People who disappeared went into The Nothing.
That’s the best any of the scientists could discover. Magic was a slippery thing, sometimes working just as the rules said, sometimes not. As most everybody had no control over it, most everybody left it alone.
I don’t know how, but it got around my school that I was cursed. At first everyone stared at me silently, mournfully, like I would drop dead any second.
When I told them waspishly that one, I didn’t believe in it, and two, it wouldn’t happen until I was seventeen or something, the other students eased off. Then the teasing began.
“Where’s your Prince Charming?” they asked, batting their eyelashes at me.
“Or maybe he’s a frog! Kiss the frog, Becca! Do it! Do it! Do it!”
“Let’s jab her with a needle and see if that’s it!”
I usually came home in a rage, flinging my backpack across the kitchen.
“Becca!” my mother would say. “Pick that up!” Being cursed did not spare me having to clean my room or keep my toys tidy.
“I hate school!” I bellowed, throwing my wrinkled test paper as well. It had a big fat D scrawled across it. It was math, something I normally found easy. But today, Billy Friscan had colored my apple with permanent marker, saying it was poisoned and then pushed me down on the play ground. I had been so mad, I couldn’t see and the numbers started changing places and turning around, dancing until I had a headache and couldn’t think.
I didn’t see the look my parents exchanged over my head. Dad stayed home more now.
“Next year you go to junior high,” he said gently, coming to give me a hug. I balled into his shirt.
“I don’t want to go!” I wailed, beside myself. “I won’t! You can’t make me!”
“Hush, now.” He said, rubbing my head. “Come have a snack, you’ll feel better.”
“I’ll feel better if Billy Friscan got cursed!” I spat. “He should eat his stupid poison apple!” Said apple was hurled after the backpack and test paper. It hit the wall and splattered all over the place.
So I ended up eating my snack in my room, grounded until dinner time.
Most of that year and the next few saw me in my room, chuntering to myself. Eventually I learned to ignore my tormentors, then to snap back so carefully and wittily that everyone started laughing at them instead. Then we all turned fifteen or so and nobody cared any more.
I think my parents did me a favor for not pulling me out of school or telling the other parents to stop their own children. That would have made it worse, either not teaching me to be tough or making the other children bully me secretly, which can turn much nastier than general taunts.
I spent a good deal of time, too, in doctor’s offices. Sometimes a curse just meant someone would develop incredibly rare brain-cancer-ebola. If it was caught in time, then it could be treated and the curse maybe lifted.
Unfortunately for me, no matter how many needles they jabbed me with or how many fancy x-rays, I was given a clean bill of health. Almost unbelievably healthy.
I never had a cavity. I never got a zit (which earned me no friends, let me tell you). I never got the chicken pox, or the flu, or a cold. Nothing. Ever. When I did fall down, a rarity once I stopped being a clumsy oaf and grew into my feet, I would heal quickly, like in one day. I broke my arm and it set in three weeks.
It was like my body knew it only had seventeen summers and was living in fast forward, getting all its time in all at once. The doctors had no name for it, which meant one thing.
So, we started going to different magic places. I was excited at first, thinking again of enchanted woods and other fun things. It was mostly sleek office buildings with lots of humming equipment and people in dust suits.
Once we went to a little house at the edge of a creepy looking lake, but the woman there said we had the wrong address and shut the door in our faces. She only one eye, like a cyclops, so we just left.
I woke up one morning and wanted to go back to sleep, denying the sun streaming through my curtains.
It was the first day of summer. My eighteenth summer.
I groaned and rolled out of bed. School had gotten out weeks ago, leaving me nothing to do but wonder our property and think about being struck down by some nameless thing.
Would I get hit by a truck? An airplane? Would martians come? Would I just keel over and die? Would I prick my finger on a needle or something and sleep for a hundred years?
And when? Today? Midsummer, on the solstice? On the last day of summer? It was a very vague warning.
Mom and dad were careful not to meet my eyes. They knew exactly what I was thinking. We’d gone all over the place last summer. I missed half the school year because we’d gone to Egypt and Greece and London. Everywhere I wanted to go.
This summer, we had no plans.
I ate my cereal slowly, thinking about how to spend my last days.
“How are you?” mom asked gently.
“Fine.” I said, tapping my spoon on my eerily perfect teeth. “I think I’ll go for a drive.”
Mom made a noise like she wanted to object, but dad rustled his paper and she stayed silent. They were very good at talking without talking. It frustrated me to no end.
“Take the truck.” Dad offered, sliding the keys over. “Be careful.”
“I will.” I promised. Unless I’m struck down, then there wasn’t much I could do. Maybe giant ants would come and carry me away. Or a bolt of lightening.
