Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
There’s something about lounging in a bath of blood that makes me want to stay until my fingers shrivel enough to show the outlines of my bones.
My toes peek out of thick ruby ripples. Slick drops slide off my fingers and splash with an echo in the tub like spicy pone batter dripping off a mixing spoon.
“Sorry to stop you waxing poetic, but you need to get out of the tub.” My cousin Keis slouches against the doorframe of our bathroom. The toilet is so close to the bathtub that you have to prop your feet on the ledge when you pee.
She blows a breath out of her nose and crosses her arms. The powder-blue robe she’s wearing is embroidered with a K for Keisha. Our oldest cousin, Alex, made one for everyone in the family last Christmas. My canary-yellow robe with a V for Voya is hanging up in my room.
“Don’t call me Keisha, even in your head,” she says, casually reading the thought off the top of my mind.
Sorry. Even a year after Keis got her mind-reading gift, I still sometimes forget that she has it.
Granny used to say that Keishas were bad. To fry Granny’s battery, Auntie Maise gave the name to both her twin girls. Keis, as she insists on being called, is pronounced “KAY-ss,” like something you put glasses into instead of the more natural “KEY-shh,” which sounds like a delicious egg-and-spinach tart. I figure this is a way for my cousin to differentiate herself even more from her sister, who she’s clashed with since birth on account of their shared name.
My cousin clenches her jaw. “Keisha is annoying and obsessed with her feed and dating. That’s why we clash. Taking those pictures with her ass stuck out like she’s some sort of NuMoney tagalong. For what? So some stranger can give her a five-star rating?”
I like Keisha’s feed. She makes living outside the downtown core look glamorous, and I find her open sexuality kind of rebel feminist. It is a lot of boobs and butt, but at least she’s proud of it?
Keis pulls off her headscarf, and curly ringlets bounce out of its hold. The roots are a black 1B and the ends blond 14/88A. I bought the sew-in wig online for her birthday. “Yolanda,” it’s called. It looks real for fake.
Keis opens her mouth.
Not fake, sorry. It’s real hair, but it’s not yours.
Having someone inside your head constantly is an experience. By now, I’m used to it. Sometimes it makes things easier because I have a best friend who can comfort me about something I feel shitty about before I even tell her. And sometimes it makes things harder, like when I feel shitty because I know I’ll never be as smart or strong or talented as Keis, and I have to see her face shift as she pretends she hasn’t heard the thought.
I press the small button on the bath keypad. It’s embedded, crooked (thanks, Uncle Cathius), in the white tiles lining the tub. The steam icon lights up neon green, and the installed jets feed heat into the blood bath. I shiver as the warmth hits me.
Every minute I spend here is another I don’t have to pass downstairs. I should be enjoying this time, not spending it dreading what comes next.
Keis’s lip curls. “Don’t tell me you turned the heat on.”
Okay, I won’t. I hug my legs to my chest. “Why do I need to get out right now?”
My cousin sags against the door. “I checked on your food, as you bossily messaged me to, an hour ago. It’s been ready. We want to eat, but Granny won’t let us touch anything until you come down. It’s a special dinner to celebrate your Bleeding, after all.”
I don’t know if non-magic girls get excited about puberty, but it’s a big deal in the witch community. At fourteen and fifteen, I was disappointed when nothing happened, but not everyone can be an early bloomer. Or an early-late bloomer, given that witches tend to get their periods later. But I always felt like sixteen would be my time. Every day since my sixteenth birthday a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been in a constant state of anticipation, waiting for the moment that finally happened a few hours ago.
I was in the living room, packaging our beauty supplies with Mom and Granny. It started as a sort of uncomfortable wetness in my underwear. Which, let’s be honest, happens sometimes. I already had two weeks of getting my hopes up over false alarms, so I wasn’t going to be quick to jump to conclusions. Until that feeling expanded to the point where I thought I, a sixteen-year-old girl with a typically functioning bladder, had wet myself. Which, in hindsight, is so embarrassing a thought that I’m glad I didn’t say it aloud. And I’m doubly glad that Keis wasn’t around to hear it. But when I stood up to go to the bathroom and check things out, there was a single trickle of blood that dripped down my loose pajama shorts.
