The Witch of Old Larkin Pond

Almost two thousand miles away, Alexandra Quick was dangling her feet over the surface of a murky brown pond, staring into water so choked with weeds and algae that she could barely see her own reflection.

Not that there was anything special to see; she knew what she looked like well enough. Skinny, green eyes, black hair cut so short that she'd been mistaken for a boy a couple of times this summer. Her clothes were nothing special, either: long t-shirt, cargo shorts, muddy sneakers. She looked like a fairly typical teenage girl, albeit one who was indifferent about her appearance.

The only thing anyone stumbling upon this scene might have found remarkable was that she was hovering over Old Larkin Pond on a broom.

The town council had been talking about cleaning up the dirty old pond, and possibly turning the area into a park or a nature trail. It was almost a mile outside of Larkin Mills proper, located on the other side of the Interstate, and further separated from the town by a wooded hill and a large, uncultivated field. Despite being dirty and smelly and littered with trash, it was a popular spot for the town's teenagers to hang out and engage in exactly the sort of behavior their parents feared.

Alexandra had heard her stepfather complaining about this place often enough. Archie Green was a police officer, so in his opinion, the town needed to spend more money on law enforcement, not beautification projects. He had strictly forbidden Alexandra to go anywhere near Old Larkin Pond, so of course, she had made it her refuge of choice this summer.

Alexandra didn't come here solely to defy her stepfather, though. She could have stayed at home, or gone to the library, or she could have done what many of Larkin Mills' other teenagers did, and hang out at the mall. None of those places appealed to her. Nowhere particularly appealed to her, but Old Larkin Pond drew her back, day after day, as the summer dragged on. It was secluded, no one bothered her, and in some ways, she felt that it was here that her life as a witch had truly begun. So each day after returning home from summer school, she would head for this greenish-brown puddle that was called a pond.

She had mostly managed to avoid trouble this summer. She argued less frequently with her stepfather. She was unusually quiet. She thought her parents would be pleased; instead, her uncharacteristic behavior caused them to become suspicious, even concerned.

Charlie knew something was bothering her, too. Her raven familiar had been bringing her shiny gifts all summer in an effort to cheer her up, which meant Alexandra had to lock the bird in its cage when she wasn't at home.

It was her mother's idea for her to attend summer school. It had been couched as a suggestion, but Alexandra knew that Claudia and Archie weren't going to let her sulk at home by herself all summer. Suspecting that the alternative would be forced enrollment in some kind of summer camp, or worse, a repeat of last summer's Vacation Bible School fiasco, Alexandra had sullenly agreed.

She signed up for remedial English, American history, and pre-algebra at Larkin Mills Middle School. Though she initially resented being stuck with the 'stupid' kids who'd flunked during the school year, she realized with surprise and not a little dismay that she had, in fact, fallen behind in learning what Muggle kids her age usually learned.

She didn't make friends with any of her classmates. They remembered her as being 'weird' even before she started going to a mysterious private school in sixth grade, and Alexandra didn't try to hide the fact that she considered herself smarter than all of them. On the other hand, no one (except Billy Boggleston and his friends) tried to bother her. Even the teachers mostly left her alone, and that was the way she liked it.

After school, she hurried home to dump her schoolbooks on her bed, drag her backpack out of the closet, and disappear out the door. She was rarely stopped by her mother or her stepfather, and if she met any kids on the streets, she didn't talk to them. In Old Larkin, the rundown neighborhood between Sweetmaple Avenue, where she lived, and the Interstate, she occasionally heard whistles and catcalls, but she paid them no attention. She had her wand with her, and she had no fear of walking alone through a grungy neighborhood, or under a dank freeway underpass.

Her destination was the same place she had haunted in the summer before she had entered the wizarding world.

When she got there, she sat on her broom hovering over the pond — sometimes reading a book, but often just brooding. Occasionally, she dipped her toe into the murky water, as if daring something beneath the surface to grab it, but nothing ever did. The kappa and the redcaps that had once haunted this place had been removed by the Department of Magical Wildlife, and now the most dangerous things lurking in the tall grass were teenagers. And Alexandra had mostly chased them away.

