Gran was sitting in the trunk of the car. Hazel, two boxes of books in her arms, didn't break stride from the back door. Gran sitting in the trunk was not anything to break stride for. She was shorter than even Hazel, at five feet even and maybe 90 pounds if she got stuck in a rainstorm. She drove the expected over-sized car of persons of a certain age, and that meant the only way she could actually reach the back of her trunk, was to be in it to move boxes around.
"More books," Hazel said, stopping when her knees touched the bumper. She held still as Gran lifted the first box of books and shoved it, Tetris-style, into place with the other boxes and suitcases. Gran was brutal at Tetris--the only video game Hazel had ever fallen for--and held a world record when she took the time to see if she'd been defeated.
"I saw a few dust moths come out of this box," Gran said, tapping a box at the very back of the trunk.
"Those are last year's school books," Hazel said, placing the second box of books in the trunk herself. "I cleared them after finals."
"You cleared that water goblin issue from Mrs. Henderson's," Gran said. "It probably brought them back."
"Yeah," Hazel said, glancing across the street and three doors down to Mrs. Henderson's. "Keep an eye on it? I can come home on a weekend and clear them again if she needs it."
"I wish they weren't bad for the pipes. She liked them."
Hazel sighed, the loneliness of Mrs. Henderson hanging in her chest and on her tongue. It tasted like stale bread. "Yeah." She pulled her hair free from its ponytail and re-secured it. There were many more boxes to come. "Keep an eye in my room after I leave. I've dripped enough magic this summer to cause a few dust bunnies. They're harmless, and she can feed them page corners from the used books she always gets."
"I'll remember," Gran promised. Her smile told Hazel that she was a sweet girl to worry after an old woman like Mrs. Henderson. "What's coming next?"
"Books," Hazel said with faux-surprise and smiled when Gran laughed. She'd been making Gran laugh her whole life. It was a consistency she had from nowhere else.
Except Gretel, she thought as she walked back into the house. She gave the thought an extra moment to simmer, then dismissed it. It wasn't the same with Gretel, she reminded herself. Their relationship was different; laced into the history of The Blue Stones and into magic in general. It wasn't like Gran, who had simply been there for as far back as Hazel remembered, and who refused to waver with the same stubbornness of the Ozark Mountains she'd raised two generations of family in. Even if her own daughter had refused to accept the truth of her only child.
Hazel paused in the doorway of her bedroom and took it in with the eyes of someone on their way to college. Her bed was still there, but it was stripped down to its sheets. The beds in the dorms were longer and required special sheets. The pillows and comforter, though, those would fit. The posters and pictures were off the walls. The music dock was packed. As were her clothes. All that were left were her books, a half-dozen boxes, because you did not grow up a Harrington and leave for college with a meager collection of books. Or so Gran had told her from the age of four.
Hazel hefted two more boxes of books and carried them outside, then repeated herself twice more to drop the others. When she was finished, she held out her hand and helped Gran from the trunk. "That's it," she said.
Gran checked her watch. "We're done early. Let's get double-shots at the coffee cart."
"Sounds good," Hazel said. She slammed the trunk and paused, her hands still cupping the curve of the lid. She pictured her parents, the last time she'd seen them, mid-summer when she was fourteen. She pictured the way they'd smiled at her encouragingly before she'd told them she was going to The House. She was going to be a Blue Stone.
"Hazelnut?" Gran asked.
Hazel took a deep breath and stared at her hands. Under her fingernails was a brief, blue spark, a sign of her stress. "Mom and Dad always wanted me to go to college," she said. During the entire summer since she'd graduated from The House, she hadn't said it out loud.
"Don't do a goddamn thing for them," Gran said with no malice. Hazel wondered if she'd ever learn how to speak truth like that. "They haven't done a goddamn thing for you."
Four years ago--before The House, before Auntie Janelle--Hazel would have argued they'd done plenty. But the truth was, Gran's no-malice-but-no-bullshit view of them was true. "Do you still love Mom?" Hazel asked, another question she hadn't asked all summer, or anytime in the last four years.
"You always love your children," Gran answered with no hesitation. "You birth them or choose them, and you can't undo that; no matter how much you think you have."
Hazel didn't fully believe her, but she appreciated the story. Gran was always good at stories. She looked down at her hands. There was no blue spark under her nails. "I'm ready," she said.
Gran's warm hand on her back was the final thing she needed to top touching the trunk and get in the car.
