Clover Johnson walked home alone.
Reflections from street lamps swam across the wet tarmac. Water splashed through her jelly shoes, soaking her socks; they squelched between her toes and made her shiver. Gripping the straps of her pink backpack, she ran from one streetlamp to the next, playing tag with the circles of light and stomping on her shadows within them. Her short legs took longer and wider strides until she tripped and scraped her knee. She started to cry.
Panic flared in Clover’s chest. Fear of her mother’s scolding propelled her forward, blood leaking from her stinging wound. “It’s not fair!” Clover whined at the rising moon. Though it was only half-past six, northern Minnesotan winters came fast and stayed long, taking the daylight with them.
A gust of wind shook a nearby lilac bush. Clover saw a dog hiding in its branches.
“Here boy,” she called, patting above her scraped knee.
The dog’s breath was a current of hot air. It smelled like the compost heap her mother kept.
Emerging from the bush, the dog slunk towards her with too many legs. It scurried like an insect—fast, erratic. Clover pinched her knees together; the urge to relieve herself overcame her. Its rattling breath sucked the light from the air around her. She couldn’t see where the sidewalk met the blacktop. She could only see six green eyes.
Clover ran. Her backpack swung against her, piano books thumping inside. She was crying again. Crying out for her mom, screaming at the top of her lungs, but the night swallowed her voice. The plastic straps on her shoes tore at her blistered heels. Warm pee soaked her jeans. A claw sliced through her jacket, cutting her shoulder, snagging her backpack. Whiplash knocked her into the arms of the beast and then she was gone.
Don’t drink the orange juice.
Mel eyed the sweating glass jar. Saliva pooled beneath her tongue as pale pulp drifted in the wake of melting ice cubes. She licked her chapped lips, imagining the sharp acidic burn of citrus. A perfect mixture of sweet and sour that would make the back of her throat tickle as it slipped down, finding its resting place deep in her belly.
It could be dangerous.
“I know,” Mel said under her breath so Jeanie couldn’t hear.
Pushing away the orange juice, Mel picked up their shared tablet off the plastic porch table. Tapping the Minnesota public radio app, Mel opened the live stream function. The tablet had been a Black Friday special. Its cheap speakers turned the newscaster’s voice to tin as a woman’s thick midwestern accent reported the latest news:
“The hashtag ‘save-the-children’ has been trending on social media over the last twenty-four hours as three more children have gone missing. The NMW, Neighborhood Mage Watch, has once again refused to comment. Local police authorities are urging citizens with information on the disappearances to contact them immediately using the 1-800 number listed on MPR.org…”
The newscaster’s voice grated on Mel’s nerves like a buzzing chainsaw. With a swipe of her finger, she closed the app and let the white noise of the yard console her. A cool September breeze ruffled the leaves and sent a crab apple to the ground. Sitting under the porch window, Mel liked listening to the sound of apples falling. She pulled her knees to her chest and held her bare toes.
The four crab apple trees grew wild. Their once maintained branches now lingered dangerously close to the power lines that crisscrossed above their fenced-in yard. Neither Jeanie nor Mel had trimmed them since their mother’s disappearance four years ago. The trees had been Mona Black’s one source of happiness. They spoke to her through the wind. Mel thought she heard their secrets too. Sitting on the porch had become a daily ritual. Mel was training her ears, listening for a hint of their mother’s return. Even with perfect pitch ears, listening to the voices was a task best done in silence. Mel groaned as her sister’s melodic humming drifted through the window.
Jeanie’s coming. I have to go. Don’t forget to ask.
Ruthie hopped over the fence, disappearing around the corner. The wooden fence protected the outside world from the disheveled state of the Black’s lack of pruning. Weeds had overgrown the sidewalk, crawling towards the house which already had its share of vines creeping up the plaster and paint. The yard entombed every season, preserving the freshly fallen leaves.
Mel smirked as Jeanie’s flat-footed steps hammered through the house. Ruthie always said Jeanie sounded like an elephant, and that made Mel laugh.
The elephant was next to her.
“What do you want for lunch?”
“Hmm?” Mel didn’t look up. She was distracted by a bee between the shrubs. If she leaned in close enough, she could see the hairs on its fuzzy body.
“I’m going to make something easy then. Don’t forget your orange juice. You don’t want it to get warm.”
“Can’t I have lemonade?”
“But you love orange juice. It’s your favorite.” Jeanie had an air of innocence that Mel didn’t quite believe. “Besides, we don’t have any. I told you that yesterday.”
“Can’t we get some?” Mel asked, picking at her toes. Dirt had built up under the nails from not wearing shoes.
“Vitamin C is good for you. You’re looking pale. Are you feeling well? Have you taken your medicine?”
“I’m fine.” An admission to the question with just a hint of defiance. It irked Mel to be treated like a child, or worse, a patient, in her own home.