The truck, the same truck we’d first gone the The Farm in, was still in the driveway. Dad had had the truck for years and years. It needed some paint, but otherwise was great. It looked odd next to my mother’s gleaming sedan.
Maybe that’s what inspired me, but I grabbed a lunch and raced over the hills for the Farm. It was a beautiful day, clear and warm. I rolled down the windows instead of using the AC and hummed to myself.
I was just getting weary of driving when I saw the silos. The grain stretched in every direction, looking like no time had passed. There were even some tractors out in the waving grains. Rotational planting, my dad called it. So there was always ripe wheat, every season, even when there shouldn’t be.
I rumbled to a stop at the main office building, climbing down. No one was about, so I grabbed my backpack and walked around, looking at things, stretching my legs.
It was weird to come back and see nothing changed. Like time hadn’t passed here. It had unfortunately passed for me. The wheat was not nearly so tall now, coming just up to my waist instead of over my head.
“Can I help you?”
I turned. A man stood behind me, looking put out that I was wondering around private property.
I peered at him. “Jeff?”
“Yeah.” He said, examining me as well. His eyes flicked to the truck. “Becca Beckons?”
I nodded, smiling. “Long time, yes?”
“I’d say.” He said laughing. “Where’s your Dad? I didn’t know he was coming.”
“He’s not. I came alone.”
“Why?” He asked. He winced. “Oh, yeah, sorry.”
I shrugged. “I’ll stay far away from the combines,” I promised. “I’d hate for you to get fired for striking me down.”
His laugh was a little forced, but so was my smile.
“Come for anything in particular?” he asked, coming up next to me. He was wearing normal clothes, which I thought was odd. I’d always thought of him in those coveralls and mask. Of course he would wear normal clothes. He probably had a normal house he went to, not far from here.
“No. Why are you here?”
He smiled. “Paperwork.”
“Tell me about it. And…” he hesitated.
He turned to look down at me. “I never saw that woman again.” He said finally.
I nodded. “I don’t imagine she stuck around.”
“Did you ever find out what it was about?”
“No.” I wasn’t surprised Dad didn’t talk about it with him. Dad avoided the subject and became suddenly deaf when the relatives wanted to discuss it. “But, my eighteenth summer is here. At last.”
He grunted. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” I said dryly, giving him a scorching look. He chuckled.
“Stay out of trouble,” he said, reaching out and ruffling my hair. I scowled at him and ducked away.
I backed the truck up to the edge of the fields and ate my lunch, sitting in the bed. The sun was brilliant, shimmering over everything. I adjusted my hat and lounged back, looking at the waving grasstops over my toes.
Gravel crunched, warning me.
“How have you been?” Jeff asked softly.
“Miserable.” I said promptly. “But, not too bad, otherwise.”
He grunted. The bed lurched as he climbed up, sitting on the edge of the bed wall. I noticed his boots were muddy. “You just finished what, tenth grade?”
“Eleventh.” I said tartly. “But not that it matters.”
“It might.” He said, shrugging with one shoulder, just like I remembered.
“What about you?” i asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What have you been doing?”
He smiled. “Working.”
“And?” I prompted. Oddly, my overactive imagination had never invented a life for him besides him filling grain trucks and working here.
“Working some more.” He said with a laugh. “I took over all your dad’s operations last summer.”
The summer we spent traveling, seeing the world. Before I was struck down and missed it.
“You’re not married or anything? College?”
“Nope.” He said, looking out over the wheat.
He eyed me. His eyes were brown. “Why would I?”
“Seems like the normal thing to do, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose.” He shrugged again. “Maybe I didn’t want to.”
“Get married. Go to college.”
“You like working here?”
He nodded. “I do.”
“My mother thought you were magic.”
He leveled me an odd look. “Why?”
“Because you could predict the weather.”
He smiled. “Lucky guesses.”
I examined him. “You are magic, aren’t you!”
He laughed. “Hardly.” He stood and stepped down. “Don’t stay too long, you’ll get a sunburn.”
I sneered at his back and laid back and closed my eyes.
He woke me by pounding on the side of the truck. I sat up with a yelp, scrambling to my feet.
“You’d better get home, Becca,” he said when he’d finished laughing at me.
“It’s a long drive,” he explained, his eyes twinkling. His face was dirty, now, as were his clothes. What had he been doing? It didn’t seem like paperwork. He turned and looked out at the clear blue sky. “And there’s going to be a thunderstorm.”
“How do you know that?” I demanded.
“Look at the haze in the air. Anyone can see it.”
“You’re just not looking hard enough.” He said, his eyes on me now. I shivered suddenly. They weren’t brown, but kind of green. Like fields of wheat. Like that woman. I climbed down and got in the driver’s seat quick like.
He shut the door on me and leaned against the open window.
