Chapter Five: Charlotte Gets Shook

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Nadine had just finished wiping down her lab bench and organizing her notes when she felt the wild vibration of her phone in the front pocket of her eggplant-colored lab coat. The phone was a typic device, but it had been treated with a common personalization charm.  Whenever Nadine received a call or message from another witch, that witch’s distinct magical signature would immediately register, letting Nadine know exactly who was trying to contact her without looking at her phone. This vibration was one Nadine knew well: the call was from her mother. She touched her hand to her pocket, giving the phone permission to display the message. Two words appeared in the air before her in an elegant red font: Urgent—Eve.

Nadine immediately called her mother. Her sister, Eve, had been due to give birth over a week ago, and she’d been in the hospital for days, resisting the doctors’ appeals to induce labor.   

“Nadine,” Natasha said. To most, she would sound calm and collected, but Nadine could detect the nearly imperceptible note of worry in her voice. “Nadine, please come to the hospital as soon as possible. Whatever work you have, put it aside.”

“Is the baby okay?” Nadine asked. The leanness of her mother’s message stoked a fear she’d been suppressing for weeks.

“The baby is fine—that’s not the concern. I’ll see you soon.”

Nadine hurried out of the lab, careful not to knock over any of the containers of unstable magic lining the counters. Most of her peers would be afraid to leave like this—early, frantically, directly in view of Dr. Diop’s glass-walled office—but Nadine’s role in the Atmospheric Magic Effort made her much more valuable to the WIH than most of the researchers, including many of her superiors and elders. Though she rarely abused her position, Nadine was acutely aware of it.

She stopped just before stepping outside, realizing it would be easiest to transport from inside the shroud of the WIH directly to the hospital. Nadine gathered the tails of her black cape and closed her eyes. Though she’d improved over the years, transporting wasn’t her strong suit, and she needed absolute concentration to make sure she didn’t end up in a hospital on the other side of the world. Nadine steadied her breathing, blocking out all anxieties about the baby, her research, and whether the auburn she’d dyed her shaved head yesterday complemented her eyes. Then, she focused all her thoughts on the hospital: how it looked, how it smelled, how the air had felt when she’d last been there. When she opened her eyes, the thoughts had come to life, and she was in the bustling delivery wing of the Miloy Witch’s Ward.

“Excuse me!” Nadine stopped a nurse dressed in lavender scrubs. “I’m looking for hospital room 3B.”

The nurse stared, taken aback by her urgency.

“I’m looking for Eve Nox’s room.”

“Oh.” The nurse’s face cleared into a broad smile. “It’s down that hall and to the right. Oh, it’s wonderful news—Nadine, right? You’re her sister? It’s just wonderful news, congratulations.”

Nadine turned away without responding and headed down the hall, startled to hear the nurse use her first name. She’d forgotten that in the late eighties, following the first reverberations of The Shatter, new, witch-exclusive hospitals had been built and shrouded to better monitor birth patterns in the Witch Sphere. Everyone in this hospital should know her name, as they were all witches or magic-affiliated men. Unlike her sister, Nadine didn’t bask in the notoriety their family’s name afforded them. She hadn’t used it to be more popular in training school, didn’t enjoy small talk with strangers who approached her, and she’d done her best to obscure her identity when she applied for her research position at the WIH.

She’d carried a vague distaste for the celebrity bound to the Nox name throughout childhood, but it hadn’t fully solidified until her first day of university at 81, 22 (a coordinate that landed in Switzerland). She’d been ecstatic for the opportunity to study at Bekere University’s top-ranked medical school, and thought of it as a chance to get away, to be somewhere her family and its history didn’t loom so largely over her. But at orientation, in a room full of witches she’d never met, the familiar sidelong glances and judgmental airs settled over her, and Nadine realized no matter where she went in the Sphere, she’d always be a Nox. Though Nadine had been vehemently defending her mother since kindergarten, a part of her resented the small eruption of fear she felt every time she met a new witch or magic-affiliated man. In that way, she and her sister made the perfect set of daughters to Natasha Nox: Nadine upheld the intellectual tradition of the family, and Eve was the outgoing, congenial proof that not all Noxes were serious, dutiful, inwardly-turned witches. Or at least Eve had been, before her first daughter, Helia, was born without a trace of magical powers, and then she’d turned into a new person almost overnight.

