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The Magic in the Middle

By jamesy91 All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Humor

Chapter One

Dora sat motionless at the kitchen table, her face pale and her body rigid while her eyes bore into the silent telephone which she had positioned on the table in front of her. She willed it to ring with all of her heart and all of her soul, believing that if she only wished hard enough, her wish might come true. But of course this had long ago become more than simply a wish. Desperation radiated from her skin and every person in the room could feel it; the reason why the majority of her family members had been intentionally avoiding Dora’s company that morning.

“I have an idea,” Dora’s mother called over her shoulder from where she stood just a couple of yards away as she loaded the dishwasher. When Dora didn’t acknowledge that she was being spoken to, her mother showed no signs of surprise. Dora had been nothing short of a zombie all morning. Dora’s mother was a tall, slender woman who had been christened with the name Agapanthus thirty-nine years ago but only ever went by the name Aggie, for obvious reasons.

Aggie temporarily abandoned the kitchen chores and sat herself down on the wooden kitchen chair next to Dora, whose eyes still didn’t leave the telephone.

“You listen to me,” Aggie said to Dora, her voice hard and assertive. She stared at her daughter with aggression until Dora finally flicked her gaze sideways and rolled her head ever so slightly. She raised her dark eyebrows in her mother’s direction, daring her to bother her. The look was almost chilling, and Aggie hesitated for a moment. Dora was not quite yet 15 years of age and it was rare for her to act in an antagonising manner, but she was certainly capable of it when she was provoked intentionally, or in situations where immense pressure was placed upon her. In this case, it was the pressure.

“I just think you need to have a rest,” Aggie suggested, less sternly this time. It didn’t even cross her mind to point out that Dora’s task of the morning might not warrant her the right to take a break as it was not particularly demanding. That couldn’t be further from the truth and Aggie was well aware of this. To the unknowing eye, it might appear that Dora had done nothing all morning. The reality was that Dora had been concentrating for nearly five hours straight and the mental exertion was evident in her expression.

“I just need it to ring,” Dora finally spoke. “I just need it to ring. Ring, damn it. Why haven’t they called, Mum? Thursday. It’s Thursday. They promised Thursday.”

Aggie pouted sympathetically, and Dora ignored this. She knew that it was impossible for anyone else to understand her desperation. Her entire life was up in the air until she knew what fate had planned for her. The suspense was keeping her muscles tense and her eyes focused on the telephone in front of her and if she moved even slightly she felt close to throwing up. Until that phone rang, anything was possible. If a representative from the education board called with good news, the relief would be indescribable. If a representative called with bad news, Dora was certain that she would never be able to recover from the devastation.

Ring, damn it!” Dora slammed a fist down on the table and the telephone jolted. She calmed herself quickly, her outburst reminding her that rage and desperation were obstacles for magic. Only a clear, focused mind could make miracles occur.

In spite of Dora’s sudden and brief explosion of rage and desperation, the phone rang at last and Aggie squealed while Dora was only able to manage a quiet gasp. The shock spread across her face and her features froze that way, but her hand sensibly reached over and lifted the phone from its cradle and brought it up to her ear. Dora’s brain was too pre-occupied to say hello – she was wondering if perhaps all she had been required to do all along was to speak her wish out loud.

“Is that you, Dora?” A female voice shrilled down the phone.

“Yes,” Dora replied through gritted teeth, recognising the caller.

“Well, did you get the call? Are you in? I’m in!” Josie Mutley shrieked so loudly that Dora winced, and even Aggie recoiled slightly. Dora coolly hung up the phone but didn’t let her eyes stray from it.

