There was only pain, at first—the pain of my magic breaking me into a collection of atoms, getting ready to make me into something new. It was painful, but I knew it was necessary.
I just wished I could make it happen faster.
With that thought, the magic inside me sped up and exploded outward like a supernova—and the pain vanished, leaving relief in its wake, coupled with a strangely soothing sensation, like minty feathers on my skin.
I opened my eyes.
Just seconds ago I’d been standing with Oliver on the stage of the empty Jackson High auditorium. Now there were people everywhere. Girls with wobbling heels and smoky eye makeup, boys with baggy pants and gelled hair, all walking around with plastic cups in their hands and shouting at each other over the too-loud music.
None of them was Oliver.
One of the girls bumped into me, sending me stumbling. I felt my ankle turn a little, and I realized I was in heels, just like she was. Why was I wearing heels? The last time I’d done that was in Guys and Dolls back in sophomore year. The girl turned and raised an eyebrow at me, like she was waiting for me to apologize. When I didn’t, she gave a dismissive shrug and turned away again, back toward the crowd.
“Fine, be that way,” I muttered—and immediately snapped my mouth closed. The voice I’d just heard wasn’t mine. It was higher, and softer. More ingénue than leading lady.
I looked down at my hands. My fingers had become longer and thinner. The Big Dipper–shaped constellation of freckles on my left arm was gone. There was pale pink polish on my nails, instead of my usual bold greens and reds and purples.
I had to find a mirror, stat.
Around the corner was a door marked with a taped-up paper sign that said BATHROOM!!! in orange marker, but there were three people already lined up to get in. So I pushed open the next door, and found myself in a very adult-looking bedroom, with a mountain of coats on the bed and a full-length mirror in the far corner. Pausing just long enough to turn the light on, I made a beeline for the mirror.
My breath caught. The girl staring back at me was beautiful.
My magic had created a new body for me, exactly as Oliver had told me it would. Gone was the real Margo McKenna—short and flat-chested, not beautiful by any means, but firmly on the prettier side of average—and in her place was someone new. Long blond hair that framed high, sharp cheekbones. Milk-pale skin marred only by a tiny mole just above red-painted lips. Big brown eyes accented by dark, sexy makeup . . . and a tall, thin body wrapped in a short black dress.
It was like the weirdest fitting-room experience ever. And it would only get weirder from here. There was a reason I was in this place, wherever it was, and a reason that I looked the way I did. All of this was happening because someone had called me here.
I was a genie.
Which meant I owed that someone three wishes.
As if on cue, there came a tug just behind my rib cage—not quite painful, but very persistent. I knew instinctively that this was a call, and that I was supposed to follow my magic to its source. But then what?
I’d had nightmares like this, over and over throughout most of junior high, before I’d conquered my stage fright: It’s the opening night of a musical, and I’m supposed to play the lead . . . only there haven’t been any rehearsals, and I don’t know my lines.
And just like in the dreams, there was only one thing I could do.
I shimmied through the crowd, across the living room, up a flight of stairs, and into a bedroom at the end of the hall.
I peeked in. Three girls and one guy were in the middle of playing “Carry On Wayward Son” on Rock Band. The walls were covered with posters of Tenacious D, this supposedly hilarious band whose jokes I’d never found particularly funny. Another girl sat on the bed, chatting with two guys.
But the one who’d called me was the boy lingering a few feet behind the Rock Band players, playing air-guitar along with the song, rocking out like he was imagining himself on stage at Madison Square Garden or something. The door creaked as I pushed it farther open, and the boy turned around to face me.
Out of seven billion possibilities, I’d ended up bound to someone I actually knew? That couldn’t be right. But my magic surged, and I felt its approval like a cool breeze on a humid summer day. First contact has been made, it seemed to say. This is the person you’re supposed to meet.
He was holding my red guitar pick between his thumb and forefinger, which was exactly the way I’d held Oliver’s silver ring when I’d wanted to call him.
I drew in a sharp breath, remembering.
“How will I know what my spirit vessel is?” I ask.
Oliver smiles at me. “You’ll know.”
The snippet of memory flitted away as fast as it had appeared. When had that conversation happened? I needed to find Oliver. This was moving too fast, and I didn’t know what to do next, and he was the only one who could—
Before I could even finish the thought, there was another sharp tug in my chest, and my magic dropped three pieces of knowledge right into the front and center of my consciousness:
First, I was not allowed to leave until I answered Ryan’s call properly.
Second, a proper answering of the call involved telling Ryan that he’d summoned a genie and was therefore entitled to make three wishes.
Third, I’d waited long enough. It was time for me to act.
“Hey, shut the door, would you?” said the girl on the bed—which was when I realized that I knew her. Jill Spalding was one of my fellow seniors at Andrew Jackson High. She was also in the cast of Sweeney Todd with Ryan and me—our high school musical, which was due to open in just over three weeks.
