Indira Chant never did anyone a favor. Her elder sister Jorie, graduated last year, had arranged and provided all favors, selecting the lucky few graced with a spell from the Chant family, whose magical talents were believed and doubted and shrouded in mystery. Jorie had been friends with everyone and no one, moving effortlessly through social circles because she did not care about the boundaries other people lived by. But Jorie had graduated, and those in need of a little magic had suffered a drought in her absence.
Indira Chant was friends with no one, and she offered no favors. That didn’t stop hopefuls from asking. All school year long, she found notes in her locker, received messages on her phone although she had not given out her number, was cornered in the bathroom with a request or a demand. She declined them all. The lucky few were referred to other members of the Chant family but thereafter forbidden to share any details of their transactions. The unlucky were met with stony, silent refusal.
This week brought a strange reversal. Instead of a girl pining after a boy, Indira was suffering through a monologue from the soon-to-be-crowned-prom-king Chris about how soon-to-be-prom-queen Ella wouldn’t talk to him anymore, but they just had to go to prom together or it would all be ruined, and Indira was going to help him. Not “just had to help” or “I need your help” or some variation of a plea. Chris declared Indira was going to help him. Three of his friends stood guard at the bathroom door, preventing anyone from interrupting them. He should have only brought two, Indira thought idly. Three was a powerful number. Four not as much. He had already unbalanced things. She had already declined to help.
Chris waited impatiently for her capitulation. Indira tried to hide how uncomfortable she was by mimicking her sister’s nonchalance. Jorie had never been impressed by or scared of anyone.
“What do you imagine I can do about this?” She was pleased by how cool and unconcerned she sounded. She already knew all the things he’d imagined, the spoken and the unspoken. But she wanted him to believe she wasn’t intimidated, that being backed into the corner of the bathroom wasn’t a novel experience or a fast track to securing her services.
“You work your,” he twiddled his fingers in her face instead of saying the word, “on Ella and get her to go to the prom with me. I pay you.” He said it like he thought her in need of money, ready to be grateful.
Indira sighed, and then stalled. “What did Ella say when you asked her?” She already knew. Everyone knew. He’d done one of those dumb prom-posals in the lunchroom. But Indira needed him to say it, so she could form Jorie’s bored drawl and say, “You can’t afford me,” and decline again to solve his self-created problem. Indira wasn’t in the game of making people amenable to rejected romantic overtures. Or secret ones. The women of the Chant family didn’t subvert consent or facilitate rape. Of course, none of their hopeful clients ever thought that’s what they’d asked for. They imagined they were creating consent and romance, with some assistance. They thought themselves a gift to the ones they pursued, overcome by the power of love, deserving reciprocity. None of them saw what they truly were: Apollo poisoned by Eros’s punishment arrow. Indira refused to be the bow that shot the other arrow at an unsuspecting Daphne.
“She said no, why do you think we’re here, you dumb bitch!” his fist came toward her. She flinched away. His punch stopped just beside her head. Arm raised, resting on the wall, he boxed her in. His face spilt with an unkind smile. “You’re going to convince her to say yes. I pay on delivery. No one says no to me.”
She was momentarily baffled by this turn of events. In all her years as Jorie’s silent shadow in these meetings, this had never happened. Jorie had never been threatened. Indira’s role as the muscle (her magical strengths didn’t run to the gentle and subtle) had never been needed. But Jorie, as far as she knew, had never been ambushed.
Now that she thought about it, Indira was not so surprised by this violence. Chris was a hole people poured yesses into. She was surprised Ella had said no. Indira could also say no, right now, but not without causing a great deal of damage and harm. A moderate but firm no required supplies she didn’t have with her.
Two of Chris’s goons drew closer. Three faces pressed her into the corner. Three, a powerful number. She swallowed and wished she had a reputation as one to stay away from. She thought: Jorie will have an idea of how I can get out of this.
She swallowed again and lied her assent: “The fee is a thousand. Twenty-five percent now, the rest on delivery.”
Jorie didn’t answer Indira’s call. She hadn’t answered for over two weeks, and Indira was worried.
Jorie, older by sixteen months, was on her labyrinth year, traveling the world, visiting the vast network of the Chant family witches, absorbing new magical knowledge, earning her second set of tattoos, and deciding who she would apprentice under. She was “emerging from the labyrinth of herself and finding her path through life.” Indira was still at home, a novice with only initiate tattoos. It was the first time in her life she’d felt the gap between them; even when slightly out of step as Jorie transitioned to middle school, then high school, ahead of her, she’d never felt the distance. They had the same father, a rarity for sisters in the Chant family, where the women never married and seldom kept lovers for long. They looked so alike they were often mistaken for twins.