Jeanie breathed heavily through her nose and made her way back to the kitchen.
Mel watched the bee buzz over to the rotten fence. The dark, soft planks sunk into the earth with the ease of decaying wood. The fence door hung off its hinges, another factor making it easy for Ruthie to come and go.
Mel wasn’t supposed to talk to Ruthie. “We have each other,” Jeanie always said.
But Ruthie was different, not like the others.
Chipped plates drifted through the doorway followed by Jeanie, who was twisting her right hand methodically. In her left hand, she gripped her smartphone. Jeanie’s thumb roamed over the screen texting as the plates landed on the porch table, covering the tablet.
Triangles of squashy white dollar store bread oozed out an egg and mayo concoction. The soft yellow innards were flecked with pale bits of celery. Mel hated celery but obediently grabbed a triangle. The bread gave way to the weight of her fingers. Her thumb broke through and was coated with filling. Mel swapped hands carefully and licked the salty tang off her thumb.
Jeanie pocketed her phone and sat down. A sandwich floated from the table to her willing hand. The square birthmark on her left wrist, the sign of a Caster, peeked out from her sleeve.
Mel looked at her own mage’s mark. On the inside of her left wrist was a circle, the color of milky tea. She often tried to convince herself that she like being a Conjurer, but there was no denying it was less practical. What use was summoning the dead in comparison to manipulating all insentient matter? Living with a Caster as an older sister made her bitter at times. They chewed in silence.
Jeanie wore wire-framed glasses that magnified the bags under her eyes. Her eyes, blue as denim, had earned her the childhood nickname of Jeanie. It had started as a joke but stuck through the years—Norma never seemed to suit her anyway. Though close in age, Jeanie was starting to look much older. Unable to finish her degree, Jeanie was overworked, her paychecks covering Mel’s medication instead of tuition. She often expressed that she was devoted to taking care of the family home. This was code, they both knew, for taking care of Mel. That sacrifice showed in every line of her sister’s round face. It was one of the reasons Mel hated to look Jeanie in the eye.
“What will you do today?”
Jeanie chewed and pulled out her phone, eyeing the screen. “What?”
“What will you do today?”
Jeanie’s eyes followed her thumb’s path and Mel suppressed an eye roll. “Do you have NMW tonight?” she pressed. Mel had heard on the radio that there would be a blue moon that night. A good omen according to mage superstition. Mages first immigrated to the states during a blue moon back in 1940. They believed blue moons brought good luck and protection. If Mel wanted to convince the High Practitioner, and even her sister, that she was fit to join the Cabal, it would have to be tonight.
Jeanie looked up, the screen reflected in her glasses. “I don’t have NMW tonight, thankfully! I’m so tired. I had three shifts last week, not to mention an extra shift at the diner.” Jeanie pocketed her phone again. “Why do you ask?”
Mel picked at the crust of her bread, peeling it away from the white interior.
“It’s going to be a full moon tonight. Second this month. A blue moon.”
Jeanie eyed the overcast sky. A hint of the full moon hung suspended among the clouds. “I suppose it is.”
“I was wondering…”
Jeanie took another bite, bits of yellow yolk clung to her bottom lip. “Don’t beat around the bush. I hate it when you do that.”
Mel took a deep breath. “I was wondering if I might be able to have my blood baptism tonight?”
Jeanie wiped her face with the back of her hand, her magnified eyes searching Mel’s face. The crease between her thick brows deepened. “You know what they’ll say.”
Exhaling, Mel remembered the speech she had practiced, the one she whispered to herself every day on the porch.
“I know the Cabal is apprehensive about it. But I ought to have it. It’s my blood right. I was born a mage, no matter what my mental state is. Besides, the NMW needs members. People are going missing.”
“How do you know? Mel, are you listening to the news again?”
“It’s only Minnesota public radio.” The accusation that Mel couldn’t handle the news without the others influencing her was insulting, though justified. She pressed on regardless, “Children are disappearing. The mortals—”
“What are you suggesting?” Jeanie had stopped eating. Talking politics always aggravated her. “You seem pretty well informed of how dire our situation is and if we don’t figure this out, the mortals will turn on us. There’s a rumor they’re going to send in the National Guard again. It puts the High Practitioner under a lot of pressure.”
“Exactly. The Cabal needs all the mages they can muster. We are stronger together, and the ritual might bring us closer. The High Practitioner is superstitious, they won’t be able to resist a blue moon baptism. Besides, it might lift peoples’ spirits. When was the last blood baptism?”
Jeanie chewed her bottom lip. “I’ll ask. I was going to the House of the Cabal anyway.” She twisted her hands in the air sending the empty plates floating back into the house. With a flick of her wrist, the sound of running water trickled through the wall as the dishes washed themselves. A snap of her fingers stopped the running water.
“Promise me that if you get too cold, you’ll go in?”
