Chapter 1: Reason Cansino
When I was little, magic was the sensation of water sliding past my skin as I dove into the Roper River and burst back through the surface with a crayfish in my hands. I had no idea how it had gotten there.
Sarafina stood on the bank and applauded. “Yes! Yes!” And I felt dizzy and proud.
Or the taste of that crayfish later, cooked in coals, sweet and clean and fresh as dawn. Its juices dribbling down our chins.
Magic was long, steady rain after years of drought
My first taste of ice cream.
Stories of ancestors told around the fire.
Fibonaccis cascading through my body, opening up in a spiral dance into infinity. A spiral I could trace on my ammonite, unwinding from the tiniest point and stretching out into forever.
Except, it turned out, that was the other kind of magic too.
Before I came to Esmeralda’s house, I hadn’t known magic was real. Now I know that a magic person can get from Sydney to New York City by stepping through a door, can make light just by thinking about it, or money appear out of thin air, or clothes that are almost alive.
I know the cost of that magic too. Use too much and you die. Use too little and you go insane. That’s the choice: magic or madness. Which will it be?
My mother, Sarafina, chose madness.
My grandmother, Esmeralda, chose magic.
So did my grandfather, Jason Blake, and my friends, Tom and Jay-Tee.
Each of them with a finite amount of magic, winding down their lives every time they used it. Tic-tock. Tic-tock.
Magic wielders don’t live long. Use a little, no more or less than once a week, and you can make it to forty; use a lot, recklessly, and never see your twenties.
That was me and Jay-Tee: Reckless with our magic. Me, because I didn’t know; Jay-Tee, because she didn’t care.
Tom was sparing and careful, because my grandmother taught him how, and because he had tasted madness like an unripe lemon. Better to live short and sane, he decided, than long and mad, like his mother, like mine.
And, of course, you can always cheat. Find someone with magic who doesn’t know the rules, ask them for some of theirs. (They needn’t understand the question, just so long as they say yes.) Trick them, drink them, live longer. Take a little (or a lot) of their life; add it to yours.
Just like my grandparents did. That’s why my mother chose madness.
If you’re magic you can’t trust other magic people. They want to drink you dry; steal all your magic, so that you die in seconds and they live forever. Or to fifty even.
Magic is a disease.
Chapter 2: Bruises
Even though my belly was full of bacon, eggs, fried onions and mushrooms, I still reached for my fourth rambutan. I pushed my thumbnail past the thick, hairy, reddish skin, slit it open and peeled off the jacket, revealing the translucent fruit beneath. I bit in. Let the sweet juice explode in my mouth. Doing something as normal as eating kept me from panicking.
Jay-Tee pushed her plate away. She’d eaten the bacon but not her eggs. “What?” she asked.
“Nothing.” I blinked. I didn’t turn my head away quick enough to avoid seeing how faint her magic was. How close she was to dying.
It was less than twenty-four hours since my should’ve-been-dead ancestor, Raul Emilio Jesús Cansino, changed me. Every time I closed my eyes—every time I blinked—I saw magic. Light of varying intensity dotting the darkness. Each time my eyes closed the magic world of light had gotten bigger, stretched further.
I was afraid it wasn’t going to go away. I was afraid of what it meant. I hadn’t been able to sleep last night and didn’t know if I’d ever be able to sleep again.
Most of all I hated barely seeing Jay-Tee. Tom’s light was strong and clear; Esmeralda’s was dazzling, but Jay-Tee’s was a smudge, fainter than the Milky Way.
“Really nothing?” Tom asked, peering at me. “You don’t look like it’s nothing.” He took another bite of his chocolate muffin. Tom didn’t like fruit.
“Yeah,” Jay-Tee said. “You look weird. Why do you keep staring like that?”
I was trying not to blink. My record so far was three minutes. Any more than that and my eyes burned and watered until my lids shut. And there were the magic lights again. Waiting for me.