In a matter of weeks, she became sullen and slow to socialize, staying indoors with her husband and avoiding the press as she tried to foster a sense of warmth between herself and her daughter. She no longer threw sprawling celebrations on the grounds of her home or otherwise meddled in the political affairs of the Witch Sphere. She was no longer the convincing campaigner Natasha had once relied on for difficult Council motions. When people asked about Helia or sent their condolences, Eve played it off unconvincingly, mentioning how common typic births were now, how she herself had gone to an unshrouded university, how Helia could maintain her ties to the community though she couldn’t fully operate in it. The family being back in spotlight brought the sisters closer, made them put aside the grievances that had been bubbling under their relationship from the day Nadine was born. The horrible truth, which no one dared to say to thin-skinned Eve, was that a Nox without powers was an oxymoron, and no one in the Witch Sphere could believe that a Council family had produced a typic. Everyone was careful not to blame Eve, but that didn’t stop her from feeling at fault—for being lax about her training, for spending too much time in the typic world, and, most painfully, for being born without the family’s hallmark Executioner power.

With Helia’s birth, the typic crisis had become both personal and professional for Nadine, exacerbating the public hysteria she and every other researcher encountered on a daily basis. Just last Monday, as Nadine sat on the stately concrete steps of the WIH headquarters eating her lunch, a woman bounded up the stairs and stood in front of her. Though she tried to maintain her composure, the woman began to bawl once she revealed the days-old baby hidden in the folds of her shawl.

“Please,” she begged, thrusting the baby toward Nadine. “Please help my baby. She’s a typic.”

Nadine tried to explain the Magic Reinstatement Program’s registration process, mentioning that the waitlist was thousands of names long, but the woman was inconsolable. She sobbed as she explained how her entire family’s history would be lost before WIH security eventually came outside, gently calmed the woman down, and transported her to her home. What Nadine didn’t mention to the woman was that despite the overflow of donations and interest from the Council, the WIH was struggling to find a cure, even though they’d been working around the clock since the late eighties.

One potion worked for a day, giving a baby girl powers for a full twenty-four hours before they puttered out and disappeared. A charmed powder had given another girl powers for almost a week, then stopped working while Dr. Diop was halfway through drafting a triumphant press release with the in-house PR director. They’d even fiddled with spells, an esoteric form of magic most modern-day witches were not skilled in (unless they’d gone to some tradition-obsessed training school, like Nadine), with no luck. After several rounds of trials that led to dead ends, there was a period in the early aughts where it seemed the typic problem could never be resolved.

Only Charlotte’s approval of the Atmospheric Magic Effort revived hope. The WIH received record numbers of young, hungry applicants who wanted to avenge this or that cousin or prevent having their own typic babies. When Nadine applied, however, she’d stood out. She was a Council family daughter, after all, and in possession of the most infamous named power of them all: the ability to Execute, or permanently strip a witch of her powers and render her a typic. Everyone wondered why she hadn’t just dedicated herself to politics, preparing herself for the Council seat she was destined for once her mother retired. Nadine was surprised it didn’t occur to anyone that it was entirely because of her family’s legacy, because of her named power, that she chose to invest herself in a project that could someday give the gift of magic rather than take it. Though people accused the WIH of accepting her because of her name alone, nobody dared to openly protest, despite the persistent gossip, both in and outside of the lab.

Nadine rounded the corner to the hall leading to room 3B, her loafers squeaking across the floor as she turned. She placed her hand on the glass door, which had been treated with a popular interior design charm. From where she stood, it looked like ordinary translucent glass, and behind it was a starry night sky. Nadine paused before turning the knob. The nurse’s congratulations could’ve meant anything, but Nadine, reluctant optimist that she was, couldn’t help but think of the best-case scenario, one in which the spell she’d been tweaking for the duration of Eve’s pregnancy, the one far outside the WIH’s bounds of acceptable magic, the one she’d pronounced over her sister’s belly just a week ago, had actually worked.