Jorie always answered Indira’s calls. Until recently.
To distract herself, she considered her predicament. She could make Chris forget he’d asked her. That was a simple spell, already learned though not practiced enough. But she’d also need to make his friends forget, lest they remind him. A simple forgetting would not stand up to questions or recountings from his friends of their bathroom deal. She needed a better plan. She needed a Jorie plan. She heaved herself off her bed and went to consult the family books.
At the bottom of the stairs, the door to the house’s library stood ajar, and she heard her mother’s voice within. “She hasn’t arrived at Maisie’s. No one’s heard from her in three weeks.” Indira knew she spoke of Jorie.
“She’s never listened or followed the rules, what made you think she’d start now? I’m impressed she made it this long before running off.” Her aunt’s voice this time.
Indira pushed into the room. Two stony faces greeted her.
“This is why you should’ve let me get my GED and go with her,” she said. “Jorie wouldn’t be missing if we’d gone together.” This was an old argument. Indira and Jorie had crafted the plan, eager to take their labyrinth year like they did all other things: together. But the family refused.
“The thing you most need,” Indira’s mother spoke the same words now that she’d spoken a year ago, “is to stand on your own. And to stop eavesdropping.”
“The door was open,” Indira said, instead of saying, “I need help.” She turned and left. They’d only tell her she needed to solve the Chris situation on her own, too.
As she climbed the stairs to her bedroom, Indira felt a prickle in her left arm, in the stamen of the flower inked near the fold of her elbow. Someone, somewhere, was attempting a magical work against her. The mole in the very center of the stamen pinched liked when she took tweezers to a hair growing out of it and caught the skin by mistake. She rubbed it with her thumb. Now the back of her neck prickled, all the hair on her body rising. She knew this feeling. She was being watched.
Perhaps it was Jorie. She wanted it to be, even though it didn’t feel like it. Indira knew the feeling of her sister’s magic. When Jorie scried on her, it felt like a companion in the room, like sitting with a cat but not touching each other. If this were Jorie, her tattoo would not be alerting her to outside intrusion and threat. Indira kicked the door of her bedroom closed and stalked over to her dresser. It was low and long, backed by a large mirror, suitable for many kinds of work and perfect for this. She shoved aside the detritus of school papers, notebooks, pens, costume jewelry, and empty soda cans. She pulled a silver tray and a purple pillar candle from a drawer and struck a match. When the candle was lit, she placed it before the mirror, put her index finger against the burning mole in the center of the flower on her arm, and asked, “Who is watching me?”
The watcher was either too lazy to ward themselves or their wards so poor Indira’s scrying blew them away like smoke. An image formed in the mirror, haloed by the light of the candle’s flame, small but very clear, the scrying made powerful by the reflection.
It was Ella. This was as surprising as her refusal of Chris. She sat cross-legged on a floor somewhere, staring down into a glass bowl of water set beside a lit candle. It was a decorative taper candle, bright orange with bats and pumpkins. Indira snickered. Ella was an amateur for certain, using a leftover Halloween candle and a clear bowl. Had she thought the association with the spooky season would help, or was it the only candle she could find? Orange was for ambition, opportunity, success, justice. Unsuitable for scrying, spying, and seeking hidden knowledge.
As she watched Ella, Indira saw a bloom of purple appear in the bowl’s water. Another surprise. Despite everything, Ella was getting results. She had some latent magical ability then. That, or something was boosting her. It was possible she’d purchased a magically powerful object, knowing or unknowing how it would aid her. Indira couldn’t imagine whom Ella could have bought it from, as the Chants were the only practitioners of any real skill in town. Perhaps Ella had gotten lucky online. With her finger, Indira drew a circle in the air around her purple candle and the image in the mirror, said, “So may it be,” and blew out the flame.
She put aside the purple candle and took a black votive from the drawer. Lighting the black votive, she whispered a basic invocation for protection, and left the candle to burn itself out.
This time it was Ella who cornered Indira in the bathroom. Different bathroom, at least, Indira thought, and she finished washing her hands. A girl needs a little variety in her life.
Ella turned the lock with a definitive snick and stood in the doorway, staring at Indira. Indira dried her hands on paper towels and stared back. Neither said anything for a long time. Indira tossed the paper towels into the trash and waited.
