Keira’s stomach flipped as her feet slid a few inches, her arms splayed out for balance.
“Thanks,” she grumbled to the fellow student who stopped to help pick up the scattered contents of her black portfolio. The person, or possibly monster, it was hard to tell under the bundle of winter clothes, nodded and continued on their hunched trek. Keira crammed a variety of loose sketches and studies into her portfolio and hurried to class. Terminally late, she had never grown accustom to American Punctuality.
Narrowly avoiding another spill on the slippery slush covered floor of the studio, Keira slowed and tiptoed to her seat next to Susannah, who was working through a swift figure drawing. Being quiet as possible, Keira unwrapped herself from her winter trappings; they fell to a sweaty, wet, snowy mess on the ground around her stool. Wincing as the easel she was adjusting screeched with years of rust, Keira finally managed to wrest her large drawing pad from the contents of the portfolio and put pencil to paper.
Rrrrrriiiiiiiiiinngggggg!!!!!! The timer’s bell sounded and the model in the center of the drawing circle changed poses. Shrill reverberations filled the students’ ears in the large, mostly empty, room. New York University, like most art schools in the nation, uses converted warehouses for studio space.
Keira settled into her quick 5-minute exercise sketch of the human form, starting with the outlying points and proportions. Susannah’s sharp intake of breath matched Keira’s whole-body flinch when suddenly, directly behind them, Professor Fahl murmured, “good morning, Keira.”
All the more disconcerting for her size, Fahl’s voice was unnaturally deep and gravelly for such a small woman. Yeahhrs of Marhhlboros, Susannah liked to say with an imitation of the woman’s baritone. Though Keira was seated, Fahl’s mouth was level with her ear.
“Morning, Professor.” Keira responded, holding her breath and avoiding eye-contact. She didn’t need another class-observed lecture on the commitment of an artist or the dedication of a scholar.
“And what exciting excuse have you cooked up for me today?” Professor Fahl asked, leaning even closer to Keira, who had to force herself not to flinch again.
“Eh, right, er- monsters in the subway, Professor, um,” Keira gulped, “they have the C and the E completely backed up, and uh- they’re crawling all over the rails, getting ah- electrocuted! It’s a mess. Really.”
Professor Fahl stared at Keira, wrinkly cheeks slightly sucked in, eyes narrowed, brows together. Keira offered a weak smile and a shrug. Then, with a ferocity that nearly knocked Keira off her stool, Professor Fahl broke into a booming laugh,
“At least you always have a fascinating story for me,” Fahl said as she walked toward the model and, while looking over her shoulder, stated,”I’ll need two extra sketches this week, Keira. Top quality.”
Keira groaned as the model got into a comfortable position on the cushioned chair for the rest of class. While she was a decent drawer, like every student in NYU’s art programs, producing consistent daily sketches for her life-drawing class was difficult enough as it was. Usually, she was late to Friday morning studio because she was trying to fake the past week’s daily sketches.
Snow fell heavily nearly 3 hours later as Susannah and Keira made their hasty journey to the Grey Dog’s coffee house. Walking a few blocks from Washington Square meant they only had to pay $3 for a coffee, instead of $6. Susannah, gripping a dog-head-shaped mug, nearly the size of her broad face, was discussing her to-do list with the repeated insistence of someone on the brink of breakdown,
“…and then, of course, Scilia decides she wants that unbelievable research paper on god-knows-what medieval piece of art as if we are the artist? What is that supposed to mean? I don’t have time to be imagining myself as Don Van Dyke-whoever when Fahl has us doing 5 thousand full-fledged sketches a week,” her words gained speed and volume, “and then Graves somehow expects us to reserve studio time to finish our ceramics but the juniors keep filling up all the spots!” One or two neighboring eyes glanced in the girls’ direction but quickly moved on; there’s nothing exciting about a couple of college students on the verge of collapse.
Keira listened intently, repeatedly burning her tongue on lavender Earl Grey, while Susannah’s eyes started to get wet. She hated seeing Susannah upset. Susannah took a deep rattled breath and smiled appreciatively when Keira squeezed her hand from across the tiny table. Keira had been focusing on breathing: calm and steady, in and out, like the ocean. When she touched Susannah, Keira’s Intention melted into the other girl, who visibly calmed.
Inside the Grey Dog the rich smell of just-roasted coffee beans tingled patrons’ nostrils. Keira absentmindedly tugged at her knit beanie; her scalp was warm and itchy but she left the hat in place. Susannah gazed over Keira’s shoulder and outside, onto the street,
“Are you worried about your flight getting canceled?” Susannah asked.
