There's a girl outside the dog park magicking away poo.
At first I think she's just some pink-haired punk kid sticking up her middle finger at whatever yuppie owners didn't pick up after their dogs. But then the yorkie she's walking squats down and does his own business, and when he's done, she thrusts her finger up again, and I distinctly see her mouth the words, "No shit, Sherlock."
The pile disappears. When the pink-haired girl sees me watching, she winks at me.
It's been almost a year since I've seen anyone do magic. Almost a year since the Mage tried to kill me at Watford and I took off for San Diego. When I told my mum I wasn't coming home for Christmas, she said I couldn't keep hiding out forever. But she doesn't get it. I'm taking classes. I'm living on my own. I'm taking my dog for long walks on the beach. This isn't hiding from the World of Mages; it's just building a life without magic in the picture.
At least until now. The pink-haired girl unlatches the gate to the small dog enclosure where I'm watching Lucy play and walks straight toward me. She unlatches her yorkie's leash, but he clings to her ankle.
The girl is about my age, and above her pink hair, there's an inch of dark roots—definitely a non-magickal dye job. She's wearing clunky black boots, each one quite possibly bigger than her dog. The yorkie looks wholly out of place.
Plus, he's a scaredy-cat. Lucy runs toward us and makes a beeline for his bum, and the yorkie cowers as she sniffs him, tail tucked between his legs.
I call Lucy's name to get her attention, but she ignores me. "Sorry," I say to the pink-haired girl, though I'm mostly sorry that I now have to talk to her.
She shrugs. "It's cool. Peanut needs some toughening up."
"I'm not sure being pushed around makes you tough."
The pink-haired girl thinks for a second. "Maybe not," she says, then holds out a hand to shake. "I'm Max."
"Agatha," I answer, then wonder if I should have given a fake name. There aren't that many Agathas under age fifty, and it wouldn't be that hard for somebody magickal to put two and two together. "And this is Lucy."
If Max recognizes my name, she doesn't react. "What school do you go to?" she asks.
"Community college," I tell her. "I'm studying for vet school."
Lucy keeps sniffing Peanut, and Peanut hides behind Max's ankles. Max looks confused. "But you're magickal," she says.
My whole back goes stiff. "No I'm not." Can you still be magickal if you're not doing magic? It's probably the sort of thing Penny would love to debate, but I'm not Penny.
Max gives me an odd look. Lucy chooses that moment to paw at Peanut (whether she wants to play with him or climb on top of him is anybody's guess), and Peanut snaps his head back toward her and lets out a nasty growl. I call Lucy back to me again, and this time she comes.
"See?" Max says. "Tough."
"Yeah." I snap Lucy's leash back on and start walking before Max can start her line of questioning back up. "Maybe so."
I don't stop shaking until the dog enclosure is well out of view.
That night, I get a text from Penny. It comes while I'm heating up a pack of gratitude noodles on the stovetop for dinner. Gratitude noodles are really just ramen, which ought to be a disappointment after growing up on Watford food and my housekeeper's cooking. But my parents stopped sending me money when they realized I was serious about vet school, and ramen noodles are the cheapest meal around. Every time I make them, I think about how grateful I am to be able to feed myself. I'm getting a bit tired of the taste, though.
I get a lot of texts from Penny, even though I haven't answered her in months. I think she's started to feel creepy about sending so many, because every time she starts up again, she reminds me that I can block her.
it's *Don't call me. I'll call you*
or just use an app if you want
or maybe you blocked me already & I'm talking to no one :)
Penny's right—I could block her. But why should I have to do anything to stop getting her messages? Why can't she just get a clue? I roll my eyes every time I hear her text alert, but I let the texts keep coming. In the end, it's easier just to ignore them.
What are you doing for Christmas? she asks now. I heard you're staying in California??
Everyone's been trying to get me to come home for Christmas. And, okay, yeah, it's a little strange here without classes, or my flatmates. But I've got Lucy, and there are a bunch of open shifts at Bark Avenue, the dog boutique where I've been working part-time. Compared to being at home, with my parents getting smashed, or Penny's family nitpicking about magickal history, or Simon and Baz apparently still making eyes at each other? This place is paradise.
