by Allie Kiri Mendelsohn
My sister hates Plaza but she takes me shopping anyway, mostly cause Mom makes her. Mom doesn’t think I was a total waste of an ovary, though you’d think she would, me coming after my sister and all (what an anticlimax, she jokes sometimes, but it’s a joke, seriously). There are perks to being select and one of those perks is a car, and since with great power comes great responsibility, Marissa drives me, like, everywhere, to school, to summoning, everywhere. She totally resents it.
We pass a Six-for-Séance. They have that violet ring in the window—you know, the one that reflects the faces of people you could fall in love with? It’s a cool concept even if it doesn’t work. The ring was prettier on TV but I still want it. Can’t go into Six-for-Séance with Marissa though, no self-respecting magique decorates itself in all black, that is so tacky, if you want anything with a function go to Salon Sarajevi, her words. I have said to her before, well what if I don’t want something with a function. She looks at me like I’m a moron or making excuses.
“Can we just go in for like just five minutes,” I say.
She reminds me that we are here for a dress.
Which we are, so we go to Dryad, which is boring. My sister isn’t talking, so it’s pretty quiet except for the people picking up clothes and putting them back, and it hits me that I kind of hate all the dresses here. I mean, not like intensely hate them, not like I would buy them just to burn them and swallow their ashes or anything, but like I don’t like them and I kind of hate them for it. They’re just not trying hard enough. It’s the sort of hate where I get this sick little pit in my pancreas, because if my sister feels like making me choose a dress, I know I won’t hate it enough to have a morbid ectoplasmic meltdown and say no. I’ll just choose one. And I’ll casually-all-consumingly despise it.
I drag a blue silk dress off the rack and show it to Marissa. “What does this look like with the cracks on it?”
My sister sighs. “Screw off.”
• • •
Marissa is very possessive of the cracks. I get the sense they’re kind of creepy. I asked her once, when she was eleven and I was nine, “Are they creepy?” We were working on my energy rift in the living room, so she could have talked if she’d wanted, but she just looked at me like I was a moron or making excuses again.
Still though, I think they must be pretty creepy, from the little she’s said about them: they crawl along my hands and lie still like veins, they come in twos, in tens, in hundreds, they weave nets over each other, they pulse even when they’re empty, I mean that sounds pretty creepy to me. Which gets to me because she definitely uses the creep factor as an excuse, like she’s protecting me from the cracks by not talking about them or some crap? even though that’s not the deal at all; they’re just hers. I don’t blame her for that, either. I mean, they are.
These dresses are trollish though, and I kind of suspect they’d look better with the cracks on them. The cracks might give otherwise-trollish things a little pizazz. I wonder if that is why Marissa won’t talk about them, because aside from creeping her out they also give pizazz, and they shouldn’t give pizazz, given the circumstances and the mortality rate and all that. It’s not poetic. “Do the cracks give pizazz?” I ask Marissa. She gives me the idiot-look again.
Next rack. Marissa pretty much teleports into her phone (not literally, even the select can’t teleport into solid objects), which means she’s talking to that boy she won’t talk about. Marissa is lucky she’s pretty since otherwise she’s pretty morbid. She has one of those faces with a low-key, not-so-into-you prettiness: calmly curved nose, uncommitted eyes—nice enough to look at on its own, but when she feels something, anything, she’s beautiful. She’s one of maybe two or three people I’ve ever met in my entire life who look pretty when they’re mad. If she looks at you with feeling, you feel lucky to be getting feeling of any kind, even if it’s just irritation or the thing that Mom calls sopping disdain.
Holding a pink flowery dress now, and this one would definitely look better with the cracks on it. Especially if they glow—I’ve tried to squeeze a straight answer about that out of Marissa, whether the cracks glow, cause some of the select say they do, some say they don’t, and I just want to know. Honestly, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. This dress would be pretty with glowing black lines on it.
She looks at it. “You can’t wear flowers,” she says.
“They’re not real.” She always tricks me into stating the obvious.
“Yes, it’s also not a real summoning. It’s, like, the principle.” She scrutinizes a green dress like she’s giving it a quiz. “You have to look like you’re taking it seriously.”
“I do take it seriously,” I shove the flower dress back on the rack, “and I hate flowers, so obviously I wasn’t going to wear that.”
“What are you going to call?”
“You haven’t even—”
“Not a real summoning.”
