Read A Quill Ladder Online

Authors: Jennifer Ellis

A Quill Ladder (8 page)


Oh, that

s just the latest crew. There

ve been others. It seems that my particular talent is in high demand.

Abbey studied the pale skin beneath Jake

s dark freckles and thought of the list.
Save Jake.
How was she going to do that? Take him to the doctor? Insist that he have an MRI, a CT, a blood panel? She scanned his body for obvious tumors, for markers of illness or creeping disability. But Jake still glowed with youthful good health. Perhaps camels weren

t always taken out by disease. Perhaps a car was scheduled to hurtle down the street at the wrong time, or Jake would turn away in response to a noise just as a fly ball shot through the air toward his head. She couldn

t believe that nobody had told him yet, that they seemed content to use him and leave Abbey to patch together some sort of fix to save his life. Assuming they even cared if Jake

s life was saved. March ninth was still a long way off, but what if saving him meant acting now?


And are you going to help them?

she said.


I

m still trying to sort through who

s on what side. They

re still at the asking stage. They haven

t gone to threats and demands yet. But they probably will. They seem to want to keep everything quiet for now. I imagine throwing the Patronus charm around town would generate some questions, so that buys me some time.


It wouldn

t make sense to use the Patronus,

Abbey said automatically before she realized how stupid that sounded.

You don

t actually think they can do something like that, do you?


I don

t know
what
they can do. I

m wondering if maybe I shouldn

t just disappear.


What, you mean run away? You can

t do that.

She wondered if perhaps someone was following Jake and tried to shift her eyes around the alleyway as casually as possible.

Jake pulled his coat collar up tight around his neck as if he too had the feeling they were being watched.

I dunno. But this seems like it could get ugly and dangerous fast. I don

t want my family involved.

Abbey reached her hand up to touch his arm, like she would with Caleb or Simon, but then snatched it away.

Don

t just take off. My parents can help you. You don

t have to get involved. Who are the others who came to see you?


Sylvain, of course. Mantis, I mean. And then there

s this woman and two men. They didn

t introduce themselves, but they were a bit creepy. Said they were part of the Guild, whatever that is, as if I should have known.


Did Mantis ever pay up for your help?


Yup, he did. Pretended he was taking an interest in the family, supporting my athletic career and the need for good restaurants in Greenhill. It was a load of crap, but my Mom and Dad bought it.


Do you think he

s evil?

Jake gave a faint smile.

I don

t know. He sure gave me a good story about wanting to help your brother in the future. I don

t think he

s going to win the citizen of the year award any time soon, but I

m not sure if he

s
evil
.

The wind picked up and swirled a collection of small wrappers and dust through the air in funnels toward them. Abbey turned away to avoid being hit in the eyes by the grit. Her exposed knuckles felt chapped and cracked in the late fall air.

Jake looked back at her.

I better go.

He reached into his pocket and extracted a small white envelope.
Lesson One
was inscribed on it in flowing script.

The guy in the beret, Ian, with the Franks, asked me to give you this. He said I could join in on the lessons if I helped him. But I

m not sure if I want to learn any of this stuff. I kind of liked my life before all this. He said that if I learned it, I would be unbeatable on the field. A few weeks ago, I thought I was good enough to make it to the majors on my own. The thing I hate about this is now I

m starting to doubt that. I

m starting to think maybe I need the help. It

s like I

ve just realized that I

m going to have to start doping to make it.

Abbey nodded. She knew what Jake was talking about. She grasped the envelope and shoved it into her pocket.


So, will you stay in touch?

she said.

Jake nodded slowly, his expressive eyes wide and anxious, and then turned and walked down the alleyway, his hands thrust in his jeans pockets.

Abbey waited until he was gone and then pulled the envelope out of her pocket.

 

*****

 

Mark concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. He held the map of the campus in front of him like a life preserver. He already had it memorized, but it offered a level of security and allowed him to avoid making eye contact with all of the strange people who might feel they needed to offer him quizzical smiles and pensive looks.

Like many campuses, Coventry College was based on a ring or web layout with all of the buildings forming circles around the main library at the center of campus. Mark considered that perhaps he would have liked to have attended college, at least a couple of geography classes, or perhaps just cartography. His mother had informed him pointedly that he already knew more about maps than most geography professors and would likely be disruptive in class as a result. She was probably right. She was right about most things.