Nadine pushed the door open. Her parents and Eve’s husband, James, stood over her sister’s bed. The baby had been cleaned and swaddled, and Eve had already made herself up, looking tidy and calm. If Nadine didn’t know better, she would’ve thought Eve was on her way out to dinner, not lying in a hospital bed after giving birth. All eyes snapped to Nadine as soon as she entered.

“Honey,” her mother said quietly. Natasha broke into a tentative smile. “Come look.”

Nadine rushed over to the bed, looking at the baby gurgling quietly in Eve’s arms. Her face was at once familiar and unrecognizable, the way all babies’ faces were—an innocent canvas for parents to project themselves onto. Looking at Eve, Natasha reached into the blankets and gently pulled out the baby’s foot. There, clear as day, was the mark Nadine recognized from her own baby pictures, Eve’s pictures, and the pictures of every witch she had ever known: a purple print, which started at the heel, so dark it seemed black, then bled out to the middle of the foot, fading like watercolor. In just eight hours, the print would disappear.

Eve gazed up at her sister, eyes shining with the tears she’d refused to release since Helia’s birth four years ago. “Nadine,” she whispered. “She’s a witch.”

A baby's foot

During this time of year, Charlotte liked to take meetings outside on the balcony adjacent to her study. The weather had cooled enough from the blistering heat of summer, and the leaves had begun to turn and fall off the trees. She loved to watch as, day by day, the grounds grew covered with leaves, save for the perfect circle of earth shielded by the Cradle. The tree stood evergreen through the dormancy of winter, a strange miracle to unknowing onlookers and to Charlotte, a reminder of the power of the Sphere. Over the course of Charlotte’s time as Regent, the sight had become less majestic than it was when she was a girl—branches of the tree had begun to blacken and wither before falling off entirely—but it was still, Charlotte took care to remind herself, something to behold.

Cradle with falling leaves

“Regent,” Charlotte heard from behind her. “Are you ready to begin?”

Charlotte took a step away from the railing of the balcony, turning to face the agents she’d sent to investigate the disturbances reported at the last Council meeting. Camille, who’d spoken, eyed Charlotte expectantly, but Charlotte took her time.

She held her mug of cooled tea in her hands until she felt it warm between them, and took a long sip before she replied. “Yes,” Charlotte said. She placed the mug on the table. “Yes, of course.”

“Perfect.” Camille handed Charlotte the brief she’d prepared and then returned to her place in front of the line of agents by the door. “We started on the Lower East Side, as you’ll see from the first data point, where the majority of the spikes were concentrated before breaking out into a five-point formation to....” Charlotte’s attention waned as Camille continued. A shimmering mark had appeared at the intersection of Essex and Delancey, and now golden dotted lines marched across a map of New York City like ants, detailing the movements of the agents.

“Camille.” Charlotte knew she didn’t care for process as much as the Regent probably should, but Camille’s compulsive need to detail every single step that brought her to an outcome was exhausting. “You can save the details for the formal filing. I’m just interested in what you managed to find.”

“Yes, of course,” Camille said. She flipped through the pages, so clearly flustered that Charlotte was tempted to offer the poor girl a mug of tea—or a shot of Soothing Solution, whichever would calm her faster.

“Well?” Charlotte asked.

Camille glanced at the other agents, who looked at their shoes, at the sky, out at the Cradle—at anything but her. “Well, that’s the thing,” Camille said reluctantly, turning back to Charlotte. “We didn’t find anything.”
“Nothing?” Charlotte asked. “No evidence of a botched cloaking spell or a magical gathering gone awry?” These were the most common causes of spikes in the Baseline.

Camille shook her head. “Nothing at all,” she said. “We went to every location where a spike was registered on the map and found nothing, not even women we suspected of being untracked witches.”

Charlotte waved Camille’s words away, suppressing the shiver that threatened to roll down her spine at the word “untracked.” “There are no untracked witches,” she said firmly.

In the days after The Shatter, she’d personally made sure that every witch in the Sphere had been covered with the Track, working from the extensive birth records that The Historical Society of the Witch Sphere had been keeping since the time of the Mothers. It was a simple location charm that, in the past, witches had used to keep track of their children, but Charlotte had decreed that it must be modified and cast on every witch in the Sphere, woman and girl, to prevent another catastrophe. In those early years, there was some talk that Charlotte was a tyrant for passing the edict, but Charlotte would take talk over terror—and she had said as much in many Council meetings.
“I—of course not,” Camille backtracked. “We just wanted to explore all possible options. But we think it’s just another false alarm.”

