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The Partial Conversation

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Courtney woke that Friday night around one a.m. and decided to go downstairs. Now and then her uncle would be awake at that hour and allow her to participate in some magic with him. It was usually some dry research, but it was better than lying awake in her bed or reading her school books. Today her Uncle Aloysius had seemed slightly distant and uncommunicative. Then again, that wasn't terribly rare for him. But she was no longer as intimidated by him as she had been, and she hoped she could get him to talk to her now.

When she got downstairs she could hear her uncle speaking out loud in the living room. She wondered if he had a late visitor. He wouldn't thank her for interrupting him. She lingered near the doorway however, hoping to overhear some juicy secrets about the Coven of Mystics.

"My niece lives with me now. Interesting child, doesn't eat or sleep enough but she's all right. She'll make a decent witch, even if her parents are nearly insufferable."

Courtney couldn't hear the other person reply. But she didn't dare peek around the doorway, with her uncle already talking about how she was supposed to be asleep.

"We went to Prague last summer. Do you remember when we were there together? We saw the astronomical clock; that always reminds me of you."

Now Courtney was dying to know who he was talking to. She had known that he had been in Prague before but he had never mentioned having had company there.

"But I remember the forest in Germany better. That spell we cast there was quite... successful, no?"

She heard only silence now. She wondered if her uncle had brought a phone into the living room. She knew he didn't have a cell phone. He usually preferred speaking to people face to face when he had to deal with them.

"Ms. Crisp is Councilor now. But you never met her, of course. They offered the position to me, but they weren't sincere. And I've never been the sort for leadership, however good a warlock I may be."

She was surprised to hear her uncle laugh.

"I suppose that sounds vain, doesn't it? But I don't mince words. And how could I not be good at magic, when I learned some of my best spells from you?"

He had never told Courtney who he had learned from. There was so much she didn't know about him. She tried to picture him young like herself, or her parents' age, but she just couldn't. To her he was always old regal Uncle Aloysius, who might not know everything but knew much more than anyone else. Though she had found out that that didn't always help.

"I was quite different in those days, not so close to the end of my life. People listened to me then. Even you, sometimes. Though I wasn't at all unbiased when it came to you. No, that was a matter of affection and appreciation of beauty. But I won't speak of it now."

Her uncle sighed then. It was always so hard for him to admit to feeling emotion. But he had mentioned affection; and now she asked herself if it could possibly be some old girlfriend he was talking to? The idea of her uncle having a girlfriend was so bizarre it made her want to laugh. And she must be some old lady by now, an old witch. Courtney tried to picture the woman her uncle was talking to and ended up picturing a stereotypical old witch from the movies, chatting away on the phone. That almost made her giggle out loud, and she had to breathe slowly to keep herself quiet.

"I didn't visit you this year, though I usually like to when I'm in Europe. I was too busy, and I wasn't sure Courtney would have understood. But I'm sure you didn't miss me. There will be next year I suppose, or some other time. But I do... I do miss you."

Courtney was confused now. But she heard the rustle of her uncle's robe and she ran to hide by the clock. He passed by her without even looking at her and went up the stairs. When he was gone Courtney entered the living room herself, but she saw no telephone, just a pile of books on the table. She picked up the one on top and opened it up, and saw that something had been placed inside the top cover. It was an old black-and-white photograph of a young woman in a fancy dress with long black hair. Courtney had never seen her, or anyone like her, before.

She touched the photograph and suddenly realized something, though she was unsure if it was from magical abilities or just natural sympathy. Now she was certain this must be who her uncle had been talking to. And she also realized that this woman had no more recent pictures, that she had passed away before color photographs were invented.

Courtney wanted to run upstairs and find her uncle then. She wanted to hug him; she wanted to tell him that she would have understood. But she wasn't certain she could, or that he would accept it. In the end she merely shut the book carefully and went back to bed, wiping tears from her eyes and telling herself that she wasn't really crying.