Unlike my sister, Stella, my magic didn’t show itself until I was almost a teenager. From the time that she was three and I was five, until Halloween of my twelfth year, I’d assumed I was like my older brother, my twenty-two older cousins, and my mother and her seven siblings: ordinary. Whatever magical DNA had made my ancestors witches and mages and healers had dwindled over the centuries until it was my great-great grandmother, Dorothea, her youngest granddaughter (my grandma), Lila, and her youngest granddaughter, Stella. We were still raised with some of the old ways, given our secret names, told the old myths, and acknowledged, if not honored, the old gods. But the gift was almost gone among us. I used to wonder, had I been the youngest, if I would have had the magic and not Stella. It wasn’t exactly jealousy, per se, just curiosity, just ‘what if’. Then, I did something very stupid that revealed that there was, in fact, some magic in me, but I won’t get ahead of myself.
I had a lot of fun with Stella’s magic as a kid. We’d make s’mores with tiny fires she was able to light from her fingertips in our bedroom at night, sometimes getting caught when we singed the edge of a bedspread or a strand of hair. Stella could make sticks and small rocks fly and dance. A few times we hid behind trees near the playground and scared Ron Hoover and his gang of neighborhood bullies by making our voices carry on Stella’s magic. The boys would turn themselves around like corkscrews trying to find the source until they eventually fled.
As I got older, I got more daring, climbing up to the top of the bell tower of the church, Stella following behind reluctantly and nervously. “Please, Phoebe. You’re going to get hurt. What if I can’t stop you?”
“Of course you can stop me, Stell. Grandma says you have the strongest magic she’s ever seen in a child.”
And I’d jump out of the small window in the belfry in the dark of night, arms spread beneath the moon, as Stella slowed my fall like I was a floating feather. She hated when I did these things, she’d beg me to stop and threaten to tell our grandmother. And a part of me felt bad, but then I’d see a locked door or a vast height or anything that felt like a challenge and I’d plunge headlong, knowing that Stella would save me. It wasn’t right, I get that. But I did it anyway.
One day, my grandmother told my mom that Stella’s power scared her.
“It’s as if all the power that used to be spread over five people is concentrated in her. She needs to be disciplined and protected. She’s going to get noticed by the gods.”
She began arguing with my mother, insisting Stella should leave school and go away to live somewhere, hidden, with my grandmother.
My mother said, barely containing her voice, “No one has seen the gods in 150 years, mom! I’m not going to take the girl from school, from her entire family, from Phoebe, because some being who’s probably imaginary might notice her.”
My grandmother signed herself swiftly to ward off my mother’s blasphemy. “Phoebe is part of the problem,” she whispered harshly. “She jumps off of roofs and makes Stella save her. The other day she ran into traffic, nearly got herself and heaven knows how many other people killed. The gods don’t like that Marilyn, they don’t like boasting. The girls must be separated.”
I felt like my ears had filled with lava. I stepped back a few feet into the wall behind me and only when I found it in me to breathe again did I realize I was sobbing. I wanted to promise never to play with Stella’s magic again, never to so much as mention it, but I couldn’t move. Eventually, the creaky back door closed, and I saw my grandmother limp along on the path toward her house.
In the coming months, I spent a lot less time with Stella and I stopped asking her to use her magic at all. At first, I was afraid she’d notice I was avoiding her, but it seems she just filled the time we used to spend together training with my grandmother. I hoped that if I stayed quiet and didn’t call attention to myself, Stella would stay. I even stopped pulling pranks and fighting at school. Then, one day, on the walk home from school, I heard giggles behind me, a chittering noise with an undertone of menace. I turned around and it was Ron Hoover and his friends, walking alongside their bikes and quickening their pace.
When Stella turned and saw them she said, “Let’s go Phoebe.” She grabbed my hand to pull me of off the sidewalk and through the alleys, but I pulled my arm away.
“No, I’m not going to let them push me around. You run away.”
“Phoebe, come on there’s like five of them.”
I gave her the most withering glare I could muster and said, “I don’t care.” Then I took her hand, which was once more grabbing my arm, and shoved her off of me. She disappeared into the alley, throwing looks back at me as she walked away and muttering something under her breath.
Ron and his friends gained on me. “Hey, Phoebe,” Ron taunted, “where’d you weirdo sister go?”
“Don’t ever speak to me about my sister.”
“Oh ho, you hear that guys? We’re not allowed to talk about her sister. Why? Cause she’s a freak?”
I stopped walking and made eye contact with Ron. “I’m giving you guys a chance to walk away from me, but if you mention my sister one more time, you’re going to regret it.”
The other boy, Tim Corcoran, said, “She’s a freak and so are you.”
