Tuesday morning dawned with a cold wind blowing leaves across the campus, and with the prospect of final exams before the year ended.
For Tracy, it also dawned on her that, although Neil’s revelations solved one set of problems, it created a whole new set. She certainly couldn’t have an open friendship with him, not after the vehement outburst to her mother about him. And, it also begged the question of why Leman, if she knew about Neil having been sent to find Tracy, had not revealed that in all their conversations. In fact, if Neil had been sent by Leman, why hadn’t Leman immediately revealed that when Tracy told her about the attempted killing? Maybe it just wasn’t that important in the light of having found the chosen one?
For now, however, she had to concentrate on algebra and make sure she passed it, at least. Normally one of her better subjects, she felt as if she hadn’t seen any of the equations before. In a way, she supposed, the time spent in the other world, that unknown land, was time lost. Skills that needed constant practice did become rusty after a while, and math in general fell into that category.
Then would come the dreaded home economics, followed in swift succession by all the other subjects that society felt their teenagers had to know before leaving school. Thoughts of battles, swords, wands and magic had to wait, this was real, her real life, and her mom would be disappointed if Tracy did badly.
Neil too, although he would smile and wave when he saw her, was obviously also caught in the swirl of finals, so much more important for the twelfth grade. Obviously they would have more to talk about, but that would have to wait for the holidays.
It was after the exam in English that Miss Jonker caught up with Tracy in the corridor and asked her if she had managed to call Julian. Tracy had to admit that she hadn’t, and that she felt really bad about it.
“Well, don’t worry, I spoke to him yesterday evening and he quite understands your situation. When the exams are done, how about us catching a Sunday concert?”
“Thank you, that would be lovely. Oh, and I wanted to ask you, when are we getting back to the movement classes? I know you said after the show we needed a bit of a break, but I’m really missing it.”
Miss Jonker grinned. “I know what you mean. Unfortunately with winter break coming up, I can only ask that you guys stay limber and keep running as much as you can, so that we can get back in the swing of it after the break. Anyway, see you next Sunday. I’ll come and pick you up about 2 o’clock.”
“That’ll be great. Oh, what about mom? If she wants to come, can she? I mean, I’m not sure she’d want to, but...”
“Of course, yes. The more the merrier.”
At her locker, putting away her English books, she saw Neil at the end of the corridor, beckoning. She closed the door and hurried down to meet him.
“I thought I’d be writing exams forever, and we need to talk about strategy. Have you thought about the items Leman wants you to get?”
“Strange you should say that, I actually wanted to ask you if you could help me with that. I have no idea about getting the sword. I mean, jasmine, sure, there are shrubs in the botanical gardens and I’m sure I can cut a nice piece of wood from one of them, but a sword?”
“Yes, I could help you with that. But do you know how to use one? A sword, I mean?”
Tracy shook her head. “I see the university runs a fencing club, and I was thinking of joining.”
Neil grinned. “You really are thinking this through, aren’t you? Have you thought about the time passing and how long you are prepared to make her wait?”
“Time? But she said it was that you came back to the same time you left – you could change the place, but while you are here no time passes for you on that side.”
“Wrong – yes, the time differential does kick in, but it’s more of a ratio thing. Like five years there are three months or less here. It’s only when you pass to and fro frequently, and stay for a month or less, that it seems that you return to the exact same time.”
“Now I think of it, I noticed something in the park. It was bright and the sun was still high when I went into the mirror maze where…”
“Where I attacked you for no seeming reason.”
“Yes, and when I crashed into the hot-dog cart it was almost time to go home.”
“Exactly. The stories like the one of Rip van Winkle have a basis, you know. He thought he’d spent only an afternoon there but in reality was gone a hundred years from this world. Many things about the unknown land don’t make sense, and it’s wrong to think they do. It’s a magical world, and the thing about magic is that it isn’t logical. It doesn’t follow rules.”
Just then the bell rang and they cast agonized looks at each other before rushing off in opposite directions.
“Meet me behind the gym this afternoon!” Neil tossed at her.
The exam in social science went by in a blur, and then it was lunch, and then study period. Luckily, never having been very sociable, few of her classmates remarked on her distracted air, and so she could run off to the meeting place in the afternoon without taking part in the endless discussion of ‘what did you answer for question 7, I answered this’ that was taking place everywhere.
