About a week later, newly armed with Mr. Herrick's business address, I ventured out to the library again. I'd torn through my library books at top speed just to have a ready excuse to go back to town, and I won my mother over by promising to lend out a fashion magazine or two for her.
Mrs. Sanger seemed pleased to see me again, but as she made up my permanent library card she asked me why I wasn't in school.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Young lady, most girls your age are studying math in middle school this time of day." She leaned conspiratorially across the counter. "Now, are you homeschooled or are you playing hooky?"
"Homeschooled," I said quickly. It seemed the likeliest answer to be accepted. In truth, I'd never been to school. Corey didn't have one, and we didn't attend any local schools outside -- we just sort of seemed to pick things up by osmosis, really. I'd always assumed it was part of the knack to learn things effortlessly.
"Hmm." Mrs. Sanger looked unconvinced, but she changed the subject. "So, what did you think of the Hitchhiker's Guide?"
"I'm still trying to decide. For a book where the earth gets destroyed right off, it's pretty funny." In fact, my commonplace-book had picked up a new quote: Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so. "Do you have any other recommendations?"
"It just so happens that's part of my job description," Mrs. Sanger said drily. "Tell me what kinds of books you like, and I'll see if I can point you in the right direction."
She and I spent the better part of an hour looking up histories, historical fiction, a little sci-fi -- even, on a whim, a book of spells and charms (which, by the way, proved to be worthless bunk -- who writes those things, anyway?). I made what I hoped was a casual reference to the fact that Keefe wasn't around, and Mrs. Sanger just smiled and said, "Oh, he's probably in school right now." Then I longed to ask her when school ended, but decided against it. Even so, I caught myself surreptitiously peering down the ends of the stacks, hoping to catch sight of him walking by. I lingered in the library for a few hours after that, curling up in a reading room with some of the books I'd picked out (including the sham spell book) with the thought that perhaps Keefe would make an appearance, but he didn't.
With all the books I'd chosen, plus the promised fashion magazines for my mother, there was a formidable stack for Mrs. Sanger to check out. Somehow I hoisted the whole hefty mass and made for the door, thankful to have a large bike basket at my disposal. But I was puzzled to find the red Schwinn missing from the bike rack, and no note to account for its departure.
I went back into the library. "Did anyone leave a note for me?" I asked.
"No, not that I'm aware of."
"It's just that someone borrowed my bike."
"Oh, honey, did you lock it?" asked Mrs. Sanger.
"Did I --" I was honestly confused. I'd never locked up a bike before, and wasn't sure why someone would want to do so. People often borrowed each others' things in Corey, but would ask ahead or leave a note indicating where the item had gone. They didn't just borrow without any warning --
Mrs. Sanger looked exasperated. "Honestly," she said, "when will you kids learn that leaving a bike unlocked is an engraved invitation to a thief?"
"You mean somebody stole it?" I was horrified and indignant. "They can't do that! That's my mum's bike!"
"Well, unfortunately, right now your mum doesn't have a bike any more. You might want to go down to the police station and report it stolen."
I thought about keeping Corey safe, and the potential danger of getting the law involved, and I knew I couldn't go to them. There might be other ways of getting Mum's bike back... but in the meantime --
"How am I going to get home?" I asked forlornly, more to myself than to Mrs. Sanger, but she answered all the same.
"I'd give you a ride, but I've got to finish out the day here. If you need a way home, you could call your folks and have them come pick you up. Or you could walk, or take the bus..."
I thought about how angry Mum would be that I'd lost her bike. "I -- I think I'd better walk," I said.
Mrs. Sanger must have recognized my mood, because she softened a bit. "If you're going to do that, let me at least get you a sack for those books," she offered.
* * *
Five minutes later I was trudging slowly down the main village road, shifting the heavy plastic sack from hand to hand, feeling put-upon and miserable. Why did these misfortunes always seem to happen to me whenever I went to this village? Maybe it was cursed. Or more likely I was cursed. Now I'd have to walk for miles to get back to Corey, and at the end of the journey I'd probably face punishment from Mum and Dad for losing Mum's bike.