Charlotte gave Camille a long, careful look, wondering if Camille had really emphasized another or if she had just imagined it. She examined Camille until she started to fidget, adjusting the triangular pendant around her neck, and then Charlotte stood, bored by the sight of her. She began to turn toward the Cradle but stopped when Camille addressed her.

“There was something else,” Camille said. She looked to the briefing Charlotte had left on the table and it opened to a page showing several line graphs.

Charlotte sat back down and lifted the booklet. “What is this?”

“Sometimes large displays of magic can trigger abnormal natural phenomena as a side effect—usually lightning storms, but sometimes other things as well,” Camille explained. “But it happens so rarely. At first it didn’t seem like anything had happened, but when we checked some of our tools at headquarters we found that there’d been an earthquake the same night the first disturbance was logged.”

“An earthquake?” Charlotte asked doubtfully. She remembered that night—she’d slept peacefully in her quarters, same as she always did. It didn’t feel like the world was shaking beneath her at all.

“Yes,” Camille said. “An earthquake. Some can be so slight or happen so deep in the ground that we can’t feel anything at all. That was the case here.”
“Okay,” said Charlotte. “An earthquake. But what does it mean?” she asked, already knowing the answer. “Let me guess. You don’t know?”

Camille looked at her agents again, but they remained as useless as ever. “Yes, but—”

“You may go,” Charlotte said caustically. She waved her arm in dismissal and stood to face the grounds. Camille and the other agents chorused their goodbyes before leaving the study, but Charlotte had already stopped listening to them, watching as a breeze swept leaves across the ground. Of course Camille would bring her this—a load of nothing—in the wake of her successful campaign to reinstate The Gathering. Charlotte had never been lucky enough to enjoy a period of uninterrupted peace over the course of her entire reign.

Though she retained support from powerful families in the outer reaches of the Witch Sphere, Charlotte knew that at 33, 26, her influence waxed and waned. Her top agents and members of the High Council alternately thought she was incredibly adept at her role or completely unhinged. Now, just as in the very beginning of her regency, Charlotte’s rule was characterized by meteoric highs and abysmal lows, and only the lows stuck in collective memory.

When, in the spring, she’d made the risky call to cancel Made by Magic, the massive witch music festival held every year in Adelanto, Charlotte drew some judgement; but it was overshadowed by the praise from witches who thought it was a strong move that showcased her dedication to preserving the secrecy of the Witch Sphere. She’d only been riding that high for a few months before she made the widely-criticized decision to send a team of emergency agents to break up a naming ceremony at 55, 67, just outside of Kinshasa.

The parents had sent ahead a notice saying that although the party they’d planned would likely cause a spike in the Baseline, there was no reason for alarm: they were taking all the necessary precautions. But Charlotte still worried—parties made people sloppy with their magic, and sloppiness put the Shrouded Vow at risk. In hindsight, Charlotte could easily see how she’d misread the situation: the child’s grandmothers had been some of her key supporters when members of the Council were calling for her to be stripped of the regency years ago. Beyond that, many others thought it simply unkind to stop a party celebrating the birth of a witch at a time when fewer and fewer of them were being born.

Charlotte shook her head to clear it of unpleasant memories. Whenever she thought about the tough times she’d faced as Regent, she started to spiral, shutting herself into her quarters as she ruminated endlessly on how things could have been different. If she’d only taken her studies more seriously, if only she’d been more careful with the advisors she’d elected to the Council, if only she’d had more time to train with her mother before her early death, if only, if only.

Before Charlotte’s mother passed, she’d warned Charlotte not to pay too much attention to the critiques of the witches under her rule. None of them understood—could ever begin to understand, she stressed—what it meant to have the secrecy and balance of their world in her hands. If that was true for Charlotte’s mother, it was even more so for Charlotte, whose every decision was scrutinized so much more than her predecessors, every choice an attempt to claw back some credibility after the catastrophe of The Shatter. She looked at the briefing one last time, thinking of the buzz that had begun to spread across the Witch Sphere about The Gathering’s return. Surely things were fine. Although the disturbances had spiked the Baseline, no typic had seen whatever caused them. Perhaps Charlotte was turning a corner in her reign at last, settling into a stretch of calm for the first time in over thirty years.