The first time she had hiked here after getting out of summer school, she had found her favorite hideout being occupied by a gang of older kids, smoking and drinking and tossing bottles into the pond.

She had been tempted to use her wand on them. She would have, if not for the Trace Office. The Juvenile Magical Offenses Division forbade underage witches and wizards to perform magic in Muggle communities, and Alexandra had learned the hard way that she couldn't cast even one little spell without them noticing.

But they didn't know about her magic backpack which Quimley, the free elf, had returned to her. It had once been her brother's, and it still contained some of the items she and Maximilian had taken to the Lands Below, such as potions, Flaming Dungbombs, and a Skyhook. Then there were the treacherous 'gifts' from the Generous Ones — carved wooden sticks, a mummified snake, a bone flute, a set of talking stone heads... most of these artifacts were completely inscrutable to her.

Alexandra had no idea what the little stone heads were saying. They would remain silent for long periods of time, and then begin chattering endlessly, talking over each other, not apparently engaged in actual conversation. Sometimes they would all begin chanting together. Occasionally, one would suddenly shout: "Hayaiyiyiyiyi!" None of it was comprehensible to her, and they didn't seem to notice her at all, nor object when she shoved them back into the backpack when she feared their strange babble and eerie chants might be heard by her parents.

The day after she found the pond taken over by teens, she ran there early in the morning, before school, and threw one of the stone heads deep into the rushes at the swampy end, and tossed two more into the water. She could hear their voices bubbling up from below, making a strange, faint sound, like someone drowning slowly a long ways off, while their companion in the reeds muttered and squawked.

This was partially effective; teens didn't hang around the pond as much anymore, but Alexandra was still sometimes forced to abandon her retreat when curious kids would come by to listen to the ghostly voices. Gradually, however, they came less often, and Alexandra began to think she had scared off all interlopers.

It was late July before her retreat was once again invaded. She was sitting on her broom as usual when she heard loud voices and the sound of stones being thrown into the tall grass. So she landed, and shoved her broom back into the backpack — one of its convenient magical properties was that its interior space was much larger than its exterior size. She was standing by the water's edge when Billy Boggleston and his friends Tom Gavin and Gordie Pike came marching around the thicket. They stumbled to a halt when they saw her.

"It's the freak!" Tom said.

Gordie sneered. "I thought it smelled bad here."

Billy and Tom snorted, but all of them eyed her uneasily. Alexandra had been a thorn in their side for years — and they in hers. She hadn't had much trouble from the bullies this summer, aside from one day when they had thrown trash at her from the window of a passing bus. She thought they'd learned their lesson about messing with her.

"Get lost," she said. "I was here first."

"Is this your home now?" Billy demanded. "Nice place for you — scummy and stinky and crawling with snakes!"

"Get out of here!" she repeated angrily, but she realized immediately that the boys had mistaken her rising tone for fear.

Tom and Gordie snickered. Emboldened, Billy put his fists on his hips, striking a belligerent pose. "Or what? You'll do one of your freaky tricks?" He made a clumsy gesture at the pond, still keeping his hands balled into fists. "Everyone knows you're just a loser, Alexandra. You go to some 'special' school, and then you still have to take remedial classes with the rest of us. You get out of here, or I'll kick your skinny ass!"

Alexandra took two steps towards him, until they were standing toe to toe.

They'd all grown quite a bit since last summer, but Billy most of all; he towered over most other thirteen-year-olds, and even Alexandra, who was tall for her age, had to tilt her head to look him in the eye. Yet he was the one who blinked first.

"Try it," Alexandra said, in a low voice. "You'll be sorry."

Billy swallowed. Behind him, Gordie and Tom shifted nervously.

She thought he'd back down. Instead, he reached out and gave her a hard shove right in the chest. Alexandra staggered, stumbled backwards, and lost her footing. Her arms waved comically in the air, just before she toppled backwards into the pond. She landed on her butt with a splash, and sat there for a moment, sputtering, with muddy brown water dripping down her face.