“Sorry,” I said, and stepped all the way into the room. Ryan’s eyes were now fixed on me, and a predatory smile spread like syrup across his face. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought my new body was hot stuff. I could practically feel—almost hear—how much he wanted me.
This pleased my magic immensely.
It did not, however, please me.
“Hey,” he said at last.
“Hi, Ryan,” I replied.
That creepy feeling of desire spiked as I said his name—that was when I realized I was hearing his thoughts. Oliver had been able to hear my thoughts, too, back when he was my genie, bound to me. Only the thoughts about wanting, though. The thoughts that might eventually turn into wishes.
But unlike Oliver, who’d been able to pluck thoughts from my head as easily as reading a book, I wasn’t getting much of anything from Ryan. There was the insistent sense of I want you, and a distinct image of a slice of pie, accompanied by what looked like a beer can, but it was gone before I could make any sense of it.
He gestured toward the TV. “You want to play next?” he asked. I felt, very forcefully, that he wanted me to say no.
“Uh . . .” I bit my lip, trying to decide, but after a few seconds, pressure began to build behind my eyes. Answer. I had to answer truthfully. My magic demanded it.
“No, that’s okay,” I said at last. The pressure receded instantly.
Ryan’s smile broadened. “Cool.”
“Carry On Wayward Son” ended, and the four players congratulated one another and handed their instruments to Jill and her boys. But when one of the girls tried to give Ryan her plastic guitar, he just waved her away.
“But it’s your turn,” said the girl, her voice unmistakably flirtatious. “You said you wanted to play Pearl Jam next.”
Ryan barely even looked at her. “I can play later,” he said.
The girl shrugged, but slipped the guitar strap back over her head. “Two turns for me, then,” she said.
“So what’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” said Ryan, giving me an obvious once-over as the opening lines of “Bad Reputation” blared from the TV speakers. Oh god, he was actually flirting. He had lines.
“Just hanging out,” I replied, managing a smile somehow.
“Nice,” he said, grinning like I’d just delivered a great joke. “So what’s your name?”
A name. Right, I needed a new name. I couldn’t exactly call myself Margo, not looking like this. Maggie, like my parents called me when I was little? No, I needed something completely different. And there was that pressure behind my eyes again, threatening to grow into very real pain if I didn’t answer soon.
“Amber,” I said, picking something totally random. “My name’s Amber.”
The pressure receded again.
Well, that was interesting. According to Oliver, questions asked by a master required immediate and truthful answers—yet my new fake name seemed to work just fine. “Hey,” I said, “ask me where I’m from.”
“Uh, okay,” he said. “Where are you from?”
“I was born in Sweden, and I grew up in Alaska, but I moved here last year because I got tired of it being cold all the time.”
Once again, my magic seemed satisfied. Not just satisfied, actually. As I pulled Amber’s story out of thin air and told it to Ryan, I could actually feel it becoming true.
“Ask me how old I am,” I told him, bouncing on the balls of my feet.
“Uh. How old are you?”
I waited just long enough for the pressure to start building, then said, “Twenty-one.”
This time, when the pressure receded, it left a tingle of impatience in its wake. I was playing games, and my magic wanted me to tell Ryan what I was, and why I was here.
The sooner I did that, the sooner I could leave and find Oliver.
“So listen, Ryan,” I said. “I need to talk to you. In private, if that’s okay.”
His eyebrows shot up. There was that I want you feeling again. Then he cut a glance toward the people playing “Bad Reputation,” and it faded a little. Indecision played over his face.
But I knew how to make him decide for sure. I reached out and grabbed his hand, letting him feel the magic pooled in my fingertips.
“Holy hell,” he said, jumping back a little. “What was that?”
“Magic,” I said simply, holding my hand up and waggling my fingers at him.
“Magic,” he repeated. His eyebrows knitted, and I could sense him wanting something. I just couldn’t tell what.
“Yes,” I said. “There’s . . . let’s call it a business contract I need to discuss with you, and it involves magic. Which is why I’d prefer to go somewhere private.”
“A contract.” His desire for me waned a little as he repeated the word. “Uh, if you say so. How about my parents’ room? There’s just coats in there now.”
“Hey, guys, I’ll be back in a few,” Ryan announced to the room at large. Rock Band Girl turned around to give him an exaggerated pout. He brushed past her as we left, and I was pretty sure I saw him pat her butt. Ew.
As we headed downstairs, some guy I didn’t know almost crashed into me. I pressed myself against the wall and watched him lumber upward, clutching a red cup in each hand. “Nice party,” I said dryly.
“Not bad, right?” said Ryan. “I mean, they’re usually way killer, like way more than this, but this one was last minute. The ’rents decided to skip town for the week, so I got some people to come over for drinks and some tunes, and before you know it, everyone invites everyone else, and blam! Party! Guess that’s just how it goes, huh?”