“You’re going to ask the High Practitioner?”
“Do you want a blanket? Your cell phone?”
Jeanie shook her head. “Take your phone in case I need to call you.” She disappeared inside only to return wearing a bomber jacket with a Nokia in hand.
Mel took the plastic brick. The buttons were archaic, but she was in no position to argue about the phone her sister provided.
“You’ll ask the High Practitioner?” was all Mel said.
Jeanie looked down at her. “If they say yes, I’ll call and come straight home. I promise.” She leaned down and kissed Mel’s forehead. “Don’t forget to drink your juice.”
Stepping off the porch, Jeanie walked across the yard under an untamed archway of twisting branches. Moving past the shed, she exited the yard, turned down the alley, and made her way to the main road, leaving Mel home alone.
“She’s going to ask the High Practitioner,” Mel told Ruthie. Twisting her phone between her thumb and middle finger, it slipped and clattered to the porch. Mel shrugged, picked it up, and continued spinning it. The Nokia was near impossible to break.
Do you trust her to go through with it?
Mel looked deep into Ruthie’s eyes. It was like looking into the eyes of her inner child, full of mischief.
“Are you saying that we should follow her just to make sure?”
Mel shivered. A swarm of wasps was creeping into her brain. The buzzing was cruel.
Mel rubbed her temples knowing there was a cabinet of medicine inside that could help quiet them. If only a little.
Standing, Mel dumped the orange juice onto the wild rhubarb that grew next to the porch. A bee coasted toward the sticky branch, using its feelers to enjoy the fresh bounty of sugar.
Is that okay to feed the bees?
Mel didn’t stay to watch. The screen door creaked as she entered the kitchen. The floors of her childhood home were dark and slanted. Someone had once painted the hardwood with thick brown paint. She moved through the kitchen into the hall. A dark tunnel-like space of the house, where the only light came from the living room window, splitting the darkness with a single beam. She eyed the light switch but left it off. Instead, she moved through the dim house like a trekking guide, able to find her way to the stairs, taking them two at a time. They curved up at an awkward angle to the left. Mel skipped the uneven short step at the top and stood on the landing.
She had lived in this house her whole life, not counting her three-month stint at college. After her breakdown, her therapist advised her to go home and rest. Two years later, she was still resting.
Mel trailed her fingers along the fading floral walls. Pausing near her mother’s bedroom door. She picked at the peeling wallpaper. Her mother’s chiding voice played in her mind Melba Delilah, quit peeling our house apart. Dry wallpaper flaked off and became embedded under her nails. Wiping her hand off on her joggers, she walked into their room.
Despite having the house to themselves for the past four years, Mel and Jeanie still shared a bedroom. Two beds were crammed into the room angled in to avoid the poorly insulated walls. The circular window was trimmed in stained glass roses. Looking out onto the little yard, Mel could see the apple trees, how they arched and led toward the shed. The small shed held a few rakes but mostly hid the cellar door from view. It was part of the house that had been left untouched like a ruin since their mother had disappeared. Mel never liked going down in the cellar—the cobwebs, the dust, not to mention the way her mom decorated.
Mel changed into jeans and a black sweater. The late September breeze could be felt through the thin walls. She shivered into thick wool socks, cursing the Minnesotan weather.
The bathroom smelled of her sister’s make-up powder, dry and musty. A dusting of peach film coated the little white sink beneath the mirror. Mel gripped the rim and leaned in. Jeanie was right, she was looking pale. Thin blue veins swam across her cheeks up to her eyes. She had blue eyes like her sister, but Mel’s were a grey-blue, murky like a lake during a storm. Jeanie said it gave her a smoldering look—Mel thought it gave way to her condition.
She brushed her teeth and drank water through cupped hands. When finished, she tried to smile. It was one of the exercises Jeanie made her practice. If she wanted to be accepted into the Cabal, she would need to look more personable. Mel knew this. Breathing through her nose, she pulled at the cracked corners of her lips, exposing her teeth. It looked wrong—creepy even. She never could get the smile to reach her eyes. She breathed in deep, letting her belly expand, and tried again.
She wanted to get into the Cabal. She needed to.
Once you’re in, you’ll be strong enough to conjure her.
Ruthie was watching from the hallway. Mel had forgotten to close the bathroom door.
“We don’t even know if she’s dead,” she said pulling open the mirror to expose the bathroom cabinet. The four narrow shelves were crammed with prescription bottles. The bottom shelf was the only one devoted to Jeanie. Make-up jars, under-eye cream, and bobby pins were neatly stacked as if cowering in fear of the orange plastic bottles. Bottles with white safety caps screwed off, some lying on their sides, some filled with expired medication, but most were empty. All the bottles had her name in bold.
A slight pang of guilt stung her stomach. Even in a cabinet, she dominated her sister’s life.
