The Noon Witch is not a cat person. She likes the color purple, hates police procedurals, loves breakfast foods, thinks scented bath products and anchovy pizza are gross. Hates platform shoes. Hates walnuts in brownies. Used to like the electropop group all the girls at school like, until they used too much synth on their latest album, so now she hates them too.
The Noon Witch isn’t an overcritical person. She’s just at that difficult age when you’re desperate to figure out who you are, so you lean too much on your likes and dislikes to try to cobble together what you think should be your personality. She makes long lists in her journal—she hates the word “diary”—of things she likes, like roller coasters and nail polish, and things she doesn’t, like movie theaters and snakes, until every page has two neat columns, with nothing in the middle, in the insufficient, black-and-white way of being eighteen.
One thing the Noon Witch particularly hates? Being called the Noon Witch. So let’s not do that. Let’s call her by her other name: Hailey.
• • • •
Hailey is just a regular kid. Dyes her blonde hair purple, eats her Pop-Tarts cold, couldn’t wait to turn sixteen so she could drive her hand-me-down Corolla an hour to the newly built theme park off the I-5. It’s her mom who’s the real Noon Witch, the one from all the storybooks. The one who used to show up in the fields at the hottest part of the day and make all the workers sick? The one who signaled her arrival with whirling dust clouds? And whole communities would hold bonfires and ritual dances and sacrificial offerings to try to ward her off? You know, the Noon Witch. Lady Midday. Sunstroke personified.
Yeah, that’s Hailey’s mom. That was back in the old days, though. She’s retired now, or as retired as a Noon Witch can be. At the beginning of the last century, she fell in love with a man—an unfortunate thing that happens sometimes—and it changed the course of her life completely. He was a field hand in one of the southern districts, a rough-faced wheat harvester named Grischa, who had dirt everywhere, even in the creases of his eyes, and who recited classical poetry as he worked.
And Hailey’s mom, the real Noon Witch, couldn’t bring herself to strike him down as she had all the others. So she did the only other thing she could think of, and they were married the very next week.
She lived out the rest of his days with him in a modest cabin full of love and laughter—and rats too, altogether too many rats for her liking, but that was how things were back then and there wasn’t much you could do about it. And when his days were through, the Noon Witch lived on, as Noon Witches tend to do.
While Grischa was alive, she dropped the Noon Witch stuff: the appearing-magically-among-the-crops stuff and the inflicting-men-with-heatstroke stuff. After his death, she tried to get back into it—it was her calling after all, divinely preordained, et cetera—but it was never quite the same. She’d go through the motions, watching them flush red and slur their speech, watching them stumble dizzily about, vomit once or twice, and eventually tumble to the ground. But the field equipment got bigger and louder, and the new tractors with the sharp teeth in front made things complicated. And really, she’d just lost the verve for it, was how Hailey’s mom explained it to Hailey later on.
Much later on, in fact—after decades of puttering half-heartedly from wheat field to wheat field, after deciding she needed a change and reading a brochure about the high-desert agriculture of LA. Apricots and cherries, lemons and nectarines. All these sweet, wet things. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early nineties, when so many people were leaving that she figured even a demigod could go largely unnoticed, the Noon Witch went too.
She moved into an apartment in Simi Valley and it happened again, this time with the general manager at an organic U-pick orchard not far inland. His name was Nate, and he didn’t speak a lick of Russian, and he is Hailey’s father.
Really, Hailey feels she has much more in common with her dad, who likes sailing on the weekends, than with her mom, who used to give men kidney failure by the thousands, so she extra resents being called the Noon Witch, even though, technically, that’s what she is. Especially now that her mom is officially retired. And the magic was passed down, after all, even though it got pretty diluted along the way. Meaning Hailey can warm up her food without a microwave and use her curling iron without plugging it in—baby Noon Witch type things like that—but her mom thinks she could learn the bigger stuff if she committed herself to it.
Her mom has tried to explain that it’s not about hurting people, it’s about protecting the Earth. Reminding people of the balance required, and the Earth’s ultimate power. That’s the Noon Witch’s place in all this, and it’s noble and necessary. But when her daughter throws back the argument that you didn’t want to do it, so why should I? well, that’s hard for a mother to reason with.
The problem is that Hailey looks just like her mom, which means she looks just like the Noon Witch. And because they live in a big Russian community, with Ventura County’s highest population of expats, everybody has read the storybooks and knows exactly what that is. A woman tall as corn-stalk shadows in the early morning. Eyes the color of fresh-tilled soil. Hair like so many ears of wheat. No matter how many boxes of purple dye Hailey goes through, her hair resists it, and it’s back to blonde within the week.
