Chapter Three: Vic Joins The Movement

Jump to a page in this chapter:

Growing up, Charlotte had known that when she finally ascended the throne, many of her days would be dominated by endless meetings—with the Council, with her team of Seers, with representatives from other states—but she hadn’t anticipated how much she’d dislike the feeling of constantly being a step behind the people who answered to her. She had the final say on nearly all the decisions that governed the Witch Sphere, but she never simply knew anything. She always, always had to be informed. Despite the effort she put into carefully poring over the daily briefings her team of advisors prepared for her, she could never shake the sensation that they were keeping something important from her, plotting to thrust her already precarious reign even further into danger.

Charlotte took a deep breath, the way she always did when the low boil of anxiety at the pit of her stomach threatened to bubble over. The door to the Council’s Hollow, the room that hosted the monthly meetings, opened, and members of the High Council began to arrive, taking their seats at the round table in the center of the room. Among the first to enter were Natasha Nox and her daughter, Nadine.

“Charlotte,” Natasha said in greeting as she took her usual seat, settling across from Charlotte.

Nadine stood, bending in a shallow bow. “Regent.” She sat beside Natasha.

Charlotte gave them an empty smile. “How punctual of you both.”

“We try,” Natasha said, and the room fell into silence. Charlotte eyed Natasha as the remaining Council members filtered in, feeling herself grow more and more bothered by Natasha’s perfectly coiffed appearance and the stately demeanor that came so easily to her. The rigid posture, the starched navy shift dress, and the single slim golden bangle she wore around her left wrist would all look affected on another person, but on Natasha it was almost regal. She was never anything but perfectly courteous to Charlotte, but Charlotte could always detect a frigidity tinting each of their interactions. After all these years, she still felt that Natasha was looking down at her over the wide bridge of her nose, privately judging her as unworthy of the throne.

It was an attitude many others in the Witch Sphere shared with her. After Charlotte’s mother’s early passing, the members of the High Council had deemed Charlotte unfit for the throne, proposing to elect a governor to rule in her stead. They’d wanted Charlotte to shadow the governor, butbut provided no indication of when she would actually take the throne. But Charlotte, fresh out of university, had pushed to take on the rregency immediately. It was her birthright, she said, and no one could argue with her. While the arrogance of Charlotte’s early days and the disasters that followed had created many enemies for her, Natasha’s contempt was different, personal.

Soon after the Noxes came Stella Hampton, whose great-great-grandmother had invented the Restoration Elixir. “Regent,” she said as she entered the room, giving Charlotte a low, exaggerated bow. Charlotte nodded in acknowledgement and Stella fell into the seat on Natasha’s left. As soon as she’d settled, Natasha turned to her and murmured something that made Stella let out a snide peal of laughter. She quickly quieted.

“Apologies, Regent,” Stella said.

“No apology necessary,” said Charlotte. Stella smirked and ran her fingers through her limp relaxed hair, the strands catching on the oversized diamond that crowned her wedding band. Although Stella’s wealth stemmed from her ancestors’ academic leanings, she hadn’t gone that route. Instead, she chose to grow the Hampton family fortune by making smart investments in potion and charm development. Charlotte had known Stella and Natasha for as long as they’d known each other, but her unceremonious ascendance to the regency had kept her away from most of the sleek social events that had occupied their time, and while the three of them had always been cordial, after the catastrophe of The Shatter so early in Charlotte’s reign, Stella and Natasha had stopped dealing with her outside of Council business entirely. One by one, the remaining members of the Council took their seats, and Charlotte felt her stomach fill with the same mix of dread and boredom she always felt at the start of a meeting. Today, however, the feeling was laced with a rare nervousness.

While the Regent could generally make policy decisions for the Witch Sphere unilaterally, there were a few issues that had to be brought to a vote before the Council to be made official: amendments to the Shrouded Vow, the pledge that all witches took to keep their world-within-a-world hidden from the typics, and decisions regarding The Gathering, the annual festival held in honor of the Mothers. Thirty-five years ago, Charlotte had held a vote to reform The Gathering, becoming the first regent to ever alter the event. She had nearly wept with relief when her motion passed by a narrow majority of a single vote—and today she would hold a second vote, hoping to reverse the decision she had once campaigned so vigorously to get passed.

