Silas Peppernut had chosen the wrong job, but there was no way for a witch to pay rent in New York City, no matter how many spells she cast on the dilapidated bureau that served as an altar, without getting a day job.
Silas, who had arranged her smile as carefully as she’d arranged her mascara (hoping that a pretty pair of eyes would steal attention from her acne, and cursing the paucity of African shades in the cosmetics section of Duane Reade) and could feel her enamel wear away as one customer after another bolted to the service desk with returns, exchanges, and pleas for advice. She felt their heartbeats in her skull.
Silas was nearing the end of her shift when a slender, surly woman with dark hair edged her way to the service desk.
“Hi,” Silas said. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah,” said the woman, whose long braid was a contrast to Silas’s pixie cut and whose pallor suggested drastically different heritage. “Do you have - ”
Silas blinked away a spasm of dizziness as the fluorescent lights curved into strange shapes. Her blood knotted with all the tension that this young woman carried in her body.
“Sorry,” Silas muttered. “What were you looking for?”
“Sneakers. Where do you keep them?”
It hit Silas in a way that few thoughts or feelings ever had: she’s looking for shoes because -
“Exercise,” Silas breathed.
The customer frowned. “Huh?”
“You’re trying to exercise? To - you’re trying to shake off depression? Geez, why would you come here for that? This is the worst place to be when you’re feeling depressed.”
The customer stared.
“Oh my god,” Silas stammered. “I - normally I’m an empath, not a mind-reader. Crap. I hope I don’t lose my job over this.”
The young woman surveyed Silas, first in astonishment, and then with a peculiar hardness in her eye that - even without telepathy - Silas recognized as determination.
Then the stranger asked, “What do you know about breaking curses?”
Forty-eight hours earlier, at the Filicori Institute for the Arts in Mallory, Rhode Island, Camilla Cuthbert’s hand was cramping. It pained her to glance aside and see her best friend Coffey Fitzgerald-Dennis scrawling notes as tidily as if the lecture hadn’t been going for an hour and a half.
Why? Camilla pleaded to the universe. Why do I have to be so disorganized?
Doctor Grosvenor was writing something on the board, but Camilla had forgotten her glasses and couldn’t see the words from the rear of the lecture hall. She had been stupid to sit so far away, hoping she wouldn’t be called on to answer any questions about the history of metalsmithing - an ability far beyond her purview.
That Camilla had had the audacity to apply to art school was laughable, and that the prestigious Filicori Institute had seen potential was downright uproarious. She wondered if she ought to sit back and smile, watching her disaster of a life crumble into pieces like some morbid rendition of modern craftsmanship worthy of a spot in a museum studded with esoteric nothingness like “Magenta Smile on Biodegradable Canvas” and “Empty Coffee Can Full of Pussywillows.”
The logical thing to do was to stop taking notes altogether. After all, Camilla had her own project in mind, one that would not lead to gallery placement but would certainly be a step toward the one productive decision she had yet made in her adult life.
To my friends, she scribbled on a blank page toward the back of the notebook and once she began writing, the words came smoothly: It was good of you to treat me like a person. I’m sorry for hurting you in the short term. If you’re upset, I’m flattered. I’m not necessarily mad at anyone in particular; I just know that I’ve never been a good daughter, friend, or student. Also, Coffey, I never had the nerve to say this, but now that I’m gone, it’s easy: I care about you as more than just a friend, and I know you’re straight so it wouldn’t work. But I thought I should tell you now.
Coffey stood up. Camilla slammed her notebook shut.
“All done?” Coffey asked, apparently oblivious to Camilla’s panic.
Camilla coughed. “Yup. Hang on - damn it - ”
Her water bottle had rolled away in her haste to pick up the backpack.
“I gotta get to my next class,” said Coffey, sweeping honey-gold curls from her freckled face. “It’s on the other side of campus. Let’s catch up later, okay?”