Still, as he moved through the paved laneways, he found that he didn

t have to nose breathe as much as he

d had to while in downtown Coventry. Most people ignored him and despite some large groups of students, there seemed to be a studied anonymity to their movements, like others came here to escape into books and maps as well.

At the Horton Building, the sickish feeling Mark had experienced when he first considered executing Simon

s detailed list of instructions on how to get to campus returned. He patted the leather portfolio bag that he

d received for his twenty-third birthday to make sure the hand sanitizer was still there. Then he counted by threes as he pushed through the heavy front door and mounted the stairs.

Dr. Ford

s door was closed and locked, and nobody answered his knock. The shadows at the base of the door indicated that the lights were off. A cushioned leather seat in an alarming mustard color occupied the window alcove across from the door. Mark gave it a surreptitious wipe with the hand sanitizer and a Kleenex and then settled onto the chair. It was only 1:00 p.m. Waiting was better than working up the courage to take public transit again.

 

*****

 

The envelope contained a single heavy, yellowish card with uneven edges. On the card, words were written in slanting old calligraphic script:

 

The Center is an essential part of witchcraft. Find your center and the center, and then reread this card. When you can see what lies beneath, you will be ready for lesson two.

 

Abbey stared at the card until she could feel the corner of her eye twitching. So, witchcraft was going to be a bunch of new-age meditation stuff involving finding some center that she was quite certain she didn

t have. She

d rather learn spells and potions, and even hexes for that matter

things she could look up in a reference book and memorize. Things she could calculate, analyze, understand. She had no interest in searching for some spiritual inner peace.

She pressed her fingers against the card, searching for the indentations of something else written there, some secret code written in invisible ink or maybe a second card beneath the first one. She held it to the light to see if she could see through it, and then examined it from every angle. Nothing.

She closed her eyes and tried to erase her constantly racing thoughts from her mind, to still her brain and imagine only velvety black night. But the stars and constellations kept blinking into her darkness, and every time she managed to replace them with a black canvas, ideas, equations, symbols, and maps moved in from the edges, as if the canvas were a piece of paper on fire, until she could no longer see the black at all. She snapped her eyes back open and stared at the card. It looked exactly the same as it had before, with the original message in slanting black script.

She nearly tossed the card away in frustration, but instead stuffed it into her pocket and headed back to the school. She would show it to Simon.

Caleb passed her in the hall on her way to math. As usual, a gaggle of girls and toque-wearing boys surrounded him. Caleb held court in his easy, affable manner, his red hair wild and his beaded peace necklace always visible. Abbey had to hand it to Caleb. Even though he was effortlessly popular, he remained genuine and friendly, which, she supposed, was probably why he was effortlessly popular.

He flashed her an almost sheepish smile when he passed, feeling bad perhaps for his grumpiness when he clearly had his own secrets.


Hey, do you have a second?

she said.

Caleb lifted his eyebrows, but stopped walking with a nod to his friends, who respectfully continued to file down the hall.


What

s up?


I told Ian where to find Jake.

Caleb nodded, as if he had expected this.


He gave me this.

Abbey passed Caleb the index card.

Caleb stared at the card, and the faint suggestion of a smile crossed his face. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, and when he reopened them his smile broadened.

Congratulations, you

re ready for lesson two,

he read.


What?

Abbey said. She snatched the card from Caleb

s hand. It looked exactly as hit had before.

Where does it say that?


Right under the original text.

Abbey scrunched her eyes and stared. The card remained infuriatingly the same.


You

re kidding, right?

Caleb arched an eyebrow and offered a wry, almost apologetic smile.
“’
Fraid not. I could almost see it before I concentrated. Just the slight suggestion of the letters.

Abbey stared at the card, trying to direct every rod and cone of her eyeballs toward the blank space beneath the directions.

Ugh, I hate you. So what, you

re super duper centered magic guy?

Caleb laughed.

Well, Ab, you have to admit, finding your center isn

t probably your strong point.


Well, if it

s step one of learning witchcraft, then I

m hooped.


I

m sure there

s more to it than that.


What are you doing with Mom?

The words tumbled out of her.

Caleb

s face darkened and closed.

I can

t tell you right now. She made me promise.


Why? It

s not fair.


It

s not fair you and Simon get to know all about my future and what happened three weeks ago and I know diddly squat.

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