Check out this awesome excerpt of Lindsay Ribar’s The Art of Wishing, out March 21 from Dial:
Margo McKenna has a plan of attack for everything, from landing the lead in her high school musical to dealing with her increasingly absent parents. But when she finds herself in possession of a genie’s ring and the opportunity to make three wishes, she doesn’t know what to do. Especially since Oliver—not blue-skinned, not bottle-dwelling, but a genie nonetheless—can see more than what she’s willing to show him. With one peek into her mind, he can see the wishes that even Margo herself doesn’t know she wants.
But Oliver comes with more than just mind-reading abilities, a flair for magic, and the prettiest eyes Margo’s ever seen. Someone from his past is hunting him—someone bent on killing him, along with all the other genies in the world, for the sake of honor. And as Margo soon discovers, it will take more than three wishes to save him.
A whole lot more.
The plan was this: I’d get up on that stage, blow them away with the best damn audition they’d ever seen, and walk out knowing the part I wanted was mine.
And when I was called into the auditorium, that was exactly how it happened.
I walked over to the piano and handed my sheet music to George. “You know this one?” I asked him.
He peered quickly at the title. Nodded and said, “Yup.” Of course he did. Silly question.
George flexed his fingers, and I strode up the little side staircase and onto the stage. Bright lights flooded my face, but I was used to that. I shielded my eyes so I could focus on the lone figure sitting in the first row: Miss Delisio, math teacher by day and play director by night. I smiled warmly at her. This was the woman who was going to cast me in my dream role.
“Margo McKenna,” she said in greeting. “I do love a straight-A trig student with stage presence. How’s calculus treating you?”
I wrinkled my nose. “Straight A minuses this year. Calc is hard. Who knew?”
Miss Delisio laughed appreciatively. “Why do you think I don’t teach it?” she said. “All right, what are you singing for us today?”
“I’m doing ‘Last Midnight’ from Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim,” I recited.
“Great song,” she said. “Whenever you’re ready.”
This was it. I took a moment to steady myself, then nodded to George. On my cue, he started playing. I molded my body into the shape of the song, and the lyrics flowed out of me like I owned them. For those few minutes, I became someone totally different from my real self. Someone worldly and manipulative. Someone with very real power.
I’d chosen “Last Midnight” because of that power. And as the song grew in intensity, and my performance grew to match, and the air in the theater seemed to dance to the rhythm of George’s piano and my voice . . . I knew I’d chosen right.
When I finished, a couple of breaths passed before anyone said anything.
“That was lovely, Margo,” said Miss Delisio. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear the smile in her voice. “Really, really lovely.”
“Yup,” said George.
“Thanks,” I said breathlessly.
I heard the rustle of a notebook page being flipped. “Stick around for a little while, okay?” said Miss Delisio. “We’ll pair you up and have you read from the script.”
“Sounds good,” I said. “I’ll be in the hallway.”
Naomi Sloane, my best friend and Miss Delisio’s stage manager, was manning the door that stood between me and the hallway full of nervous students outside. She gave me a thumbs-up as I approached her.
“McKenna, you just nailed that,” she said. “Don’t tell the masses, but you’re the best audition I’ve seen so far.”
I flashed her a coy smile. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
She laughed and held the door open for me, and I floated out into the hallway as she called the next student’s name. Sure, I still had to do the reading part of the audition, but that would be a piece of cake. The hard part—the important part—was over. And Naomi was right.
I’d nailed it.
Sweeney Todd is a musical about cannibalism. More specifically, it’s a musical about a barber named Benjamin Barker, alias Sweeney Todd, who kills his customers and gives the bodies to his landlady, Mrs. Lovett, so she can turn them into meat pies and serve them to people. There’s a lot more to it than that—love and obsession and revenge, everything you’d expect to find in a good musical—but for most people, cannibalism is the show’s biggest selling point.
For me, though, it was all about the music. Nothing in the entire universe made me happier than sinking my teeth into a really juicy song and performing it for anyone willing to listen—and of all the musicals I’ve ever loved, Sweeney Todd was the ultimate source for juicy songs. Especially if you were playing Mrs. Lovett, which was exactly what I planned to do.
A week after the auditions, Miss Delisio announced that she’d made her casting decisions and the list would be up at the end of the day. So when the last bell rang, I raced out of my last class and up to the theater. There was already a throng of drama club door. A piece of light green paper was there, held up with Scotch tape.
I started pushing my way through the crowd, but a hand on my shoulder stopped me before I could get very far. “Congrats, girl!” said Naomi, pulling me into a quick hug. “You got a lead. Told you so, didn’t I?”
Naomi had never been interested in acting, but she’d stagemanaged our shows ever since freshman year. She was a natural at it, too: level-headed, loud, and popular enough that people actually listened when she told them to do things.
“Really?” I said, returning her grin. “Wait, don’t tell me. I want to see for myself.”
Call it superstition, but even in a case like this, where I knew beyond a doubt what part I’d gotten, I had to see it in writing before I let it become real. Margaret McKenna—Mrs. Lovett. Ever since Miss Delisio had announced that Sweeney Todd would be our spring musical, I’d pictured those words in my head, willing them to come true.
I skirted around Naomi and wove through a bunch of guys high-fiving each other, until finally I reached the cast list. It only took a few seconds for me to zero in on my name, about halfway down the green paper. I followed the line that would lead me to the name of my character.
Margaret McKenna—Tobias Ragg.
The chatter around me dissolved into white noise, and I blinked a couple times, just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. I traced the line with my finger. No, I’d really been cast asTobias Ragg.Toby, who only had a couple of songs.Toby, who was young and simple-minded, the exact opposite of the devious and amazing Mrs. Lovett, who I was certain I’d get to be.
Toby, who was a boy.
I mean, sure, I was short and kind of flat-chested, but come on. . . .
“I’m Toby,” I said to myself, trying the idea on for size. It didn’t fit.
“Yeah,” came Naomi’s voice from just over my shoulder. Apparently she’d followed me through the crowd. I turned to her, and her congratulatory smile faltered when she saw my face. “Listen, I know you wanted Mrs. Lovett, but Toby’s still a really good part.You’ll be so awesome.”