“Yeah. See you.” Camilla was still trying to grab her water bottle, which had stopped its journey several seats away and was in danger of being trampled by her fellow students.
Camilla swore several times under her breath, wishing she didn’t have an essay to finish.
Without zipping her backpack, Camilla slunk out of the lecture hall. She felt both very small and very conspicuous.
As Camilla was striding across campus toward the main library, head lowered to avoid the mid-December sunlight, somebody called her name.
“What’s up?” said Andreas Tarantino, who had a crispness of speech unsuited to a community college dropout and a rugged handsomeness unbecoming of a person Camilla longed to hate. “Seen Coffey, by any chance? She was supposed to meet me.”
“She left to get to her next class. Maybe she mixed up her schedule.”
Andreas chuckled. “I picked the flakiest girlfriend in the history of the world.”
“She’s not flaky.”
Andreas sobered. “I was just kidding. Anyway, I’ll text her. Thanks, CC!”
Camilla watched him jog across the campus, muscles flexing and black hair waggling its fingers at her as if to say, Look how heterosexual your best friend is.
Camilla tightened her scarf, hoping it would accomplish the dual missions of keeping her warm and strangling her.
Then she heard her name a second time.
“Christ on a crabcake,” she muttered, then forced a smile hard enough to crack a bone in her jaw and turned around.
Doctor Grosvenor’s blue eyes were steely and her thin lips locked like a worm in rigor mortis. The professor was squat, with gray curls billowing around her in a way that made Camilla wonder if she truly didn’t care about upkeep or if she wanted to look youthful.
“Is this yours?” the professor asked coldly, and extended Camilla’s notebook.
Camilla tried to remember whether she had even thought to check for her notebook during the water bottle debacle, “It - might be.”
“You ought to try exercising.”
“Did you just call me fat?”
“It’s good for depression. You know what isn’t good for depression? Taking your own life.”
Camilla bristled. “Why did you look in my notebook?”
“You must have been writing feverishly because that page was almost entirely torn out. Anywho, I want you to know I’ve granted you the gift of immortality - to teach you a lesson. I am a teacher, after all. And now I recommend you go for a jog, or take advantage of the campus gymnasium. There are plenty of girls in there every bit as pretty as Coffey Fitzgerald-Dennis.”
Doctor Grosvenor brushed past her, flipping her hair over her shoulder like she was a model towering over everyone else. Camilla watched her move with the fascination of someone who has been cornered by a non sequitur so convoluted that there is no means of choosing which emotion to feel first.
“Did you believe her?” Silas asked, shrugging on her coat as shoppers swarmed around them.
Camilla was cradling a shoebox. “I was having a bad day and she made it worse. Nothing weird about that.”
“You believe in witches?” Silas held the door for Camilla, who stepped through the revolving panels into the frigid Manhattan dusk. “You believed your teacher was a witch?”
“I’m not in art school for my common sense. If nothing else, the curse - the ‘gift,’ sorry - gave me the opportunity to step in front of a train just for funsies.”
“I was gonna do it anyway,” Camilla said defensively, tightening her scarf. “Now I had a chance to die and call her bluff. Let me tell you, I’ve never been more humiliated in my life than I was when that train came speeding at me and I was fine. People were screaming, the trains were all screwed up - I had to pretend I didn’t know what had happened, and just make my way back uptown without anyone realizing I was the idiot who’d accidentally defied the Grim Reaper.”
Silas shook her head. “What are you doing in New York? Why didn’t you stay in Mallory?”
“I wasn’t thinking.” Camilla stopped walking, snowflakes glistening in her dark hair. “I was so embarrassed that Doctor Grosvenor had found my notebook that all I could do was run away. I wanted to disappear. New York seems like the perfect place for that.”
Silas’s eyes widened. “Grosvenor? Wylie Grosvenor?”
Camilla frowned at her. “Are you into metalwork? She’s a professor.”
