Chapter Fourteen: Toggsworth Gets A Girlfriend

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When Chelsianne from Thinnie Minnie’s PR department reached out to Abbie on Instagram, Abbie thought it was a joke. Certainly there was no way that she, regular old Abiola Balogun from Burlington, Vermont, had reached the level of internet stardom that attracted a promotional deal with a detox tea. But— and Abbie read Chelsianne’s DM five times to be sure—apparently she had, and the company was willing to pay her $500 for a picture of her holding the little pink bag of tea (so long as she was in front of a light background and wore something that revealed her stomach). Abbie didn’t own any crop tops, and she didn’t feel comfortable posting a picture of herself on social media wearing just a sports bra, so she made do with what she had, wearing a plain pink tank top and pulling it behind her with a hair elastic, the way all the cool girls did in elementary school.

“Do you think this is enough?” Abbie asked, walking out of her bathroom. She self-consciously shielded the thin strip of stomach she’d left exposed over the waistband of her running shorts. Faizan, sitting on the couch in Abbie’s tiny living room/bedroom/kitchen looked up from where he was fiddling with the secondhand DSLR he’d bought on Craigslist. He took her in before he stood, camera still in hand, and walked over.

“I think…” he trailed off as he pushed the scrunched hem of the shirt a little higher. Abbie suppressed a shiver as Faizan’s warm fingertips grazed her midriff. “There,” he said once her bellybutton was visible. “That’s perfect.”

Abbie gave him a dubious look. “Are you sure?” she asked shyly. She felt so stupid, freaking out over a dumb Instagram post about a product she hadn’t even tried— black tea made her too jumpy to function at school.

Faizan grinned, hanging the camera around his neck and settling his hands at her hips. “It’s perfect,” he said. He kissed her twice, once on the lips and again on the forehead, before pulling away from her. “Come on.” He pulled her to the space in front of her south-facing windows, which, upon entering, he’d quickly announced was the best lighting in the apartment. “This is a business meeting,” he teased. He smoothed one of her errant curls into place and lifted the camera to his face, squinting as he positioned the viewfinder in front of his eye.

Immediately after Abbie had texted Faizan about her Thinnie Minnie deal, he’d offered to take the pictures for her, reminding her that none of her competitors were racking up tea money by taking pics with setting self-timers. When she said he didn’t have to, he’d insisted, saying he took all the pictures for the BARber account, and that she couldn’t waste this amazing opportunity by posting a shitty iPhone 4 pic (he’d punctuated this sentence with the winking, stuck-out tongue emoji to let her know he was joking, even though Abbie knew it was kind of true). After that, Abbie had finally given in to the part of her she secretly knew would win out all along and accepted. When Faizan had shown up to her apartment earlier that afternoon, she was happy that she had, if only to see him in his cute art director tortoiseshell glasses.

She hadn’t planned for things to go as far as they had with Faizan that night after CurlyCon. She hadn’t been planning to see him at all. But once they’d started kissing it seemed they couldn’t stop, not that night, the morning after, or the several nights he’d spent at her place in the weeks since. After the first time they’d slept together, Abbie had lain on her couch, head on his chest, wracked with a guilt so engrossing that she was sure Faizan could see it. But the guilt, conveniently, came and went, disappearing each time Faizan touched her and rushing back once they separated. It didn’t help that after their first time, all thoughts of betraying Dan were colored by the realization that she’d just had her first orgasm.

“Turn a little bit to your right,” Faizan said.

“Like this?” Abbie turned so he’d capture a three-quarter profile.

“Yeah, perfect.” Faizan pulled the camera away from his face so he could examine the image on its screen. He smiled before turning it toward Abbie. “I think that’s the shot,” he said.