But her consolation-prize words washed over me, totally devoid of meaning. “Who is playing Lovett?” I asked. I hadn’t even thought to check. “Wait. Don’t tell me.”
So she didn’t. She just bit her lip and waited for me to find the name. Find it I did. Recognize it, I did not.
“Who the hell is Victoria Willoughbee?”
Naomi went quiet for a moment, her face frozen in an expression that I couldn’t read. “You know Vicky,” she said at last. “Sophomore? Plays clarinet in the band?” Nothing rang a bell, so I just shook my head. Naomi shrugged. “Well, she’s nice.”
“Woo-hoo!” came a shout, so close it made me flinch. Just behind me was Simon Lee, looking over my head at the cast list. “I’m Sweeney Effing Todd, suckers! I am the Asian Johnny Depp! I’ve always said that! Haven’t I? Haven’t I always said that?”
He punched the air, and a few people yelled out their congratulations and gave him those back-thumping man-hugs. Nobody seemed to begrudge him the lead role, or even the bizarre victory dance he was now doing. Mostly because we all knew he was the most talented boy in the entire school. Not to mention the cutest.
Simon found me in the crowd and gave me one of those lopsided grins that made my chest feel like a tiny hot-air balloon. That was when it hit me.
I wouldn’t get to be Simon’s costar.
Suddenly, I was absolutely certain I was about to lose it. I had to get out of there. I couldn’t let all these people see me cry over a part in a high school musical. Especially not Simon.
“Congratulations,” I managed to choke out, and ran like hell toward the girls’ bathroom.
I didn’t even see the boy coming around the corner until I bumped right into him. My shoulder smacked into his arm with a force that nearly spun me off my feet.
“Sorry!” he said automatically, stepping gingerly out of my way as I looked up in alarm to see who it was. I didn’t know him.
But his eyes widened as he looked down at me. “Margo,” he said. “Oh. I’m really, really sorry.”
I gave him a quick once-over—dark hair, light eyes, thin and wiry, cute enough in a nondescript sort of way—but no, I definitely didn’t know him. “Sorry about what? Who are you?”
“Nobody,” he said quickly, holding his hands up like a white flag. “I’m nobody. Never mind.”
I darted past him. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him turn to watch me go.
The bathroom smelled faintly of weed and cigarettes, and the powers that be had long since stopped scrubbing away the rude graffiti that covered the walls, but at least it was empty. Feeling about nine years old, I locked myself in a stall, drew my knees up to my chin, and shut my eyes.
Miss Delisio always gave the lead roles to seniors. That was how it worked. You paid your underclassman dues in the chorus, or maybe in small roles if you were lucky, and then you got a good part right before you graduated. So why were the rules different for that Vicky Willoughbee girl?
I only allowed myself out of the stall when I’d calmed down enough to form a new plan of action. If I couldn’t be Mrs. Lovett, then I would be the sort of person who was totally okay with not being Mrs. Lovett. I smiled at myself in the bathroom mirror until it looked real, and then I took a deep breath and headed back toward the theater for the first rehearsal.
Miss Delisio was already sitting primly on the stage when I came in. In addition to being my tenth-grade trig teacher, she’d directed every musical I’d been in since freshman year. I liked her well enough—but sitting next to her, wearing tight jeans, clunky boots, and a black biker jacket, was the real talent: George the Music Ninja.
Even when George was just noodling around on the piano during breaks, it was like listening to some crazy musical genius at work.And that wasn’t even counting his other job.When he wasn’t musical-directing us, he was the front man of an indie band called Apocalypse Later. He didn’t write their music, which probably explained why I wasn’t totally sold on their sound, but his vocals and guitar solos were absolutely killer.
“Grab your script and have a seat,” Miss Delisio announced in her usual buoyant voice. “We’ll start as soon as everyone’s here.”
One by one, we made our way up to the stage, where there was a pile of scripts, each labeled with the name of an actor and the role they were playing. I watched Miss Delisio closely as I approached, wondering if she would say anything to me. She knew I wanted to be Mrs. Lovett. In fact, last time I spoke to her, she’d stopped just short of outright promising me the role. Would she bother to explain why she’d given it to someone else?
Apparently not. By the time I reached the stage and fished my script from the pile, she and George were engrossed in conversation. I took a deep breath. It didn’t matter, I reminded myself. What’s done is done. I was okay with it. No, I was more than okay; I was going to kick ass in this role.
Most of the actors with leads had settled in the front row: Callie Zumsky as Johanna, MaLinda Jones as Pirelli, Dan Quimby-Sato as Anthony, Ryan Weiss as Judge Turpin, Jill Spalding as the Beggar Woman. All seniors, of course. But I joined Naomi in the second row instead.
“You okay, McKenna?” whispered Naomi as I sat down beside her.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” I whispered back. “Just because Sophomore McWhatserface got Lovett and I didn’t?”
Naomi snickered. “You mean Willoughbee,” she said, trying and failing to sound disapproving.
I grinned. “That’s what I said. Anyway, whatever. I’m over it.”
“You don’t look over it.”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “Perhaps your eyes deceive you.”
She looked like she wanted to press the issue, but I was saved by the arrival of Simon, who slid into the empty seat on my other side. “Heya, Toby,” he said, grinning.
There was something witty I could say in response to that. I was sure of it. Unfortunately, the best my brain could cough up was: “Actually, it’s Margo.”
He feigned shock and slapped his forehead with his palm. “Duh. I’m always doing that. Calling people Toby. When will I ever learn?”
Something witty. Something witty. I needed to think of something witty.
But his arm kept brushing against mine as he arranged his stuff on the floor, and that was enough to distract me. I was just about to give up on being witty and blurt out something inane like “Never, I guess,” when Miss Delisio began to shush us.
“We’ve got almost everyone,” she said, frowning down at the scripts beside her. “We’re just missing Vicky—oh, there she is!” Her gaze shifted to the back of the auditorium, and everyone twisted around to see who she was looking at. There, at the top of the left aisle, was a girl I was pretty sure I’d never seen before. Clutching a small pile of books to her chest, she hesitated there like she’d been caught in the act of . . . what?