“Was that Josie?” Aggie asked, although she already knew that it was. Dora nodded slowly, encouraging herself to breathe deeply. Josie Mutley was Dora’s best friend and worst enemy. At that particular moment, Dora didn’t value Josie’s friendship at all. Anybody who potentially tied up the phone line while she was waiting for the most important call of her life couldn’t possibly be a friend. Dora had made it appear that she had abruptly ended the call solely for this reason, but deep resentment was brewing in the darkest part of Dora’s conscience. Her reaction to hearing that Josie had been accepted into school was not a positive one. Envy had just carved Josie Mutley’s name into the thick skin of Dora’s soul with a razor-sharp blade and Dora could feel the sting intensifying. She wasn’t happy for Josie, not in the slightest.

Aggie had witnessed Dora’s response to Josie’s acceptance, having heard Josie’s obnoxious voice screeching down the phone. She chose to ignore the bitterness and got to her feet, patting Dora supportively on her shoulder.

“If Josie has had her phone call, yours is likely to come soon,” Aggie assured her. She returned to the task of loading the dishwasher, her face now twisted with the same concerned expression that Dora wore. Her anxieties ran parallel to Dora’s, but secretly they were destined to travel off in a different direction. Aggie felt plagued with guilt as she allowed herself to consider what might happen if Dora was rejected from a place in the schooling programme. Dora would be crushed, and the whole family would genuinely sympathise. But if Dora was free to work, then her income would benefit the household greatly and life would be more comfortable. Dora saw school as her ticket to freedom and an exciting life, but Aggie saw no guarantees.

Barely more than a year ago, around the same time that Six Mile Valley reached a dire state of financial depression, free secondary schooling was abolished for the entire country. The uproar from the public was horrendous, understandably, so the government introduced a ballot system that was said to be entirely random. However, the sons and daughters of high-society figures somehow miraculously ended up with a place. Just under half of the potential students in Six Mile Valley were granted the chance to attend secondary school, and there was only ever one chance to successfully gain entry into a four-year secondary education. Along with Dora’s father, Aggie failed to see any sense in the system but every parent in town had already exhausted themselves arguing against it, until it had become illegal to do so. Dora had put her named forward for the ballot the very same day that she had finished middle school, and last week it had been announced on the radio that both successful and unsuccessful applicants would be notified on Thursday January 9th. Dora hadn’t been her usual self all summer.

A knock on the door to the cottage was almost drowned out by the clattering of plates in the kitchen, but Josie Mutley let herself into the house anyway as she always did. Dora seethed, barely looking up at Josie for half of a second.

“Well?” Josie asked excitedly as she skipped across the dining room and slammed both of her hands down on the table in front of Dora. Josie eyed her friend with her breath bated, too dim-witted to take on board the glum atmosphere in the room. Even a stranger might be able to deduce that Dora had not received the news she was hoping for.

“What do you think, Josie?” Aggie jeered, somewhat sarcastically, and this made Dora look up again with her lips parting slightly as she marvelled at her mother’s rudeness. Aggie sometimes experienced the same frustration as Dora did in Josie’s company, but this was the first time that Dora had witness her mother being anything but perfectly polite to Josie’s face.

Still clueless, Josie crooked her neck to peer at Dora’s face, assuming that she didn’t have her attention.

“Well?” Josie asked again. “Did you get in?”

Dora dropped her hands from her chin and flicked her head toward Josie, her jaw clenched now as she desperately tried to swallow back the nasty words that threatened to crawl up out of her throat. She still intended to set Josie straight, to tell her that she was inconsiderate for barging into their family home just so she could brag about being offered a place in the schooling programme. Her brain was filtering out foul language from the sentence she was concocting, purely because she knew better. But Dora was abruptly distracted when there was a strong, sudden shift in her surroundings. Something wasn’t right. The phone on the table in front of her rattled, but before Dora was able to realise whether it was the phone or the table itself that was shuddering, she had been tipped sideways off her chair and the chair toppled over with her.