Abbie’s phone buzzed on the kitchen counter, the image flashing on the screen.
“Bluetooth,” said Faizan, answering Abbie’s unasked question.
“Oh right,” Abbie said as though she knew exactly how that worked. She lifted her phone from the counter and gasped. “OMG,” she said, zooming in on her face. “Is that really me?” The girl in the image had a much fuller twist-out than Abbie’s fine hair normally allowed, and it even looked as though she had ab definition, even though she hadn’t worked out consistently since college.

“Of course it’s you,” Faizan said, looking at her thoughtfully. “Abbie, you’re beautiful. You know that, right?” They made brief eye contact before Abbie looked away, her face hot with embarrassment.

“Thank you,” she mumbled, and Faizan gave her a goofy grin.

Abbie stared at the picture on her phone as she crossed the tiny room and settled on her couch, leaning on one of the arms and stretching out her legs in front of her. As Faizan moved to sit beside her, Abbie bent her knees to accommodate him, but he reached over and pulled her legs over his lap, his hand cupping one of her bare calves.

“Well?” Faizan said.

“Well what?”

“Post the picture,” Faizan said, as it if it were obvious.

Abbie hadn’t even realized that she’d been second-guessing. She stuck out her tongue at him. “Fine, I guess,” she said with a giggle, pulling up the app. She applied the Valencia filter (her favorite) and was about to post it before Faizan stopped her.

“Wait!” he said, moving her legs off his lap. “I almost forgot.” He turned and knelt on the cushion, leaning over the arm of the couch so he could rummage around in his tattered Jansport backpack. “I brought this to celebrate,” he said, brandishing a bottle of blush André champagne before flopping back down on the couch.

“Oh my God,” Abbie said. “You brought champagne?” She let out a peal of disbelieving laughter.

“Well it’s a big deal!” he said. But then he backtracked, doubting himself. “But I guess it is kind of over the top,” he added sheepishly.

“Oh my God, no.” Abbie reached out and squeezed his knee. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just...that’s so sweet,” she finished, almost swooning at Faizan’s bashful smile. In her mind, a thought erupted that underscored so many of her interactions with Faizan: Dan would never.  A giddy rush of affection toward Faizan left her feeling lightheaded, and, emboldened, Abbie swung a leg over his lap and straddled him, holding her phone between them.

“You ready?” she asked. Faizan nodded with a grin, tightening his grip on the bottle. “Okay,” Abbie said. “On three. One...two...three,” she counted. She hit the share button to upload the picture and Faizan let out a whoop, popping the cork of the champagne. Frothy pink bubbles spilled over the mouth of bottle, and Abbie let out a squeal as it splashed onto their laps. She grabbed the bottle and took a swig before reaching back to place it on the coffee table behind her.

Thinnie Minnie instagram post

“Thank you for this,” she said. She held Faizan’s face before leaning in to kiss him. He pulled her closer to him, his hand clamped onto Abbie’s thigh, deepening the kiss. They went on like that for a while, kissing feverishly, until Abbie pulled away, unlocking her fingers from where they’d laced behind Faizan’s neck.

“Wait, wait,” Abbie said with a giggle.

“Wait what?” Faizan murmured against her neck. He slid his palms beneath her tank top, resting his hands on her stomach.

Abbie pushed at his chest. “I said I’d make you dinner,” she said, remembering that she’d promised to cook as a thank you to Faizan for photographing her.
“Dinner can wait,” he said, grasping at her fingers, but Abbie had already hopped off his lap. She scurried into the kitchen, hastily pulling pots and pans out of  the cabinet above her stove, attempting to ward off the guilt that had already started to descend. She opened her fridge, lingering in front of it in hopes that the cold air would cool her down. She moved to the counter to chop an onion and bit her lip when she felt Faizan’s arms around her waist, his chest pressed against her back.

“What are you making?” he said into Abbie’s ear, resting his chin on her shoulder.

“Miso glazed salmon with fried cauliflower rice,” she said, swaying as Faizan rocked against her.

