“The air is cleaner,” Marion says to her husband, trying not to let her irritation show. “It’ll be better for the baby.”
“I guess,” James says, rubbing thoughtfully at his chin. “But what about Owen? He’s about to start high school–it doesn’t seem fair to take him away from his friends.” He looks to Owen’s door, garishly decorated with brightly colored, sloppy sketches. “He has a life here, Mar,” he adds gently, like Marion doesn’t know, like she isn’t painfully aware of every single second of history embedded in this house, every echo of James’s late wife.
It makes her bones itch. “I can’t raise the baby here,” she admits, ducking her head. “I–James, I can’t stay in this town”–her town–“and raise a child here. The country is a fresh start, a better place for children.” She turns from pleading to persuasive, ticking things off on her fingers. “Cleaner air, less noise, less crime, more room to play.” She looks up at him then, grinning, and adds, “James, we could get a dog.”
James huffs a laugh. “Well, then,” he says, smiling back, and Marion can picture it, can picture them happy, free of her shadow, smiling in the sun, surrounded by green pastures and cool forests, the two of them and the baby–and Owen, of course–and a dog, growing old somewhere that’s just theirs. “A dog changes everything.”
James studies her, gnawing on his lip, and Marion does her best to look patient and understanding. “Alright,” he says finally.
Marion knows that it’ll be hard for him to leave this place, to leave the memories and his friends, but that’s the reason she knows they need to. They’ll make new memories, but if they stay here, the two of them won’t last.
She slips her arms around James’s waist, pulling him into as tight a hug as her belly will allow, nestling her head in the crook of his shoulder. “Thank you,” she murmurs, finally letting herself relax.
James wraps his arms around her shoulders, squeezing tight. He kisses the top of her head. “You know I’d do anything for my girl.”
Marion smiles tightly into the side of his neck. “Yeah,” she says, almost actually believing it, “I know.”
Owen lives with his family in a little yellow house at the top of a hill. The hill has a long, winding driveway that leads down to the dusty main road, which runs on into the dark forest. There’s another house about a mile away, but no one lives there. No one ever comes this way, and Owen mostly doesn’t mind.
Homeschooling suits him; he usually finishes his day’s schoolwork before lunchtime. He spends most of his time out in the woods with his sketchpad or a book, getting lost in other worlds, making friends with characters and then saying goodbye to them in turn. He likes the solitude, for the most part, and when he doesn’t, he brings Butch along. His days are quiet and sunny, and he likes the sound of his own thoughts, the soft rustle of the wind in the trees.
His life is simple, comfortable, until the day the Pickett family moves into the house down the road.
The Picketts have a daughter. Her name is Johanna-but-I-go-by-Jo, and she’s all big brown eyes and long, dark curls, with an easy laugh and a permanent lopsided curve to her mouth.
Which wouldn’t be a problem, really, except that for some reason, she follows Owen everywhere. Including, to his dismay, into the forest.
“Hey,” she says cheerfully, falling into step with Owen as he goes down the road into the woods. It’s a Tuesday morning. Tuesdays are for reading, and Owen has a brand new book that he’s eager to dig into, and Jo is nice, but he’s not sure how he’s supposed to read if someone else is there, chattering at him.
Except that Jo doesn’t chatter. Owen sits down against his favorite tree, a sprawling magnolia with giant, twisted branches, keeping his shoulders stiff in case Jo tries to talk to him.
But she just says, “Cool tree,” and settles down against a big root.
Owen opens his book, fully expecting her to interrupt him the moment he starts to get into it, which actually makes it really hard to get into it. His neck is tight, and he gets his nose close to the pages so he can concentrate. Finally, four pages in and not understanding a word of what’s going on, he cracks and says, “Aren’t you going to say something?”
Jo looks back at him, raising an eyebrow. “Did you want me to?”
Owen blinks a few times. “I–well, no, actually,” he admits, cheeks burning a little.