“Reason? You’re doing it again.” Jay-Tee got up and walked towards the back door. She leaned against, looking back at me.
“Sorry,” I said. “You’re not thinking of going through the door are, you?”
Jay-Tee snorted. “No, of course not. Esmeralda made it very clear that it’s out of bounds. Besides I don’t know where the key is.”
“Well, even if you did know, you can’t go through. It would use up too much magic. You don’t have enough.”
“You’re saying I can’t even—”
The doorbell rang. Jay-Tee pushed off from the door. “I’ll get it,” she said, heading down the hall, “but you have to tell us what’s going on.”
“Yeah,” Tom said. “You can’t hold out on us when something this big is happening to you. It sucks for us too, you know.” The front door groaned open. “Probably just Mormons or something.”
I closed my eyes and Tom became nothing but shining magic as bright as the door that led to New York City. I could recognise his magic now, feel the Tomness of it. He had years of it left. Jay-Tee had more like minutes. I wondered how much I had? Did this new magic run out the same way the old did? Jason Blake seemed to think so, at least about the Cansino magic he and Esmeralda had. I was something different. Raul Emilio Jesús Cansino had chosen me. I wished I could see inside myself the way I could see them.
“What?” Tom asked. “What’s up, Reason?”
“Nothing. Really. What are Mormons?” I asked. From the front hall I could hear Jay-Tee talking to someone, but not what they were saying.
“No way,” Tom said, “No way do you not know what Mormons are!”
I hadn’t the foggiest. I let Tom go on about how I didn’t know anything, even though he should be used to it by now. I reached for another rambutan, wishing Jay-Tee’s brother were here. He wouldn’t muck me about; he’d just tell me what a Mormon was. I wondered if Danny would still like me with my eyes all red and watery and my belly pregnant with our child. How was I going to tell him about that?
“You really never heard of Mormons?”
“Reason!” Jay-Tee yelled from the front of the house. “It’s for you!”
I put the fruit down, wiped my mouth, and headed out of the kitchen and along the hall. In the doorway stood a woman dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, with shortish feathery hair, and a backpack slung over one shoulder. She was smiling, or rather, beaming, at me.
When I blinked there was only darkness where she was standing.
“You must be Reason, then. I thought Jay-Tee was, but that’s been cleared up. Not that you look alike. Well, except for the bruises. Were you two in a fight?”
Jay-Tee touched her cheek and I touched my eye at the same time. Jay-Tee’s bruise was all garish purples, reds, and blues. A souvenir of Esmeralda’s attempt to give her the Raul Cansino’s magic. She wasn’t a Cansino; it hadn’t taken.
“Two different fights, looks like. Your bruise is older, isn’t it?” she asked, looking closely at my face. I’d almost forgotten about it, days old and faded into pale yellows and browns. I’d gotten it shifting the heavy box buried in the cellar. It had smashed into my face as I prised it free. Inside I’d found the dried-up corpse of Le Roi, my mother’s cat.
The woman stuck out her hand.
I shook it, wondering who on earth she was. She caught my expression and laughed.
“I’m your social worker. Jennifer Ishii.”
“Hi,” I said, thinking, my social worker? Then I remembered. A million years ago, when my mother, Sarafina, had gone mad and been sent to Kalder Park and I’d been sent to my grandmother, Esmeralda, they’d said a social worker would be along to check on me once a fortnight. They’d said lots of other things too. I’d been in such a daze I hadn’t heard half of it. Yet it hadn’t been a million years ago, it had been thirteen days.
Two weeks ago I hadn’t had a friend in the world; now I had Tom, Jay-Tee and back in New York City, Danny. Two weeks ago I hadn’t been pregnant. Or known I was a magic wielder.
“Did you forget I was coming today?”
“Er . . . ” I didn’t think Esmeralda had told me the exact day the social worker was supposed to visit.
“Can I come in?”