“Mmm,” said Faizan. “Sounds good.” He pulled the neck of her shirt aside to press a kiss to her shoulder. Abbie let herself melt before taking his hands in hers and untwining them from around her body.

“Ok,” she said, stepping away from him. “You are officially banned from the kitchen until dinner is ready.” Abbie grabbed Faizan’s shoulders and turned him toward the living room, poking him in the back until he walked.
“Okay, okay,” he said, raising his hands in defeat. “I’ll be good.” He collapsed on the couch, scrolling on his phone while Abbie flit about the kitchen, chopping, stirring and tasting.

“What exactly is ‘cauliflower rice’?” Faizan called into the kitchen.

“Well, it’s not rice at all,” Abbie replied, dumping a spoonful of minced garlic into a saucepan. “It’s just cauliflower chopped up really small, so it kind of...looks like rice.” Abbie glanced up from the glaze she was mixing to see Faizan throw her a disgusted look.

She laughed at his expression. “No, I know, it sounds like such a scam, but I swear it’s good.” Abbie stood on tiptoe, poking around one of her cabinets in search of soy and teriyaki sauce. “The first time Dan made it for me I—” Abbie broke off as she realized what she’d said, dropping the bottle she’d finally found. “Frick,” she whispered harshly under her breath. The bottle fell onto the counter and rolled onto the floor, but thankfully didn’t break. It kept rolling until it got to the living room, and Faizan stood to pick it up.

He walked over to the kitchen and held the bottle out to her. “Who’s Dan?”

For the briefest second, Abbie was tempted to lie, but then she looked into Faizan’s earnest dark eyes, and before she could even really think about it, blurted out, “my boyfriend.”

An eternity passed. Or at least, it felt like an eternity, even though it had been probably been no more than ten seconds. Faizan didn’t say anything for a long while, though Abbie could see his knuckles whitening as he tightened his grip around the neck of the soy sauce bottle. It was another eternity before he gently placed the bottle on the counter and spoke.

“Sorry,” he said calmly, crossing his arms over his chest. His accent had done something

weird, slid into that space it sometimes went when he was making fun of “posh” people. “Your what?”

“My boyfriend,” Abbie said, voice barely above a whisper. Her fingers went to fiddle with the fraying braided bracelet around her wrist but froze as she remembered Dan’s identical one. Faizan closed his eyes for a long time before opening them again and giving Abbie a nauseated look. “Fuck’s sake, Abbie,” he said. He wasn’t exactly yelling, but he’d raised his voice, and it had taken on the hard edge it had when people got belligerent with him at The Bar. “You couldn’t have mentioned your boyfriend before we started fucking?” Abbie jumped at his word choice. She wouldn’t have described their relationship as...that.

“It’s not...you don’t…” Abbie tripped over her words, unable to make sense of her

thoughts as they came to her. “It’s complicated,” she said desperately, even though she knew it was a weak and stupid thing to say.

“How is it complicated?” Faizan spat. “What—when—I.” He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “How long have you been together?” he asked finally.

At this point, Abbie decided there was nothing she could do but be honest. “A little over four years,” she said in a small voice.

Faizan let out a surprised, choked laugh, planting his head in his hands. “Four years?” he asked incredulously. “Abbie,” he said in a low, pained voice. “Abbie, how could you do this?”

“Faizan,” she said. She took a step and reached toward him, but he stepped away and walked around her, heading toward the door.
“I think I should go,” he said, sliding his feet into his Puma x Trapstar sneakers.

“No, wait!” Abbie said, spurred by the thought of him leaving. “Don’t go. You don’t get it. Dan’s not...he’s not like you.”

“Yeah,” said Faizan bitterly. “He’s your boyfriend.” He’d put on his shoes but not his jacket, and Abbie seized her chance.