Walking into a room? This was the girl who’d been cast in the role of a lifetime?
“Here you go,” said Miss Delisio, holding out a script. Hugging her books closer, Vicky darted down the aisle to collect it. Miss Delisio, beaming, said something I couldn’t hear, and Vicky gave her a tight smile in return. Miss Delisio gestured to the front row.
But the front row had already filled up.Vicky hesitated again, and for one relieved moment I was sure she would head toward the back, with the other underclassmen.
Then Simon waved at her. “Saved you a seat over here!” he called, much to my dismay. Vicky slid into the seat on Simon’s other side as he gave her his trademark arched-eyebrow smile.
The one that made my heart beat just a little faster when he used it on me.The one that, last spring, had led to an incredibly awesome kiss at the cast party of Bat Boy: The Musical. The kiss had never been repeated. In fact, after that night he’d never even brought it up again. But still: awesome.
Vicky, however, seemed oblivious to his flirty look.
“Margo, right?” she whispered to me, across Simon.
“I saw you as Ruthie in Bat Boy last year.You were really good.”
“Thanks,” I said, and smiled at her, exactly like I’d practiced in the bathroom mirror. I was okay with this. I was not allowed to hate Vicky Willoughbee.
Once we were settled, Miss Delisio introduced George, like there was anyone here who didn’t know him. He flashed us a grin and settled himself at the piano. We wouldn’t be singing today, since we hadn’t officially learned the songs yet, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t underscore us. He began to play the opening bars of the show, and a little shiver flitted up my spine.
With Naomi reading stage directions, we jumped right in. As usual, speaking the lyrics was odd since, without rhythms and melody, lyrics just sound like really weird poetry. But this was the way the first rehearsal always went: just a read-through, so we could all learn the story together. Most of us were used to it. Some people, like Simon, even managed to make it sound kind of good.
Vicky, however, was no Simon. She read all of her lyrics in an awful monotone, like she couldn’t quite figure out what the words meant. And it wasn’t just the lyrics, either. The way she read the dialogue was just as bad. It was all I could do not to cover my ears and run screaming out of the theater.
When we finally reached the end of Act One, Miss Delisio called a ten-minute break. I thought about going outside, but when Vicky got up, I decided to stay right where I was. Running into her in the hallway and accidentally punching her in the face were definitely not part of my I’m-okay-with-this plan.
As I skimmed the second half of the script, I saw a student approach Miss Delisio. A student who wasn’t in the cast, which was a little unusual. It took me a minute, but I recognized him as the boy from earlier. The one I’d almost mowed down on my way to the bathroom.
He spoke with Miss Delisio and George for a few moments before digging through the pockets of the hoodie he wore, then through the backpack he’d slung over one shoulder. He pulled out what looked like a camera case. I heard the word yearbook come out of someone’s mouth, and I groaned softly as I realized what was going on. They were starting rehearsal photo shoots this early in the game? Not fair.
When the cast had settled back in their seats and quieted, Miss Delisio took a moment to confirm my fears.
“Guys, this is Oliver Parish.” The boy gave a shy little wave to nobody in particular. “He just transferred here in January. He’s going to be photographing our rehearsal process for the drama
club’s section of the yearbook. And maybe, if we’re lucky, he’ll get enough to put together a slide show for our cast party.”
Naomi nudged me and rolled her eyes, which made me grin. I looked at Simon, to see what he thought of this turn of events, but he was busy typing out a text message on his phone. Beside him, though, Vicky was watching Oliver. And she wasn’t wearing that timid, deer-in-the-headlights expression from before. She was absolutely beaming.
I looked at the photographer. He smiled back at Vicky, like there was a secret in the room, and they were the only two people who knew it.
The porch lights were already on when I got home that night, and my mom’s car sat ominously in the driveway. And the house, as I’d feared, was a mess. There were coats draped over the back of the couch, shoes strewn all around the floor, and four suitcases in the hallway, one of which was open and spilling clothes everywhere. I tried not to think about how I’d cleaned this room just three days ago.
Ziggy was the first to greet me when I opened the door, jumping off her perch on the couch and rubbing herself against my legs. She purred as I bent to scritch her little tabby head. “Did Mommy and Daddy come home?” I whispered to her. “Did they remember to feed you?”
“Margo?” came Mom’s voice from the kitchen. “Honey, is that you?”
I rolled my eyes. “No, it’s a burglar. I’ve come to steal all your silverware and jewelry. And your cat,” I added, giving Ziggy another scratch.
“As long as you don’t steal our daughter,” she replied. Emerging from the kitchen with a huge grin on her face and Dad trailing behind her, she gave me a quick hug and a peck on the forehead.
“How was the cruise?” I asked, unzipping my boots and placing them neatly on the shoe rack by the door. I’d deal with my parents’ shoes later.
She sighed dramatically. “Absolute heaven. Maybe even better than the last one. I know they say you should wait for summer to visit Alaska, but what’s a little cold?”
“Cold schmold,” added Dad. “That’s what the parkas were for. Not to mention the indoor cabin.”
Mom gave him a secretive little smile. “The honeymoon suite, you mean.”
“Honeymoon suite, still?” I asked, doing my best to ignore the dewy-eyed looks they were exchanging. “What is this, the third honeymoon you’ve been on since the wedding?”
Mom thought for a moment. “Fourth, if you count the Grand Canyon trip.”
“Which I do,” said Dad. “Oh, and we have pictures!” He ran over to the open suitcase and began rifling through it. “Wait till you see these, Margo. Some of the ones your mother took are just, wow.”
Ever since the wedding last May, our lives had been one continuous cycle of Mom and Dad planning a trip, Mom and Dad leaving on their trip, a week or two of peace and quiet, Mom and Dad coming back from their trip, and the grand finale, Mom and Dad showing me pictures of their trip.The pictures were always the same, too: Mom pretending to fall over the railing of a cruise ship, Dad wearing another cheesy Hawaiian shirt, stuff like that. Sometimes it felt like they were the teenagers and I was the adult.
