Fifteen years ago
It is seven-thirty in the morning on the first Monday of summer break, and Dr. Stephanie Noring, world-renowned oncologist at the most prestigious cancer clinic in the world, is screaming up the stairs for me to get out of bed. “Sashi!” my mother yells for the third time in as many minutes. “Hurry up! We’re going to be late!” Dr. Stephanie Noring is never late.
I yawn, rolling out of my very rumpled four-poster bed in the loose jersey skirt and simple black scoop-neck tee that I put on the night before. I step into a pair of sandals and stagger out of my bedroom, leaving my long dark hair a rumpled tangle down my back. “Coming, Dr. Noring,” I mumble. “Right away, Dr. Noring.”
“That’s not funny,” Mum snaps as she watches me stumble down the stairs. She is perfectly put together, of course, her glossy black hair tied in a neat ballerina bun, her blouse coordinated with the polish on her nails and the gemstones in her chunky gold necklace. The only jewelry I am wearing is a wristwatch and a belly button stud. “You look terrible,” she lectures. “You better not be hungover on your first day, Sashi Noring.”
I didn’t even drink last night, but Mum wont believe me if I say so. It drives her crazy that I am twenty-one and get to control my own alcohol intake. “But my second day, I can be hungover then?” I say hopefully, and she swats my bottom.
“Look at the wrinkles in that skirt!” Muttering under her breath, she clucks and checks her watch to see if there’s enough time to make me go change. Happily, there is not. “Car! Now!” she barks.
The ride to the clinic is mostly silent, like most of our car rides have been since I first left for Northwestern three years ago. At a stoplight Mum hands me the hairbrush from her purse, and I dutifully run it through my hair a few times. When we are two miles from our destination, however, my mother can no longer contain herself. “You understand that you have to be subtle?” she says to me again. There is real anxiety in her voice. “If anyone finds out, I could lose my job. Or worse.”
I think the Mayo Clinic would relocate to the moon before they fired my mother, but she is so obviously worried that I take pity and do not mention the many times we have already had this conversation. “I understand, Mum. No weird, lingering stares. No mumbling spells,” I recite. My mom glances over to see if I am being sarcastic, then nods tightly.
“And don’t embarrass me,” she adds.
The name “Mayo Clinic” sounds innocuous enough, but it’s really the size of a small city, with three different campuses and a huge system of tunnels and skyways here in the Minnesota location alone. I have been to the clinic hundreds of times. When I was in middle school, my mother would often have the housekeeper pick me up from school and drop me off at the massive, labyrinthine Gonda building, where I would roam around for hours waiting for Mum to be done with her patients. I know which family lounge has the best collection of YA novels, and which of the underground tunnels is typically deserted, in case one has a sudden urge to break out some cartwheels. I could find Mum’s office in the oncology ward blindfolded, but today I am actually a little nervous, because this time I am here to contribute. To the public, I am a volunteer, here to read books to pediatric cancer patients. To my mother, however, I am here to fulfill my birthright. The next step in her ultimate goal of turning me into Dr. Stephanie Noring 2.0.
After dropping off her purse in her office, Mum drags me straight to the first patient room. My mother starts work every morning at eight on the dot, but my volunteer shift doesn’t begin until nine, so I am supposed to shadow her for an hour, learning how she masks the real methods she uses to treat sick people. Mum introduces me in the doorway, and after the patient, Susan, consents to my presence, my mother drags a chair over to the bed, takes the woman’s hand, and asks how she feels. Susan immediately launches into a stream of details about her head, stomach, and bowel movements. Partly, she wants my mother to have every bit of knowledge that will help with her treatment. Partly she just wants someone to listen to her.
Mum nods very seriously the whole time, looking exactly as though she’s listening, and Susan eats it up. Then, although her expression never falters, there’s a flutter of pressure in the air, signifying the use of her magic. I have to admit, I’m impressed by her subtlety. I know exactly what’s happening, though, because I can do it too.
It’s quite literally what I was born to do.
