When We Were Magic
When We Were Magic
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A moving, darkly funny novel about six teens whose magic goes wildly awry from Magic for Liars author Sarah Gailey, who Chuck Wendig calls an “author to watch.” Keeping your magic a secret is hard. Being in love with your best friend is harder.
Alexis has always been able to rely on two things: her best friends, and the magic powers they all share. Their secret is what brought them together, and their love for each other is unshakeable—even when that love is complicated. Complicated by problems like jealousy, or insecurity, or lust. Or love.
That unshakeable, complicated love is one of the only things that doesn’t change on prom night.
When accidental magic goes sideways and a boy winds up dead, Alexis and her friends come together to try to right a terrible wrong. Their first attempt fails—and their second attempt fails even harder. Left with the remains of their failed spells and more consequences than anyone could have predicted, each of them must find a way to live with their part of the story. Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction and a winner of the Hugo Award. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and The Boston Globe, and they are a regular contributor for Tor. Their most recent fiction credits include Fireside Fiction and Uncanny Magazine. Find out more at SarahGailey.com and find them on Twitter @GaileyFrey. Chapter 1
I DIDN’T MEAN TO KILL Josh Harper.
Really, I didn’t. It’s just that I was nervous, and condoms are more complicated than I was expecting, and one thing led to another and—well.
Now there’s blood everywhere and he’s dead.
I wipe my hands on the rumpled sheets until they’re clean enough that I can pull my underwear on. I put on my bra, but I can’t get the hooks done. My hands won’t stop shaking. In the end, I leave it unhooked. I pull my dress on over it, and struggle to grip the zipper on the side. By the time I get the dress zipped up, blood has stopped pumping out of Josh Harper and naked feels like a hundred years ago.
I’m not sure where my shoes are. I know that I kicked them off, but I can’t remember when or where. I’m turning around in a slow circle, staring at the floor, watching for the flash of my gold heels. I catch a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror on the back of Josh’s door. I’m a blur of bright blue, and I realize that my vision is fuzzy because my eyes are brimming with tears.
“Okay,” I whisper to myself. “Okay, okay, just think. Think. Think think think.” I wipe at my eyes and try to look at anything that isn’t my reflection or the bed. The room is dark save for the light of a desk lamp, which casts a soft yellow glow on the desk and the bed.
Josh is on the bed.
There’s so much blood on the bed.
I smooth my skirt. My palm catches on a patch of glitter, which immediately sheds, raining sparkles onto the carpet. I wipe my hand on a non-glittery section of skirt, leaving behind a bright smear of silver. I frown. I hate glitter. Why did I pick a dress with glitter on it? Probably because Roya said it looked good on me. Even as I stare at my skirt, frowning, I know that I’m not thinking straight. You’re in shock, I think, but I can’t stop glaring at that stupid patch of glitter. I want to scream. I can’t believe I didn’t already scream.
My phone buzzes in my purse and I nearly have a heart attack. My purse is at the foot of the bed. My phone is buzzing and I have to get it and it’s on the bed. On the bed where Josh is. On the bed with all the blood.
Okay. I can do this. I just won’t look.
I reach over and accidentally grab Josh’s foot.
It’s still warm. And he’s still wearing his socks. Ten minutes ago, he was telling me that they weren’t his socks. He had borrowed them from his dad. He’d laughed nervously while I’d pushed him backward onto the bed, stopping him from taking them off.
What’s your hurry? he’d asked me, and I’d shoved my mouth onto his instead of answering, and then.
I let go of his foot and grab my purse. It’s a little tiny sparkly thing that’s totally impractical and only fits my student ID and my cell phone. I fumble with the clasp, which is slippery with blood. My phone buzzes inside again, twice in a row.
The group text is going crazy.
It takes me a long time to reply—autocorrect can’t even interpret the fumbling input of my shaking hands. Josh bedroom 911.