The coffee cart was at the very edge of town--on the way in or on the way out, depending on your business. Gran pulled up to the window, said hello to Lacey Cunningham, and ordered two double-shot coffees.
"How are you, Miss Art?" Lacey asked as she took Gran's debit card.
"About to be lonely," Gran said, patting Hazel's knee without looking at her. "But that's always true in fall."
"Hi, Hazel," Lacey said in the belated way of someone she'd known before The Blue Stones.
"Hi," Hazel replied, in the same belated way. She'd gone to the same school and known the same people from kindergarten until the invite to The House, the summer after eighth grade. She tried to remember something about Lacey, but she came up blank.
"Thank you," Gran said when Lacey passed the coffees through the window. "Remind your grandma we've got cribbage league on Tuesday."
"I will," Lacey said with a smile and a wave. Hazel waved back, but Lacey was turning away when it happened.
Gran made sure both of their cups were settled in the cup holders before she pulled away from the cart and back onto the two-lane highway. "Last chance to remember you forgot something," she said as she got up to speed and added ten miles over.
Hazel's wand and spellbook were in the not-space. Everything else she owned was in the trunk. She reached under her shirt and touched the blue stone that hung around her neck. "Nothing I can think of."
"We'll stop at the state line for a snack," Gran said, and pushed the car another five miles over.
Hazel got a chocolate bar and a water at the state line. Gran got a Power Bar, her own water, and a scratcher ticket. She scratched the boxes clean with a dime from the console and tossed the ticket over her shoulder to the back seat when it came back with nothing good.
"Next time," she said, and Hazel laughed because that was Gran's mantra with scratch-off tickets. She only ever bought them if she crossed the state line, and she'd won a total of $37.75 over decades.
"I wish luck spells worked for scratchers," Hazel said as Gran followed the access road back to the highway. "I'd put all of them on you."
"Use them on yourself for tests," Gran said, and they both laughed because they knew that wasn't how luck spells worked.
Campus, to Hazel, looked like a used car lot. Everywhere she looked, cars were turning or parking or holding up traffic. It took three tries get pointed in the correct direction of her dorm. The first person had sent them to the wrong on. The second had tried to send them down a one-way street. The third person had been able to walk alongside them and adjust them turn-by-turn because traffic was so slow.
"Wow," Hazel said when she saw the dorm.
"800 people is a lot," Gran replied. She pulled into the cul-de-sac and flicked on her hazard lights. A posted sign said they had fifteen minutes. "Get your keys. I'll find us some help."
Hazel walked into the dorm lobby and felt overwhelmed. People were everywhere. Conversations were overflowing. She'd thought move-in day at The House had been an effort, but here it seemed like the effort times ten.
'KEYS' said a sign on a post, and Hazel got in line. She was fifth back, but the people at the tables were clearly old hat at this whole move-in thing, and she was talking to a young woman with pink-streaked hair and a wide smile within a couple of minutes.
"Name?" the woman asked.
"Hazel Harrington," Hazel said.
"Spell your last name?"
The woman flipped through a box of alphabetized index cards. "Here you are!" She pulled Hazel's card and read it. Her brows furrowed, and Hazel forced herself not to shy away when the woman glanced at the slight bump under her shirt where her stone was pressed to her chest. "You're in 717 with Lauren Lopez." The woman did a quick search of the 'C' section of the index cards. "It looks like she checked in already."
"Great," Hazel said, trying to sound excited, but she caught the woman looking at the bump in her shirt again, and it made her hackles rise. "I thought disclosing my Stone status was voluntary, and you weren't supposed to react to it."
"Oh!" the woman flushed, embarrassed. "I--"
"Please, just let me have my keys," Hazel said.
The woman fumbled them from the pegboard, nearly dropping them to the floor. She held them out so Hazel could take them without touching her. "I--" the woman said. "I just haven't ever met--"
"Thank you," Hazel said, pulling on all the manners Gran ever taught her to smile politely and get back to the car.
Gran narrowed her eyes the moment they spotted one another. "What is it?"
"Nothing," Hazel said, then breathed out hard and gave Gran an apologetic look. "Something. The person who gave me my keys hasn't met a Blue Stone. It was awkward."
"Were you a jackass?"
Hazel chuckled. "No."
