Keefe waited, looking at me expectantly.
"I -- I'm so sorry," I finally stuttered out. "I j-just had an idea and there was no paper handy, so I used your book. I'm really -- I didn't mean to leave it like that--"
"Oh, no, it's all right," Keefe said. "Sometimes I'll write in my own books. But what does it mean?" His eyes dropped to the page again. "'What service does Mrs. Townley do for Corey?'" he read aloud.
He knew the name of our town. Without even trying, I had violated the most basic of the Public Niceties. All the myriad warnings I'd learned from childhood on babbled together in my head, and a rush of guilt made the ice cream curdle in my stomach. How was I going to get out of this? I had to create a quick, believable lie. But the more time I spent with Keefe, the harder it was becoming to lie to him. Instead I found myself saying the first thing that popped into my head, which was the truth.
"I'd been reading 'The Purloined Letter' and it gave me an idea," I said. "And sometimes I forget ideas unless I write them down. So I just wrote it as quickly as I could."
"An idea?" asked Keefe. "Like for a story?"
A story. That was it. I grabbed hold of Keefe's innocent suggestion and ran with it. "Yes!" I said. "Exactly. An idea for a story."
"You didn't tell me you were a writer," Keefe smiled. "So what's it about?"
"Well," I said, stalling for time, "it's not finished yet..." And at that moment it hit me: I didn't have to lie to Keefe. I just had to tell him the truth as though it were fiction. "But it's a story about a little town called Corey," I went on. "It's the sort of place that's hidden in plain sight. Not even the people who live in the towns nearby know that it's there." I paused for a moment, wondering how much I should reveal, but Keefe seemed fascinated. I went on. "And the people of Corey are hidden because... well, because they're special. They have unusual gifts and talents that most other people don't have -- or, or maybe don't know how to use."
Keefe's eyes were glued to mine. "What kinds of gifts?" he asked softly.
His obvious interest spurred me on. "Oh, things like... well, they can heal people with a touch. Or they can draw and send objects -- you know, move them around just by thinking about it." I began to think of all the various ways we used the knack. "And they can speak to each other, mind to mind, without saying a word, and they can communicate with certain animals, and shape the weather, and create things, and -- and -- and they can fly," I finished, a little bashful at how he was going to receive all this.
I needn't have worried. Keefe's mind lit up with successive delight at each new description, and it was illuminated like the sun when I mentioned flying. "Sounds... magical," he said, a little wistfully. "I'd love living in a place like that."
"Well, yeah, but it's not all perfect. They do have to keep their gifts secret from other people," I said. "I mean, imagine how it would be if outsiders saw them doing all these things."
Keefe nodded. "I suppose some people wouldn't understand," he murmured.
"Exactly!" I pressed on, suddenly keen to share more. "Anyway, they don't have jobs, really, in this town. Instead it works kind of like a big extended family. They all contribute by doing service for each other. As people grow up they discover what their particular talents are, and they offer those talents as a service to everyone else. But there's one woman in town who doesn't seem to do any service for others, and it's up to the main character to figure out why."
"Hmm," Keefe said, and then a puckish grin broke over his face. "Maybe she secretly rules the town?"
"Oh, well, I dunno. I haven't gotten that far yet," I said. "But... does it sound like a good idea for a story?"
"Are you kidding? It sounds fantastic," said Keefe. "I'd read it right now if you had a copy."
The ability to talk to an outsider about Corey, even under the guise of fiction, coupled with Keefe smiling at me gave me a dizzy feeling of euphoria. I desperately wished I could tell him more. In truth, I wished I could take him on a long walk and show him every bit of the knack I possessed. I wanted to know what he'd do as I whispered the nature of his innermost thoughts to him, I wanted to discover how he'd react when I caused the rain to bend softly around us and keep us dry, and more than anything I wanted to know the wonder in his mind as I rose up into the air before him, perhaps drawing him up to me so that he could see the things I saw, in the skies high above Corey. I could tell how deeply he wished for flight, and I knew it was something I could make come true so easily. If only it weren't forbidden.
"I've never told anyone about this story before," I said, twisting a strand of hair. "Actually, I've never tried to write a story before. You're the first to know."
"I'm honored," said Keefe. "Will you promise to tell me how it goes?"
I nodded. "If you like," I said.
"I'd like that very much."
"Just promise me you won't tell anyone about it," I added, as an afterthought. "It's really not ready to share yet."
Keefe made a gesture I didn't recognize. "Scout's honor," he said. And I knew he wouldn't; it was all there in his head.
We kept talking right down into the dusk of the evening, before I finally looked up and saw the first stars appearing in the sky.
"Wait, what time is it?" I gasped.
Keefe looked at his watch. "Going on eight-thirty," he said.
I'd stayed far later than I'd planned. Someone was going to notice I was gone. "I'm sorry, but I have to go home," I said. "Right now. Where's the bike?" And I scrambled out of my chair, intent on fetching Mum's bike out of the back of Keefe's truck.
For a little while, Keefe didn't move -- merely sat and watched me from the table. But from the growing storminess of his mind, I could tell he was upset about something. When I looked up again, he was standing beside the truck bed.
"Would you please tell me why you don't want me to know where you live?" he blurted out.