“No, that’s not what I meant. I meant…” she paused as she searched for the right words. “Dan just doesn’t get it. Like, with Crafting & Coconut Oil, he doesn’t support me like you do. In four years he’s only watched one of my YouTube videos. One,” she emphasized, searching his face. But his features had yet to soften. “And he makes fun of me for the things I like, and doesn’t make time to talk to me even though I rearrange my schedule for him all. The. Time.”
“Oh,” Faizan said in a mock-sympathetic voice. “Poor Abbie.” He pulled his windbreaker off the command hook beside the door and jammed his arms through the sleeves.

“Plus, I think he’s cheating on me!” she exclaimed as a last resort, voicing the concern she’d had ever since Dan first mentioned Kim. The dripping, fawning quality of Dan’s description of Kim had flagged her in Abbie’s mind, but as soon as she said it, she realized that it wasn’t true. Dan was a lot of things—among them a not-great boyfriend—but he wasn’t a cheater, perhaps more out of laziness than loyalty.

“So you just thought you’d fuck me and get even with him?”

Abbie let out an annoyed, exasperated sigh. “Could you puh-lease stop describing it like that?”

“Like what? Like fucking?” he said defiantly, but Abbie knew it was only because he was hurt. “Honestly, Abbie…” He looked at her for a long, searching moment before turning away, dejected. “I gotta go.”
“Please don’t go,” Abbie begged. She couldn’t bear the thought of him leaving so upset with her, of him going home and stewing in his anger, of him writing her off completely. She grabbed his arm and he turned around to face her, another “I gotta go” on his lips, before Abbie caught his gaze and held it, watching, almost horrified, as all the pain and anger there fell away, leaving instead a disturbing cloudiness. Abbie didn’t know if she’d done it on purpose, but she’d caught Faizan with her power, holding him in the apartment. She could already see him softening toward her; his shoulders falling from where they’d been hunched up, and the tense muscle in his jaw slackening, the eerie hint of a smile playing at his lips.

“I am so sorry,” she said sincerely, and as Faizan said “I forgive you,” Abbie realized she wasn’t sure which of her faults she was apologizing for.

After reading the Sit Awhile script, Delali had spent hours on the phone with her mom, running through all the “what-ifs” and “I could maybes” that went into making a life-changing decision. They’d come to the conclusion that she should definitely take the role, but also finish school... eventually. It was too late for her to formally take a semester off or apply for a leave of absence, but Delali, of course, had whatever kind of access she wanted to the administration at any given time. She was more important for the university’s application numbers (and, as a result, their super low acceptance rate) than their mail-out pamphlets and tepid high school info sessions would ever be.

Delali styled herself deliberately for the meeting, gathering her braids into a neat, low ponytail. She put on a pair of green and blue floral brocade slacks from Zara, pairing them with the trusty no-name white turtleneck she’d picked up at Saks years ago. Her shoes were black patent leather flats she’d gotten at a random boutique in the Marais over summer break, and with a tiny bow positioned at the toe, they were more infantile than professional. But Delali knew that was the way to go: evoking little genius Georgia always helped her get her way. She took the least traveled paths on campus, embarrassed of her outfit, and mounted the marble stairs of President Toggsworth’s estate with fifteen minutes to spare. Delali waited in the sitting room outside his office, sinking into one of the tufted leather chairs and warming herself by the crackling fire. Spread over the hardwood floor was a blue and white patterned rug, and the wall behind her was lined with black and white portraits of former presidents of the university. Delali had only been sitting for a moment when President Toggsworth stepped through the enormous double doors that led to his study. She shot up and smoothed her sweater.

“Ms. Tamakloe,” President Toggsworth said with a careful smile. He dragged the ‘s’ in ‘Ms.’ the way Delali hated, making it sound like a z.

“President Toggsworth.” Delali beamed. “Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. It’s very generous of you.”