“How’s school?” asked Mom. “Anything exciting happen while we were gone?”
“Nope,” I said quickly. “Same old same old.”
I thought about telling her about the cast list fiasco, but this wasn’t the time. At best, they’d both go “Aw, that’s too bad” and jump right back into honeymoon talk. At worst, they wouldn’t even understand why I was so upset. As far as they were concerned, it didn’t matter what role I had, as long as their daughter was onstage. These were, after all, the people who’d thrown me a party after I’d played Frightened Theater-goer Number Two in my first-grade musical about Abraham Lincoln.
“Where did I put that camera?” muttered Dad.
“Red suitcase, inside pocket, next to the toothbrushes,” replied Mom almost absently, and then turned back to me. “You’ll never guess what movie was playing on the plane today. The Parent Trap. Can you believe it?”
“Oh, I almost forgot about that!” said Dad, unzipping the red suitcase.
“It was the old Hayley Mills one,” said Mom. “The good one, not the remake they did with that awful drug addict girl.”
I was about to point out that Lindsay Lohan probably hadn’t been a drug addict at the time, but Mom continued, “And we said, take away the twin thing and the summer camp, and that’s our Margo! Making us back into one big, happy family.”
“It wasn’t exactly me,” I said, but neither of them seemed to notice.
“Aw, Celia,” said Dad. Camera finally in hand, he came back over and enveloped us in a bear hug. Mom hugged back just as hard, so I did too.
If I’d been a character in a musical, this would have been the point where the lights went down on my parents, leaving them slow-dancing in the background like living scenery, as I stepped forward into a lone spotlight for my big solo. It would be a quirky ballad, probably called “I Am Not Hayley Mills” or something like that, and people would applaud when I was done. Maybe they’d even give me a standing ovation.
Of course, people don’t usually get standing ovations in their living rooms, but I still toyed with the idea of dashing upstairs, pulling out my guitar, and writing that song. It wasn’t worth it, though. I’d tried a million different times to write a million different songs about a million different things, but it was never worth it. My songs always sucked.
Right from day one, Oliver Parish came to almost every single rehearsal. Whether we were learning songs, blocking scenes, or just talking things through, there he was. Always right on the fringe of the action, blinding flash at the ready. Constantly tempting me to jump off the stage and throttle him with my bare hands—which, to my credit, I did not do.
Meanwhile, my favorite part of rehearsals was watching Simon learn his songs and use them to find his way into the Sweeney character. He was totally bizarre in just the perfect way, and he attacked every song like it came from the deepest part of his soul, instead of from a script. It was, in a way, even cooler than watching him sing to a fake severed cow’s head as Edgar in Bat Boy.
And he wasn’t the only one doing well. According to Naomi, who had to go to every rehearsal, Callie Zumsky and Dan Quimby-Sato were starting to develop some serious stage chemistry as Johanna and Anthony. Not surprising, since I’d done shows with them before, and they were both seriously talented. But when I asked how Ryan Weiss was doing as Judge Turpin, Naomi just rolled her eyes. She didn’t have to explain. Everyone knew Ryan only got lead roles because he could hit low notes that none of the other guys could. He was the kind of actor who missed his cues all the time, thought every line should be accompanied by a sweeping arm gesture, and always looked vaguely angry.
But as bad as Ryan was, Vicky Willoughbee was even worse. Sure, she was okay at remembering lines, but that was about it. No matter how much direction Miss Delisio gave her, she remained as expressionless and monotonous as a robot. I kept waiting for someone to call her on it, but Miss Delisio, Simon, and everyone else kept saying how great she was, and Oliver Parish kept taking pictures and smiling proudly at her.
It was the strangest thing. “Vicky’s so nice” and “Vicky’s so pretty” and “Vicky’s so talented” swirled constantly around me, and nobody ever said anything about how the rest of us were actually singing and acting, while Vicky was just . . . saying words.
I tried talking to Naomi, but all she did was shake her head at me. “Don’t get all catty about it,” she said. “I know you wanted that part, but it isn’t Willoughbee’s fault, okay?”
That shut me right up. Maybe Naomi had a point. Maybe I was being too critical—even petty. And since petty wasn’t a thing I ever wanted to be, I kept my head down and concentrated on learning my songs, figuring out my character, and staying out of everyone else’s business.
Which would have worked great, had I not happened to overhear voices from the band room during rehearsal one Tuesday night.
While Simon and Danny Q went through their first scene for the bazillionth time, I sneaked out to retrieve my French workbook. As I reached my locker, I heard two people talking. This wasn’t unusual, since the drama club was far from the only group that stayed at school after hours, but these voices were speaking in low, urgent tones, which smacked of secrecy. And that, of course, piqued my interest. I followed the sound to the band room door. The lights were off inside, but the door was cracked open. So I listened.
“And it’s not just the play,” a female voice was saying. “I mean, it is the play, but it’s everything else, too.”
Vicky. I hadn’t even noticed that she wasn’t upstairs in the theater. She sounded so different when she wasn’t speaking in her annoying monotone.
“But that was what you wanted,” said a male voice that I couldn’t place.
“Yeah,” she said, and I heard a hint of a sniffle. “But it’s too much. I can’t get away. It’s like everyone wants something from me, all the time. I hear my name everywhere. A football player hit on me yesterday, for god’s sake.”
The male voice let out a low laugh.
“It’s not funny, Oliver! Did you know there’s a petition going around to vote me into the student council? As the president? Sophomores can’t even run for student council, and the election was back in September!”
I pressed my ear closer to the door. First the musical, now the student council? What the hell was that about? And what did Oliver have to do with it?
“Do you want to undo it?” he asked.
“Yes!” she said, with more emotion than she’d given to the entire script of Sweeney Todd. “Wait a sec. Would I have to use my third to undo it?”
“Yes,” Oliver replied.
“But then I’d be wasting two,” she said. “I don’t know. This is too much.Why didn’t you just do it right in the first place?”
“Do it right?” came his affronted reply. I tensed. “I did it exactly like you wanted. Exactly. That’s as right as it gets. It’s not my fault you can’t deal with it.”
