Chapter Eleven: Lionel Knows Best

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It took her almost half an hour, but Delali finally traded in the second of her two drink tickets for one of the three mediocre beer brands being offered at senior night. A few weeks ago, Delali would’ve thought this kind of school-sponsored celebration of her upcoming graduation was quaint—cute, even. But now, holding her watery beer close to her chest as she waded through the crowd back to her friends, the only word that came to mind was depressing. It had been years since she’d been in the poorly lit event space in the basement of the student center, and now that she was back in it, she remembered why she’d avoided it over the past few years. The harsh, fluorescent lights were even less forgiving than cameras that shot in 1080p, and the black faux-leather couches lining the walls were cracked and lumpy. Round tables surrounded by plastic chairs had been added to the room, but there still wasn’t enough seating: most people stood in groups and milled about, talking to their friends and the freshman-year floormates they’d liked but would never have seen again if it wasn’t for something like this.

When Safiya had texted to ask her if she was going to senior night, Delali had declined and said she had to work on her thesis (which she actually did), but Safiya had roused her back to campus by sending her three snowflake emojis—her way of calling Delali out for being a flake. Delali’s instinct was to defend herself, but when she thought about it, Safiya was right. Between attempting to keep up with her school work and managing whatever the fuck was going on with Vic, Abbie, and their powers, Delali barely remembered the last time she’d hung out on or around campus outside of class.

As Delali crossed the room, Darren caught her eye and smiled, and she grinned in return, raising her beer. Around her, her classmates swapped stories about interviewing for jobs and completing graduate school applications, and Delali realized how fondly she felt toward them, friends and strangers alike. She had, in a way, grown up with them all, just like she’d grown up with the cast of Georgia all of those years on set. Who else would’ve taught her about banal student things, like the weird joy of stealing dining hall fruit or the fact that people really would pay money to go to a frat party where the only available alcohol was a questionable vat of something called “jungle juice?” It was a learning experience she couldn’t have gotten anywhere else, no matter how many coming-of-age college freshman dramedies she read for.

She reached the couch where her friends sat, forcing herself into a too-small space between Safiya and her other friend Ruby, an Alvin Ailey dancer who’d just returned from study abroad.

“Um, what are you doing over here?” Safiya asked, adjusting to make more room.

“What?” Delali took a sip of her beer.

Why aren’t you talking to Darren?” Safiya tilted her head to the stairs, where Darren stood talking to a group of corny kids in student government.

“Darren Kelly?” Ruby asked. “Are you guys a thing?”

No,” said Delali forcefully before turning to Safiya. “Honestly, Saf, can I live?” Ever since Vic’s housewarming, Delali and Safiya could barely have a conversation without Safiya mentioning Darren in some way. Delali had had a good time talking to him, but in a friendly way—something Safiya didn’t seem to understand no matter how many times Delali said so.

“The senior year clock is ticking,” Safiya reminded her. “I’m just trying to help you reach your goals.”
“True,” Ruby said. “You’re behind.” She tapped the black velvet notebook on her lap. Inside, Delali and her friends had drafted a senior year bucket list. Delali’s additions had been few: she wanted to sneak onto the roof of the astronomy building, get a sandwich named after her at grimy deli across the street from campus, and hook up with a guy in the stacks. Delali had more or less completely forgotten about the list in the craziness of the past two months, and now that Safiya had brought it up again, all the cute senior-year plans she’d made with her group of friends—the squad she’d cobbled together from the most glam international girls, the chillest Olympians, and the occasional startup entrepreneur— seemed...well, a little dusty.

“Not sure that’s in the cards for me and Darren.” Delali wavered before adding, “I’ve kinda started hooking up with my ex again.” She took a fake-casual sip from her beer as Safiya and Ruby gasped.

“No fucking way.” Safiya said. “Adrien?

“Seriously?” Ruby gaped. They had both witnessed Delali’s whirlwind freshman year, when her rebound game had reached Wilt Chamberlain status.

“He’s in New York for a while, so…”
“You started hooking up with Adrien again and didn’t tell us?”

Saf.” Delali looked around, trying to see if anyone had overheard her. “Would prefer not to read about my sex life in Star Magazine, thanks.”
“Sorry,” Safiya said, lowering her voice. “But seriously, what the fuck?”