Silas gave a tight, high-pitched laugh that would have sounded out of place anywhere that wasn’t yuletide Manhattan. “She teaches metalsmithing because she’s old friends with the soldering gods. Brigid, Thor - she learned everything from them. Does that count as plagiarism, do you think?”
Camilla dropped the shoebox. “How do you - ”
“She’s a witch. I’m a witch.”
“I thought you said you were an empath.”
“Both. I figured I should try and make good on my abilities if I had to deal with feeling everything from everyone all the time.”
“So, what - the witches of the Eastern seaboard all get together under the full moon once a month? It’s a little cold to dance naked, and the only woods near here are in Central Park.”
Silas began walking again, and Camilla followed suit. “There are lots of people here who claim to be witches. And it isn’t that they’re lying, but if you’re like me, and tuned into the Old Ways - dreaming about consorting with the gods and whatnot - people like me and Wylie have a way of finding each other.”
“By social media. Haven’t you seen her Instagram page? A few years ago, I was trying to find other people who were having visions and dreams and - ” Silas turned away, hoping Camilla couldn’t see how self-conscious she felt. “Wylie had all these posts about what it was like to talk with the gods, and how much they helped her smithwork. So I contacted her - I was desperate - and the first thing she asked was whether I was interested in any of her pieces. I said I couldn’t afford them, and she sent a frowny face but then asked what else she could do for me. She’s been kind of a mentor.”
“So if she’s been teaching you, do you know how to fix this?”
“You don’t want to be immortal?”
“Even people who aren’t jumping in front of trains don’t want to be immortal!”
Silas walked beside Camilla in silence for a few minutes. When they reached an entrance to the subway, she turned to Camilla.
“I have a thought,” she said. “Does your metro card still have money on it? I’ve gotta take the D train home.”
Twenty-four hours prior to her stroll with Silas Peppernut, Camilla received a text.
Not sure I wanna be with Andreas anymore.
By this time, Camilla had only so much bandwidth to feel more than wry amusement at the fact that she was halfway through Connecticut on a Washington-bound Amtrak train due to arrive in New York at 8:50 P.M.
Why? she replied.
Several minutes passed. Just when Camilla thought that Coffey might have decided not to answer: Can you keep a secret?
Yes, Camilla wrote, past caring about other people’s secrets.
I just don’t want my parents to know. They’re Catholic.
Camilla froze as she waited for the remainder of the message. If Coffey was about to say what Camilla thought she might -
I think maybe I’m not straight.
Camilla squeezed the phone tighter.
Mom and Dad would be upset. Maybe that shouldn’t matter, but I’m scared of them finding out. They’d at least want me to talk to the priest. IDK. Camilla could picture the pinched desperation in her freckled face. I don’t know who to tell.
How’d you find out? Camilla wrote
Then: Camilla, I like you.
Camilla lay back against her seat, eyes roving over the silhouetted barns of Connecticut farmland, and briefly wondered if Doctor Grosvenor had laid a curse upon her friend as well.
Silas’s apartment was so small that Camilla found herself missing the sprawling Filicori campus. There was a tiny hallway, a tiny kitchen, and two bedrooms - one of which appeared to be occupied by someone with no concern for whether other inhabitants shared his fondness for thrash metal.
Silas stepped aside so that Camilla could enter a bedroom roughly the size of the shoebox tucked under her left arm. “That’s my altar. Don’t touch anything, okay?”
Camilla focused her gaze on the center of the room, where there stood a white bureau covered in a black cloth. A white pentacle was woven into the middle, and stones and candles occupied various places around the perimeter of the fabric.
“I’m not sure if this will help,” said Silas, “But one time, Wylie mailed me a little kit that she thought might come in useful one day.”
Camilla recoiled. “You’re going to take the curse away with something you got from the curse-giver?”