“Earthquake!” Aggie shrieked in alarm. Josie screamed, and it was excruciatingly loud and high-pitched. Dora hadn’t yet managed to register her mother’s announcement – despite the fact that the house was quavering all around her, Dora’s was still thinking of the silent phone. A hand grasped Dora’s wrist and she turned to see her mother desperately trying to pull her under the dining room table, to where she and Josie were cowering. Dora snapped to attention and speed-crawled over the floorboards to join them. Just moments later, something crashed onto the table above and Dora instinctively closed her eyes, clinging to the leg of the table anxiously. While unfamiliar and terrifying noises occupied the space all around her, Dora thought of nothing other than the rest of her family, who were somewhere in the bush picking blackberries. They could be near, or they could be far.

When the rattling finally seized, less than two minutes after it had started, all three of them remained frozen where they were crouched.

“Is it over?” Josie whispered, as if her regular voice might be enough to create an aftershock.

“I think so,” Aggie replied, her voice no louder than Josie’s. It bothered Dora to see her mother so terrified. It meant that something was very wrong.

Dora was the first to scoot out from underneath the table. She timidly straightened up, slowly getting to her feet and half expecting the ground to start moving wildly again at any moment. She turned a full circle and surveyed the damage. Initially Dora was too overwhelmed to speak or even utter a sound, as she came to the immediate conclusion from where she stood that the open-plan living room, dining room and kitchen had all been significantly damaged. The two tall oak bookcases in the living room both lay face-down on the floor, and every object that had once been on a surface now lay shattered somewhere on the ground. As Dora took more time to soak up her surroundings, a second thought occurred to her and she at last let out the breath she had been holding. There was destruction, sure, but it was hardly devastation. The house was still standing at least.

With great caution, Aggie and Josie crawled out from underneath the table, one at a time. They joined Dora and the three of them stood in silence for a moment, struggling to comprehend what exactly had just happened.

“Oh, oh my lord,” Aggie gasped, pressing her quivering hands to her cheeks. She looked at Dora, who stared back at her with the same flabbergasted expression. Without speaking, Aggie turned and sprinted toward the front door, almost swinging it from its hinges in her hurry as she flew through the doorway and bounded down the front steps. Dora had never seen her mother move with such agility. She fled after her, having guessed the exact thoughts her mother had failed to express. Dora’s father and the rest of her siblings were somewhere out in the bush; but somewhere could be anywhere. The bush that surrounded Six Mile Valley all around stretched out so far that not even Dora had travelled all of it. Her parents had always made it very clear to her that she wasn’t to explore any further than the creek, and even that rule still left miles and miles of adventure room.

“Oh, where could they be?” Aggie exclaimed when she reached the front gate that separated the Fellowgood family property from the road. “Where do we start?”

“Perhaps one of us should stay here, in case they come back,” Dora suggested, and when she said one of us, she meant for her mother to stay. She wasn’t fond of the thought of her mother wandering through the bush on her own.

“I’ve got to see if my parents are alright,” Josie spoke up. Dora glanced at her briefly, noting that Josie was as pale as a sheet. Other than making this observation, Dora paid no attention to Josie. Josie could do whatever she liked.

“Stay, Mum,” Dora urged. “I’ll be back soon. I know the places where Dad usually looks for berries. Wait. I won’t be long, I swear.”

Dora sounded more confident about this mission than she felt. Most of her thoughts were fuzzy, but her main objective was clear: she just wanted all of her family to be safe.

“Will you take me home?” Josie pleaded as she hung off Dora’s arm. Dora shook her away, pushing the gate open as her gaze remained locked on her mother’s face. She gave her mother a silent promise – to be careful – and then sped off down the road, still with her feet bare.

Josie trailed along behind. Keeping up with Dora’s pace took great effort. In any other situation, Dora would have pointed this out. Any defeat against Josie Mutley could never be a bad thing. But today Dora acted as though she was alone as she hurried down the road in the direction of the bridge where her father normally began the berry hunt. The most pressing issue was that her father and her siblings had set off on the hunt relatively early in the morning, and they could be anywhere in the bush by now – and in any direction. Dora knew all of the best berry spots, but each time that she had visited them recently, they had been cleared. Berry picking was more of a sport these days, the fruit was that scarce.

