from Sean’s. “This is who I am,” she said, sniffing. “I can’t be more than me.”
“But it’s not who you are!” Sean said. He sighed, then turned slightly so he was facing her. “All you see is what your parents have said you are, what all the idiots out there say you are. But I know you. You’re kind, and sweet, and caring, and strong—Hallie, you’re so strong! If you saw for a moment what you’re really like, you’d be able to stand up to all the people that hurt you—no one would ever be able to hurt you again! And you’d use your magic. You know how I feel about you hiding it.”
Hallie gritted her teeth, all Sean’s kinds words wiped out by his last comment. “You know I have to hide it!” she exclaimed. She rubbed her face with her hand, hating that he didn’t understand. She huffed, wishing she could explain it to him. “I have to hide it after what happened. You don’t know what it’s like, being afraid of letting go. Being afraid of getting too emotional. You make it sound as if I just suddenly became more confident and believed in myself, all my problems would be solved, but they wouldn’t be! I still have all this power, power I can’t control, and it could hurt people! I just wish you’d accept me as I am.” Hallie crossed her arms over her chest, immediately regretting all she’d just said. She hated it when they fought like this. She expected Sean to get upset with her and argue back, like they sometimes did, but he only sighed.
“How long are you going to make me wait, Hallie?” he whispered.
She looked at him in confusion, seeing a pleading look in his beautiful green eyes. She frowned. “Wait for what?”
He smiled crookedly. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”
She sat up straight. “Wait for what?”
He only shook his head, looking down. Hallie felt her heart beat faster. What was he talking about? Did he mean…? She found it hard to breathe. She wanted to touch him, to reach out and take his hand, but she was suddenly too nervous. Don’t get too emotional. She tried to breathe deeply, tried to clear her head, but her heart was beating too fast and her breath was shallow and her hands were starting to shake.
Sean suddenly looked at her. “What’s wrong?”
She only shook her head. I’m in love with you, you big, stupid idiot, she thought, and shut her eyes, trying to ignore him.
Then his arms were around her and he leaned her against his chest. He gently kissed her hair, holding her to him. She melted into him, letting out a little sigh. He laughed. “I feel it too, you know,” he whispered, and she looked at him in surprise. He gave the same crooked smile. “I’ve been waiting for you to become more confident, for you to believe in yourself, because I want this to be right. I don’t want to be with you until you’re strong—if we’re together now, all your strength will come from me, and I want you to be strong from you. From inside. Oh, Hallie, I’ve wanted to kiss you since you were twelve, but I can’t. Not yet. Do you understand?”
She just frowned. “No. If you want to be with me, you’ll accept me as me. Not wait until I’m different. Why do you always want me to be different?”
“Not different—you. The real you. Hallie, I’ll always be there for you—I’ll always be your friend. But I can’t be more until you don’t need me. Don’t you see what I mean?”
Hallie felt tears prick her eyes. She didn’t understand what he was saying. He… wanted her? Really? But… only if she was different. Only if she was stronger, braver, confident… and she would never be any of those things. She felt the tears start to come and desperately held them back, not wanting to weep in front of him. “You’re breaking my heart, Sean,” she whispered. “And if you wanted to kiss me all that time, why were you with those other girls? Why are you telling me all this? I can’t just suddenly be different—and if I tried, it would be for you, anyway. And you want me to be strong without you, to not need you. How can I suddenly change—what’s the point of telling me you want me if it’s not as I am?” She moved away from him, not looking at him. “You—you should go.”
He touched her arm. “Hallie, no.”
“I mean it! Go! I can’t be strong if you’re always rescuing me! And I don’t want someone who expects me to be different. Just go!” She dared to look at him, and his eyes were filled with pain. But he didn’t say anything, just slowly stood and walked away. Hallie waited until he was out of earshot and then her tears poured out of her, tears over the boy she loved with her whole heart. She would always love him. She knew it. But she didn’t think she could face him, be close to him, when he was just pushing her away. She sobbed, cries that shook her shoulders and made her lose her breath, and then she sat in silence. Maybe her and Sean would make up later. Maybe he would be willing to be with her as she was. Maybe…
He left town that afternoon.