Ella drew something from her pocket and manipulated it in her cupped hands. She was whispering down at it. Indira’s mind flicked through the possibilities and landed on the most likely: sympathetic magic with a doll or other representative object. Ella was brave to try something like that when she could barely manage a decent scry and clearly knew nothing about wards. Brave and foolish. Without wards, sympathetic magic could easily get away from you.
At the same time that Ella’s voice grew bold enough for Indira to make out the words, she also saw the white string trailing from Ella’s pocket into her hands. “I bind you, Indira Chant. I bind you, Indira Chant. I bind you Indira Chant, from doing harm against me.” Ella wrapped the white string around a small doll in her hands. Indira recognized a scrap of fabric from her favorite scarf that had gone missing from her locker last week. If she was smart, Ella would have taken hair from the brush in her locker, too. But Ella wasn’t smart. No, she corrected herself, Ella wasn’t knowledgeable. She was clearly smart, had talent and moxie. The attempted binding prickled over Indira’s skin, settled on the curling leaf of the vine tattooed on her right arm as a warning. It wasn’t purchased magic, and it wasn’t going to take.
Indira lunged forward and smacked the doll from Ella’s grasp. Ella’s eyes went round in her face, and she stumbled backwards into the door. “This isn’t The Craft,” Indira hissed into Ella’s face, crowding her against the heavy, scarred wood. “For fuck’s sake. What is wrong with you?”
Ella twisted around, shouldering Indira away from her, and scrabbled at the door lock. “Leave me alone!” she cried. “I won’t go to prom with him. You can’t make me.”
Indira sighed and stepped back. Of course Chris had shot off his mouth about hiring her to make Ella go to the prom with him. What an idiot. Magic was best worked in secret, didn’t he understand that?
No, of course he didn’t. He was an ignorant, entitled boy.
“Calm down,” she snapped. “I’m not gonna make you do anything. But you need to stop fucking around with shit you don’t understand before you hurt yourself.”
Ella stilled, hand on the lock, and glared over her shoulder. “Don’t lie, I know Chris hired you to spell me into going to prom with him.”
Indira rolled her eyes. “He ‘hired me’ in the sense that he literally backed me into a corner and forced me to say yes. I don’t do that kind of work. Seems to be his M.O., though. He didn’t think you’d have the guts to say no to him in front of everyone, did he?”
Ella released all the air from her lungs in a long, slow sigh and slumped against the door. “He asked me in private, first. Twice. The first time he called me, and the second time he came around my house. Luckily, my mom was home, so he didn’t come inside. I keep saying no, and he keeps asking. I’m afraid to go anywhere alone, or be home by myself. My friends don’t understand why I won’t just say yes. If he asked any of them, they’d say yes. I tried a spell to make him stay away, but it didn’t work.” She eyed Indira with suspicion. “You’re not protecting him, somehow, are you?”
“Fuck, no. You’re just not very good at magic.”
Ella opened her mouth to protest, but then closed it, looking grumpy. Indira was the opposite of grumpy. She was finally landing on a good idea. The Chant family had a code, and that code demanded that when you found a new witch and they were solitary, no mentor or family to show them the way, you had to do it. What better way to wiggle out of her deal with Chris and prove she could stand on her own than to teach Ella? Ella could put Chris off herself. Indira could claim she wasn’t able to get past Ella’s defenses. All problems solved.
“How long have you been trying magic?”
They sat cross-legged and facing each other over the braided rag rug in Indira’s room. Over Ella’s shoulder, Jorie smiled from a framed photo, and Indira pretended for a moment she was facing her sister. Now that she knew Jorie wasn’t answering anyone’s calls, that the family didn’t know where she was, she worried every moment she was awake. Was Jorie safe? Alive? Would Indira feel if something terrible happened, the way real twins said they felt their other half’s pain or fear? She clung to those stories. Feeling something terrible happen was better than knowing nothing.
Indira turned her attention back to Ella. Ella’s voice carried the faintest traces of a southern accent. “I’ve been interested since I was a little girl, but never had the guts to try before now. I guess I just didn’t want to be disappointed if it didn’t work. If I was bad at it, or it wasn’t real after all.”
That sounded like what little she knew of Ella. Overachiever didn’t begin to describe. Top of the class, graciously declined captaincy of the cheer squad so she’d have time to be president of the honor society, run all the senior class fundraising, and be the seniors’ representative to the local rotary club. Kind to everyone, never got in trouble, about to be prom queen. Preppy clothes, dazzlingly white sneakers, perfection walking. Never took risks.