Neil was sitting under one of the pine trees.
“Okay – here’s what I’ve been thinking. We need to start spending time together this winter, so that we can practice swordplay and also discuss tactics for when we get back to the unkown land.”
“But we can’t!” Tracy wailed. “I told my mom I hated you and wanted nothing to do with you. I can’t suddenly, after the biggest fight she and I have ever had, produce you as a friend. She’d never trust me again. And how would we explain it? No, we have to meet in secret, and keep it a secret. Promise.”
“That’s never going to work, and can’t you just explain that you spoke to me and we sorted out the problem and now we’re getting to know each other?”
“No! If it comes to that I’d rather try and sort out the things I have to do on my own. My mom cannot know about all this, especially not the whole war thing and the rest, she’d think I’d lost my mind.”
The argument raged back and forth, but nothing Neil said could make a difference. Finally Tracy stood up, brushed off the pine needles and said, “Well, neither of us wants to budge an inch, so I’m off. Thanks for finding me and sending me there, but now I’m on my own again. If I see you there in the army to fight the DarkLord, we’ll be able to be open friends and allies, but here we just can’t.”
“Just can’t what, Tracy?” A mocking voice called up to them. Alice and Mary-Beth stood on the pathway below the garden. “Admit you’ve got a boyfriend? And not just anyone but the guy whose been putting moves on Amber.”
Tracy was ready to jump both of them, but Neil spoke up before the angry words left her mouth.
“Why ladies, I was just asking Tracy if she could give me a light for my cigarette, and as I discovered, she comes here to think, not smoke. Maybe one of you could oblige, seeing as you’re certainly not here to think, or at least not think for long, hey?”
In the time it took him to say all that, he’d reached them, cigarette case open.
Alice giggled, and produced a lighter from her jacket pocket, and all three of them bent their heads and lit up. Tracy crept away over the pine needles, reached the corner of the gym and sprinted for home.
Her mom was pleased with Miss Jonker’s invitation. “I’d love to go and hear them again, I thought the music they made for your performance was brilliant. And that inn is a lovely place, all of it restored so well, and it has great views. I don’t know why we’ve never been there, now I come to think of it. Lovely prospect!”
In fact, her mom was in such a good mood that she even assented to Tracy investigating the possibility of fencing, as a way of staying in shape now that winter holidays meant no movement classes.
“As long as it doesn’t cost too much, OK?”
“OK mom, I’ll let you know. I’m really looking forward to Sunday, aren’t you?”
Sunday afternoon finally arrived, and the three of them were escorted to a table set in the center of the room, close to the stage but not right next to it. It was clearly the position of honor, as several people kept staring at them and then talking softly to each other. Tracy had her first inkling of what it meant to be famous. You didn’t just think that people were talking about you, you knew, with absolute certainty that they were, and what you thought was that they were not saying complimentary things about you at all. She had dressed in her finest, it was just that her finest was not up to the latest fashion. Jeans, a silk shirt that used to belong to her father which he had bought in India, many years ago, a pair of black shoes that were nondescript but at least not sneakers, and a vest that she had made for herself out of scraps of upholstery fabric to give it a rich and textured look.
Now, under scrutiny from the crowd, the vest felt ill-made and ill-fitting, the shirt showed its age and the fact that it was made for a man, and not a teenage girl, and jeans – well, let’s just say they weren’t designer or name brand.
Her mom, though, was as always effortlessly elegant in a black dress, with silver and green accessories and with her hair pinned into the usual loose bun in the nape of her neck. And of course Miss Jonker was stunning. The lithe and sturdy body, toned from hours and hours of dancing and exercise, was set off in a silky blouse cut to flatter and showcase her waist and arms, tucked into a skirt that wasn’t too short, but flattered her long legs with its curves and seams. She had her hair tied back with a patterned scarf, and big gold earrings framed her face.
Tracy could feel her face getting hot and she wondered if she could be seen to be blushing, but before she could agonize any more, Julian was suddenly there on stage. Tracy wasn’t sure how he’d gotten there, but there he stood, in the same or virtually the same clothes he’d worn the first time she’d seen him. The group stood behind him, readying their instruments and checking sound levels.