Delali shrugged. “It’s not that big of a deal.” It really wasn’t—Adrien was hot, they’d known each other for years, and they’d already done the relationship thing so she wasn’t in danger of catching feelings. For a girl finishing up her thesis and getting a handle on her newfound ability to mind-read, it was a pretty good arrangement.

“Well damn,” Ruby said. “No wonder you’ve been curving Darren.”

Safiya laughed. “Honestly.”
“It’s not like that.” Delali looked to the stairs that led to the exit, suddenly annoyed. “I think I’m gonna dip,” she said, depositing her beer on the table in front of them.

“Come on, Dela,” Safiya said. “We were just kidding.”

“Yeah,” said Ruby.
“Yeah, I know, it’s fine.” Delali wiped her palms on her jeans and stood. “But I actually have work to do.”
Safiya and Ruby shared a look. “Okay,” Safiya said doubtfully. “We might be going to 5050 later,” she added, referring to the bleakest bar near campus. “I’ll text you?”
“Sounds good,” Delali said, and then she climbed the stairs to the exit.

Outside, Delali stood by the building entrance and considered her next move, shivering in her silk bomber jacket. She dug her phone out of the pocket of her jeans, tempted to text Adrien. He’d told her she had a standing seat at The Colorline of Scrimmage for as long as it was showing in New York, but she hadn’t been able to stomach the whole play once—twice was out of the question. She could ask him to send Isaac to pick her up (it was around 8:30, firmly into Adrien’s driver-friendly period) and take her back to his apartment, where she could enjoy his jacuzzi bathtub while she waited for him to finish doing press and signing playbills. But it felt too early to hit him up again, and she didn’t particularly want to be the one to initiate contact, even though his offer to “see” each other again was much more appealing than going home to her empty apartment and catching up on her homework. Sighing, Delali closed her messages and opened the Zoom app, calling a car to take her home. Between the witchcraft and standard senioritis, she was actually behind on her schoolwork. And besides, she told herself, she couldn’t let all the good press she’d generated by deciding to get an education go to waste by flunking out her senior year.

Once she got back to her apartment, Delali couldn’t believe she’d even considered staying until the end of senior night, watching people spill their nasty beers on the ground and running into her classmates from her freshman year West Meets West: Western Civilizations on the History of Western Civilizations seminar. She changed into her pajamas and ate two heaping spoonfuls of Halo Top ice cream before forcing herself to put the pint away, stretching on her way to the couch from the kitchen. Delali grimaced as she took in her messy apartment, stepping over the empty bottle of wine she’d finished a few days ago while watching Bell, Book and Candle instead of prepping for her next thesis meeting with Dr. Portillo.

It had been a long week of rushing around the city, and by now the coffee table in Delali’s living room was nearly buried beneath hats and scarves she had decided not to wear last minute, books and loose papers, and a half-finished pack of Kanekalon she’d neglected to put away after getting her braids redone on Wednesday evening.
“Ugh,” Delali said, picking up her denim jacket and an empty bottle of deep conditioner. First she’d clean, then she’d study: she wouldn’t be able to focus otherwise.

She’d just thrown away the souvenir Adrien had given her from The Colorline of Scrimmage’s gift shop offerings—a mock jersey with one of Reggie’s most powerful quotes emblazoned on the back: “The only colors we see here in Gator Country are green and yellow”—when something in the pile of haphazard papers caught her eye. Delali tugged on its laminated corner, pushing away the lesson guide MJ had given them last week on the differences between curses and hexes. It was the script Lionel had given her, which Delali had promptly thrown into her bag and purged from her mind before rushing off to edit the abstract of her thesis. But tonight, Sit Awhile beckoned to her—at least, called for her attention more compellingly than inversive geometry.

After setting a timer for twenty minutes (after that, Delali told herself, she would absolutely, definitely finish her homework), Delali curled up in a corner of her couch and began to read. When Lionel had described the film as a biopic about Lorraine Hansberry, the name had triggered some faint associations, but nothing specific. She jumped when the timer went off, reset it for an hour and a half, and went back to reading.