“Oh,” I said. Tom came and stood behind me. Jennifer Ishii took a step into Esmeralda’s house and offered her hand to Tom.
“And you are?”
“Tom. I’m Tom Yarbro.”
“And you were in the same fight as Reason and Jay-Tee?” She leaned forward, peering at his cheek.
Tom looked confused. “Oh, you mean this?” He touched the bandage that covered the long scratch that came courtesy of my grandfather, Jason Blake.
“She’s my social worker,” I whispered to him, which was silly because she was right there.
Way back when, before I’d known about magic, all I’d wanted to do was escape my grandmother and rescue my mother. Back then, I’d planned on persuading the social worker that I was being mistreated, so they’d move me away from Esmeralda. And here I was with an incriminating bruise on my face. All I had to say was, “She belted me! She belts us all!” and Jennifer Ishii would snatch me out of there faster than a croc taking its prey. But I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay in Esmeralda’s house. I still didn’t trust her. Not entirely. But I felt safe there. With my friends and out of my grandfather’s clutches.
“Social worker? Huh.” Tom said.
“That’s right. It’s my job to report on Reason’s well-being. How things are going, whether she’s well looked after. Is she being fed? You certainly don’t seem malnourished, Reason. How’s your accommodation?” She looked around. “Seems quite fabulous to me.”
“You don’t look like a social worker,” Tom said. “Shouldn’t you be wearing a suit or something?”
Jennifer Ishii laughed again. “We’re supposed to look presentable. I don’t like suits and I find that most of my clients don’t either.”
“Clients?” Jay-Tee asked.
She shrugged. “That’s what we call the people I check on. So how about these injuries you all have?”
“We were just . . . ” I trailed off.
“Messing around,” Jay-Tee finished.
“Reason fell in the cellar,” Tom said at the same time.
I nodded. “I tripped.”
“In the cellar?”
“You were all mucking around in the cellar?”
“Oh, no,” Jay-Tee. “Not Tom and me. We were wrestling and it got a bit out of control. I won though, cause Tom was cut, but I just got bruised.”
“No way. You so didn’t win! My cut’s tiny! That bruise is huge. Practically your whole face. You can’t call—”
“I see,” Jennifer Ishii said, with a smaller smile. “Do you want to show me your bedroom, Reason? Give me a tour of the house? Or do you want to sit down first and have a chat? I think we need to chat, don’t you?”
I blinked. Saw the faint light of Jay-Tee, the brighter one of Tom and the nothing of Jennifer Ishii. She wasn’t magic. Like Danny she was entirely magic-free. No running out of magic for her, like Jay-Tee would some time soon even though she was only fifteen. No dying young for Ms Ishii. “I guess. We were just finishing breakfast.”
I led her into the kitchen and pulled up a stool at the table. She sat down, looking out the windows at the back yard and the huge Moreton Bay fig that, for some reason, Tom and Esmeralda called “Filomena.”
“Great kitchen. Nice back yard. Do you climb that tree?”
I nodded and then wondered if I shouldn’t have. Was climbing trees a bad thing? Would it get Esmeralda in trouble? “I mean, only a little bit. Carefully.”
“Do you want something to eat, Mrs Ishii?” Jay-Tee asked, saving me.
“Just call me Jennifer.”
“Jennifer,” Jay-Tee said, obediently. “There’s fruit. Though some of it’s kind of weird.” She slid the fruit bowl even closer to the social worker.
“Or something to drink?” I asked.
“That would be lovely. Is that orange juice?”
Jay-Tee jumped up, got a glass, and poured her some.
“Thank you,” she said, taking a sip. “So you both live here too?” she asked Jay-Tee and Tom.
Jay-Tee nodded. Tom shook his head.
“She’s a friend,” I blurted. “From America.”
“I live next door,” Tom said at the same time.
Jennifer Ishii smiled. “That’s interesting. I didn’t realise you’d ever been to America, Reason. How did you two meet?”
