The woman beamed at her and collected the bits of junk, scooping them into her bag. "Thank you, dear. Thank you, thank you—and that's three thanks for three items, so all has been done proper."
Madeline wheezed a you're welcome. She took a shallow breath. "Could you... Do you think you could ask someone to come out for me?"
The old woman looked to the house again, and her face crumpled. "Not for the wide world, dear."
"For one of my favors?" She took the woman's hand. "I can't breathe."
"The flowers sent word of that, they did. That's why I came. But have they come to you? Have they offered you a bargain?"
Madeline gasped for breath. What was wrong with this woman—couldn't she see that Madeline couldn't breathe? The old woman stared at her with a steady gaze, waiting for an answer. Hoping the woman might help after she answered, Madeline shook her head. "Who? The flowers?"
"No, of course they haven't. Not yet. I can't get involved until then. Not much."
Madeline lay back, coughing. The bright green leaves were waving in the branches. Clouds scudded in from the west, much too fast, covering the sun. She shivered and thought she could see the cloud of her breath when she exhaled. But it was too warm for that on this spring day. "Call my mother," she said. "Or Sofia."
The old woman's face appeared over her. "No favors yet, my sweet seedling. But I can give you the advice now."
Madeline closed her eyes. "Okay."
The old woman squeezed her hand and whispered in her ear. But Madeline could scarcely hear her over her own racking cough, and when she could breathe enough to roll on her side, the sun was shining brightly again, and the old woman was stepping into the hedge, like a rabbit running into a thicket of thorns. She was gone.
Her mother's cry of horror came from the direction of the house, and feet pounded along the garden path toward the shady space beneath the maple.
L'ove comes hand in hand with Joy.
From "Renaldo the Wise," a Scim legend
Madeline used to sing. In fact, she was lead soprano in the school choir last year, her junior year. She used to dance—ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, swing. She used to drive down the road with her friends, all of them shouting over one another, laughing at each other. She used to run track, her specialty being the marathon runs, where she could pace herself and feel her legs moving like pistons, her arms like pendulums, her whole body like the gears of a clock, ticking off the seconds to the finish line with precision. She had gone to State last year. She used to drive herself to school. She used to walk upstairs to her bedroom without stopping to catch her breath, clinging to the banister like a sea star suction cupped to a black rock.
She used to be able to breathe.
"I arranged your ride to school today," Mom said, her voice making it clear this was a final decision. Madeline had used a similar tone of voice when her parents tried to get her to stop going to class. Stay home, they said. You're too sick, they said. But when she did stay home, her parents didn't. Dad had work, Mom had activities, and Madeline ended up in bed, hacking her lungs out, sweating through her sheets, lonely and miserable.
Her mom took a cup of steaming coffee from Sofia and leaned against the kitchen counter, brushing an invisible speck of lint from her ice-blue athletic top.
"I thought you would take me," Madeline said. She had taken her inhaler fifteen minutes before, and for the next thirty minutes or so she should be able to breathe with relative ease. It was like pushing water in and out of her lungs, but at least the air moved. Sofia had made pancakes this morning, Madeline's favorite. Madeline had barely touched them. Like it or not, she wasn't well, and the thought of trying to rally the energy to pretend she was while her friends drove her to school, blaring music and trying to cheer her up... She didn't want that today. A silent, uncomfortable ride with her mom would be better.
"I have badminton this morning." Of course. Mom wore her pleated white badminton skirt, her platinum hair pushed back just so with a white headband.
"I can set up my own rides, then. It's not far for Ruby."
Her mother raised her eyebrows. "It's fifteen minutes out of her way. I texted Darius."
"It's not right, the way you've been avoiding him."
"Why the sudden concern for Darius?"
Mom tapped her nails against her mug, taking another sip before saying, "You dated the boy for over a year and then dropped him without an explanation. He deserves better than that."
"Without an explanation? Who told you that?"
"People talk, Madeline. Your friends were worried, and they mentioned it to me. Poor boy. He was always good for you. You should spend more time with him."
"You don't even like him."
Mom shook her head. "Not true."
"Oh yeah, then why the big sit-down in the living room before prom?"
Mom's lips pressed together, making fine lines branch along her mouth. She always did that when she was done with a conversation. "He'll be here in ten minutes." She blew on her coffee and shook her head. "I'll see you after school."
As her mother walked from the room, Madeline shouted, "Dad's exact words were, He won't provide for you the way you're accustomed to. If that was meant to convey approval, I missed it." She hadn't raised her voice like that in a while, and it cracked, followed by a deep-chested cough. She put her hands flat on the counter and tried to relax.
Sofia put a hot mug in front of Madeline. Steam infused with lemon and honey wafted to her. Sofia's gentle hand brushed her shoulder. "For your breathing," she said, and then she was off, cleaning the breakfast dishes.
"Thank you," Madeline muttered. Sofia had a way of smoothing everything over in this house. The drink was warm and soothing, and Madeline told herself it worked, but reflecting on the conversation with her mom made her angry. There was no way one of her friends had told her mom anything about the breakup. Most of her friends barely checked on her now. It was hard to be friends with the dying girl. Oh, they responded to texts. Most of them did, anyway. But she couldn't imagine any of them sitting down with her mom to talk about Madeline's dating life. Or lack thereof. What did her mom know about Darius, anyway? Next to nothing. Madeline had dated him for over a year, and her mom hadn't shown a moment's interest. Now she was setting up a car pool with him? Whatever she was up to, it was infuriating.