New York, June 1913
Nineteen sets of eyes are looking at me.
I should be used to it by now, the strange reverence in their gazes, but I don’t think it’s something that will ever feel normal.
I turn to face the blackboard instead. The piece of chalk in my hand snaps as I go to write the spell. I’ve pressed too hard again.
In and out, Frances, just breathe.
It’s funny to think now, just how deeply I hated the Emotional Control classes I was forced to take my first year at Haxahaven Academy, how I resented Mrs. Li. She’s become a trusted colleague, the deep breathing exercises have become a habit, and I have grown steadier right along with them. There’s a joke in there, probably. Something about growing up.
I do feel it sometimes, growing up as the days pass, like a flower tilting almost imperceptibly toward the warmth of the sun. At least I do in the moments where it doesn’t feel like I’m pretending.
It feels like pretending now, standing in front of a class, my class. Nineteen baby witches, all looking to me to learn the basics of elemental and magical manipulation. The magic isn’t complicated—simple spells to unlock doors or float something across the room. But my broad-shouldered stance and unwavering voice are all playacting.
“Is everything all right, Miss Hallowell?”
Of course, it’s Bernice who asks, the little teacher’s pet. She’s sitting in the front row, her hands folded politely in her lap, her freckled face looking up at me. She’s the kind of perfect student I never could manage to be.
“Everything is fine, just lost in thought. And it’s Frances, Bernice. Please.” I’m barely their teacher. Just last year I was sitting in the same seat she was. It’s only out of necessity that I’m standing in front of the blackboard now.
Headmistress Florence called me into her office last fall to ask for “a favor.” I think she thought it would be good for me to take on some responsibility. I overheard her wife, Ann, tell her it might help me to stop moping around the library so much.
I took umbrage with that. Sure, I sometimes sulk. I rarely mope.
Bernice nods with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a golden retriever. You’d never know her power was awakened just three months ago after her mother passed.
“Have you all been practicing?”
Their nineteen little heads nod at me.
“Very good then, please turn to page thirty-eight in your fall semester packets.”
Copying spells down from the The Elemental, the book Lena, Maxine, and I found in the woods, what feels like a lifetime ago, was no easy task. In the end, it was Oliver who did it. In his neat, university student penmanship, he created a curriculum from the disorganized spell book. For all the trouble it once caused, the magic inside of its pages proved worth knowing. At least some of the spells.
On page thirty-eight my students find, in bullet points and careful diagrams, instructions for how to spark a small blue flame between their thumb and forefinger.
We’ve been working on object manipulation for the past few weeks, and moving on to elemental magic has become one of my favorite things about being a teacher.
I talk them through the spell, then release them to try it themselves.
Bernice furrows her brow as she snaps her fingers over and over again.
“Snapping isn’t part of the spell, Bernice,” Bess whispers next to her. In the next moment, a light pops into being between Bess’s fingers. She shouts and stands so quickly she topples over her chair, right into Georgia, who falls directly into Charlotte’s lap. The movement bumps Yael’s arm, sending her flame colliding with Berta, whose cape immediately catches fire.
Yael shrieks, then uses the small cup of water I’ve placed on everyone’s desk for this exact reason.
No one is any worse for wear except for the hem of poor Berta’s cape, which drips sadly onto the floor.
Once the chaos has calmed down and all the chairs have been righted, the ruckus starts right up again as Theo in the back row creates a spark of light and holds it too close to their desk, burning a hole right into the wood.
I can’t help but smile at the scene.
The first semester I taught this lesson, no fewer than three students burst into tears. Another went back up to her room, determined to practice, and burnt her curtains to a crisp.
I might feel like barely a teacher, but there is nothing more rewarding as an instructor than communicating to my students, Yes, that giant, awful, incredible, endless power you feel within yourself is real. You did not imagine it. You truly do contain that much.
It’s teaching them what to do with it that remains the hard part.
It’s hard keeping my secret too. The students don’t know yet.