“Dora, please, I’m scared,” Josie panted beside Dora as the two of them approached the bridge.

“Run off home,” Dora advised her. It meant something to Dora if Josie and her family were safe, but naturally her own family was her priority for now.

“Can’t you come with me?” Josie pleaded. Dora frowned back at her, and she was about to head off across the bridge without verbally responding to Josie’s request at all until she saw a familiar form approaching. Evan Garfield’s lanky body bounded toward them, his awkward movements giving away his identity before Dora could even see his face.

“Dora!” Evan shrieked her name, and then added Josie’s as an afterthought. “Are you two alright?” Evan asked, pausing to catch his breath as he finally reached them.

“We’re fine,” Dora answered for the both of them, turning her body back toward the bridge. “Is your house in one piece?” Evan queried, his words short and sharp as his breathing struggled to return to normal. Dora nodded quickly. Evan used to be Dora’s neighbour, and he was close to her age. When his family shifted house, he made sure that Dora didn’t see him any less than when they lived right next door to each other. Dora did not return Evan’s affections.

“Where are you going?” Evan asked, reaching out to grab at Dora’s arm, although he missed it.

“I’m looking for my dad,” Dora replied, and this time she really was ready to take off but Evan’s next sentence made her swiftly whirl back around.

“I just saw your dad at the stalls,” Evan explained. “He is on his way to your house. Dahlia and Heath are with him; they’re all fine.”

Dora couldn’t have asked for sweeter words.

“What are you doing here, then?” Dora questioned. She had already changed her direction and was preparing to head back home in search of her father and siblings, predicting a precious reunion.

“I’m headed to the barn,” Evan explained. “Hopefully none of the rafters have collapsed. They weren’t in the best shape to begin with.”

Dora nodded, and her forehead drooped with concern. Evan’s family kept horses, which were primarily Evan’s responsibility. He leased a barn on the other side of the valley, where there weren’t many other farms.

“Wait,” Evan caught Dora’s sleeve as they passed each other. “So you haven’t been into town yet?”

Dora shook her head, uninterested in whatever it was Evan was going to say to her next. Her mind was already back at the house. But his next words recaptured her attention.

“You haven’t seen the...the crack?” He asked, but continued without waiting for an answer because it was evident that Dora hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. “Oh, you have to see it. The ground has opened up, Dora. It’s incredible...it’s...it’s just like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

Dora’s eyes expanded and she glanced from Evan to Josie, expecting Josie to argue with Evan. Surely this couldn’t be true. As expected, Josie questioned Evan’s claim.

“I don’t believe that,” said Josie, although she didn’t sound as sure of herself as she normally did. She looked at Dora as she spoke, gauging Dora’s reaction. “Could it be true, Dora?” She asked, suggesting what was already common knowledge – Dora was cleverer than Josie, in general, although Josie had trouble admitting it.

“I don’t believe it,” Dora replied. Out of instinct, she glanced in the direction of the town centre, longing to go and catch a glimpse of what Evan was talking about. But her heart beat so strong and so fierce that it brought her pain, and she knew that at this moment she needed to be at home. She continued on her way, back in the direction of the house.

“Take care of yourself,” she called out to Evan, who nodded briefly in response and then broke into a run as he hurried to check on his horses. Josie remained rooted to the spot at the edge of the bridge, pouting and feeling as though she had been neglected, although there was nobody there to appreciate this.

Dora sprinted back to her home, barefoot and fuelled by adrenaline. She was consumed with panic, and yet she was almost ready to be excited. An earthquake in Six Mile Valley – fancy that. She had lived here her entire life and barely seen so much as a storm.