Sometimes, the things that change your life are physically small and mentally enormous. Like that little crimson droplet sliding down my bare leg.
I screamed with excitement.
Mom screamed with pride.
Granny screamed for me to get off the rug before I stained it.
I borrowed a pad from Mom so I could slow the bleeding while I rushed around the kitchen trying to get my own Calling dinner in the oven before finally getting into the bath more than an hour later to properly celebrate. I hadn’t moved for another couple of hours since.
My Bleeding isn’t just a witch’s typical massive overproduction of body fluids brought on by the perfect unexplainable mix of genetic predispositions, hormones, and magic, meant to represent the blood of our ancestors. It’s also the first step in my Coming-of-Age, of the challenge of becoming a witch.
Which was really hacking amazing until I remembered that I could fail and not inherit magic at all. Now my Bleeding is the only bright spot in this situation. An irony that I haven’t missed.
The more Keis pushes, the more I want to stay in the tub. Once I step out, the rest of my Coming-of-Age will start. There won’t be any turning back or slowing down.
“I’m naked,” I whine.
“Wow! I didn’t notice.”
Keis is kind of mean. No, not kind of. She is. The closer you are to her, the worse she gets. I’ve known her since birth and therefore get an equal amount of love and vitriol.
I’m sure it’s because Uncle Vacu did her birthing, and he’s got a strong negative energy. Not because of the Mod-H addiction. He’s just an asshole. Maybe because he’s the oldest. But technically, he did all our births. It’s a miracle someone like him could have a daughter as caring and loyal as our cousin Alex. If proper genetic sequencing had been around when Uncle was born, it would have shown a vulnerability to addiction and low impulse control. Employers wouldn’t have been able to stop him from being a doctor, and they shouldn’t—I mean, the human rights concerns would be all over the place—but for his own safety, none would have given him clearance to handle addictive drugs.
Not that we could ever afford detailed medical data like that. Applying for a job would be the only way he could have found out. Even if they did have the technology for it then, they wouldn’t have given him the sequence data. They give you enough genetic info to keep you alive. Why offer more for free when NuGene can charge you a premium instead?
I sink deeper into the bath so only my eyes are visible—two dark, almost-black irises peeking out. The blood glides against my lips like our Thomas Brand lip butter.
I look up at Keis’s unamused expression and say, “Remember when NuGene was a dinky start-up white people used to find out how many different types of white they were?”
She cracks a smile and lifts her chin to the ceiling. “I’m six percent British, two percent Irish, and ninety-two percent Canadian.”
“And that sequencing is yours for a budget price,” Keis drawls.
The “budget price” works out to a month’s mortgage for a fancy downtown condo. And that’s just for basic DNA data. What they charge for genetic manipulation makes my stomach clench.
“Is she still in the tub?” Mom screeches from down the hall.
Mom rips the door open and barrels past Keis into the room. She’s got her hair cornrowed and tucked away under a wig cap. The braids peek through the skin-color nylon. Not the ebony of our skin, but a light, almost-pink beige. Wig caps our skin color exist but somehow never come for free in the package.
I don’t get any privacy here. According to Granny, our ancestors are always listening. Meaning that my family has a long history of being nosy. It’s hard to imagine Mama Orimo, who died sneaking fellow slaves from the scorching sugarcane fields of Louisiana to chilled freedom in Ontario, would spend her afterlife spying on us. Our family lives in secret among people who don’t believe in anything without genetic proof, much less magic. Watching us would bore the hell out of her.
Mom tightens the drawstring on her pale green nightgown and stares down at me with a weary smile. “Congratulations on your Bleeding. This is a beautiful moment. You’re transforming into a fledgling witch. But I’ll be damned if I let you spend the entire night soaking in blood.”
“Isn’t that part of it?” I ask. For a girl, Bleedings mean you have a long, luxurious bath, and the blood strangely makes your skin extra soft, and then everyone in your family has a special dinner together to celebrate you. Like an extra birthday.
The male equivalent is a lot less exciting. When I asked Dad about his, he shrugged it off as more of an inconvenience. He got the same inexplicable volume of blood everyone does, but if you don’t have a period, it has to come from everywhere else: eyes, nose, mouth, and he said with a cough, “private areas.” He just showered it off without bothering to make the moment special like most guys do.