When Charlotte was a girl, The Gathering had been the most glamorous event in the Witch Sphere’s social calendar. After a week of festivities, the Regent held a luxurious gala at her home, directly at the Coordinate 33, 26. The guest list was always flush with Council families and their affiliates, as well as witches from the far reaches—a true celebration of the breadth and scope of the Sphere. Socialites and academics alike spent the whole year working toward the event, with the former contacting designers and tailors in pursuit of bespoke gowns, and the latter perfecting spells and potions that would be judged by a panel of the most talented scholars in the Witch Sphere—and hopefully accredited.

But after The Shatter, things changed. Holding such an extravagant event seemed so tasteless and inappropriate in those aimless, early years. Later, as Charlotte struggled to maintain her influence and the Witch Sphere reeled from the full consequences of The Shatter, she simply didn’t have the time or resources to dedicate to the Gathering. Without the Council’s official gala, the Gathering became a solemn, somber affair, with families holding private observances in their homes, the event rarely being acknowledged publically. Now, those consequences motivated Charlotte to restore the festival to its former glory.

Charlotte took a deep breath, folding her hands in front of her. “I would like to present a motion before the Council,” she began, sweeping her eyes across the table. She knew that what she had to say next would inspire dramatic reactions, so she spoke quickly to leave little room for questions. “After some consideration, I have decided that it is in the best interest of the Sphere to return The Gathering to its original grandeur. I am calling for an expedited vote to take place during at a meeting I’ve called for next week. Isla?” A wave of chatter rose up in the room as Charlotte nodded to her aide, who stood timidly in the corner of the Hollow. At Charlotte’s direction, Isla began placing thick packets before each member of the Council. “Please take the week to assess my proposal. It outlines the anticipated allocation of resources and expected outcomes of the event. Does anyone have any concerns or questions before we proceed to the briefing?” Charlotte waited, holding her breath. When no one spoke up, she continued. “Shall we—”

“Actually,” Natasha interrupted. She leaned forward and removed her reading glasses from their snakeskin case, blinking after she settled them on the bridge of her nose. “I have a few questions. My apologies,” she said brightly. She flipped through the proposal lethargically, squinting.

“Take all the time you need,” Charlotte said in a strained voice.

Natasha gave Charlotte a gracious smile. “Thank you.” She stopped at a page, taking her time to read it, and then pointed to something on the paper in front of her. “You mention here that reinstating the gala can ‘boost the falling morale resulting from the typic crisis,’” she read. “Yet, in previous years, when I and others on the Council have suggested hosting the event for similar reasons, you’ve insisted that the situation was too dire.” Natasha looked up and fixed her eyes on Charlotte. “What’s changed? I mean, from what my daughter’s told me, the issue persists. Isn’t that right?” she asked, turning toward Nadine.

Nadine looked from her mother to Charlotte, carefully considering her words before she spoke. “Well…we’ve had limited success with some of the new therapies we’ve developed through the AME, but unfortunately nothing permanent.”

“So nothing’s changed?” Natasha pushed.

Nadine hesitated. “...No, nothing’s changed.”

“So, the question is still relevant,” Stella jumped in. “Why now?”

Charlotte took a deep breath as she thought of how to phrase her response, but there were so many parts to it—this motion was the result of decades of private rumination. In the days after The Shatter, something bizarre had happened: witches started giving birth to daughters without powers. That was previously unheard of, and at first it was rare, maybe one baby girl out of thousands. But the frequency quickly increased, and soon nearly every family in the Sphere knew someone who’d given birth to a typic. Now that an entire generation of women born without magic had already grown up and lived in various stages of disengagement with the Witch Sphere, the entire community had become preoccupied with finding a solution. The Witch Institute for Health, where Nadine worked and now headed the Atmospheric Magic Effort, had once been one of least important organizations in the Witch Sphere, a world that rarely dealt with epidemic or illness. But in recent decades, Charlotte and the Council had been steadily funneling more and more resources into the WIH’s research, desperate to increase the birth rate of magic babies. In an unprecedented move, Dr. Alison Diop, the president of the WIH, had been appointed to the Council to assure that the most powerful people in the Witch Sphere would always be informed on WIH research initiatives.

