Lena looks at the lighter she stole from the pocket of the Aunt's robe. Lena knows it is not right to steal unless you need something really badly, and the person is not home, and won't even realize the thing is missing. Stealing the lighter felt scary, and it felt good, and brave. Lena feels very brave with the lighter in her hand, very grown-up.
"Why you are the boss always?" Lena asks.
"For one thing, I am magician and you are assistant. Assistant is second to magician. There is no assistant without magician," says Vaclav.
"Without assistant, no magician," says Lena.
"I am one year older than you," says Vaclav.
"Ten is only little more than nine and eleven months," says Lena.
"Magician is more important than assistant, because..." says Vaclav, getting ready to say one more thing to prove that he should have authority over Lena. He wants to win this argument, even though he knows they will have this argument again.
This fight is a fight they have over and over again. It is like the famous argument between the chicken and the egg, about which came first, and which one is more important and better than the other. This fight is never resolved, because it is impossible to prove which came first or which is better when actually both things are the same thing.
There is a knock on the door. Lena and Vaclav look at the door with wide, terrified eyes. There are three loud knocks, and then the doorknob jiggles but does not open, because the door is locked.
Vaclav is filled with regret. Locking the door was a terrible idea. A locked door indicates to Vaclav's mother that something illicit may be happening in the bedroom of the young magician. "Vaclav! Open the door right now or I'll open it for you! You wanndo this hard way or the easy way?"
Lena and Vaclav shove their magic things under the bed, hide them behind the eyelet-perforated dust ruffles of the bed skirt.
"Coming, coming!" says Vaclav, scrambling to his feet. As soon as Vaclav unlocks the door, it bursts open, pushing him backward.
Rasia's eyes search the room. Rasia doesn't know what she is looking for, but all the time she is worried. Every day at ten past five she rushes home as fast as she can, because her son is growing and changing every second and she has only so many hours to mold him like clay. She has only so many hours to show him that it is important to do homework, to have dinner like a family, to not do drugs or to steal or to be a lazy person or a cheat. She must protect him from pedophiles, from strangers, from bullies, from guns, and from carbon monoxide poisoning. She is worried, because he comes home to an empty house after school; he is what they call the latch-key kid, and she is a working mother, and they live in an urban area, and Vaclav attends a crowded public school, and all these things are the ingredients of disaster, if you are listening to the news, which she is, carefully, vigilantly, always to see what next to be afraid of.
"I do not like what I see here. What is going on here when I am not home?"
"Nothing! We are doing nothing! Homework. We are doing nothing but homework," Vaclav says.
"Nothing and homework for three hours? This I do not believe. I want to see all homework after dinnertime." Rasia backs away toward the door, keeping her eyes on Lena. She's worried about Lena because of the well-known occupation of the Aunt. This is unfair and also fair at the same time.
"Okay, nothing and homework and, also, maybe a little practicing the magic act," Vaclav says. Rasia steps back into the room.
"Maybe a little practicing the magic act?"
"Actually, yes, we are practicing the magic act," Vaclav says, trying to look earnest. "Maybe, also, if it is okay with you, because all homework is done, maybe..." Vaclav looks up at his mother, and Rasia looks down at her son, at this dancing around what he wants, at his Velcro sneakers digging nervous little circles in the carpet.
Excerpted from Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner. Copyright © 2011 by Haley Tanner. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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