Showered, like it’s nothing!
Everyone else picks whatever sort of celebration, if any, feels right to them.
“Yes, your bath is a part of it,” Mom says, plopping a hand on her hip. “And no, you can’t stay in there forever just because. It’s time to move on and get ready for tomorrow.”
My chest tightens, and I tug my arms around my knees, tucking my whole body into something smaller as if that’ll help me avoid Mom’s attention. The Bleeding is just the first step of a witch’s Coming-of-Age. Tomorrow I’ll have to face my Calling. One of my ancestors will appear before me and give me a task that I need to complete to come into my magic and get my gift. Any witch can shed blood and do a little spell. A gift is different. It’s unique to each of us, written in the way our genetic code shifts after passing the Calling.
Mom narrows her eyes. “I’m not asking again. Get out of the tub.” She doesn’t raise her voice, but she does use a mini utility blade to slice her thumb, then casts a quick spell with the blood dripping from her cut. Suddenly, the blood I’m sitting in turns frigid. My bath thickens and clumps in a way that makes the homemade Dutch fries and curry sauce I had at lunch rush up my throat.
She points at the tub and swirls her index finger. In response, the bath liquid imitates the motion, and clots the size of tennis balls graze against my legs. I slap my hands over my mouth as pre-vomit churns in my stomach.
Mom throws her whole arm forward, and the blood and clots get sucked down the drain in one massive wave. The aftereffects of her magic pull against the hair on my body like static cling.
What’s left is me sitting naked in an empty bathtub so dried up inside that I’m sure I’ll never have another period again.
Keis rolls her eyes at me.
Mom’s chest heaves as she lets out a few short, panting breaths. Only she would overstretch her magic bandwidth for drama.
My cousin grabs my towel from the chrome rack on the back of the door and throws it at me. Not that there’s any point in using it since Mom’s spell cleaned the blood off my body.
As I stand and wrap the towel around myself, Mom stabs a finger at me. “You need to get out of your head. This isn’t just a celebration of your menses! It’s the first part of your Coming-of-Age. Your Amplifying ceremony to trigger your Calling is tomorrow night! Get serious.”
Mom is bringing up the exact thoughts that I want to avoid. Now that I’ve had my Bleeding, the ancestors could theoretically Call on me anywhere they want at any time—on the toilet, while I’m doing a product delivery, in the middle of cooking dinner—to have me perform a task of worthiness so they can decide whether or not to bless me with magic.
Which is exactly why everyone is going to be doing an Amplifying ceremony tomorrow. It’s supposed to force my Calling to happen when we decide so I can do my task in a more ideal environment and have a better chance of passing. Plus, having my whole family around will give me a bit of a boost from their magic, which might impress whatever ancestor is conducting my Calling enough for them to give me a stronger gift. If we didn’t do it, I would still have a Calling, but at least this way I wouldn’t have to look my ancestor in the eye and do a task while I’m reaching for toilet paper or something equally mortifying.
Most ancestors won’t Call the same day as your Bleeding, but either way, the countdown to tomorrow has started. In twenty-four hours, I’ll know whether I’ll get to be a witch or… not.
I wish I could shrink back into the bathwater.
“Bath blood. Just because it’s in your head, doesn’t mean you can’t at least try to get things right,” Keis says.
I said she was mean. Didn’t I say that?
The mirror flickers when I step in front of it before coming on fully—it’s an older model Mom got on sale. My skin has the smoothness the blood bath promised, but it’s still dry. I pump our Thomas Brand All-in-One Face Serum and Moisturizer into my hands and slather it over my hickory-brown skin.
The reflective surface of the mirror shifts to show the top stories from my feed once my hijacker chip connects. An alert of a new rating comes up. I tap on it and get a small image of a guy who looks Dad’s age, and the rating he gave me at the streetcar stop near our house.
Four stars from Bernard Holbrook.
Beautiful young girl. Could smile more.
Mom stabs her finger on his profile picture. It smudges the mirror. “I’m gonna report this guy. Look at how old he is! What’s he doing sending creepy ratings?” She selects the report button next to his profile. Her eyes continue to rove over his photo, likely looking for a witch mark—the telltale dot within an almond-shaped oval inside a round circle that our kind hide in online profiles, résumés, storefronts, and more so we can recognize our people.