"Then, that's not on you," Gran said. She waved a hand to where four people in MOVE IN MAGICIANS t-shirts were piling Hazel's things into their arms and into a shopping cart. "I found help."
"Magicians," Hazel muttered.
"I know," Gran said, and Hazel gave her a one-armed hug before she walked over and made sure her magical books weren't leaking power or dust moths as they were moved from the car to the shopping cart.
"--Comic book club," said one of the guys as he unloaded Hazel's boxes onto the floor next to her bed. Her roommate wasn't there, but there were unpacked boxes stacked on the bed on the left side of the room, and Hazel was fine with that. She wasn't picky on room side.
"That sounds fun," she said as she lifted her suitcase onto her bare mattress. "Although, I'm double-majoring, so I don't know how much time I have to read."
"That's why we stick to trades," the guy said. "No more than six issues a month. You can read an issue a study break and you're done with time to spare." He held out a postcard-sized flyer. "If you think there's something we should add to the reading list, you can email us."
"I'll think about it," Hazel said, placing the flyer on her desk. The guy nodded and made sure all her boxes and bags had been unloaded before he led his group out.
"That sounds fun," Gran said as she walked into the room. She'd stayed back to let the movers do their work. "I know you like comics."
"Yeah, but it's not just schoolwork I'm worried about," Hazel said. She touched the stone under her shirt. "There are 800 people in this dorm. The others hold 150-400. There are nine dorms on campus, and the commuter population i--"
"Easy," Gran said, grabbing Hazel by the biceps and squeezing. "If something big happens, you have plenty of resources, and you can handle the smaller things."
"Right," Hazel said. She breathed in slowly, held it, then let it go. "You're right."
"What are you really worried about?"
Hazel stared at her suitcases and boxes, at the mini-fridge one of the movers had plugged in for her. "I don't want to disappoint the Aunties."
"You won't." Gran squeezed Hazel's biceps again. "You worked so hard, sweetheart. They're beyond proud of you. And you can always call them."
"Yeah," Hazel said. "I know. But."
"You don't know?"
Hazel hung her head. "Yeah." She tasted uncertainty in the air. It was metallic, somewhere between questionable tap water and blood.
"The adults in your life have not done great by you," Gran said.
"Thank you, but I'm not the only adult in your life."
Hazel thought of her parents. The uncertainty tinged salty with anger. She pushed them out of her mind and swallowed. "I don't want to fuck up."
"You're eighteen. You're going to fuck up. But." Gran held up a finger when Hazel gave her a long-suffering look. "But. That's the truth of being eighteen."
"How'd you fuck up at eighteen?"
Gran laughed with the sort of delight that always tasted like fresh honey to Hazel's tongue. "Oh, I don't even know where to start. Technically, I committed auto theft."
"I knew the deputy from high school. He followed me back to the house and let me leave the car."
"Whose car was it?"
Gran thought for a moment. "Some boy I was trying to impress. I don't even remember." She beamed at Hazel. "Honestly, the family standard for fuck-up is two feet under the ground. You can't even trip on it if you try."
Hazel thought about her mother, who'd had her at eighteen. "Hopefully," she said, and she let Gran pull her into a hug as the taste of open and giving love--fresh milk and sugar--took the metallic taste completely out of her mouth.
Gran left an hour later, after being certain all of Hazel's shirts and dresses were hung the same direction in her closet. "You call me, night or day, and I'll be here to get you," she said when she and Hazel hugged next to the car.
"I know," Hazel said, and she hugged her again to get one more wave of that milk-and-sugar taste.
When Hazel got back to the room, there was a tall, dark-haired woman unpacking the boxes on the other bed. She was wearing pink running shorts and a rush T-shirt for a sorority. "Hi," Hazel said, slightly more loudly than she meant to.
The woman turned. She had thick brows and a wide smile. Her eyes were brown. "Oh, hi! I'm Lauren." Her cheerful nature was easy, as was the way she offered her hand to shake.
Hazel shook her hand. "Yeah. I was hoping so."
Lauren laughed. "Right. Yeah." She glanced over her shoulder at her side of the room. "I'm almost done. Do you need help with anything?"
"I'm good, thanks."
"What's your major?"
Hazel opened a box of books and laid them on the bed. "I'm double-majoring. Chemistry and gender studies."
"That's interesting. I'm just doing graphic design."
"Graphic design is pretty hardcore, from what I've heard," Hazel replied.
"I mean, sure?" Lauren shrugged like it really wasn't much.