Five minutes later, five girls pour into the bedroom. My best friends. Four one-night-in-a-lifetime dresses plus Paulie’s powder-blue tux. They’re all in here and nobody is missing them because we all went to prom alone-together in solidarity with Iris after her boyfriend cheated on her. Well, everyone except Roya, and she ditched Tall Matt halfway through the night anyway. The point is that we’re all single, but none of us is alone, and that’s how we want it. At least until the end of the year. Why am I thinking about this? There’s something else I should be thinking about.
I look at the girls. They’re all gorgeous, all perfectly themselves and shining with party-sweat, and they’re all looking at me. They’re all looking at me, at me, at me. I can’t look back at them. I can’t look away. There’s nowhere safe for my eyes to land. They’re too bright—the colors are too saturated. It’s too much. Roya is wearing a deep red gown and I can’t look at her. My mouth is dry. My hands are too big. I feel short.
Iris looks at me like I’m a monster. Like I’ve got an eyeball hanging out. I know what I look like: I look like a girl you’d forget, if she didn’t have that just-killed-a-boy aesthetic going on. I look like a girl on a prom night gone horribly, horribly wrong. Wide-set brown eyes that are probably glassy with nauseated fear. Curly brown hair that just passes my shoulders, stiff with hairspray and I-almost-had-sex-mussed. Eyeliner runoff halfway down my cheeks. Blood. Blood everywhere.
I don’t need to look in a mirror to know that I’m a mess.
Iris is the one staring at me, and Iris is the first one to speak. “Well,” she says. “What the fuck did you do?”
Here is what I did.
I tried to have sex with Josh Harper.
I didn’t really want to have sex with Josh Harper. But I wanted to have sex with someone, and Josh Harper was around, and relatively sober, and I’d felt his boner against the top of my butt when he’d tried to grind on me at prom, so I figured it wouldn’t be too tricky to get him to have sex with me. And I was right. Sort of.
“Oh my god,” Marcelina says, covering her black-lipsticked mouth with her hands. “Oh my god, Alexis, oh my god, what happened to his dick?”
Here is what happened to Josh’s dick.
I was trying to get the condom on him, and I guess I was doing it upside down or something. I don’t know, it looked a lot easier in the YouTube video I watched with the banana. But the room was dark and I couldn’t really see what I was doing, and it was my first time touching a guy below the waist, and it felt weird, and the condom wouldn’t go on. And then Josh asked if it was my first time.
I didn’t answer right away. He started to push me away, and he said something about how he didn’t want to do anything I wasn’t ready for. He was sweet about it. He was kind. But I wanted to have sex with someone, anyone, I needed to just get it over with, and I figured it didn’t matter if I was ready or not because Roya was probably going to fuck Tall Matt anyway, so—I lied. I lied and said that it wasn’t my first time and that it was fine. I tried to ignore the ache in my chest. I told him I wanted it, even though I didn’t.
The lights were off, but I guess Josh heard my voice do that stuffy thing it does when I’m trying not to cry. And he said I didn’t sound so sure, and he tried to grab the condom out of my hand, and I got flustered. And we were both struggling with the condom.
And then his dick exploded. And not in the way people joke about, not in the it-happens-to-a-lot-of-guys kind of way.
Every summer Marcelina cuts a hole into a watermelon and jams a handful of cherry bombs into it and then lights them and we run away and watch the carnage.
That’s the way Josh’s dick exploded.
“Did he try to—” Maryam is getting that face like she’s going to kill someone. If Josh wasn’t already dead, I’d be worried for him.
“No,” I tell her. I tell all of them. “No, he didn’t—we were—oh my god.” I bury my face in my hands. “I don’t know what happened. It was an accident.”
Paulie wraps her arm around my shoulder and squeezes. She smells like wine coolers. “Okay, so, okay. So.” Her eyes are locked on the bed. She’s not blinking. “So, he’s dead.”
