“I’m so sorry.”
Tony turned on his left blinker. “Didn’t your dad say something about getting you a car soon?”
Alice gave a single, grating laugh. “He’s been saying that ever since I got a license.” Tony knew this as well as she did; if he was teasing, she wasn’t in the mood. She slouched down in the passenger seat as they pulled into the library parking lot. It was almost empty; the library was closing in twenty-five minutes. She rapped her fingers against the car door, gripping a notebook and a pen tightly in her other hand.
“Hey.” Tony parked. He grabbed her arm before she could jump out of the car. “Everyone forgets an assignment sometimes.”
She tried to smile, but her mouth ended up in a lopsided grimace. “You’re right. I’ve just been so . . . you know.”
Concern flashed across Tony’s face, and his grip on her arm tightened for a second before he let go. Alice clicked her pen as they hurried into the library. She’d had this assignment for weeks—how could she have left it until now? This wasn’t like her. Tony grabbed her hand as they walked and she looked down at their entwined fingers, glad that this at least was surviving, despite her half-present brain.
It wasn’t sudden, this relationship, so it baffled her why it still felt fragile—why she was still relieved every time he wanted to spend time with her. They’d been officially dating for two months now, and they’d known each other for three. She was certain she had gotten the better end of the deal; Tony had been helping her keep her head above water ever since last summer. Meeting him had been one of the only good things to come out of that vacation from hell. He’d helped save her life when she had nearly died, the victim of a witch’s curse on a creepy old hotel.
Physically, her recovery had only taken a few weeks. But everything else … well, it was still an uphill battle. Daily life was mundane and mind-numbingly routine—more meaningless than it had ever seemed before. Alice zoned out on a regular basis. The world would fall away and she would stare into space, not thinking anything, not feeling anything but the empty space inside her where everything was quiet. That empty space had never been there before, and it was only with Tony that she felt it close up for a few precious hours at a time. Only with Tony was she herself again.
Tony noticed her looking at him and smiled.
“We’ll find something here. I know it.”
It was hard to be hopeful after spending three hours driving around to all the libraries in the area with no luck at all, courtesy of this supremely dumb assignment. They’d been talking about primary and secondary sources in English class and Mr. Segal was requiring them to find one primary source (not on the Internet either—at the library) to include in their research paper. Alice knew she shouldn’t have put it off. She just hadn’t known it would be this hard. Now, with the paper due tomorrow, she had absolutely nothing to show but a blank computer screen and mounting panic.
“I think I chose the wrong topic,” she said as they walked by the front desk. A librarian looked up and scowled at them.
“We’re closing in twenty minutes,” she said. Her expression made it clear that if they made her stay a moment later, they would regret it.
Alice squeezed Tony’s hand and spoke through clenched teeth. “I’m gonna fail this project. And the class. And I’ll become a high school dropout. And I’ll never get into college. Will you still like me when I’m living under an overpass?”
“Yes. But you’re not going to fail. And I wouldn’t let you be homeless.”
“My hero,” she grumbled and he laughed.
They hurried through the nonfiction sections, passing row after row of packed shelves. The farther into the library they went, the more overwhelming the smell of old paper became. Alice wasn’t sure if the musty library air was thanks to rotting books or the persistent mold problem that had shut the library down for months a while back. The city said everything was under control; Alice’s nose told her otherwise.
“Ugh, I was hoping we wouldn’t have to come here.” She ran her fingers along the book spines as they hurried down a row. “This place creeps me out.”
Tony looked up at the dim rectangles of fluorescent lights scattered across the ceiling. “Not exactly cozy, is it?”
Alice shook her head and then stopped, squinting at the books to her left. “804 . . . 804.01 . . . here we go.”
She traced the call numbers with her fingers. Tony knelt down next to her, scanning books as he spoke.
“Excellent. Let’s hope Mr. Librarian Number Two was right.”
They’d been hunting down a copy of Literary Criticism of the 1800s for three hours now. Alice had discovered it while digging through the online library catalog—it was the only thing she could find that fulfilled the “contemporary criticism” requirement for her paper. The only problem was that the full text wasn’t online and, thanks to an interlibrary loan snafu, the only copy had slipped under the radar almost completely. The librarian at the last library they’d visited had been ninety-nine percent sure it was at the downtown branch, and so they had braved the rush-hour traffic and hurried over.
“What a nightmare,” she groaned. “I don’t see it.”
Tony grabbed her notebook and squinted at the call number she’d written. “Are you sure that’s a four? Looks like it could be a nine to me.”
“Let’s hope it’s a nine, then.” She jumped to her feet and grabbed his hand, pulling him up as well. They hurried to the next aisle.
He squeezed her hand. “Hey—we’ll find it. Don’t worry.”