“Guess so,” I agreed, even though I’d never experienced such a thing before. Impromptu parties seemed like the kind of thing that happened in movies, not in real life.
He opened the door to the coat room, and I flipped the light on. No way was I about to let mood lighting play any part in this conversation. This was going to be strictly business.
“You don’t have a drink,” he said suddenly. “You should have a drink. We still got some mixers left, I think, if you want something girly. Or are you a beer chick?”
“I’m good, thanks.”
“Whatever,” said Ryan with a shrug, and sat on the bed. He patted the space beside him, looking far too eager. “So, what’s this about a contract?” He tried to make the word sound sexy this time, but failed miserably. Somehow I managed not to laugh at him.
I sat down, leaving plenty of space between us. “Here’s the thing.” Then I paused. This was it. I’d been cast in my role, and my magic had written the script. All I had to do was deliver my lines.
“I’m a genie, Ryan. I am here to grant you three wishes.”
He blinked, and was silent. I didn’t have to be a mind reader to know that this wasn’t what he’d been expecting. His jaw worked, and I could practically see him wondering how he was supposed to react.
So I went on: “Do you remember the red guitar pick you were holding upstairs?”
His brow creased, and he dug into his pocket and produced the pick. “This one?” he said, holding it up so I could see.
“That one,” I said. “When you picked it up, just like that, between your thumb and your first finger, it called me to you.”
“And then your hands,” he added doubtfully. “They were all weird.”
I nodded. “Yes, and then my hands were weird. What you felt was my magic. The same magic that will grant your wishes, when you make them.”
“Magic. Yeeeah.” He looked askance at me, like he was struggling to reach a decision. After a moment, his lips twisted into a smirk. “Prove it. Magic me up some more beer. There’s only like two sixers left. Simon’s usually in charge of booze, but he didn’t even show tonight, so . . .”
I tensed at the sound of Simon’s name, but was relieved that he wasn’t here. The last time I’d seen him, he’d unwittingly put Oliver and me in life-threatening danger.
“Ryan,” I said patiently, “I can’t do anything unless you wish for it. But why don’t we talk about it first, so that—”
“Oh, wait, no,” he said, his eyes lighting up as he cut me off. “I got something way better. I wish for that stage manager girl to fall, like, balls-to-the-wall, crazy-ass in love with me! You know that girl? Naomi Sloane?”
My heart leaped into my throat. Of course I knew Naomi. She was my best friend. And she liked Ryan even less than I did.
“Yes,” I said quickly. “But before you decide for sure—”
Then my magic was surging forward from wherever it had hidden itself, knocking the breath right out of me. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t made up his mind. He was touching the guitar pick, and he’d already said I wish.
I tried to clamp down on it, but it was too powerful, just like when I’d turned into Amber, and my deep breaths became gasps, and I was going to explode, I couldn’t handle it, I couldn’t control it—
Colors burst like fireworks behind my eyes. My fingertips burned hot and cold and hot and cold until they turned numb. My vision went white. I couldn’t breathe.
Then it was over. I blinked myself back to reality, taking in the room, the bed, the pile of coats—and Ryan sitting next to me, looking at me like I’d just started speaking in tongues.
Apparently my magic didn’t need my input before it granted my masters’ wishes. Good to know.
“So?” he said. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know,” I replied truthfully. Maybe she wasn’t at the party. Maybe she was so far away from the party that the wish hadn’t reached her. I was pretty sure wishes weren’t constrained by distance, but I could hope—
The door swung open. In walked Naomi Sloane, pointing a finger directly at Ryan. “Ah-ha,” she said. “Quimby said he saw you come in here. Wait, who are you?” This last was directed at me, along with narrowed eyes and a suspicious expression.
“Amber,” I said, nervous under the weight of her gaze. If anyone here could see through my magical disguise, it would be Naomi. We’d known each other approximately forever.
“Well, Amber,” she said, in a tone that mocked without malice, “I have to talk to Weiss here. So, do you mind?” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder toward the door, making her meaning perfectly clear.
“But you don’t even—” I snapped my mouth shut. Sure, I knew how much Naomi disliked Ryan, but I wasn’t me right now, at least not in her eyes. As far as she was concerned, I was just an obstacle standing between her and the private moment she obviously wanted to have.
I stared at her, held in place by indecision even as my magic gently nudged me toward the door. My magic wanted what my master wanted. And Ryan very much wanted me to leave.
“I don’t even what?” asked Naomi. She’d made her way over to Ryan by this point, and was squeezing his shoulder in a way that could have passed for platonic . . . at least until you looked closer.
Ryan, for his part, was clearly finished contributing to the conversation. He was staring slack-jawed up at Naomi, and the overwhelming I want you feeling was back, stronger than ever. Only this time, it wasn’t directed at me.