Micah says in America there's a spell for covering your lawn with lights.
I wouldn't know. But the truth about magic is that sometimes I miss it. Not the politics. Not the awful way everything would smell after Simon went off. But the little things—spells that made your hair stay straight or a room look prettier. The croise-devant feeling of strength and precision. The crackle of change in the air.
I don't want magic to define my life like it did at Watford. But sometimes I wonder if not doing magic is defining me just as much. At first I told myself it was just easier not to do it. I don't do spells in public because it's too risky. And I don't do spells at home because of my flatmates. But Jenna left for Oregon yesterday, and Leticia went back to L. A. this morning, so if I wanted to do something now, I suppose I could.
I don't, though. It just feels too weird.
I eat my gratitude noodles and turn my phone to silent.
The nice thing about working at a dog boutique, besides getting a discount on things like food and bags and treats, is that I can bring Lucy with me. It's usually pretty quiet. The people who come in bring their dogs or dote on Lucy. The pay isn't great, but I work enough hours to cover rent and can get homework done when it's slow.
There's no homework over winter break, so I spend my Monday shift flipping through our magazine collection. I'm reading an article about dogs and horses. Horses feel like another world now.
The bell on the front door chimes, and the first thing I see is a head of pink hair. It's Max, with Peanut in tow. They disappear behind a row of shelves, and I'm weirdly disappointed. Other than Bark Avenue people, and Penny's texts, if those count, Max is the only person I've talked to in days.
"Excuse me," she says, a few minutes later, and I duck out from behind the counter.
She's standing in front of our seasonal shelf with Peanut pressing himself against her ankle. "Hey, Max."
She does a double take at the sound of her name. "Oh, hey, Agatha. I didn't know you worked here."
"Yeah." I wonder if working in a Normal dog shop is more or less surprising than going to community college. "Did you need help?"
"Is this supposed to be a reindeer antler?" She points at a soft toy on a high shelf, long and thin and covered in fuzzy brown fabric. There are antler-like forks coming off the main body and a wreath on the label.
"Looks like it." The image of a dog parading around with a reindeer antler in its mouth is pretty sinister. I can see why we keep it up where no one can reach.
"Cool," Max says, with way more enthusiasm than the antler deserves.
"Cool if you want it to look like your dog attacked Santa's sleigh and carried off a trophy."
She grins at me. "You gotta watch out for Peanut."
Peanut glances at Max when she says his name. He's still glued to her ankle.
"Could you help me reach it?" Max asks. "I tried using get down tonight, but it didn't work."
"Because it's afternoon," I say automatically. Any second-year at Watford could have told her that.
She gives me a meaningful look. "I knew you were magickal."
I freeze. "I'm really not." There's a plastic grabber at the end of the shelf that's technically for employee use only, but I need to get out of there. "You can use that," I tell her, pointing at the grabber, then walk as fast as I can back to the register.
A couple minutes later, Max, Peanut, and one fuzzy reindeer antler appear at the counter. I almost call my boss and ask her to handle it.
"Hey," Max says. "I freaked you out, huh." It's a statement more than a question.
I take the antler and zap it with the barcode scanner. "It's fine."
"No, it's not," Max says. "I got overexcited. Hardly anyone here knows about spells or magic or anything. But I should have known after the other day that it would upset you."
"$8.64," I say, keeping my eyes on the register. Then her words hit me. She sounds sincere, and I can count on one of Lucy's paws the number of times anyone from the World of Mages has apologized to me and meant it. "Thanks."
"Can I make it up to you?" she asks. "There's an amazing taco truck ten minutes from here. After your shift, we could get tacos and sit on the beach. My treat."
On the one hand, the last thing I want to do is spend time with the only person in the state of California who knows I'm magickal. On the other hand, Max seems sincere, and it's not like I had anything better planned.
In the end, it's the tacos that get me. I won't get paid for my extra hours until next week, and there are only so many gratitude noodles a person can eat. "Okay," I tell her. "I get off at seven."