My mother, the witch, is telling this poor woman’s body to push on, to keep fighting the cancer. She can’t actually heal the woman, but she can nudge, suggest, encourage—like an expert gardener coaxing an exotic flower to bloom. It only takes a few minutes, and I am particularly impressed with how Mum manages to simultaneously chat with the patient about her treatment plan. I can’t hold an active conversation while I channel magic, not yet anyway.
Then the sense of pressure dissipates, and Mum pats Susan’s hand, getting up to leave. The woman is already sitting up a little straighter in the bed, her eyes brighter than they were ten minutes earlier. I trail behind my mother as she makes her goodbyes. “Your mom is a miracle,” Susan calls out after me, beaming. My mother’s magic often gives patients the impression that she has good bedside service. “You must be so proud.”
I force myself to smile.
Two other patient visits go exactly like the first. I am a little surprised that no one objects to my presence, but I suspect most of them are being agreeable to please my mum. Many of these patients came to the Mayo Clinic specifically to be treated by my mother, so if the great Dr. Noring wants her daughter to sit in, then by God, her daughter will sit in. As we enter the fourth room, I am getting antsy and eager to start my own volunteer position. I like kids. Well, I like kids when they’re not running around bouncing off the walls they’ve just crayoned. Pediatric cancer patients are just my speed. If that sounds callous, well. Remember that I’ve spent my whole life knowing my mother prefers them to me.
My mother sees me eyeing the clock. “This one will only take a second, and then I’ll walk you down,” she says, nodding toward one last room. “I want to say hello to…what was your volunteer coordinator’s name again? Juan-Carlos?”
There is a certain cagey look in her eye that I know all too well. “Mum!” I whine. “Please don’t do the nepotism thing. Just let me be like all the other volunteers.”
“But you’re not like everyone else, Sashi,” she contends. “And I certainly didn’t raise you to see yourself that way.”
This is yet another conversation we have had so many times I barely need to be awake for it. Helping the sick is my mother’s life purpose—actually, “obsession” might be a better word. It’s the reason she had me in the first place, and what got us kicked out of London when I was a kid. And now that obsession has her thoroughly convinced that I need to be exactly like her.
We stop in front of another door. “Give me five minutes in here, and then I can go with you,” Mum insists. “This patient is in remission; I’m just giving him his test results.”
My shoulders slump and I back down, as I always do when it comes to anything involving my magic. The force of Mum’s conviction trumps my reluctant ambivalence every time.
But when we round the corner into the last room of the hall, the patient who looks up and smiles at us is not a middle-aged woman or an ancient, withered man. It’s a guy, maybe twenty-five or so, and he is…wow. His face is handsome, in a sort of generic, pleasant way, but his smile is something else altogether. It’s light, warm, and welcoming, like he’s been waiting his whole life for us to just walk through that door and say good morning. The whole room seems to glow because of that smile. I find myself smiling back at him before anyone has spoken.
“Hey, Doctor N,” he says casually, looking back and forth between us. “Who’s your friend? Is it Take Your Sister to Work Day?”
My mother, the imperious Stephanie Noring, lets out a sound that, if I didn’t know any better, I might describe as a giggle. A giggle. “This is my daughter—” she begins once again, but this time I step forward and stick out my hand.
“Sashi,” I say.
“Hello, Sashi,” he says, aiming that charismatic laser grin straight at me. His hand is warm and rough in places, like he does the kind of work that creates calluses. I want to turn his palm over and run my fingers over it, inspecting. “I’m Will.”
Mum goes through the spiel about me shadowing her, and Will gives permission for me to stay, but not as though he’s just doing it to kiss Mum’s ass. She does the sit-and-touch-hand routine, telling him about his x-ray results. For a moment she frowns, like Will’s body is telling her something, but then she goes right back to telling him he’s fine.
I am not listening. I am staring like an idiot—exactly what I promised my mother I wouldn’t do. The guy sitting on the hospital bed exudes charisma, and physically…wow. He has the kind of lean, flat muscle that comes from serious swimming or manual labor. Maybe a summer job? His hair is brown, layered with shades of natural highlights, the color of black walnut wood…
Will asks me something in a polite tone. I snap to attention. “Sorry, what?”
