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A Gift of Magic
By Duncan, Lois
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2012 Duncan, Lois
All right reserved.
Once upon a time, in a house by the sea, there lay an old woman—a special old woman, who had the gift of magic.
She said to her daughter, who sat near her bed, “I leave you this house, my dear. You do not need it now, but there will come a time when you will. And I want to leave something to each of my grandchildren. To the boy, I leave the gift of music—”
“But, Mother,” her daughter said gently, “there is no boy. There are just the two little girls.” She thought her mother’s illness had made her forget.
“There is no boy now,” the old woman agreed. “Soon, though, there will be. To him, the gift of music, although it may not do him much good, being as how he resembles his father. To one of my granddaughters I leave the gift of dance, and to the other—the one who looks like me—”
Her voice was fading, so she named the gift very softly, and her daughter, who loved her greatly, was weeping and did not hear.
Nancy had been dreaming all night, and when she woke in the morning it was with the strange sensation that she had come back from a long journey, leaving part of herself behind. She lay very still with her eyes closed, letting herself wake up slowly.
On the back of her eyelids she could see her twin sister, Kirby, in pink striped pajama shorts, doing knee bends at the foot of her bed. Next, she saw into the room at the end of the hall, where Brendon still slept, breathing through his mouth with a little snorting sound that meant that he would soon get up. Downstairs, their mother sat on the screened porch and stared at the sea.
Nancy sat up in bed.
“Mom’s crying,” she said.
“She is?” Startled, Kirby stopped in the middle of a plié, her knees turned out to both sides. “Are you sure?” She continued on, not awaiting an answer. “Should we go down, do you think?”
“I don’t know,” Nancy said. “Maybe she wants to be by herself. It’s so awful to have people walk in on you when you’re crying. They always want to know why you’re so upset, and then they want to tell you that it’s not important enough to be so upset about.”
To Nancy, everything was important. She was the one their mother called “our straight and serious child.” She was all planes and angles. Her wheat-colored hair hung straight down her back, and her brows and mouth were straight lines across her face, with her nose a straight line down its center. Like her sister, she was fourteen, but unlike the more curvy Kirby, her body was still as thin as an arrow. They were fraternal twins, not identical. Kirby had already grown taller than Nancy, and it was as if being ten minutes older gave her bragging rights to both height and physical maturity.
“I don’t want to see Mom cry,” Nancy said.
“We won’t,” Kirby said. “We’ll stomp down the stairs so she knows we’re coming and has time to clean herself up. Come on.”
She came back up to a normal standing position and straightened her shorts before bouncing out into the hall. Nancy got out of bed and followed her. The thought of Kirby stomping any place was incredible, and it was something she needed to see. Kirby’s feet were as cushioned as a cat’s. So she followed, even though she didn’t want to burst in on their mother in a private moment.
She ended up being worried for nothing. Their mother turned to greet them as they came onto the porch. Her eyes were very bright, but otherwise, there was no sign of tears.
“You sounded like a herd of elephants,” she said. “I was sure it was Brendon.”
“I don’t think he’s awake yet.” Kirby dropped into a canvas chair opposite their mother and stretched her long legs out in front of her. “Why are you up so early? You’re dressed and everything. I thought you’d want to sleep in this morning after that long plane ride.”
“I guess I was too excited to sleep.” Elizabeth Garrett was a soft, pretty woman with a quiet kind of gentleness about her. “I wanted to see if it still looked the same in the morning light. It seems so strange to be back again in the same house I lived in as a little girl—to be sitting here on the same porch, looking out at the same sea.”
“It’s a bit like the Riviera,” Nancy said, drawing in a deep breath of the salt air. “Not as crowded, of course—and the sand looks whiter.”
She seated herself on the end of the chaise at her mother’s feet. “Is it still the way you remembered it?”
“It’s grown up a lot,” Elizabeth said. “Those pines along the driveway were only about ten feet tall when I moved away. The flame vine by the door—I remember it as a scrubby little thing when my father planted it. Now it covers the whole wall! Other than minor things like that, though, it’s the same wonderful place. The tenants took good care of it. I hardly hoped to find everything in such excellent condition after so many years.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t sell the house after Grandma died,” Kirby said. “It must have been hard trying to keep it rented all the time.”