You don’t summon anything on your first recital. You just practice the script. So my ceremony isn’t real and I haven’t opened the leather-bound Beginner’s Book of Spirits Marissa bought me with her car commercial money and I don’t want a dress. I do the thing with my eyeballs where I dare her to say I’m wrong, you know, an eyeball-dare. She’s about to tell me that I should take my recital seriously, because the magic will be listening even though I’m just saying the words, so I get ready to say the thing that I’ve been preparing as a comeback: just because the magic spies on her, doesn’t mean it spies on everyone.
Instead, she says, “You should call something simple. A gartersprite.” She shrugs and lifts up the green dress. “This is fine.”
“It’s completely and totally gnome.”
“Which is fine.”
“I hate it,” I say.
For a second, I just wait to see what she’ll do. It’ll be one of two things: she’ll say fine again, or she’ll hand the hideous dress to me and tell me we need to leave and my recital is next week and I have to grow up. Which is a pretty vague order. She’s only two years older than me so like how much growing is she telling me to do? Sometimes I think she means wait a couple minutes and find a way to be smarter. Sometimes I think she means get to her level, which is absurd, cause I’m not a prodigy or even dying or anything. Honestly, sometimes I don’t think she cares if I know what she means. It’s just one of those things that needs to be said.
She shrugs again and hangs the dress back on the rack.
• • •
My sister’s recital dresses are made by the Mosaic, which is ridiculous if you know how much things made by the Mosaic cost. We can’t even buy their silverware, and she has three designer gowns sitting in her closet and—get this—they’re free. That’s what happens when you’re a vessel for magic incarnate, I guess, and you have an ambiguously decreased life expectancy: people give you stuff that normally costs tens of thousands of dollars for free, because they think it’s pretty rad that you can see weird cracks you won’t talk about on things, even though I think it’s pretty gnome, to be honest.
Once, when I was bitching about why I couldn’t have a Mosaic dress while Marissa was trying on her first one, Marissa said, “Honestly, it’s more like a loan.” Mom laughed because that’s what she does when Marissa talks about her mortality in public, but I have the room right next to Mom’s and I hear her prolonged horrible phone calls to Dr. Sasaki while I’m trying to study my incants and I just did not know what to say.
I’m still hardcore jealous as we get out of Dryad though, mostly because I can’t shake that image from my head: my sister standing on the stage during her first recital. She’s wearing a high-necked deep purple dress that flutters down to her ankles and ripples (literally, like water, it was awful) as she says her incants, and she isn’t doing them or anything, she’s just saying them like you’re supposed to during your first recital, but the magic comes to her anyway, crawls up over her toes. We can all see it. Thin shadows slice across her dress and I’m one-hundred-percent convinced, for a split second, oh Mosaic this is it—these are the cracks—this is the moment I will see them.
It isn’t. They’re the shadows of the cellarwatchers she was pretending to summon. They didn’t realize she was pretending. They have come anyway.
Marissa says the select see the cracks from the moment they’re born, so I need to stop waiting to see them. The internet seems to agree with her, though there are blogs that are like, Sixteen and Selected, Acne and Ascension—but the grammar is crap and they say stuff like I first saw the cracks when I did my coffee charm and my toaster exploded, which is just not true at all, Marissa has never exploded the toaster, it has nothing to do with toasters. I wait anyway. I waited at her second recital, when she summoned a sightsnatcher in a blue ball gown and hovered twelve and a half inches off the ground, and at her third recital, when she summoned a whisperer in a black backless dress and literally-I-kid-you-not-glowed. That was when I became pretty sure that the cracks must glow; she was pretty much a giant crack in the stage herself. One big glowing tube. Some people say the cracks are like tubes, that the magic travels through them. I like that. I like making Marissa a tube once in a while.
But as we march through The Gelded Gown and Marissa suggests increasingly hideous dresses, the Marissa Tube reminds me of the Six-for-Séance ring and I get totally mad all over again. Would she please just get it for me? Like, for my birthday? Marissa is unmoved. She doesn’t wear jewelry, not even jewelry that can identify your soul mate; she doesn’t like having things on her. Sometimes even clothes make her feel nauseous. Autoimmune thing. She probably practices her seances naked.
My sister is luridly pale, and I sometimes wonder if seeing cracks on herself is like peering straight through her skin, at some screwed-up blood vessels where the blood is black.
I find two half-decent dresses. She won’t let me wear them. “Do you know what I think?” I say. She doesn’t. She’s done talking. “I think you want me to be ugly.” It’s a stupid thing to say because I’m pretty sure she already thinks I’m ugly. “I just kind of don’t think it’s too much to ask,” verging on the ectoplasmic now, “to want to look pretty instead of totally gnome while I pretend to summon a demon,” but not a meltdown, not nearly morbid enough.