I braced myself for her to yell, or to cry, or to throw some accusation back at him. But all that followed was silence, which was even more unnerving. I waited, but after a full fifteen seconds passed, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I peeked into the band room. Vicky was sitting in one of the black plastic chairs, resting her hands on a music stand and looking troubled. There was no sign of Oliver.
She jumped up when she saw me. “Margo. Did you hear . . . ?” Instead of finishing the question, she made a vague gesture at the space around herself.
“I heard you fighting,” I said. Her eyes went wide behind her glasses, but she didn’t say anything. “Where’d he go? Are you okay?”
She gave a weak little laugh, ignoring my first question. “Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just . . . Never mind. I’m fine.”
“Oh. All right.” An awkward silence descended, and she made no move to fill it. So I did instead: “What was the thing about the student council?”
Vicky’s gaze grew sharp. “You were listening. Did you follow me down here?”
“No! I just came down to get my, um, my French book,” I finished lamely, painfully aware of my empty hands.
“Sure you did.” She skirted around me, heading for the door. “Just leave me alone, okay? Why can’t everyone just leave me alone?”
For nearly a week, I kept an eye on Vicky and Oliver, just in case their behavior yielded any more clues to what the band room fight had been about. But aside from acting noticeably cooler toward each other, neither of them did anything particularly noteworthy. Oliver kept taking pictures; Vicky kept not being able to act. That was all. Maybe I’d been imagining things, I decided eventually. Maybe all I’d witnessed was a run-of-the-mill breakup fight.
So I stopped paying attention to them and went back to concentrating on the important things. Like watching George play, and listening to Simon sing.
And doing some singing of my own.
Once I started digging my claws intoToby’s music, I began to get a feel for who his character was. His songs all had a brash, jaunty quality to them. A distinctly boyish quality. I sang them over and over again, until I could imagine the musical phrases seeping through my skin, settling deep in my bones, and becoming part of me—changing not only the way I sang his songs, but the way I spoke his lines, and even the way I moved onstage.
I started walking differently during rehearsals. I’d never thought much about the way I walked, but now that I was paying attention, I noticed I had a tendency to swing my hips from side to side, just a little bit. But when I was playing Toby, I held my hips straight, like a boy would, and it had a weird ripple effect on the rest of my body. I found myself angling my head and shoulders differently when I talked to people. I took bigger steps. I swaggered. All because of a few short, surprisingly brilliant songs.
“You’re doing such a lovely job with this role,” said Miss Delisio during one of our rehearsal breaks. “I knew it would be a challenge for you, but I had a feeling you’d be up for it.” She paused, a frown flitting across her face. “And Margo, I want to thank you for being so mature about my casting decision. I know you wanted to play Mrs. Lovett, and I know you would’ve been wonderful. But I had to do what was best for the whole company.You understand, don’t you?”
I didn’t, especially since there was no universe in which Vicky playing a lead was best for the company. But I made myself nod. “Sure. I get it.”
“And you’re having fun playing Toby, aren’t you?” Her eyes were hopeful as they searched mine.
“That I am,” I said, just to make her feel better. But to my surprise, it was actually kind of true.
Even George the Music Ninja complimented my work—and this was a guy who never complimented anyone at all. He’d correct people when he had to, and he’d do everything he could to make the singers and the band sound their absolute best—but when everything was going smoothly, he usually just nodded to himself and went “Yup.” But this time was different.
An entire Thursday evening had been set aside for us to work through my biggest song, which was called “Not While I’m Around.” It was a quietly beautiful song, and my character had to sing it to Vicky’s character, without anyone else onstage. Probably thinking to have a small, intimate rehearsal that reflected the small, intimate nature of the scene, Miss Delisio let Naomi off the hook that night, and even asked Oliver not to come and take pictures.
Since George and I were the first ones there, he suggested we go over my song while we waited for Miss Delisio and Vicky. With his clunky boots working the pedals of the crappy school piano, George took me through the song twice: once to listen to how I’d been singing it on my own, once more to make suggestions. They were clever, nitpicky things—the softening of a line here, or the lengthening of a note there—and I had a lot of fun taking his notes. When we were finished, he dropped his hands into his lap and gave me a calculating look.
“You’re good. You know that?”
My jaw literally dropped, and a moment passed before I managed to speak. “Thanks. That’s, wow, that’s really nice of you to say.”
“It’s not nice. It’s just true.” He pointed a finger at me. “You are damn good. Darn good. You even allowed to say ‘damn’ here, or will those morons on the school board . . . ? Never mind. Anyway, your voice. You’ve got substance there. Depth. You write songs, too? You seem like the type who writes songs.”
“Yeah.” I paused, surprised at myself. I never told people about that. “Badly, though,” I added quickly.
“You being modest? Tell me straight.”
“No, I’m serious. I mean, I’m okay on the guitar, but my lyrics are terrible. I mean truly terrible. Like, ‘unholy love-child of Dance of the Vampires and Carrie’ levels of terrible.”
For a second I thought he might ask me to play something anyway, but I was saved by the arrival of Vicky and Miss Delisio, both bundled in coats and armed with scripts.
“How’s the song coming?” called Miss Delisio cheerfully as she came down the aisle. “Are we ready?”
“We are darn ready,” I replied. George snickered.
As soon as Vicky shed her coat, we dove right in. I was eager to show off the song that had completely changed the way George looked at me—but when you’re in a scene with someone, you can’t just decide how you’re going to sing your song, and then do it. You have to react to the other people onstage with you. You have to connect with them, let them influence you, interact with them like real people do with each other.
Unfortunately, with Vicky being her usual monotonous self, there was nothing I could connect to. I sang at her, but she just stared at me and recited her lines like a robot, which made me feel like my own lines were being sucked into a black hole of awfulness. It was infuriating.
George didn’t say anything when we finished. All Miss Delisio said was, “Lovely, ladies! Let’s take it again, from the top of the song.”
It was anything but lovely, but I couldn’t exactly say so out loud. Silently seething, I moved back over to stage left, where I was supposed to start the scene. George began playing, and I began singing, and with every lyric I willed Vicky to connect with me, willed Miss Delisio to see how terrible she was, so she could find a way to fix it.