The boys laughed. The apprehension on Billy's face vanished, replaced by a look of triumph. "Not so special now, are you, freak?" He grinned. "I'll bet you made up that story about the ghost of the drowned kid yourself, to scare everyone away."

Alexandra shook with fury. She took a deep breath, and climbed to her feet.

"Aw, is the witch gonna cwy?" Billy mocked her.

As she staggered towards the slippery bank of the pond, Billy extended one leg towards her in a crude approximation of a karate kick. It was enough to knock her off-balance again, and she fell back into the water. The three boys hooted with laughter.

When she rose from the water a second time, she was holding her wand. It was pointed at Billy.

It was just a stick of wood, but something about the way she held it, and the murderous look in her eyes, made all three boys stop laughing. For a moment, Alexandra was almost blind with rage.

The boys' faces turned white, and they all exclaimed at once: "Holy crap!"

Alexandra blinked. She hadn't actually done anything, and she hadn't expected them to scare that easily. She started to lower her wand, and noticed that her arm was dripping red.

She looked down. The water was bubbling at her feet and turning crimson. All around her, Old Larkin Pond was boiling like a cauldron of blood.

Just then, a tiny, high-pitched voice screamed "Hayaiyiyiyiyi!" from the rushes, joined by a spooky chorus of moans that seemed to come from the bottom of the pond.

Gordie screamed, Tom blubbered, and Billy was already running. Tom and Gordie stared at Alexandra for another moment, and then followed Billy. They didn't look back.

Alexandra stared down at herself in horror, and then at the pond. It simmered for a while, then slowly stopped boiling. Dead fish and frogs and other tiny creatures popped to the surface.

She had to wait until after dark before she ran home, a blood-spattered ghost smelling of algae and mud and death. She spent so long in the bathroom scrubbing herself clean that evening that her mother, who was initially angry at her for staying out after dark, became concerned, and forgot about how she'd run upstairs without answering her or Archie. Alexandra escaped punishment that night, and though she once again waited for a letter from the Trace Office, none arrived. Rather than being relieved, she found that worrying.

Annoyingly, the water-turned-to-blood made Old Larkin Pond more of a spectacle for teenagers to come see, for the next few days. Fortunately, by the time Archie drove by the pond in his police SUV on one of his periodic checks of the area, the blood had turned back to water. But Alexandra heard that night about two sixteen-year-olds he'd taken home to their parents, and the wild tales they had told him about the pond, followed by yet another admonition to stay away from there.

Alexandra decided keeping teenagers, police offers, and everyone else away from Old Larkin Pond required more drastic measures.

The next day, she came to the pond with another item she had retrieved from Maximilian's pack. This one hadn't come from the Lands Below; it was just a smooth stone tied to a feather.

Alexandra hesitated, then untied the feather and threw the stone into the grass by the edge of the pond.

Bet this place won't be so popular now, she thought, as she hurried back home.

The next day, the ground was covered by a writhing carpet of snakes. There were harmless brown snakes and grass snakes and garter snakes and kingsnakes, but also rattlesnakes and copperheads and water moccasins. Alexandra wasn't bothered; she simply floated out over the pond on her broom. The rattlesnakes, she thought, would serve as a warning, should anyone be foolish enough to come near.

As she expected, the entire area was abandoned completely after that, by everyone but the reptiles. She had Old Larkin Pond to herself until almost the end of summer.

Charlie had been flying about elsewhere the day that Billy Boggleston and his friends had accosted her, but when Diana Grimm came calling, the raven was perched on the end of Alexandra's broom. The raven cawed a warning, just before she heard a familiar voice behind her, speaking in a pleasant tone.

"Well, I see you're still having trouble with Muggle children." As if only noticing the intruder now, a chorus of rattlesnakes began buzzing.