The Naomi I knew would never touch Ryan like that—and Ryan, who’d just witnessed magic, for heaven’s sake, appeared to have forgotten all about me. I wanted to hit the pause button and talk some sense into both of them, ask them what the hell they were thinking . . . but I couldn’t. Not without more information.
My magic had gone dormant inside me once more, and now that Ryan didn’t want me around, I wasn’t obligated to stay. Which meant I was free to find Oliver and start asking him some serious questions.
One wish granted. Ryan Weiss for a master. My best friend under the influence, and still no sign of Oliver. I could handle this. I would not panic, and I would not freak out. That was my mantra as I made my way through the party and out to the Weisses’ front porch. And that was what I told myself when I realized it was dark outside—even though it had been morning when I’d made my fourth wish.
I will not panic, and I will not freak out.
A gust of wind whipped across the porch, chilling my legs—my long, model-skinny bare legs. Oliver had said that his appearance changed based on what his master needed or wanted him to be. Did that mean I’d turned into Ryan Weiss’s fantasy girl?
Focusing on the place where I’d last felt my magic—somewhere under my rib cage—I concentrated hard on being myself again. My real self. Nothing happened.
And without Oliver here, there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
So I started walking. Unlike my real body, Amber’s body was inclined to walk toe-to-heel, which made me feel uncomfortably flighty. But I pushed the feeling aside and kept going. Once I reached the nearest main road, it would only be a twenty-minute walk home. I had no idea what time it was, but it must have been late, since the roads were practically empty.
The first time I saw headlights, I thought about flagging down the approaching car and asking for a ride. But I didn’t. Not because the idea of hitchhiking freaked me out—although it did—but because the last half hour had proven how completely out of my depth I was, and this was the first thing I’d encountered tonight that I actually knew how to deal with. I might not have the slightest idea how to use my magic, but I could damn well get myself home without help.
The car passed without slowing down. My hair and my dress fluttered in its wake, and then the road was empty again. I kept walking.
• • •
Both my parents’ cars were in the driveway, and all the lights were off, which meant they were probably sleeping. That was a relief . . . until I realized I didn’t have my keys. No pockets, no backpack, not even a purse. Nowhere to put a key, even if I had one.
But as soon as I thought it, a little shiver jolted through me, and something shifted against my skin. The skin of my left breast, to be exact. Where I’d only felt fabric a moment before, there was now something small and metal tucked into my bra.
So my magic wouldn’t turn me back into my real self, but it was perfectly willing to give me a key to my real house? Yeah, that made a lot of sense.
I unlocked the front door, disabled the alarm system, and slipped my shoes off once I got inside. Usually I left them by the front door, but not tonight. I didn’t want my parents waking up and finding some stranger’s stiletto heels on our shoe rack.
Hell, I had no idea what they’d do tomorrow when they found the same stranger sleeping in their daughter’s bed. My mind flashed to a movie I’d seen on TV once, where some kid wished to be an adult, then woke up the next day looking like Tom Hanks. I didn’t remember much of the actual plot beyond that, but the look on his mom’s face had stuck with me. The idea of my own mom looking at me like that made my stomach churn.
I locked my door, just in case.
And that was it. I was home, standing in my own room, surrounded by my own things. My modest collection of books. My not-so-modest collection of CDs and vinyl. My dresser and my laptop and my posters.
A rustling of cloth made me jump. Peering curiously at me from just inside my closet was a little gray tabby face, attached to a long, lithe feline body.
“Hey there, Ziggy,” I said softly, bending down to pet her.
But she flattened her ears and hissed at me.
She didn’t recognize me at all.
I froze, horrified, and Ziggy darted around me, right for the door. Finding it closed, she reached one paw into the space underneath, like she might be able to tunnel her way out. I thought about making her stay until she got used to me, but dismissed the idea almost immediately. What if it didn’t work? What if she spent the night yowling and hissing and trying to claw my eyes out?
I unlocked and opened the door. Ziggy disappeared into the dark hallway.
Without bothering to change out of Amber’s party dress, I pulled my blankets over myself. Ryan Weiss and my stupid cat be damned. Right now, all I wanted to do was sleep. Surely Oliver would find me tomorrow.
• • •
My limbs felt like anvils when the knock on my door woke me up. I started to mumble something about how it was the middle of the night and couldn’t I just sleep in peace—but a familiar brightness behind my eyelids shut me up. Daylight. I’d just fallen asleep. How could it be morning already? Had I really been that exhausted?
“Margo, honey, are you in there?” My mom’s voice, punctuated by another quick knock. “I didn’t hear you come home last night. Are you okay? We really should talk about this.”
Those last three words, spoken in a tone that hovered between sympathy and anger, were like a splash of cold water over my head. I sat up, my blankets fell away . . . and there was the dress. The black, shiny cocktail dress whose bed-induced wrinkles had left soft impressions on pale skin that wasn’t mine. Crap.
