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Anna Chu paced around her room, almost in a daze. The brightly coloured wall hangings and animated family photos did absolutely nothing to distract her from her wordless litany. This summer was one of the worst summers she’d had, even counting the month when she was six that her father had grounded her and refused to talk to her when she’d ventured outside Little Wuyi, the San Francisco enclave that held the Chinese-American magical community, sans his express permission; this time, her father wasn’t angry at her, or even marginally irritated. He couldn’t do anything to help Anna, and neither could her meek and secluded mother, even though they both had tried.

The reason for the fifteen-year-old’s mental flagellation was that her very best friend, Alexandra Quick, had been expelled from Charmbridge Academy, the magical boarding school that they had both attended. Anna was due to go back to Charmbridge in the fall – only six short weeks away – but she couldn’t stomach not getting to see and talk to her former roommate every day. She didn’t even know when she’d be able to see Alex at all, if ever again.

Granted, Alex had been sent packing after a bout of troublemaking that caused irreparable injury to multiple students, having drawn an unstoppable, Dark magic-infused creature into the school boundaries, and with it, its creator (who unleashed a whole host of malevolent Navajo chindi onto the school). Of course she had been expelled; after four years of remarkable lenience by the dean, Ms. Grimm, there was no way that the ever-troublesome girl wouldn’t.

But Anna still felt for her, nonetheless. She had gotten to know Alex very well over those four years, and even though she didn’t trust her not to rush headlong into extremely reckless and foolish things, usually getting a whole bunch of people hurt in the process, Anna trusted her moral compass without question.

She was not even paying attention to the room around her when somebody knocked on her bedroom door. It was bound to be her father, the Congressman for the territory of Alta California, demanding that she come to dinner or else he’d refuse to let her eat that night.

Except it wasn’t.

It was her mother, Lisa, who called gently through the crack between the door and the frame. “Anna… are you sure you feel all right? You’d better come to dinner, or your father won’t be happy.”

Anna started at the tones of her mother’s muffled voice, and she didn’t process for a second. When she sifted through the muck of her train of thought and finally got the meaning of her mother’s words, she responded, “Yes - I’ll be down in just a second.”

When her mother opened the door, her face, as soft as Anna’s, wore an expression of genuine concern.

“Are you really sure you feel all right? I – I’ve been worried. You’ve been in a mood ever since the beginning of the summer, and I just…”

She trailed off, looking haplessly around the room. Anna collected her feelings, took a deep breath, and looked straight at her mother.

“Yeah, I’m fine, for the most part.” This was a lie – a total lie.

“Well, come down to dinner then. Your father isn’t in a patient mood.”

Her mother left the room and went down the ornately decorated staircase leading to the lower floor of the house; Anna hesitated, then followed, much on her mind.

-

There was little sound at the dark, polished wooden table in the Chu dining room. Anna’s father, busy, overworked, but vibrant, sat at the head of the table and ate with gusto the five-spice mushroom dish that Anna’s mother had prepared; meanwhile, the cook herself was keeping up the appearance of contentment, but was eating in near-complete silence, occasionally glancing furtively from Anna to her husband and back again.

Anna, on the other hand, was methodically consuming her dinner with a blank look on her face, staring constantly down at the food. The food did not stare back. Anna almost felt disappointed about this, then internally rolled her eyes at what she was doing. But there was no hint of anything approaching mirth in her expression.

How DARE Alex get expelled!, she thought in a wild burst of irritation. Just so I can sit here and eat my stupid dinner in my stupid fancy house and do my stupid Geomancy summer homework and be stupidly bored all the time. Anna couldn’t take it anymore. It was affecting her too much – she hadn’t even started on her ridiculously long summer assignment, which involved travelling to four different parks in the area, calculating the ley lines, lines of power, areas of influence, and a whole bunch of other stuff, and then comparing all that data in a six-paragraph essay – and she wasn’t even getting out of the house much this summer, anyway. She had left Little Wuyi maybe once, to call Alex from a pay phone, but after fifteen minutes and a pocketful of Muggle quarters wasted, she got nothing. No response.

Alex had sent her a letter – a brief one – about her summer, and how it was “fine” and “okay”. Anna knew immediately that that was bullshit, though she’d never have said that out loud. Alex had also written about her oldest sister Claudia, who was for legal purposes Alex’s mom due to a long chain of events, and how she and Livia (Alex’s second-oldest sister) were reconnecting, somehow. It was all so vague. But it was so infuriating! The way she thought she couldn’t trust Anna with the full story, for “her own safety”; the way she obviously thought Anna would be perfectly fine and dandy in California over the summer; and the way she didn’t stop to consider anything of others’ consequences before messing everything up, permanently. But Anna also knew that Alex had needed support through the extremely difficult situations she’d been forced into over the four years that she’d known her, and that she needed all the support she could get now. Maybe it was partially Anna’s fault that Alex had gotten expelled – maybe Anna was just too trusting to stand up to her force of personality – and Alex was, like her Dark wizard father, incredibly charismatic and convincing when she needed to be; yet Anna had tried to be a good friend to Alex. And that had to count for something, right?

