That afternoon before I had to go to work, I received an email from the Silverthorne School telling me that they received my application, and that I was scheduled to visit the campus next Thursday at nine o’clock in the morning. The closest bus stop was on the intersection of Lord Avenue and King Boulevard, followed by a five-minute walk just to get to the building. I didn’t understand why there wasn’t a bus route that led directly to it like most schools did.
When I got to work, I saw that Sybil had already posted the schedules for next week. Instead of my usual three days of work per week, I was disappointed to find out that I was given just one: Thursday morning. I thought I was doing well after that mishap in the store last week, but the managers’ decision to limit my hours didn’t seem to agree with my own assessment. I went to Sybil’s office during my break to figure out the reason for the change.
“We just hired two new cashiers recently,” she explained, “and we want to try to get them accustomed to our systems as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, since they’re going to be working three days a week, I had to cut back on hours for some of the older guys to make room.”
“But why am I only getting one day?” I asked.
Sybil sat down in her chair, making a quiet grunting noise when she landed. “I was going to put you on for Wednesday and Thursday again until I remembered you’re already doing those days this week, so I struck you off the list for Wednesday night.”
While the notion of working back-to-back shifts with only a few hours of rest made me even more uneasy than night shifts already did, I silently thanked Sybil and the other managers for not following through with it. It still didn’t alleviate the fact that I was going to make less money this time around, or that my only scheduled shift coincided with my Try-Out Thursday appointment.
“Is there a chance I could switch with someone for Thursday? I’ve got an appointment that morning.”
“What kind of appointment?” Sybil asked.
“I’m going uptown to visit a school.”
“Really? Which school is it?”
Sybil shook her head. “Never heard of it. Do you have any proof?”
I felt stupid for not printing out my pre-registration letter. I didn’t think Sybil would ask me about it since Silverthorne wasn’t a traditional college, university, or trade school. She frowned at me while I wasted a minute searching for the email message on my phone, and then showing her a picture of the school building itself to prove to her that the place was real.
“Oh, I get it now,” she said as she continued to browse on my phone.
“Get what, Sybil? What are you talking about?”
She turned around and showed me one of Lillian’s pictures from the school’s website. Lillian was wearing her cobalt blue cloak and smiling like she was posing for a mall photo booth camera. “I recognize that lady. She was standing in line in front of our would-be shoplifter last week. I thought she was a little weird, but had no idea she had her own school. You going to study magic or something, Deanna?”
“Sort of. I actually started on my own last week.”
“Good for you.” Sybil stopped frowning, but her mouth didn’t form a full smile, either. “Personally, I’ve got no use for any of it, but if you think it’ll work out for you, you can go ahead and try it. I still need to know what your schedule is going to be like after this visiting day of yours, or whatever, is done. Got it?”
After we finished our discussion, Sybil sent me to the registers to work alongside Corey. I was able to convince him to exchange his Friday morning shift for my Thursday morning shift, but he didn’t seem too happy about it. Whenever I tried to look at him, he turned the other way.
“Come on, Corey!” I pleaded. “I just need you to do this one favor for me. I won’t ask you for anything for the rest of the year. Promise.”
Corey groaned and turned toward the cash register once customers started lining up. “All right, but just so you know, you owe me for this,” he said. “I was really looking forward to getting Thursday off, too.”
Despite our disagreements over our new shift times, we both managed to get our work done with only a few mistakes. The last thing I wanted was to be put back on stocking duty as punishment for not paying attention to my work.
We switched roles after our scheduled breaks, with Corey acting as the bagger while I sat down at the register. There were so many buttons to keep track of on the touch screen monitor, but it was easier than I thought it would be since the screen only showed me the actions I needed for the moment. I could only imagine how confusing it must have been for cashiers to monitor registers that were more or less specialized computer keyboards back in the day.
When Mom and Dad came to pick me up, I told them about next week’s schedule, Try-Out Thursday, and Sol’s invitation to her and Lydia’s apartment. Mom responded to the last one with a knowing nod. “Marisol’s mother called me up at work to tell me about it,” she said.
I wondered who came up with the idea first. Did Sol do it, or had her mother already planned to send the invitation and Sol was so excited that she couldn’t wait to tell me?