President Toggsworth gestured toward the open doorway and followed Delali into the study. “Anything for a student who contributes so spectacularly to our intellectual environment.” He closed the door behind them and sat in an armchair by the coffee table in the middle of the cavernous room, eschewing his pool table-sized desk for what he probably thought was a more intimate arrangement. The office looked like a clone of the sitting room, only bigger. Its large windows overlooked campus and two imposing crystal chandeliers hung from the coffered ceiling. Despite having seen the mansions of countless egocentric stars, Delali was struck by how immodest the office was—tacky even, especially considering it sat in perfect view of the school’s financial aid office.

“Now, Delali,” President Toggsworth said as he settled in. He picked a crystal dish off the small coffee table between them and thrust it towards her. “Raisinet?”

“No, thank you.” Delali lowered herself into a stiff chair across from him, struggling to keep a straight face.

“Suit yourself,” President Toggsworth replied. He tossed three Raisinets into his mouth and chewed deliberately. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“Well, President Toggsworth, first I want to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed my time here at the university. It’s really broadened my perspective of the world in a way I couldn’t have anticipated when you called me to personally extend an offer of admission just three short years ago. So thank you.”

“No, Delali, thank you for accepting. This place wouldn’t be the same without you.” President Toggsworth wiped his chocolate-stained fingers on a delicate white handkerchief on his desk.  “How have you been enjoying your senior year so far? Dean Hardrich mentioned he spotted you at a performance of The Colorline of Scrimmage—such a powerful play. I’ve seen it twice already. What was your take?”

“Uh, it’s really… important and...” Delali shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “Very of the times.”

President Toggsworth nodded, a serious expression on his face.

“Actually, funny you should mention it, that’s sort of what I’m here to talk to you about,” Delali said, seizing the opportunity.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, well, when I was at...Colorline, I was so inspired by the work that Adrien’s doing.  The experience really revived my love for acting and reminded me that there are ways educate myself and contribute to the intellectual community outside of the classroom.”

“Of course,” President Toggsworth said. He poured a small handful of Raisinets into his mouth. “Go on.”

Delali hesitated, then decided to take the plunge. “I was offered a role in a film,” she said evenly. “And I plan to accept it.”

President Toggsworth looked up from his dish of Raisinets. “Oh?”

Delali nodded. “It’s a biopic about Lorraine Hansberry,” she said, hoping the mention of the playwright would soften President Toggsworth’s response. No such luck.

“I’m not familiar,” he said. “Did she date Reggie Wallis?”

Delali tilted her head curiously before catching herself and relaxing her expression. “...No, actually, she was a playwright. Filming would begin in the spring, with fittings, chemistry reads, and dialect lessons starting as early as January. So I’m here to request a semester off, with the full intention of returning next fall.”

President Toggsworth ground his jaw in a frightening circular motion before letting out a wry, betrayed laugh, all the while staring at the single Raisinet he held between his thumb and forefinger. “You want to drop out?”

“No,” Delali replied. “I didn’t say that at all. I just want to take time off with the full—”

“I heard you,” President Toggsworth said. “The answer is no.”

“Excuse me?” Delali said, not indignant, but genuinely confused.

“I said I’m denying your request.”

Delali gaped at him. “May I ask why?”

Why?” Toggsworth repeated, his mouth full of chocolate-covered raisins. “I think you know why, Ms. Tamakloe, and that’s why you walked in here dressed up as Georgia Simmons today, trying to pull off some sort of trick.” He raised his eyebrows mockingly as he looked over her outfit.  

Delali’s face hardened, her eyes narrowing with annoyance. The last time she’d spoken to President Toggsworth, he’d fawned over her like one of her tween fans— what had changed? She’d never been foolish enough to imagine that her school’s administration had her best interests at heart— but she at least thought they’d keep up the pretense.

“You know full well what it would happen if you dropped out,” Toggsworth continued. “The news would reach the public in early spring, which means it would factor into the decision-making of newly accepted students. We can’t risk that, not with the university finally within .01 percent of being the most selective institution in the world. And after all the negative press we endured about you being a vanity admit, for you to quit just before the end….” he trailed off, shaking his head. “Impossible.”