From the moment MJ left the girls alone at Tompkins, Delali begged Vic and Abbie incessantly to consider meeting with her. They’d both been reluctant at first, but Abbie quickly gave in, and with Delali constantly spamming the group text, Vic finally did too. Delali had to wait outside Vic’s Orange Theory class to catch her earlier today, but now all three of them stood waiting outside MJ’s door. The girls knew she was expecting them, but she buzzed them up so quickly they wondered if she had been waiting by the door. That, or maybe she used magic somehow to see exactly when they’d arrive. Naturally, MJ lived in the penthouse apartment, and when the girls stepped out of the elevator into the spacious, oak-floored hallway outside her door, Abbie gaped.

“Oh my gosh,” she whispered. “This apartment is amazeballs.”

“It’s what?” asked Vic.

Shh.” Delali gestured toward the black-lacquered door. In its center was a gold knocker in the shape of a woman’s face—high cheekbones, wide nose, large eyes and lush lips—and a peephole through which MJ was surely watching them. Delali reached to touch the knocker, but before she made contact, the door swung open.

MJ stood on the other side, dressed in an oversized cream-colored turtleneck and floor-grazing palazzo pants, gazing at them intently. She had the sort of face that reflected her age only implicitly, bearing no wrinkles, creases, or discoloration, yet appearing refined and wise. “Ladies,” she smiled, her voice rich as buttercream. “I’m so glad you were able to make it. Please, come in.”

The girls did as they were told, looking around. The apartment was vast and fastidiously decorated. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room flooded the space with generous light, and the stark white walls were adorned at the baseboards with intricate moldings. A hearth fireplace sunk into the wall furthest from the door, hosting a fire that crackled like a soothing nighttime recording. All the walls in the living room were dotted with photographs in heavy gold frames, and it was difficult to tell if the people in them were MJ’s relatives, friends, or complete strangers. Lofty bookshelves ran the height of the wall, holding books as well as trinkets, statues, and plaques.

Abbie looked around in wonder, stopping when she saw a large glass orb on one of the shelves. Purple smoke swirled inside it, dotted with tiny, lifelike stars and constellations. She rushed to it and took it from the shelf.

“Is this a crystal ball?” she asked, peering at her reflection.

Abbie holding a crystal ball

“Why, yes, it is.” MJ laughed and closed the door behind the girls. She strode over to Abbie and took the ball into her hands. As she did, the smoke lightened to a lavender so pale it looked almost white. “This is the one my mother gave me for my sixteenth birthday. Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Incredible,” said Abbie.

“Every Seer must have at least one, and this is my absolute favorite.”

Delali took a step in the direction of the bookshelf and adjusted her long-sleeved crop top, making sure the strip of skin above her high-waisted black Levi’s remained tasteful. “What’s a Seer?”

MJ turned toward her and smiled. She tucked her fingers into her short, blond afro and fluffed it. “Please, ladies, have a seat.” She led them over to the black leather couch, glass coffee table, and ornate sarouk rug Abbie had nimbly circumvented on her way to the crystal ball. On the table sat a lavish spread of charcuterie arranged on a wood cutting board, along with two bottles of bordeaux and four wine glasses.

The girls sank into the couch as MJ sat across from them. “Feel free to eat,” she said, ignoring that Delali had already cut into one of the soft goat cheeses. “Would anyone like a glass of wine? There is no pressure at all to drink.”

The girls nodded in unison, as though the drink were being offered by someone they knew intimately. Vic was surprised by how at ease she felt in MJ’s presence. The idea of being a witch still bothered her, and of course she’d rather be shopping in SoHo than eating pepperoni in this random woman’s apartment, but she could feel her muscles beginning to relax in the grand, inviting living room. The anxieties that had plagued her all week fell away.

“Is this chocolate fair trade? So awesome,” Abbie said, her mouth full.

