"Honey, have you seen your sister?"
"She's on Jupiter, Mom."
There was no immediate response to this piece of news. Sitting at a dining room table covered with notebooks, a few schoolbooks, and one book that had less to do with school than the others, Nita Callahan glanced over her shoulder just in time to catch sight of her mother looking at the ceiling with an expression that said, What have I done to deserve this?
Nita turned her head back to what looked like her homework, so that her mother wouldn't see her smile. "Well, yeah, not on Jupiter; it's hard to do that . . . She's on Europa."
Her mother came around and sat down in the chair opposite Nita at the table, looking faintly concerned. "She's not trying to create life again or something, is she?"
"Huh? Oh, no. It was there already. But there was some kind of problem."
The look on her mother's face was difficult to decipher. "What kind?"
"I'm not sure," Nita said, and this was true. She had read the mission statement, which had appeared in her copy of the wizard's manual shortly after Dairine left, but the fine print had made little sense to her-probably the reason why she or some other wizard had not been sent to deal with the trouble, and Dairine had. "It's kind of hard to understand what single-celled organisms consider a problem." She made an amused face. "But it looks like Dairine's the answer to it."
"All right." Her mom leaned back in the chair and stretched. "When will she be back?"
"She didn't say. But there's a limit to how much air you can carry with you on one of these jaunts if you're also going to have energy to spare to actually get anything done," Nita said. "Probably a couple hours."
"Okay . . . We don't have to have a formal dinner tonight. Everyone can fend for themselves. Your dad won't mind; he's up to his elbows in shrub right now, anyway." The buzz of the hedge trimmer could still be heard as Nita's dad worked his way around the house. "We can take care of the food shopping later . . . There's no rush. Is Kit coming over?"
Nita carefully turned the notebook page she'd been working on. "Uh, no. I have to go out and see him in a little while, though . . . Someone's meeting us to finish up a project. Probably it'll take us an hour or two, so don't wait for me. I'll heat something up when I get home."
"Okay." Her mother got up and went into the kitchen, where she started opening cupboards and peering into them. Nita looked after her with mild concern when she heard her mom's tired sigh. For the past month or so, her mom had been alternating between stripping and refinishing all the furniture in the house and leading several different projects for the local PTA-the biggest of them being the effort to get a new playground built near the local primary school. It seemed to Nita that her mother was always either elbow deep in steel wool and stain, or out of the house on errands, so often that she didn't have a lot of spare time for anything else.
After a moment Nita heaved a sigh. No point in trying to weasel around it, though, she thought. I've got problems of my own.
Kit . . . But it's not his fault . . . Is it?
Nita was still recovering from an overly eventful vacation in Ireland, one her parents had planned for her, to give Nita a little time away from Kit, and from wizardry. Of course this hadn't worked. A wizard's work can happen anywhere, and just changing continents couldn't have stopped Nita from being involved in it any more than changing planets could have. As for Kit, he'd found ways to be with Nita regardless-which turned out to have been a good thing. Nita had been extremely relieved to get home, certain that everything would then get back to normal.
Trouble is, someone changed the location of "normal" and didn't bother sending me a map, Nita thought. Kit had been a little weird since she got home. Maybe some of it was just their difference in age, which hadn't really been an issue until a month or so ago. But Nita had started ninth grade this year and, to her surprise, was finding the work harder than she'd expected. She was used to coasting through her subjects without too much strain, so this was an annoyance. Worse yet, Kit wasn't having any trouble at all, which Nita also found annoying, for reasons she couldn't explain. And the two of them didn't see as much of each other at school as they'd used to. Kit, now in an accelerated-study track with other kids doing "better than their grade," was spending a lot of his time coaching some of the other kids in his group in history and social studies. That was fine with her, but Nita disliked the way some of her classmates, who knew she was best friends with Kit, would go out of their way to remind her, whenever they got a chance, how well Kit was doing.
As if they're fooling anyone, she thought. They're nosing around to see if he and I are doing something else . . . and they can't understand why we're not. Nita frowned. Life had been simpler when she'd merely been getting beaten up every week. In its own way, the endless sniping gossip-the whispering behind hands, and the passed notes about cliques and boys and clothes and dates-was more annoying than any number of bruises. The pressure to be like everyone else-to do the same stuff and think the same things-just grew, and if you took a stance, the gossip might be driven underground . . . but never very far.
Nita sighed. Nowadays she kept running into problems for which wizardry either wasn't an answer, or else was the wrong one. And even when it was the right answer, it never seemed to be a simple one anymore.
Copyright © 2001 by Diane Duane
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