“But we could keep the departure quiet,” Delali offered, ignoring the president’s jabs. “And then make my return as loud as you want. Think of all the amazing headlines, all the profiles I could do highlighting the cooperation and support I got from the administration. I could even—”

“Amazing for you, maybe. But for us?”  President Toggsworth shook his head, letting out a disbelieving laugh. “Honestly, I can’t believe you brought this to me. It’s unacceptable, inadmissible, offensive, even. Maybe we could’ve afforded it a decade ago— but after Duke Chaves, Anastasia Marie, Tracie Nash, and all those other little assholes from the Disney Channel dropped out...” He got up from his chair, pacing and shaking his head. Delali opened her mouth to speak, but stopped herself, realizing the situation was already out of her control. President Toggsworth was riling himself up, his arms and legs jerking randomly, as if responding to electric shocks.

“Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no.” President Toggsworth stopped pacing to stare at Delali. “This university has been on an upswing since my appointment—finally winning the national Polo tournament, lowering our acceptance rate, being mentioned on Newsweek’s best college lawns list. You’re not going to be the one who messes things up for me…” he paused as though thinking.  “No, you’re not going to use the name of this university just to give you a nice new sheen for your Hollywood comeback. That wasn’t the deal. You have a semester left and you’re going to finish. And then you’re going to be added to our long, illustrious Wikipedia list of notable alumni, whether you like it or not.”

Delali balked at him. “Not to be dramatic, President Toggsworth, but realistically, there’s nothing you can do to stop me. I know I said I was committed to finishing in four years but I don’t think four and a half is unreasonable. This meeting was only a courtesy, anyway.”

Delali with Toggsworth

“There’s no way for me to stop you?” President Toggsworth let out another haughty laugh. “You think I don’t have access to the internet— you think I don’t have access to the press? Pick your poison, Ms. Tamakloe: sex, drugs, diva behavior— ah I know! A cheating scandal, a spoiled Hollywood brat who thinks she’s too important to take the swim test— doesn’t want to mess up her precious little hair— so she pays a nerd to take her exam, disrespecting a centuries-long tradition of this institution and resulting in a dramatic expulsion.

“Are you kidding me?” Delali asked in a strangled, shaking voice. “I’ve been a model student— I’m smarter than half your student body!”

“Girlfriend, who cares,” Toggsworth replied with a dismissive wave. “The press will eat up whatever I give them— the more salacious the better. And who do you think they’re going to believe? Me, or you?” he asked pointedly.

Delali had tried to stay calm throughout President Toggsworth’s rampage, but now, she was so angry, so hot in her turtleneck, that she couldn’t even see straight. President Toggsworth’s face warped in front of her like the smoke off a backyard grill. Time seemed to slow, and as Delali considered her options, she felt her rage transform into something else— a pure, coursing force of magic. President Toggsworth’s thoughts came to her in a rush, loud and distorted as though they had been chopped and screwed, a perfect reflection of Toggsworth’s demeanor. Toggsworth was no longer focused on the meeting at hand, instead he was already thinking of which outlets he’d call, which editors he’d wine and dine, which subpar students he’d have to accept to make sure Delali’s media coverage was uniformly negative. But, most importantly, he was already fretting about his weak spot. For reasons Delali couldn’t see, Toggsworth believed that Leslie Stahl might be interested in working against him, and he waffled between deciding to send her a friendly note and giving her space to “cool off.” Interspersed with these thoughts was an infinite scroll of random percentages; potential vacation properties; and a list of anger management techniques he had yet to master.  Delali tried to regain her composure but the sight of Toggsworth pulling a fresh box of Raisnets from his desk and pouring it into his dish sent her over the edge.

“You know what?” Delali asked, one last rush of bratty energy moving through her. “I’m so glad you started this— really, I am. Because if you think I made it this far in the game with a squeaky-clean reputation because I’m some sort of cornball Hollywood puppet and not the PR genius I really am, I’m even better at this than I thought.”