I briefly wished a case of head lice on the bike thief, then relented. It was only an object; objects never mattered as much as people. Besides, I thought, Mum and Dad would know what to do to find it again.
Meanwhile, I had some walking to do. I longed to be in a place where I could move light and free, as fast as it was possible for me to move, rather than plodding along on heavy feet. How dreary it must be to live outside Corey all the time -- to have no choice but to walk! How did people put up with it? Maybe that's why someone stole the bike...
Just then, the flimsy bottom of the plastic grocery sack gave way, summarily dumping all my library books onto the street. I squawked and dropped to my knees to gather them up, scrabbling at the paperbacks as they bounced off in various directions, shaking the dust of the roadside off each one, gathering and stacking book after book.
"Hey, are you all right?"
The voice came from the driver's side of a battered green pickup truck on the opposite side of the street, and it was instantly familiar. I froze for a moment. I'd been thinking of Keefe most of the day, hoping to see him, and now that he was actually here I found myself unable to speak.
Finally my mouth seemed to defrost and I stuttered something out: "I -- I -- I'm all right. I just -- the sack broke and now my books --" Why wouldn't my brain cooperate?
Keefe looked sympathetically down at me; I guess I must have looked pretty pitiful, because he asked, "Would you like a ride home?"
I'd been told not to accept rides from strangers, but -- it was Keefe. He wasn't a stranger, just an outsider. And he couldn't help that. "Yes. Yes, thank you."
On the route that led toward Corey Keefe asked a lot of questions -- who I was, where I lived, why he didn't see me at school, what had happened to my bike. I gave mostly vague and equivocal answers until we got to the question about the bike, and Keefe bristled with equal indignation at the thought that someone had stolen it.
"I'll have a look around town," he promised. "If I find it, I promise I'll get it back for you."
"Thanks," I said. "I hope it'll turn up soon. It belongs to my mum."
Keefe muttered something about the stupidity of thieves.
I had been so keyed up at the chance to talk to Keefe and so quietly focused on the amazing structure of his mind that I almost missed the hidden entrance to Corey again. "Wait! Stop here," I said. "This is fine. You can drop me off here."
Keefe looked perplexed. "I don't mind taking you all the way home," he said.
"It's not that far from here, really."
"This is the state forest. There aren't any houses around here."
"It's really OK. Besides," I said, trying to think fast, "walking is good for you."
Keefe considered for a minute. "Well, OK," he said uneasily, "if that's what you want."
In truth, I didn't want -- I would rather have talked to Keefe for another hour -- but I had to get home. I hopped out of the passenger side and closed the door. From there I picked a direction and started to walk along purposefully as though I had another mile or so to go, knowing I'd have to wait until he headed back down the road, so he wouldn't see me calling to Corey. Except Keefe didn't just leave. Instead, he flipped a U-turn in the middle of the road, then stopped for a minute and leaned out the window towards me, with those ice-blue eyes that seemed to be able to look into my mind just as readily as I could look into his.
All he said was, "See you later?" But that was enough.
I smiled -- goofily, I was certain. I couldn't help myself. I nearly dropped my books again. "Sure."
"OK. Well, take care." He smiled back at me, then was on his way.
I waited for a full ten minutes, thinking a number of happy Keefe-related thoughts, until I was sure that I was really alone and he wasn't going to come back. Then I softly called to Corey and stepped through into the hidden lane that would take me home. And from there I took mere moments to get home to a scolding that I willingly submitted to, because my mind was far away on a cumulus cloud somewhere.
Mum and Dad went out that night to locate and retrieve the stolen bike. It took them the better part of a week before they found it. They didn't tell me how or where, and I didn't ask, since I was already grounded for allowing it to be stolen in the first place. I didn't think the punishment was entirely fair, since I'd never been warned that outsiders would steal an unlocked bike -- not to mention that the bike didn't have a lock in the first place.
At first I was afraid I'd be permanently grounded from bike use, but Dad talked to Mr. Herrick, who made a lock that would only open for our family members. When I tentatively asked Dad whether I'd ever be able to use the bike again, he said, "We'll see. I'll have to ask your mother about it."