She was Jorie’s opposite. Indira had never seen Ella wear black, boots, or a bored expression.
“What did you see when you scried for me the other day?”
“You know about that?”
Indira made a noncommittal sound. Ella was an open, earnest book. It was obvious she thought Indira was impossibly cool and mysterious, and Indira was not about to do something so mundane as explain herself. Teaching always started, her mother said, by showing the other person how much they do not and cannot know. Ella could never be told the tattoo’s secrets. Only the Chants held knowledge of their strange, impossible flowers.
“What did you see?”
After a moment, Ella said, “I saw you. But not the way I expected. I saw your face, like you were peering over my shoulder into the water.”
“I was peering over your shoulder.”
Ella shivered the way Indira knew she would. Indira smiled.
“But everything was purple,” Ella said. “Does that mean I did it wrong?”
Color was a good place to start. She walked Ella through the basics of spell work, what each color was for, how to set wards and select proper tools. She explained everything she’d done wrong, and everything she’d done right, about her attempt to scry.
Ella absorbed it all. She was quick, asked good questions, and wasn’t afraid to say she didn’t understand because she wanted to understand—nay, she wanted to gain mastery—as quickly as possible. Indira liked this about her. Jorie might have rolled her eyes and dismissed Ella as a goody-goody teacher’s pet, but Indira recognized what Ella’s enthusiasm and drive for perfection had been masking all this time: ambition.
It was time to see if Ella had the talent to back it up. Indira clambered to her feet and clapped her hands once. “Ok,” she said. “You’re going to do a spell. Properly, this time.”
“Really?” Ella sat up on her knees, all excitement, no trepidation.
Indira nodded with authority. “You’re going to spy on Chris.”
Under Indira’s direction, Ella set a ward with a circle of salt around the rag rug. Ella filled a black plastic bowl with water and set it in the center. Ella set the silver tray beside it and took a fresh purple candle from the drawer. She hesitated when Indira advised her to hold the candle for several minutes, thinking about all the things purple was good for, thinking about how she wanted to see Chris. “This feels silly.”
“Where’s your intention?” Indira pushed. “Do it.”
And Ella did it. She lit the candle and commanded, “Show me that stalker,” into the dark surface of the water. Indira heard steel in Ella’s voice.
Immediately a picture formed on the surface of the water. Chris, kissing a girl. Ella recognized her. “Scarlett. Why doesn’t he just ask her to the prom, then?”
“Isn’t she dating one of the sportsball players?” Indira surprised herself by knowing even that much about this girl’s social life. Usually she was happy to pay no attention at all.
Ella nodded and murmured, “Lacross. Aaron. Bitch.”
When Chris pulled off his shirt and started on Scarlett’s, Ella leaned forward and blew out the candle. “She’s been telling me how lucky I am he asked me, that I should go with him and ‘get your V-card taken care of, El’.” She mimicked a syrupy-sweet voice. “She calls herself my friend but calls me a frigid bitch with a stick up my ass. To my face.” Her hand lashed out and knocked the bowl of water askew, sending a wave of water over the rag rug. The bowl tipped, then settled, remaining water sloshing furiously inside.
Ella leaped to her feet. ‘Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” She scanned the room for something to mop up the water.
“It’s okay,” Indira grabbed a towel from beneath the bed and pressed it into the rug. “Not the first time someone has spilled a bowl of water in here. Why do you think we sat on the rug?” She and Jorie had tipped many a bowl, causing water damage to the plaster ceiling of the dining room beneath, before the rag rug and emergency towel made an appearance.
“It sounds like your friends aren’t really your friends.” Indira let it hang in the air. She didn’t know why she was asking. She never cared about friends, so why did she care about how Ella’s treated her?
Ella sighed and pulled at a loose thread in the hem of her t-shirt. “You know how every group has a punching bag?”
“Not really. I’ve never been part of a group.” At school, Jorie had been her group. Outside of school, she had the family. She’d never needed anyone else.
Ella sighed again, this time in frustration. “Well, most groups have one,” she snapped. “And I’m it. Last year it was Megan, but she left. They decided this year was my turn. I’ve just been waiting it out, but now they’ve all decided to support Chris’s graduation goal of banging an Asian girl. God, I hate this whole stupid school, and this whole stupid town, and I can’t wait to leave.” She threw up her arms but had nothing and nowhere to direct her anger, so she drew them back in and crossed them. “I’m going to UCLA, you know,” she huffed.