No witch who had given birth to a typic had gone on to have a magical child, and now witches lived in terror of having children at all. The frenzy had driven Charlotte to approve the WIH’s polarizing request to begin attempting the transfer of atmospheric magic to typic babies, in addition to the larger Magic Reinstatement Program’s other efforts to imbue them with magic via spells, charms, and potions. The move was controversial: tampering with atmospheric magic was culturally frowned upon, since many witches believed the Witch Sphere had been perfectly and precisely constructed by the Mothers. Some even believed that tampering with atmospheric magic reduced the number of blissful, happy instances in the typic world. With less atmospheric magic floating around, they said first kisses, dream job offers, orgasms, uncomplicated conversations with close friends, and easy Sunday mornings were all at risk. Just a few decades ago, the decision would’ve been read universally as hubristic and offensive, guaranteeing the Regent’s dismissal. But in the current climate, though Charlotte knew many regarded her as inept and inefficient, they also had no choice but to trust her to solve the issue. More and more families came around to the idea, desperate for something that could end the crisis.

It was in this political mood that Charlotte had begun to privately reconsider her decision to cancel the gala in the early years of her reign. Her grandmother, Lucinda, had been the first Regent to open the guest list to witches unrelated to Council families, introducing the raffle through which any witch in the Sphere could secure tickets for herself and a plus one. She’d said the only way the Abbott family could solidify their rule was to shirk tradition and fashion themselves as Regents of the people. It had worked for Lucinda, and Charlotte had always suspected it would have done the same for her mother, if she’d truly gotten the chance to rule before her unfortunate, early death.

Now, with births being treated with the sobriety of funerals and entire legacies being cut off with one typic child, Charlotte needed the support of the people more than ever. She walked into every Council meeting with the fear of overthrow looming, and as the thirty-fifth year of her reign drew nearer and nearer, she’d decided that she couldn’t entertain it any longer. Reinstating The Gathering was her way of ridding herself of the threat entirely: no one would dare depose a Regent with the wave of popular support Charlotte envisioned the return of the festival would generate.

“I feel it’s time,” Charlotte said simply. “We need to show the Witch Sphere that the wounds opened by The Shatter will heal. What better way to do so than to celebrate the Mothers lavishly and grandly?”

Natasha hummed and removed her glasses, but said nothing as she and Stella exchanged a quick look. Charlotte watched them, anticipating another round of questioning. It wasn’t the most compelling argument she’d ever made, Charlotte knew, but like Natasha had said, other members of the Council had been campaigning to reinstate the gala for years. For them, this vote was likely long overdue, and no amount of politicking on Natasha’s part over the next week would be able to kill the motion.

“Well.” Charlotte clasped her hands. “If no one else has any further questions, I’d like to proceed with the briefing,” she said, looking pointedly first at Natasha, then Stella. When they said nothing, Charlotte waved her arm, and a door that led to a small hallway adjacent to the Hollow opened, revealing a group of witches—leaders of several agencies in the Witch Sphere. They filed into the room, ready to present their most pressing issues to the Council.

“Camille,” Charlotte said, addressing the agent who headed the taskforce in charge of enforcing the Shrouded Vow. “I’d like to begin with you today. There was something curious in today’s briefing. Something about disturbances in the Baseline?”

“Yes,” Natasha said. “I noticed that as well. Very odd, considering—”

“Could you explain what that means?” Charlotte interrupted. “I found the wording very vague.” She spun her index finger in a slow circle, and the tea in her mug followed the movement, mixing in her packet of Stevia.

Charlotte twirling finger to mix tea

Camille nodded. “Yes, of course.” She took a few steps forward before raising her arm, then lowering it slowly. As she did, a large scroll of parchment hooked at the ceiling unfastened and rolled open, revealing a map of the Witch Sphere in pale, muted colors. The black lines demarcating the borders were glossy and bright, as though the enchanted ink had been freshly applied, but the map was hundreds of years old—nearly as old as the Council itself. In the bottom right-hand corner of the map, a series of numbers in a looping, elegant gold script changed by the second, hovering around an average of 419.10: the Baseline, the composite of atmospheric magic and all magical ability held by witches in the Sphere.