“I said, are you going to follow in your mom’s footsteps? Become a doctor?”
“Not if I can help it.” The words are out of my mouth so fast that I feel like I’m hearing them for the first time along with Will. Out of the corner of my eye I see my mother glaring, and I know I’ll pay for that comment later.
But right now I am eager, desperate even, to make an impression on this guy, to say something that will make him smile later when he remembers it. “I mean,” I say more diplomatically, “I’d rather do some traveling first, make some footprints of my own.”
“I know just what you mean,” Will says, and nods toward the wall behind me. I look over my shoulder and see a line of a dozen or so postcards and photos that he has lined up on a strip of molding near the doorway. Without thinking, I step closer.
“Oh, wow,” I breathe. There are images from Thailand and Sri Lanka, a sunny photo of the Taj Mahal and a couple of postcards from countries I haven’t even heard of. Three or four are from Spain, and right in the middle is a glossy shot of Stonehenge, which is the whole grail for every witch I’ve ever met, excluding Mum. I run a finger along the flat stone planes, careful not to smear it with the oil on my fingertips. When I turn back, my mother’s glare has deepened, taking on a whole new dimension of don’t-you-dare. “You’ve been to all these places?” I ask Will.
He nods. “I relapsed when I was seventeen. Your mom—” he shoots her a grateful look “—got me back into remission, but I had missed so much school, I decided to skip college and just travel. Figured I would relapse again eventually, so I might as well see the world first.” He grins, wide and toothy. “Last year I finally had to admit that I was probably gonna be around awhile and should get my ass to college. I like to bring these along whenever I have to come down, remind myself of what Doctor N made possible.” He beams at my mother.
“Where do you go to school?” I ask.
“Northwestern,” I say, pointing to myself.
Before I could say anything else, my mom interrupts. “Sashi, you’re going to be late to your first day.”
I glance at the clock. Dammit, she’s right. Mum takes my shoulder and begins hustling me backward, out of the room. “Nice to meet you, Sashi,” Will calls out.
“You too,” I say over my shoulder. “We should—”
But the door closes behind me.
Mum and I speed-walk down the hall, with her lecturing me the whole way. “You need to be smarter than that, Sashi. That boy is not for you.”
“Why, because he used to be sick?” I argue. “Mum, I can—”
“You know that’s not what I mean.” Her glare intensifies, and I’m tempted to suggest that if she keeps making that face it will freeze that way. A pack of nurses falls into step behind us, and my mother swallows her next words.
“I thought you liked him,” I point out. “You giggled like a little girl when he thought we were sisters.”
She bristles. “I do like him. Will is a smart kid, and tougher than he looks,” she allows. “But—” the nurses turn a corner, leaving us more or less alone in the hallway “—that boy doesn’t have a magical bone in his body, and you need to marry another thaumaturge,” she hisses. This is my mother’s term for a witch with magical specialties that involve healing. Sometimes I call us “nudgers” just to make her mad. “It is important for the bloodline.”
Ah yes, the bloodline. Thaumaturgy is one of the rarer forms of specialized magic, and my mother is obsessed with making sure I preserve our family’s strong magical pedigree, just like she did. My own biological father is a white Englishman from a long line of healers, and my parents’ marriage was arranged for the combined strength of the magic in their blood. And, as with all things, my mother wants me to be just like her.
This is the great cosmic joke of my life: my West Indian mother couldn’t care less if I marry a man who is white, black, or Indian. Hell, he could be green, for all she cares, as long as he has strong witchblood.
“The bloodline can kiss my ass, Mum,” I say pleasantly, and am gratified when her jaw drops open. “Don’t look at me like that. I’ve been telling you for two years that I’m going to marry for love, if I get married at all.”