“What time did they say?” I asked.
“Around noon, I believe.”
That gave me plenty of time to think of a gift to present to them when we arrived. Another painting sounded like a good idea, but I needed to replace my brushes and replenish my paints first. I could have also gone with a statue or something small that might look good on a windowsill or coffee table. Nothing too fancy or expensive. It was only our first visit, after all.
My Thursday shift was more of the same. This time I got paired with a middle-aged man named Shannon Dale. I had never worked with him before, but I had seen him and his three kids several times before. Apparently, he and his family liked to shop at this store a lot, and he had applied to this store one day because he was looking for something to do between jobs. He wasn’t one of the “new cashiers” Sybil told me about; he started about two months after I did.
When I went home and went to sleep for the night, I started thinking about my schedule for the end of the spring season.
Visiting Sol and Lydia’s apartment. Getting ready for Try-Out Thursday. Preparing to study at Lillian’s school.
These thoughts started to blend together after a few hours, and suddenly I dreamed that I was in some apartment that may or may not have been Sol’s, but Lillian was also there, and she was sizing me, Sol, and a dozen of other colorfully-dressed young men and women up to measure our magical aptitude. Lillian was flanked by two people in identically-colored cloaks. I couldn’t tell who they were because their faces were so well-hidden. All I could see when I looked at their faces was blackness.
One by one, they scanned and probed us, beckoning half of us to stand by their side. I was the second-to-last person selected. The whole thing gave me the creeps. None of them said a word to anyone the whole time…not even Lillian, whom I remembered to be very talkative. Before I could ask Lillian or the cloaked figures what was going on, one of them raised their hands and waved toward everyone standing on the other side.
A pulse of energy radiated from the cloaked one’s fingers, sending Sol and the others flying through the wall behind them.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to shout an unending string of curses at the cloaked figures for their unprovoked attack. I wanted to yell at Lillian for not doing anything to stop them.
No matter how hard I tried, the words just wouldn’t come out. All I could do was stand by and watch Sol and the other bystanders get tossed through the wall like human wrecking balls. When I tried to reach out to save her, the cloaked figures held their free arms out to hold me back.
They turned around and waved their hands again, lifting all of the debris into a swirling vortex and repairing the damaged walls as if nothing ever happened. Just like that, everyone standing on the other side of the line had vanished, shoved off into the unknown.
The cloaked figures led the rest of us to an unmarked wooden door along the opposite wall. It was cracked open just enough to obscure what was behind it from where we were standing. Any attempt to peek around the door was met with a punch to the back of the head.
My head was spinning by the time my turn came up. There was supposed to be another room behind that door, but all I saw was a dark, colorless void, like the space under the cloaked figures’ hoods. I didn’t want to know what was beyond the darkness anymore. I just closed my eyes, braced myself, and hoped for them to get it over with already.
A hard shove from behind propelled me into the void. There was nothing for me to stand on or reach out to – just the frightening sensation of falling into a bottomless pit, unable to scream or determine which way was up.
I opened my eyes in a vain attempt to make sense of things. I still couldn’t see anything around me, I couldn’t breathe, and my arms and legs were flailing around on their own. Eventually, I stopped moving, giving me a chance to push myself up and catch my breath.
I could see the contours of a pillow, and the ground beneath me was springy and a little stiff. That was when I realized I was in a bedroom. My bedroom, to be exact.
It seemed that I had turned face-first onto my pillow during that nightmare. I imagined it would have been a lot shorter if I had rested on my side or back, like I usually did. I almost didn’t want to go back to sleep after all that. I did not want to get sucked back into that dream to find out what happened when I finally hit bottom. Despite my best efforts, drowsiness won out, and I was back to dreamland after a few minutes.
When I woke up, I could still see those faceless hooded figures when I closed my eyes. Normally, I would have ignored bad dreams like that and gone on with my day, but this one left me with so many questions.
Who were those people standing with Lillian? What was Sol doing there when she told me she wasn’t going to attend the auditions? Why did they blast her through that wall? That didn’t look like any magic I’d ever seen. They weren’t even using magic wands. Would I be able to learn magic that powerful by taking this course? What would I do if someone tried to use a spell or power like that on me?
These were not questions I wanted to ask myself on my day off.