I plowed through the song ruthlessly, infusing “Listen to me, just listen to me” into every note. It came out harsh and cracked and sometimes even off-key—but to my surprise, it felt absolutely real that way. I didn’t have to care thatVicky wasn’t really listening. In the scene, Mrs. Lovett wasn’t listening to Toby, either. So he, like me, had every right to be pissed off.
When the scene ended, I found my heart was racing. Slowly I fell out of Toby’s posture and back into my own. George was staring hard at me, his lips pressed into a thin line. He gave me a single, firm nod, and I saw him mouth the word yup.
Miss Delisio looked back and forth between Vicky and me, absolutely beaming. “Vicky, Margo, that was—”
“Can I take a break?” came Vicky’s small voice, before Miss Delisio could finish. She stood a few feet away from me, her shoulders hunched miserably. Guilt flared through me. Vicky was a terrible actress, but that didn’t mean she was stupid. And I’d practically yelled the whole song at her. I tried to catch her eye, but she wouldn’t look at me.
“Go ahead,” said Miss Delisio. Vicky jumped off the stage and dashed out of the auditorium.
“Told you she couldn’t handle it,” said George, carefully flexing his fingers.
Miss Delisio gave him a sharp look. “We’ve talked about this,” she said, and moved toward the piano where he sat. I would have asked what exactly they’d talked about, but their conversation quickly became too hushed for me to hear. Which left us with one absent actress, a director and a musical director who were about to either fight or make out, and me.
Without bothering to excuse myself, I hopped off the stage and went to take a bathroom break.
I half expected to find Vicky outside the auditorium, maybe making a phone call, maybe huddled in a corner and crying to herself. She wasn’t there. But when I reached the girls’ room and began to push the creaky door open, I heard someone turning on the sink inside, and I actually hesitated.
But there was no reason for me not to go in. If she’d wanted to be alone, she’d have gone someplace a little less obvious. I swung the door open. Vicky met my eyes in the mirror, but she quickly looked back down at the sink. As she scrubbed furiously at her hands, I slipped into a stall.
She left almost immediately, but I took my time, hoping she’d deal with whatever issue she was having before I got back to rehearsal. I even paused for a second to check myself in the mirror, though there wasn’t much to check. Hair: still short, but starting to get too long for the pixie cut I’d gotten last month. Two tiny zits right by my nose: still covered with foundation. Minimal eye makeup: still not smudged. Little glint coming from the window behind me—
Well, that was new.
Curious, I turned around and peered at the sill. I had to stand on my tiptoes to do it, since all the first-floor bathroom windows were ridiculously high up, probably to keep us from using them to escape during school hours. Although, if you wanted to play hooky, it was a whole lot easier to walk out the front door.
There was a silver ring there, shiny enough that it caught even the dim fluorescent bathroom light. The band was thick, and deeply engraved with a wavy pattern that looked like one of those Celtic knots.
I couldn’t remember seeing anyone at school with a ring like this, but this was a public bathroom in a big school, and I was hardly the most observant person when it came to jewelry. It could have belonged to anyone.
I picked it up, rolling it between my thumb and index finger so I could get a better look at the design. It was a really pretty ring, actually, and for a second I was tempted to keep it for myself. But even if I could justify keeping it, I would have no reason to. I had a small collection of jewelry, mostly given to me by my mom, but I never really wore any of it.
Lost and found, then. I tossed the ring in the air and caught it, the way I thought Toby Ragg might do if he’d found it instead of me. Grinning at the thought, I pocketed the ring and headed for the door. But the door opened before I could get there. Into the bathroom, wearing jeans and a gray hoodie, walked Oliver Parish.
“What is it?” he asked—and his eyes locked with mine. He snapped his mouth shut with a frown. Drawing his head back warily, he said, “Margo. You’re not Vicky.”
“Very observant,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Here’s another observation: This is the girls’ room, and you are a boy.”
“But it came from in here,” he said. Squatting down, he peered under the stall doors. “Where is she?”
“Probably back at rehearsal,” I said. “Which is not in the girls’ bathroom. What the hell are you doing in here?”
Oliver straightened suddenly, his shoulders tensing like he’d just gotten a chill. He pressed one hand to his temple, then looked at me with eyes grown just a little bit too wide. If we hadn’t been in a bathroom in a high school, I’d have said that he looked almost scared. I crossed my arms, waiting.
When he finally spoke, his voice quavered. “I’m looking for a ring. You, um . . . you didn’t happen to pick up a ring, did you?”
“A ring?” I repeated.
“Yeah. A silver one.” He made a small circle with his fingers, like maybe I didn’t know what a ring was.
I nearly reached into my pocket to retrieve it, but then stopped. Something didn’t make sense here. “Why would your ring be in the girls’ room?”
“Vicky must have left it,” he said. “I should give it back to her.”
“Wait, okay, time out for a second,” I said, making a little T sign with my hands. “If Vicky sent you in here to get her ring, then why’d you think I was her?”
His expression remained carefully neutral. “Because she was the last person who had it. Please, Margo, do you have it or not?”
“Yeah, I do.” Oliver took an eager step toward me, and for the first time I was aware of the height difference between us. He wasn’t unusually tall—about average for a guy—but he still had more than six inches on me. I took a step back, putting up a defensive hand. “But if you want it back, you’d better tell me why you’re here. Especially since you weren’t at rehearsal tonight. Why are you even in the school?”
“If you’d just,” he began, and then stopped abruptly, wincing. Rubbing at his forehead like he’d just gotten a migraine, he muttered, “Ohhh, this is awkward.”
“What is?” I asked, thoroughly confused.
“This,” he said through clenched teeth, looking at me with painfully squinted eyes. “All right, all right. I’m here because the ring called me here, okay?” And then he let out a whoosh of breath, dropped his hands, and let his face relax—like his migraine had disappeared as fast as it showed up.
“Did you just say it called you?” I said, one hand wandering downward to linger protectively over the pocket of my jeans.
“Yes, I did,” he said, the sharp look in his eyes daring me to contradict him.
“Are you gonna tell me what that’s supposed to mean?”