“Well, okay, then,” she says. She rubs a hand over the back of her neck a little awkwardly. “This place is kind of lonely, you know? I just thought it’d be nice to have some company. I can go, if you want.”
With the assurance that she isn’t going to bother him while he tries to read, the idea of having company doesn’t actually bother Owen so much. He doesn’t think this place is lonely, but maybe it’ll be like having Butch sitting at his feet–something else that breathes, that moves, that knows who he is and wants to be near him. He doesn’t think he would mind that, really. “No,” he says, biting his lip a little over a weird urge to smile. “No, you can stay.”
Jo beams at him, eyes crinkling up, and Owen’s cheeks burn even harder. “Cool,” she says, and lays back, pillowing her arms behind her head and arranging herself so the root is propping her up. Owen watches her for another minute, making sure she really isn’t going to bother him, but she just closes her eyes like she’s thinking about taking a nap, so Owen goes back to his book.
It’s easy, now, to get into the story, let it wash over him and pull him under. A tiny piece of him stays back, anchored to the world, tethered to the sound of Jo’s steady breathing.
After a few weeks of Jo joining Owen in his daily trek to the woods, Jo meets him as he passes her mailbox, a large case slung over her back.
“What’s that?” Owen asks, jerking his head towards it.
Jo grins at him, mouth just a little crooked. “It’s a guitar.”
Owen looks at her, brow furrowing. “You play guitar?” He’s never met anyone who plays an instrument, unless he counts his dad singing really badly when he makes pancakes. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t count that, though.
“I do,” Jo confirms, nodding. “I thought maybe I could play while you read.” It should be a statement, but she’s looking at him in a way that makes it more like a question.
Owen thinks it might be distracting. He also thinks that maybe it’s only fair to let Jo be the one having fun–mostly she just lays there, sleeping or staring up at the sky. “Yeah,” he says, smiling a little at her. It feels a little foreign on his face, a little awkward, but she smiles back, so it can’t be as weird as he feels like it is. “That sounds nice.” It’s not even a lie, really. The only music he hears is on the radio.
When they’ve settled down against the big magnolia, Owen sets his book on his knees, watching Jo take out her guitar. She pulls it into her lap, fiddling with the knobs at the top of its neck, strumming her fingers idly over the strings.
After a few minutes of this, she looks up at him, cheeks a little pink, and says apologetically, “I don’t know what to play.”
Owen doesn’t know what she should play, either; he doesn’t even know what he likes. “Whatever’s in your head, I guess,” he says finally. That’s what he draws, when he can pull himself out of his books long enough to make something for himself–he just lets whatever’s in his head spill out onto the paper, even if it doesn’t look very good or make a lot of sense.
Jo looks at him for another minute, curls falling across her forehead and into her eyes, before nodding decisively and looking back down at her guitar. “Okay,” she says, and then she’s playing.
Owen has no idea what it is, but it’s beautiful. The sound pours out, warm and solid like honey and sleepy mornings. He has to close his eyes so he doesn’t just stare. He leans back against the tree, tapping his fingers on his knee with the rhythm.
When the song is over, he opens his eyes to find Jo grinning at him.
“You liked it?” she asks, cocking her head.
Owen feels himself blush, feels a skittering in his stomach, and ignores it. “I did,” he says, setting his book aside entirely and folding his hands in his lap. “You should play me another.”
The trouble starts when Owen gets home that night. He and Jo had stayed in the woods longer than usual, until after sunset, while she played nameless songs on her guitar. He’d started humming along, and then she’d started singing nonsense words, making up songs about squirrels and bees and Owen’s hair, and Owen had sung along wordlessly. He hadn’t stopped smiling until he got home, the door opening on his father’s worried face.
“Where have you been?” he demands. “We were worried.”
Owen’s father has never once asked him where he’s been, has never once been worried. They live out in the country because it’s safe, because it doesn’t matter where Owen is or what he’s been doing. “I was in the forest,” he says, confused.