Indira made a suitably impressed noise. “I’m going to Europe,” she said. “I have family there.” She wasn’t permitted to say more, and was relieved when Ella didn’t ask. “So, what do you want to do about Chris?”
Ella turned to face her. Her face had gone from closed and pensive to open and blazing. “I want to go full Carrie on his ass. Show up at prom on his arm, then dump buckets of blood on him and his stupid prom king crown. I want to magic his ass into next year. Can you help me?”
“Indira.” her mother confronted her in the family library after Ella went home. She was flipping through books looking for the right spells to create a true send-up to Carrie, sans the out-of-control fire, as fun as that sounded. “What are you doing with that girl?”
“Helping her out with a guy problem. He’s made a nuisance of himself. And she’s a natural, Mom. She scried on me first, so I have to teach her.” A lot of these spells needed blood but didn’t produce it. Guess they’d have to buy that. She’d enjoy the irony of using Chris’s money.
Indira moved to flip the page and find other spells to fulfill Ella’s vision, but her mother stopped her with a hand on the book. “You’re supposed to consult with the family first,” she said. “Since you failed to do so, we held counsel without you. The auguries say nothing good will come of whatever it is you’re planning. You need to stop.”
“What, you held counsel while Ella was still here?” Indira realized she’d never been in this position before. Jorie had always been told no, stop that. Indira was always lurking behind her, ready to follow when Jorie did it anyway, but Indira was never the one under scrutiny, never the one denied.
“You brought an outsider into the house without notice or permission and did a working with them. So, yes, we held counsel immediately. And we saw attention on you, on the family. Lots of attention. That kind of attention is how witch hunts and wars start, and we will send you to your father’s people before we let you do that.”
Indira tried to capture her sister’s insouciance, the way she’d used a few words to duck and dismiss their mother. But Indira had always been intimidated by their mother, and now she was stunned. Sent to her father, whose name she didn’t even know, meant exile from the family. No labyrinth year around the world, no higher magical training, no catching up to her sister. “So Jorie breaks the rules, sells spells and favors all through high school, and gets to go on her labyrinth year. But I do my duty to help one person and you threaten to exile me? That’s not fair!”
Her mother sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Jorie dealt in small things. She never brought anyone to the house, drew attention, or gave away family secrets!” She gestured at the spell book.
“I’m better at the big stuff!” Indira shouted. “And this guy deserves it. He tried to buy a rape spell.”
“Your sister should have taught you her subtlety, but all she taught you was rebellion.” Indira’s mother lifted both their hands from the book and flipped to another page. A forgetting spell, using a knotted web, that could be worked small or big. The pattern sprawled over the page like a spider’s web, a dreamcatcher, a mandala. She tapped the page with her long fingers. “This is the spell you need. Make the girl and the boy forget about all of this. Extricate yourself from the situation. You need to protect the family, not waste your time on a girl that will drop her magical hobby before the first semester of college is over.”
“But, Mom,” Indira protested. Her mother was already turned away. Beyond her, in the doorway, stood one of Indira’s aunts and two of her cousins. Three impassive faces holding her in place until she capitulated.
“Whatever you’re planning,” her mother repeated, “is how witch hunts and wars start. End it now.”
Before Indira could tell Ella the Carrie plan was off, Ella agreed to go to prom with Chris, publicly. Not as public as his lunchroom prom-posal, but she marched up to him in the hallway in front of their friends and said, as they planned, “Ask me again.”
Indira dropped a note in his locker to meet her in the bathroom at the end of the day for payment. He and two of his friends were already there when she arrived. She felt flustered. She’d arrived early so she’d be lounging mysteriously against the back wall when they entered. Instead, she hesitated on the threshold, surprise hanging out of her like a piece of toilet paper stuck to a shoe. And one of the goons was missing. Damn. She needed them all together for this.
Indira squared her shoulders and entered the bathroom with false confidence, locking the door behind her. She marched up to Chris, held out her hand, and demanded, “Payment upon delivery, as agreed.” The memory charm web was tucked in her pocket. She itched to pull it out now. This moment when they were all looking at her was perfect, and it was slipping away.
He looked down at her palm, and his mouth curled at one corner into a sharp grin that made Indira’s stomach sink. “I’m paying for the whole prom experience. You’ll get your money after Ella gives it up. If that frigid bitch doesn’t deliver, you don’t get paid.”
Rage bloomed in her belly and swallowed all the plans. Indira lowered her hand and spun away. “Guess I don’t get paid, then,” she said as she walked toward the door. “I don’t deliver girls to coward rapists who pretend the word no doesn’t exist.”