Gut-wrenching as the matter was, Anna finally figured it out during dinner. She wasn’t about to tell anybody – her parents would have no idea what was going on, and anyway, she needed to mull it over first, to see if it was really of any substance. She finished her food quickly, excused herself from the table, and rushed upstairs to her room.

-

What was it with Alexandra that had Anna in knots? She KNEW that Alex was still her best friend, even though she was hard to understand occasionally – okay, most of the time her motivations needed puzzling out.

Anna went to her lacquered wooden desk and took out a sheet of paper and a quill to write a letter to Constance and Forbearance Pritchard, her Ozarker friends. Her owl, Jingwei, sensed her need for quiet, and stopped clacking her beak against the bars of her cage; when Anna glanced at her, surprised, Jingwei made a soft hooting noise that might have been sympathetic.

“Yeah, I know. I just – what is the deal with me? Why am I so down-and-out?” asked Anna. Her owl gazed at her with those all-seeing amber eyes, and then turned her head to look out the window into the hot summer evening.

Anna put the point of her quill in the ink bottle, then delicately placed it on the paper, shaping her words with utmost care.

Dear Constance and Forbearance:
I must tell you that I’m not feeling too well, six weeks into the summer vacation. There isn’t much that you can do about it, unless you can somehow convince Dean Grimm to let Alexandra back into Charmbridge for next year. What’s quite strange is that she hasn’t contacted me much at all – only one relatively short letter was all I got. What about you? Have you received anything?
I’m worried about her emotional state. We all know that she was near-suicidal in eighth grade, and I’m wondering if she’s gone back to that, or if she’s in another, even less responsive, frame of mind.
How has your summer been so far? I can only imagine that you’re better off than I am, because you have the whole Five Hollers to distract you from the trials of your friends – I have to say I’m rather envious. Innocence must be nearly bursting at the seams with energy. She must have punched out the Rashes by now.
And I really want to know this – have you learned much from the Grannies yet about wand-crafting? It has to be a fascinating subject, especially coming from such experienced and learned old women.
Please write back! (I know, it’s practically just a formality by now, because I know you’d rather swallow lizards than not reply.)
Your dear friend,
Anna

Having finished the letter with a flourish under her name, Anna carefully rolled it up, tied it to Jingwei’s leg with a bit of twine, and sent her owl out the open window into the humid summer air. She watched wistfully as Jingwei flapped off over the gilt roofs of the old Chinese houses, and thought, Why don’t I have any motivation to get out of the house? I’m just moping around, doing pretty much nothing. But chastising oneself doesn’t often work, Anna noted, so she turned around, flopped down on her bed, and pondered.

-

What do I feel? Anna wondered. It was all so confusing, when for all her life she’d been used to emotional states being so clear-cut and defined. Now they all blended together fuzzily.

On one hand, there was massive disappointment. Disappointment in Alex’s rash and reckless behaviour, disappointment at not ever getting to see Alex in school again, disappointment in herself for not having done anything meaningful this summer, like not even having started on her grind of a summer assignment. This transitioned gradually into intense sadness – she was sad for Alex, sad for her classmates who had been affected by everything that happened last year, sad for herself (though she knew it was selfish to admit it) – and anger at the whole improbable situation not having turned out like it was supposed to, or even like she expected it to.

On the other hand, there was guilt, because Anna now believed that she could have done something – anything – to stop her best friend from being so utterly stupid. But Anna then thought about how, if she had done something like that, Alex would have lost all trust in her, and that would be even harder to bear. So she had an odd sense of having done partially the right thing, even though it was so obviously not the brave thing nor the obedient thing.

Anna remembered vividly when Alex had gone to the Lands Beyond at the end of eighth grade, both of them barely teenagers, and Anna had tried so hard to stop her from going, to do anything at all to talk her out of it, but Alex’s iron will had won out. Anna nearly despaired, but in that moment, her friend had projected such a vitality, a confidence in her own fate, that she began to have faith in her insane plan, somehow. She had told Anna that she’d come back, and indeed she did. She came back from the Lands Beyond, which had been considered impossible under the best circumstances. She had parlayed with The Most Deathly Power and returned alive. Anna knew she should think that was a fluke, a freak occurrence, but she had the feeling it was all due to things that were already set in stone. So it would follow from there that she shouldn’t be worried about her friend, but Anna nonetheless felt as if she needed to confirm with Alex what exactly was going on.

Why, though? Why was there such a deep sense of loss right now? Anna thought she knew, but could not think about it, or even touch it, for fear of unleashing something terrifying. It was hidden, for now, in a dark corner of Anna’s mind, shrouded in the black mists of confusion and fear.

But she knew she’d have to face it someday.