"There's a bunch of computer programs to learn, right?"
Lauren thought about it for a moment. "I guess so. That's a good point." She flashed Hazel a grin as she broke down the last of her boxes. "You wanna order a pizza tonight? My treat. I've been eating dining hall food since rush started, and it's not great."
"I can chip in."
"You can get the next one," Lauren offered, and her grin widened when Hazel agreed with a nod. "Rad!" She gestured to the now-flat boxes at her feet. "I'm gonna take these to recycling. I'll order when we get back."
"Great," Hazel said.
Lauren gathered the boxes in her arms and walked out the door. It swung closed with a quiet hiss. Hazel dropped an empty box on the floor and opened the next. A haze of mist swirled on her bed and took the shape of a woman, roughly Hazel's age, but dressed in a hooped skirt with her hair gathered in a bun at her neck and old-fashioned boots on her feet.
Hazel beamed and felt embarrassed at the way her heart pounded harder. "Gretel!"
"I've only been watching a couple of minutes," Gretel said in the apologetic tone she used when she'd been invisible. "I just wanted to say hi."
"Hi," Hazel said. She reached out her hand, and Gretel rose to meet her. Gretel's hand went through hers as it always did. Hazel contented herself with the pins-and-needles feeling Gretel always left behind. "You could have kept me and Gran company on the ride up."
"I wanted to, but the Aunties needed me to run an errand." Gretel gave Hazel an exaggerated exasperated look. "Chaos demons sprouted up in Boston."
Hazel rolled her eyes. "Ew. Zara needed backup?"
"Just an extra set of eyes to find them all. They tried to hide." Gretel smiled. "They forget they're so bright-colored in their natural form."
Hazel giggled. "I bet that was fun."
The door opened. Hazel and Gretel turned in unison, both surprised. Lauren was frozen in the doorway, staring at the misty, see-through form of Gretel.
"I can--" Hazel started.
"What the fuck?" Lauren whispered as she closed the door behind her. "Hazel, do you--"
"This is Gretel," Hazel said in a rush. "She's a friend. And a ghost. And I'm a Blue Stone. I don't know if the roommate form told you that, but I listed myself as one."
Lauren took a long moment to answer. She looked from Gretel to Hazel the whole time. "A Blue Stone?" she asked.
"Yeah," Hazel answered. She breathed deep, ready to explain, but Lauren's face broke into an excited grin, and it caught Hazel off guard.
"Oh my god!" Lauren's voice was high-pitched. "I follow, like, three Blue Stones on tumblr! And the Aunties Instagram!" She pressed her hands to her mouth. "Holy shit," she muttered into her hands.
Hazel shared a look with Gretel. "Talk to you later?" Hazel asked, though she didn't want Gretel to go.
"Of course," Gretel said. She smiled at Hazel as she dissipated.
"Oh, shit," Lauren said after Gretel was gone. She looked at Hazel, her eyes wide. "Fuck. I'm sorry. Was I creepy? I didn't mean to be creepy."
Hazel didn't know how to answer. On the one hand, Lauren mentioning the Aunties felt creepy, but on the other hand, The Blue Stones had a rule of openness that included social media accounts and a general idea that the more people who knew about them, the more powerful the magic could be.
"I am really sorry," Lauren said when Hazel stayed silent. "I'm not a stalker or anything. I started following a Blue Stones blog a few years ago because someone reblogged their stuff, and it looked pretty."
Hazel's shoulders relaxed. "It's okay," she said. She looked at Lauren and smiled. "I only finished training in June. This is sort of my first real-world experience with someone I don't know knowing what I do."
Lauren nodded slowly. "Yeah, I saw a couple posts about that." She screwed up her face. "Not that it's the same--"
That made Hazel laugh. "It's okay," she said. "Really." She pulled at the chain that held her stone. "Honestly, this is sort of the best way to tell you I'm one of them."
"Oh, your stone is so pretty!" Lauren said. She kept her hands at her sides and didn't make any move to move closer. "One of the people I follow, they have a full necklace of turquoise--"
"Yeah! Them! And theirs is pretty, but I like yours, too. It's simple."
Hazel looked down at her stone. It was sapphire, set in a square setting and strung on a silver chain. "Thanks."
"How did you come up with the look of it? If you don't mind me asking."
"No, it's fine." Hazel ran the stone back and forth over the chain. "I'm a legacy. I based it off my great-more great grandmother's stone. I was named after her."