Instantly, she regretted everything. She could have deployed the memory web, she could have found a spell to make Chris impotent forever and then made him forget he ever talked to her. Hell, she could have worked the Carrie plan with Ella. She didn’t have to blow everything up like this.
Except she did. Surely the family would understand. She couldn’t do nothing. Forgettings and stay-aways meant Chris would turn his attention to some other girl. Maybe the next girl would say yes, but maybe she’d say no and he wouldn’t listen. She’d made herself complicit when she tried to play him, and now she had to pay the price.
She hoped the price wasn’t exile. She grabbed at her tumbling thoughts. She needed a new plan, a better plan. She needed Jorie, but Jorie wasn’t here.
Someone shoved her from behind, hard enough to propel her into the door. Her face hit the heavy wood and pain bloomed along her cheekbone. “Bitch!” Chris hissed in her ear. He crowded her against the door, tall and heavy behind her, pinning her in place. “You owe me my money back, then.” He wrenched her bag from her shoulder and tossed it behind them, then grabbed her free hand and yanked her whole arm into a painful hold behind her back. “Look in there,” he barked at his friends.
“Get off me!” she yelled. “Stop it!” She struggled against him, tried to leverage her weight to throw him off, but she couldn’t. Every move was agony on her arm.
Her other arm was trapped between her and the door. On the fingers of that hand were three rings. One had three garnets embedded in real silver. One was a circle of flowers, blackened and smooth with age. The third was a spiky pyramid ring, with a skull in the pyramid instead of the eye of Providence. She eyed the skull ring. That would do it. She tried twisting her hand into a better position.
Chris used his full weight to push her into the door. “Freak,” he said directly into her ear, breath hot and sour. “Stuck up bitch. Is this the most action you’ve ever gotten? You should be paying me.” He pulled her arm even higher. She couldn’t stop the whimper of pain that escaped. He chuckled in her ear, and the sound made her cringe. His free hand dipped in and out of her pockets. It felt like being groped.
Behind them, his goons dumped her bag out onto the floor, went through her things. “Her wallet’s empty,” one of them reported.
“What the hell is this?” Chris found the memory spell. She’d spent hours laboring over the complex pattern. Don’t pull the thread, she silently pleaded. If he pulled the trailing thread, it would collapse the web. Without the words, the intent of the spell, it would render it useless and unrecoverable.
Chris threw it to the floor. “Where’s. My. Money.”
“I told you. I had to buy supplies to work on Ella.” She grunted and pushed back against him. It felt useless, a gust of wind against a mountain, but she was able to raise her hand. He grabbed her by the hair and smashed her face against the door. She ignored the pain. She was eye-to-eye with the grinning skull in the ring.
You’re the muscle if anything gets out of hand, Jorie always said before they met with clients. I got this small stuff. But you, you can really fuck up someone’s day.
No one ever got out of hand. They wanted test answers, clear skin, confidence, a win. Jorie gave it to them. They didn’t care why Indira was there.
With the sharp tip of the pyramid, she scratched a sigil into the door. The wood was old and soft, layers of varnish and dirt surrendered beneath the spike. The sigil came out wobbly, but solid. She felt it take hold, all that potential waiting, an earthquake building, a storm about to break. “Where’s my money!” Chris screamed in her ear. Indira placed her fingertips against the sigil and didn’t even need to speak aloud. She had only to think her invitation, and the storm moved through her.
Chris was blown backwards. From the yells they let out, so were his friends. Indira heard three thuds as they all hit the walls, the stall doors…
When she turned, ears ringing from the summoning, she saw Chris falling away from one of the heavy porcelain sinks, limp body slumping to the floor. His head came to rest at an angle it shouldn’t, and blood leaked from his left ear.
She looked away. On the floor at her feet lay the forgetting spell, a crumpled pile of string. Fingers numb, she picked it up. She looked again. She stepped toward him. Chris’s eyes were open, and they seemed to both stare directly at her and at nothing at all.
“Oh my god, he’s dead!” one of his friends revived enough to speak. “You killed him. You fucking freak, you killed him!” He scrambled for the door, fear in his eyes. He dragged his buddy to his feet, woozy and shaking his head.
She couldn’t let them walk out. They’d tell anyone who would listen. This is how witch hunts and war start. This was what her family saw. This was why they avoided outsiders and were careful when taking clients. This was why her mother was adamant she make the situation disappear, not help Ella take public revenge.
The boys fumbled with the door. Indira untangled the web.