“Her parents are friends of Esmeralda’s,” I said, quickly, hoping she wouldn’t ask to see Jay-Tee’s passport or anything. I didn’t think Jay-Tee had a passport. Or if she did it was probably back in New York City on the other side of the door.
“Do you always call your grandmother by her first name?”
I nodded, blinking again, and found myself surprised once more by Jennifer Ishii’s total absence of magic. With my eyes closed it was like she wasn’t there. I dreaded the moment when Jay-Tee would disappear like that. This absence was what her death would look like.
“We all call her that,” Jay-Tee said. “I think she wants to seem younger or something.” Jay-Tee held her hands out palms up as if to say, I dunno. “At first I thought it was an Australian thing. Reason never calls her mom ‘mom.’ But then Tom does. Well, ‘mum,’ anyways. My parents said I could come visit. Seeing as how Esmeralda’s never looked after a teenager before.”
“Your parents thought it would be easier for her to look after two?” Jennifer Ishii didn’t raise her eyebrow or change her tone, but she was definitely teasing Jay-Tee. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
“I think Mom and Dad were anxious and wanted Reason to have company.”
“And how long will you be staying?”
“How long have you been here?”
“Not long. Just a week or so. I really like it. Back home it’s freezing right now. Plus we don’t have flying foxes. I really like flying foxes.”
“And where is home?”
“New York City.”
“That must be wonderful. I’ve always wanted to visit.”
Jay-Tee shrugged. “Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Great . . . ” She trailed off. I wondered what she’d been going to say.
“Great what, Jay-Tee?”
“Pizza. The pizza in New York’s much better than the pizza here. The pizza here has all this weird stuff on it. And it’s way too thin. There’s even pizza without cheese. It’s not pizza unless it has cheese on it.”
“How do you get along with Reason’s grandmother?”
“I really like her,” Jay-Tee said. “It’s much more fun living with her than with my parents.”
Jay-Tee lied so effortlessly. Her parents were dead. Her mother not long after she was born, and her father she’d just found out about. She’d run away from him, hadn’t lived with him for at least a year. Neither of her parents had known Esmeralda. I turned away from Jay-tee before my next blink. I didn’t want to see her smudge of magic again.
Jennifer Ishii sipped at her orange juice. “And what do you think of Esmeralda, Reason?”
“She’s okay,” I said cautiously. She’d have to know that I’d spent most of my life running away from my grandmother, that I’d begged not to have to live with her. I could barely remember feeling like that. It wasn’t as if I trusted Esmeralda now. Not entirely. But there was nowhere I wanted to be other than here in her house. “It’s not as bad as I thought.”
“Esmeralda’s ace,” Tom said. “She’s been great to me. Been teaching me, er, stuff, and—”
“Clothes,” Jay-Tee said. “Esmeralda taught Tom how to make clothes. He’s really good at it.” She pointed at my pants. “See those? Tom made them. He’s gotten better than Esmeralda.”
Jennifer Ishii looked at my pants. “Wow, they’re fab, Tom. You wouldn’t want to make me a pair, would you?”
Tom opened his mouth and she laughed. It seemed genuine. “Just kidding. So, where’s Esmeralda now?”
“At work,” I said.
“Does she work long hours?”
“No,” I said, but Tom said, “yes” at the same time.
“Not really,” Jay-Tee said. “Tom’s just comparing with his dad. He works at the university.”
I saw a smile flicker at the edges of Jennifer Ishii’s mouth.
“But he’s never there,” Jay-Tee continued. “He’s home practically all the time.”
“It’s summer,” Tom protested. “Da’s on holiday. I mean he’s not teaching, but he’s working. He’s writing a book.”
Jay-Tee rolled her eyes. “How long’s he been writing his book, Tom?”
“Years and years,” Jay-Tee told the social worker.
“So?” Tom said. “It’s not like writing a shopping list, you know.”