Ooh.” President Toggsworth said, pursing his lips and furrowing his brow in mock distress. “I love a good threat. Race you to TMZ!”

Delali laughed a laugh of absolute, horrified disbelief. As if she were dumb enough to think TMZ would take her side. “No, actually,” she said, standing. “You stay right here while I go fetch you this L.” With that, Delali walked out of the office, slamming the door loudly behind her.

“Holy shit,” Abbie said, scrunching her face in disgust.

Delali and Vic looked at each other, startled to hear Abbie swear.

“I mean come on,” Abbie reasoned, catching their look. She stood up and paced around Delali’s room, picking up and examining the items on her dresser. “What kind of educator lashes out at a student like that? Totally inappropriate.”

“It's crazy.” Delali had just recounted her insane meeting with President Toggsworth, naturally falling into her comedic acting habits from Georgia, making even Vic let out a few reluctant snickers. “I can't wait to ruin his life,” she said with a smile. The girls all laughed before Vic turned to Abbie.

“Did your boyfriend die?” she said suddenly.

“What?” Abbie looked as if she'd seen a ghost.

“Sam— did he die? I feel like you haven't mentioned him in ages.”

“So?” Abbie walked back to the California king sized bed where Vic and Delali sat eating pita chips and hummus. “First of all, his name’s Dan. Second of all, he's still in Kenya— what's there to talk about?”

“Well, that's never stopped you before,” Delali muttered.

Vic laughed, sucking the salt off her fingers then covertly wiping them on her faux-leather pants. There was something suspicious about Abbie’s behavior recently. Her entire energy was different, and mentions of her ‘amazing’ boyfriend had slowed to a complete stop. Vic assumed he'd dumped her for being a total clinger, though that wouldn't explain the slightly less corny version of Abbie that showed up at their pre-MJ conference that day. Her tights were sheer black instead of her usual opaque jewel tones and her eye makeup surprisingly smoky, especially for the daytime. Maybe she was getting cocky about her blog—Vic had lowkey been impressed by the Thinnie Minnie post on her Instagram last week (it was the same brand the girls in Drake’s harem repped), double-tapping it almost reflexively. Even Delali now deferred to Abbie for all her natural hair questions, despite having access to the best in the business.

“Things are fine,” Abbie said before popping a chip into her mouth. “Maybe one day you can be a bridesmaid at our wedding,” she said to Vic. Delali laughed.

“Make fun all you want, but I'm making your parents’ salary to wear mostly cute gowns and drink top shelf champagne, while you're chasing after some snotty little kids.”

Hey,” Abbie said, always instinctively protective of her kids. “You should change that attitude before I change it for you.” Then, losing her nerve, she finished with, “JK.”

“Wait, is that even possible?” Vic asked. “Can witches, like, use their powers on each other?”

“Well it has to be possible, since I read MJ’s mind,” said Delali.

Vic and Abbie looked at each other, suddenly worried that Delali had been reading their minds all along.

“But I've tried to read you guys and I can't see shit,” Delali reassured them reluctantly.

Vic and Abbie each let out a breath.

“Let me add that to the list, just in case.” Abbie opened her notes app and added, “can witches perform their powers on other witches?” to her long list of questions to ask MJ at today’s lesson.

“Maybe you’d be able to do it if you were a natural witch, like me,” Vic said.

Delali threw her a look. Ever since their first meeting with MJ, Vic had constantly found ways to work MJ’s compliments into regular conversation, even though it was obvious MJ was just buttering her up so she'd be less of a sullen bitch during training. Despite the fact that both Delali and Abbie had gotten better at their powers in their last couple of sessions, Delali was still a very close second to Vic. She would never admit it out loud, but it killed her to know that she pored over the little lesson plans and historical summaries MJ handed them at the end of each lesson, only for Vic to best her again and again. From what she could tell, Vic barely skimmed.