“Oh, for sure,” Roya says. “He’s one hundred percent dead.”
I lean against Paulie. She’s shaking hard, still not blinking. Her voice is pitched higher than usual when she asks, “What do we do?”
It takes me a minute to realize that she’s talking to me.
“I have no idea,” I say. They all stare at me. “I don’t know. We … we have to fix it, but I don’t know how. I don’t know how to fix it.” I’m babbling. I’m a disaster. Oh god, this is a disaster.
“C’mon, Alexis, you’re the brains of the outfit,” Roya says, giggling.
“Shut up, Roya,” I snap. I shouldn’t be so short with her, but Josh is dead and she’s laughing.
Besides, I’m not the “brains of the outfit.” That’s Iris. And I’m not as cool as Paulie, or as ambitious as Maryam, or as badass as Marcelina, or as funny as Roya. I’m just me, and she’s rubbing it in my face.
I should be more upset about Josh being dead than I am about Roya teasing me. But only one of those things feels small enough to fit inside my brain, and it’s not the dead boy on the bed in front of me. “You’re drunk,” I mumble at Roya.
She waves me off. “You would be drunk too, if you hadn’t run off to get laid.”
As always, Marcelina steps in to save us from ourselves. “Okay, let’s just—let’s figure out what to do.”
“What do you think we should do, Marcy?” Roya asks. Marcelina shoots her a look that would down a helicopter, but Roya’s too tipsy to apologize for using the forbidden nickname.
“We have to call the cops,” Iris says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
Everyone explodes. Or, no, I shouldn’t use that word so lightly anymore. Everyone starts yelling. There, that’s less … evocative.
“No,” I say, and I feel dizzy even saying it. “No, no, no—”
“Are you fucking crazy?” Roya shouts. “My mom can’t know I’m here!”
“Not all of us are white,” Maryam snaps at Iris, crossing her arms.
“How are we going to explain what happened?” Paulie demands. “What, we’re just going to tell them about—”
“Guys, quiet,” I say, but none of them listen to me. I’m not going to do that thing where I yell super loud to get them all to shut up, that never works. I hold my hand up in the air with my thumb and middle two fingers together, my pinky and index fingers upright—the silent coyote.
The first one to notice is Iris. That’s not surprising, since she’s always the first one to notice anything. She raises a freckle-covered arm over her head and imitates my gesture. I can tell that she’s pissed because her lips press into a pale line—she’s a pale ginger, so she changes colors a lot when she’s feeling emotions or getting drunk. Right now, she’s so many shades of pink and white that I half expect to see steam rising out of her pile of red curls.
The second person to fall silent is Maryam. She always pays close attention to what we’re all doing, but she didn’t see my silent coyote because she was arguing with Paulie about something. They’re really close, which means they fight harder than any of us, except for maybe Roya and me. When Maryam notices my hand in the air, she looks pointedly away from Paulie and raises her chin imperiously at the same time as her own hand goes up. Her hands are covered with gold flash tattoos that match her emerald-green dress, and both are matched by her elaborate eye makeup. Between her aesthetic and the way she’s holding herself and her quiet fury at Paulie, she looks like she belongs on a throne.
Marcelina and Paulie follow suit. They couldn’t look more different: Paulie is ice where Marcelina is obsidian. Paulie’s fitted powder-blue suit is a summer sky next to Marcelina’s black velvet gown. Marcelina is tan where Paulie is pale, round and soft where Paulie is tall and willowy. Her thick black hair piles a lot higher than Paulie’s thin, straight blond hair can. They don’t just look different—Paulie is a cheerleader, and Marcelina is the closest thing our little school has to a real goth, even though she hates it when people call her that. But as opposite as they are, they became friends quicker than anyone I’ve ever seen. Somehow they wind up doing a lot of things in tandem.
Of course Roya is the last to notice me.
