By the morning, Ally could bare to walk on her ankle once more. It still ached badly, but it was on the mend.
Madge still insisted on packing up their camp herself.
“I’m happy to help!” She said, brushing Ally’s protests aside. “Really!” She raised her eyebrows, amusement tickling her expression. “No work can compare to babysitting my little brothers, trust me.”
So Madge put out the flickering purple flames and packed up their bedrolls. Ally took careful steps, testing her ankle. The breeze nipped at their noses. They had dried fruit and nuts for breakfast, as neither of them had packed any cooking materials, and then set out into the crisp October air.
The morning was cold enough to turn their breath into puffs of frost as they walked.
“Wish we had something warm to drink.” Ally said quietly. She wrapped her arms around herself and pulled the ends of her sweater over her fingertips.
Madge made a humming sound of agreement. “Like ginger tea.” Her voice was longing.
“Or cranberry wassail,” Ally added.
“Ooh yes.” Madge sighed happily. “And cookies. Molasses spice cookies. What’s your favorite kind of cookie?”
“Lemon rosemary.” Ally answered.
“Rosemary?” Madge cocked her head in curious surprise. “In cookies?”
“Yes.” Ally smiled. She told the story of how her mother had gotten such a recipe. Madge told her a story about the time one of her little brothers had tried to steal cookies.
They laughed. They walked. They talked of nothing. The conversation was as warm as a mug of ginger tea.
The sun rose and the air warmed. The trees swayed and danced. Leaves crunched and squirrels skittered.
Ally glanced down at her compass, the needle pointing straight ahead through the pale yellow sunlight. Pointing home.
“We’ll be there soon.” Ally took a deep breath, the knot in her stomach tightening. A warm hand landed on her shoulder and Ally looked up to see Madge standing beside her.
“Are you worried about your mother?” Madge asked.
“A little.” Ally laughed, her cheeks rosy. She glanced back down at the compass. “She’ll be alright though. She’s not in any danger if what the letter said is true.”
Ally kept walking. Madge kept pace with her.
“It’s… It’s alright if you don’t want to talk about it.” Madge began carefully. “But you seem more than a little worried.”
“It’s silly.” Ally shook her head. Her heart felt heavy. She clenched her fists in her pockets. She _did_ want to talk. “I guess I should be more worried maybe. Or maybe I shouldn’t because worrying won’t do anything, and as I said, she sounds like she’s alright, just very tired. But the truth is, while my mother is ill, the only thing I can think about is how awkward it will be to see one of my old friends again.” Ally shook her head. “It’s silly and selfish, but that’s the truth. That’s how I feel.”
The words had spilled forth before she had the chance to think about them as they used to all the time when she was young. Ally kept her eyes on the ground, her cheeks burning, despite the cold, watching the fallen russet leaves pass by.
“Well.” Madge sounded thoughtful. “It’s not selfish to feel things. Feelings just happen, don’t they? It’s what we decide to do with them that matters, I suppose.”
“Maybe.” Ally murmured, something in her heart felt a little bit lighter at the words. “My friend—“ Ally broke off.
“Yes?” Madge prompted.
Ally glanced up to meet her gaze, open and listening.
“My friend was…” Ally swallowed. “We were best friends when we were little, but we aren’t anymore. When I left for the lighthouse we weren’t on the best terms.”
“Oh. That is hard.” Madge paused. “Maybe you can patch things up with her now.” She suggested, her words light and hopeful.
“Perhaps.” Ally hesitated, aware of the heaviness in her chest once again. “But I don’t think we’ll ever be best friends again. Not like we were. And not because I hate her or anything, just…” Another sigh escaped Ally. “She doesn’t really care about me anymore. Actually, I don’t think she ever cared about me as much as I cared about her. Maybe at first, when we were little, but…We grew up, and I suppose we grew in different directions.” Ally was mortified to find that the forest around her was growing a bit blurry, tears, wet and bright, stinging her eyes. “Still hurts though.” She whispered the last three words.
“I’m so sorry,” Madge said.
“It’s not your fault.” Ally wasn’t looking at Madge. She reached up to brush the unwanted tears away, the ends of her sweater sleeves coming back damp. “I’m fine, I just— Oh, this is so silly.”
“It’s not silly!” Madge’s voice was soft and earnest. “I know what it’s like! Not exactly like you, but… Well.” Madge’s shoulders dropped, and a pained smile appeared across her face. “No one really wants to be friends with the weird girl who lives in Tanglewood, do they?”
“Do they?” Ally frowned at Madge, her vision clearing.
“I’ve tried to make friends. And I have made a few, but, you know.” Madge shrugged. “It’s pretty hard when I’m not really a part of ‘their world’ so to speak. And that’s hard. Like you said when you care about people more than they care about you.”
“I’m sorry.” Ally said, still frowning. “I think you’re a lovely person.”
“Thank you.” Madge laughed, her eyes bright. “I think you are also a lovely person, Ally Lichen.”
“Thank you for listening.” Ally said.
“I’m glad to!” Madge bit her lip, looking a bit embarrassed. “I know I talk a lot, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to listen, you know?”
“I do know.” Ally nodded vigorously. “I know exactly what you mean.”
A breeze rippled around them, stirring up leaves and sending their hair dancing. A tiny whirlwind of russet and auburn. It seemed to be spinning around only the two girls.
“Oh, hello!” Madge ducked as a spiral of leaves whirled above her head. Shrill laughter followed their path.
Ally’s eyes widened as she realized what she was really looking at. “Leaf fairies!”
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docendo disco scribendo cogito
(I learn by teaching and think by writing.)