Camille walked over to the map and placed her index finger and thumb over New York City before sliding them open, dragging and dragging until the map decreased in scope and increased in detail. The Hudson and East Rivers came into view, street names gradually unfurled in fine black lettering, and golden dots blinked in buildings, parks, ferries, each representing a witch covered with the Track, the charm infused into all magical bloodlines to keep account of ostentatious displays of magic that could potentially expose the Witch Sphere.

Charlotte’s eyes glazed over as Camille zoomed in, dragging and dragging. Like the faint coconut and peppermint scent that accompanied the map, this repetition was a remnant of old magic. Modern artifacts responded to newer spells, but objects like the map, having been made before such forms of magic were developed, could not. Older objects could be updated, of course, to adapt to the new magical standards, but attempting to modify such enchantments was dangerous—one ran the risk of rendering the original charm ineffective.

“Regent?”

“Hmm?” Charlotte blinked and refocused her eyes. The parchment now showed only Manhattan and a small section of Brooklyn. “What is that?” she demanded. She slid to the edge of her seat. The map was peppered with spiky, coppery dots, violent clusters popping up every now and then. “These are the disturbances?” she asked, and then felt stupid; of course they were.

“...Yes,” Camille said, with the careful cadence of someone repeating herself to a superior. “As I was saying, for the last few weeks we’ve been picking up strange spikes in the Baseline, primarily in lower Manhattan. At first we thought they were random, but they’ve since become more frequent. And they follow a pattern—they converge on the Lower East Side and then spread before converging again.”

“Is there any indication of what’s causing them?” Dr. Diop asked, leaning forward on her elbows. She had rolled up her sleeves, ready to work.

“Not from what I or my agents have seen,” said Camille. “Nor does it seem that these disturbances alerted any typics of our existence. But the frequency of them concerned me. I wanted to see how we should proceed, beyond simply monitoring future spikes.”

Charlotte felt the eyes of the Council members on her, but she didn’t acknowledge them. She was too preoccupied by the spiky dots on the map, which were flashing angrily. She had never seen anything like them. The sight unnerved her, rousing the paranoia that had quieted after she’d successfully fielded Natasha’s questions just a minute earlier. “I—” she began, but Stella cut off her off.

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” she asked. She looked around the table as though shocked no one else had seen whatever she found so evident. “We have to send agents to explore these disturbances,” she said. Then, catching herself, amended. “You have to authorize a team of agents to try to discern what’s happening,” she said to Charlotte.

Charlotte waited for Natasha to chime in, completing the usual Stella-Natasha one-two punch, but Natasha said nothing, instead leaning back in her chair and giving Charlotte a mild smile.

“I think that makes sense,” Dr. Diop said. “The map has confined the spikes to a small enough area. A team of talented agents should be able to identify what’s going on.”

“This is true,” Charlotte conceded, but her reservations persisted. Over the years, she’d incurred so much criticism for wasting resources on what had turned out to be harmless events—a weak shrouding spell over a small get-together, or a young witch with tenuous control of her powers performing a spell in front of her bedroom window. But she’d also gotten the same amount criticism—if not more—for hanging back on the occasions where Council resources were truly necessary. She glanced around at the members of the Council, many of them watching her expectantly, waiting for her response. “Pull together a team of our finest agents,” she said to Camille finally, and then Charlotte dismissed her, calling the next officer forward to speak.

When Delali had taken her break three years ago, she’d made it very clear that she didn’t want to take another official meeting with her agent, Lionel, until she graduated. So Lionel had become creative, finding ways to sneak scripts and opportunities under Delali’s nose whenever he could, often through phone calls where he said he wanted to check up on her “as a friend.” Sometimes, he’d even show up at the security desk of Delali’s various dorm buildings, claiming to be her uncle, even though they looked nothing alike. Today he’d tacked himself onto Delali’s monthly spa appointment, probably because he wrongly believed that the day of pampering would make Delali too relaxed to fight him.