Delali reading a script

Delali couldn’t believe she’d gone through twelve years of school and three years of college and never really learned about Lorraine Hansberry before, not even during Black or Women’s History Months. How could she not know about the woman who coined “young, gifted, and black”? How could she not know that the youngest person to ever win the New York Drama Critics Circle award was a black woman? How could she have died at only thirty-four, after suffering with pancreatic cancer? How? Delali wanted to ask someone, but she was all alone in her apartment, and texting Lionel about her disbelief— or worse yet, Adrien, who would probably smugly tell her how Les Blancs had changed his life—would hardly be productive. The timer went off again, and Delali put the script on her side table, trying to turn her attention back to tidying up, but the damage was already done.

She was already imagining herself in a short, permed wig, coiffed to fall over her forehead just as Hansberry’s had. She could already see herself slumped against an old typewriter, clad in a slouchy striped sweater and loose dress pants, recreating one of Hansberry’s June 1959 Vogue shots. The magazine headlines practically wrote themselves: Young, Gifted, and Black: Delali Tamakloe on the journey from set to school and back again.

Every time Lionel had tried to send her a script over the past three years, Delali told him to leave her the fuck alone unless he’d found the role of her life. But now she wanted to call Lionel and apologize for ever underestimating him. He had really delivered with Sit Awhile, and suddenly the idea of beating Celeste to an Oscar seemed much more important than Delali’s commitment to graduating in four years.

There were too many MRP researchers for all of them to fit in Dr. Diop’s office, so the Monday morning meeting was held in the main laboratory. Normally, Nadine would have skipped it, instead opting to check in on her patients, but after sending out the week’s agenda, Dr. Diop had sent Nadine a special note, telling her to postpone her rounds and come by for a special announcement. At this hour, witches were normally spread out across the wide, sterile space, mixing potions on the pristine white counters, testing charms, and fiddling with intent or ritual as they created new spells. Now, though, all the work had halted: the researchers were standing in a half-circle in the front of the broad, charmed wall that faced the lab. It kept track of all the women who were part of the Magic Reinstatement Program, automatically updating as soon there was a development in their treatment. To those who didn’t work at the WIH, it appeared to be a normal wall, but for the researchers, the wall served as a reminder of what they were doing and why, emphasizing that their patients were real witches and not just the number assigned to them when they were admitted to the program.

Nadine joined the group at the back, the last to arrive, catching Dr. Diop just after she’d begun to address the researchers.

“Thank you all for pausing your work to be here,” Dr. Diop said, clasping her hands in front of her. “I know you’re all working on projects that are tremendously important for the future of our world, and I also know it’s difficult to pull yourself away from that work for yet another meeting.” A few witches in the crowd chuckled softly, and Dr. Diop paused, flashing them all a brilliant smile. Then her smile disappeared, her expression becoming serious.

“But something odd has been happening, and happening with enough frequency that I now feel the need to address it with all of you. It happened, first, with Eve Nox,” Dr. Diop said, nodding toward Nadine in the back of the group. A few researchers turned to look at her, and Nadine squirmed, feeling that familiar estrangement.

“But then Mary Norman and Carolina Rodriguez, both women who have had typic firstborns, gave birth to magical daughters. Just this past week, the same happened with four other witches in the MRP, one of whom was just admitted and has yet to undergo any of our procedures.” At that, Nadine straightened, catching the eyes of a few other researchers, who had also begun to look around the room and murmur in confusion.

Dr. Diop broke her perfectly professional demeanor for a second, taking off her glasses and rubbing her eyes wearily. Watching her, Nadine felt a new sympathy. She’d been so stressed, and she only had Eve and a handful of AME witches in her care. She couldn’t imagine being Dr. Diop, who’d been chosen by the Regent to head the entire MRP. The future of so many families, and the Witch Sphere at large, was in her hands. “It appears that something has ended the typic crisis,” she said, sliding her glasses back on. “But, unfortunately, it seems that something was not us.”

A collective mutter passed through the group, and Nadine felt a sense of dread settle in her stomach: her standing weekly meeting with Charlotte was coming up that afternoon. Even though this was what Charlotte wanted—for the typic crisis to end—she would surely also want to know why, want to know that the resources she had been funneling into Nadine’s work had been worth it. The thought of saying “I don’t know” to Charlotte when she inevitably asked how the new magic births had come about made Nadine sick, and the feeling was only worsened by the fact that she couldn’t be totally honest about the specifics of Eve’s treatment. Nadine and her mother hadn’t spoken it about, but they both knew there was no way to tell what the true effects of what they’d done would be—they simply had to wait. It was a risk they could take within their family, but to subject other witches to that kind of experimental procedure was just too irresponsible for Nadine to even entertain the idea.