“No,” he said. “Don’t you have to get back to rehearsal?”
He had a point. I’d been gone way longer than I should have, and they were probably wondering where I was. But still . . .
“Come on,” I said. “What’s the short version?”
Oliver’s expression grew pained. “The ring is tied to me. When someone touches it with their thumb and forefinger, it calls me. And here I am. Ta-dah,” he said, making the most unenthusiastic jazz hands I’d ever seen.
I burst out laughing.
He looked down at his shoes, his hair falling forward and into his eyes. My laughter faded into an awkward “Heh.” Biting my bottom lip to shut myself up, I looked for some crack in his serious veneer. There wasn’t one. “So . . . you’re trying to tell me that this is a magic ring.”
Annoyance darkening his expression, he looked up at me again through unruly bangs. “No, I’m trying to tell you that it’s my magic ring, and I want it back.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I thought you said it was Vicky’s.”
“No, I didn’t. I said Vicky must have left it.” He frowned, looking around like he was lost. “And that’s worrying enough as it is. But the point is, I need it back.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Look, you and Vicky can play Lord of the Rings all you want. I’m just here for rehearsal. But I think it’s incredibly weird, and maybe a little bit creepy, that you followed me into the girls’ bathroom for this thing, so if you don’t mind, I’ll just go give it back to her myself, okay?”
Oliver looked like he was about to protest, but after a moment’s thought, he gave me a curt nod. “That’ll work.”
I blinked at him, slightly thrown. Why did that seem too easy? “Um, okay,” I said slowly. “Then I’ll just . . .”
A knock sounded on the door, making me jump. “Margo, are you in there?” came a voice from outside. Miss Delisio. The door began to creak open.
Oliver tensed, a panicked expression crossing his face. I didn’t blame him. Eli Simpson had been caught in the girls’ room last fall, and on top of the detention he got, Coach Kendall had actually kicked him off the baseball team. I raised my eyebrows at Oliver, waiting for him to hide in a stall or behind the door or something. But he did neither.
Instead, he disappeared.
It was as simple as that: One second he was there, and the next second he wasn’t. And there I was, gaping like a complete moron, as Miss Delisio poked her head inside and peered at me, clearly worried. “Is everything okay?”
“I, uh,” I faltered, as my eyes darted around, looking in vain for signs of Oliver. “Yeah. Sorry, I was just . . . um . . . Is Vicky ready?” I hoped she wasn’t. There was no way I could force myself to concentrate through the rest of our rehearsal.
Miss Delisio smiled wanly. “She asked to go home early, actually.”
There was a pause.
“So you can go home, too, if you want,” she said, raising an eyebrow. Right. I hadn’t moved.
“Yes,” I said. “Good. I mean, not good, but . . . okay.”
Giving me a bemused smile as I headed for the door, she said, “I’ll see you tomorrow. Get some sleep.”
I would indeed get some sleep, but not until I found out what was going on. I’d spent the better part of eighteen years thinking magic just meant card tricks and Harry Potter books and questionable vampire movies—and here was what seemed very much like the real thing, right in front of me. Even though I knew it was impossible.
After a quick stop back at the theater to pick up my stuff, I headed for my car, thinking about what Oliver had said. Just a touch of my thumb and forefinger.
Oakvale, the little town where I’d lived my entire life, was right in the middle of northern New Jersey. Drive too far east, you got those towns squished so close together that you couldn’t tell where one ended and the next began.Too far west, you got towns that looked like permanent campsites between vast swathes of woods. To the south, you had tangled messes of factories and highways and all the pollution New York City didn’t want. And to the north, a mere ten minutes away, you had New York State. Oakvale managed to be a happy medium among all these things—which meant it had very little personality of its own.
What it did have was the centerpiece of every self-respecting New Jersey town: Tom’s 24-Hour Diner, festooned with neon lights and proudly situated across the street from a gas station. Not to be confused with the Tom’s Diner of song and legend (which was supposedly somewhere in New York City), our Tom’s was the favored weekend hangout of elderly couples, families with small children, bored high-schoolers, and even the occasional group of surly college students who were too young to drink at the Sand Bar down the street. During the week, though, it was usually just as empty as every other place in town.
When I left rehearsal, Tom’s was the first place I thought of: a big, bright space full of shiny tabletops and vinyl seats. There were two giant jukeboxes, neither of which actually worked, and the walls were lined with framed prints of smiling cartoon food. If ever there was a competition for Place Least Likely to Contain Magic, then Tom’s was a surefire winner.
I parked my car in the lot out front, got myself a back-corner booth under an unnaturally happy fajita, and told the waiter I was expecting a friend. Then I reached into my pocket and touched the silver ring with my thumb and forefinger, just like Oliver had said. My breath falling shallow in my lungs, I watched the front door with eagle eyes. The sooner he showed up, the sooner I could find out what the hell was really going on. Once I’d set my mind at ease, I could eat some dinner, then go home and finish tomorrow’s homework.
It only took him five seconds. As I watched, Oliver appeared just inside the door, still not wearing anything heavier than that gray hoodie. Even though it was freezing outside.
It occurred to me that I hadn’t actually seen him come through the door.
He stood there for a second, scanning the diner for me. His hands were tucked casually into his pockets, and his shoulders were set back, like an actor. His stance radiated confidence, and even his shaggy hair now seemed less like a shield and more like a fashion choice. The whole picture was a far cry from the jumpy, pissed-off Oliver of only twenty minutes ago. A bright smile lit up his face as he spotted me, and he came over and slid into the seat opposite mine.
“Good choice,” he said, picking up one of the old, cracked menus. “I’m starving. Do they have nachos here? I could really go for some nachos.”
“Nachos?” I repeated vaguely. Disappearing, reappearing, then nachos. I could feel my brain about to short-circuit.
“Or a milkshake, maybe,” he mused, skimming the menu. “Or waffles. Ooh.”
“Waffles, sure,” I said, staring at him in disbelief. “Did you follow me here?”
“Nope.” He grinned up at me. “You called me and I came. I thought you might. And I’m glad you did.”