“Look at me,” she demanded. Even she was impressed by how authoritative her voice sounded. Accustomed to following the leader, the boys froze and turned their gazes.
She pulled the dangling end of the thread and said, “You were never here. This never happened. You’ve been out looking for Chris, because he was supposed to meet you but didn’t show up. You can’t find him anywhere, and you don’t know where he is.”
Their gazes were caught on the thread as it tightened and closed, capturing and binding their memories of the past few hours. While they stood dazed and unmoving, Indira reached past them, unlocked the door, and maneuvered them into the empty hallway. She closed the door behind them and locked it again. Then she took out her phone and dialed Jorie.
Jorie didn’t answer. She tried again. The phone rang and rang, but didn’t connect.
Indira sank to the floor and stared at Chris’s dead body, unsure what to try next. She couldn’t call her family. They’d already chosen her path, and she hadn’t followed it. She’d created a mess, and she had to get herself out of it, or instead of a labyrinth year, she’d be exiled to her father’s people, strangers. Fathers of Chant women were a secret guarded by the mothers, only revealed when necessary. She was, she knew, creating a necessity right now.
She didn’t want to meet her father. She wanted to catch up with Jorie.
Indira selected another contact and called.
“Hello?” Ella’s voice was quiet. “Indira?” she asked, uncertain when Indira didn’t speak.
To her everlasting embarrassment, Indira started crying.
Ella arrived twenty minutes later. She knocked on the bathroom door, and when Indira opened it, Ella handed her a packet of tissues. “Thanks,” Indira muttered.
Ella stopped on the threshold and stared at the dead body. She was very quiet, face unreadable. Finally, she said only, “Huh,” and stepped the rest of the way inside. She closed the door behind them and flipped the lock.
The two girls looked away from Chris and stared at each other. Indira said nothing. She had nothing to say. She had no idea how to get herself out of this.
“So, we need a tarp or something, and a place to hide a body.” Ella squared her shoulders and set aside her bag. Her top was sleeveless, but her motions carried all the sentiment of someone rolling up their sleeves. “What else? Is there anything we can do to keep people from seeing us, or finding the body? Can we make them forget, if they do?”
Something about the way Ella said “make them forget” snapped Indira out of her paralysis. An idea, a Jorie-level idea, was forming in her mind. Or maybe, an Indira-level idea.
“We need string, lots of string.”
“You mean rope?” Ella had approached the body and was nudging it with her sneakered toes. “I can run to the hardware store down the street. Tarp and rope,” she spoke her list out loud. For a moment, Indira wondered who the hell Ella really was. What kind of person showed up for a crying acquaintance and was immediately prepared to hide a dead body? She added ruthless to her appraisal of Ella’s ambition. What a thrillingly dangerous combination.
“No,” Indira shook her head. “Not rope, string.” She held up the forgetting spell she’d used on Chris’s friends, as though it would mean something to Ella. “We need to make the world forget about Chris.”
Ella gawked at her. “You can do that? Just, make everyone forget a whole person existed?”
Indira shrugged, trying to look nonchalant instead of uncertain. “We can try.”
“Will yarn work?” Ella reached into her bag and pulled out a skein of pale blue yarn. “It’s cotton and linen. Does the fiber content matter? Is this enough?”
“You work with fiber?” Now Indira was gawking. Then, shaking her head, she confirmed, “That looks like enough, sure.”
“I crochet.” Ella produced a small pair of scissors and clipped the skein from a half-finished project somewhere in the depth of her bag. “It’s relaxing.”
“So, you have a strong affinity for thread magic, probably. That’s good. That helps, because I don’t.” Indira collected her things from where they’d been scattered across the floor. In her notebook was a sketched copy of the spell’s design. She showed it to Ella. “But I do have an affinity for big and powerful. And we have to make this big and powerful. Big enough to cover the body. But it has to be exact and perfect, or it won’t work.”
Ella picked out the construction of the design and its many nuances within minutes. Indira couldn’t help but be jealous; it had taken her hours to understand the spell well enough to build it properly. She couldn’t help but recall her mother’s words: She’ll drop her magical hobby before the first semester of college is over. Watching Ella work, Indira knew her mother was wrong. She was seized with a fierce feeling that Ella could become a once-in-a-generation thread witch. And if this spell worked the way it should, Ella would forget she built it. She’d forget finally trying the magic she’d always wanted to. She’d forget she had a reason to be friends with Indira. Without Chris—awful, unrepentant Chris—they’d never have spoken to each other.