“Hmm? What flight?” The focus Keira needed to sow even the smallest Intention could be draining.
Susannah’s grey eyes puzzled at Keira and she cocked her head, “uh, your flight home? For break?”
Keira recovered, “oh, of course, nah I think it’ll be okay by Friday,” she said gesturing to the whiteout conditions.
“I thought you were leaving Thursday?” Susannah raised an eyebrow, “are you getting any sleep?”
Keira was sleeping fine, she simply forgot exactly what imaginary travel plans she had invented for her friend. In response she laughed and changed the subject,
“Hey, so what was your idea for our project in Stauffer’s class? I was thinking – ” but Keira stopped when Susannah gently put a hand on her arm.
Susannah’s pale cheeks reddened slightly and she bit her lip. Running her free hand through a long tangle of brown hair, she leaned forward in her seat and looked right at Keira. The words tumbled out like a confession.
“Listen, I’m worried about you,” Susannah looked quickly at Keira then back down at her mug, “I know you’re stressed about finals, we all are. I just mean, the last couple weeks you’ve been really – I don’t know – distant? I’m just worried you’re being too hard on yourself,” she paused and took a deep breath, “anyway, I just want you to know, I’m here for you. Seriously. No matter what.”
With a final squeeze of Keira’s hand, Susannah nodded and sat back in her chair. Keira felt the exhaustion overwhelm her before she realized hot tears were covering her cheeks. She felt simultaneously empty but smothered, apathetic yet invested. Keira didn’t mean to cry, the tears just rolled out of her like traitorous slugs: big, wet, and uninvited. Susannah nearly toppled the tiny table making her way to kneel in front of Keira, one hand on the silently weeping girl’s forearm, the other grasping her shoulder firmly. Before she could say anything, though, Keira was whispering,
“I’m so sorry Sukie, I- I just -” she looked down, into her lap.
Susannah put her forehead to Keira’s and said simply, “I’m here.”
Keira was breathing so quietly now Susannah almost nudged her. Then, with a startling urgency, Keira’s dark brown eyes shot up. She stared at Susannah for a moment and then spoke,
“Not here.” Keira wiped her runny nose on the back of her hand and hastily began gathering her things. Though confused, Susannah followed suit.
Keira had decided to tell Susannah everything.
Susannah had barely caught her breath by the time her and Keira were entering the room they shared in Brittany Hall. The room was big enough for three extra-long twin beds, three desks, and space to walk around them. Keira walked to the window between her and Susannah’s beds and stared down onto Broadway. Susannah, sweaty from the near two block jog and sudden heat of the indoors, collapsed onto her own tidy bed and pulled off her boots. Keira stared hard; Susannah could see her friend’s concerned face reflected in the window.
Keira was sweating but even after tossing off her coat and scarf, boots and gloves, it made no difference. She felt smothered and could sense Susannah waiting for an explanation. She shifted on the bed, ready to break the growing silence, and Keira knew she had to start talking. Her stomach churned and she wondered if was going to vomit. Slowly, she moved away from the window and sat down on her bed, across from Susannah. The two girls looked at each other and Keira let out a long, constricted, sigh. The words came without much thought, as if they’d been waiting at the back of her throat. Keira was talking quickly but quietly,
“There’s something I need to tell you, Sukie. I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time, but I’ve never told anyone – well that isn’t true, it’s just the people I have told have reacted badly.”
Susannah was watching Keira closely – her stomach was in knots and she felt light headed. Keira continued,
“See, this is really hard to explain. Promise me, you’ll hear me out to the end and not ask any questions until I’m done,” she looked at Susannah who nodded her agreement vigorously. Keira pulled her cap off her head and held it in her lap. Her natural frizzy hair slowly expanded after being released from its knit prison, dark brown spiral curls haloing her face.
“I’m not going to Ohio for winter break. That isn’t where my family lives,” Keira said. She was twisting her hat into a ball.
“Oh? I’m – I don’t know what I expected you to say, but that wasn’t it,” Susannah almost chuckled, relief – mixed with a tingle of disapointment – washing over her. Keira flashed her eyes upward and Susannah snapped her mouth shut, grimacing an apology for interrupting.
“You don’t understand. I’m not going to Ohio to visit my family because I don’t have a family. Not like yours, anyway,” suddenly Keira’s tone was louder and more direct, almost accusatory.