Lighting flashed in my head. I swung as hard as I could at Ron’s head, landing the inside of my forearm on the side of his head. He went down, but the hit hurt my arm like hell. I chased Tim and managed to get a hold of his shirt and started tussling with him on the ground. The three other boys who were with them got on their bikes and rode away. Tim got some good hits in on me. I saw stars when he landed a punch on my eye, but I had him pinned under me and was managing to hit him in the ribs occasionally when I wasn’t dodging his blows.
“Phoebe, stop it!” Stella had emerged from the alley and was standing on the side of the fight. Ron moved in on her.
“Hey freak, what are you going to do about it?” Ron grabbed Stella’s backpack, but she jerked away.
I jumped off of Tim to go stop Ron, but Tim grabbed my ankle and I fell, hard, barely managing to break my fall with my hands.
“Phoebe!” Stella tried to run to me, but Ron blocked her.
“Come on you freaky little witch, do a trick for me.” Ron started to shove Stella.
I pulled myself up and threw my body into his as hard as I could. He fell and pulled my shirt, bringing me with him. We both struggled to get purchase over the other, but he eventually won. He shot upright and lifted his bike over his head, ready to slam it into me.
Stella yelled, “Stop!” Out shot two fireballs from her hands. I rolled out of the way as Ron’s bike dropped and he started to run around, screaming. Stella’s fire caught on to his shirt.
“Ron, stop running, you’re making it worse!” I begged. But he continued to run and the fire was growing. “Stop, drop, and roll, Ron. Stop!”
The flames were leaping up toward his hair now.
“Stella,” I yelled. “Do something! Put him out.”
But Stella was shocked. She hadn’t meant to shoot out the fire balls and now her face was ashen and her arms hung limply by her side. “I… I can’t.”
“Tim, you idiot, help me!” I yelled to Tim, who was slack-jawed, staring at Ron.
I made one more pass at Ron to try to get him to stop running when a low, deep woman’s voice said, “Enough.”
In a second, the fire was gone. Ron collapsed in whimpers. My grandmother walked over to him and bent low, slowly waving her hand up and down in front of him until he stopped squealing. After a few minutes, he looked at her, stricken, and ran away. Tim followed after him, falling every few feet as he did.
“Not a word.”
My grandmother marched us back to our house. Stella was ghostly pale and shaking all over. Now that the fight was over, my head and torso were throbbing from the punches I took and my knees and hands stung from the scrape of falling.
My mother greeted us at the door and, seeing me, cried, “Phoebe, Stella? What happened.” Neither of us replied.
Inside, I tried to explain that Ron had followed us and started attacking Stella, but my mother cut me off.
“You could have walked away, Phoebe. You could have called for help.”
“Mom, I did try to walk away.”
Stella perked up at that, the color was returning to her cheeks. “No, Phoebe,” she said through gritted teeth. “You didn’t try to run away, I tried to get you to run away with me. You wouldn’t.”
My mouth hung open, stunned. Stella had never once, as far back as my memory went, ratted me out. After a few, breathless moments I said, “Stella, I had to. I can’t just let him chase us into corners.”
"No, Phoebe. You didn't run because you knew I'd be able to help you if it got bad. This is your fault! You're the reason everyone thinks I'm a freak. I'd never even use magic in public if it weren't for you."
Finally, my grandmother said, quietly, “Marilyn, Stella must come with me. It’s not safe like this. If it’s not the gods, it will be the people of the town.”
“No, Grandma, mom! No. Please. I’m sorry. Please, I’ve been good for months. I haven’t asked Stella to so much as snap her fingers for me, please. Stella, tell them. Tell them that I haven’t asked you to do magic.”
Her eyes were wide and her mouth moving, but no sound was coming out. I jumped up out of my chair and stood in front of my mother.
“Mommy, please. Please. Don’t make her go. I’ll go instead. Please.”
My mom pulled me into her. “It has to be this way.”
With Stella gone, dinners were mostly silent; my brother Ewan occasionally trying to get my mother to tell him where Stella went and my father staring resolutely at his plate. I was too devastated to speak about it. We told the school that Stella was going to boarding school and I tried my best to act normal, but it made me so tired to pretend all day that I came home from school and napped until dinner. I stopped getting my homework done on time and my grades started to slip.
Halloween night was the saddest I’d ever experienced. Normally, it was a huge deal in my house. We would start night with our people’s rituals: offerings to Samill the Trickster and Ellwyn, the goddess of the In Between. Grandma would bring over treats and burn the lavender from her garden. Then, we’d don our costumes and trick-or-treat. My mother didn’t bother to make offerings this year. Ewan didn’t wear a costume, slipping out with his friends, mumbling a goodbye. I put on black sweatpants and cat ears and told my mom I was going trick-or-treating.
“Home by 8:15, Phoebe.”
“Ok, mom.” I ran toward the front door, almost running full into my mom.
My mother looked at me, eyes immensely sad. “And do not go past McKinley’s barn. Do you understand me?”