If she stopped now, Indira thought, and found another way, a place to hide the body until she and Ella both were gone from town, she didn’t need to do this. She didn’t need to make everyone forget. But, if she messed that up, if she didn’t make this and her connection to Ella go away, she could lose everything. Her labyrinth year. Her whole family. Her sister.
Indira comforted herself with the notion that Ella would discover this again. With so much power and talent, it would find her, if she didn’t find it first. She had UCLA waiting for her. Indira had Jorie waiting for her, on the other end of their labyrinth years and apprenticeships. A whole lifetime she could not throw away for a temporary, convenient friend.
Ella constructed the web within an hour, perfectly knotted, every line in place, and draped over Chris’s cold body. “Now what?” she asked.
“Now,” Indira took a deep breath. “You wait in the hall.”
“But don’t you need me to cast it?”
“It’s a single caster spell.”
Only one person could hold all the intention of what needed to be forgotten. Otherwise, it would go awry, or not work at all because no two minds could be so synchronized.
“Won’t it be more powerful if we do it together?” Ella argued. She didn’t understand the interior subtlety as well as she’d understood the mechanical. She thought she could escape the forgetting.
Indira could not go home and face her mother until Ella forgot. All the ends tied up neatly.
She was at war with herself. She wanted this to be over. She wanted to take her labyrinth year, catch up with her sister, find out if some other Chants did big magic and could show Indira her place in the world. She wanted Jorie to come and take charge while she stood silently behind her, at the ready for violence that wasn’t coming. She wanted to be friends with ambitious, ruthless Ella. She wanted this to never have happened.
When Indira didn’t answer, Ella charged ahead. She wrapped Indira’s hand around the pull thread of the spell, and then wrapped her own hand around just behind. “Tell me when to pull.”
Indira looked down at the body on the floor; Chris’s usual smug expression slackened to a vacancy that rendered him near-unrecognizable. “You stupid piece of shit,” she whispered. “Why couldn’t you let it go?”
This was not the quick pull and done of the spell she’d worked on Chris’s friends earlier. That was limited to a single event, a few hours of their lives. She needed to erase nearly eighteen years of Chris’s existence. It wasn’t possible. Even if successful in removing knowledge and memory of him, he’d leave behind a presence. Photographs of a boy whose name no one could recall. A room full of things in his parents’ house become a sad and frustrating mystery. A college acceptance letter for a ghost.
Ella, unbothered and unmolested at senior prom, free to have a good time and then leave this town running toward a happy future instead of away from a terrible past. Other girls, women, in the future who would not be raped by a boy grown into more of a predator as he became a man.
Indira thought about all these things, about how positive a world Chris’s absence would leave behind. She held all of the intention of the spell inside herself and spoke it into existence through one word: “Now.” Her voice echoed in the empty bathroom. They pulled the string together and collapsed the web.
Knowing if the spell had worked or not was impossible in the moments following. She was not going to forget about Chris. But then Ella looked at her, eyes gliding over the dead body on the floor and immediately dismissing it as unimportant, and asked in a vague, confused voice, “Indira? What’s going on?”
She thought she would feel worse, but the guilt and loss were not as strong as the desire to move on to the next thing. She maneuvered Ella into the hallway. “Wait here for me.”
Ella nodded, murmured a vague okay. She stared vacantly at the floor, a puppet with strings cut, all her ambitious, ruthless energy, gone. Indira felt sick, felt like she’d stolen something vital. But Ella’s energy would come back when the spell was done reworking her memory. Indira hadn’t stolen anything; she’d found her own determination and ruthlessness inside herself, as huge and destructive as her magical talents. She finally knew herself. She had no one to share this revelation with.
She burned the spell webs in a sink. The thread and yarn stank as they charred. She felt sorry for whoever discovered the dead body tomorrow when they came in to use the bathroom. She took Chris’s wallet from his pocket to slow the police down. Eventually, they’d link Chris to his school file through a photo, make their way to his parents’ house, and be utterly baffled by everyone’s claims to have no memory of him. But none of that was her problem.
Indira imagined Ella waiting in the hallway. Maybe she’d woken up a little, shaken off the confusion and disorientation, told herself she was here to use the bathroom but found the door locked and had gone away.
Maybe she’d kept her memory after all. She’d said Indira’s name. Maybe she remembered they were friends now, even if she couldn’t quite recall why or how. Maybe she was waiting for Indira to finish up and join her.
Indira unlocked and opened the bathroom door.
The hallway was empty.
She dialed Jorie’s number. The phone rang and rang, but never connected. She tried again. Again.