“Your grandmother didn’t want me to sell it,” their mother said. “She told me there would come a day when I would be glad to have a place to come to.” There was a tenderness in her voice, a remembering. “Strange how she could have known that. She was a very special woman, my mother. There should be some pictures and scrapbooks and other things of hers stored in the attic. We’ll have to look through them someday.”
“That would be fun,” Kirby said. She liked to claim that she could remember their grandmother, though Nancy was sure that she did so just for the attention. Nobody could remember someone she had seen last when she was two years old. Nancy certainly didn’t.
“I’m glad that we did come here,” Kirby continued. “It’ll be fun to stay in a private house for a change, instead of a hotel.”
“You won’t think so when you have to clean it,” Nancy said. “We’ll have to change our own sheets and dust and scrub the toilets.” She wrinkled her nose. “Just like people you read about in books. Still, it’ll be a good experience, I guess, for a while.”
“Girls—” Elizabeth drew a long breath. “I’m afraid I have to tell you something. This isn’t going to be—” The stairs thumped again, drowning out her voice. It wasn’t fake thumping this time, but the sound Brendon always made on stairs, even when he was barefoot.
He clumped through the living room and came out onto the porch, walking on his heels. His knees were bare and knobby under the edges of his swim trunks.
“What’s for breakfast?” he asked.
Elizabeth’s face brightened, as it always did when she looked at her son. Brendon was a handsome little boy with his father’s tilted green eyes, as clear and as deep as the sea. He had soft, light hair and a dimple in one cheek like an angel. It was ironic, Nancy often thought, that he looked like an innocent little darling but, in reality, was so perfectly horrible.
“My hotel-raised child,” Elizabeth said fondly. “There’s no restaurant service here. We’ll have to take the bus into town and get some breakfast there.”
“Let’s swim first.” Brendon rocked back and forth from his heels to his toes. “What are you guys sitting around for? Don’t you want to go down to the beach?”
“We haven’t even unpacked yet,” Kirby said. “I don’t understand how you found your shorts so fast. I know they were packed at the bottom of the suitcase. I bet your stuff is all over your room.”
“I’m going now,” Brendon announced calmly, ignoring the accusation. “Okay, Mom?”
“Not okay,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t want any of you swimming alone. I don’t know what the tides are like yet. It looks like we’ve lost some beach to storms, and that can mean strong currents.”
“Oh, Mom, lighten up!” Brendon said. “I’ve been swimming my whole life.”
“Yes, in hotel pools. An open beach without a lifeguard is something else entirely. Besides, we have things to do this morning. We need to stock up on groceries, and I want to look into buying a car.”
“A car!” All three children turned to stare at her in astonishment. Even Brendon, whose mouth had been open for a roar of protest, let it close again without a sound.
Nancy found her voice first.
“Why?” she asked for all of them. “Why a car? You can’t even drive.”
“I certainly can,” her mother said defensively. “I learned to drive when I was your age. My father taught me how. I haven’t had a chance to do it for years because we’ve flown everywhere and taken taxis, but believe it or not, I drive very well, thank you.”
“But to buy a car!” Nancy kept repeating the words. “We’re not going to be here more than a few weeks, right? If we buy a car we’ll just have to sell it again when we leave. Wouldn’t it be easier to rent one?”
“Nancy, dear—” Their mother regarded them with troubled eyes. She turned to her other daughter. “Kirby—”
“What is it?” Kirby asked, her face going suddenly pale. “Is something wrong?”
It was a stupid question. Of course there was something wrong. There had been something wrong for days, for weeks—for months, even. Now that the words had actually been spoken, Nancy could feel, with a sick kind of acceptance, the great wave of wrongness rising higher and higher above them, ready to come toppling over to swamp them all. With a violent effort she braced herself against it and made her mind go closed.
“We were talking about the car,” she said.
“And why we’ll be buying it.” Now that she had decided to tell them, Elizabeth was not to be turned from the subject. “Our stay here—well, it’s not going to be for a couple of weeks, or even months, the way it usually is when we settle places. We’re going to be here in Florida for a long, long time.”