Unsurprised, Alexandra slowly swiveled about, and regarded the other witch. Diana Grimm looked and sounded exactly like Dean Grimm, her twin sister. Today, the Special Inquisitor was dressed like a Muggle, with her pants tucked into tall boots that looked quite appropriate for walking through snake-infested fields and mud.

"What trouble?" Alexandra asked. "Do you see any Muggles here?"

Charlie clucked nervously.

"No," Ms. Grimm said. "I think you've scared them off... for now. The problem is, they never stay away. And here you are, flying on a broom practically within sight of an interstate highway, for Circe's sake!" In fact, at that moment, they heard the rumble of a truck passing by on the Interstate, but Alexandra shrugged.

"I'm not within sight of the Interstate, and I can hear anyone coming," she said.

"You didn't hear me coming."

"You probably Apparated. Or used a Silencing Charm. Whatever." Alexandra shrugged again.

"I think perhaps you need a little refresher on the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy," Ms. Grimm said. "You know very well that this —" she gestured at Alexandra, on her broom — "is forbidden. To say nothing of this." She pointed her wand where a huge tangle of snakes was still writhing about, and said, "Accio snakestone!" The stone came flying from the serpents' midst and into her hand. She touched the tip of her wand to the stone, and it abruptly shattered.

Brushing her hands off, she fixed Alexandra with a stern look. "I also know that you performed a powerful Transfiguration spell on this pond. It was too powerful for you to have done deliberately, so no doubt it was an 'accident,' which means it was probably triggered by an encounter with the Muggles who frequent this charming little spot." Ms. Grimm sniffed and wrinkled her nose. "And upon asking around, I learned that curiously, Old Larkin Pond now inspires dread in the local children. 'Haunted' was how one boy put it, and another said 'cursed.'" Grimm regarded Alexandra coolly. "I wonder how that happened?"

Alexandra's eyes narrowed. "You go interrogate my friends now?"

She didn't actually have friends here in Larkin Mills, not anymore, but she wasn't going to tell Ms. Grimm that.

"When there's an underage witch living among Muggles, it's important to make sure nothing is happening that would concern the Bureau of Magic Obfuscation. A certain amount of rumors and gossip is to be expected, but your behavior is irresponsible."

"Right, you came to Larkin Mills to make sure there aren't too many rumors about a scary witch hanging around Old Larkin Pond."

Ms. Grimm gave her a severe look that made her resemble her sister even more. "Alexandra, you're very lucky that I told the Trace Office not to bother recording your infraction since I was coming to see you anyway. Now get off that broom and come here."

"If I get off the broom, I'll fall in the pond, since I haven't learned a spell to walk on water yet," Alexandra said, as if she were explaining something very obvious to a very stupid person. Charlie abruptly took off, flapping over to the thicket by the water's edge, on the opposite side of the pond from the other witch.

Ms. Grimm's smile became a little frostier. "I'm being very patient, Alexandra."

Alexandra's father had said something very similar to her, when they'd first met. That memory brought a scowl to Alexandra's face, and she looked away and muttered something under her breath.

"Why yes, Alexandra, I am a witch." Ms. Grimm's eyes were glittering and cold now. "That is what you just called me, isn't it?" All warmth left her voice. "Come here, child."

In response, Alexandra deliberately nudged her broom out further over the pond, away from the witch. She knew the petty act of defiance would do her no good, but she was in a defiant mood.

The other witch raised her wand. Alexandra reached for hers, but she was not nearly fast enough. The Special Inquisitor didn't say a word, but Alexandra's broom shattered into a thousand pieces. Charlie screeched in alarm as Alexandra fell straight into the water. She sputtered and squeezed her eyes shut, bobbing in the center of the pond, while bits of wood and straw rained down on her. After a moment, she paddled towards the shore, gasping. A snake brushed against her in the water.

Ms. Grimm was waiting for her at the water's edge, and grabbed her arm to pull her ashore. Alexandra staggered up onto the soggy ground, and then shook the woman's hand off angrily.