Her father is frowning, brow drawn tight. “It’s almost midnight,” he scolds, and Owen’s stomach hurts. He’s used to Marion being annoyed with him–Marion is usually annoyed just by seeing him, but she makes Owen’s father happy, so Owen tries to leave her be. His father hasn’t been upset with him since they came here. He always does his schoolwork, finishes his chores. He doesn’t get in trouble, doesn’t make his father upset.
“Jo and I were having fun,” he says softly, hanging his head. “I’m sorry. Time got away from me.”
His father grimaces. “Go on to bed. We’ll talk about it in the morning.”
Owen bites his lip over an argument and goes.
James and Marion have decided that Owen is grounded. Owen hasn’t been grounded since the sixth grade, and it’s very different here than it was back in town. He doesn’t think that he would have minded it, a few weeks ago. It’s not so different, being stuck in his room with a book versus being out in the woods with one. But his books don’t feel right, now, don’t seem quite as freeing to jump into, knowing that when he comes back out of them, he’ll be alone, sitting on his bed, instead of out in the forest with Jo. Pete occasionally screams nonsensically from downstairs where he’s being spoiled by Marion, yanking Owen out of his stories with a start.
It’s an achingly dull routine, and there’s no set end to it–“You’ll be ungrounded when your father and I say so,” Marion had said, eyes narrow, little Pete propped on her hip, gnawing on a doll. There are no days to count down, no way to promise himself he’ll be back in the forest this time next week, nothing to look forward to. He finds himself staring at his books, unseeing, humming Jo’s songs and making up his own words to them instead of reading the ones in front of him.
After almost two weeks, a rock sails through Owen’s open window, landing on his floor. There’s a piece of paper tied messily around it, half crumpled. He kneels down, untying it, smoothing the paper out on his knee.
Are you okay? it reads.
He stands up hurriedly, getting a little tangled in his own limbs in the process, and goes to the window. Jo is standing below it, waving and grinning up at him. He beams back, but puts a finger to his lips so she doesn’t shout up to him. She seems to understand the need for quiet, anyway, but he prefers to be careful; Marion has bat-like hearing, and Owen knows she’s downstairs in the kitchen. It doesn’t face the side of the house that Jo is on, but he’s pretty sure the downstairs windows are open. He holds up a finger so she’ll wait, then goes to his desk to write on the note, below her question, Grounded. He ties it back around the rock and tosses it lightly out the window, doing his best to make sure it doesn’t hit Jo in the face when it falls.
Jo catches it in a more impressive show of athleticism than Owen is ever likely to achieve, unwrapping it and raising her eyebrows as she reads. She writes back and throws the rock back up to him. He catches it neatly, and Jo laughs silently, giving him a thumbs up. He sticks his tongue out at her, and, after reading, For how long?, writes back, Indefinitely. And don’t laugh. I can catch things, too.
Jo catches the rock again, this time one-handed, sticking out her tongue through a smile. When she throws the rock back, the bottom of the page says, I’ll be back tomorrow. Leave the window open.
Owen grins hard and nods down to Jo, tossing the rock back down without the note and mouthing be careful.
Jo flips him a lazy salute and heads down the back of the hill, avoiding the driveway and the side of the house Marion is on.
Marion is on the wrong side of the house this time, and catches Jo right as she arrives. She shouts at Jo, gesturing wildly, and Owen hides his face so he doesn’t have to see how Jo reacts. He peeks through his fingers when the yelling stops, watches as Jo hangs her head and slinks off down the hill to the road, watches until she’s out of sight.
Marion doesn’t come up to yell at him, and he wonders if she just doesn’t want him to know that anyone came for him, wants him to think no one would come for him. He knows it’s not a kind thought, but he can’t really help it.
The rock lands on his floor sometime after midnight, and he rushes to the window, picking up the rock on the way, clinging to the sill and looking down at Jo.
She’s looking up at him, face clouded, and she gives a tiny, sad wave.
Owen reads the note, throat tight. My godmother might be able to help. That part isn’t so strange.