Lionel barely tried to keep up his ruse, falling asleep in the sauna and skipping his facial to take a call with another client on the “restoration balcony” overlooking the Hudson. When Delali finished her deep-tissue chiropractic massage (during which she requested her usual “just a little more pressure than you think I can handle”), she met Lionel in the spa’s organic eatery, where he sat with a plate of vegan mac ‘n’ cheese. Lionel was the most LA person Delali knew (he loved a good hike, a good filler, and a good networking opportunity) but the one Atlanta thing he’d never gotten over was his love of fattening, deep-fried food.

“Dela!” Lionel yelled. He waved Delali down from a communal table in the center of the room. Several annoyed people looked up from their plates of boiled kale, their faces shiny and red as if they’d just completed a marathon.

Delali couldn’t help but crack a smile as she sat. “You’re such a fool,” she whispered.

“Oh, please. The whole silence thing is merely a suggestion.”

“How did you even get your phone in here?”

“Shh, baby, just taste this mac ‘n’ cheese—who knew vegan could taste so good?”

“Really?”

“Well, I may have to supplement with a Popeyes run later, but it’s not bad.”

Delali ate a mouthful off the fork Lionel was holding out, and eyed him suspiciously as she chewed. “So, what do you really want from me, Lionel? You’ve followed me to the spa, not technically invited, and then proceeded to carry out work activities I’m sure you’d rather be doing somewhere else.” Delali leaned forward. “So, go ahead and show me whatever you have so I can say no and go get my heels scraped.”

Lionel lifted his upper lip in disgust. “Did I not tell you about Gold Bond foot cream? Great dupe for La Mer—not that you’re trying to cut costs or anything. Or are you pretending to be on a college budget, too?”

“Shut up, Lionel.” He broke into his trademark cackle, again disturbing the peace of the silent eatery. Delali caught a frosty look from a woman sitting at the end of their table, but chose not to deflect the glare with a smile.

“So, you found a new piece at school yet? A little Donald Glover type?”

“What? Lionel, just give it to me. The script, the treatment, whatever. Just pitch it.”

Lionel lowered his voice dramatically. “Okay, Dela, I’m only nervous to tell you about this one because it’s really good.”

“You’ve never been nervous in your life.” Delali picked a piece of steamed okra from his plate.

“Listen to me.”

Delali sighed, and Lionel shot her a warning look, arching his perfectly threaded eyebrows.

“You say this about all of them!”

Listen,” he said, now in a tone Delali had only heard him use a handful of times. “This is the one.” He pulled a thick stack of paper from the Louis Vuitton monogram bag beside him and placed it on the bamboo table. It was held together with a rose gold butterfly clip, obviously Lionel’s.

“How did you even get that in here?”

“Delali, I want you to listen to me when I tell you that this script will change your life. Not just because the writing’s going to knock you out, but because this story is going to catch on fire and change your career. It’s the grown-up story you want and need to move forward in this business. I understand school, of course, but just read this. And think about it.”

Delali placed her fingers on the script reluctantly. The cover page read “Sit Awhile. Screenplay by Liza Kutekwa.” She laughed to herself, amused that Lionel thought “just read this” was a convincing thing to tell a college senior midway through her thesis.

“Can you give me the SparkNotes?”

“So, it starts with this gorg—”

“I said SparkNotes, not Shmoop. My pedi’s in ten.”

Lionel contorted his face at the reference, but he got the gist. “It’s a Lorraine Hansberry biopic.”

“The lady who wrote A Raisin in the Sun?”

“Yes, and so, so, so much more. Just read it—I’ll think you’ll be surprised by how much you have in common.”

Delali doubted it. She picked up the script and flipped through it, trying to get a sense of how dense it was. She trusted Lionel (that’s why he still worked for her) and she was sure the script would be good, b, but she wasn’t sure she even wanted to get back in the game. She was genuinely enjoying her time at college, and she was almost finished, but Lionel had a tendency to ignore the parameters of her academic calendar, presenting her with scripts that would take long chunks out of her semester, or even push back her graduation date a full year. Much like all her other friends in LA, Lionel thought her time at college was some kind of fun vacation and couldn’t wait for her to be back in LA, lounging at up-and-coming directors’ poolside barbecues, going to star-studded SoulCycle classes, and getting photographed at whatever red carpets they deemed worthy of their presence.