There’s no mark on this guy’s page.
Mom crosses her arms and shakes her head at the mirror as if it’ll relay her disgust to Bernard and fluffs a bit of my hair. “I know this is scary, and you have trouble with choices sometimes, but your Calling is happening tomorrow whether you’re ready or not. It’s important you pass. And I know you will. But just…”
Try harder? Do better? Be better?
“Get dressed,” Mom commands, giving up on whatever she planned to say before. “I pulled the dinner you made out of the oven. You’re welcome.”
“Thanks.” It starts as a mumble, but I know Mom hates mumbling, so I force my voice into something normal.
She points at Keis. “Please help her pick out a white dress for dinner. Cathius loves that virginal trash, and he’ll be difficult about participating in the Amplifying ceremony if he doesn’t feel catered to.”
Keis quirks a smile. “Yes, Auntie.”
With that, Mom leaves the room. I slather on a leave-in before grabbing a jar of coconut oil from under the sink and scooping up the white cream. It melts from the warmth as I rub my hands together and massage it under my thick curls into my now desert-dry scalp.
Usually when I wash my hair, there’s a routine of pre-conditioners, natural shampoos, leave-in conditioners, Thomas Curling Custard, gels, and heatless curling rods, but I’ve spent too much time in the bath to do all that. I’ll just have to live with undefined but moisturized curls for now. With magic, everyone else can do their hair at four times the speed I can. Eden and I are the only ones who can’t. Not until after we pass our Calling.
I twist my lips into a scowl. “I guess I have to find an uncle-approved white dress.” Or rather, Keis is supposed to help me find one, since according to my mom, I “have trouble with choices,” which apparently also includes decisions at the monumental level of clothing options.
“She didn’t mean it like that,” Keis says. “You know Dad won’t like anything you pick. It would be an annoying choice for anyone.”
Uncle is a frequent stain on the apron that is my life, but there’s no way to leave anyone out of this ceremony. More blood means more power, and everyone is hoping I have a strong gift. The adults use their gifts for income, and pooling our money is how we can all stay together in this house. When Granny and Grandad were young and less established, they got loans against the value of the house to help support our family, but the payments and interest grew until managing it was just as expensive as creating a mortgage for our technically mortgage-free home.
Living in Toronto isn’t cheap, and we’re only managing to break even while other witch families thrive. Our homemade beauty products appeal to the types who want non-modded handmade products, but modded beauty supplies are more popular by far, and we sure as hell can’t afford genetically modified ingredients. That’s the thing about modded stuff. Some of it is cheap and costs much less than something non-modded, and some of it is so hacking expensive you could never hope to afford it. Which means that most of our customers are witches and a small amount of non-magic families who know our powers are real and our products are the best, even without mods.
If we had money, real money, we could rub elbows with the sorts of people who hire for the exclusive and frequently elusive internships or can afford the expensive university education reserved for company-funded and rich kids.
Sure, we all went through the government-mandated minimums. Got our elementary school credits with Johan, whose witch school was accredited and able to give them. And then we got our minimum high school credits, which was really only two years of work, half online and half in person. I just finished mine a little while ago.
Keis is the only one of us who takes classes beyond the minimum, and that’s solely in defiance of being pigeonholed into using her gift to make a living. She still goes to high school to get extra credits, mostly online but sometimes in person, with the same stubbornness that drives her refusal to use or hone what should be a strong gift to get ahead in life.
She scowls at that thought.
“You’re doing amazing for someone fueled by spite. Your grades are higher than any of us have ever gotten.” For real. She does at least a dozen courses every year and aces them. Sometimes, I’m sure she has a bigger ambition, something she’s trying to achieve, but she pretends like it’s 100 percent to piss off the family.
“It’s not spite, it’s a protest of this family’s insistence that your worth is determined by your gift.” She gnaws on her lip. “Not that it matters if I can’t do anything with my education. I have no connections for the sort of internships that send you to university and no money to go on my own.”