Later that day, Nadine stood outside the door of Charlotte’s study, overcome with a wave of anxiety that usually didn’t follow her to these meetings. Despite having grown up around the seductive power and luxury of the Council, Nadine was unconvinced by most of it. When Charlotte had approached her to head the new Atmospheric Magic Effort for the MRP, both she and her mother had been wary. Nadine didn’t want to get into politics or be swept up by the allure of holding sway with the Council. She’d always loathed the way her classmates at training school talked constantly about what avenues they’d take to get to the Council, all so desperate to be in the room that Nadine now felt reluctant to enter. Yet here she was, so taken by the science of magic, and so desperate to remedy her family’s history, that she now worked with the emblem of the system she hated on a weekly basis.

The door swung open to show Charlotte standing at her window, looking at the grounds surrounding 33, 26. Nadine entered and sat in the chair across from Charlotte’s desk. “Actually,” Charlotte said. “I think it might be appropriate for us to take this meeting beneath the Cradle again—don’t you?” Charlotte’s voice revealed no emotion—no panic, no suspicion, no elation at the turn of events.

“Of course,” Nadine responded, standing. She followed Charlotte to the balcony, where they co-transported down to the Cradle, an act Nadine found oddly intimate for two professional contacts.

The air beneath the branches of the Cradle was significantly warmer than the air surrounding it, as it always had been. When Charlotte was a child, she’d been especially amused by this little fact; in the winter, she’d run under the tree’s branches and then dart away again, excited by the difference in temperature no one could explain. Now, Charlotte sat somberly in the heat at a conjured table, folding her hands. Nadine did the same, an arm of the grand weeping willow tickling her shoulder, as she tried again to read Charlotte’s expression. Charlotte had yet to be officially briefed by Dr. Diop, but she’d been sent the initial information, which by now had been disseminated to all members of the Witch Sphere via elated gossip: the typic problem appeared to be over.


“Yes please.”

“Any spirit in particular—calming, clarifying, focusing?”

“I think I’ll take calming.”

“I think I will, too,” Charlotte responded with a knowing smile. She placed her hand on the table, mimed as if she were holding a cup, and conjured a delicate china mug. A dark green tea, the color of emeralds, filled it, rising steadily from the bottom. Nadine took the mug in her hands. Charlotte then conjured her own cup and positioned her face above the steaming mug without taking a sip.

“I want to know how this happened,” she said simply.

Though there was no other way for Charlotte to start the meeting, Nadine was still sickened by the question that, frankly, she couldn’t answer. She decided not to prolong it and gave the response she had so been dreading.

“I don’t know.” Charlotte did not react. “I don’t know because so many of the Mothers who are having magic babies haven’t been treated by the WIH, AME or otherwise. Eve was the first to have an uncharacteristic magic birth, and that must have triggered something... but I don’t know what.”

“And Eve’s treatment was no different than that of any other witch in the AME?”

Nadine took a sip of her tea. Though she knew her facial expression was impenetrable, she shook internally. “Not at all. I’ve begun discussing with other researchers and we believe there may be a correlation between our family connection and the efficacy of her treatment. No other mother was treated by a blood relative. But of course, trials and experiments trying to understand what exactly happened could take quite some time.”

Charlotte tapped her nails against the side of her mug and finally took a sip. “And when you speak of your family relation, do you believe your Executioner ability had any impact on your sister’s child? Did you manipulate the power in any way?”

“No,” said Nadine quickly. “At least, not purposely. I’ve performed the same procedure on other mothers without success, so I’d never considered that my power had any effect on the results. But perhaps the combination of my power and my relationship with my sister—” Nadine stopped short in the middle of her sentence. She’d been gazing around the grounds as she and Charlotte spoke, eyeing the manicured lawns and evergreen hedges, the brilliant ebony of the naked trees. But her gaze had caught on something strange, something she hadn’t noticed in all the times she’d looked out at this property. Just beyond the shade of the Cradle, there was a sprout in the middle of the otherwise razed lawn, small enough that she’d missed it the first few times she’d glanced behind Charlotte but tall enough that she could see the brown stem poking over the top of the grass.