She squeezed back but said nothing. Don’t worry. If only it were that easy. Unfortunately, her blank moments didn’t bring Zen into the rest of her life. They were more like blackouts than meditations—moments when fatigue got the better of her. The rest of the time, she was sprinting to keep up with the mindless churn of to-do lists that filled her days. How did people live like this? Every day stuffed with pointless urgency. It was exhausting. Sometimes Alice found herself longing for just a taste of magic again. Magic was a glimmer of something beyond logic and reason and sunrise and sunset. Without it, life melted into a meaningless churn of waking and sleeping.
Tony was patient with her—in more ways than one. She wasn’t sure how he managed to put up with her frequent mental lapses and her total lack of girlfriend know-how. Frankly, she was mortified by her own awkwardness. In her more positive moments, she told herself it wasn’t her fault. He was her first boyfriend. No one had warned her about these things.
If only someone had warned her about these things. Holding hands, kissing, it all looked so easy when other people did it. At first, for her, it had been a humiliating disaster. She didn’t know what to do with her body, how to move. She would press her lips into Tony’s without aim or direction, as haphazardly as she kissed her dad’s cheek. For Tony, on the other hand, finesse seemed to come naturally. His kisses were caresses. He was artistic. When they held hands, while her arm went stiff as a board, he would stroke the back of her hand with his thumb, making little circles—or hearts. She liked to think of them as hearts.
Her heart was pounding from half-jogging to the end of a row.
“Do you see it?” Alice asked, trying to read the call numbers on both sides of the row simultaneously.
Tony shook his head. “Not yet.”
“I don’t believe this,” Alice grumbled, sinking to her knees. “It’s got to be here. I can’t rewrite this whole paper—I don’t have time!” She ran her hands across the books on the bottom shelf, vainly hoping that the right one would just jump out and grab her by the throat. Tony scratched his forehead. Alice was starting to recognize these things he did. She knew now that when he scratched his chin, he was thinking deeply; when he scratched right below his hairline, he was worried.
“Maybe it was just shelved wrong,” he suggested. He turned around and started scanning the bookshelf behind him.
Though Alice worried it was useless, she re-scanned the spines on the shelf in front of her. Maybe Tony was right—maybe they had missed something. But she had that sinking feeling in her gut and her eyes were burning; she was frustrated almost to tears. Her sight grew blurry as she stared at book after book.
“The library will be closing in five minutes,” said a voice over the intercom.
She blinked very quickly, trying to clear her vision. Her eyes stopped on a particularly tattered old book without a visible call number, and she reached out to grab it, glancing behind her at Tony, who still had his back to her.
Her fingers touched the binding and she gasped. It was the strangest feeling—a tingling in her fingers, a warmth that traveled up her arm and into her shoulder. Alice pulled the book from the shelf and felt as if all the hair on her body were standing on end. She shivered and stroked the cover, which was brown leather and plain. It was blind-stamped with three concentric circles, like a rounded eye.
Peeling the cover back, she scanned through a few pages at random and knew immediately what she was holding. There was a sharp tug in her abdomen, and she almost put the book back then and there. It wasn’t the first spellbook she had seen. She had discovered several while fighting for her life in the hotel last summer. They’d belonged to the witch who set the curse. One of them had been covered in scrawls and notes—an inconsistent, impossible mess.
This little volume was an entirely different story. It was printed; the old monospaced type left odd gaps between letters. Someone had carefully underlined a few sentences throughout, but overall, it looked nearly untouched. If it hadn’t been for the yellowed pages and the smell of rotting paper, she might have called it pristine.
Each page was laid out in the same way: a heading in large, capitalized type followed by an ingredient list and several paragraphs of instructions. To the left of each title were one to three small triangles. Some were colored in with solid black ink while others were empty. They were presented without explanation, but Alice felt sure they must be a scale of sorts: a rating to indicate how long a particular spell took to prepare or its difficulty or something like that. There were small sketches throughout. On one page, a tiny flower was drawn to the right of the ingredient list. On the bottom of another, a tiny frog, splayed out, cut open, its ink-drawn limbs hanging limply at its sides.
Her stomach turned; quickly, she shut the book. A shiver tickled her spine—the familiar sensation of being watched. Was it a coincidence that she had come across this book? Or could it be that the curse had left a magical stamp on her, a kind of otherworldly magnetism? Had she found the book, or had the book found her?
“I don’t believe it.”
Alice jumped, clutching the book to her.
“Hey—I found it!”
Tony was holding the book out for her to see, smiling widely. She took it from him with one hand; with the other, she slipped the leather book behind her back. The movement was instinctual. All she knew was that she didn’t want to return the book and leave so many questions unanswered. Nor did she want to explain to Tony why she had to know more.