"You destroyed it!" she shouted. "That broom was a gift from my brother!" More rattlesnakes buzzed, only a few feet away.

"Then you should have been more responsible with it," Ms. Grimm said calmly. Alexandra's eyes blazed with fury, and then Ms. Grimm raised her wand again. "I suggest you calm yourself, and your familiar."

Charlie shrieked and dove through the air at Ms. Grimm's face. Alexandra shouted, "Charlie, no!" and held out her hands to ward off the bird. "Charlie, come here! Come here!" She looked apprehensively at Ms. Grimm, who was still holding her wand loosely, as if ready to cast a curse at the bird.

Charlie circled around, and then, with a caw, landed on Alexandra's outstretched hand. Alexandra immediately pulled her raven close to her body and wrapped her arms around the bird, who squawked and protested. Alexandra glowered at Ms. Grimm. "Do you feel all powerful now?"

"This was entirely your doing, Alexandra," Ms. Grimm said. "All you had to do was land as I asked you to, instead of being defiant and insulting. I know you wouldn't dare talk to my sister like that, and it's time you learned that I won't stand for it either."

Alexandra simmered, but she bit her tongue, while taking deep breaths to calm herself.

"You have no idea how fortunate you are," Ms. Grimm went on. "Another Inquisitor might have simply put a Body-Bind Curse on you, and taken you to back to the Territorial Headquarters for interrogation... and possibly had you chained up."

"Chained up?" Alexandra scoffed. "For what, using a bad word?"

"Alexandra." Ms. Grimm's eyes flashed dangerously. "After what your father did a few months ago, you are in no position to be flouting authority. The Wizards' Congress has passed the WODAMND Act. Juveniles can be treated as adults now, if they're suspected of practicing Dark Arts."

"I am not practicing Dark Arts!"

Ms. Grimm raised an eyebrow.

"The snakestone was Max's," Alexandra hissed.

The older witch shook her head. "Your involvement with the Mors Mortis Society last year, and the fact that you're Abraham Thorn's daughter, are more than enough reason for suspicion. Get this through your head, child — you may resent me, you may hate me, but you are not your father! You can't defy the entire Confederation just because you're an angry little girl."

Alexandra bristled, but something in Ms. Grimm's tone and her steely gaze held her attention, and she kept her mouth shut.

"The rules are changing," Ms. Grimm said, "and not everyone will be as tolerant of your attitude as I have been. And it may not be just you that your smart mouth gets into trouble."

Charlie clucked, fluttering and trying to escape her grasp. Alexandra looked down at her raven, then back up at Ms. Grimm.

"What do you want?" she muttered.

"You know what I want."

"I haven't seen or spoken to my father since the last time we talked."

Grimm studied her for a moment, and then said, "You're lying."

Alexandra wondered whether the Special Inquisitor was trying to read her mind. She narrowed her eyes and thought very, very bad thoughts about her.

Ms. Grimm's eyes narrowed also, and then she pointed her wand at the center of Alexandra's forehead, and said, "Legilimens!"

There was a kind of pressure in Alexandra's head — a feeling of intrusion. Alexandra felt her thoughts and memories tumbling around even as she frantically tried to hide them — memories of past summers in Larkin Mills, with her friend Brian Seabury, memories of her mother and stepfather, memories of Charmbridge Academy — and then, the memories she dreaded most, those of her brother, and their deadly trip to the Lands Below. Maximilian had taught her the basics of Occlumency, but in her agitated and distraught state, it was useless trying to shield herself, and she knew that if Ms. Grimm was sifting through her thoughts right now, the Inquisitor would see memories of that trip, which Alexandra's father had supposedly Obliviated from her mind.

"Stop it!" she screamed. "Get out of my head! All right! My father called me! I only talked to him on the phone!"

Ms. Grimm stared at her a moment longer, while Alexandra panted with anger and humiliation, and tried to calm herself enough to push some of her thoughts away from where Ms. Grimm could see them.

Slowly, Ms. Grimm lowered her wand. "Tell me."