The strange part, in slightly smaller letters, like they’re hunching in on themselves from nerves, reads: Do you believe in magic?
Owen thinks about it. Jo is like magic herself, is this thing that came to him, this thing that feels like–not like a part of him, exactly, but like he’s twice himself when he’s around her, like he could do anything and she’d be beside him. Yes, he writes back, I do.
Jo looks up at him for a long, long time. Finally, she tucks the note into her pocket and leaves the rock on the ground, giving Owen another tiny wave before turning around and heading down the back of the hill.
Owen sits at the window for a long time after he’s gone, wondering what kind of magic Jo is going to bring him that she can’t show him just by being.
He tries not to worry.
Mrs. Lawrence is pretty, in her own way, with light eyes and tawny hair, and the kind of smile that makes Marion just a little bit uncomfortable. She’s a plump woman, short, with a hint of fierceness around her edges that Marion isn’t sure she likes, but she’s company, and Marion doesn’t want to be rude. She’s apparently a good friend of Mrs. Pickett, and Marion doesn’t particularly like her neighbors, but Mr. Pickett had asked James if Marion would mind a guest for the day, and Marion doesn’t like to make her husband unhappy unless she must.
“Your home is lovely,” Mrs. Lawrence says, setting her teacup on her saucer with the gentle clatter of china on china. “It’s so nice to see that the country is as pleasant as my friends made it out to be.”
Marion nods, putting on a smile. “It’s really made a difference to us,” she says. “You’re really thinking of moving out here?” She doesn’t relish the thought of their solitude being shared, but the Lawrences do have a little girl, just a little older than Pete, and maybe it would be good for her son to have a friend out here in the lonely woods. Smiling down at him where he’s playing with his toys on the floor, she strokes a hand over his gold curls. He’s the spitting image of her. She thinks, for a moment, of dark-haired Owen sitting up in his room, brooding over books, and has to swallow against the bitter taste in her mouth.
“I’d love to see the rest of your home, if you wouldn’t mind,” Mrs. Lawrence says, getting to her feet. “My husband says the houses around here are positively charming…” she trails off pointedly, looking around the room, as if to imply that Marion’s sitting room isn’t quite charming enough on its own.
Marion gives Mrs. Lawrence a brittle smile and stands, bending down to pick Pete off the floor and settle him on her hip. He grabs at her hair, and she presses a kiss to his cheek.
“Well,” Marion says, crossing the room to the staircase, “my stepson is upstairs, but I’m sure he won’t mind if I give you a bit of a tour.” Not that Marion particularly cares if Owen minds, but it’s something to say, something to stave off the odd glint of judgment in Mrs. Lawrence’s eyes.
There’s a barely-audible rap on Owen’s door, then footsteps, followed by women chattering to one another, and Pete whining in his high-pitched child’s voice.
Owen waits until the sounds have faded before he gets off his bed and pads on sock feet to the door.
There’s a book on the floor. It’s tiny, barely the size of Owen’s palm, bound in brown leather and embossed with a plump bird on a flowering branch. He crouches down, picking it up, and ducks back into his room.
Owen leans back against the door and lifts the cover with gentle hands. There’s a note tucked in between the cover and the first page, and he unfolds it, smoothing the wrinkles almost obsessively before he lets himself read.
Jo says you like books. Flip forward to give her wings, it says in smooth, feminine cursive, and in reverse to turn her back.
Owen bites his lip and turns the page. There’s a sketchy figure of a girl with long, dark curls. He turns the next, finding the same girl, arms outstretched. The next, and her arms are hazy, lines spreading into obscurity. He turns the pages faster, watching her form blur, then resolve as feathers emerge from fingers, wings from elbows, until he reaches a drawing of the bird from the book’s cover, sitting on a windowsill that looks eerily like Owen’s own.
Owen swallows hard.
Do you believe in magic? Jo had asked.
Owen doesn’t know what that means, not really, but he believes in Jo, and that’s close enough.
