The first time I saw Stephen, he painted a hex sign on my right arm, and I couldn't move my fingers for three hours.
The second time I saw Stephen, it was at his trail for unauthorized hexing. I got to tell a nice lawyer in a nice suit all about the finger incident, and then I got to tell a not so nice lawyer in a nice suit about it. Afterwards, the judges thanked me for my contribution and sent me away before the sentence was cast.
I think you can understand why I wasn't so stoked to see him the third time I saw Stephen. It was the first day of my senior year of high school, and he walked right into my classroom to take the seat beside mine.
"Let me see your hand," he said.
There was no way I could hold back my sneer. "I don't think so."
I was all set to look away and never look back when I caught a motion in the corner of my eye. He was holding back a smile, possibly even a laugh. I turned my head so I could fully focus on him as I ask, "What are you so amused about?"
He thought for a moment, then shook his head. "Nope. Can't think of any way to answer that without you getting mad."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
His smile finally broke through. I liked the smile much more than I wanted to.
The fourth time I saw Stephen, he was hustling tourists outside a hotel. Cheating change from clueless visitors via slight-of-hand was an odd way for someone of the magic caste to spend his after-school hours. Yet, there he was, pulling off a silky smooth three-card-monte.
As the fleeced tourist made the wise choice to retreating to the hotel lobby, Stephen's gaze began to sweep the crowd in search of new prey. His attention landed on me, and he grinned. Gathering his coins from the folding table he has set up, he kept his eyes on me as I walked slowly up.
My head shaking, I stopped in front of him. "What are you going?"
"It's a game, princess." He paused midway through breaking down the table. "Did you want to play?"
"No, thank you." I frowned as he slid the folded table into a bag and slung the bag's strap across a shoulder. "You don't need that guy's money."
"Nope." He gave me an agreeable smile before striking a path up the sidewalk, tossing over his shoulder, “But neither did he.”
The fifth time I saw Stephen, I decided to stop counting how many times I'd seen him. Apparently, he was in my homeroom now, and counting him everyday would soon grow tiresome.
The sixth time I saw Stephen, he was holding a dead cat.
It's not womanly to shriek when startled by something bloody, but I did it anyway. On the plus side, the scream jolted the cat back to life. She cracked open an eye just long enough for me to see she was not grateful for the favor, then closed it again.
"What are you doing with that cat?"
For once, he didn't seem amused by my presence. "Looking for a mage."
My eyebrows slid together. "You're a mage."
"I know. Just..." He held the cat out. It was small enough to lay across his two hands, so maybe it was more of a kitten that a cat. "Heal her. Please."
Despite not being able to see why Stephen didn't cast the spell himself, I drew a quick symbol over the injured animal. A warming blue glow wrapped around the cat's body.
"Alright. All better." I looked up at Stephen. When had we gotten so close? His head was bent down, his eyes on the glowing fur in his hands. If I took my hands from my pockets, where I'd stashed them as soon as the spell had been drawn, I could put them underneath Stephen's to help support the weight.
Stephen's throat bobbed, and he nodded. "Thanks. I... I guess I like cats."
"You sound uncertain."
A smile appeared and his gaze slid up to me. "No. I'm certain. I like cats. I work at the rescue on sixth. That’s what I do with all the money I get from the cards. But that seemed like too far to take this one with her so bad off."
"So why didn't you heal her?
His eyes dropped as he paused for a deep breath, then he blurted out a long line of mumbles I could just barely understand. "I can't cast health spells anymore. They all come out as hexes." His gaze moved to the side as if to judge my reaction, but it darted back to the cat in a flash.
"Yeah. Like last year. I wasn't trying to paralyze your hand. Why would I do that?" He twisted his neck, bending his head so it looked like he was addressing the feline. "I was trying to wake her. So she'd do better on the tests. I didn’t know I’d somehow lost the ability to do it."
"Why would you care how I did on my exams?"
A breeze ruffled through the air, its scent speaking of bread baking in the cafe I was heading to before I ran into Stephen. "Well, I thought if you did a good job, and if you thought I'd helped... Well, that maybe... Maybe you'd like me."
I just sort of stared at him.
"Do you remember the first time we met?" he asked.
"Of course." I studied his face, trying to read the direction we were going in. "You hexed me."
His eyes stay latch onto mine as he shakes his head. "No." He smiled sadly. "The first time we met was in year one."
"Year one?" I repeated, a bit dimwittedly, I'll admit.
"We've been going to the same school for eleven years."
I frowned and cast my memory back, trying to summon any image of Stephen before the last semester. "Are you certain?"
Laughing, he shook his head. "Yeah. I see you all the time. You just don't see me."
"What? Were you invisible?"