I reached up to rub the sleep out of my eyes, and my fingers came away smeared with dark makeup. Fingers that weren’t mine. Makeup that wasn’t mine. Double crap.
“Margo?” called my mom. “You’ll be late for school. And why is your door locked?”
I couldn’t answer her, not with Amber’s voice sounding so different from my own. But she wouldn’t go away unless I said something.
Channeling my inner ten-year-old, I hunched over and gave a loud, obnoxious cough. “I’m sick,” I said, warping Amber’s voice to sound as nasally as possible. It didn’t actually sound too far off from my normal fake-sick voice.
Another moment of silence stretched between my mom and me, and I filled it with one more halfhearted cough.
“You were sick yesterday, too,” she said sternly. “Too sick to go to school, but apparently well enough to stay out all night without even calling to check in. Or answering your phone, for that matter.”
Was it really only yesterday that I’d ditched school to spend the day with Oliver? It already felt like a different lifetime.
“Sorry,” I said in the same nasally voice, and coughed again. Another moment of silence. I couldn’t believe this. I was supposed to be learning how to be a genie, and instead I was pretending to be sick so my mom would leave me alone.
“Fine,” she said at last. “Behave like that if you want, Margaret. I’ll see you when I get home from work. But don’t think you’re getting off without talking to me.” Her footsteps moved away down the hall, and I let out a slow sigh of relief.
She’d sounded strict in a way that she hadn’t since she’d remarried Dad nearly a year ago. Usually she was too busy being in love to bother being a responsible parent.
A moment later I heard her car pull out of the driveway, followed by Dad’s, and only then did I heave myself out of bed. Ten minutes later, freshly scrubbed and smelling of shampoo, I dragged out my favorite pair of jeans and started to tug them on. That was when I discovered the crucial flaw in my getting-dressed plan.
None of my clothes fit.
Aside from being far too tall, Amber’s body was entirely the wrong shape for my wardrobe. The only things in my room that would fit me were my bathrobe and my fuzzy green turtle slippers—the former because it was one-size-fits-all, the latter because they were slip-ons. Even Amber’s feet were bigger than mine.
I debated putting the little black dress back on, but that would just be sad. And kind of gross, since it still smelled faintly of smoke. So I put on my bathrobe and slippers, then headed back over toward my bed, where I kept my guitar. If anything had the power to make me feel more like my real self, it was playing music.
But before I could reach under my bed and retrieve the case, I felt a sharp tug, like a fish hook had lodged in my rib cage. A call. Far stronger than the one I’d felt last night at the party. So strong that my breath hitched against it.
It pulled me forward, off the bed and toward the window. Fear washed over me. Was I supposed to step through the window? Fall to my death? Try to fly? I didn’t know, but the pull was so strong that all I could do was stumble forward.
Everything around me went gray.
There was nothing. No sound, no light, no touch, no walls and no sky and no floor, nothing at all but me and an endless expanse of gray. But I kept moving forward, pulled by the call.
I saw the bedroom a split second before I stepped into it—and then, with a rush of air and breath and magic, my slippered feet skidded to a halt on a hardwood floor. Plastic Rock Band instruments were everywhere. Jack Black leered down from a Tenacious D poster on the wall of a room that smelled vaguely of unwashed socks. And sitting in a desk chair, wearing a ratty brown T-shirt, was Ryan.
“Killer,” he said, looking down at the red guitar pick, which he held between his thumb and forefinger. Then back at me. “I am totally killer!”
“You are?” I said. That probably wasn’t the response he was looking for, but I couldn’t help it. I reached out, trying to see what he was thinking, but his thoughts were still a tangle of white noise, just like last night. “Is that good?”
“Um, obviously.” He jabbed two fingers at his own chest. “I, Ryan Weiss, am the actual master of an actual freaking genie. That kind of equals killer, am I right?”
I couldn’t remember if I’d said the word master to him last night. But my magic was prickling at me to answer his question, so I forced a smile, got my thoughts in order, and said, “You’re right. Very killer. So, hey, when I left last night, Naomi was—”
“She just left a few hours ago,” he said, with the most self-satisfied grin I’d ever seen. “I said she should skip school with me, but I guess she’s not into that. But still. Great job with that wish. Instant results. I dig that.”
I blinked stupidly at him. “You mean she spent the night?”
Using his heels to swivel his desk chair back and forth, almost like a victory dance, he said, “That’s totally what I mean.”
“Did you guys . . .? ” But I couldn’t bring myself to finish the question. Asking the question meant getting an answer, and I didn’t want to hear him say it out loud. “Never mind.”
He smirked at me. “That chick. I swear.”
