It was a blanket day of the new summer, white clouds like an even coat of paint on the sky. Luke could see it from his bed: as he woke and found himself in the new day, and turned his head to take in all that was familiar, it colored the room. The colorless light that filtered in through the window’s curtains.
Outside, the town moved little. It was only the kids, Luke soon to join, that found their way out. The prevailing feeling among them, even before they met up, was that they had been wronged, but it was not something they could shout or fight against because there was nothing to fight. Wronged was just what they were, and they wandered outside with that weight on them. Whether or not they were searching they would find each other, and they would find something to do, and in company and by likeness they would find out if their feelings were right.
The feeling was with Luke even though he didn’t waste time getting up, even though he knew what he was doing that day. But for him it was background because he was looking for his backpack, and once he found his backpack he had to empty it so he’d have space, and once it was empty he had no reason to not to go downstairs. Unlike the others, he wasn’t going to wander, and unlike the others he knew what he was searching for. He hardly remembered to bring something to eat, before forgetting to say goodbye to Mom and leaving out the front door.
What brought him out was that he knew that there was magic, or that there might be magic, and he had had the idea that if he searched - searched the right places, searched hard enough, magic might be possible to find. Not at the house, with its years of familiarity, but maybe elsewhere.
He took his bicycle and rode off. He did not go anywhere, though, stopping about as quickly as he started, as soon as he turned off his street. Looking around there were lawns under lenient maintenance, and cars in driveways, and along the road there was an almost-empty plastic bottle, a stricken snack bag. Down the streets might be an okay first place to search; if he went down enough he had to find something.
So he rode on, scanning front yards and driveways before he passed them. Every so often he stopped, but there was hardly anything to stop for; riding onward from a bare sidewalk and a boring yard, he’d look and again find nothing. He turned down new streets and before him were new rows of the same houses. It did not take long to become disheartened, and Luke rode by a stretch with hardly a glance. All that changed was that his legs were growing tired.
So Luke slowed and stopped, got off the bike and laid it down. A lone car rolled by, and he let it pass before settling himself in his own place, a spot on the curb, and he sat elbows on his knees and chin on his hands. His time had been time wasted. And the clouds were out, and his summer was short, and the days of summer didn’t come back. He stooped further forward, and looked down the street.
And there, out of the pavement, resting and hidden in the corner against the curb, appeared something. It was a metal rod; Luke couldn’t have seen it from the sidewalk, but from this angle he could. He got up and walked over, picked it up. Shallow ridges spiraled up its length, about the length of his forearm, and it was rigid with some weight. Luke tried hard to bend it, and passed it from one hand to the other. Amazingly, it was magic. He could tell after holding it for just the short while. He struck the palm of his off hand, feeling the rod’s force.
He wondered how he had found it. It was likely that something about it had gotten him to stop here, but it was possible that he had just been lucky. Luke took a moment to consider, then put the rod into his backpack, ran back to his bicycle, righted it and rode off again.
- - -
He was headed to the lot.
The lot was almost always where the kids went. It was the ideal spot: it was free without being abandoned, overgrown around the edges, the pavement starting to crack, and it was spacious without being empty, a basketball hoop at one end, in the center a plot of dirt with a tree. So, from wherever they lived in the neighborhood, the kids went. Those who were first to show up waited for others, idly losing the meantime, and those who were late, whether by some minutes or a few hours, would see the others in the lot from a distance and would run the rest of the way, so as to not miss out on any more than they already had.
Today Luke was late, but, preoccupied, stopped before the lot’s edge. There was as good a spot as any to drop his bike, so he did.
He was of course interested in what the others were doing, and from where he was looked over. Missing the angle he walked, keeping to his side of the long grass. They were four, and they were doing something - they were together - but from where he was that was all Luke could gather. He wasn’t going to find out more, either, because before stepping onto the lot he reminded himself of why he was there.
However, looking down the lot’s length, Luke realized that he had come without thinking of what searching could be done. Now that he was here, in a breeze of clear thought, he saw that there wasn’t actually much. There would’ve never been, because it was an empty lot, but before he came Luke hadn’t doubted it was going to be a good place.
He glanced back to the neighbor kids. They were still where they were. Then he looked beside him to the only place on the lot there was, the long grass which went on to surround it, and between the two Luke took a second, looking unfavorably at the grass but not away again. Then he started walking, pushed the grass one way to reveal the dirt then the other way to reveal the same dirt, not missing any of the nothing there was to find.