Moron, her eyes say, moron moron moron—I don’t know what to do. I close my eyes and don’t think about her eyes and instead I think about why you call tantrums morbid ectoplasmic meltdowns, when morbid ectoplasmic meltdowns actually kill ghosts and tantrums don’t kill people, usually, they just kind of suck. It’s probably an insensitive phrase when you think about it, one of those ones that in ten or twenty years, when the ghosts stick up for themselves, is gonna be totally uncool and make you sound like a jerk. Because it must be horrible to have morbid ectoplasmic meltdowns instead of tantrums, to have a semicorporeal body that can’t process your misery, that literally just gives up—though maybe there are times when it wouldn’t suck. When it would be nice to have it happen by accident, oops and you’re just, like, some mist.
Marissa is talking. Not to me. She’s saying thank you, for some compliment about that thing she banished in the school basement last week. Saw it online. Thanks. You were incredible. Thank you. I’m Ryan.
I look at Ryan. He’s tall, which is in his favor, but he has no shot with her since he’s not unspeakable texting boy (unless he is and this is an elaborate ruse in which case screw you Marissa, like honestly just screw you). Anyway, it’s hard to tell whether he’s flirting with her, cause he’s all awe-inspired. As a general rule, it is hard to tell whether people are flirting with Marissa or whether they’re awe-inspired.
I look at Marissa. She’s tilting her head at him. He has no shot, zero.
• • •
Marissa hasn’t had bodyguards since the sixth grade. You can’t touch her with a thirty-foot pole if she doesn’t want you to. Or, like, with a hypodermic syringe, I mean, if that wasn’t clear, because what I’m talking about is some people are kind of crazy and she’s low-key famous so like—you might think she’d have them. She doesn’t. She also isn’t as famous as you’d expect. The select only ever get on four or five talk shows. She can do a seriously abnormal amount of magic, which people think is neat, but you can only look at her for about thirty minutes before you remember that she’s dying, and people find that less neat generally. They like her in small doses. We used to argue about it when we wanted each other’s toys.
“Give it to me,” she’d scream. “I’m dying.”
“No, you’re not,” I’d scream back, which also meant, it’s mine.
Marissa and I suffer through two more department stores. The dresses embarrass me. She doesn’t make me buy them. “Did you think he was cute?” she says eventually.
He was easily a nine (only very attractive people have the guts to smile at my sister in public), so I tell her, “His head looked like a potato.”
She nods, thoughtful. “Huh.”
We’ve ended up in the hallway where we entered, the exit maybe fifty yards ahead—I almost hope she’ll let me leave, dress-less. We’re back at Six-for-Séance. They’ve got the ring sitting in a pretty velvet box like an engagement ring, and suddenly I can’t remember what it’s called, in the commercials—Ring of Love? Ring of Lovers? Best Ring Ever? I need to know. “Do you remember what it’s called? That ring? On TV?”
“I’m being serious.”
“You’re such an idiot.”
“Why? Because I want,” I do my spooky voice, “to faaaalllll in loooove?”
She throws her hands up at her sides, as if to say no and sure and shut up all at once. Her eyes follow mine through the windowpane, but Marissa isn’t looking at the ring. Not really.
“What did he want from me?” she says, sounding totally disgusted by the idea that anyone would want anything from her.
“Babies,” I say.
“What is he, a necrophiliac?”
“How would I know?” I say.
Sometimes I get the sense that Marissa likes talking to me about her impending demise—I guess cause I don’t know how to respond, so I act like it’s no big thing? I’m probably a welcome change from Mom and all her furtive do-you-really-want-to-talk-about-this-in-front-of-your-hairdresser glances. Not that my sister talks about death in front of her hairdresser. Not unless she really wants to get under Mom’s skin.
“Sometimes I wish people would ask me about my blood count after they congratulated me for things,” she says.
“That is a super weird thing to wish.”
“I mean.” Her eyes go so hard I think the window’s going to shatter. “Yeah.”
I look at the ring, and suddenly I’m not sure if I want to fall in love—I’m only sure that I hate that Marissa thinks what I want is stupid. “Please?” Nothing. I almost ask her about her blood count. She steps so close to the window that she could lick the pane and peers at the ring. Her face gets all mushy on the glass, sort of vacant and cute in the way that her face is always vacant and cute when it’s a reflection, cause you can’t see that look in her eyes, like she’s already bored of looking at you. “Why do you want this piece of crap?” she says.