Our waiter appeared, clad in a wrinkled Tom’s T-shirt and bravely wielding a notepad and pen, and I managed to mumble something about a cheeseburger deluxe with extra bacon. Oliver very enthusiastically ordered a Belgian waffle with three kinds of berries, vanilla ice cream, and sprinkles. And then he asked for a cherry on top. The waiter, who didn’t seem to notice anything odd about Oliver’s aggressive cheerfulness, took our menus and slipped away.
“So!” said Oliver, folding his hands on the table and leaning eagerly toward me. “Where do you want to start?”
I narrowed my eyes at him. Without bothering to ease into it, I lowered my voice and said, “You disappeared.”
“Yes,” he said proudly. “Yes, I did.”
“And then you reappeared,” I continued. “And suddenly you were all happy and ‘Let’s have nachos’ about everything.”
“Waffles,” he corrected smoothly.
“And that, I might add, was after you materialized out of thin air, instead of walking through the door like a normal person who, I dunno, wears coats and stuff.”
A slight frown creased his forehead. “A coat,” he said, looking down at his hoodie. “I knew I forgot something.”
“You materialized,” I said, spreading my hands to emphasize that this was far more important than coats. “Out of thin air.”
“It’s just like I said: You called me. I came. That’s how my magic works.”
“Magic,” I repeated flatly. “You’re still trying to tell me this is magic?”
“Indeed I am,” he said, with a grin that made the skin around his eyes scrunch up. Bright green eyes, I noticed, framed by dark lashes. “And you’re still trying to tell me you don’t believe me?”
“Obviously,” I said. “Magic isn’t real.”
“Says the girl who just saw me materialize out of thin air.”
He had me there.
“The ring holds the same magic that I do,” he explained. “It’s part of me. Or, I guess what I mean is, it has part of me inside it. That’s why you can call me with it: Because it’s me, more or less. It’s called a spirit vessel. Does that make sense to you?”
“A spirit vessel,” I repeated, nodding. This whole conversation might be making my head spin, but at least I could handle the terminology. Good for me. Twisting my paper napkin around one finger, I asked, “So what does the spirit vessel do?”
“It binds me to whoever holds it, and lets that person use my magic for themselves.”
Oliver was watching me closely now. His fingers were pressed together so forcefully that the tips had gone white.
“You don’t mean . . . do you mean me? This is magic I can use?”
“Yes,” he said easily, but his eyes still searched mine for a reaction.
I licked my lips. “Why me?”
“Because you found my ring,” he replied patiently, like it was perfectly obvious.
I frowned at him. “Well, sure. But I found it by accident.”
“Most people do,” he said.
“Oh.” I shifted in my seat, all too aware of the ring’s presence in the pocket of my jeans. I’d been wrong. Tom’s definitely wasn’t the appropriate place to talk about things like this. “So, what now? What do I do?”
“Well,” he said, holding my gaze steadily with those intense green eyes, “you could give the ring back to me, and forget any of this ever happened. Or you could tell me what you want me to do for you.”
I paused. He hadn’t offered me this choice back in the girls’ bathroom.What had changed between then and now? Why was this supposed magic suddenly at my disposal?
“Okay,” I said, pressing my flimsy napkin between my hands. “Let’s say I kept the ring. Theoretically. And let’s say all this magic stuff is for real. Again, theoretically. What could you do? If I asked?”
“Well, there are limits,” he said, almost apologetically. “Like, I can’t change the past, and I can’t see the future. But other than that, you can ask me for any three things you want. And if I have enough power for them, I’ll give them to you.”
Something slid into place in my head. “Wait. Did you just say three things?”
He nodded slowly, watching me begin to understand.
“Are you . . . ?” But I couldn’t quite bring myself to say the word. It was too impossible—and I would feel too stupid if he told me I was wrong.
“I’m a genie.” Oliver’s face shone with pride. “Which means I have the power to grant you three wishes. Now, where are my waffles?”
As if on cue, our waiter returned with our food. Oliver used the side of his fork to cut his waffle, and I watched as he carefully assembled each forkful, making sure to have at least one taste of each topping on every bite. He set the cherry aside. I wondered if he was going to save it for last.
So we were still going to eat a meal, like normal people. Okay, I could do that. But when I picked up my burger, I realized my hands were unsteady. So I went for the French fries instead, dipping them in ketchup, chewing them slowly, and watching Oliver the whole time.
“Good fries?” asked Oliver, about halfway through his waffle. He was a hell of a fast eater.
“Uh-huh,” I managed.
“Can I steal one?”
That was it. Claiming to have mystical, supernatural powers was one thing, but doing so while eating my food was quite another.
“Okay, you said you’re a what?”
“A genie,” he said, lowering his fork to his plate.
“Right,” I murmured. “So, genies are real. You are a genie. I get three wishes. Okay. What else? Do you live in a bottle?”
“No,” he said, sounding almost offended. “I live in an apartment.”
There was a pause.
“Are you seriously telling me the truth about all this?” I asked.
“I seriously am,” he replied. “I was also serious about stealing a fry.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, take the fries. Have as many as you want. But, I mean, you don’t look like a genie.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You mean I’m not blue and I don’t sound like Robin Williams?”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said.
He grinned at me.
“Okay, fine, that’s what I meant. But I mean, look at that movie. Aladdin rubs the lamp, right, and it’s all fireworks and explosions, and out pops this genie, and you look at him and you go, ‘Oh, hey, look, it’s a genie.’ But you? You look . . . normal.”
“Except for when I disappear.”
“Well, yeah, except for that. But how do I know—”
“How do you know I’m not going to wait for you to make a wish, and then point and laugh and tell everyone at school that you fell for it?”
I stared at him. Yes, it was exactly that. In fact, the thought was so true that it could have come out of my own mouth, if only I’d known how to phrase it accurately.
“Try it,” he said, waggling his eyebrows conspiratorially. “Make a wish. I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”
I suddenly felt very small. “What, you mean right now?”
“Why not?” He popped a fry into his mouth. “I’m a genie, and you’re a person who wants a whole bunch of stuff. Let’s do this.”
The Art of Wishing © Lindsay Ribar 2013