“Got it, mom!” I bolted toward my friends.
Without a thought, my friends and I went right past McKinley’s barn and into the foot hills. Jessica heard from John Freeman that the cool kids were throwing a Halloween party at the quarry. I typically steered clear of the cool kids. But ever since the fireball incident, Ron Hoover was nice bordering on obsequious to me, and since he was the one gave me the lion’s share of grief, I felt confident I could go without issue.
A group of about twenty kids milled around the quarry. A few flashlights and lanterns were propped up among the rocks along the edge, illuminating the kids enough that I could make out who at least some of them were. Ron Hoover didn’t seem to be here tonight.
“Jessica, Megan, Phoebe? Is that you?” A girl named Tara Petrello walked over to us.
Jessica smiled, sheepishly. “Hope it’s ok.”
“Definitely!” Tara said, cheerfully. “Guys, Jessica, Megan and Phoebe are here.”
A few people waved, but mostly everyone ignored us. Sean Torio walked over. The light from one of the lanterns was glaring on his face, which was red and puffy.
“Any of you girls want a beer?”
“No,” I said forcefully. I got into trouble, but being a twelve-year-old with a drinking problem wasn’t one of my issues.
Megan also declined, but Jessica seemed hesitant, like she wanted to accept. She looked over at me.
I whispered, “Jess, come on.”
She rolled her eyes at me. She was doing that more often these days. “Why can’t you just have fun, Phoebe.”
I rolled my eyes back. “Whatever, Jess. Your funeral.”
She huffed and walked off with Sean, while Megan and I hung around the edge of the crowd.
I walked closer to the edge to see the water. Some fifty or sixty feet down was a placid black surface. I did not see so much as a bubble popping on the surface. “It looks like marble,” I said.
“Actually, my brother told me it was marble. I believed him. I thought that’s what they were digging up at the quarry," Megan said.
I laughed, but then the mention of her brother reminded me of Stella. It hurt to think about her.
My chest was in a knot of anger, fear, and sadness. I wanted to leave.
“Let’s get Jessica and go. I want to go home.”
Megan nodded. “Me too.”
I walked over to the other side of the crowd where Jessica was nervously holding a beer.
“Hey, Jessica,” I said, cheerfully, hoping to make up for the earlier tension. “Megan and I wanted to go home. Can we go?”
Jessica looked at Sean first, and then back at me. “No one’s stopping you.”
Sean sniggered and someone else said, “Ooh snap.”
My face flushed again, but I tried to rise above the bait. “Please, Jess. I want to go. I can’t leave you here.”
“I want to stay, Phoebe. You’re not the boss of me.”
Sean stepped in front of Jessica. “Yeah, Phoebe. You’re not the boss of her. And you’re sister’s not here to make her leave.”
It was like he slapped me. I clapped my hand to my mouth to cover my gasp. Even Jessica’s eyes widened, knowing he went too far.
I looked around for someone who wasn’t Sean.
“Hey, Tara,” I called out. Tara looked over at me. “Can you make sure Jessica doesn’t go home alone?”
Tara nodded and Megan and I turned away back toward the path that leads down the hill. When we were almost out of earshot, I heard Jessica’s high pitched laughter. She was laughing and saying, “No, Sean. Stop, stop!” My ears perked up.
“Woah, Sean!” This time she sounded scared, but she tacked laughter on to the end.
Sean said, “Come on, dance Jess. It’s fun!” Jess started laughing again.
“You think she’s ok?” Megan asked.
I waited another second. “Yeah, they’re just playing around.”
Then, I heard a third voice, “No, Sean, Jess, stop!” It was followed by blood curdling screams. I didn’t think. I was just running, faster than I knew possible. Three or four people were standing at the edge looking down into the quarry, hands over their mouth. “Move!” I screamed and the group parted and I just dove right over the edge.
It was only when I heard renewed screaming that I realized I’d made a mistake and I was about to die. I could also hear Jessica screaming somewhere and then it just happened. It was like my body was an electrical wire, a current pulsing through it, and I moved my hands out in front of me and the surface of the water below rippled beneath my power. My fall broke and I gently lowered myself into the water. Jessica was still screaming somewhere. I couldn’t see her.
“Up. Here,” she croaked. Her arms were clamped around Sean’s leg. He was dangling beneath her, trying to gulp in air between cries. A tree root sticking out from the side of quarry caught the skirt of her costume and they were both hanging from it.
I started to wonder how I could bring the power back, but then I heard her skirt rip and they were falling again. I shot some kind of force field at both of them, which stopped them both in mid-fall, and lowered them into the water.
I swam over to them, my water-logged pants weighing me down. “Grab on to me. Arms around my neck.” I said. They both wrapped their arms around my neck and I closed my eyes, felt around inside for whatever had been laying dormant, and lifted us out of the quarry.
Stella came home two days later. I encountered my first god the next week.