They constantly invited Delali to things she obviously couldn’t attend, responding with a flippant “oops!” when she reminded them she was in New York getting a degree. Nevermind the fact that Lionel had sent Delali a text saying “who needs a degree when ur schoolin life?” every single morning leading up to her initial press release about her break from acting. Still, Lionel had been Delali’s agent since she’d started out in the business—she was his first client when he’d gone straight from high school to shadowing at his dad’s agency—and she knew he would never bring her a script just for the sake of it.

Lionel watched Delali as she mulled things over. “Do you really need me to spell out who gets this role if you pass? Do you need me to remind you of Ch—”

“That script sucked,” Delali said, cutting him off harshly.

Lionel put his hands in the air. “Okay, okay. I never said that script was good, just that it was going to blow up. Which it did. But this one’s good, I swear. Just think about it, please. I don’t do it for the commission, I do it because I love you.”

Delali fake-vomited, and they both laughed. “I’ll take it, but I can’t make any promises.” She stood up from the table.

“Just what I wanted to hear.”

“You’re gonna text me every day, aren’t you?”

“Did J. Cole go platinum with no features?”

Delali groaned before wrapping Lionel in a hug. She turned to leave, but Lionel stopped her, pointing at his spa-issued white terrycloth slides. “Do we get to keep these?”

Vic didn’t know people actually stayed at her office until it got dark. She’d assumed they were just kind of slow at packing their stuff up, or maybe they stayed ten minutes after to make her feel like an inferior employee—not that she’d care. Vic was always out of the office at six o’clock exactly. She packed her belongings expertly at lunch, had all her docs closed by 5:55, and started pushing away from her desk at 5:59:30. But today she’d been handed down a particularly agonizing assignment from someone in the LA office, someone who clearly was either unaware of or uninterested in the time difference between the two coasts.

There was a gallery opening that night, and a deal to have all the gift bags stuffed with CS’s fall perfume had fallen through after Clarke’s connect had quit her job. Now it was Vic’s responsibility to contact a list of people linked to the opening to see if they could work the perfume back into the bags. Vic tapped her nails, recently filed into a coffin shape and shellacked with L’Oréal’s Orange You Jealous, impatiently against her desk. She had been scrolling through pages and pages of contacts, all diligently organized in a spreadsheet on the company’s W drive, trying to figure out how long this would take her. She decided to start by calling Edie Thatcher, the artist heading the opening. Though she was definitely having a moment, Edie was still in the early stages of her career, at a point where she had an agent, but no assistant or publicist. Vic knew by now that all lines from the CS offices had the same first six digits; no one would think to ask who you were unless you said something that offended them. In her most authoritative voice, Vic tried to convince Edie that hawking Clarke Stein perfume was totally in line with her goal of destigmatizing female bowel movements.

“I just feel like, the work you’re doing is trying to elevate bowel movements to the same level of sacredness and femininity as any other female beauty or hygiene ritual, right?”

“Mmm.”

“So, like, the juxtaposition of the perfume and your installation sort of highlights that, no?”

Mmm.”

“And, on another level, the perfume sort of accuses the viewer, the same way your art does, of trying to mysticize or, uh, cover up something natural, you know, the way a perfume might cover up an unpleasant odor...the kind we believe women aren’t capable of producing.”

There was a long pause on the other end, and Vic imagined Edie scribbling furiously in her Moleskine with a purple Le Pen or something, stroking her succulents with her free hand.

Finally, Edie sighed. “Listen, honey, you seem great, and probably too smart for your industry,” she said, her voice thick with vocal fry. “But I’m not really in the mood to be your capitalist puppet today. Find some other opening.”

The next hour and a half proceeded similarly: ultra-busy fake, , aloof art people scoffing at Vic’s requests then hanging up. Vic wondered whether the asshole who called her from the West Coast had confused her for some way more capable PR rep who worked at CS, totally oblivious of the fact that she had just started her job a month and a half ago.