“We are?” Kirby said incredulously. Her face was blank.
“I didn’t tell you sooner,” their mother continued, “because I wasn’t sure myself how things would work out. I wanted to see the place again first. It had been so many years, and with renters in and out, it could have been in terrible shape. And I didn’t know how I would feel here. There are so many memories.”
“You mean, about Grandma?” Kirby asked.
“Yes, and your grandfather, too, although he died a very long time ago. I didn’t know if the sadness would come rushing out to meet me as I came up the driveway.” She smiled a funny little smile. “Well, it didn’t happen that way. It’s the happiness that’s stayed—all the good years and the love and the peace. I can live here and be… happy. I think.”
“But Dad?” Brendon said. “What about him? How can he work here? His job is to travel all over the place writing articles and taking pictures.”
“That’s right,” their mother said. “It is.”
“He couldn’t live here with us, could he?”
There was a moment’s silence.
Stop, Nancy wanted to scream. Please, don’t say anything else! But the words stayed knotted up inside her. She sat frozen, her hands clasped tightly together in her lap, while her mother continued.
“Your father is an unusual sort of man,” Elizabeth said slowly. “He’s made for travel and adventure. That’s why he’s such a good foreign correspondent. It isn’t easy for a man like that to drag a family around with him everywhere he goes. He’s tried—and I have tried—we really have—”
“You mean—” Kirby’s eyes were wide with astonishment. “You don’t mean you’re getting a divorce?”
“Yes,” their mother said. “Your father has reached a point in his career where he needs his freedom. He’s being offered chances to go places, to cover events, that are too dangerous for a wife and children.”
“Like in war zones,” Brendon said. He could understand that. He was counting the years until he would be old enough to work in a war zone. “Will he ever come back and see us?”
“Of course,” Elizabeth said. “Whenever he’s in the States, he’ll come. He’ll have so many adventures to tell you about, and he’ll call and send e-mails and pictures. There will be times when you can visit him at lovely places—Zermatt, perhaps, for skiing on winter holidays, or Capri in the springtime. Meanwhile, we’ll live here, and you can go to school and—”
“School!” Brendon exclaimed in horror. “You mean you won’t teach us yourself like you always have?”
“Oh, Brendon, you’re going to love going to school!” his mother said. “And you girls will, too. There’ll be clubs and parties and sports events and dances—” She turned to Kirby. “Did I tell you there’s a dance studio here in Palmelo? It’s new since I lived here, and it has a fantastic reputation. It’s run by a Madame Vilar, who used to dance with the Bolshoi Ballet.”
“It is?” A little color was beginning to come back into Kirby’s face. The clouds moved from her eyes and light flickered across them; not surface light, but a brightness coming up from the depths. “Does she teach the Cecchetti method?”
“We can certainly find out.” Elizabeth turned to Nancy and reached over to cover the clenched hands with her own. “I know this will take some getting used to. It must be a shock. But your dad and I—we’ve been talking it over for a long time now. We do feel it’s the best thing…” She let the sentence fall off and plucked it up again very brightly, too brightly. “There are so many things here to make us happy. Old friends live here, people I grew up with. We’ll have a chance to put down roots. You’ll get to know other kids your own age. We’ll live in a real house. There’s the beach—our own beach, not a resort area. There’s even supposed to be buried treasure out on one of the sandbars. And we’ll get a piano!” Her hand tightened pleadingly on Nancy’s. “I used to take piano when I was younger. Wouldn’t you like piano lessons, Nancy?”
“No,” Nancy said, “I wouldn’t.”
Slowly she drew her hands out from under her mother’s. Across from her, Kirby’s eyes still glowed at the thought of dance lessons. Brendon stood, smiling slightly, the dimple showing in his left cheek, his gaze already focused beyond the dunes to the green water dancing in the morning sunlight.
“Is that strip out there the bar where the treasure is?” he asked.
What is wrong with them? Nancy asked herself in amazement. Didn’t they realize that their whole world was crumbling apart at the foundations? Didn’t it matter to them that their father, Richard Brendon Garrett, was no longer going to be a regular part of their lives?