“Yeah, she’s great,” I said quickly, before he could go into detail. I had to take control of this situation, and I had to do it fast. Smoothing my features into what I hoped was a businesslike smile, I said, “So, do you have a second wish? Is that why you called me? Because I could grant it right now, if you want.”
A desire surged forward from the static of his thoughts, but I couldn’t tell what it was. “No,” he said. “Just got a question. How long is that Naomi-being-in-love-with-me wish gonna last?”
I had no idea how to respond to that—until, less than a second later, my magic deposited the answer into my brain. “Since you didn’t specify a time limit, the wish will last indefinitely.”
Ryan’s eyes narrowed. “Huh,” he said, obviously displeased. “Okay, then I want a do-over so I can make there be a time limit. Like, in case it gets old and she starts stalking me or something.”
My magic bristled just beneath my skin, adding a strangely indignant feeling to the certain knowledge that I couldn’t do what he wanted. “Sorry, Ryan my darling,” I said, and was surprised when the words didn’t sound patronizing. Casual flirtation sat comfortably on Amber’s tongue. “No refunds, no exchanges.”
“But that’s not fair,” he said.
“Fair or not,” I said, “those are the rules. I have to play by them as much as you do.”
“Fine,” he said, swiveling around so he was facing his laptop. He grabbed the mouse and clicked a window open. “The cave guys said you can’t fix a wish after you make it, but I still figured it was worth a shot. Everything’s worth a shot, right?”
“Right,” I said automatically, before my magic could force me to answer. “Wait. The cave guys? Who?”
He looked over his shoulder at me, like he was trying to figure something out. But he didn’t answer. “So, I screwed up one wish,” he said. “Which means my other ones need to be real good.” He scrolled down the page.
I leaned forward to see what he was looking at, but he clicked the window off before I could see, revealing a YouTube video, paused in the middle. I recognized it immediately as the animated opening sequence of that old TV show I Dream of Jeannie. On Ryan’s screen, the cartoon Jeannie the Genie was mid-dance, with her hip thrust out to the side and her hands in a weird yoga-ish pose above her head.
Ryan looked back just in time to catch me frowning at the image. “She’s hot,” he said with a laugh. Then, after a slight pause, “You were hot too, last night. How come you’re dressed like my mom?”
“Because it’s stupid o’clock in the morning, and I wasn’t expecting you to call,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest, like that would somehow block his view of my wet hair and kitten-printed bathrobe. “What’s it to you?”
“I just expected you to be hot again, that’s all.” He shrugged in a way that made his disappointment clear, then reached over and clicked Jeannie’s window off.
My magic tugged at me, and I could sense it offering to put me back into the kind of clothes Ryan had been expecting to see—or, alternatively, into Jeannie’s revealing little outfit—but I shoved it away as quickly as I could. I’d never been the sort of person who dressed up just to impress boys, and I certainly wasn’t about to change that now. Not for him, anyway.
“So deal with it,” I said through gritted teeth.
“Feisty,” he said. “Nice. So, yeah, two wishes. Any suggestions? I mean, what would you wish for?”
To turn into myself again. To have a better grasp on how to use my magic. To find Oliver. But I didn’t want to say any of those things to Ryan. They would make me look weak, and that was the last thing I needed.
On the other hand, I had to answer truthfully. After a few seconds in which I didn’t answer, the pressure of my magic started building up, fast enough that I panicked and blurted out something that was very true indeed: “Right now, I’d wish to be pretty much anywhere but here, and bound to pretty much anyone but you.”
Ryan’s whole body seemed to tense up, and I took an instinctive step back, throwing my hands up and smiling widely. “Kidding!” I lied. “Totally kidding!”
He rolled his eyes. “Dumb question, I guess. I mean, you’re a genie. You’re all magic and stuff, so there’s nothing left to wish for. Unless—wait, am I supposed to wish you free? Like in Aladdin?”
I nearly choked. “No,” I said quickly. “You’re not supposed to wish me free.” What I didn’t say was that wishing me free would kill me.
“Oh, good,” he said, grinning. “Then I don’t have to waste one.”
“Nope,” I said.
“So I guess you can go now,” he said, apparently satisfied. “I’ll call you later, okay?”
“Later?” I asked as dread coiled through me. “When’s later?”
“Whenever I want,” he said smugly. “I mean, I’m your master, right?”
“Right,” I replied, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. I had to put a dent in this I’m your master thing, stat. “Although I’d prefer it if you’d refrain from calling me unless you have something useful for me to do.”
He narrowed his eyes, like a challenge. “Or else . . .”
I shrugged and gave him my best enigmatic smile. “I’m a genie, Ryan. A being whose power you cannot even begin to comprehend. If you think there isn’t an ‘or else’ attached, you are sadly mistaken.”