"He called me on the phone, the first week I was home," Alexandra said, through clenched teeth. "He told me he hoped I'd understand someday, about what he's doing. I told him I didn't want anything to do with him or the Dark Convention. Then I hung up on him, and I haven't heard from him since. That's all."

Ms. Grimm considered this. "Are you quite certain that's all?" The tip of her wand still hovered inches from Alexandra's nose.

"I don't want anything to do with him!" Alexandra shouted. "And do you really think he'd tell me anything now? I don't know anything about the Thorn Circle except what I've heard on the Wizard Wireless. I've hardly talked to anyone this summer, except by phone or by owl." Her voice was bitter. "I haven't even been able to see my sister, thanks to all the restrictions you guys have put on travel."

"That is your father's doing, as you well know." Ms. Grimm hesitated, and then, to Alexandra's great relief, she slid her wand back into the sheath she kept under her jacket.

"Your father will contact you again, and you will report it," Ms. Grimm said coldly. "Remember what I told you about the WODAMND Act, Alexandra. There's only so much a rebellious adolescent can get away with nowadays. And if you breach wizarding secrecy again, you risk not only being imprisoned, but having a team of Obliviators dispatched to Larkin Mills."

"Why don't you just lock me up right now?" Alexandra glowered at her. "Oh, right — because then you can't use me to get my father."

Ms. Grimm stared down at the younger girl coolly.

"Remember what I said about that smart mouth, Alexandra." She nodded. "Until next time." With a pop, she vanished.

Alexandra stared at the spot from which the witch had disappeared, and then looked at the pond, where bits and pieces of broomstick and straw were now floating across the surface. Charlie squawked and pecked at her, and she released the raven. She walked over to where she had left her backpack, and squatted next to it. Pond water was dripping down her face; she wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, and only succeeded in smearing more mud across her face. She took several deep breaths, trying to compose herself.

"Alexandra," consoled Charlie, from a branch overhead.

She stood up and shouldered the pack, glad that Ms. Grimm hadn't looked inside it. There were things in there that were almost certainly illegal as well.

"Let's go home, Charlie," she mumbled. Charlie clucked, and swooped from the branch to land on her shoulder.

Soaked and smelling like the dirty old pond, Alexandra was in a foul mood. She had a bad feeling that her stepfather would be home by now, which meant unless she could sneak past him to her room, there would be no avoiding yet another confrontation. Considering that she had actually avoided crossing her stepfather for most of the summer, she wasn't looking forward to arguing with him now.

Brooding, and shivering, she ignored Charlie's squawking at first, as she trudged through the tall grass surrounding Old Larkin Pond, picking her way carefully along the hill that rose up towards the woods and the Interstate. She had to make a few detours, when warned off by the buzz of rattlers, but only when the raven took off from her shoulder, and exclaimed, "Big fat jerk!" did she pause, and look in the direction her familiar was circling.

Something was there, in the weeds and brambles growing at waist height — it was a shadow or a flash of color or something that caught her eye, and without thinking about it, Alexandra drew her wand and dashed straight into the brush. "Who's there?" she shouted, holding her wand up at eye level, pointed straight ahead, ready to curse anything in her sight. "You'd better show yourself, or —"

She almost tripped over a young girl crouching in the grass, who screamed as Alexandra stumbled into her. She wailed frantically, "Don't hurt me! I didn't mean to! I'm sorry!" as Alexandra grabbed her by the front of her shirt and hauled her to her feet.

"Bonnie!" Alexandra hissed, in shock as much as in anger. "What are you doing here? Are you crazy?"

Bonnie Seabury stared at the older girl, her eyes wide. Alexandra might not have looked quite as frightening as she had when she chased Billy Boggleston and his friends off, drenched with blood, but she was still a dreadful sight — soaked, covered with mud and algae, and furious. Bonnie gulped, and her eyes flickered in the direction of Alexandra's wand.

"I — I — I —" Bonnie's teeth chattered.

"Were you spying on me?" Alexandra demanded. "How long have you been watching?" She felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Had Bonnie seen the entire confrontation with Ms. Grimm?