He takes a breath, turning the book back to the first page, setting his thumb against the edge of the pages. He lets the breath out, bending the pages back so they start to flip rapidly past.
When he gets to the last page, Owen closes his eyes and hopes.
When he opens them again, the bird is sitting on his windowsill. It’s a nightingale, he sees now, feathers gilded in sunlight, head cocked. It chirps softly and ruffles its feathers like it’s impatient. Like it’s waiting.
Owen pretends that it’s not ridiculous, that it’s not insane, and flips the book from back to front.
When he looks back up at the window, Jo is sitting on the sill, leaning back on her hands, grinning lazily at him. “Hey,” she says easily, flicking her hair out of her eyes and laughing a little. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” he says, throat tight with something, and steps away from the door. “I am now.”
She’s laughing, then, light and sunny, and for the first time in days, Owen feels like he’s home.
It doesn’t take long for Marion to realize something is going on. Owen is cheerful, and Marion knows for a fact that Owen is not a cheerful person. If it were anyone else, she would find it refreshing, but as it is, Owen is a quiet, moody person by nature, and Marion finds his obvious cheer utterly irritating.
She’s certain that he’s sneaking out to meet that girl in the woods, the Picketts’ kid, and Marion is determined to put a stop to it.
She waits by the sitting room window, below Owen’s room, but no one comes up the hill. She gets a tiny, visceral jolt of satisfaction from that, but it doesn’t explain Owen’s good mood.
As she watches for a few more days, the only thing that goes in or out of Owen’s room is Owen, coming downstairs for meals, and a tiny brown bird.
Marion doesn’t know why anyone would get that excited over a bird, but her husband gets excited over his dog, filthy as it is, so maybe it’s some sort of hereditary strangeness. Regardless, Marion is certain that this sort of cheer violates the basic principles of a grounding, so she decides that the bird must go.
She does it when Owen is downstairs, eating dinner with James. She lays out the pieces of glass, repurposed from an ugly champagne flute, sharp edges up, across the span of the windowsill. She tests the edge of one with her thumb, wincing as it digs into the soft skin and draws blood. She sucks her thumb into her mouth and pulls down the shade to hide the glint of glass, then goes back downstairs to eat dinner with her husband.
Owen flips through the book as soon as he gets back to his room, only noticing that the shade is pulled down after he sets the book down on his bed. He only has a moment to think how strange that is–he never pulls his shade–when there’s a tinkle of glass on glass, followed by frantic cheeping. Owen trips over his own feet as he rushes to the sill, yanking the shade up.
Jo is there, lying on her side, her tiny, clawed feet bleeding, shards of broken glass crowded up against her. Owen sucks in a sharp breath, forcing down the panic rising in his throat, willing his hands to stop shaking. He eases the glass away from Jo’s sides, slipping his fingers under her as gently as he can, lifting her into his palms.
“I’m so sorry,” he breathes, carrying her over to the bed, settling down on the covers and cradling her in one hand as he fumbles to pick up the book. She cheeps feebly up at him, and Owen has to close his eyes so he can keep his hand steady enough to flip the book backwards.
He tosses the book aside carelessly when Jo changes back, head pillowed in Owen’s lap, eyes blinking fuzzily up at him. “There was glass,” she says, voice rough. “Did you–“
Owen shakes his head frantically, eyes welling up. He swipes at them furiously, biting hard on his lip. “No, I–it must have been Marion, I swear I wouldn’t–”
“I know. It’s okay.” Jo smiles hazily at him, reaching up and groping at his shoulder for a moment before he takes her hand and squeezes it. He tries very, very hard not to look at her legs, but the blood is staining his bedspread red, and he needs to do something now.
“I need to go get bandages,” he says, voice hushed and a little frantic. “Lift your head, okay? I need to go get–”
Owen isn’t even on his feet before her eyes slip shut and her mouth falls open, breath slowing down to almost nothing.
“Who was that lady?” Owen demands, half running, half falling down the stairs. “The one who was here last week?”