“I don’t want music lessons,” she cried bitterly. “I want to live the way we’ve always lived! I don’t care if we never have a real home! I want to be with Dad!”
She closed her eyes tightly and reached out—out—across the miles, the hundreds and thousands of miles—to the place where their father was. She found him in Paris. He was seated in one of the sidewalk cafés, under a blue-and-red awning, with a plate of bread and cheese in front of him, and in his hand was a glass of wine. His eyes were clear and green like Brendon’s, and his brows were like Nancy’s, straight and blond, and his great handsome head was tilted sideways as if listening intently to what the man across the table from him was saying. It was a business lunch and he was getting briefed on his next assignment.
There was a notebook by his plate, and a pencil, but the page of the book was empty, for he hadn’t been taking notes. His mind was away from the conversation; it was stretching out toward Nancy, toward all of them. She felt it touch her and sweep over her, painful and unsettled.
“He isn’t happy,” Nancy cried. “I know he’s not! I bet if you called him right now he’d say he wants us to come back!”
“But he would never give up his work,” Elizabeth said. “It’s too much a part of him. And I can’t follow along behind him any longer. I’m tired, dear. I have to settle down. I need a home. You kids need a home.” The tears she had not shown them on her cheeks were in her voice. “It would take a very strong woman to stay married to your father. In our case, it’s like a lamb being married to a lion or a nesting dove to a—a—well, an eagle! We both of us wish things were different—that we were different—and we both love you. All of you. Can’t you understand that, dear, and accept it?”
“No,” Nancy said, “I’ll never accept it.”
She got to her feet and left the porch. She could feel her mother’s unhappiness tumbling after her, but she closed her mind against it. At the moment she had room only for her own pain.
Kirby had always danced. She could not remember when she had started, although her parents had told her that it was when she was three years old. She had gotten up from her nap one day and come whirling out of her room like a ballerina going onstage. During the years that followed, it had become a part of her, like eating and sleeping and breathing. There had never been a doubt in her mind that someday she would be a professional dancer.
It came as a huge shock to learn that Madame Vilar did not want to take her for a pupil.
“She is far too old to begin training at Vilar Dance Studio,” the woman said decidedly. “I never accept new pupils over the age of nine.”
She spoke past Kirby as though she did not exist, directing all statements to her mother.
“But Kirby has had instruction,” Elizabeth said. “She has attended dance seminars all over Europe.”
“Seminars!” Madame Vilar made a snorting sound. “Seminars cannot take the place of regular classes. Short periods of study do not make a child into a dancer, Mrs. Garrett. The body must be trained for years.”
“I have been training for years,” Kirby said. Her light, soft voice broke into the conversation with a note of certainty. “I’ve done my barre work every day, no matter where we were. I’ve studied from books. I’ve watched ballet everywhere there was a performance—the Bolshoi Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, the Russian State Ballet in Frankfurt, the Royal Ballet, Les Ballets des Champs-Elysées—”
“Which is worse,” Madame broke in, “than if you had never tried to dance at all. You have undoubtedly taught yourself all kinds of wrong habits.”
“If I have,” Kirby said, “I will unlearn them.”
Madame Vilar turned her gaze full upon Kirby for the first time. To the girl she seemed to resemble nothing so much as a black swan. Her neck stretched, long and supple, from between narrow shoulders with a fierce, dark head poised proudly at its top. Her eyes glared, sharp and bright, from beneath arched black wings of brows. She was thin everywhere except for her long, muscular dancer’s legs, and although the lines in her face proclaimed her age, her body was as firm and strong as steel wire.
“Very well,” she said. “Let us see what you have succeeded in doing to yourself. Pas de bourrée, please. Grand jeté en tournant.”
Kirby lifted her arms and moved forward. She went through the steps slowly and carefully and did them again and then again.
“Let’s see you do some pirouettes,” Madame Vilar commanded.
She stood, watching the girl in silence as she twirled across the room.
“Don’t you want to see her dance?” Elizabeth asked. “I mean, really dance? She can improvise so beautifully. If we could just put on some music—”
“That will not be necessary,” the woman said. She turned her attention from Kirby back to Elizabeth. “You are aware, of course, that she does not have a dancer’s build? I should consider it very doubtful that she will ever make a place for herself as a professional dancer.”