It's chilly on the beach after sundown, but I put on a sweater, and Lucy settles into my lap. (She's probably just hoping for scraps, but still.) The taco truck is parked outside a cluster of floodlit picnic tables, and its window is strung with red and green Christmas lights. A few other people are scattered around the tables, some with dogs, and in the distance, waves crash soothingly against the shore.
For the first time, I think I understand Simon's obsession with Watford food. The tacos are tangy and flavorful and fresh, and after three solid days of ramen for dinner, it's hard not to swallow them down in one bite. "These are amazing," I tell Max.
"Yeah," Max says. "School food isn't bad, but this is way better. I swear, tacos and Peanut are the only good things about coming home for winter break."
I finish a taco and wipe my mouth. "I know what you mean. Now that I'm cooking for myself, everything's kind of cheap and tasteless."
Max nods. "Do you know yummy in my tummy? That was the only way my parents got me to eat vegetables for years."
I wince automatically. "I'm not really doing spells right now."
Max takes a bite of her taco and looks at me curiously while she chews. "Not that it's any of my business," she says, "but what have you got against magic?"
Where do I even start? "It's wasteful, for one," I say. "People are always using spells to do things when they could just do them."
"You could say that about anything, though," Max argues. "Why do people do things when they could just use a spell?"
Lucy hops off my lap and starts sniffing the ground. Max does a crumb-catching spell I've heard Helen, my old housekeeper, use, then holds up her hands. "See? If I'd done it the old-fashioned way, she would have gotten to everything first."
That's hard to argue against. "Okay," I say. "Then maybe it's the attitude."
"What attitude?" Max asks.
"Like we're always at war," I say. "And there's no time for fun, because everything's a matter of life and death."
"Depends where you are," Max says. "Anyway, there's plenty of war in the Normal world."
"That's not the point," I say, starting to get agitated. I can't find any of the words I'm looking for.
"What's the point, then?" Max's tone is still friendly, which is somehow even more infuriating.
"I don't know." It comes out just this side of a whine. How am I supposed to say anything meaningful about the World of Mages when I've spent the past year trying to forget that it exists?
"Seriously," Max says. "What's magic ever done to you?"
That, I can answer. I don't worry about revealing my identity. I don't worry about sounding pathetic. I just blurt it out. "Well, for one, the head of my school tried to kill me for a spell."
I can't look at Max after I say it. Lucy jumps into my lap again, like she can tell I need protection, and I stroke her back, letting her warmth and softness comfort me as much as they can. And here it is, my destiny all over again—damsel in distress, pawn in the World of Mages, bit part in the heroic life of Simon Snow. This, more than anything, is why I hate magic. Because this is who it makes me.
"Wow," Max says after a moment. "Wow, that's... What the... how... really?"
I can't think of a better way to explain it. "It was because of Simon Snow," I tell her, my fingers curling into the fur at Lucy's neck. "I used to be his girlfriend."
I close my eyes. I don't want to see the way Max will look at me now that she knows. Peanut, who's been lying on the bench beside Max the whole time, stands up and scratches himself, jingling his tags and making tiny thumping noises against the wood.
"Sorry," Max says finally. "Who?"
"Simon Snow," I say again, resigned.
I open my eyes, but Max still looks confused. "The Mage's Heir," I clarify, because maybe that's how they know him here. "The Chosen One? Fought the Insidious Humdrum, but also kind of was the Insidious Humdrum—I don't know. I still don't really get it."
Max shakes her head blankly, and I stare at her. "Seriously?" I ask. "You've seriously never heard of Simon Snow?"
"Sorry," Max says, wincing into her tacos. "The name sounds vaguely familiar, but..." She wipes her mouth with a napkin. "You can tell me about him if you want."
So I do. I tell her about Simon, and the Humdrum, and how I always felt like a side character in some grand epic. How just wanting to have sleepovers and do Normal things never felt like enough. I tell her about how I broke up with Simon—how I didn't know I needed to until the words were coming out of my mouth, but as soon as they did, there was no question. I tell her about last Christmas, about the Mage, and Ebb, and finding Lucy and coming here.