They’re alike in another way too. Around the dinner table, at Up Your Alley Bowling on family night, Hailey and her mom have to act normal, do the happy wife and happy daughter thing. Forget that they’re both going to outlive Nate by, like, a lot.
Still, for the most part, Hailey is just a regular kid. So it’s not fair she got blamed that time Alex Pasternak got third-degree sunburn on their class field trip to the botanical gardens in the third grade, or that time Becca Smolina had to go to the nurse’s office for heat exhaustion during the timed mile in junior high. Or the other times, which were all coincidences, weren’t they? More likely to happen than not when you’re dealing with heedless kids and the temperatures of southern California.
It’s not fair the way they blamed her, either: not out loud, not directly, because it wouldn’t be cool to admit, in this day and age, that they actually believed those old stories about the Noon Witch. But everyone was at least a little superstitious, and everyone would rather play things safe. So early in her childhood, Hailey stopped getting invited to picnics and pool parties, beach days and any other activity deemed high-risk for a maybe-possibly-Noon-Witch to attend. Teachers eyed her sideways at recess. Becca Smolina refused to be on her Frisbee golf team in gym.
And through it all, her last friend, her only friend, was her music collection, with its howling riffs and lyrics about standing alone. Music was there for her all those years while she told herself to be patient, that this was temporary. That at least when high school was over, this all would end.
So it’s especially unfair that that wasn’t the case. That her mom’s reputation followed her all those years, and when she graduated, it followed her still. For some reason, Hailey thought that when she went on to the local community college to get her degree in business administration, things would be different. That the college, being on the other side of town, would be a whole new world, and the students wouldn’t be the same ones she’d had in every class growing up.
But a bad reputation is a kind of story, and stories love to travel. And sure enough, her first semester, an unseasonably warm fall rolled into an unseasonably warm winter, and no one wanted to study with her in the quad.
Not fair, not fair, not fair, Hailey writes in her journal. Hates college. Hates her situation. Hates that she’s apparently never going to be able to be her own person. Every day, her “hate” column is full and her “like” column is mostly new bands she’s been trying out since that electropop group she used to like went all unbearable eighties synth explosion.
And that’s when it hits her. She’ll show them. She’ll prove to them, once and for all, that she’s not the Noon Witch—not the one they’re thinking of, anyway.
This year, she’s going to Sound Planet.
• • • •
Sound Planet takes place the third weekend in April, just as the days are getting longer and the nights warmer and every kid in America is aching for summer break to start. It’s held on the same site every year, in a sprawling meadow in a desert valley a few hours due east of LA. Everyone says the drive there is brutal, a whole bunch of hot, flat nothing. But eventually the pavement and tumbleweeds give way to fields of poppies and purple and yellow wildflowers, and a big wooden welcome sign with letters twenty feet tall. And next to the sign, a line of festival attendees wait to take their picture with it, to collect proof that they, in fact, have arrived.
The music festival has been the talk of Simi Valley since Hailey can remember. The buzz starts when the lineup’s announced, picks up when tickets go on sale, and reaches new heights in March, when all the outdoor stores start offering discounts on their entry-level tents: the kind of tents that people buy for a weekend of late nights and bad sleep at Sound Planet, then shove to the backs of their closets and never think about again. You only have to be sixteen to go, which means Hailey’s had a couple shots already. Except no way anyone’s inviting sunstroke incarnate to a desert festival.
Hailey’s plan is simple. So everyone thinks she’s a monster? So everyone thinks she was put on this earth to make them sick? Well, joke’s on them. She’s going to go to Sound Planet, the most extreme, exposed environment she can think of, and when everyone comes out of it hunky-dory, the picture of good health, they’ll have no choice but to believe her.
So when she gets the four-person tent with double vestibules at Epic Sports Simi Valley, it’s not because she has three friends to go with. It’s because she needs space for her supplies.
In the Noon Witch’s safety kit for happy campers, there are: twenty gallons of filtered water, two hundred chocolate-cherry energy bars, ninety electrolyte gel packets, sixty wide-brimmed straw hats, fifteen family-size bottles of sunscreen, a mini cooler stuffed with ice packs and Gatorades, five extra shade structures, at least three dozen battery-powered hand fans, and as many assorted snacks as she can grab from the pantry without earning a lecture from her parents on whether she thinks grocery money grows on trees.
She blows almost all her savings on it. She would have packed more if she could have, but then again, the Corolla can only hold so much. When her mom sees her packing up the car on Friday morning, she brings out a party-size bag of corn chips Hailey must’ve missed.