The rage in her eyes goes from intense to hide-your-children levels of fury. I can practically see her run through her attack options: guilt me, threaten to cut me off, write it off as a phase. Nothing’s been particularly effective so far. She takes a deep breath, and uses her special see how reasonable I’m being tone. “I have been in touch with a thaumaturgy family in Nova Scotia,” she begins. “There is a young man—”
Well, that’s new. And ridiculous. “I’m not talking about this again,” I say, waving her off. “We’re here.” I turn on my heel, but before I can make it more than a few steps away, my mother hisses my name in a tone that even I know not to mess with. I sigh and go back over to her.
“Don’t forget,” she says, her voice so low I have to step closer to hear, “it’s the full moon tonight. The werewolf pack will be edgy all day.”
Witches are not the only race that evolved to use magic. The Old World—the supernatural one—also includes werewolves and vampires, and everything is divided into territories that are run by one party, usually a werewolf pack or cardinal vampire. Southern Minnesota is controlled by a werewolf alpha, Luke, which means that technically my mum and I are his subjects.
Luke mostly lets us be—rightfully assuming that my mum and her work are harmless to him—but every now and then he demands her services as a doctor, because the werewolves heal way too fast for the modern medical system. When I’m not away at school, I’m supposed to help her, to convince Luke that I am a team player.
In general, werewolves are like athletes on a shit-ton of steroids: quick-tempered, irritable, absurdly strong, and prone to violence. It’s not their fault, really: the magic itches at them, never quite bonding their two halves together. Because of their quick healing, my mum usually only gets called in to close flapping skin wounds or set broken bones, but even that happens more than you’d think. The pack members fight one another a lot. Especially just before a full moon, when the tension has built up so much that they’re all extra twitchy.
I sigh and nod in acknowledgment of my mother’s warning. To my surprise, when I turn into the volunteer coordinator’s office she retreats back the way she came. I’d like to think she’s respecting my request to do this by myself, but I probably just made her so angry she forgot she was planning to terrorize my new boss.
The coordinator, Juan-Carlos, is a middle-aged man who embodies the word “soft” in every way: soft voice, soft body, soft personality. I already went through volunteer training over spring break, so he just goes over a few last-minute details with me. Within fifteen minutes I am sitting in a chair next to the bed of a nine-year-old Asian boy named Owen with a little cart of books parked next to me. Owen has stage-3 bone cancer, and his parents can’t be at the hospital that day. It’s sad that he’s alone, but I’ve learned from years of coming to the Mayo that parents often don’t have a choice. Young siblings require supervision; money needs to be earned.
Owen is in the middle of radiation treatments, and remains very quiet and withdrawn. He doesn’t respond when I ask what he’d like to read, so I rummage through the cart and pull out a dog-eared copy of The Golden Compass, one of my favorites. It doesn’t really matter what I read, since after a few minutes I’m not going to hear myself doing it, but this is one of those books that every kid should get to read.
I do read him the first two chapters, just to settle myself. Just after Lyra’s adventure in the Retiring Room, though, I gather my courage and rest my fingertips lightly on Owen’s arm.
Magic is like water: it’s all around us, including in the air itself, in varying amounts. Witches are just people who can pull that magic through themselves and channel it into something—in my case, into communicating with the immune system of this nine-year-old boy. When I first started training with my mum, just after I hit puberty, I had to close my eyes to achieve this connection. But she drilled me for hours a day, all through my teenage years, and now my reading voice barely loses expression as I pull in magic and use it to send a message to Owen’s body.
This is instinctual, like a Morse code that only Owen’s body and I understand. First I send it a simple inquiry, which feels a little like using a stick to push a quarter through a five-gallon bucket of Jello. If I could vocalize it, it would just be a general, “How are you?”
The message I get back is weak, and much closer to an emotion than language. I can feel that Owen’s body is flagging, and losing interest in the fight.
Heal // grow // bloom I send to the small boy’s body, as hard as I can.
The message I get back is still sort of hopeless-feeling, but not quite so much—sort of like the ears perking up on a supine dog. Interest // connection? the body sends back.