At least I don’t think they’ve figured it out.
If they have noticed that I stopped demonstrating months ago, they haven’t said anything. I read from the textbook and ask students to come up and practice, but it’s been ages since I performed an actual spell myself.
It’s made even worse by me not knowing how to explain it. It’s not that my magic is gone; it’s just… wrong.
It’s unpredictable, it zaps and stings like a live wire. Every day, it feels further out of reach; like a lighter without fuel, it sparks but it doesn’t catch flame. I can feel it, but I can’t make it bend to my will like it used to.
It started slowly. My demonstrations in class didn’t work right, or when I tried to close a door while lying in my bed it would slam instead of gently latch. Ann noticed too. We were rolling out pie crusts in the kitchen together. I tried to float a stick of butter from the butcher block to the ice chest, but halfway across the room, it splattered all over the floor. Maxine magicked a ball of embroidery thread across the sunroom for my latest cross-stitch, but I was unable to stop it and it smacked me directly in the forehead.
At first it was embarrassing. Now I’m starting to panic.
The first few weeks, Florence thought it was nerves. “You’ve been through so much,” she said kindly as I clutched a steaming tea mug in my hands and cried in her office.
But it hasn’t gotten any better.
In fact, it’s getting worse.
Florence promises me we’ll find an answer, and I’m trying not to worry, but the truth is I am. I thought Finn stealing my magic was the worst thing that could happen to me, but this almost hurts more. The part of me I love the most is just out of reach.
It nags in the back of my mind now, a shadow to the joy I’m witnessing on my students’ faces.
Florence can’t come up with an explanation for what’s happening to my power. Neither can Maxine or any of the library books or terrifying Therese Theresi or the other hedge witches at the Bizarre Bazaar.
I haven’t told the students. There’s no reason they need to fuss over me too.
What is the saying, again? Those who can’t do, teach?
For ninety minutes nineteen sets of hands loop and twist, their mouths trying to make sense of old Gaelic. Once they’ve mastered the simpler spells, they can move on to working on creating bigger fire with more creative, less precise magic.
But when it comes to fire, I’ve learned to start with the basics.
At the end of the ninety minutes eight girls have created flame from nothing, which I count as a success.
Despite the pride I feel as a teacher, I find it a relief to retreat upstairs. There’s something profoundly exhausting about being looked at like I have the answers when I don’t even know what is happening within myself. Teaching is more difficult than I anticipated but more rewarding, too. It’s nice to have something to pour my focus into. I don’t know what I’d do otherwise.
Usually this time of day I’d head to the kitchens, make myself a cup of coffee, and settle in the library for a few hours of independent research before lunch. I’m making my way through a stack of books on the magical history of the Scottish Isles looking for anything useful, anything that might help me understand what is happening to me. Nothing has been helpful so far. It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack without knowing if a needle is in there at all.
Or I’d find my mother in the solarium, where she’s taken to tending a particularly finnicky group of orchid plants after her morning lessons.
It was Florence who suggested moving her in after her release from the asylum. After all, she’s hardly the first Haxahaven pupil over forty, and her magical education wasn’t finished when she ran away with my father at eighteen.
She’s still fragile, still… my mother in all the good and bad ways, but like her orchids, she’s begun to bloom.
She’s in class now, or I’d say goodbye in person. Instead, I slide a note under the door to her room saying I’ll miss her and be back before she knows it. I hugged her goodbye at breakfast too, and she hugged me back tight around my middle and told me to have a marvelous time.
I hear Maxine before I find her, the swearing coming from behind the door to her room on the second floor.
I don’t bother knocking. The door is unlocked.
I should have known better than to let Maxine wait until the last minute to pack.
“Lena is going to kill you,” I say from the doorway.
Maxine glares up at me from the nest she’s made of discarded clothing on the floor. “She wouldn’t dare. She’ll be too happy to see me.”
I sink onto her bed, becoming one with the chaos, and throw a brimless hat at her, aiming for her head. She ducks at the last minute, and it lands in yet another pile of clothes next to her vanity. “She won’t see you at all if we miss the ship.”