It was a bluff, of course; if he challenged my assertion with direct questions, my illusion of actual power would collapse like the house of straw in front of the Big Bad Wolf. But he didn’t. He just rolled his eyes again and said, “Fine. Whatever. Be gone, all-powerful immortal being. I have wishes to plan.”
I rubbed my hands together, willing the buzz in my fingertips to swell into something bigger so I could get back to my room the same way I’d gotten here . . . but now that Ryan wasn’t wanting anything at me, my magic lay dormant again, unresponsive to my will.
“What are you waiting for?” said Ryan, obviously annoyed. “I said see you later.”
“I’m not waiting for anything,” I said evenly. “Call me if you think of another wish.”
And then, like a totally unmagical girl doing the worst Walk of Shame ever, I slunk out of his room and closed the door behind me.
• • •
As bad as walking home in party clothes had been, walking home in my bathrobe and slippers was a zillion times worse—not in the least because it was mid-morning and there were cars everywhere. As I trudged down the sidewalk, I pictured every single driver rubbernecking at me.
At least none of them would recognize me.
A couple blocks away from Ryan’s house, I heard footsteps behind me, running. Assuming it was a jogger, I moved politely over to the edge of the sidewalk so he could pass. But then a female voice called, “Hey, there you are!”
I tugged my robe tighter and whirled around, nearly tripping over my unwieldy slippers in the process. A little ways behind me, rapidly approaching and obviously out of breath, was a girl I didn’t know. She wore artfully ripped jeans with black cowboy boots and a leather jacket. A wide streak of bright purple accented her short black hair, and a diamond stud glittered in her nose. Suddenly I felt even more self-conscious.
“Sorry,” I said as she drew closer. “You’ve got the wrong half-dressed, turtle-slippered blonde.”
She glanced at my slippers. “Turtles. Cute. But what happened to your shoes?”
“Nothing,” I said irritably. “Sometimes I like taking my turtles out for a walk, okay? Look, I’m not a huge fan of blowing people off, but I’m not exactly in a new-friend-making mood at the moment, so best of luck finding whoever you’re looking for, and nice to meet you, and have a great day, and good-bye.”
I waited for her to turn around and leave, but the worry on her face just deepened. Her voice turned soft and plaintive. “Wait. You really don’t recognize me?”
I froze. Looked just a little bit closer at the nose-ringed girl—and that was when I saw them. Her eyes. Bright green. Dark lashes. The shape of them . . . the way they were looking at me . . .
“Oliver,” I whispered, my heart suddenly certain even though my brain was still catching up.
The girl nodded. “Long time no see,” she said, with a slight tremor in her voice.
His voice. Of course. Ever since last night, I’d been watching for the Oliver Parish that I knew—the tall, shaggy-haired, hoodie-clad boy who’d been a sophomore at my high school for a few months earlier this year—even though he’d told me, explicitly told me, that he reinvented himself for each new person who found his vessel. But being told was very different from actually seeing it.
The curved hips. The feminine clothes. The chest. Oh god, I thought. My boyfriend has boobs.
But all I said was, “You look different.”
His face twisted into a smirk—the kind of smirk that looked far more natural on this girl’s face than it would have on Oliver’s. “So do you,” he said, raising his eyebrows like it was our new little in-joke.
I tried to laugh, but it came out choked. That was when his smirk faded, leaving an expression of alarm in its wake.
“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t realize—hold on a second. I’ll shift back.” He took a deep breath, and the air around him shimmered. And there, in place of the nose-ringed girl, was Oliver, with his kind face and soft lips and bright, bright green eyes.
He took a step toward me, but tentatively, like he was afraid I’d say no. That was what did it. Not the gesture itself, but the hesitation of it. The reluctance to make the first move. It was so familiar, so irritatingly and adorably him, that I practically fell into his arms.
Our bodies pressed together, but I was taller now, almost as tall as he was, and I fit against him strangely. I couldn’t make this new body relax into his, like my real body had done.
“I’m so sorry, Margo,” Oliver said, clutching me tightly. “I thought you’d know it was me.”
“How?” I asked, pulling away so I could see his face again. “How would I have known? You looked completely different.”
He raked a hand through his dark, shaggy hair. “Sure, yeah, but didn’t you see my magic?”
I shook my head; I hadn’t seen anything but a poster child for every indie rock band that had ever existed.
“Seriously, you didn’t? Like an aura or something, sort of whitish and glowy?”
I shook my head again. “I’m supposed to see auras now?”
“Just mine,” he said with a secretive smile. “It’s a genie thing. You have it, too. That’s how I recognized you. You glow.”
“I glow,” I said flatly. “Great. What else? Do I trail pixie dust in my wake?”