“I like crap,” I say.
She turns around to look at me. “Like, actually?”
I could go to my recital naked. I could. “Like, actually.”
Marissa makes a face and turns back to the ring, probably trying to decide how anybody could want something as moronic as a fake clairvoyant ring or true love or emotions and coming to the inevitable conclusion that we are morons and she is not; she’s just not like us. Her reflection must be nice with the cracks on it, running along the windowpane, cutting her face into pieces. And she says the cracks show up in reflections, so it’s possible the cracks on the window are cutting through the cracks on her face. It’s even possible they, like, touch.
I imagine slapping her face, cracks and all, just to see if she would feel it.
Marissa jerks back around. “If I bought you the ring, what would you do with it?” I’ve always wondered if she does that on purpose: moves super slow and deliberate for 99% of her life just to jump you with the other 1%, when she jerks. “Well?”
“I would wear it,” I say.
She makes shaking her head look beneath her. “Let’s say the ring did work. Which it doesn’t. But let’s say it works, and you wore it, and one day you looked down and you saw some random person’s face in it, and you were like ohmygod, and you looked around, and you found them. What would you do?”
My Marissa Alarms go off, but it’s too late, they always go off too late. “It doesn’t work.”
“What would you do?”
She’s enunciating again. Like I’m an idiot.
“I don’t know.” My voice rises. I tell it to calm the heck down, but it doesn’t calm any hecks down, not even one, because it’s bad news when my sister uses hypotheticals. “I guess it would depend.”
“On what?” she says, her tone sterile.
“Well, first,” I say, “on if he was cute.”
I produce a hasty adjective: “Funny.”
“And then?” Her voice is a fault line.
“How many requirements do you have?”
“We’re not talking about me.”
People are looking.
I didn’t think we were talking about her, but apparently we are so I backtrack superfast. Actually slow. I backtrack slow. My sister got so mad at this boy who asked her out once that his nose started bleeding and she burst into tears—we were walking to Mom’s car after school. It isn’t the kind of thing you forget. At least, it isn’t the kind of thing I forget.
The kind of thing I forget is whether I asked her why she did it. I think I did. I mean, it would have made sense to ask her why, because all he was doing was following us to the car and asking her to go to the seventh-grade dance with him, which is not usually a reason to make somebody’s nose bleed. But she could have had other reasons, and if she did, I wanted to know. That’s why I think I asked.
But I have like twelve of her answers floating in my head and I can’t remember which one she said—sometimes I feel like she said all of them, which is impossible; Marissa never gives multiple answers. She always has multiple answers, but she never gives them. She chooses one. She gives that one. Her answers to why did you make Connor’s nose bleed include because I could, because I was scared, he’s got a good blood count and it was an accident, and she didn’t say all those things, she couldn’t have. Which makes me think I never asked. Even though I wanted to.
Marissa lays her skinny fingers on the glass. “If that ring worked,” she says, “would you still want it?”
“It doesn’t work,” I say.
Her eyes on the glass are volcanic. “But if it did?”
“And if it could?”
“I said no.”
“No,” she says, “you didn’t.”
As she stares me into the ground and I realize what she’s offering, I see for the first time (or maybe not for the first time, maybe I’ve realized this before and just forgotten) that her eyes are the color of the ring between us: the deep, bubbling purple that you get when you have an unbearable amount of magic flowing through you, or when you’re a chunk of plastic and you want to look like you do. Skilled magicians’ eyes turn purple for a time during summonings, but my sister, the select, they have that purple all the time. She can’t turn it off. She’s tried.
I almost believe myself when I say, “You couldn’t. No way.”
She laughs. “You don’t know what I can and can’t do.”
She’s right. I have no idea what she can and can’t do, what she has and hasn’t done. No idea if she could take a piece of plastic and make it show her the face of her true love, so that she knows, when she sees him, to spit in his eyeball.
“How would you do it?” I say.
Her eyes are cold glass. “I’d buy that ring.”
“I’d take it to my room.”
“But how would you—”
“Would you want it?”
She wants me to want that ring, a ring she’d call up from all her secret cracks, a ring that would find me true love, a husband, kids, or maybe just a date, I don’t know, she might pass out. I don’t even know what her blood count is. She’s never told me. I’ve never asked.
My voice is a stupid whistle. “No.”
Marissa’s eyes slip from the store like the window got suddenly slick. She’s staring right across the hallway at Dryad, at its horrible trollish dresses. I know, because I know her, that she wants to punish me. I failed her dare. I told her no.