I don’t want to look at her anyway. She’s in a bloodred gown. That’s not an exaggeration: she literally texted us all when she found it, saying that she was going to look like a vampire queen at prom. Her long tangle of black hair is piled on top of her head in a way that looks messy and polished at the same time. She’s long-limbed and elegant and glowing and she never pays any attention to what I’m trying to tell her, and as always, Paulie has to slap her arm to make her stop talking and look at me.
Finally, everyone’s quiet. There’s a moment of peace. The silent coyote prevails again. It’s a trick my first-grade teacher used to shut the class up, and it works every single time.
“Okay, so, I guess I have to be in charge right now,” I say, my voice shaking. Roya rolls her eyes, and Marcelina throws her a sharp glare. “We can’t call the cops,” I say. “Roya’s mom would kill her, and also, there’s absolutely no way to explain why his dick exploded without telling them that we’re magic.”
I forgot to mention that part. Sorry. I got swept up in the fact that Josh died from a bad case of exploded-wang.
We’re all magic.
“So we tell them,” Maryam says. She tugs on her sleeve and I can tell she’s on the way from frustrated to pissed. “We can’t just let Josh be dead without telling anyone. I’m tired of keeping the magic thing a secret, anyway.”
Iris suddenly looks very pale under her million freckles. “Maryam,” she whispers. “You know we can’t do that. My parents—”
“I know,” Maryam interrupts, deflating. She covers her face with her hands, and her voice is muffled behind her matte copper fingernails. “Mine too.” She doesn’t talk much about how her family and her faith community would feel about her magic, but the look she shares with Iris from between her fingers tells me that it probably wouldn’t be an easy conversation. Her family doesn’t go to a mosque on a regular basis, but they still have a lot of rules, spoken and unspoken. I’d be willing to bet “no magic” is one of them.
Maryam doesn’t follow all of their rules. She didn’t follow the one that said she shouldn’t go to this after-party. But there’s a big difference between the kind of trouble she’d face for going to a party and the kind of trouble she’d face for being in proximity to a dead white boy.
“Maryam,” I say quietly, and she makes a hmph noise from behind her hands. “You don’t have to be part of this.”
She lowers her hands and looks at me. Her eye makeup is smeared, which I know will infuriate her. “I can’t,” she whispers. “I’m sorry. It’s too dangerous. Even aside from my parents, if the cops found out about this, a girl like me—I can’t be involved. I can’t.”
“It’s okay,” Marcelina says, smiling at her. “We understand.”
“Do we?” Roya asks, eyeing Maryam coolly. “I’m brown too, and I’m staying.”
“You’re not Muslim,” Maryam snaps. “And your mom’s a white cop. You’ll be fine.”
Roya opens her mouth, probably to start up the same argument she and Maryam have every other month—about the ways they’re treated differently, about intersections of privilege and marginalization, about modesty and culture. If they have this argument, Roya will accuse Maryam of being protected by her lighter skin color, and Maryam will accuse Roya of being protected by her mother, and the rest of us will try to stay out of the way as best we can because there are layers to that fight we don’t understand from the inside. And because we know better than to get between those two when they’re pissed at each other.
But Marcelina throws out her arms like an umpire, and Roya’s mouth snaps shut again, and before anything else can happen, Maryam shakes her head. “I don’t think I can be here,” she says, still looking at me. I nod. She gives me a tight hug before she walks out of the room. When she pulls away, she rests her fingertip on my chin and stares into my eyes. It’s something I’ve seen her mother do to her little sister. “I’m still here for you,” she says. “I’m not bailing on you. I just can’t do this.”
“I know,” I whisper, and I feel tears finally spill over. She kisses my forehead and then walks out of the room without looking back at me or at Josh or at anyone. The door closes behind her and my heart sinks. I understand why she can’t be part of this, but I wish she would stay.
“Wait,” Iris says, “we’re letting her leave?”
“I trust her,” I answer. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
“Right, but what if she freaks out?” Iris’s voice is getting higher and faster with every word.
