Chapter 15: The First Law of Birthdays

“Open your textbooks and turn to page seventeen,” Miss Sherbert instructed. “Today we’ll be talking about the three laws of electric charges.”

She scrawled the words on the board slowly in cramped, cursive handwriting.

“Now who can tell us the first law? Hmmm?”

She looked over the rim of the tortoiseshell glasses balanced on the ridge of her long, bony nose, and pursed her lips. Scanning the class, she noticed a girl nodding off in the back of the room.

“Miss Scarlett!” she called sharply.

Mitch started awake, sending the papers lying about her desk fluttering into the air. Low giggles ran through the room.

“Yes ma’am?” Mitch asked, scrambling to organize her notes.

“The first law of electric charges?” Miss Sherbert asked again, drawing her shawl around her shoulders as if having to repeat the question was making her very cold.

“What is it?”

“Uh…” Mitch stammered. “Well, I—uh…”

“Like charges repel!” Miss Sherbert answered testily. “Well we haven’t got all day!” she added, shaking her head disapprovingly.

Another ripple of laughter passed through the room.

“Next time, Miss Scarlett, I hope you will make time to complete the assigned reading. Now onto the second law…”

Mitch settled into her seat, face burning with embarrassment. She had never been scolded by a teacher before, and science had always been her best subject. But when was she supposed to get her homework done? On the boat ride to Ol’ Cypress? In between the hours she and Reece spent pouring over The Corridor Atlas and their hikes through the swamp to study the flarefield?

Still, all the Collective agreed it was best for Mitch to continue her normal routine. It was impossible to know whether any other viceroys had made it back to the present, and they wanted to avoid arousing suspicion as much as possible.

So every weekday morning for the last three weeks, Mitch had boarded the bus to Dry Creek Middle School and endured her classmates’ teasing. She struggled to stay awake in her classes, occasionally dozing off and being jolted awake by a nightmare about being split in time. Then she took the bus home, doing her best to avoid confrontations with Mavis and Shawn, and zipped through the timeshaft to Ol’ Cypress where she continued her training late into the night.

When she finally plopped her tired body down onto her bed, it was hard to quiet her overworked mind. Every time she closed her eyes, words from The Corridor Atlas appeared. There were so many rules to remember!

  1. Do focus on the coordinates. The slightest distraction can be disastrous.
  2. Do NOT stray beyond the edge of a moon cycle. You’ll get lost in the space.
  3. Do remember to arrange for a tracker. Magicians climbing the timeline need to double up on energy.
  4. Don’t confuse flarefields with timeshafts. You’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise either way.
  5. Do bear in mind that voyage vessels are assigned according to need. No substitutions.    

And on, and on, and on… Mitch spent hours reading and re-reading passages from the atlas, working out the equations and memorizing the maps so she would be as prepared as possible for the mission ahead. She was working so hard, in fact, that she had completely forgotten her own birthday!

That morning, she had come down for breakfast in her usual fog of sleep and was surprised to find two melty candles shoved into a giant stack of pumpkin pancakes smothered in butter and maple syrup. She stared at the glowing numbers—a one and a two—and remembered that today she turned twelve years old. Graham gave her a big hug and told her to make a wish. They both knew what it was going to be.

As Mitch walked home from school that afternoon, she tried to push the embarrassing episode in science class from her mind and focus on the evening ahead. She was looking forward to celebrating her birthday at Ol’ Cypress tonight. It had just been her and her granddaddy for so long, and it would be fun to open presents and share cake and ice cream with her new friends.

She walked through the woods, admiring the changed autumn landscape—the pale blue gourds with their spirally vines. The rust colored leaves blowing from the trees. The acorns scattered about the forest floor, warmed by the soft golden sunlight. But her pleasant thoughts were soon interrupted by a dreadful sound.

“Hey Shawn!” she heard Mavis call out behind her.

Mitch could feel her enemies were close, but she refused to turn around.

“Ya?” Shawn answered.

“What’s the first law of electric charges?” Mavis continued, in a reedy voice that Mitch took to be an impersonation of Miss Sherbert.

“I dunno, Miss Sherbert,” Shawn replied, stupidly. “What’s the first law of electric charges?”

“Like charges repel!” Mavis exclaimed. “Like that ugly witch and her dopey granddaddy!”

The two doubled over in laughter.