“Hello and welcome to our afternoon of music. I’m really glad to see so many of our old friends and supporters, and some new faces. Before we begin, I have to introduce you to a very talented young lady. Tracy, could you stand up please?”
What? He wanted her to stand up? And Miss Jonker was smiling and motioning to her to stand up, and there was applause. She stood up, now really blushing furiously.
“We played some music for Christine’s troop of movement students to perform to, and this young lady was the star of the show. Thanks for coming.”
She sat down amid more applause. Her mom was beaming from ear to ear, and you could almost feel the waves of maternal pride radiating from her, and Miss Jonker was smiling at her and nodding. She wanted to duck under the table and have the ground swallow her. Was this what celebrities had to cope with the whole time – this hungry staring? As if you were somehow expected to perform some amazing feat? While all the time you knew you were quite ordinary, even a little bit below par?
Before she could work herself into a state of panic the first notes of Julian’s flute rang out, and the spell of the music was upon the whole room. Everyone listened, rapt and silent. Today the music was soothing, lulling, carrying them each to their favorite place in the whole world, a place of peace and safety.
When it ended, and the applause and calls for encore ended, Tracy looked at her watch and realized that two hours had gone by.
Her mom was speaking. “Miss Jonker, I cannot thank you enough for this invitation. This was so special. They are brilliant and that young man, Julian, you said his name was, is almost like a wizard, the way he makes you feel.”
“But they’re here every Sunday afternoon, so please feel free to come again.” Miss Jonker replied.
“Yes, please do come again.” Julian was at their table, holding his flute almost defensively.
“Mrs. Pike, this is Julian. Julian, Mrs. Pike, Tracy’s mother.”
“I’m so pleased to meet you. You have an extremely talented daughter, and I can now see w-where she gets her beauty. I’ve been looking forward to having her here.”
Was it Tracy’s imagination, or did Miss Jonker’s face darken a moment? If so, it was very brief, as Miss Jonker took hold of Julian’s hand.
“Amazing playing as always. I really don’t know how you do it week after week, coming up with new tunes and new moods. And you did one of my favourites, the clear water one, thank you!”
If she had put a neon sign above her head with ‘I’m in love with you’ flashing in hot pink letters, she could not have been more obvious. And just as obvious, as Julian disentangled his hand and muttered thanks, was the fact that he did not share those feelings. Tracy felt a pang of sympathy for her teacher, quickly lost as Julian addressed her again, “I w-was hoping that you could do that solo piece you did, maybe this afternoon? I think it would really add another dimension to our music.”
“Oh Tracy, yes, I loved that so much, it was like watching someone fly.” Her mom was smiling.
“Well, I don’t have my leotard or gym shoes here, and it’s been a while since the performance, I’m not sure I remember the choreography so well.”
“In that case, could I prevail on you to practice a bit with me and perform next Sunday? I’d really appreciate it.”
Now it was unmistakable, Miss Jonker was not pleased with the suggestion. “I’m afraid the students still have a week of study and two more exams to prepare for. I’d be really irresponsible if I let Tracy practice when she should be studying. You know our schools sets as much store by academic performance as it does by the arts, and right now it’s academic time.”
Tracy’s mom now spoke up, “Oh, yes, I’d forgotten that you still have exams coming up. Yes, I’m sorry, Julian, Tracy, something like that will have to wait for the vacations.” Her mom and Miss Jonker nodded at each other.
Rebellion, a flame that burned feebly at best in Tracy, suddenly roared to life.
“I’ve only got one more exam to do, history of art, on Tuesday. After that I’ll be marking time until the closing ceremony on Friday. So I see no problem if we got together on Wednesday afternoon, say about three, after school lets out? Where would we practice?”
Julian’s eyes flashed in approval, and then he turned his full attention to the two older women. “That sounds very reasonable to me, doesn’t it to you?” His voice had deepened and there was almost an undertone to it, but Tracy wasn’t sure. What was sure were that both women were smiling at him, and as he continued to make the case – they’d practice in the gym at school, not more than a hour – they started nodding. Soon it was all settled.
“I’ll see you W-wednesday afternoon then, cary, sorry, Tracy.” He smiled and vanished into a crowd of admirers who had been hanging back, waiting for him to finish his conversation.