“Careful on the road.” He said as I started the truck.
“I know, I know.” I muttered. My face felt tight and tingly. I was sunburned, just like he said. It didn’t improve my mood.
Neither did the billowing black clouds the rose up over the horizon and dumped rain and hail on me. I made it home just fine, my ears ringing from thunder, but fine.
I went to bed that night, kissing my parents and telling them I loved them.
I woke up the next morning, still alive.
The first day of fall came. I’d gone back to school, but my teachers let me stare listlessly out the window most days. Today they ignored me entirely. Who knew? Maybe I would be struck down by a carelessly flung piece of chalk? Better to let me be and send me home alive and well to die at my house.
My parents made my favorite foods. We watched my favorite movies. We sat and looked out over our garden as the sun set.
Finally my dad crossed to me and kissed my cheek.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better daughter, Becca.” He said.
I broke down completely, sobbing into his arms. Mom came and put her arms around us.
I must have fallen asleep, even if I didn’t want to. Because when I woke up again, it was morning.
My dad grunted, my head on his leg, stretched out on the couch. Mom was sitting on the floor, one hand holding mine, the other one of dad’s.
I sat up, completely and absolutely stunned.
I was alive.
He opened his eyes and looked up at me.
We pretty much went to pieces after that.
And when I woke up the next day and the next and the next, I dissolved into a whimpering mess. The stress of it was killing me. Maybe this was the curse, this was what would cut me down. One day halfway through October, I took myself in hand.
I went back to school. No one believed it was me.
No one spoke to me or sat near me. People would get up and vacate my immediate vicinity when I went into the cafeteria. I knew they were afraid my curse would suddenly crash down, all the more powerful for being pent up and restrained, like a dam bursting.
I was used to it. And I didn’t care. I was alive.
I had my eighteenth birthday. November first.
I decided not to go back to school. Mom protested, but I enrolled in an on-line course. I finished high-school in a few weeks, just after New Years. It was easy. I was filled with energy, the relief and joy of being alive intoxicating. I hardly slept. I couldn’t carry on forever like this, but I enjoyed it while it lasted.
It was early spring when Jeff came to the house.
I opened the front door, my mouth full of bagel.
“Becca?” he asked, startled.
I stared at him. “What?” It came out more like ‘mumf.’
He closed his mouth. “Sorry, I was just expecting you to be dead.”
I grinned. “Nope.”
He kept staring. It was very odd. His eyes were brown again. “Is your dad home?”
I nodded and let him in. He edged around me, like the kids at school. I scowled at him. “What?” Again, ‘mumf.’
“Nothing,” he said slowly. “You look good. For a dead person.”
“Ha ha ha.” I made a face and went back to the kitchen to finish cream-cheesing my bagel. “Dad!” I bellowed.
I heard them talking in the front entry, in low, tense voices that meant they were talking about me.
“I can hear you!” I called out to them. They went silent, then moved to the other room. I snorted to myself and went back to my book, bagel in hand.
After about a half an hour of dead silence, I went to see what was the matter.
They were leaning over my dad’s wide desk, a map spread out before them. Not a map, I looked again. A chart of weather patterns, long lines over the continent.
“You’re sure?” dad asked.
“Yes,” Jeff said wearily. “Don’t think I don’t wish it was otherwise.”
“What’s going on?” I asked from the door. They both looked up. Dad rubbed his hand over his face.
“Nothing, Becca. Just Farm stuff.”
But I was looking at Jeff. His face was set in hard lines, clean for the first time I’d ever seen him. He didn’t think it was nothing.
“Mom says dinner’s soon.” I said, letting it pass for now.
“Okay.” Dad said, his eyes on the map again.
Jeff stayed for dinner. Mom sat him by me. I did not like the little glances she kept flicking between us. They made me blush, but I wasn’t sure why.
“Delicious,” Jeff said.
“Thank you, Mr. Strenton.”
I blinked. Of course, he had a last name. And a middle name, too. I wondered what it was.
He and dad talked some more after dinner, out on the porch. I washed up with mom, burning with curiosity. How could I get him to tell me?
I could flirt with him.
I burned with a very different fire, then. I scowled and dumped the scraps in the garbage. I didn’t know what made me think of it, but it was stupid. And it wasn’t as if I knew how to anyway. Being under a curse of death had pretty much scared off any boys, even the weird creepy ones.
“Take these out to your dad.” Mom handed me two open beers. I sighed and rolled my eyes. I went, trying to master the color that kept rising in my face.
“Here.” I said, setting them down on the deck table rather forcefully.
“Thanks, Becca.” My dad said absently.
“Thank you, Becca.” Jeff said, smiling at me. I stormed back into the house.
I didn’t really want to know anyway what was so terrible. Or his middle name.