“We’re not going to miss the ship. Stop being dramatic.”
Maxine tosses a tangle of stockings into her suitcase, all knotted together like some kind of sea creature.
I click my tongue at her. “We’re going to be late.”
Maxine throws me a murderous glance. “We’re not going to be late.”
The door swings open. Mabel leans up against the jamb, riding goggles up on her forehead, pushing back her curly hair.
“You’re going to be late,” she says, eyeing the mess.
“Jesus Christ, not you, too,” Maxine replies.
“Don’t act like my awareness of the concept of time is a personal affront, I beg you,” Mabel laughs.
My darling roommate has agreed to be our chauffeur to the docks in Hell’s Kitchen, where a very large ship is waiting to ferry us across a very large sea.
Maxine shoves the ball of fabric into a final waiting trunk and snaps the latch with a flourish. “There now, quiet, the both of you.”
Together, we drag her trunks and hatboxes down to the awaiting ambulance, where my singular case rests in the back, taken down hours ago, well before breakfast.
It’s so bright, I’m soon sweating under my cape. Though no longer technically a student, I couldn’t find it in myself to let go of Haxahaven black. I’ve thrown the cape on over a simple traveling dress. Maxine and I wear near-identical hats, with small brims and black ribbons trailing off the back.
It’s strange to be going anywhere that isn’t here. The most traveling I’ve done in months requires only walking from the courtyard garden to the kitchen. We’re growing carrots now. I’ve grown roots too, gotten good at staying put.
And while I’m excited to see Oliver, I’m nervous, too. Haxahaven once felt like a prison, but of late, it’s become a sanctuary. I remember what happened the last time I longed for adventure. The last year has been spent wrapping myself in a cocoon, building a quiet life where I cause no more destruction. Am I ready to leave?
Maxine slumps into the front seat, and I situate myself amongst the luggage in the back, a solid, sharp-cornered reminder that this is real. We’re truly going.
Mabel is, blessedly, a much better driver than Maxine, and hurls us through the wide boulevards of Queens and across the bridge into Manhattan.
All the while, I try to quiet the riotous butterflies in my stomach. There’s the buzz of excitement, but there’s something else, too. Dread, probably. Fear, perhaps. I don’t want to admit that I’m still scared of Finn, but I am.
I knew what I was agreeing to when we planned this trip. I also knew it was my fault Maxine didn’t understand my reluctance at first.
“Oliver is studying at the Sorbonne. My family home is right across the river, and Maman has been begging me for a visit to Paris. Frankly, it doesn’t make sense for us not to go,” she insisted one night after dinner a few months ago, while we were playing cards in the drawing room. I was losing like usual, both at cards and the conversation.
“I don’t have the money,” I muttered half-heartedly, looking at the two of hearts in my hand rather than meeting her eye.
“You know that’s not an issue,” Maxine replied, laying down the hand-winning card.
“Ann has said she’ll cover them. The tickets have been purchased. I’ll drag you there in my trunk if I have to.”
I knew she wasn’t bluffing. It wasn’t Maxine’s way, in cards or in life. And so the plans were made. My cases were packed.
I never told my friends or Oliver of Finn’s letter, the one that arrived one year ago, currently lying hidden under piles of documents in my desk drawer. Soon, Frances, we will be together again, he promised. Together in Europe.
In the moment, I was ashamed of how frightened I was. Then, it was easier to pretend he didn’t exist at all. We never spoke of him, as if by rule.
But there’s a knot in my chest. It’s been there since the letter arrived, and today it’s squeezing tighter.
There have been no more letters. Maybe I’ve gotten lucky and he’s forgotten about me. Perhaps he’s found some other girl to dream about.
Am I a fool for bringing myself across the ocean to him, or is it brave to not let fear control me?
Regardless, I truly was excited to see Oliver, so I was perhaps too easily convinced.