When he turned to look again it was because he heard one of them running over – Curtis, who slowed as he got close.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
Luke kicked some grass over. “I’m looking for magic stuff.”
“Why are you always doing that?”
“What?” Luke asked back. “This is my first time!”
“Yeah, well you’re always talking about it.”
Luke looked up and saw the rest of the kids coming over. He looked back at Curtis, was going to say something but didn’t. Curtis turned his head and Luke stepped out of the grass.
“What are you doing?” Ed, reaching them, asked.
“He’s looking for magic again.”
The following second of silence seemed to indicate that Ed thought searching for magic was a waste of time. Luke stood facing them, arms crossed.
“What about you guys?” He put to them.
“Just trying to think of something to do,” Curtis said.
Acknowledgment of it made Ed drop his head. So neither they nor Luke were better than one another on this day, and they stood around together.
“Have you found anything?” Jane, beside Ed, asked.
Curtis cut in - “I’m not looking for stupid magic.”
“My brother has a lizard at home,” Curtis went on, “We can go.”
Luke didn’t budge. Curtis turned to the others.
The other two boys looked at each other, roped in. So it seemed the group was to split as they had met, the meeting between them just a sharing of meager bits. Only Jane, unacknowledged and somewhere in the middle, was not caught – and, wondering what searching for magic was like, if it was hard, she did not move to leave. Curtis did, and she turned to Luke, who was in turn turning back to the grass.
Luke had seen her, but whatever she was lagging behind the others for didn’t really concern him. He looked up only to see how much farther he had to go around.
- - -
Luke walked rather fast. Not far behind, Jane followed. She was watching carefully, so as to gather as much as she could about what she should and shouldn’t do. Though she had a lot of questions, she did not feel she should ask them just yet. But she did have to say something, before it was too late, and she ran to make up the few paces between her and Luke.
“Can I look with you?”
Luke kept walking. Just ahead he saw the first thing that wasn’t grass or dirt, a pink plastic ball about the size of a softball. He crouched and picked it up, held it; it was light, and somewhat deflated, and its surface dirty. If there was a little magic to it he couldn’t immediately decide. What he did not want to do was spend all day on it, especially as he came to sense Jane watching. With a sigh he removed his backpack and put the ball inside.
By then he was about all the way around, back to where he started. He did not feel as though he’d made progress. The lot was barren, and he didn’t know where to go next. And also he didn’t know why Jane was with him, or what she wanted. Unwilling to ask and impatient, Luke moved to right his bike.
“Wait!” Jane cried, and ran off to get her own.
She really ran – Luke watched her - and then, on the way back, pedaled. While Luke watched he thought of what effect bringing her along would have - if with her he’d continue searching, and if so how much she’d slow him down. Luke looked around, knew once again that he couldn’t search here, and Jane rode up beside him.
“Where are you going?” she asked, slightly winded.
Luke pushed back and forth on his heels, rolling slightly. Then he said, “Follow me.”
He pushed off and rode ahead, not heading anywhere but toward the center of town. Jane followed; they went by the couple short roads with tired stop signs, a couple turns. Then they were on the big road with plenty shoulder, and though a gap formed between them they rode belonging there as much as the cars that drove by.
After a distance there was sidewalk, and Luke led them onto it by where it sloped. There were residential streets on either side, not of interest, and he passed them. The houses lost their yards and shortened their driveways. Then, finally, was the main street, and at the corner Luke stopped, allowing Jane to catch up.
Down the main street were the real buildings: a storefront for computer repair and by it a couple for clothes, the large church and to the opposite insurance and banking, the townhall and further down the food places.
Luke’s first consideration was searching between and behind the buildings, starting from where they were. He just did not know if Jane would want to follow. The church might also yield something, its yard with stone benches and fountain and whatever else of stone stood around. Or a couple streets off was the gas station, which they sometimes got snacks from. They could even just ride down the blocks to see if anything stood out. Luke thought, and the whole time Jane waited, tried to catch where he looked.
“I was thinking of going to the gas station,” Luke then said, knowing that Jane was waiting.
“I don’t have any money.”
“We don’t have to go in.” To no response, Luke looked along the side of the building. “Hey!” he said suddenly.
Jane looked to where Luke was; something plastic lay there, transparent stiff plastic, squarish. Luke left his bike against the building, before picking it up and turning it in his hands.