“I see nothing in the world wrong with her build!” exclaimed Elizabeth. Her normally tranquil face was flushed with sudden anger. “If you don’t want Kirby for a pupil, I will take her somewhere else. I hear there’s a studio in Sarasota. That isn’t so far that—”
“I did not say that I would not accept her,” Madame Vilar said sharply. “Which days can she come?”
“I can come every day,” Kirby told her.
On the way home, her mother’s hands were clenched so tightly on the steering wheel that her knuckles showed white.
“What a horrible woman!” she said in a furious voice. “Imagine, not even letting you dance for her! And criticizing your figure! You don’t have to go there, Kirby. There is another studio in Sarasota. and that’s only a forty-five-minute drive away, and—”
“I want to go to this studio,” Kirby said firmly. “I want to study under Madame Vilar.”
That night, she stood for a long time in front of the bathroom mirror. The girl who looked back at her was pretty in the same soft way as her mother, although already she was taller. She had nondescript, brownish hair with a slight curl, light eyes and brows, round cheeks, and a gentle, good-humored mouth.
Kirby stretched herself tall, picturing Madame Vilar’s tiny swan’s head, proud and fierce on the thin neck.
“She’s right,” she said as she went back into the bedroom. “Madame says I’m built all wrong for ballet, and I am.”
“How come?” Brendon asked. He had come from his room to play with his Nintendo DS on the floor in the hallway just outside his sisters’ door. His whole object, both girls knew, was to force them to step over him every time they went in or out. Now he glanced up with interest. “Is it because you have too big a butt?”
“Yes,” Kirby said seriously. “And my shoulders are too broad. My boobs are going to be too big.” She pulled her shirt in close against her body and stared down worriedly at the womanly curves. “I wish I was built like you, Nance.”
Nancy was sprawled on her bed reading. She did not lift her gaze.
“I guess you have to be a pretty self-centered person to be a dancer,” she said. “A person who’s always worrying about her appearance.”
“That’s not true,” Kirby objected. “I’m not always worrying. What’s the matter with you, anyway? You’ve gotten so bitchy lately I’m about ready to move in with Bren.”
“No way!” Brendon said, forgetting his game in joyful anticipation of an argument. “Do you think I want you leaping all over my room, knocking over my stuff? Nancy’s mad because Mom’s going to make her take piano lessons, that’s all.”
“You’re both just unbelievable!” Nancy slammed her book closed and sat erect, wrapping her arms around her knees. “You’re selfish and unfeeling and—and—oblivious! All you can think about are your games and dancing when the most terrible thing in the world has happened right here in our family!”
“You mean Mom and Dad?” Kirby regarded her sister with sympathy. “I mean, it’s sad and everything, Nance, but when you really think about it, things won’t be too different. We’ll still see Dad when he’s between assignments, and that’s about all we ever saw of him, anyway. During the last few years he’s been racing around from one dangerous place to another, and we’ve been stuck on the Riviera or some other tourist place with Mom. We haven’t been a family together for ages.”
“But they love each other!” Nancy cried. “You know they do! Mom’s going to be miserable living here!”
“Do you think so?”
Kirby let her mind go back to that first morning they had gone into town together. They had stepped off the bus in front of the used-car lot, and immediately a little fat man with a gray mustache had come rushing up to meet them.
“Liz Burke!” he had cried. “Little Liz Burke! I can’t believe it! Are you back for a visit? These can’t be your children!”
“Back to stay, Mr. Crandel.” Elizabeth’s face had brightened with pleasure at being recognized. “I’m Liz Garrett now, and these are my daughters. And that whirlwind that just blew past you was my son.”
Brendon had already rushed ahead to inspect the cars, which were parked in long rows with their prices marked on their windshields. The man’s glad white smile had covered his entire face.
“Back to live here? How wonderful! And these beautiful girls are yours?” He shook his head in astonishment. “It seems like only yesterday when you were their age. You came in here with young Tom Duncan when he was buying his first car.”