His letters are as poetic and sweet as his soul, but a very poor substitution for a hand held in comfortable silence.
It’s been only three months since he’s been gone, but it feels longer. Maxine would laugh at me if I said it aloud, but it feels true.
We make it to the city in record time. I drum my fingers against the fabric of my skirt the whole way. Just six days now until I see him. Just a single ocean to cross.
It sets a jittery feeling under my skin whenever I think about it. It’s silly to be nervous to see someone I’ve known nearly all my life, but what will he see in me? Will he think I’m changed? What if he thinks I’m the same and he’s the one who is changed? That would be even worse.
I haven’t mentioned the strangeness of my magic in our letters. It would only worry him, and I’ve never known how to explain the ins and outs of my power to him. He’s spent a fair few weekends at Haxahaven, surrounded by floating food and showers of sparks coming off fingers and flowers that bloom out of nowhere. He takes it all in good humor, but there is so much he doesn’t understand.
The docks are bustling with people, the weather-beaten wood nearly blinding in the midmorning sun. I squint as I hop out the back of the ambulance and immediately have to duck as two porters haul a trunk right over my head. I can smell the sea and the strange scent of rot that never quite leaves the river.
Next to me, a woman weeps in the arms of a man who looks mostly bored by her show of emotion, and a mother tugs two boys wearing matching sailor suits by the hand to the awaiting ship.
I miss Manhattan less and less as time goes on. I’ve made a home in the peace of Forest Hills, but there is something about this bubble of noise, this gentle hum of chaos, that comforts me.
The skyline has already changed in my short absence, but I force my eyes away from the skeletons of buildings reaching up into the sky to instead look at the ship, my home for the next week.
The ship. I’ve never seen something so big in my life.
It’s a behemoth, like someone has taken one of the skyscrapers from the financial district and tipped it on its side.
I can’t imagine ever learning anything that would make sense of its ability to float.
“If this thing sinks, I’m going to haunt you for all eternity,” I hiss to Maxine.
It’s been a little over a year since the sinking of the Titanic, and every single newspaper article I read from last April flashes in my mind. All those bodies, frozen in the middle of the night in the North Atlantic. Some of the more macabre girls at school are still talking about it over breakfast.
Maxine laughs. “You truly think we couldn’t scam our way onto the lifeboats.”
The fizzy excitement of seeing Oliver dissipates as the nerves bubble back up. “I wouldn’t bet my life on it.”
I’m mostly joking, but the prospect of spending six days floating out at sea has my stomach turning.
I still can’t stand the sight of water. This is the first time I’ve been this near the river since Helen, Finn, and I dumped a man’s body into its depths nearly two years ago.
How time flies when you’re repressing the memories of the murders you once committed.
Mabel rises up on her tiptoes to give us both a kiss on the cheek.
I’ll miss her, but I think she’s probably secretly glad to have our room to herself for the next month. I haven’t been sleeping much lately, and though she’s too kind to tell me, I’m sure my tossing and turning is keeping her up.
From out of the open driver’s-side window, I take her hand in mine. “I’ll miss you terribly. I promise to send so many postcards you’ll drown in them.”
She preens. “I can’t wait.”
“Don’t let the little girls sleep in my bed while I’m gone!” I shout over the roar of the engine kicking to life.
“You know I’m a pushover!” she yells as she pulls away, disappearing into a cloud of dust and down the street.
Maxine and I bend to haul our trunks to the awaiting ramp.
Then, from out of the crowd, as bright as the rising sun comes a face I’ve missed deep in my bones. One I haven’t seen since she left Haxahaven on a cold Tuesday two Decembers ago.
There are some things that don’t change.
Lena’s smile and the relief it brings me is one of them.
I run through the crowd, not caring how it looks to others, and fling myself into her arms.
She hugs me tight and together we sway, basking in the relief of being together once more.
“You are never allowed to leave again,” I say.
“You hate being alone with Maxine that much?”