Nadine moved toward it, breaking the unspoken custom that required any witch in the Regent’s presence to alert her of their next move, even if it were something as innocent as standing to stretch. Charlotte stood and followed Nadine silently, perplexed. Nadine bent over the little sprout, hoping to find something indicative on it, but the plant was utterly pedestrian: a feeble stem and three innocuous leaves. Yet something about the plant bothered her—it seemed familiar somehow, as though she had seen it before. “What do you think?” she asked Charlotte. Perhaps the Regent would know.

Charlotte gave her an annoyed look, as though she couldn’t believe Nadine would waste her time with such a question. “Well, I think it’s fairly obvious, Nadine. My landscaper missed a spot.”

Nadine opened her mouth to present another question about the burgeoning plant, but then thought better of it, considering where she stood with Charlotte. Charlotte gave Nadine a long look, unsure how to confront such bold misbehavior, then turned away, letting out a disgusted noise. “May we resume our meeting, your highness? Or would you like to touch every blade of grass on the lawn first?”

“My apologies,” said Nadine, and Charlotte waved her away, exhausted by the sight of her. Nadine gathered her things, preparing to transport back to the lab, but the sound of Charlotte’s voice stopped her.

“Nadine,” Charlotte said.

“Yes, Regent?”

“I’m sure that by next week you’ll have a more substantial understanding of this new wave of magic births, correct?” There was nothing particularly threatening in Charlotte’s gaze, but then again, there needn’t be: she was the Regent. Nadine swallowed thickly, shaking off her fear.

“Good,” said Charlotte. She turned her attention away from Nadine, and Nadine transported away, dismissed.

Abbie gazed around the CurlyCon warehouse, her mouth slightly agape. Whoa. The space reminded her of an emptied-out Costco but was filled with tricked-out tables boasting the names and logos of different brands and sponsors instead of bulk groceries. The booths were kind of like the ones Abbie remembered seeing at the Brown club fair the day she and Dan met, but way better. All around her, other internet influencers (bloggers, YouTubers, the Instagram famous) hurried around, trying to stuff as many potential sponsor interactions into their days as possible. Abbie fiddled with the nametag she’d been given at the registration desk and bit her lip. Everyone around her seemed totally in their element, while she felt firmly like an outsider. Even though her partnership with Chenillionaire had gone well, boosting her social media following and theirs, Abbie wasn’t one hundred percent sure she liked this side of having a crafting blog. The networking, the marketing, the shameless pursuit of fame and money—it was all kind of off-putting.

When she’d gotten the CurlyCon invitation a couple weeks ago, she mostly ignored it, leaving the email unread in her inbox and going back and forth every day about whether she wanted to attend. After some debate, she texted Faizan for his opinion about it. They’d started texting after Vic’s party, but their conversation was strictly business, and she decided her uncertainty about this event wasn’t out of bounds. He was excited for her, encouraging her to go, and last night, when she told him that she didn’t think she’d make it, he did something that caught her totally off guard— he called her.

“I get your whole thing about keeping crafting pure, you know,” he said. “Like being honest with your audience and making sure your social media presence is just about the art. I have the same thing with BARber. Sometimes when I pitch potential investors, I feel like they’re all trying to take away what makes the barber shop idea cool, you know?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Like they want a barbershop or a bar, but that’s not the point.”

“Totally not the vision.”

“But at the same time, I know you really care about reaching a wider audience with your tutorials and getting crafting into spaces that really need it. Listen,” he began. “Yesterday I was watching your wash n go tutorial and I scrolled down to read the comments.” Abbie’s cheeks got hot. “Commenter NappyorNah87 said she came across your videos by complete accident— she typed ‘abbie’ instead of ‘aggie’ when she was searching for a video from her college homecoming. And, actually, it seems like a lot of your commenters found you by mistake. But once they come to your blog, they stay. NappyorNah is one of your most frequent commenters. Can you imagine how many hits you’d be getting if people were going to your blog on purpose? You need to get your name out there.”

Abbie mulled it over, considering his advice. She already knew he’d saved up thousands to start BARber and gotten even more in startup capital from investors. Not to mention that he had a thousand more followers than her on Instagram, even though all he posted were time-lapsed videos of haircuts with names and shapes in them, and pics of him dapping up his clients.