His father catches him at the bottom, steadying him. “Mrs. Lawrence,” he says slowly, clearly confused. “She’s a friend of the Picketts. I think she’s staying with them. Why do you ask?”
Owen is tearing out of his father’s grip as soon as the words are out, grounding utterly forgotten, bolting out the door and down the drive.
Mr. Pickett answers the door when Owen pounds on it, swinging it wide and stepping aside wordlessly. Owen follows him into the house, where Mrs. Pickett and another woman are sitting at the kitchen table.
The stranger looks up at him with disconcertingly light, almost colorless eyes. “What happened to her?”
Owen has to clear his throat twice from the dust of the road before he can get the words out. “Marion–my stepmother–she put glass on the window. Jo is–” he can’t say it, can’t get the words out, can’t bear that it’s happened, that it’s his fault.
The woman stands up, patting Mrs. Pickett’s hand reassuringly. “All right. I’ll take care of it. Follow me back, dear, no need to rush. Don’t you worry.” She pulls her shawl off the back of the chair and settles it around her shoulders, and just like that, there’s an owl in her place, peering at Owen with calm eyes.
“Right,” Owen says, swallowing. “Of course.”
Mrs. Lawrence is standing in the doorway, hands on her hips, when Marion answers the knock.
“Now isn’t really the best time,” she says, as politely as she can, trying to push the door shut. “My stepson just ran out on–”
Mrs. Lawrence just shoulders her way in the door, and Marion huffs, annoyed, as the door hits her. “I would really appreciate it,” Mrs. Lawrence says as she stomps up the stairs, “if you would just not talk until I’m done here.”
Marion narrows her eyes, shutting the door and stalking up the stairs after her. No one has the right to speak to her that way in her own home, let alone someone who is uninvited and thinks that forcing their way in is acceptable behavior. She follows Mrs. Lawrence all the way down the upstairs hallway to Owen’s room, where she finds the door slammed abruptly in her face.
“Excuse me,” Marion snaps, turning the knob.
Except that the knob doesn’t turn, which is ridiculous, because Owen’s door doesn’t lock.
Marion tries it again, banging on it with her other hand, but there’s no answer, and the door is still, somehow, locked.
Gritting her teeth, she storms down the stairs to find James.
By the time Owen gets back home–he tries to run, he really does, but his legs are like jelly, and he can hardly breathe from the July sun beating down on him–his father and Marion are sitting in the living room, Pete playing on the floor beside Marion’s chair, and Mrs. Lawrence is leaning against the wall, arms crossed over her chest.
Owen’s father turns to him when the door opens, face ashen. “Owen,” he says, “Owen, I didn’t realize–”
Owen bites his tongue for a moment, forces himself not to ask which part, exactly, his father hadn’t realized–that his wife was some sort of psychopath who intentionally maims small animals, or that the animal was actually Owen’s only friend in the lonely, remote place Marion had dragged him to so she could get away from the ghost of Owen’s mother? “Is she okay?” he asks instead, looking at Mrs. Lawrence.
Mrs. Lawrence looks at him, tiredness etched around her eyes. “She’ll live.” There’s a faint sheen to the air around her, like she’s something more than human, and for the first time, it hits Owen that magic isn’t just a thing that lets him escape, that lets Jo come to him; it’s something this woman has, something she is, and that’s such a huge thought that his brain refuses to latch onto it, so he shakes his head to clear it.
“Can I see her?” he asks, still not meeting his father’s eyes.
Mrs. Lawrence hesitates, then nods. “I’ll talk to your parents,” she says, jerking her head at Marion and Owen’s father.
Owen shakes his head, feet already carrying him up the stairs. “I don’t have parents,” he corrects, almost absently, attention already on Jo, thoughts a ramble of alive, alive, alive. “I have a dad.” He opens the door to his room, stepping inside and shutting it firmly behind him before turning to look at Jo.