Mel considered organizing the bottles and appropriately disposing of the expired medicine. She shifted a few and found some that dated back years, experimental drugs before they’d found what worked. Drugs that had made her gain weight, become lethargic, some had caused insomnia, some even triggered her suicidal thoughts. The medical regime she had settled on wasn’t perfect, but it helped. It took away the worst visions and soothed her paranoia.
Abandoning her project halfway, Mel stopped organizing the bottles when she found her most recent prescription. One solitary pill rattled in the bottom. She had already called in the refill and knew it was waiting to be picked up.
The buzzing was growing louder in her mind and she dry swallowed the last pill.
Mel always got nervous going to the pharmacy, but she had to pick up the prescription at some point. She reasoned it could wait until tomorrow. Jeanie would be annoyed that she had let it go so long, but Jeanie didn’t realize how awkward the pharmacy was now that he worked there.
Mel closed the cabinet to find Ruthie standing behind her. Two faces reflected in the mirror, their features pooling together. Mel’s face was slipping and sliding off, being replaced.
I can’t believe you did that.
Mel dipped her head to drink from the faucet. The feeling of the pill hovered in her throat. She could swear she felt it dissolving inside her. “You know I have to,” she said wiping her mouth with her sleeve, avoiding looking in the glass.
Do you want me to leave?
“I just need the rest of them to shut—” she slapped her ears with each word, “—the fuck—” the thumping of her hands echoed in her skull, “—up!”
Giving her head a shake, she ran wet fingers through her hair. It was greasy at the roots and she pulled it into a high ponytail. A chunk of bangs kept falling into her eyes and she secured them with a stolen bobby pin from her sister’s stash. She looked up and tried to smile again. It didn’t look right: forced, strained, and unsettling.
You’ll need a jacket.
Mel nodded and made her way downstairs. At the front door hung her favorite jacket. It had been their mother’s. Sliding her arms into the leather sleeves, she felt comforted by the weight on her shoulders. Her sneakers were tied in a permanent knot and she jammed her woolly heel into them. She didn’t have her own set of keys but knew where Jeanie kept the spare. The metal was cool in her hands as she locked the door behind her.
In the pocket of her jacket was her outdated iPod touch, the one she’d gotten as a birthday gift. Mel untangled the headphones and clicked on YoYo Ma’s cello playlist. The familiar sonata began and her heart gave an ache of longing. She had played it for her university auditions, but just a year ago Jeanie sold her cello. They had sold Jeanie’s Subaru too, but Mel complained selling the cello was the greatest loss of her life.
“Greater than losing our mother?” Jeanie had asked, her voice full of scorn.
It wasn’t a fair assessment on Mel’s part, but the cello was her last thread to her old life—the life before her breakdown. Now, her medication made her too fatigued to play; Mel hadn’t practiced in years. Still, she liked teasing Jeanie and smiled a wry smile at remembering her sister’s stern face.
Now that’s a good smile.
“Thanks,” Mel whispered to herself pushing the earbuds in further. She wove her way through the residential streets and past the lake. Seagulls flew above her, flashes of white amongst grey clouds. The wind smelled of pine and sap, always cooler off the lake, and she gripped the leather jacket tight around her. Her feet guided her; they knew the way by heart. She came out on the main road near the statue that commemorated the Mage Conflict. The dates 1950–1989 were inscribed below the names of the mage and mortal who drafted the peace declaration.
The sonata faded into a cello suite as Mel paused to look at the statues. The mage, Tobias Earthenstone, was immortalized wearing a long flowing robe, an orb in his outstretched hand. Tobias’ chiseled features were abrupt giving him an unearthly feel. The mortal, Samuel Perry, was remembered in a business suit, clutching a book to his chest. While it didn’t say, Mel rolled her eyes at the obvious depiction of a Bible resting over Samuel’s heart. Go back to the underworld was scrawled in dripping white spray paint on the base of the statue, covering up a slew of rude graffiti.
The House of the Cabal was visible down the road. As she walked, Mel mulled over the Mage Conflict. World War II had ended, but the Americans were hungry for justice. Afraid of the unknown, mages had been depicted as worse than communists. Propaganda quickly spread across the country. Vandalism and rumors led to physical attacks.
Mel crossed Pine Street, which filled her mind with hallucinations. On that same street, a mage was put in a noose tied to a pickup truck. Mel could hear him scream as a car peeled out onto the road next to her.
The music ended and a momentary silence made room for the others.
That should have been you.
Mel cupped her hands around her ears and hummed a nondescript melody. A couple ahead of her crossed the road to avoid walking past her. Mel wondered if they were members of the National Guard or anti-mage supporters. She watched them with narrowed eyes. The next track played on her iPod and she let go of her ears, tugging her sleeves over her hands to hide her mage’s mark.
A Bach fugue played as she reached the House of the Cabal.