A beautiful sight met Dora’s eyes as she approached home. Her parents and her siblings were gathered on the driveway, safe and sound. Her brother and sister were clearly terrified, while her parents were deep in conversation. Her father, Tim Fellowgood, looked up and saw Dora opening the front gate. He strode over to her with his arms outstretched. He gathered her up in a tight hug and heaved a long, slow sigh of relief.

“Did you see it?” He asked her.

“See what?” Dora responded, and then proceeded to guess in her mind what her father might be talking about. Could he be referring to the crack in the ground, as Evan had mentioned?

“The ground opened up in town,” Dora’s youngest sibling Heath answered her question. Dora’s inquisitive nature was getting the better of her.

“No, I didn’t see it. But I really want to,” she replied. She looked to her mother for permission, but Aggie appeared to ignore her request. She stretched her arms out around her youngest children and began ushering them into the house. Dora’s request had actually not gone unnoticed, however. Dora and Aggie knew each other’s body language well enough for Dora to realise that Aggie’s lack of response meant that she didn’t approve of Dora venturing back into town, but she wouldn’t physically try to stop her.

“I don’t want to go back in there,” said Dora, nodding toward the house. The cottage that their family lived in was old and Dora believed that if the earthquake had been any worse, it wouldn’t still be standing. “There might be an aftershock,” Dora reasoned. “The whole house could collapse.”

Dora’s father put his finger to his lips and frowned at Dora, indicating for her to be quiet as not to scare her brother and sister. Dora shrugged back at him, because she still stood by her point. She was left standing on the driveway alone, so she reluctantly sighed and followed her family into the house.

“Where is Josie?” Aggie queried, although she didn’t sound overly concerned. She started making tea while her husband went into the living room, silently assessing the damage to their belongings.

“She went home,” Dora replied, feeling only a small pang of guilt as she remembered that she had more or less abandoned her friend.

In the living room, Tim turned on the news and Dora went to join him. It was routine in their household for Dora and her father to watch the news together every evening but the daytime news was only ever turned on when a significant event was taking place somewhere in the world.

“Oh!” Aggie gasped and spilled a drop of hot tea on Dora’s lap as she handed her a mug. They had all just caught their first glimpse of what Six Mile Valley looked like from a bird’s eye view, less than half an hour after the earthquake had struck.

“It hit town worse,” Tim mused, clearly shaken. He turned to look at Dahlia and Heath, a six year-old and a ten year-old who were safely out of viewing range of the TV. They sat at the dining room table, evenly dividing the few blackberries they had found on their journey.

Dora swore when the footage of the crack in the ground came into view, and her parents were both too preoccupied to bother scolding her. The crack ran along the edge of the town, narrowly sparing the last row of town houses. The dark, rough jagged line ran through Lowell Park, separating the residential area from the surrounding bush. It was difficult to tell how wide or how deep it might be, but the news reporter claimed that the fissure was estimated to be around five metres across at its widest point.

“Thank goodness nobody was hurt,” Aggie continued to mutter over and over again. Dora leapt up from the sofa and dashed toward the front door. She floated in the doorway for two seconds, offering a silent invitation to the rest of her family.

“I’ll go with you,” Tim offered, rising unsteadily from the sofa. He spoke the words in a way that suggested he was accompanying Dora as a babysitter of sorts, but Dora knew that his curiousity had defeated him as well.

The two of them walked swiftly into town, neither of them bothering to suggest taking the family station wagon. The engine hadn’t started successfully in over a week and Tim had driven himself to the point of insanity in his bid to get it going again.

Fifteen minutes later, they were approaching the town centre and Dora’s heart thudded so heavily that she had to force herself to consciously take deep, steady breaths to calm herself down. They passed the market stalls, where people were packing up their wrecked tables and their bruised fruit. Dora hadn’t been to the Thursday markets in quite some time, but it appeared that they had gotten smaller. Most people with fruit trees were constantly being robbed in the night nowadays and hardly had any left to sell. Nearby, several houses had walls collapsed and more than a few lampposts were titled at odd angles. Dora bit down hard on her lower lip – Josie lived just three streets over from where she and her father were walking now. Her house was of the same type of design as the damaged houses on this street. Dora quickly prayed that the effects of the quake were less severe on Josie’s street.

