Like, he knew that no one ever catalogued the ways in which the wispy little girl with the rats’ nest of dishwater-blonde hair was Different; but whenever something strange happened, she was likely to be at its center.
Not that her oddity, her Otherness, was bad, mind you.
But there were little things.
Like, when you played Tea Party at her house, the tea in her doll’s cup would disappear a little at a time, even though you never saw her lift it to steal a sip.
And when you were playing Freeze Tag there were moments when you’d swear she’d frozen with her feet above the ground instead of on it.
And any time a dog or cat went missing, you were stupid if you didn’t ask Jessie to help you find it. You didn’t have to look into the luminous gray eyes that seemed so huge in her pale, pointy-chinned, freckled face to know the girl had a Way with animals.
Her Strangeness made her the favorite among the school children. Playing with her was like inviting Magic home.
But as the kids in her year edged toward adulthood, and belief in such things faded, Jessie was left alone, more often than not.
At thirteen, Jimmy from the other block hadn’t yet begun demanding to be called Jim, but he had a kind of quiet authority that he wore like a cape. If he thought something was a Bad Idea, even the worst bully would back off from whatever-it-was and go do something else.
It made sense, then, that Jessie and Jimmy would gravitate toward each other. They were both Different, even though neither was showy about it.
Billy knew this, because he was Jimmy’s little brother, and couldn’t help it. When he saw his brother and the Curious Girl leave their bikes by the side of the road and go walking down toward the pond he had to follow.
So, there was a witness when it Happened.
It was one of those days when summer hadn’t quite let go of the daytime, but fall was taking ownership of the night, and Jessie and Jimmy stood in the place where the fog curled up against the water’s edge.
“Set them out, in a circle like,” Jessie said, and Billy watched his brother take instruction from another, and a girl at that, arranging mason jars with twine around the tops.
“Good?” the older boy asked.
“Good,” the girl whispered back. Seemed like Jessie only ever whispered. As if, maybe, using her voice came at some kind of cost. “Now wait.”
Billy had been catching fireflies all his life, just like every other kid in their town, but he’d never seen the bugs just Come, the way they did for Jessie.
She held out her hand like she was catching raindrops, and every few seconds one of the jars would start to glow, the insects inside offering their Light instead of having it taken from them.
Billy wasn’t surprised when he realized the jars were hanging in the trees without actually being attached to them. Stuff like that seemed normal when Jessie was around.
You didn’t expect it, exactly; but you weren’t shocked, either.
He also wasn’t surprised when his older brother leaned in and pressed his lips against the girl’s. Billy was only nine, and mostly thought girls were gross, but there was Something About Jessie that made her more like a faerie than an actual girl.
Truth be told, Billy kinda wanted to kiss her too.
Or maybe not.
‘Cause Jessie was still a girl, after all.
Billy slipped away while Jimmy and Jessie were still mashing their lips against each other’s, and he was pretty sure they hadn’t seen him.
He crept quietly down the track that led to the street, past where Jessie and Jimmy had dumped their bicycles, and then ran hell-bent-for-leather back toward home, in the door, up the stairs, to his room, and slammed the door.
When he saw the twine wrapped mason jar, hanging above his bed and glowing with firefly light, maybe that should have scared him.
But Billy looked at it, swinging in mid-air, attached to nothing.
And he smiled.