“You need a dress,” she says.
“Yes.” I brace myself.
“Just take one of mine,” she says, and she says it like she’s doing me a favor, when there would be nothing worse in the world than standing there at my first recital in Marissa’s dress, with no cracks and no cellarwatchers. “What? You at least like the purple one, don’t you?” For a second, maybe, she cares about my answer, wants me to say yes.
I’d look so beautiful in that purple dress. I’d look ridiculous.
“I like all of your dresses,” I say, but the fury comes out anyway: I can’t wear them to my recital. My sister looks at me like a crack in the floor is swallowing me whole, or maybe that’s just how I feel, her eyes so dark their color suffocates (who am I to know how my sister looks at me?).
“You want your own dress,” she says. “You want something beautiful.”
I should say yes, but all I want is to go home.
Marissa isn’t looking at Six-for-Séance anymore. She’s cataloguing my clothes, imagining what I’d look like in her dress, which would be too long for me, and also not big enough. “Do you want me to get you a dress?”
I stutter through a blink. “What?”
“Do you want a recital dress,” she says, “that’s as beautiful as mine?”
And she can’t mean what I think she means, but still I can’t help myself—“Yes.”
“Fine,” she says.
She turns from the window and walks away in that way that she has, there’s a briskness in it, a rejection, a not worth it. I follow because you can’t help but follow when Marissa walks away, like you know how there are some people who walk away and you just let them go? Marissa isn’t like that. You can’t let her go. She won’t come back. She walks away from a tattoo parlor and a seer kiosk and some place that sells soap and each one in turn is not worth it, each one gets her small, cold shoulder. She ducks into an alcove with a men’s bathroom and waits for me to follow. She grabs my arm and I squeeze my eyes shut. Teleportation always makes me feel like vomiting.
I keep my eyes closed after the spinning stops. I don’t look at the stained glass I know we’re standing on. I don’t look at the arching hallways I know surround us. The first time Marissa took me teleporting (she wanted to go swimming), I asked her if we were flying through a crack, if the cracks were like wormholes, she said no. I threw up on the beach.
“HEY,” she’s yelling. “MY SISTER WANTS A DRESS.”
No footsteps, no slink of robes on the floor. Through the slits of my eyes I see colors. They make me nauseous. I don’t look at the tiered mezzanines that turn the room into a coliseum, a coliseum where they don’t have fights, only ceremonies, no ceremony now. We’re alone in the hall, my sister and me, and there’s nobody coming to make my dress. Maybe there’s nobody in the whole palace, if you can call this place a palace, this labyrinth where I’ve only ever seen one room: this room, where they flocked to my sister where she stood, like an offering, to make her a gown. But she doesn’t need them. My clothes dissolve into silk and then I hear chanting—my sister’s voice gets really low when she does incants—and it like hits me, eyes still closed, everything dark (though there’s a faint glow now, she’s becoming a tube again), that even if I did ask about her blood count and she gave me some number, it wouldn’t mean shit, because I don’t read the pamphlets Mom gets from her doctors.
• • •
We’re back at Plaza eventually. I know because it smells like pizza and not like glass. I open my eyes, kind of by accident, and the whiteness is jarring. I kind of want to throw up but it’s sort of out of habit, like I don’t really need to, I just sort of want to, you know? I look down and see the dress.
It’s satin. I don’t know that, but it feels nice and it deserves a nice word like that. Satin in a dark blue sheen that hovers on silver, can’t quite decide, and I wonder whether the color is a style or an accident, because I’ve never seen Marissa conjure clothes before. The dress could have mistakes. It could, like, dissolve.
“You’re covered in them,” she says.
Says is too strong. Her voice is a suggestion. I can’t help but take it—hold onto it, she’s too pale for it, she means the cracks. I want to ask her how much space there is between them. I want to ask her if they give the dress pizazz.
My sister is tired, all her noncommittal prettiness committed to my pretty dress. I wonder how long we were there. I know most people can only teleport for a couple minutes before they get sucked back where they started, but my sister, I swear, she can hold it for, like, hours. People in the hallway are starting to look at me. I look back at them, them and all that whiteness—my closed eyes only became seeing slits back there for a couple seconds, but that was enough to see the colors. We were standing on an enormous mosaic. I couldn’t see it at that moment but it’s basically their logo, a giant capital M.
Marissa’s slumped against the wall. She looks like she’s about to puke.
I should sit down next to her, but I’m terrified of ruining the dress.
Copyright © 2021 by Allie Kiri Mendelsohn