“Tommy Duncan!” Elizabeth’s voice was warm with remembering. “I hadn’t thought of him in years! I wonder where he is now and what he’s doing? I guess no girl ever forgets her first boyfriend.”
“He’s right here in Palmelo,” Mr. Crandel said. “Living right down the beach from your mother’s house, in fact. He’s the guidance counselor at the new high school. I guess there’s something about this old hometown that draws people back to it.”
“Well, it’s home,” Elizabeth said. “And now I’m the one who needs a car. Do you think you can help me find a good one? I don’t exactly know much about engines and things like that.”
“Certainly, certainly, we’ll find you the perfect car!”
Mr. Crandel walked with them between the rows of automobiles, and all the while, between comments on gearshifts and tires and power steering, the two of them kept talking about people and events about which Kirby had never heard before. For as long as she could remember in her parents’ life together, it had been her father who had dominated every conversation; wherever they had gone it had been his dynamic personality and great booming laugh that had filled the world, with her mother soft and smiling in the background. Now here was this little man with the gray hair who did not even mention Richard Garrett. He made it seem as if Elizabeth were a kind of princess come back to visit a kingdom that she had left too quickly.
They completed the morning by buying a seven-year-old Chevy Impala.
“Our first car,” Brendon grumbled disgustedly, “and it’s just ugly. You could have at least gotten us that Ford Mustang. And I still don’t get why you wouldn’t even look at the Lexus SUV with the GPS.”
But Kirby, glancing across at her mother in the driver’s seat, had felt nothing but pleasure in the car and in its driver. Elizabeth might not have driven for a long time, but there was no uncertainty about her as she shifted gears and pressed the accelerator to bring the engine to life. There was a proud little smile on her face as she turned off the main street of town onto the shore road that led to their house on the beach.
“I knew I could still do it,” she said softly. Now, in the face of Nancy’s misery, Kirby tried to think of some way she could bring back her feelings of that moment and make her sister understand them. It was as though a special part of her mother had lain sleeping for years in the shadow of someone else and was now slowly coming awake.
“Maybe Mom needs to be herself,” Kirby said slowly, “more than she needs to be Mrs. Richard Garrett. Being in love isn’t everything, Nance. I couldn’t give up my dancing, for instance, ever, for anybody. It would be like giving up the part of myself that makes me me.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Nancy said flatly. “Mom isn’t a dancer. Without Dad, she won’t have anything, and I’m glad she won’t. Maybe she’ll miss him so much that she’ll put us all on a plane and take us back to him again.”
“I hope we stay here until I can find the treasure,” Brendon said. “I wonder if I can talk Mom into getting me scuba gear. Then I could—” He paused as he caught sight of Nancy’s expression. “What is it, Nance? You seeing something?”
“There’s somebody at the front door,” Nancy said. “A man. He’s starting to—”
The doorbell rang. Their mother’s footsteps tapped lightly across the hardwood floor of the living room as she went to answer it. They heard the door being opened.
“Tom! Tommy Duncan!” Elizabeth’s voice rang out in a little cry of welcome. “It’s great to see you! I didn’t hear your car!”
“I didn’t bring it,” a man’s voice answered. “I walked over on the beach. I ran into old man Crandel in town the other day, and he told me you were back home again. I couldn’t believe it!”
“It’s true,” Elizabeth said. “Come on in, Tom! Don’t just stand there.” There was a sound of the front door closing as their mother drew her guest into the living room. “Kids! Come down here! I want you to meet an old friend of mine!”
By the time Kirby reached the top of the stairs, her mother was standing at the foot of them, looking up expectantly. Beside her stood a thin, sandy-haired man with glasses.
“Good lord, Liz,” he exclaimed in a stunned voice as he caught his first glimpse of Kirby. “She looks like you twenty years ago! Taller, maybe, but the same face—the same smile—”
“And this is Brendon!” Elizabeth smiled as her son shoved his way past Kirby and started thudding down the stairs to what he evidently assumed would be the serving of refreshments. For a moment longer Elizabeth stood, still gazing upward, waiting for the third figure to appear.
Excerpted from A Gift of Magic by Duncan, Lois Copyright © 2012 by Duncan, Lois. Excerpted by permission.
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