They reached the edge of the crowd that had assembled in front of the edge of the break in the ground. Officials were trying to get everybody to stay back, but they were out-numbered and a properly-structured system hadn’t formed yet. There were parts of the fissure that weren’t monitored at all, and Dora was able to worm her way through the swarm of people and find a spot that offered a decent view. She gasped and turned to clutch on to her father, but he hadn’t caught up to her yet. The sight before her was even more alarming than it had been on TV. Pieces of earth were still crumbling into the hole, and Dora instinctively took a few steps backward, although she had already been standing at least five metres away from the crack’s edge.

“How far does it go?” Dora asked a person standing nearby. It was tall man who she recognised from around town, although she had never learned his name.

“It’s almost half a kilometre wide, I heard,” the man replied, still looking at the view in front of them rather than at Dora. “It peters out just before the tennis courts on this end, and then later on it rejoins in the forest on the other end.”

“How deep is it?” She asked, although she didn’t expect this man to have an answer this time. From where she stood, she saw nothing but endless black inside the opening. As predicted, the man shrugged his shoulders.

A policeman crossed in front of them, stretching out a roll of caution tape in a line and wrapping it around some temporary fencing posts.

“I can’t believe nobody got sucked down with it,” Dora mused, and the thought of that sent a chill down to the tips of her toes. Her father appeared at her side, his face considerably colourless for a person who had just power-walked all the way into town. His mouth opened and closed and he shook his head in disbelief.

“Nobody that they know of, yet,” the man next to Dora commented. “There must have been somebody in the park at the time. Somebody is bound to be missing. ”

Dora backed even further away from the crack. The news reporter had clearly stated that nobody had been reported dead. Perhaps that wasn’t all good news after all. If somebody had ended up in that crevice, they might never be found.

“I think I’ve seen enough,” Dora announced, her voice hoarse. Her father agreed instantly and they hurried home, reaching the front gate in even less time than it had taken them to get into town.

Aggie was on the phone when Dora and Tim let themselves in the front door, and she stayed on there all afternoon. Dora took a box of cat biscuits with her into the backyard and shook it, calling for her cat, Glee, over and over and until she gathered that he must be hiding somewhere, too afraid to come out. Or, perhaps he wasn’t aware of the earthquake at all. He liked to wander, and sometimes spent a night away from home during his adventures. Dora’s father had mentioned that from where they were in the bush, they had hardly noticed the quake at all. There was a lot of commotion form the birds, and then the landscape seemed to shift but not enough for any of them to lose their footing. The movement was so slight that Tim wasn’t actually sure if there had been a quake at all, so they had abandoned their hunt and come back into town to see what was happening. Dora guessed that Glee might be off exploring, blissfully unaware that the earth had moved at all. She hadn’t seen him all morning, anyway; in fact he hadn’t been around since she had fed him before she went to bed the night before.

Dora returned the cat food to the pantry and began to clean up the mess that was strewn around the house. After inspecting her bedroom, Dora discovered that the shelving unit with her knick-knacks upon it had fallen flat on its face, and her magic eight ball had smashed, leaking blue fluid onto the floorboards. Dora dropped to her knees to clean up the mess, disgruntled. The ball was one of her favourite possessions and she referred to it every time she had a pressing decision to make.

Aggie tidied between phone calls, but the phone never stayed on its cradle for more than five minutes at a time. Various family members were concerned, but Aggie repeatedly assured them that the whole family was fine. Both Timothy and Aggie had grown up in other, bigger cities, and their families were positioned all over the globe. The couple had only ended up in Six Mile Valley as it had been the cheapest place to purchase land when they got married.

Dora stared at the phone whenever it was silent, wondering if an earthquake might be enough to prevent the education ministers from calling her.

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