She’s lying on his bed, the bloody blankets in a pile on the floor, Mrs. Lawrence’s wrap over her legs. Owen can see scars on her feet, shining pink and new. “Hey,” she says softly, brushing her hair out of her eyes a little shakily.
Owen nods dumbly. “Hey,” he says, tongue heavy in his mouth. “You’re okay?”
She nods back, shrugging a little. “Something like that.”
There’s an awkward moment where neither of them move, neither of them says anything, and then she’s reaching her hand out, reaching for him, and it’s not until their fingers are tangled that Owen finally breathes again.
There’s a knock on the door a while later. Owen stops reading, tucking his finger between the pages to hold his place, and tightens the arm he has around Jo’s shoulders before he says, “Come in.”
“Owen,” his father says, then stops entirely, hands twitching uncomfortably at his sides.
“That’s me,” Owen says, trying not say something snide. His father didn’t know, it’s not really his fault. He was just trying to move on, trying to fall in love again and make his wife happy. Owen didn’t exactly fight Marion’s influence the way he could have. It was easier to go to the forest, easier to spend the mornings getting his work out of the way so he could flee to the woods and his books and Jo. It’s at least as much his own fault as it is his father’s.
“I think–” Owen’s father clears his throat and palms the back of his neck, rocking back on his heels a little. “I think your stepmother and I were maybe wrong to bring you here.”
“No,” Owen says, shaking his head. “You didn’t do anything wrong, not really. She’s just–” he hesitates, doesn’t let himself say the word insane.
“You should maybe talk to your wife about her suppressed rage,” Jo puts in, eyeing her legs pointedly. “Most people don’t decide to kill small animals because they’re making kids smile.”
Owen’s dad looks at her, finally, and Owen watches his eyes widen a little. “I’m so sorry,” he says, tongue tripping over the words, “I don’t really—I don’t really understand. But I’m sorry nonetheless.”
Jo sits up a little, sweeping the shawl off her legs to reveal the fresh scars snaking across them. “It’s not really very complicated, sir. Mrs. Lawrence is my godmother,” she says, and Owen turns to her, watching as she looks at his father like she’s saying more with her eyes than her mouth. “She’s magic.”
All the wind goes out of Owen’s father, and he says, after a long moment, stretching out like taffy, “My first wife was magic, you know. I thought–I thought maybe I’d imagined it, that I’d made it up when she died, to make it–” He stops, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. “She was magic.”
Owen would be surprised, but he’s seen enough lately that nothing really feels new anymore. If anything, it explains why Marion seems so haunted by her, why she hates her memory so much. It must be hard to get away from the ghost of someone who shone at all like the way Mrs. Lawrence shines. Owen wishes he could remember his mom shining like that.
Jo smiles crookedly, looking up at Owen through her lashes. “She must have been,” she says softly, and Owen feels something in his chest turn over.
Owen’s father clears his throat again. “Yes, well,” he says, a little uncomfortable, and Owen has to suppress a laugh. “I’m going to–to talk to my wife. I’m glad you’re alright.”
Jo looks at him, head cocked, and Owen is forcibly reminded of the nightingale that she’s been. “Yes,” she says slowly, grimacing as her eyes flick down to the messy web of scars on her legs. “Thank you. Give her my regards.”
Owen does laugh, then, but it hurts a little on its way out of his chest, and he has to bury his face in Jo’s hair until his father has left the room and his shoulders stop shaking.
When he pulls back, Jo smiles up at him. “Read to me?” she asks, tapping the cover of the book he’d been reading to her earlier.
He shakes his head. “Sing with me, instead,” he says, closing the book and setting it aside, taking her hand and tangling their fingers together. He still has her songs stuck in his head, still hums them every night as he falls asleep.
She huffs a laugh, curling close to him, and he rests his cheek on the top of her head as she starts to sing, closing his eyes and singing wordlessly along to her song about magic and birds and best friends and true love. He lets himself get lost in it like a book, lets himself fall into it and float away, tethered to the world by Jo’s hand in his.