The house on 207 Sweetmaple Avenue was shuttered against the summer sky outside. With shades pulled and curtains drawn, only a few bright beams of sunlight penetrated around the edges and through the small glass panes above the front door.
The dim light didn’t bother the two teenagers in the living room; they were close enough to need no illumination. The girl’s eyes were hot and bright, flashing green in the darkness. It wasn’t quite natural, but the boy with her didn’t notice. His eyes were closed as he pressed his mouth over hers. They lay on the sofa in a tangle of arms and legs and dislodged cushions. They pawed at each other breathlessly with their mouths locked together, until the girl rolled on top of him. She leaned forward to continue kissing him. He didn’t resist, and he raised his arms when she slid her hands under his shirt and peeled it up and over his head.
Alexandra sat up, straddling him, and let out a long breath. Brian opened his eyes, but the little sparks dancing in her eyes did not distract him from the work of unbuttoning her shirt.
His fingers drew away, though, when she reached for the button of his jeans.
She paused. Her fingers rested on his stomach, just above his waist, and with her other hand she brushed hair away from her forehead.
“Don’t you want to?” she asked in a low voice.
Brian lay still for a long moment. His panting and her heavy breathing were the only sounds in the room.
“We really shouldn’t,” he said, as if his words would summon the necessary conviction.
“Why?” She laughed. “Are you afraid I’ll get pregnant? I told you —”
“I know,” he said. “I believe you. But shouldn’t we talk about this?”
“Talk?” Alexandra laid a hand on his burning cheek. “What more is there to talk about?”
He took her hand in his and pulled it away. She looked down at him in surprise.
“Don’t you think this is a big deal?” he asked. “I mean, we’ve been friends forever, but this is different.”
“Yeah,” Alexandra said. “It’s different from those three years when you wouldn’t even speak to me. You kissed me first, remember?”
“Okay,” Brian said. “Let’s talk about how I was a big fat jerk for three years. Again.” He still held her hand in his. “Alex, I don’t want to just do it on your parents’ sofa.”
“If you want to do it in my bed, I’ll have to kick Charlie out of my room, and believe me, I’ll hear about it later.”
“It’s kind of weird how you talk about that bird like it’s a person.”
Alexandra pulled her hand away and frowned at him. Then she shifted her weight and leaned forward, provoking a sound from Brian. Her lips hovered over his, and her straight black hair fell around both their faces. Her palms slid across his bare skin until her forearms rested on his shirtless chest while her hands grasped his shoulders.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” she whispered. She kissed him. Brian’s hands went to her waist, and he kissed her back. A groan tried to escape his throat, and was swallowed.
Their lips and bodies were pressed together so tightly that it took them several seconds to react when a car door slammed shut outside.
Brian’s eyes were wild. “What was that?”
“No way.” Alexandra’s eyes were wild too, but flaring with annoyance. “Must be the neighbors. Archie’s at the county sheriff’s office and Claudia is —”
A key rasped and clicked in the lock on the front door.
“Oh, no,” Brian moaned.
Alexandra said something more colorful. The two of them rolled apart. Alexandra grabbed sofa cushions and jammed them into approximately their original arrangement. Brian grabbed his shirt and yanked it on so quickly he almost put his head through an armhole. He managed to pull it down over his body just as Claudia Green entered the front hallway, paused, and flipped on a light.
Brian and Alexandra managed to position themselves at opposite ends of the sofa in the time it took Claudia to step into the living room. She regarded the two teenagers wordlessly. Brian sat there, paralyzed, while Alexandra’s lips parted as she searched for a way to explain away the scene.
The couple’s faces were flushed and sweaty, their breathing heavy, their hair and clothes in disarray. They could hardly have been more in flagrante delicto if they’d been caught naked. So all Alexandra said was: “You’re supposed to be at work.”
Claudia’s expression didn’t change. She slid her purse off her shoulder, radiating weariness. She was still wearing her nurse’s scrubs; evidently she had come directly from the hospital. She set her purse on the end table next to the sofa and said, “Brian, go home.”
Brian cleared his throat. “Um…”
“It’s all right, Brian,” Alexandra said. “You don’t have to say anything. I’ll see you later.” She and Claudia kept their eyes fixed on one another.
Brian stood up. He looked back and forth between Alexandra and Claudia, obviously searching for some nonchalant and disarming explanation. Finding nothing, he said, “Okay. See you later. Um, bye, Mrs. Green. Are you going to tell my mother?” The last question blurted out like some horrible imp rushing to escape his mouth. He grimaced.
“There’s nothing to tell,” Alexandra said.
“Good-bye, Brian,” Claudia said. If a voice could physically push someone, Claudia’s would have shoved Brian right out the door. He left without another word.