“Like I said, I’m not even sure if it will help. It’s the only thing I can think of.” Silas opened a box that stood beside the altar cloth, and Camilla had a moment’s disgruntled appreciation for the artistic beauty of the complex spirals and shapes carved into its surface. “She told me that if I was ever in crisis - like, a really serious situation that I couldn’t get myself out of - then this stuff was the way to go.”
Silas held up a miniature glass bottle full of liquid that reminded Camilla of a shade of acrylic paint she’d once used to depict her own blood. “Wylie made this herself. It’s got god stuff in it.”
“The essence of Thor or Hepaestus or one of those other friends she has. I’m serious,” Silas added as Camilla heaved a resigned sigh. “You know that Wylie has all the power she claims to have. You jumped in front of a train and nothing happened. Maybe just give this a try.”
“What do I do with it? Smear it on my face like foundation?”
“You drink it. Like a shot. You seem like someone who’s had more than her fair share of jungle juice.”
“Just because you’re a mind-reader - ”
“Empath,” Silas corrected.
“ - doesn’t mean you get to call me out like that.” Camilla reached out and accepted the vial. She fiddled with the cork for a moment before getting it open, then sniffed the fluid inside. It didn’t smell like anything.
“You’re serious?” asked Camilla.
“What else do you want me to do? I told you, this is all I can think of.”
“Fine. Whatever. I’ll - ”
“Hold on.” Silas straightened up, and Camilla noticed how tall she was now that she wasn’t standing behind a counter or hunched over in a crowded train. “Hold this while you’re doing it.” She proffered a smooth white stone.
Camilla looked wary. “What’s it for?”
“It’s my intention stone. I placed power inside of it when I first moved to New York. I wanted to have something with my personal signature to make sure any serious spells would be rock-solid.”
“Rock-solid. Ha.” Camilla accepted the stone and tipped her head back. Her braid had come mostly unraveled. With two quick swallows, the fluid was gone, and Camilla handed the vial back to Silas.
“Doesn’t taste like jungle juice,” she remarked.
Four years later, Camilla wandered through the streets of Williamsburg with a reusable grocery bag in either hand. A black shape popped out from behind a winter-withered ash tree and meowed.
Camilla sighed. “I think I know who you’re looking for.”
The black cat followed her all the way to her apartment building and up the stairs.
“You’ve got a friend,” she called.
“What?” came a voice from the bathroom.
“Are you putting on mascara? You don’t need to bother with that anymore.”
Silas opened the door. “Old habits.”
“The good news is I got the scholarship,” said Camilla. “The bad news is - ”
“You got the scholarship? That’s amazing!” Silas strode over to Camilla and took her hands.
“The bad news,” Camilla went on, “Is that you have a cat looking for you.”
“Mrow,” said the newcomer, trotting into the kitchen.
“Widdershins!” Silas stooped down and held out her hand. “I told you he’d come. I had a dream about him.”
“Yeah, you told me six times.”
Silas smiled up at her. “He’s ours now, right?”
Camilla felt a surge of affection. “As if I have a choice. Look, I got litter and treats.”
“Camilla …” Silas pushed herself to her feet. “I’m really glad you’re here.”
Camilla smiled. “Another choice I don’t have. Anyway, I’m gonna go for a jog. You seen my sneakers?”
“The ones that look like radioactive Kraft cheese? They should be - ”
Camilla stood on her toes to meet Silas’s lips. The kiss lingered, and when they broke apart Camilla whispered, “I know where they are. But I like listening to you talk about what I got on the day we met.”
As Camilla edged toward the door, Silas called, “Be careful out there. It’s slippery.”
“I know the rules.” If only Silas was aware that Camilla had the intention stone in her pocket right then. Silas, for all her sweet naivety, had known precisely what she was doing when she gave the stone to Camilla. “Any attempt at offing myself and poof, I’m immortal once more. You don’t have to worry. I’ve got a scholarship to live for. And a cat.”
“Mrow,” said Widdershins.