“Thank God,” she said, grinning back. “You are a hero!” Maybe she could pass the book off as another ancient volume of literary criticism? Not a chance. Tony was too curious; he would want to look at it himself.
“See?” He helped her up and put his arm around her shoulders. “Told you it would be okay.”
“I guess you were right.”
He took the book back from her and examined it. Alice’s grip on the spellbook tightened. No, she definitely could not let Tony near this book if she didn’t want him to panic and light it on fire or something. “It’s kind of like finding buried treasure.”
“Except the treasure is a book and the only thing it was buried in was the library’s glitchy loan system.”
“Still—it feels good.”
“The library is closing. Please check out all books at the front desk,” the intercom blared.
Alice and Tony jogged past row after row of dimly lit bookshelves. As they did, Alice slipped the leather-bound book into her bag before she could talk herself out of it. It wasn’t stealing, she told herself. Not really. She would take it home, glance through it, and return it to the shelf within a few days. It was just a quick investigation—albeit a secret one. But really, it had to be secret. Ever since the hotel, Tony couldn’t even watch a card trick without freaking out. If she told him a spellbook might have found her … maybe magically … well, she was doing him a favor by not mentioning it.
She was just being responsible. Really.
Tony dropped her off at home half an hour later. Still immensely pleased with his book-finding success, he’d suggested a celebratory dinner, but Alice insisted that she really did need to work on her paper. This was true.
She didn’t mention that she was far more anxious to crack open the book she hadn’t checked out than read the one she had.
The house was so quiet when she walked in that for a second she thought she was the only one home. Usually, the ruckus of her brother’s video games in the living room would be drowned out by the drone of her dad listening to NPR in his office. But the living room was empty and her dad must have stayed late at work because the doors to his office were open and the room was dark. Just the light in the kitchen was on, and it was only on second glance that Alice saw her mother sitting on a barstool, staring blankly at the faucet. Someone hadn’t turned it off completely and water was leaking out one drop at a time.
Her mom jumped up.
“Oh, hi, honey. I didn’t hear you come in.” She walked around the counter and turned off the faucet. “Were you with Tony tonight?”
“Yeah, we were at the library.”
“Good … that’s good … ” she said absently before lapsing into silence again.
“Um … how was your doctor’s appointment?” Alice asked to alleviate the uncomfortable quiet.
Her mother’s lips twitched upward, then tightened. She abruptly turned her back to Alice and opened the fridge.
“Fine, fine … ” she said, her voice drowned out by the crinkling of plastic bags.
Alice’s worries about her paper were immediately replaced by deeper, more insistent fears. “What’s wrong?” she demanded.
“I can’t hear you, sweetie.”
“What happened?” she repeated. “Is something wrong?”
Her mom emerged from the fridge, holding some celery sticks and a jar of almond butter—her “guilty” snack. Normally she wouldn’t have had the almond butter. (She liked to remind Alice that too many nuts would make a person chub up like a squirrel before hibernation.) Her eyes briefly met Alice’s as she turned to the sink and started to rinse off the celery.
“Oh, just a sad story in the news today.”
Alice’s heart immediately slowed. “See, this is why I never read the news.”
Her mom scrubbed the hollow of the celery stalk with one thin finger. “A single mom just moved into a new house with her two young girls. The girls went swimming unsupervised. The six-year-old drowned.”
Alice’s chest constricted, but she tried to brush it off. “They didn’t know how to swim? Why did they get in the pool?”
“Really, Alice.” Her mom’s voice went snappish. “You of all people should know—these things can happen to anyone.” She grabbed the celery stalks and the jar of almond butter and walked out of the room without another word. Alice heard the bedroom door close.
Alice sat still on the bar stool for a moment. A weak trickle of water was leaking from the faucet; she got up and turned it off.
You of all people.
A final drop of water hit the sink like the tiniest of hammers. Last summer, at the cursed hotel, she had nearly drowned in a swimming pool. Tony had pulled her out just in time.
She could remember all too clearly the press of water in her lungs. Not everyone knew the craving for air—the feeling that your head was being squeezed and squeezed until finally, in the last moments, when you thought you were going to explode … an arm around your waist pulling you up. A hand clapping you on the back, a voice telling you the coughing was okay, telling you to breathe when that was all you wanted to do until the end of time … just breathe.
Tony had saved her life. But the little girl would have felt the tightness, the void in her chest that nothing could fill, until the darkness came slowly in—not a stranger knocking down the door, but a cool-headed thief waiting for the window to fall open. Rushing into the opening, filling the lungs with cold black water … and then darker and darker until there was nothing—no space left.
“It’s okay. I’m okay.” Alice refused to turn into her mother, having panic attacks every time she heard a bit of disturbing news. She took a deep breath, shook her head, and walked slowly up the stairs to her room, pretending she was empty as a balloon floating higher and higher … out of her body, out of everything.