“Maybe I can't see anything when I read your mind because there's nothing in there,” Delali said snidely. “Besides, it's not like you've been able to shift into either of us or anything.”

“Whatever,” Vic said, standing. Delali smiled smugly, always grateful when Vic didn't have a comeback. “We should be leaving soon anyway.”

At MJ’s, the girls took their usual spots on the couch. At this point, MJ no longer set out food for them on her coffee table. Instead, she had the girls conjure it, challenging them to make rare cheeses, sausages with subtle variances in spice, and wines with nearly imperceptible notes of whatever earthy noun came to mind. Delali won today's round, her crumbly pule, Iberian chorizo, and Madeira wine coming to life just a moment before Vic’s and a couple of minutes before Abbie's.

MJ picked up the glass of wine Delali had conjured and swirled a sip around in her mouth. “Phenomenal work, Delali.” She settled into her usual seat, the linen of her navy drawstring pants billowing as she crossed her legs. “Phenomenal work all around, ladies. I’m impressed by how quickly you’re all learning. Are there any lingering questions about last week’s lesson?”

Abbie raised her hand, a reflex from the classroom. “Well, one thing we were wondering is if witches can perform their powers on other witches? To be specific, is it possible that Delali could read our minds… the way she read yours?”

MJ smiled. “A valid concern, Abbie. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that question. It depends on the strength and talent of each of the witches involved. It makes perfect sense for Delali to be able to read my mind, despite not yet reaching full command of her powers. As an older witch, it can sometimes be difficult for me to fortify myself as my powers wane. But being around Delali as often as I am makes it easier for me to protect myself against her as I become more familiar with the frequency of her magic. That is to say, it’s unlikely that Delali will be able to read your minds unless something unusual happens. You shouldn’t be able to influence their moods, and Vic won’t be able to shift into either of you.” The girls sat back in relief, Delali itching to take notes but stopping herself, not wanting to look like she was trying too hard.

“Anything else?”

Delali adjusted in her seat. She had a question she hadn’t shared with the other girls, who she suspected wouldn’t even understand. They’d all agreed that they needed to meet other witches, like, immediately, and they nagged MJ until they could sense they’d started to bother her.  Annoyingly, she’d maintained that the girls shouldn’t enter a shrouded space before the famed “Gathering,” (apparently there was still more “essential information” they needed to know) but she’d given in just a little, satiating them with a packet on transportation.

The booklet outlined how to travel magically, and Delali had read it carefully while skipping classes the week before, highlighting and annotating to make sure she understood each reference. While she’d been mostly successful, she’d been tripped up by a mention of something called “the Cradle.” It was the only place, shrouded or otherwise, all witches could transport to without having seen or visited it beforehand. She was sure the other two hadn’t read the packet, considering Vic’s tendency toward ignorance and Abbie’s preoccupation with her blog. The term was buried amongst so many boring technicalities about transporting that even Delali would’ve skipped it if she hadn’t freshly dropped out of school. It was mentioned with no preface, like a pedestrian dictionary word:

For a novice witch, practice must begin with a trip to the Cradle. Even after the first effective transport, it is encouraged that a witch continue transporting to the Cradle until the power is perfected. A mastery of transportation includes arrival at the desired time and in the exact location imagined. No changes in appearance or dress should arise during travel.

The instructions were clear and made sense to Delali, but it also seemed impossible to transport to the Cradle if she didn’t at least know what it was. “I was curious about the way the pamphlet used the word “Cradle,” Delali said. “It’s a proper noun?”

A serious looked passed over MJ’s face as she placed her glass on the table before her. “Another clever observation from Miss Tamakloe.” She stood and began to pace, the way she often did when summoning the details of some complicated charm or essential piece of witch history. “To understand the Cradle, you must understand the beginning of  the Witch Sphere. And to understand the beginning of the Witch Sphere, you must know the myth of the Mothers.”