“I think it’s a pencil holder.”
“Is it magic?”
Luke gave it a couple more turns. “No, I don’t think so,” he said, and placed it back on the sidewalk. He turned back to Jane. “We could just look around here - like behind buildings and stuff.”
“How about the library? They might know something.”
The library. It wasn’t a bad idea. There might be a book worth checking out, or the librarian might be helpful. What was more notable, though, was that it was not something Luke had thought of himself; Jane was helping, and helping already.
“Do you know the librarian?”
Jane tilted her head. “Kinda.”
Both there and around here would be a pretty good choice. However, Luke’s mind shot off to a new direction, thinking again; not deciding between those. Because, if Jane was really going to help him search, if she was not just tagging along, there was one more place they could go. A place he didn’t think he’d want to go to, not even by himself - not so soon, not when he’d searched less than a day. Now, with Jane with him, going there was rising as a thing to do, and it was a bigger decision than between everywhere else.
Jane broke in, “What should I ask?”
“Nevermind,” Luke dismissed. He picked up his bike. “Come on, I know where to go.”
Quick, he got on and kicked off, riding ahead.
- - -
Where they were going was the best place. A short way from where they were, away from the center of town, there was a road that ended with forest. Without looking closely that’s all the road was, a dead end. But Luke knew the trail that went inside.
He knew the trail but nothing about it; he’d been shown it but hadn’t been down, didn’t know where it led. Since then it had remained out of his thoughts just beneath, a cause for imagination dormant. Luke recalled the sight of it, which he awaited as he hurried down the roads.
Reaching the tree line Luke stopped, and in a moment Jane was beside. She looked, not immediately seeing what Luke could, but as the uniform clump of trees came apart before her she started to. The trail showed itself, and alongside it on the ground, also slow to show, were blips of junk. Some of it was trash – a couple discarded bottles, a can – but some of it wasn’t. There was a large tire slightly embedded into the earth. There was also a clothes washer, in disrepair and beginning to fade, settling in the pine needles. Seeing it then was like seeing something that hadn’t been there before.
Luke ventured forward, not disarmed. The soft grass beneath him yielded to firmer earth, and ahead the light from the clouded sky was made cool and dim in the shade of the trees. Jane took a moment. If Luke wasn’t leading she would’ve remained looking on from the outside, timid, a stranger to the trail - but she could be introduced. She looked up as she entered, following the trunks of the trees and the gaps between them. Stacked branches, crossed or reaching.
Jane walked on, and wasn’t looking, and bumped into Luke.
He glanced back at her, his backpack hanging from one strap. But it was nothing, and he resumed what he was doing, unzipping the main zipper of his bag. From it he took out the pink ball. It did not belong there, and he gave it no further consideration before tossing it in the woods. It landed and settled; it was not magic on its own, but it did seem to somewhat belong where it landed, in this place where magic was sure to be.
Then, before closing his bag again, Luke brought out the other thing he had found, the metal rod.
“We’re looking for something like this,” he said.
Jane looked at it, but didn’t see anything.
“Hold it,” Luke said.
It was weighty in Jane’s hand. She lifted it up and around, but couldn’t tell exactly what was special about it, feeling she was only getting a bit of an idea. Regardless, she was glad Luke let her hold it, and she handed it back so as to not keep it longer than she should.
“I’ll search over here,” Luke said, pointing with the rod to the side that had more, before putting it back in his bag.
“Ok,” Jane said, looking over to the other side of the trail, implicitly hers.
Carefully, she treaded onto untreaded woods. She focused on the ground, and as she walked she remained focused, not missing a clump of leaves or pine needles, looking as though things were being hidden from her. She glanced back to Luke, who was not so slow. She went a little bit faster. The metal rod stayed pictured in her mind, somehow to be her guide.
Luke saw a lot of junk but found nothing. He searched the shrubs, he searched nearby and searched afar, he turned around to where Jane was searching and searched there, too. He passed by sinking sofa cushions and the bare sofa they came from, and stopped before a teddy bear that no longer kept up its appearance. There was a small suitcase, opened and forever waiting to be filled, a bucket, sideways, not serving its purpose but unable to reject it altogether. In all of it, nothing was particularly magic.
That’s about when Jane saw a handheld radio, and, curious, picked it up. She ran over to Luke.
“Is this magic?” she asked, coming up beside him and offering it over.