This part never fails to amaze me—the human body actually wants someone to care for it. It doesn’t want to be alone in the war it is waging. If you ask the average terminal patient, even a child, they will say there are lots of people fighting for them: doctors, nurses, parents, friends, community. But sometimes the body itself doesn’t receive that message.
Interest // connection, I assure it. Return.
The wrist I am touching abruptly jerks, knocking the book out of my hand. I look at Owen’s eyes, surprised. Moving more slowly now, he takes my hand, and I cannot tell if his gentleness is intentional or if he is just weak. “Thank you,” he whispers. There is something in his eyes, a look so weary and complicated and desperate that it should never appear on a child.
I nod, say some kind of mumbled goodbye, and barely make it out of the room before I burst into tears. The glamorous life of the thaumaturge witch.
And that is the part that my mother just doesn’t understand, because she experiences magic differently—less as a back-and-forth conversation, more like two ships scooping up bottled messages. I’ve tried to explain to her that for me, using magic is very akin to empathy: in order to talk to a person’s body, I have to identify with it, with what it feels, and that is devastating. This makes no sense to my mother, and I suspect she tells herself that I am just weak, and need toughening up.
Even though she bred me to be this way, she doesn’t want to admit that my magic is stronger than hers, and has been since I was thirteen.
After two hours and three more patients, I am physically and emotionally exhausted. Using magic is tiring, and even experienced witches like my mum can’t use it all day every day. When my two-hour shift is over I find a single-stall restroom and splash cool water on my face, soothing my swollen eyes. I have spent nearly as much time crying in a supply closet as I have reading.
When I’m sure I can speak without sobbing, I toss handfuls of crumpled paper towels in the garbage and go back to Juan-Carlos’ office. It’s obvious that I’ve been crying, but apparently a lot of volunteers go through something similar, because Juan-Carlos pats my shoulder gently and tells me it gets easier. I just nod and gather my belongings. I have no intention of returning the next day, or ever again.
In the lobby, I pause to rummage in my bag for my bus schedule. Mum will likely stay until seven or eight tonight, so I need to find my own way home. There is too much junk in my bag, though, and after a moment I drift over to a bench and start setting out the larger items so I can dig through to the bottom.
“Sashi, right?” calls a voice to my left.
I look up. The guy, Will, is walking through the lobby, now dressed in cargo shorts and a tomato-colored T-shirt that shows off the chest muscles foretold by the hospital gown. He’s carrying a beat-up canvas backpack. “Oh, hey,” I say, trying not to sniffle. I’m sure my eyes are as red as his shirt, and a cute boy is about the last person in the world I want to see right now. I find the bus schedule and set it on my lap, smoothing it out against my leg.
Without being asked, Will comes over and sits down on the other side of my things, helping me put items back in my bag.
“My checkout took forever, but I’m glad I got to see you again,” he says, watching the patients and visitors bustling through the lobby. “Rough shift?”
I nod without speaking. When everything is tucked away, we sit there for a moment, my bag on the bench between us. I watch everyone bustling through the lobby. Most of the people here look shattered. This clinic is a whole building of emotional devastation, and my mother’s dearest wish is that I spend the rest of my life here. How fucked up is that?
Will just sits there for the longest time, and I can’t tell if he’s waiting for me to speak or just waiting for his ride or something. “Don’t you have somewhere you need to be?” I ask, noticing that he doesn’t wear a wristwatch.
Will shrugs, smiling. “I’m not working today—I deliver beer during the summer. Nobody’s expecting me back in Winona at any certain time.” He glances at the bus schedule on my lap. “Do you need a ride somewhere?” he asks, then winces. “Or is that weird?”
I consider it. I don’t really feel like trying to put on my breezy college girl persona, and my mother would hate the idea of me getting in a car with this man, particularly since there’s a chance the wolves might need us tonight.
On the other hand, I don’t relish the idea of riding the bus looking like I’ve just had a messy cry, even if that’s pretty much what happened. I stand up abruptly. “Let’s go.”