From the younger girl's terrified expression, Alexandra suspected she had.

It was at Old Larkin Pond, two years earlier, that Bonnie Seabury had almost been drowned by a kappa, and that had led to the end of Alexandra's friendship with Bonnie's older brother, Brian. Last winter, Alexandra had told them both to forget anything they remembered about magical creatures or witchcraft. Brian no longer wanted to be friends with a witch anyway, and Alexandra knew that the less they knew, the better for both of them.

Yet Bonnie had been unable to hide her fascination with the strange older girl who lived down the street — and that dangerous curiosity had apparently led her here, where once again she had seen things she shouldn't have. Alexandra looked quickly around, half expecting Ms. Grimm to suddenly appear again, but the two girls were alone.

"You idiot!" Alexandra hissed at her. Charlie cawed above them, still flying in circles overhead. Bonnie's eyes drifted upwards, then back to Alexandra.

"You are a witch!" Bonnie whispered. "I saw —"

"You didn't see anything!" Alexandra shouted. She shook the other girl, who squealed, and then Alexandra let go of her, and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. She lowered her wand to her side.

When she opened her eyes, Bonnie was still staring at her fearfully — but with something like awe as well.

"Bonnie," Alexandra said, in a low voice. "Did you see that other woman?"

Bonnie nodded her head slowly. "The other wi —" She squeaked as Alexandra clapped a hand over her mouth, then made a gagging sound — Alexandra's hand was caked with mud. But Alexandra just held it there, and leaned closer.

"Would you like her to put a curse on you? Make you forget everything you saw? Maybe forget you ever knew me? She might even make you forget everything — even your own family! You won't recognize your own parents, or your brother." Alexandra spoke in a low, ominous voice, her eyes fixed on Bonnie's. "That's what she'd do to you, if she knew you were watching. She might do it to Brian, too. She might even make your whole family disappear."

Alexandra didn't think the Magic Obfuscation Office would actually go that far, but Bonnie believed her. The girl's eyes were wide and terrified.

Alexandra held up her wand again. Bonnie began trembling, and making whimpering sounds in the back of her throat as she tried to mumble pleas around the hand clapped over her mouth.

"Don't. You. Ever. Follow me around or spy on me again. Do you understand me?" Alexandra pressed the tip of the wand against Bonnie's cheek, making the girl tremble even harder. "Brian's right," she whispered. "I am a dangerous freak! So stay away from me!" She pushed Bonnie away. The smaller girl stumbled backwards, and stared at Alexandra. She wiped the back of her hand against her nose, and sniffled. Alexandra thought she would cry and run away, but she just kept staring at her.

"What are you waiting for?" Alexandra shouted. "Get out of here!"

"Why are you being so mean?" Bonnie asked.

"Are you completely stupid?" Alexandra pointed her wand at the girl. "Go away, before I turn you into a frog!"

Bonnie's lower lip trembled. "You wouldn't."

Alexandra glared at her former best friend's sister, and then lowered her wand with a sigh of exasperation. Angrily, she shoved it into her pocket, and began walking up the hill again.

Bonnie followed along, a few cautious steps behind her. Charlie landed on Alexandra's shoulder, squawked, and took off again, winging towards home. Alexandra wished she could follow through the air like a bird.

Bonnie didn't say anything, as they reached the top of the hill and walked through the copse of woods that stood on the other side of the Interstate from Old Larkin. Alexandra was too lost in brooding to give the girl much thought, but her presence bothered her, for more than one reason. What was she doing wandering around by herself? Usually Mrs. Seabury didn't let Bonnie out of the house unless accompanied by her brother.

They walked along the edge of the Interstate until they reached the underpass, and then Alexandra asked, "What were you doing out there? Old Larkin Pond is off-limits — didn't you see the signs? Or hear the rattlesnakes? And you shouldn't be walking through Old Larkin by yourself."

Bonnie stared at her. Then retorted, "You're telling me to stay out of trouble?"