Maxine collides with us, throwing her arms around both our shoulders. She laughs, but I know she feels it too, the completeness of being a trio once more.
This is how it’s supposed to be, a homecoming. There are elbows and laughter and someone might be crying a little, but none of us will admit to it.
“Never leave me alone with Frances again. She’s so bad at cards, Lena, it’s not even fun beating her anymore,” Maxine says, face burrowed in the crook of Lena’s neck.
Lena pulls back and takes us both in. I wonder what she sees in our faces, nearly two years older than the last time she saw us.
She looks the same, beautiful with her big brown eyes and hair so black it seems to glow in the sun, but she’s more settled, somehow, like she’s made a home of her body.
Maxine reaches up and runs a finger over the brim of Lena’s hat, a beautiful baby blue dotted with silk flowers.
“Take a look at the fancy painter.”
Lena rolls her eyes. “Don’t jinx it. We don’t even know if they’ll exhibit my work.”
“They’ll love it, how could they not?” I say.
“You haven’t even seen it. How could you possibly know?”
“Because I know you.”
It’s not entirely true that I haven’t seen her work. Lena, always an expert in beading, embroidery, and with an eye for beautiful things, has taken up painting in her time at home. She sends Maxine and me weekly postcards, decorated with hasty watercolors, so vivid they take my breath away no matter how many she sends. Maxine’s deceased father was an art dealer, and her mother is now a donor in the art world. She’s arranged for Lena to study in a few salons while we’re abroad. Women artists are rare, but if we’re lucky, someone with modern sensibilities will purchase her work.
Lena rolls her eyes but she smiles, and it’s so achingly familiar I can’t believe how long I’ve lived without her by my side. I could spend the rest of the morning gazing at her face, but the smokestacks on top of the ship bellow, pouring steam into the bright blue sky.
“Girls, they’re playing our song,” Maxine says.
She flags down a strong-looking group of young men, and with a well-deployed smile she has them hauling our trunks across the pier and right up to the loading dock.
Waiting at the base of the ramp is a mustached man in a navy-blue uniform. He tips the brim of his hat as we approach. “Ladies, good morning, tickets if you will.”
Maxine reaches into her handbag and produces three tickets, printed on thick paper edged with gold leaf. They arrived in the mail weeks ago. I haven’t yet had the stomach to ask what they cost.
The man in the uniform grins. “An honor to welcome first-class passengers aboard. Your porter will show you to your suite.”
Maxine smiles the smile of a person used to being treated well, and together we step onto the chrome ramp.
Lena’s hand grips mine as we climb up and up, our heels clicking on metal, over the churning dark water where the river meets the Atlantic. I don’t look down. I try my best to feel brave.
If the ship looked big from the ground, it is even more overwhelming to be aboard. The length of at least a city block, the upper deck gleams with neat rows of polished oak and the blinding white of fresh paint on metal hulls. Smokestacks sit like four identical, enormous cigarettes, painted tan at the bottom and capped with charcoal gray.
Staff in the same navy-blue uniform as the ticket taker rush by, luggage and papers in their hands. Families in neat traveling clothes mill about the deck, their eyes as wide as mine.
Maxine and Lena race to the railing and tilt their faces up to the midmorning sun, letting it wash over them. From just over their shoulders peeks the impassive face of the Statue of Liberty, far off in the bay.
And deep in my pocket rests a piece of paper with an address. Just a single scrap, but it feels so heavy.
The paper is a formality at this point, really. I’ve stared at it so often; I have its contents memorized.
36 Rue de Vis, Paris, France.
They don’t need to know, I reassure myself, staring at my friends who stand across the deck, pressed against the railing, letting the ocean air tangle in their hair. They’re laughing at a joke I didn’t hear, and I’d never shatter this moment for them, rob them of the peace they’ve earned. They didn’t need to know about Finn’s letter then, and they don’t need to know about the address now.
I’m sparing them the confusion, the heartache.
What’s one more thing to bury in the graveyard of my chest?
What is a secret, if not an act of love?