“Don’t let those kids get to you, honey,” her mother says. “It’s not your life’s mission to change their minds.” She’s wearing her house slippers, and the black asphalt of the driveway absorbs the heat pouring out from her soles.
Hailey tosses the chips on top of everything else and slams the trunk door shut. “I bet I know what you’d say my life’s mission is.”
Her mom sighs. “Now, don’t you think I know my daughter better than that? Besides, Polevoi has that more or less taken care of.”
“We always called him your uncle, yes. But he’s more, let’s say, my counterpart. Anyway, he has five children now. Five! All with the powers, and all but one are carrying them on.”
“What about the other one?” Hailey remembers the smiling faces on the Polevois’ Christmas card stuck to their fridge.
Her mom shakes her head and laughs. “She’s a dentist now, believe it or not. No interest in the family business whatsoever. She just opened her own practice in Moscow.”
“I believe it. Why wouldn’t I believe it?” Hailey says defensively. “People believe crazy things all the time.”
Her mother looks at her sadly, then kisses her forehead and smooths her hair, dyed last night and already fading to the pale wheat color of her own. When they hug goodbye, it’s awkward, like hugs can sometimes be between teenage girls and their parents. Nevertheless, Hailey has to admit there’s something pleasant about it. It’s cozy between the two of them. Exceptionally warm.
• • • •
By the time Hailey arrives at Sound Planet, the edges of the meadow are already littered with clear plastic cups and a peppy blend of funk and acid jazz is wafting over the parking lot from the main stage. She lugs her stuff to the adjacent camping area, finds an empty spot, and sets up her tent—because she’s in a hurry, a little haphazardly, not bothering to clear rocks out of the way or stake the corners down. Then she throws the basics of her kit into a backpack and marches out onto the grounds.
Sound Planet is pretty much the worst place to be if you’re trying to avoid sunstroke, whether or not the fabled Noon Witch is there. Wide-open meadow, not a single tree or wisp of cloud cover to speak of. Bright-eyed festival goers bouncing feverishly from stage to stage, from stage to Bikram yoga session, from there to a friendly hula-hooping competition, then to interactive art installations, vendors selling fur coats in psychedelic patterns, tetrahedron jungle gyms whose metal rungs are almost too hot to touch. Themed bars sling vodka slushies and light beers the color of liquid gold and dare to call themselves, in chalkboard writing over the bar, Official Sound Planet Hydration Stations.
And if anyone remembers to stop by the food court to shove something down their gullets before throwing themselves back toward some dance floor or mosh pit, well, Hailey doesn’t see it.
What she sees is throngs of people in bikini bottoms and mesh tank tops, jumping up and down with the beat, cramming into hammocks, and lolling together in the sun. And the music is legitimately good, she has to admit, perfect for the atmosphere and not overproduced. And it all feels so wonderful, so much like something she wants to be a part of, until she checks her phone and sees the temperature: 101 degrees.
She adjusts the pack on her shoulders and gets to work. She jogs from group to group, passing out hats and spray bottles and reminding people of the location of each of the festival’s four medical tents. It doesn’t take long for her to run into Becca Smolina, who everyone knows goes to all the festivals. Becca’s next in line at the henna station, and when Hailey walks by, Becca flinches sharply and leans over to whisper something in her friend’s ear.
“What, are you a nurse or something?” A gangly, freckled kid farther down the line looks Hailey up and down skeptically. He motions for his friend to pass him a drink, and she squeezes a glob of sunscreen into his outstretched hand.
“Something like that.” She smiles politely, then moves on to what looks like a combination meditation-acroyoga class nearby. They’re in the pose where one person is lying on their back with their legs in the air, holding their partner on their feet so it looks like the other person is flying. Hailey walks toward them, this happy flock, and almost feels guilty interrupting. But then the sun glints off the sequins on one yogi’s shorts and Hailey, remembering its ruthless presence, quickens her pace.
Hailey thinks about collective nouns a lot. Flocks, herds, pods, swarms. Names for pluralities. Groups of people being together, not alone.
After sunset, Sound Planet really gets going. The best bands play back-to-back sets to crowds waving glow sticks and flashing LED bracelets, and the whole meadow comes alive with strobe lights and laser shows. After sunset, in the gentle dark, Hailey doesn’t have to worry.
She watches the colors flicker through the fabric of her tent—fuchsia, aquamarine, electric green—as she crawls, exhausted, into her sleeping bag and shoves a pair of earplugs into her ears. She can feel the foam expanding inside her ear canals, hear the music fading, leaving only the steady vibration of the bass against the ground.