Claudia sat down in the chair next to the sofa and ran a hand through her mousy blonde hair, which was not much less disheveled than Alexandra’s.
“You know,” Claudia said, “I don’t think I’m ready to become a grandmother.”
“What?” Alexandra flushed more deeply. “That’s not — first of all, you’d be an aunt, and anyway, I’m not going to — we didn’t even have sex!”
“Not yet.” Claudia gestured at Alexandra with one finger. “You missed a button.”
Sullenly, Alexandra rebuttoned the front of her shirt.
Claudia said, “You’re right. Aunt, of course. Because I’m not your mother, as you keep reminding me. But I’m already going to be an aunt, so one niece or nephew at a time, please?”
The formidable presence Claudia had brought into the room dwindled with each word she spoke, until all that was left sitting in the chair was a tired, haggard woman regarding her erstwhile daughter with a sort of tense expectation. Alexandra unwound slightly. Some of her defensiveness seeped away.
“I know I can’t stop you from doing whatever you want to do, Alex,” Claudia said. “But I’m serious about not making me a grandmother. Which is what I’d be, legally. That’s the last thing we need, don’t you think?”
“Claudia, I’m not going to get pregnant,” Alexandra said through clenched teeth. “I’m a witch.”
Claudia’s expression flattened.
Alexandra dropped her hands. “Why are you home early, anyway?”
Claudia’s expression turned to a silent reprimand at the attempt to change the subject, but she seemed abruptly spent. “Because I got an owl.”
Alexandra blinked and sat up straighter. “An owl?”
“Yes, an owl.”
“At the hospital. It actually flew through the doors. Fortunately it found me on break.” Claudia reached into her purse, and only then did her hands shake a little. She withdrew a rolled piece of paper, which she handed to Alexandra.
Alexandra opened it and read:
“Dear Mrs. Green,
The Central Territory Department of Magical Education has granted your request to hear an appeal on behalf of Alexandra Octavia Quick regarding her expulsion from Charmbridge Academy.
The hearing will take place on Wednesday, July 4 at 1 p.m., in the Territorial Headquarters Building in Chicago, Room 112, 9 th floor. Please do not be late; the hearing will not be rescheduled.
Miss Quick is advised to bring any character witnesses and exculpating evidence she feels may help her case.
A parent or guardian must be present.
Chief of Discipline
Department of Magical Education
Central Territory ”
“July fourth?” Alexandra said. “That’s tomorrow!”
“Yes,” Claudia said.
“We’ll have to leave early to get to Chicago, and it’s the Fourth of July, and…” Alexandra’s eyes fell on the final line. “They can’t think my father is going to show up.”
“I doubt it,” Claudia said.
“And my mother…” Alexandra’s voice trailed off. “They’re saying you have to come.”
“It looks that way.”
“But…” Alexandra looked down at the letter again, to avoid looking at Claudia. “Maybe Livia could come. She’s the one who suggested I appeal my expulsion. And she —”
“She’s a witch, unlike me. But she’s not your guardian. This isn’t an oversight, Alexandra, and the inconvenience isn’t accidental. They’re not going to make this easy on you.”
Alexandra finally looked up to meet her sister’s eyes. “You seem to know a lot about how they operate.”
Claudia shrugged. “I remember a few things.”
Alexandra bit her lip. “They’re not going to make it easy on you, either.”
Claudia looked away. She had been quiet, almost impassive, since returning home, but Alexandra realized from Claudia’s clenched jaw that being summoned back to the wizarding world probably terrified her.
“We don’t have to do this,” Alexandra said quietly.
“Don’t we?” Claudia asked. “Do you want to go to regular high school? Forget about being a witch?”
“I can keep learning magic without going to Charmbridge Academy.” Alexandra wasn’t sure how, but she’d find a way. She didn’t want to go to regular high school, but she couldn’t force Claudia to face the world that had treated her so cruelly.
Claudia didn’t answer at first, lost in silent contemplation. When she spoke at last, she said, “It might be easier if Livia can make it. It won’t be convenient for her, either, but — well, I don’t think these shenanigans will surprise her.”
Alexandra hesitated. Claudia still didn’t look at her. Finally, she said, “I’d like that, if both of you could come. I wish Julia could come, too, and my friends —” She sucked in a breath. “How can they expect me to gather ‘character witnesses’ overnight?”
“Oh, they probably don’t,” Claudia said. “That’s the point.” She got up. “I’ll call Livia. I suggest you start rehearsing what you’re going to say to the appeals committee.” She gave the younger sister she’d raised as a daughter another appraising look. “Maybe take a nice cold shower first, to clear your head.” She picked up her purse and strode out of the living room to the master bedroom, leaving Alexandra with a red face and feeling miserable and conflicted.