Max is a good listener. She lets me talk until there's nothing left to say, and then she tells stories about Peanut until we're both doubled over with laughter. She offers to teach me yummy in my tummy, and I let her. I probably won't actually use it, but still.
It only takes three nights to change my mind. The first night after the taco truck, gratitude noodles don't seem so bad. The second night, I make a pouch of Easy Mac in the microwave, and that's at least a different cheap salty taste. The third night, I open my cabinet door, and I think, okay, sure, why not?
I set a pack of noodles next to the stove and take a deep breath to prepare. The magic rises in my throat, and the words sit just at the tip of my tongue.
I can't do it. I'm not ready. I don't want to end up back in my old life, back under Simon Snow's shadow.
It's just ramen, I try to tell myself. It's just a little spell to make your dinner taste like actual food. No one from your old life has to know you did it. And no one in your new life even knows who Simon is.
Can that actually be true, though? Can I really have been lucky enough to land in a place where no one has heard of the Mage's Heir or the Insidious Humdrum? Maybe Max is just out of touch. Maybe Max is the only mage in America who wouldn't hear Simon's name and know immediately what to think of me.
There's no good way to check. It's not like I know any other mages here.
But then it hits me. I don't know any other American mages, but Penny does. Penny has an American boyfriend.
If I can't do a spell, I can at least send a text. I pick up my phone, and before I can think too hard about it, I type in a message and press send.
do American mages srsly not know about Simon?
I turn back to the stove and heat a pot of water the way I've done nearly every night this week. The noodles will be fine. They don't need a spell to be edible.
Thirty seconds later, my phone chimes. And chimes again, and again, and again.
Well, Micah knows, obviously, but that might be because of me. Let me look into it.
What are you doing for Christmas?
Simon just knocked over three tins of biscuits with his wings.
And then, two minutes later,
Micah says most ppl probably don't. Ugh. Nobody reads the papers.
Whoa. Penny asks way too many questions. I type thx, then scroll through the rest, trying to figure out what to answer. Finally, I just take a selfie of me and Lucy and send it.
Spending xmas w my bff
Penny's response comes a minute later.
I know that dog!
And then there's the rest of what I hate about magic. Apparently, the only reason I found Lucy at Watford is that last year, when Lucy was walking with her real owner, Penny decided the best course of action was to 1) possess her body, 2) steal her away from her home, and 3) leave her at Watford wandering around in the dead of winter. She explains this in a series of texts, to which I can only respond
please tell me you're lying
please tell me you wouldn't do that to my dog
I always assumed Lucy had been abandoned by her owner, but this is so much worse. Lucy was dognapped. By my friend. And I helped.
She wasn't your dog then, Penny answers, which is so ridiculously beside the point I want to scream.
We were at war, Agatha
She's a DOG. She won't remember
The water reaches a rolling boil, and I snap the heat off under it. I'm done with Penny. I think I've been done with Penny for a long time.
I snatch up my phone and type with shaking hands.
Stop texting me.
My hand vibrates when her reply comes.
Because of a dog???
because I don't want to hear from you
It's not until I've sent the text that I realize how true it is, how much I don't want to hear from any of them. That part of my life is over. It's been over for a while.
You're being unreasonable
This is rich, coming from someone who possessed a dog and is trying to justify it.
seriously, stop texting me. If I want to hear from you, you'll know it
For a minute, I hear nothing. And then there is one more chime.
And that's it. I eat my entire bowl of noodles without a single text.
Then, for good measure, I block her anyway. With an app. Obviously.
Bark Avenue is open until eight on Christmas Eve, which makes no sense. If you're the sort of person who buys Christmas presents for your pets, aren't you probably the sort of person who shops well in advance? My boss says they're probably buying presents for someone else's pets. Whatever the reason, it's busy, and I'm grateful to have something to do besides sit at home and feel vaguely guilty every time Lucy cuddles up next to me.
At 7:45, the bell on the shop door chimes. It's Max and Peanut, and Peanut is wearing the ugliest sweater I have ever seen. It's got patches of red and green randomly throughout and puffy gold baubles too. The sight makes me smile in spite of myself.