“No,” he said. “And it’s just a little bit of a glow. Not a big deal, just—”
“Just the difference between recognizing you and thinking you were a total stranger,” I finished. “And I didn’t even know to look for it. Well, hey, I’ll just add that to the giant pile of things I don’t know, huh? Like how to turn back into myself, or how to get home without having to walk a million miles, or how not to get bound to people like Ryan goddamn Weiss, the biggest douchebag ever, who used a wish to bang my best fr—”
I stopped cold. Naomi. I’d been so caught up in the details of my own magic, and all the things I didn’t know how to do, that I’d nearly forgotten what Ryan’s wish had done to her.
“Your best friend?” said Oliver, looking suddenly wary of me. Probably because I’d been yelling. “What happened?”
I closed my eyes, balling my hands into fists as I made myself breathe. “What happened,” I said, “was that Ryan made a wish. She fell in love with him, and she spent the night, and they . . . they did stuff. And in case that’s not bad enough already, Naomi hates Ryan, plus she has a boyfriend, and I know she never would’ve cheated on him without that stupid wish. So. My first question is, how do I fix Naomi? Second, how do I get Ryan to make good wishes instead of crappy ones? Third, how do I read his mind? I kept trying, but all I get is static. Oh, and fourth question—”
“Margo, calm down,” said Oliver, reaching out and putting a hand on my shoulder. “One thing at a time, okay?”
“Calm down?” I said. “I spent a whole night in a stranger’s body, hiding from my parents, granting wishes for Ryan Weiss, watching Naomi throw herself at him, with no idea where you were, or how to be myself again, or why it was nighttime, or . . .”
My throat was suddenly thick with tears, and I couldn’t finish. Oliver wrapped his arms around me again, pulling me close.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, his voice quiet and soothing. “I would have been there last night, except nobody had picked up my vessel yet. No vessel, no master. No master, no body. My ring didn’t bind itself to a new master until about half an hour ago, and when that happened, looking for you was the first thing I did. I swear. I’m just thankful I knew where you were going, otherwise it could have taken a lot longer.”
“You knew where I was going?” I asked. “How? I didn’t even know.”
“You said you wanted to come back to Oakvale. I told you it was a bad idea, but you wanted to.”
“I never said that.”
“Yes, you did,” he said. “Right before you threw your vessel back into the real world. That’s why it landed in Oakvale. I don’t know why it picked Ryan’s house—maybe it’s the exact center of town or something—but it did. We waited for hours for someone to pick it up. You cried. A lot.”
He peered closely at me, like he was waiting for the story to jog my memory. But I was more confused than ever.
“Did you say the real world?” I asked. He nodded. “As opposed to what? Where were we?”
He looked uncertain, like he was trying to figure out if I was messing with him. “You really don’t remember?”
I shook my head numbly. Apparently now I was the sort of person who went around losing her memories. Awesome.
“I took you to the Between. I thought we could stay there for a bit, and I could show you how everything works. Give you a chance to adjust, you know? But you freaked out and ran away. You said—” He paused abruptly. “Wait. What doyou remember?”
I shook my head again. “Nothing. I mean, I was on the stage at school, and then I went with you, and then I was at Ryan’s. What happened? What did I run away from? What were we between?” I cringed, suddenly embarrassed. “Did I really freak out?”
“Only a little,” said Oliver with a smile. “And we were between . . . well, everything. The space between everything and everything else, like I told you before. We were—oh, wait. We were until yousaid that, and then . . . ohh. You don’t remember because you didn’t want to, and you don’t remember not wanting to remember. That explains it.”
“Um, no, it doesn’t. What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about . . .” He bit his lip, running a hand through his hair again. “Okay. The Between. Just now, Ryan called you from your house to his, right? And the call pulled you through that gray space?”
I nodded; my short trip through that airless, soundless, empty space was still uncomfortably vivid in my memory. “That’s the Between?”
Oliver nodded. “It’s kind of like a portal. A shortcut to wherever you want to go. But it’s also whatever you make it. It does what you want. And when you were there with me, you wanted to forget having been there, so it made you forget when you left.”
I stared at him. “So . . . I did magic on myself that I don’t remember doing?”
He nodded, looking uneasy. “I think so. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“No, it doesn’t make sense.” I knew I sounded desperate, but I didn’t care. “Nothing makes sense.”
Oliver slid his hand down my arm, and for a second I thought he’d try to hold my hand. Instead, he simply touched his fingertips to mine—and that was all he needed to do. Our magic connected, and we sparked. There was no other way to describe it. It was like electricity, flowing from me into him and him into me and back again.
Feeling like Maria at the dance in West Side Story, I brought our hands up higher, right between our hearts. I stared at them, marveling at the intensity of this thing we shared.
“Margo, I know you want answers,” he said, voice lowered almost to a whisper. “It’s new, and it’s scary, but you’ll be fine. You just need to learn how everything works. And I’m going to teach you, because I love you, and because you’re damn well smart enough that teaching you magic is going to be the easiest thing I’ve ever done.” He smiled. “And because it’s the least I can do for the girl who saved my life.”