"No." He sighed and snuggled the kitten against his chest. He held her against him with one hand, using the other to scratch her behind the ears. "Or maybe yes. In the sense that anyone not in your social elite may as well be.”
I wanted to argue against the notion that I was that snobby, but found I couldn’t. Even though everyone at the school seemed to know my name, I could only name a twenty something people in the thousand body student population. “Hmmmm…. I’m sorry, I guess.”
“Don’t be sorry.” He gave one shoulder a shrug. “Just… You’re missing a lot.”
The next time I saw Stephen, I tried very hard to see him fully. Medium height. Average build. Race, ambiguous. Nothing about his stats stood out. He wore the same blue and gray uniform as the other boys, although his untucked shirt was out of regulation and his tie was neither tight nor straight. It was easy to see how I missed him before, how he’d blended into a background of moving images.
I focused on some of the other blobs moving through the hallway as I leaned against the wall beside where Stephen stood watching the traffic. A girl went by with bright green hair. How had I missed her before? There was a couple, two boys swinging their conjoined hands like they were strolling through a forest glen rather than weaving through the student masses. A girl whose mascara ran down her face in teary smudges. Another grinning like she’d won the lottery. A boy with a big, bushy afro…
The bell rang and I followed Stephen into homeroom.
Jaquelyn was sitting in the seat I had come to think of as Stephen’s. She waved me to my seat and I sat, obeying out of habit rather than stopping to think if I really wanted to sit there or somewhere Stephen could be beside me. My new friend walked to a place near the back of the room while my old friend smiled. “Surprise!” Jaquelyn said. “I told Principal Amel it just wouldn’t be right for us to be in different homerooms and that she had to move me.”
“Great.” I smiled. If asked to described whether I liked Jaquelyn or not, I’m not sure what I’d say. But she was familiar, and she wasn’t asking me to break out of my comfort zone like certain other people. Nevertheless, I spent the entire period fighting the urge to look back over my shoulder.
Seeing Stephen became a matter of course at that point. There he was by the water fountain. There by the window. There at lunch.
“Who is that guy you keep looking at?” Deedee asked. She squatted behind where I sat, leaning forward to bring her head next to mine.
“Stephen,” I said.
“Who?” my friends chorused.
I nearly said, “No one.” But at the last instant, I changed my answer to, “My homecoming date.”
Which meant that the next time I saw Stephen, I had to ask him to homecoming. And hope he said yes.
“Homecoming?” he said, a lazy smile rising up in the wake of his speech. He jerked his chin to the left. “See that girl by the door?”
“Yeah?” I winced, fully expecting him to say he was already committed. I winced again when my eyes landed where he was directing them. Brichelle Eerin. Mousy, pale, and always chewing on her fingernails. My first thought was to be mortified to place second to her, but it was immediately followed by an appreciation of the girl. For someone as nervous as she was, asking a boy out must have been a really big deal. So, good for her. Even if it was bad for me.
He bent down to whisper in my ear. “What’s her name?”
I turned my head. “You don’t know her name?”
“I know her name.” He rolled his eyes. “I want to see if you do.”
Okay… “It’s Brichelle.”
He smiled. “Then, yes, I’ll go to homecoming with you.”
My jaw dropped before I could snap my mouth shut. I glared for a second. “You were testing me?”
His smile turned into a big grin. “Yeah. And you passed.”
I stared. It was probably more of a glare.
Eventually, his expression fell into a relaxed regard. His eyes were on mine, the different browns in them sparkling like topaz “Sorry. I won’t do it again.”
Despite the cockiness of exchanges like that last one, most of the time I saw Stephen, I saw a shy, reserved sort of person. He was a watcher, an observer of the world. If he felt any need to affect the goings on around him, he didn’t show it. One day while out shopping, I saw a little notebook. I bought him that and a nice quill, giving him the two items in homeroom the next day. After that, I saw him writing in the book more often than not.
The first time Jaqueline saw Stephen, he was on my arm and we were walking into the homecoming dance. I could tell she saw him because she stuck her chest out like she does whenever she approaches a male of our species and asked him what school he went to. He didn’t have his notebook with him, but I was certain the exchange was going to be recorded in it later.
The whole school knew him eventually, once he became my official boyfriend and was thus popular-adjacent if not popular in his own right. But I don’t know if any of them ever truly saw either of us.
The first sentence of this story was taken from Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine. It was one of the possible writing prompts for Chapter One. I can't figure out where the image is from. It pops up on a Google search for "boy with cat, anime" and is on several places on Pintrest and websites that host backgrounds, but no one has accredited it. If you know who created the image, please let me know. Because a.) I want to acknowledge the artist, and b.) I want to find more work like it.