“They are my family, I just – they’re different,” Keira corrected herself, “we’re different.” She paused and looked at Susannah, gauging her reaction. Susannah was too befuddled, however, to have much of a reaction. She sat in silence, and leaned in toward her friend, waiting expectantly. Keira took one last deep breath and dove in.
“I don’t think we’re technically,” Keira paused, “human,” she glared at Susannah when a scoff escaped, “I’m serious Sukie.”
“Um,” Susannah, who was smirking slightly, saw the seriousness in Keira’s face. Her palms were getting sweaty and she crossed her arms, “go on, then.”
“My best guess is we’re a sort of witch – do not roll your eyes at me Susannah Granger!” Keira stood up and started pacing the short length of the room.
“Listen, I’m not really sure where I come from, what I know is I was raised by a group of women in New Orleans, until I was 8. Then, they sent me to another group of women in New York, and basically everything I’ve told you about growing up in Crown Heights and Park Slope are true, just without the – well – the magic.”
“The magic.” Susannah’s tone was deadpan and her eyes were narrowed at Kiera.
“Yes. The magic,” Keira said with some impatience, “my Aunts in New Orleans, they can, well, do things. Heal, communicate with animals, premonitions, object reading, once I even saw a woman who turned into a cat on the spot. Everyone has a different set of gifts; everyone is unique and necessary in the Circle.”
Keira came to sit next to Susannah on the bed. Taking Susannah’s hands in her own, she looked hard into her friend’s eyes, praying she wouldn’t see fear. She didn’t; Susannah simply gazed back, mouth slightly agape, brow furrowed. Finally she said,
“Show me the magic. I’m not saying I believe you, but I wouldn’t say you were a liar, so, show me.”
Keira sat, perplexed. She didn’t have a wand and certainly had no idea how to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Her gift was subtle, and she never had time to practice the way the Manbos desperately wanted her to. She looked around the room frantically, as if she would loose the opportunity, and Susannah, forever. Keira’s wall space held a few of her own art works, photos and a print of Rogier Van Der Weyden’s Portrait of a Lady. Inspiration ignited and Keira smiled for the first time that hour,
“Tell me about Scilia’s paper again. What did you have to do? She wants you to -”
“She wants us to pretend to be the artist, it’s absurd, but that’s not the point! I don’t care about school anymore, I care about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, so let’s here this,” Susannah glared.
Keira kept pushing, “but then you haven’t finished all your sketches yet have you? So you’re totally swamped this week and -”
“I don’t know why you’re trying to stress me out,” Susannah said with annoyance and flopped onto her back, “but yes it’s ridiculous…” she continued talking about the heavy weight of finals, the papers she had started, but wasn’t happy with, and the stress of the holidays. Keira, meanwhile, sat crosslegged and placed her hands on Susannah’s belly. She knew it was easier to plant an Intention the closer you got to the person’s Core.
“Um,” Susannah lifted her head slightly and looked at Keira, then to her stomach, “what – what are we doing here, sister?”
“I’m showing you. Just keep talking about stressful things.”
“Don’t worry, this is freaking me out more than any paper.” Indeed, Keira could feel the stress vibrating through her. Keira focused on her breath, like before at the coffee shop, but this time it was much easier to concentrate. She felt the connection between her and Susannah catch almost instantly, so quickly in fact, she gasped. Susannah’s speech, however, had slowed and she was staring serenely at the ceiling. Keira quickly refocused her attention to her breath. As it deepened, she let the Intention form: Susannah, she thought, dream of a hot beach, the salty wind whipping at your face, toes in warm water.
Moments passed. The two girls in NYU’s Brittany Hall sat quietly in their room as snow fell heavily outside; one had her hands on the other’s stomach, both seemed to be asleep. Finally, Keira returned her breath to a normal pace and slowly removed her hands. She felt the connection between them break – an almost imperceptible prick in her fingertips – just as Susannah’s eyes fluttered open. Adjusting to the room, Susannah’s serenity was quickly replaced by confusion. She sat up, stammering,
“What – how – what the hell? Did I just fall asleep?” She stared at Keira, an absentminded hand on her belly, “did you put me to sleep?”
“Did you dream you were at the beach, water lapping at your toes?”
Susannah’s jaw dropped and she scuttled back on the bed, like a crab, away from Keira. Moving away had been instinct, but Susannah saw Keira’s eyes widen, worry and hurt clouding her face. Susannah wasn’t scared, however, not exactly. She was simply baffled; she had felt it in her bones, whatever it was. Slowly, she grinned and leaned forward, cupping her friend’s coppery brown face in her hands she said,
“Show me everything.”