Vic chewed on the inside of her lip as she dialed another number. She spun in her office chair as the phone rang, scanning the lofted SoHo space she wished was her apartment. The bare concrete floors, sparsely adorned white walls, and naked pipes looked creepy at night, and by now, 8:15 on a Friday, pretty much everyone was gone. Though, if she squinted, she could see a figure at the far end of the office, and she knew immediately it was another PR assistant, a really anal girl named Tatiana. It was then Vic realized that she probably had been confused for another girl—Tatiana.

“Hello?”

Vic snapped to attention. “Hello? Hi! Is this Esther Neptune? Of Neptune Party Co.?”

“Yes,” a voice droned impatiently from the other end. “Who is this?”

“Vic-Victoria West, from Clarke Stein?”

“I’m sorry—were we meant to be expecting a call from you?”

“Yes, actually. I’m calling about the—” Vic snatched a sheet up from her desk. “Edie Thatcher ‘A Woman’s Movement’ gallery opening tonight? I’m calling to confirm that you have enough perfume samples for your gift bags. An assistant called from your office earlier today and said you might not.”

At this point, Vic figured lying would get her further than telling the truth.

“Uh—” She heard the sound of shuffling papers. “Hold on a second. Let me put you on with one of our interns.”

It took Vic all of five minutes to bully the high-strung NYU freshman intern into thinking she’d forgotten to put the perfumes in the gift bags for that night’s opening. She hung up triumphantly, then looked at the clock, rolling her head back in annoyance when she saw the time. It was 8:35 and the first time her work life had adversely impacted her social life. She’d planned to grab a quick dinner before meeting Frankie, the girl she’d been seeing since the summer, for drinks, but now it didn’t look like she’d have the time.

Vic slid out of her vintage Valentino sandals and into a pair of slightly decomposed Stan Smiths. She’d have to change again when she got to Red Rooster, but the idea of hobbling down the subway stairs in her heels practically made her sweat. She was bending over her desk to log out of Windows when she heard someone approach.

“Every time I see you, you’re on your way out of the office!” Tatiana chirped falsely.

Vic turned to face her, crossing her arms. She hadn’t realized it until now, but she possessed a genuine disdain for Tatiana. Vic hated the way she stayed late even on the slowest days, the way she always somehow made progress on projects between Friday and Monday, and the way she was constantly kissing their superiors’ asses. She couldn’t believe that she’d ever felt otherwise, but there had been a time when she thought she and Tatiana might be friends—maybe even more.

Back in the summer, their boss Lacey had sent all the junior PR girls to Eataly’s rooftop bar with her company card, remembering last minute that HR required her to throw a welcoming event for new employees by the end of their first month. Vic and Tatiana spent the whole night vibing, talking about their summers and roasting their coworkers’ season one Blair Waldorf looks. The following Monday, Vic showed up to work excited, her boring job now gleaming with possibility, but Tatiana had been cold and dismissive. Since then, Tatiana avoided Vic at all costs, often leaving when she joined a group of joking assistants, and only talking to her to make snide and condescending comments. After almost two months of this, the only thing Vic felt when she saw Tatiana was annoyance that a girl so practical and competitive was also so pretty and glamorously dressed. Today, Tatiana wore a silky, black wrap dress over a pair of skinny jeans and a metallic pair of pink sandals. Vic hadn’t seen dark wash jeans look that cool since high school.

“Well I’m not sure if you noticed,” Vic said, straining to keep her voice even, “but it’s almost nine o’clock.”

“Oh, I noticed.” Tatiana smiled. Her glossy brown eyes reflected a reading of Vic so thorough and sure, Vic felt like she was standing naked in the middle of the Clarke Stein offices. “I’m just waiting for Lacey—we’re grabbing dinner.” Vic hid her surprise. Lacey, CS’s head of marketing, was a bona fide industry celeb who rarely deigned to speak to the PR girls, let alone socialize with them.

“Well, I’m gonna head out,” she said,  grabbing her Mansur Gavriel tote. She made sure Tatiana saw the glorious red interior as she turned toward the door. “Have fun at dinner, or whatever.”

“Will do!” Tatiana said, breaking into a smile so big it could almost pass for genuine. “Oh, and cute sneakers!”