Paulie snaps her fingers in front of Iris’s face to get her attention. “No,” she says in a voice that brooks no argument. “We trust each other. That’s rule one. Right?”
Iris hesitates, then nods. “Right.”
Paulie looks to each of us in turn. Her big gray eyes are set in a don’t-you-dare glare. “We trust each other. No matter what.”
Josh Harper is blond and tall and that’s mostly what I know about him. I’ve gone to school with him for like six years, and I can’t remember anything about him other than “blond” and “tall.”
A quick survey of his room reveals more about him. Things I didn’t notice when I was fumbling his pants off and trying to get him to stop asking if I was sure I was okay.
He liked cars. There are posters of them. Three posters, on the wall above his bed. They’re spattered with blood now.
He played lacrosse. When I think about it, I have a hazy memory of him wearing a jersey to school one day, but I don’t really follow school sports except for swimming, and our lacrosse team is nothing to pay attention to, so I didn’t really put it together. But he definitely played lacrosse—his stick is leaning against the side of his headboard, and a ball rests in the weird net thing on the end of it. They’re drenched in blood too.
He liked to read. A low bookshelf is next to his bed, on the other side of the lacrosse stick. It has a water glass on top—I guess he used the shelf as a nightstand. The books are spattered with red. The glass has three inches of blood-pink water in it.
Somewhere downstairs, someone screams. We all jump. Laughter rises from the party like ripples in the wake of the scream, which repeats with a definite note of delight.
“Okay,” Marcelina says. The thick layer of black and silver around her eyes makes her look even more intense than usual. “So. What are we going to do?”
“We need a spell,” Roya says. Some of the drunken fuzz is gone from her voice. She comes over to stand next to me, and her arm brushes against mine, and my skin jumps like I’m a cat she’s petted the wrong direction.
“Yeah,” I say, because it’s true. There’s only one way to fix this, to bring Josh back and make everything the way it was before. “We need a spell that will make this right.”
We all look to Iris. She’s shaking her head at us, but I can see the gears turning. She closes her eyes and we wait. The glow of her magic shines through her eyelids, illuminating a delicate leaflike tracery of pink veins. We all look away.
Iris’s eyes glow when she comes up with spells. It’s a whole thing she does. She’s the only one of us who can do it—everyone else just kind of Does Magic and whatever happens happens, but Iris can gather our magic together and give it structure if she works on it really hard. But the working-on-it-really-hard makes her eyes glow. She gets so embarrassed about it. We don’t tell her that the glow is still totally visible even when her eyes are closed. It’s not a big deal to anyone other than her, but we know she would be self-conscious. It’s just better if we don’t tell her.
We look at each other to keep ourselves from looking at Josh or at Iris. I keep accidentally catching Roya’s eyes and then looking away from her. Paulie bumps her shoulder against mine and whispers “You okay?” and I shake my head. I am absolutely not okay. I’m overwhelmed and terrified and oddly ashamed. And I’m mad that Roya had a prom date to ditch at all, even though that’s not what I should be thinking about right now. It’s too hot in the room, too crowded with the five of us plus Josh plus all the blood. Paulie grabs my hand and squeezes it. Her palm is dry and cool and I resist the urge to press it to my forehead.
After a few minutes, the magic glow from Iris’s eyes dies away. She looks at me and nods, the motion knocking one red curl into her face. “Okay,” she says. “I think I’ve got it. Let’s go.”
Secret powers and secret murder cover-ups are in good supply in Sarah Gailey’s new YA novel When We Were Magic, but love and friendship are the real stars of the show. Profoundly thoughtful… An intimate portrait of female friendship laced with literal and metaphorical magic. Explores finding stability with friends and family in a world where everything else is a big question mark. A laugh-out-loud, exciting ride… Like the movie The Craft for a new generation, this novel is sure to keep readers on the edge of their seats wondering how it will all turn out. Darkly funny.
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