"That's so cool!" Lauren hopped onto her bed and pulled her legs up so she could rest her chin on her knees. "I'm not named after anyone. Dad wanted me to have an," she made huge air quotes "American name, so he and Mom picked my name out of a baby book. I mean, it's nice and everything, but there were three Laurens in my class."
"We had one," Hazel said. "But I was definitely the only Hazel."
Lauren grinned and tapped her feet on her comforter. "Pizza?"
"Allergies? Things you don't like?"
"No allergies. I don't like olives, but I can pick them off."
"I like olives on pizza. How about sausage, with olives on half?"
"That sounds good."
Lauren stretched across her bed and grabbed her laptop off the desk. She placed it on her lap. "Do you have a preference about where to get it from?"
Hazel opened and unpacked another box of books while Lauren clicked through the order. She was elbow-deep in a third box when Lauren slid off her bed and walked over.
"It's gonna be forty minutes. Do you want help putting these away? I've been doing rush stuff all week, so I feel like I should be doing something constantly."
"Sure. You can just those on my desk shelf however. I never really organize them."
Lauren picked up a stack of books and walked over to the desk, which had a shelf on the top and another below it. "Are all those books? You're not gonna have room."
"I know, but I couldn't leave them at home. I figured if I lofted my bed, I could buy--"
"Fuck!" Lauren yelped a dropped a book.
"Sorry. It felt like it--FUCK!" Lauren dropped another book.
Hazel's stone went warm, and she pulled her wand from the not-space. "Step back," she said.
Lauren stepped around Hazel, then shivered and dropped the rest of the books from her arms. "Shit. Sorry. There was--"
"It was a vibration, right? And a smell?"
Lauren stared at Hazel. "Huh?"
Hazel gestured at the books by the desk. "Did you drop them because there was a vibration and a smell?"
"What'd it smell like?"
Lauren wrinkled her nose. "I dunno. Just...gross?"
"Like a fart?"
"Like a fart," Hazel said, though there was no question to it. The books by the desk had started moving, standing on small, spindly legs. Perfectly round heads, the size of small oranges, popped up from the spines, and arms as spindly as the legs came out from the front and back covers to stretch. Hazel murmured, and the creatures disappeared, leaving only the books.
"Did they have--THE FUCK." Lauren jumped onto her bed as one of the books in the stack she'd dropped stood up and stretched.
"Book gremlins," Hazel said and murmured the spell to make that one disappear as well. She ran a quick finding spell, but none of the other books in the scattered stack or any of the boxes still holding her books glowed green to show magic. She nodded to herself and pulled her phone from her pocket.
"Gimmie a sec." Hazel opened a group chat.
Hazel: Three book gremlins in my collection. Dispersed with basic spells.
She gave Lauren a quick smile as she waited for a reply.
Auntie Louise: Copy that. No further questions.
Hazel tossed her phone onto the bed and returned her wand to the not-space. "Sorry. I did a scrub spell on my books before I packed them, but piling them all together in the trunk must have triggered the gremlins."
"Gremlins? I've never seen anyone mention gremlins."
"They're super common and super easy to get rid of most of the time." Hazel gestured to the two books by the desk. "They come in from their not-space and hide in books so they can fart on you."
Lauren stared at Hazel. "What?"
Hazel sighed and shook her head. "They are literally the stupidest. They come from their not-space if there's enough latent magic, and they hang out in the spine of your books until you pick them up. Then they fart on you."
Lauren laughed. "No!"
"Oh my god." Lauren covered her face as she kept laughing. "Oh my god."
"We hate them," Hazel added, smiling at Lauren's reaction. "Those of us who train at The House, I mean. They're everywhere. You never know if they're going to surprise you."
Lauren laughed harder, falling onto her side. "Amazing," she managed to hiss out.
"Auntie Tessa hates them especially. She's kinda the etiquette hardass, so when they fart on her, she just--" Hazel mimed dropping a book with great drama and disgust. Lauren howled. Hazel laughed along with her, the milk-and-sugar taste coming back to her mouth.
"You've made my week, dude," Lauren said. "Seriously. The Blue Stones fight fart monsters."
"Fart gremlins," Hazel said with her best gravitas just to make Lauren laugh again.
"Fart gremlins," Lauren whispered to herself and curled up into a ball as she fell into another fit of laughter.