Adrian opened the door to Cassie’s house and placed the key back in its hiding place under the big flowerpot on the stoop. At his own house, he would have called out, but he’d noticed Cassie Power and her father never raised their voices.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do… He closed the door behind him and walked through the shabby single-story house to Cassie’s bedroom. He knocked, not banged like his own father, and waited for Cassie’s reply. At his own home, they would have opened the door an instant later. Had Adrian a nickel for every time his little brothers burst in while he was dressing, he would have left home years ago.
“Come in, Adi,” Cassie called.
Adrian opened the door and found Cassie smiling at him from her desk.
“Give me one minute,” she said, “I’m almost done with my homework.”
Adrian flopped down on her bed and stared at the ceiling. In the weeks since he’d met Cassie on the Day of the Ugly Man in the Mist, he had spent most afternoons with her, escaping his thunderous and dysfunctional family. Here, in the Power’s house, he experienced something he found nowhere else, not at home, not at school, not even on the soccer field: peace.
Adrian and Cassie were now close friends and Adrian told her everything about his life, though she was years younger. To him, Cassie was a girl with the tenacity of a warrior and the wisdom of a sage.
Cassie also felt a connection to Adrian and saw in him the older brother-cousin-friend she had never had. She spilled her guts about Mom’s death, and Dad’s money troubles, and the bullies at school. Yet, if she spoke about Ethur and the place-jumping and the grove by the Old Cemetery where her who-knows-how-many-greats-Grandma Cassandra had appeared, she feared she would frighten him away.
The Day of the Ugly Man in the Mist, Dad had found Cassie draining pasta in the kitchen sink and an older boy stirring a steaming pot of sauce.
“Hello,” he had said, nonplussed.
“Mr. Power, hello, my name is Adrian Ryder, I live across the street.”
At dinner, they had explained about the scary man who had knocked on the door and frightened Cassie.
Dad had gazed at Adrian with a look of concern wrapped in eternal exhaustion and bow-tied with sorrow, and thanked him for helping his daughter. Since then, Adrian had become a fixture in his house.
Cassie finished her homework and glanced at Adrian’s long figure sprawled across her bed. She sighed and pressed Ethur, the small horse-shaped figurine dangling on his long silver chain, against her chest. She would share her secret now that Grandma Cassandra had hinted in a dream that everything would be all right.
“Adi,” she said, “if I tell you something, will you promise not to hate me?”
Adrian’s eyes flew open, and he sat up on the bed. He locked his gaze to hers.
“Cass, you can tell me anything, you know that.”
“Remember the Day of the Ugly Man in the Mist?” Cassie began, “well…”
And she bared her soul to him. Sentences formed in her clumsy tongue and tumbled into the air, weaving a strange tapestry of magic and witchcraft. Adrian’s earnest gaze fixed on her, his face frozen into an expressionless stone. Yet, as he listened, he believed every word. He had known it all along, deep inside his soul. He never saw her leave her house, nor arrive from school. Yet he would see her on the middle school grounds as he drove by them, and she would be home as soon as the school day ended.
Cassie finished with flushed cheeks and an expectant gaze, searching his face for anything, a sign, a word, an emotion.
Adrian’s blank expression burst into a comforting smile, “I think I’ve always known. I mean, we explained The Ugly Man in the Mist to your father in the most rational way we could, but there was something eerie about that day. Something supernatural, something magical, too.”
Cassie beamed and threw her arms around his neck, “I was so scared you’d run away. I was so frightened I’d scared you!”
“Nah, I’ve always thought witches were cool,” Adrian joked, “and good witches named Cassiopeia are the coolest.”
A tiny neigh broke the comfortable silence that ensued. Cassie glanced down at the figurine around her chest and placed it in her open palm. Adrian’s eyes widened with delight and wonder as he beheld the tiny obsidian horse kicking and bucking and flicking his tail and mane this way and that.
“This is Ethur,” Cassie whispered, amazed Ethur would show himself to Adrian.
“Hi, Ethur,” Adrian said and ran his pinky finger down Ethur’s snout. The tiny horse brayed.
“I’ve never seen him so excited,” Cassie said, “I wonder what’s happening.”
“Maybe he wants you to show me this place-jumping thing, or whatever you call it.”
“Ok, let’s try it,” Cassie exclaimed.
She clasped Adrian’s hand and closed her eyes. She concentrated on the grove by the Old Cemetery and, sim sala bim, they were standing beneath the ever-blooming trees!
Adrian laughed and raised his fists in a gesture of victory, “Yeah! That was awesome!”
He put his arms around Cassie’s waist, lifted her and spun her around in circles. She giggled.
“Look,” Cassie pointed downwards the hill, “we can see our houses from here. Mom and I used to picnic here all the time, sometimes we’d see Dad pull into the driveway and knew it was time to leave.”
“You’re right, my little brothers left their bikes out when they’re not supposed to,” he said, and opened his mouth to continue, but froze.
Cassie’s smile of delight faded as well; she inched closer to him. Adrian put his arm around her. A hawk screeched and glided above the trees.
Atop the hill, safe under a canopy of swirling blossoms, Cassie and Adrian watched an eerie fog creep down their street and engulf their houses in its evil darkness.
The Ugly Man in the Mist was searching for them… and had missed them by an instant.