Mitch stopped in her tracks. Mavis could make all the Mitch the Witch jokes she wanted, but nobody was going to say a word about her granddaddy. She spun around to face her attackers.

“I’m sorry,” she called out boldly. “Do you two balloon-brain bozos have a problem?”

Mavis stopped laughing and smacked Shawn in the side.

“Owww!” he cried, rubbing his ribs, but Mavis ignored him.

“Looks like the witch has an attitude problem,” she said meanly.

Shawn’s eyes narrowed.

“Well,” Mavis said, cracking her knuckles. “Only one way to fix it.”

They advanced. Mitch planted her feet into the ground and clenched her fists. If Mavis and Shawn wanted a fight, they were going to get one.

“Mitch!” a voice called suddenly from up the hill.

Mavis and Shawn stopped in their tracks.

Mitch turned around to see Reece running at them full speed, hands outstretched holding a jack-o-lantern.

He slowed as he neared Mitch. Breathing heavily and smiling from ear to ear, he thrust the pumpkin into her hands. It was elaborately carved with smoking vapor that smelled like caramel apples drifting from its toothy grin.

“Happy birthday!” he exclaimed breathlessly. “I made this for you! Your granddaddy said you’d be coming this way, so I thought I’d meet you and we could walk home together and talk about today’s train—”

Reece stopped short, noticing Mavis and Shawn for the first time.

“Oh hi!” he said brightly. “Are these your friends?” he asked Mitch.

Mavis and Shawn stared, open-mouthed at Reece, and then convulsed into laughter.

“She’s got a—a—” Mavis gasped for air. “A boyfriend!”

The two crumpled onto each other, howling like hyenas.

Mitch grabbed Reece’s arm and pulled him up the hill, her face taut with anger. She stormed through the mulberry bushes and turned onto the dirt road leading to the house.

Reece struggled to keep pace. 

“I’m sorry, Mitch, I didn’t mean to—”

“No Reece,” Mitch cut in. “It’s not your fault. Those two are just mean-spirited goons!”

She shook the jack-o-lantern, her eyes filling with tears.

“Oh Mitch!” Reece pleaded. “Please don’t cry. It’s the first law of birthdays—you can’t cry on your birthday!” 

“I’m not crying,” she insisted, as big drops of tears rolled down her cheeks. She’d had just about all she could take of “first laws” today.

“Listen,” Reece said, taking the pumpkin from Mitch and setting it on the ground. He grabbed her hands and pulled her to sit beside him on a pile of colorful leaves.

“I don’t know what it’s like to go to regular school, but I know what it’s like to be lonely. I spent all my life at Ol’ Cypress, buried in books with Dora and working in labs with Miki. And Izzie’s great, but she’s not exactly—” Reece trailed off, searching for the right words.

“Like us kids?” Mitch offered, wiping her eyes.

The two broke into laughter.

“Right,” Reece replied, recomposing himself.

“We were young when we were separated, but I’ve thought a lot about you all these years, Mitch Scarlett. You were my best friend, my only, friend.”

Reece sniffed back emotion. Mitch squeezed his hand.

“You let those goons say whatever they like. They’re not worth troubling yourself over.”

He paused, looking in the direction of the bayou.

“Now Zahlamaer on the other hand…”

Reece smiled, trying to pass off a joke, but his blue eyes flashed with fear. Mitch leaned in and placed an arm around his thin shoulders.

“Look here, Reece Rainier,” she said bravely, “There ain’t room enough on this leaf pile for two scared souls.”

Reece laughed, and leaned into Mitch.

“Do you like the jack-o-lantern?”

“Very much,” Mitch replied, admiring the smoking pumpkin.

“Well,” Reece said, rising to his feet. “I guess we’d better be on our way.” He offered Mitch his arm. “To Ol’ Cypress?”

Mitch nodded, locking her arm in his. “To Ol’ Cypress.”

The two friends started off toward the bayou.

From a distance, a ring of blue smoke drifted from the thick shade. Oren puffed lightly on his cigar for a moment before stubbing out the embers on the trunk of the tree he had been hiding behind.

Balloon-brain bozos, he chuckled to himself. His niece had some fire in her. He liked that. Oren returned his hat to his head and stepped onto the road, following the two sets of tracks into the marsh. A flock of autumn crows took flight against the rose-colored sky.

Mitch was a lot like her mother, Oren considered. That was going to be useful.

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