“I mean, I’ve definitely considered it,” Abbie said. “I know this convention is the sort of thing that could help me get a way larger viewership.”

“Then you have to go,” Faizan said, and Abbie could hear his smile. “Listen, it can’t hurt. It’s like the advice you gave me last week about pitching to that one investor even though he was balding— and now we have an extra six grand saved up for BARber.”

Abbie laughed and thanked him before hanging up. Then she’d arranged her hair into the most painstakingly neat twists she’d ever managed, and now she stood in front of the booth for a new haircare line that used garlic to reduce shedding. She straightened the mustard-colored scarf she’d layered over her emerald green Mossimo Supply Co. dress and sheer burgundy tights.

“Hi, I’m—” Abbie stopped abruptly, watching as the woman ignored her completely and directed her attention to a girl standing next to Abbie.

“Are you Yasmine Bridges? From Co-Washin’ Cutie? I am such a fan!”

Abbie’s face tingled with heat as she turned slightly, not wanting to be obvious. It was true; she was standing next to Yasmine freaking Bridges, one of the OG natural hair girls. Still, her excitement couldn’t suppress the humiliation she felt at being ignored. Usually she’d just ignore it—after all, the brand rep was just doing her job. But she’d come all the way to CurlyCon to promote herself and make an impression, not be dismissed. This kind of response could not be good for business, especially if someone as important as Yasmine witnessed it.

“Excuse me?” Abbie interrupted, pushed by an unusual surge of courage.

The rep glanced at Abbie, seemingly wondering why she hadn’t left already.  Abbie focused her eyes intently on the woman anyway, pressing for eye contact. When the woman’s eyes finally locked with hers, Abbie used every muscle in her body to will her to smile— and she did. Her face registered the same dazed look as the man outside IQ Espresso had, and Abbie knew she’d been successful. The dismissal melted away from the woman’s face, her posture relaxed, and she squinted as if recalling a pleasant memory.

“Oh, hi,” the brand rep oozed. “That is a gorgeous twist-out— can I ask your name?”

“I’m Abbie Balogun, from Crafting & Coconut Oil.”

The rep reached out her hand. “You’re exactly the kind of naturalista Garlocks wants to cater to!”

Abbie shook the woman’s hand, satisfied. Yasmine examined Abbie, clearly wondering if she was someone she should know. Abbie smiled at the brand rep, conscious of Yasmine’s gaze. “I’m so glad to hear that,” she responded, trying to sound authoritative. She touched one of the pamphlets fanned out on the counter before her. “I’d like to hear more about your product.”

The rep took a deep breath and beamed. “What we have here is an organic, cruelty-free deep conditioner. No sulfates, incredible slip, leaves no white residue—basically the perfect product. If you look at these pictures to my right you can see what your average style looks like forty-eight hours into wear. And what’s better about that hold right there? Comes with no crunch. The product totally soaks into your hair...” Abbie shifted her weight uncomfortably, realizing she was probably in for a way-too-long presentation.

Almost fifteen minutes later, Yasmine turned to Abbie as they walked away from the booth. “Wow, what a great product,” she said. Abbie blinked, looking around to see if Yasmine was talking to someone else, but no—the comment had been directed to her. “I wonder what the downside could possibly be,” Yasmine finished, bending her head towards Abbie conspiratorially. Abbie giggled and opened the sample jar she’d picked up from the table. The girls both leaned in, smelled the conditioner, and gagged.

“Okay, not so sure that this product ‘totally soaking into’ my hair is a pro anymore,” Abbie said.

“How much do you wanna bet that Tiffany Douglas will be the first to make a video swearing this gunk ‘totally revolutionized my routine’!” Abbie gasped quietly at Yasmine’s mention of another known blogger, then the girls broke out into loud, resonating laughter that disappeared into the high ceilings of the convention center. Faizan was right— she couldn’t have missed this for the world.

By the time Abbie got to her apartment, she was completely drained. She and Yasmine had walked the entire area of CurlyCon together, chatting with all of Yasmine’s inspiring internet friends, picking up as many free samples as they could, and swapping hair tricks. Abbie had even dragged Yasmine to a couple of crafting booths and was relieved when Yasmine admitted that some of the DIY decorations they’d encountered could definitely spruce up the little office she used as a backdrop for most of her videos.