Luke looked at it before taking it from her. A radio could actually be a find. Jane looked on, a little anticipation growing that she could not help.
The radio however was missing a dial, and like everything else a lot of its life seemed to have been lost to the woods. Luke gave it perhaps more time than he needed to, before he couldn’t give it any more and had to give it back.
“No, it’s not,” he admitted.
Jane received the radio back, the optimism she had dashed. Luke moved on to search, but she didn’t do the same. Only when he was far enough away did she go, but still not searching, only finding a tree to place the radio against. She left the radio, then, seeing that it looked half-dignified there, dragged her foot across the ground, shoveling a small mass of pine needles, covering it as she could. This place was filled with worthless stuff, and now that they were farther into the woods there was less stuff at all. Luke was still searching though, and so she walked on, acting as though she were searching as much as searching itself, more waiting for what Luke would do.
Luke was keeping on on the other side of the trail, passing by a widening span of the forest. He saw a lawn chair that wasn’t sitting, got tired of the plastic bottles, added yet another tire to his tally. There was a short pile of flattened cardboard boxes, fallen to one side, and a sprawled blanket, lying alone. Then there was woods, more woods.
Jane stopped altogether, and found a new tree, one to idle by, and put her hand on it to feel the ridges. They were wider than her finger and ran upwards to where she could no longer reach, reaching to the clouds. The clouds were now a dark gray. She held the tree with one arm, leaned around, and wondered about Luke, whether he realized that they likely weren’t going to find anything. What he would say.
“Jane come here!” Luke yelled.
Jane looked over, and Luke was crouched and intent looking at something in his hands. She ran, no idea on what it could be.
“Look,” he said, standing. “A compass.”
Jane looked to it, and then to Luke, and back to it again. “But it’s broken,” she said.
“No, look!” Luke said, and spun it around, and the needle wavered. “See?”
Jane watched it waver.
Luke sprang up. “This way!” he yelled, and ran.
“Wait!” Jane yelled, chasing after him. He ran so fast, through the ferns and past the trees, jumping over a fallen limb. “Luke!” she screamed. She could not keep up - he wasn’t slowing down, his backpack bouncing with his running. She feared she was going to lose him. “Luke!” she screamed again, “Stop!”
Then, quite abruptly, he stopped. Jane slowed - was relieved, perplexed. As she closed the rest of the distance between them she saw what made Luke stop running: Luke was standing before a dirt road that cleared through the woods.
He looked back to the compass and looked up, and said nothing. He walked a couple steps up to the road and looked up it in one direction and then down the other.
“Is this where we’re supposed to be?” Jane asked, short on breath.
Luke took a second, did not answer her question. Instead he turned around, looking as if he had no idea how he got there, why he was among all these trees. Once more he looked back to the compass. It had a crack running the whole length through the center and it had not been cleaned of dirt. He looked down the road once more.
“There’s nothing here,” he said.
Luke knelt and looked at the compass once more. It did not matter if it was lost, not for him or anybody to ever come across again. On the side of the road, just out of the obscuring woods, Luke laid it down.
Not standing back up, remained kneeling, a wave passed over him. For the moment there was no hope that there’d be better luck on another day, and no thought that he could do something else tomorrow. As for the waste of time they had undertaken, Luke had no explanation, not for himself or to give to Jane. And he thought of the others, if their day had ended in disappointment just as his search had, if they’d all gone out on a day that had only risen to bring them down.
“Let’s head back,” Jane said, “before we get lost.”
They did have to get back. So Luke said, “Yeah.”
He stood. However there remained something he wasn’t thinking of, and he did not move, did not look to Jane or off anywhere. Then he remembered – still in his backpack was the metal rod. He took off and unzipped his bag, took the rod out. It was the same as before, had the same feel, but with frustration he saw how it could seem like nothing at all. Had he found it here, he didn’t know if he would have even picked it up.
Unsure, he waved it, then swung it in the air. A couple more times he swung it, heavy swings, swishing. He looked up. The sky was a dark, dark gray. He lifted the rod, held it up to that sky.
And the first raindrop landed on his outstretched arm.
And another landed beside, and came more, lone taps on the ground quickening, before joining, coming together.
And then, at the end of slow moments, it was really raining; the gray sky had broken, and it came down like it was waited for. Now they really had to go, and Luke pushed the rod in his bag, and he and Jane ran back the way back home.