Alexandra blinked. Even Bonnie had recognized the irony. It almost made her smile.

But she didn't. She just shook her head and walked on, and Bonnie followed.

Old Larkin was not a particularly nice part of town, though Alexandra knew it wasn't really as dangerous as adults would have them believe. She had spent much of her childhood bicycling up and down its streets, sometimes accompanied by Brian, but often alone. Nothing had ever happened to her. She didn't know why she was more conscious of potential danger now. Not for herself — with her wand in her pocket, she feared nothing. But Bonnie shouldn't have been wandering by herself.

Bonnie spoke again. "Brian's sorry, you know."

Alexandra frowned, then slowed to a halt and turned around. "Sorry about what?"

"You know." Bonnie looked down. "About calling you a freak."

Alexandra stared at the girl for several moments. "Good," she said. She turned around again and resumed walking.

Bonnie bit her lip and followed. They had almost reached Sweetmaple Avenue, and Bonnie seemed about to say something else, when they heard someone shout, "Bonnie!"

Both girls looked up, and saw Brian running down the street towards them.

"Bonnie!" he yelled again, and as he came closer, he slowed to a jog, then a walk, and finally he came to a halt in front of them. He gazed with dismay at Alexandra, dripping wet and covered with mud, and at Bonnie, who had not been dunked in the pond, but still had enough dirt and grass clinging to her to make it obvious where she'd been.

"Oh no!" he groaned, with a panicked look. "Bonnie — did you —?"

"Nothing happened," Alexandra told him. "She didn't fall in the pond. I did. She wasn't there."

Brian stared at her, and looked her up and down, and then stared at his sister again.

"I found her while I was walking back home," Alexandra said.

"You didn't take her to the pond again?" Brian demanded.

Alexandra's eyes flared. "No, I didn't!"

"She didn't!" Bonnie agreed quickly.

"What the heck were you doing out there anyway?" Brian shouted. Alexandra wasn't sure if he was directing that at her, or Bonnie, or both of them, but then he grabbed his sister by the shoulder, and said, "You are in so much trouble, Bonnie! Have you gone nuts? Mom's freaking out! What do you think you're doing, wandering around by yourself? Get home, now!"

Bonnie wrinkled her nose, and gave Brian a disdainful look as she tried to shake his hand off. "You're not the boss of me!"

"You should listen to your brother," Alexandra said.

Both Seaburys stood still for a moment, and stared at her in shock. Then Brian shoved his sister in the direction of their house, and Bonnie, with an indignant glower, stomped off down the street. Brian looked like he was about to follow, but hesitated.

Alexandra just stood there and watched him, not saying anything.

"Bonnie's been getting in a lot of trouble lately," Brian muttered.

Alexandra raised an eyebrow, but didn't reply.

"What were you doing out there?" he asked.

"Sitting on a broom," she said. "It's where we witches hold our covens."

Brian grimaced. "Right." He shook his head. "I thought maybe you got in another fight with Billy Boggleston. He's been saying he beat you up and that's why you hide at Old Larkin Pond after school."

Alexandra snorted. "What's it to you?"

"Bonnie shouldn't be following you around — Mom thinks you're a bad influence."

"I didn't ask her to follow me around!" Alexandra stared at him incredulously. "You're blaming me because Bonnie is acting up?"

Brian shook his head. "No, but she thinks you're... different, and she's too fascinated by you —"

"Oh, so it's my fault because I'm a bad role model for your sister?"

"I didn't mean that —" Brian looked flustered.

"Well, I told Bonnie to stay away from me, so don't blame me for her problems!" Flushed with anger, Alexandra pushed past him, and Brian flinched, at her tone and at the muddy hand with which she shoved him out of the way.

She heard Brian following her, as she stalked down the street, but she didn't look back, and neither of them said anything to one another as Alexandra turned left and walked up the path to her house at 207 Sweetmaple Avenue. She slammed the door behind her, and ignored her stepfather's angry shout as she stomped upstairs.