She’s echoing everything her parents and the rest of the adults have said before. High school credits are well and good, but if you can’t get an internship at a good company, the amount of high-paying jobs available drops way down. Not to mention, the chance to go to university is basically zero. We could never afford it. Keis would need to find a company willing to pay for her to go. The barrier between having and not having a legitimate internship has always been too huge for the rest of us to bother. It’s why we rely on magic. But Keis is different.
“You need to put yourself out there.” I don’t get why someone with the potential of a gift like she has wouldn’t want to use it, but I support her. “There are a ton of internship Q&As out there. I’ll help you find stuff.” I scroll through my phone and sign up for notifications from places I know have great placements.
My cousin raises her eyebrows. “Why can’t you do that for you?”
“Find courses and internships. Create a backup. Stop being so worried about your gift and focus on something you can choose.”
“Because I’m so fantastic at choosing.” Mom wasn’t wrong. I’ll do anything to help my family, but I’ve always been terrible at making decisions for myself.
“And do what? Fight with hundreds of applicants to get a minimum-wage internship that goes nowhere? I could never land something with a good company.” I don’t know why she hits me with spam like that. If you’re not good enough to get into a major corporation, you’re wasting your time.
A strong gift is all I have to hope for. It’s the special sauce we witches have to turn plain potatoes into gourmet mash. And right now, mine aren’t anything more than dirt-covered russet.
I glance at Keis. “Nothing to say about that?”
She crosses her arms. “You don’t need me to pump you up. Your Calling will be fine, and you’ll end up with a great gift.”
I stare at myself in the mirror, finger curling the odd piece of hair into a springy twist.
When I asked my cousins what the ancestors who Called them gave as a choice for tasks, they were all different. Papa Ulwe had Keisha watch two identical ancestors he brought along from beyond the grave named Sara and Sue for five minutes. She closed her eyes while they mixed themselves up, and she had to choose which one was Sue. Keisha’s always been unnervingly intuitive, so it worked out for her. And she ended up with a gift along the same lines, specific and uncomfortable intuition.
Mama Deirdre laid out a dozen outfits and demanded that Alex choose the perfect one for her. My cousin, in a move that is so her, decided that none of the clothes were good enough and sewed something brand-new for Mama Deirdre, who, of course, adored it.
Mama Nora bombarded Keis with the memories of ten ancestors and told her to choose the single false one or be forever trapped in their minds until her body died. Her Calling didn’t follow the rules and had higher stakes than it should have. It was unpredictable in a way that’s terrifying.
Because that’s the thing about a Calling: it depends on what ancestor you get. Whoever Calls me will not only set my task, they’ll also decide what gift to give me at the Pass ceremony once my Calling is complete. One ancestor will choose me based on whatever secret system they use, though some people say they pick descendants who are similar to them or who they feel prepared to help in some way. However they decide to pick me, I’ll be thrown into a Calling inside my head that I’ll need to pass. Sometimes the transition from real life into your Calling is so seamless that witches don’t even realize it’s happening. I’m not sure if that would make things better or worse for me. On one hand, I wouldn’t have to think about it so much, but on the other, I could fail with almost no effort.
No matter what ancestor I get, no matter how they choose to do my Calling, it’s supposed to be a simple choice between two options. If I pick right, I get magic, and if I don’t, then I’ll never get to be a witch.
But what if I get an ancestor who changes the rules like Mama Nora did for Keis? One who wants to up the stakes. The tasks they give are meant to help us become the best version of ourselves. Though sometimes I think they just like messing with us.
The afterlife must be boring.
“Maybe I’ll be lucky and get Mama Lizzie for my Calling,” I say. She was a baker from Alabama who gathered a bunch of other women in the area to help feed people in the march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. Her Callings usually involve spending hours baking something and deciding who to give it away to—the answer always being someone in need. A task so easy that it would be impossible to fail.
Keis shakes her head. “Mama Lizzie has the easiest Callings in the world. You don’t want her. Harder Callings mean better gifts.”
“I feel like that’s a myth.”
I scowl and tuck my towel tighter. “Let’s go find a suitable dress that Uncle won’t like.”
My Bleeding is officially over. There’s no more stalling now.
No one in our family has failed a Calling in almost a hundred years.
A Thomas not getting magic has become something so rare it seems impossible to do.
But then again, I don’t think the ancestors have ever seen someone as apt at failure as I am.