“Esmeralda will be back at lunch time,” I said just to shut them up. “She almost always has lunch with us.”
“And brings us home yummy stuff to eat like chocolate—”
“And healthy things, too,” Jay-Tee interrupted. “You saw all the fruit, right?”
Jennifer Ishii suppressed another smile. “So what have the three of you been doing with yourselves over the holidays?” she asked.
We exchanged glances. Let’s see, I thought, I fell in love for the first time, with Jay-Tee’s brother Danny. Had sex for the first time, got pregnant, discovered magic was real, ran away to New York City, though back then I didn’t know it was on the other side of Esmeralda’s back door. What else? Discovered that my mother lied to me my entire life, met my evil grandfather, Jason Blake, also known as Alexander. Had my long-dead ancestor change me into I-didn’t-know-what. For all I knew he could be living inside me, turning me into—
“Studying,” Jay-Tee said.
“That’s commendable. What have you been studying?”
Magic, I thought. All about magic.
“Just about everything,” Jay-Tee answered. “Well, mostly Reason’s been helping me and Tom with math cause we’re hopeless.”
“Speak for yourself,” Tom interjected. “My geometry is stellar!”
“And,” Jay-Tee continued, ignoring him, “we’ve been helping her with everything else. Honestly, Ree doesn’t know anything about anything.”
“Yes, I do!”
“What’s a Mormon, Ree?” Tom asked.
Jennifer Ishii grinned. “Ree? Is that your nickname, Reason?”
“Yes,” I said, though before I’d met Tom and Jay-Tee no one had ever called me that.
“Do you prefer being called Ree or Reason?”
“They’re both fine, I guess.” I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone but Tom and Jay-Tee to call me “Ree.” It felt kind of private.
“And when you three aren’t studying, what do you do?”
Tom shrugged. “We hang out. I’ve been showing them around Newtown. They don’t know Sydney hardly at all.”
Out of nowhere my stomach somersaulted and my mouth filled with bile. I dashed to the downstairs bathroom just off the kitchen. I made it in time—barely—filling the toilet bowl with breakfast. Why was I vomiting? I didn’t feel bad or anything.
“Are you okay?” Jennifer Ishii asked from the bathroom door.
I grunted, waiting a moment before looking up just in case there was more.
“Are you sick?” She came and felt my forehead. “You’re not hot.”
I shook my head. Just pregnant, I realised. That’s what it had to be. Didn’t being pregnant make you chunder?
“She’s nervous,” I heard Tom say. “She chunders when she’s nervous.”
I looked up, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “No, I don’t.” I rose unsteadily and flushed the toilet.
“Here, let me help you.” Jennifer Ishii guided me to the sink. “Are you dizzy? Does your stomach hurt? Could it be something you ate?”
I wished she’d go away. I rinsed out my mouth, then washed my face and hands. My eyes stung so I closed them. Magic lights everywhere. I opened them again. “Must’ve been something I ate. But my stomach doesn’t feel so bad now.” Which was true. The horrible nauseous feeling had completely vanished. I stood up and wiped my hands on the towel.
“Do you want to sit down?”
“No, I’m okay. Really. I feel much better now.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Whatever it was—it’s gone. I feel fine.”
“So it was nervousness?”
I opened my mouth to deny it and then decided that agreeing was better than admitting the real reason. Me being pregnant after less than two weeks under Esmeralda’s roof definitely wouldn’t look good. “Well, maybe a little bit. I’m not used to social workers.”
She smiled again. “I imagine not.” I wondered if all social workers were told to smile and laugh as much as possible. They probably thought it relaxed the clients. “But if it happens again, you should see a doctor. Vomiting like that is not normal.”
“Are you well enough to show me your bedroom now?”
“You’re sure you’re all right?”
How did I answer that question? “I think so,” I said.
“Have you always been a nervous vomiter?”
I glared at Tom. “I guess.”
(If any of the words above are unfamiliar you can look ’em up in the glossary.)