"Hey," Max says. "I can't believe you guys are open this late."
"Me neither. It was busy until about half an hour ago."
"People gotta get their antler toys," Max says. She looks down ruefully at Peanut. "He won't touch his, by the way."
"Good boy, Peanut," I tell him, peering over the counter, and he makes an earnest attempt at jumping up, even though he can't get much higher than shin level. "Does that mean you need to buy something else?"
Max shakes her head. "Nah. I came to check on you."
"You did?" It's almost embarrassing how good it feels to know that someone cares how I'm doing. Someone who didn't magickally kidnap my dog, I mean.
"Well, that and my uncle's visiting. When I left, he'd just started a rant about the inferiority of Normal education. I thought it might be nice to see someone who gets that he's full of it."
I glance at Lucy. "Don't get me started."
"Are you sure?" Max asks. "Because I've got at least three hours before he falls asleep, and I have it on good authority that taco truck is open on Christmas Eve."
For a minute, I wonder if I ought to protest. If spending time with anybody from the World of Mages is a bad idea. But this is Max—Max, who colors her hair with Normal hair dye; Max, who dresses up her dog in ridiculous sweaters; Max, who gets that the World of Mages goes too far, and who apologizes when she messes up. "Honestly?" I say. "Tacos tonight sounds perfect."
The taco truck is still covered in Christmas lights, but tonight they've added two plastic angels to the roof, and carols blast forth from a surprisingly powerful speaker. Maybe it's tacky, but being on the beach, across the world from the Watford and my family, in the company of two dogs and a new friend, feels heavenly. We bring our tacos to the picnic tables, and Lucy curls up in my lap again.
Max asks me how the noodle spell went, and I tell her I never did it. I explain about Penny, and Lucy, and how I finally blocked Penny but I'm stuck knowing that magic hurt my dog. Max tells me about her visiting spoiled cousins who keep spelling their floors slick and laughing when people slip. At one point, I tip my tacos too far toward me, and I'm sure I'm going to end up with food all over my jeans, but Max magicks away the spill before it hits. Once again, I'm grateful.
After we eat, we spend a few minutes basking in the warm afterglow of delicious food and good conversation. Then a breeze starts to blow, and the night gets chilly. "Want to go for a walk?" I ask.
"Sure," Max says, and when she stands up, Peanut stands with her.
We pass a few other dogs walking by the water, but Lucy doesn't bother them, and Peanut doesn't retreat. He's even brave enough to sniff an elderly poodle who passes us at a slow trot. "See?" Max says. "Lucy's a good influence."
Lucy chooses that moment to shoot forward, throw herself to the ground, and roll furiously around in a patch of wet sand and seaweed. Well, at least she's happy in the life she has now.
We keep walking. We walk so far that the taco truck becomes a distant light behind us. And then, just as we're about to turn around, I step in something.
I feel it and then I smell it. Dog poo. "Ugh."
Max turns to look at me, then follows my gaze. Lucy appears at my shoe, eagerly sniffing. "It's cool," Max says. "There's a spell to get rid of it."
"Yeah, I know." I shoo Lucy away. "I saw you do it at the dog park."
"Oh, right," Max says. "Shall I?"
I almost say yes. But then I change my mind. "Actually, could you show me how?"
"You want the first magic you do in a year to be a dog shit spell?"
Somehow, it seems fitting. "Yeah," I tell her. "Why not?"
Max turns out to be a pretty good teacher. I have to borrow her ring, which is awkward (I don't have to wear it on my middle finger, though. That's just Max's affectation). The spell is relatively simple, and it's only a few tries before I end up with a clean shoe and the afterimage of the magic gently flickering through me.
"How does it feel?" Max asks, when it's clear that the spell worked.
I shrug. "I don't know. Normal? Like there isn't poo on my shoe?"
A lab mix saunters toward us, and Lucy races to meet her, vigorously wagging.
Max laughs. "Well, that's a start, I guess."
The lab mix keeps moving, and Lucy comes back to me. "Yeah," I say, as the last sparks of the spell fade away. "I think it is."