Abbie slipped her feet out of her trusty tan suede Aldo booties before collapsing on her couch and letting out a deep, relieved sigh. As soon as she felt the pulsing in her feet begin to subside, she felt another pulsing begin— her phone in the pocket of her dress. Abbie reached down to pull it out and looked at the screen, scattering dozens of business cards across her floor in the process. It was Faizan. She answered immediately.

“Hey! What’s up?”

“Hey, Abbie. Was just walking around the Heights, you know, running errands and stuff, and I was just wondering if, since I’m in the area, you wanted to maybe grab dinner tonight? Tell me a bit about how the convention went?”

“I...I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Abbie said. “I’m...” she trailed off as she considered mentioning Dan. But there was something too final about that, and the idea of closing the door on Faizan stirred an unfamiliar ache in her chest. “I’m exhausted from the convention. Like can barely even move ‘cause I’m so tired. Raincheck?”

“No, yeah. Yeah, of course. Got it. Raincheck. Rest up. We’ll talk later.”

He hung up and Abbie looked at the phone in her hand for a long time. Afterward, she bent down to pick up the business cards before pouring herself a glass of Trader Joe’s three buck chuck. Then she sat on the floor in front of her coffee table, alternately staring off into space and organizing the cards alphabetically. She only stopped when she heard a knock at her door.

Abbie got up and looked through the peephole. On the other side, Faizan stood, so tall he was almost out of view, scratching at his beard and anxiously looking around. Abbie opened the door.

Abbie looking through peephole

“Hey.” She quickly adjusted her dress. “This is a surprise.”

Faizan pulled down the hood of his plain gray sweatshirt and looked at her. “Yeah, I know, sorry.” He gave her a reticent smile. Now that the barrier of the door was no longer between them, it seemed he had lost some of his nerve. “I hope this isn’t out of line, but I remembered you said you lived in The Everton and your apartment number was in the building directory. I got carryout?” He lifted the yellow plastic takeout bag in his right hand, the other resting nervously in the pocket of his navy joggers. “Since you said you were too tired to leave and stuff. It’s Thai.” There was a hopeful, uncertain lilt to his voice, and Abbie didn’t know what to say.

Abbie opened the door wider and stepped aside to let him in. She moved to close the door, narrowing the space between them until they were almost chest to chest. Faizan looked down at her searchingly. Abbie knew she had stayed in his personal space too long, that she should’ve stepped back, but she couldn’t bring herself to move. Faizan placed a hand on her hip and held it there. The warmth of his palm radiated through the thin fabric of her dress and tights, and Abbie felt a jolt of heat, as though she had been electrocuted. She looked up at him, at his neck, his lips, and then finally his vivid brown eyes. They were no longer restless, but sure. He leaned down and kissed her— a deep, sudden kiss, followed by a slower, more deliberate one, as if he regretted the first. But Abbie’s newly awoken desire made her impatient. She intensified the kiss again. Faizan dropped the takeout bag and took Abbie’s face in his hands.

They stumbled toward the couch, one moment kissing and the next holding their faces silently, breathlessly close. In some part of her mind, Abbie knew this was all absurd, dramatic, unsustainable, but it felt too natural to make herself stop. Faizan backed Abbie up against the arm of her couch, and they fell clumsily onto the hard, square cushions. For once, Abbie was grateful so many of the buttons had fallen off, so her clothes couldn’t catch onto anything.  Faizan pulled his sweatshirt over his head in one swift motion before lowering himself on top of her, kissing her urgently and gripping her thigh. Abbie threw her leg over his back, drawing him closer. A sigh escaped her lips as Faizan ran his hand over the length of her torso before settling in the curve of her waist. His kisses moved from Abbie’s lips to her jawline, and she heard herself exhale sharply as she pulled him even closer, their bodies pressed flush against one another. It was unlike anything she had experienced before. His ragged breathing filled her ear, his hands tensed and relaxed as they explored her body, and the smell of his cologne overtook the acrylic paint odor that never seemed to leave her tiny apartment. Faizan reached under her dress and slid his hands up her sides until it was over her head, revealing a seafoam green Aerie bralette only Dan had seen before him. His eyes roamed over her body as he tucked his fingers into the waistband of her tights, thoughtfully easing them down with painstaking care. He spent a lasting, tender moment at her neck before placing his hands on her hips and moving downward, his head settling, finally, between her thighs.