I stopped, looking down at him, genuinely surprised at the hurt and frustration I saw there. "What?"
"I don't think I've done anything to break your trust," he said. "I've tried my best to be a gentleman. And yet you're ready to run off on your bike in the dark, all by yourself, rather than let me take you home. So what did I do?"
He thought this was somehow his fault. "Keefe," I said as placatingly as I could, "you haven't done anything wrong, believe me."
"What is it, then? You afraid your folks wouldn't like me?"
I hated to admit it, but he was partly right. If my parents knew I'd been traipsing around outside of Corey without permission, they'd merely be upset; if they discovered I'd been on a date with an outsider, any outsider at all, they'd be livid.
"They're just... they're... really strict," I said, rather lamely. And then I remembered the glimpse of the dark anteroom in Keefe's cathedral, and the bitter-faced man I'd seen there, and I took a chance. "Don't you know what it's like to have parents who don't understand?" I asked.
Keefe knew. He knew it well. I could see it in his eyes, and it took all the wind out of his sails. Slowly, he nodded. "All right," he sighed. "Fine. At least let me help you get your bike." He hoisted himself up into the truck bed and helped me unload the Schwinn in silence.
"Thank you," I said quietly. "I really have had a wonderful evening."
He said nothing in reply, but I could tell he was unhappy.
"And thank you for lending me the Poe," I added. "He really is a genius."
Still nothing. I tried once again.
"Keefe? Could I... could I see you again next Friday?"
"You sure your folks will let you?" Keefe responded, somewhat bitterly.
Well. Ouch. "It doesn't matter whether they let me or not," I retorted. "If I really want to see you, I'll find a way." After all, I had the ability. Even though I was taking a chance by slipping out of Corey without permission, I could shield myself from prying minds and find chunks of time to spend with Keefe Godwin if I really wanted to. And I really wanted to.
I guess that much must have come across clearly enough, because Keefe's expression changed a bit. "I've got something going on next Friday," he said. "But how about the one after that?"
I nodded. "Okay. Library at five?"
"And this time it's my treat," I added. "Fair?"
"You know, I can't figure you out at all," said Keefe.
"What was it you said before? Something about my being a woman of mystery?"
Keefe shook his head at me, but he was also starting to smile. "Go on, then," he said. "Get home before your folks ground you again. I guess I'll see you in two weeks. And be careful out there!" he shouted after me as I shot off on the bike.
I'd gone three blocks in the dark at nearly full-tilt speed before I really stopped to think about what I'd gotten myself into. How on earth was I supposed to pay for a date? I didn't have any money, nor did I have any way to get some without looking suspicious. I had no idea what Keefe and I were going to do, where we'd go, anything. Something about being close to Keefe apparently made me an idiot. At least I'd have the better part of two weeks to figure it out.
"The gavotte!" Mr. Flint called out from the end of the floor.
Most of the dancers cheered, a few groaned, and the chaperones looked at each other and clucked their tongues knowingly. Gavottes might still have a slightly scandalous reputation in Corey, but they were lighter and bouncier and a lot more fun than the English country dances that were the mainstay of our gatherings. The moment Mr. Flint put bow to fiddle and began to scrape out a rendition of "Johnny's Fair Partner," we were all off.
Of course, I hadn't counted on John Woodbury being my partner for the gavotte. "Where were you?" he hissed in my ear as he went by.
"What do you mean, where was I?" I whispered back. I had come late to the dance, having slipped back into Corey around nine o'clock.
John said nothing for a while, preferring to focus on the dance. I could tell he was shielding his mind, though little darts of resentment escaped every now and again.
There was a commotion on the end of the dance floor, which was built out out over the water of the lake. Marcus Felton, apparently taken by a playful fit, had launched Janie into the air -- and rather than coming back down, she was simply continuing the gavotte eight feet above our heads, taunting Marcus to come up after her. Several dancers cheered and egged her on.
"I saw you leaving Corey," John said quietly. "Where did you go?"
My heart hammered in my throat, and I missed a step. But it's easy to find your place in the gavotte again, and in a moment I had a reply. "Working on that surprise for my mum," I said. "Just like I told you."
John continued to look suspicious, and on the next turn he asked, "What was it you needed from outside?"
"I'm not going to spoil the surprise," I replied calmly. "You'll just have to wait and see."
Marcus finally scrambled up after Janie, and more and more dance partners joined them. It was about time. As lovely as a gavotte is on the ground, I can't help but think it was really meant to be performed in midair.
"Shall we join the others?" I said, smiling at John. And despite his lingering feelings of suspicion, he gave in and took my hand as we rose up into the late spring air above the lake, spinning and bouncing in time with the others as Janie and Marcus led a loose, drifting chain of dancers on the wind. Far below us we could hear Mr. Flint hooting with amusement as we sailed on over the trees, through a glade, and up over the houses and streets of Corey. My foot narrowly missed a chimney-pot once, and John ducked just in time to avoid a branch in the face, but overall we kept up pretty well.
Eventually the dancers returned to circle above the floor, laughing and teasing each other. We formed a London bridge chain where each set of partners ducked under one couple's raised arms in turn, and John and I, being the last couple through, were caught. Even John had to laugh, though I noticed that he was turning red again.