“It is.” MJ turned the wine bottle upright as she finished pouring the fourth glass, her own. She sipped her drink, taking the moment to watch the girls.

Delali almost began to speak, one of her many burning questions on the tip of her tongue, but MJ gave her a quieting look. Delali sat back, closing her mouth.

“First, I want to begin by thanking you all for coming today,” MJ said. I certainly understand how strange this is for you.” The girls watched her in quiet, rapt attention.

“As I told Delali last week, I believe the three of you are witches.” MJ leaned forward and placed her glass on the coffee table. Delali didn’t remember telling MJ her name, but still thought nothing of it. She was a witch, after all. “When I saw you at Miss Lily’s, I recognized it in you immediately. The three of you appeared so clearly to be… of our world, if you will.”

“Did you see me refill my drink?” Vic asked.

MJ laughed. “Of course. But I knew before then.”

“Just by looking at us?” Abbie asked.

“Truthfully, I’d seen you before Miss Lily’s,” said MJ. “I had visions about you, and they led me there. They also led me to you the night of September first, when Victoria dropped her phone.”

The girls looked at each other, stunned into silence. If she knew about that night at The Bar, what else did she know about them?

“That was a very flashy display of magic, ladies,” MJ said. Her voice was playful, not scolding, and a warm, maternal smile curved her lips. “As was that night in the park. But I understand, of course. When you’re a young witch, showy magic is certainly the most fun.”
“What do you mean when you say we’re ‘of your world’? Are there more of us? More witches?” Delali’s questions tumbled out in a rush.

“Well, of course there are more witches,” said MJ. “Did you think you were the only three in the world? Granted, most of us get our powers and training much earlier in life. I was surprised by your age when I first had these visions of you. The way you got your powers isn’t impossible by any means... just uncommon.”

“How does someone become a witch? Were we born this way?” Abbie’s insertions were the least charged in the room, presented calmly.

“You were. All witches are born witches. Though when you get to my age, your powers can begin to dwindle, come and go as they please.”

“Right,” said Vic. “So, you’ve been using your dwindling powers to stalk us.”

Vic,” Delali stressed in a low voice, and Vic shot her a look.

“What?” she asked, turning toward Delali. “She basically just admitted it.”

“I suppose you could put it like that,” MJ interrupted, seeing that Delali was about respond. “But my magic led me to you. A witch has no choice in her mentees. I pursued you girls not out of any curiosity or independent interest, but because my visions have made it clear that I am to mentor you.”

The girls were quiet before Vic sprang up from the couch. She started pacing and rubbing her hands together, trying to knock herself out of whatever complacent trance this woman had put her in. “How do we even know you’re a witch?” she burst out. “What authority do you have to decide that we’re witches? How do we know you’re not just a crazy woman? A criminal? A pervert?”

If MJ felt at all slighted by Vic’s accusations, she didn’t show it. “I understand how this could frighten you. I want you all to feel free to remove yourselves from this situation if you feel at all uncomfortable—”

“No,” Delali interrupted. “We’re not uncomfortable.” She was eager to have more information to work with and wasn’t about to let Vic ruin this. “We just want to know more. What does mentorship entail? How do we get to the witch world?”

“The Witch Sphere,” MJ corrected. “There’s no way to get there, not really. It’s all around you. Come.” She stood and walked up the wide staircase in the foyer, and the girls followed her uncertainly. She led them to a door that opened onto a spacious balcony overlooking the city. The girls shivered in the chilly air as they crowded around MJ and followed her gaze. Below, they could see a collection of roofs and the Manhattan skyline outlined in gray. “Look, just there,” MJ said, pointing at an empty rooftop. “What do you see?” The girls looked at each other.

“Um, nothing,” said Vic. “There’s nothing up there.”

“To the untrained eye,” MJ said. “I see a dinner party.” She laughed to herself. “And a raucous one at that. One long table, dressed in a fine white table cloth, surrounded by a group of nine. A small radio one guest keeps getting up to fiddle with. A magnificent spread of food. Enough wine for nine more guests.” She broke off and turned to face the girls. “It’s pedestrian, I know. But this is how the Witch Sphere works. We charm ourselves to evade the typic eye. We call it a shroud.”

“The typic eye?” asked Abbie.

“A person without powers,” MJ clarified. “In the case of you girls, it’s just that you don’t quite yet know how to use your powers.” She pointed to the roof. “Here the shroud is more or less insignificant. But nearly all witch operations are shrouded this way—government, galas, entire universities, hospitals. All of them are hidden in plain sight.”

There was a long beat of silence, in which it occurred to the girls that the normal thing to do would be to find MJ crazy, to run and leave her apartment, laughing as they dismissed everything she'd told them. But instead they felt the desire to climb off the balcony and onto the next rooftop, to swipe at the empty air and make sure there was no table there they couldn’t see, to be certain there was no dinner party chatter they failed to hear. The girls looked from MJ to each other. Then, as though accepting a dispatch from an alien or a time-traveler, they overcame the feelings of skepticism, fear, and dread undercutting the entire visit and chose to believe her.

“How long will it take for us to see?” Abbie asked finally.

“This is where mentorship factors in.” MJ walked back into the apartment and the girls followed her inside, down the stairs, and into the living room. “Of course, you could try to master your powers on your own. Vic has certainly made impressive strides. But a mentor would help you develop them faster, introducing you to things you hadn’t previously considered, like that dinner party, and teaching you basic facts and history about the Sphere. You’d also get to meet more young witches like you, and go to events—”

“Events?” Vic cut in. “Like witch parties?”

MJ smiled. “Yes, like witch parties,” she said. “Among other things.” She walked to one of the many bookshelves and retrieved a book with a metallic blue spine. “Take a look for yourself,” she said, handing it to Vic. Delali and Abbie leaned in. Vic opened the book, and a young MJ faced them before turning away, her mouth open in a laugh. A slight breeze caught and dropped the skirt of her long yellow dress. Behind her, other witches mingled at what looked to be a garden party, the background lush with greenery. They turned the page and MJ again laughed before them, her arm wrapped intimately around the shoulders of a girl who faced something out of frame, just a sliver of her face visible. The girls kept flipping, rapt with attention, until they came across an image of a sprawling, magnificent party.

“I took that one,” MJ said, her tone bordering on wistful.

“Where was this?” Abbie asked. In the picture, women she assumed were witches swirled about in bright, confectionary-colored gowns, picking up their drinks and putting them down again as the picture replayed the same few seconds over and over again. White tents stood high in the background, and a sea of tables were covered with a decadent spread of food. Votive candles floated in the air, their flames flickering against the black of the sky.

“That was at an event called The Gathering,” MJ said. “The single most important event in the Witch Sphere.”


“When is it? Can we go?”

“What’s the dress code? White tie? Black tie? Black tie optional?”
The girls’ questions overlapped, their voices growing louder before MJ held up a hand to stop them. She spared the picture one last look before abruptly taking the book out of Vic’s hands and snapping it closed. The girls drew back, disappointed.

“Before we get into all that, there’s still the matter of mentorship to discuss,” she said. MJ returned the album to its place on the shelf before facing the girls again. “While the Mothers may have chosen me to be your mentor, the relationship won’t be successful if you don’t also choose me. Mentorship is a two-way street,” she said. She looked at each of the girls before settling on Vic. “And it doesn’t look like the three of you are in agreement about how you’d like to proceed.”

With that, MJ headed toward the front door and wordlessly thrust it open. The three girls looked at each other in confusion. It was the first time all night that MJ had been anything but perfectly welcoming to them. And though her voice maintained the syrupy tone that reminded Abbie of the way she consoled her students, the gesture still smarted, and heat rose up in the girls’ faces as though they’d been slapped. But they all knew exactly what decision they wanted to make. They wanted to stay. If not to learn from MJ and be taken under her wing, then just to look at her longer, to spend more time in the unusual energy of her home and get lost in her photo albums, to peer out onto the foggy skyline and imagine glittering parties on every other rooftop. They wanted to know what it meant to be witches after all, and they knew instinctively that MJ was the only person who could tell them.

“I’ll be here,” MJ said, interrupting the girls’ silence. “Every Saturday at this same time. If you three can come to a decision, feel free to return. I’ll welcome you, and do my best to teach you everything I know.”