It’s comforting, almost. Feels like it’s coming not from the stages but from somewhere deep, deep within the earth. It makes her think of a mother rocking a baby, the way the baby can feel the hum of the mother’s song through her chest.
Her mom must’ve done stuff like that, too, Hailey imagines. Even if she was too little to remember. Even if a lot of the time, it felt like she was the Noon Witch first and Hailey’s mom second. What she does remember is that they never had gas and electric bills like Hailey’s classmates did, that her mom could light a stove with the point of a finger and boil a pot of water just by holding it and pull sunbeams into a chilly room with the swipe of her hand. Hailey remembers, too, that she could never fake being sick to get out of a test at school. Her mom knew a real fever when she saw one, and you couldn’t trick her with all the hot water bottles and theatrical sneezing in the world.
But whatever annoyances her mom dealt Hailey growing up, they were nothing compared to the effect she had, and still has, on her father. Because Nate is mortal, like Grischa, like all the field workers, he’s more susceptible to the Noon Witch’s powers. Which means he’s never gotten used to the above-average temperature of their house, or the way every night their bedroom, as she snores, basically becomes a sauna.
“A small price to pay,” he always says, smiling at his wife adoringly, throwing another load of undershirts into the wash. He sweats through them so quickly that their machine seems to run around the clock.
That’s what the repeated thump of the bass reminds Hailey of most of all: the spin cycle, the persistent banging of wet clothes against metal drum. The soundtrack of her childhood.
She’s thinking about the goopy blue of liquid laundry detergent, the piercing blue of stage lights, as she drifts off to sleep.
• • • •
When Hailey wakes on Saturday, the inside of her tent is already—she checks—ninety-five degrees, and outside she hears what sounds like a stream of water falling onto something hard and plastic.
She scrambles out of her sleeping bag and hurriedly unzips the tent door, blinking against the morning light. She’s about to yell out something about the imprudence of water waste and how everyone should be accounting for 1.5 gallons per person per day, when her worst nightmare materializes before her eyes.
Her ex, Leshy.
The problem with Leshy is he’s one of those people who looks good in pretty much anything he puts on, including the paisley harem pants, leopard-print top hat, and steampunk goggles that Hailey is sure he picked up from one of the stands as soon as he got in. Leshy is like that, has this uncanny ability to fit in anywhere. Even though his hair is the color of uncut grass and falls, tangled, all the way to his hips, and even though when he walks up to you it’s like the sound of trees falling.
So when Hailey peeks her head out of her tent and sees him with his ridiculous harem pants pushed down, taking a leak on the side of a porta-potty, her first thought is, jeez, what a gross thing to do.
And her second thought is that if anyone could look good doing this gross thing—absurdly, annoyingly good—it would be Leshy. As if he doesn’t have enough superpowers.
When he’s done, he steps aside to admire his handiwork, and Hailey sees that, on the blue plastic, he’s written his name. Not Leshy, but his other name.
His two older brothers, the others in the current Leshy line, come around the sides of the porta-potty, pulling up their matching sparkly gold leggings and absolutely laughing their heads off. One reaches up to slap the other high-five when Scott turns his head and spots Hailey filling her pack with Gatorades and energy bars.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t the world-famous Noon Witch.”
The other problem with Scott, and any Leshy for that matter—his brothers and their father, now retired, too—is that he’s a total troublemaker. Mischievous woodland spirits like him are the reason that people like Hailey’s classmates take the storybooks literally and fear the old days and think that the old magic, passed down, will be used against them in the same ways. All through high school, he made a habit of shapeshifting into wolves and bears, scaring everyone in his gated community senseless. For his senior prank, he coaxed two hundred porcupines out of Los Padres National Forest and left them in the girls’ locker room.
Now here he is, heading straight for Hailey’s tent with his skin like beech bark and his eyes like distant stars. And even though they only dated for, like, four months in the tenth grade, she gets a knot in the pit of her stomach like she’s still hoping he’ll ask her to the homecoming dance.
He pushes his goggles farther up on his forehead and grins. “Hot as ever, I see.” Hailey rolls her eyes. He always made stupid jokes like that when they were together. Hot, sizzling, scorching. Bringing the heat. Making ’em hurt. Man killer. That Hailey was unpopular at school never bothered Scott. He isn’t like her; he doesn’t spare a thought for the opinions of mortals.
Hailey arranges her face in what she hopes is a detached smirk. “I told you, it’s just Hailey. Not Noon Witch. Shouldn’t you be at that other festival anyway? What’s it called, the one in the forest?”
“Back of the Mountain,” one of the brothers chimes in. Sam or Sean or Steve, Hailey can’t remember.
Scott nods. “We were just there. Came, saw, conquered. Kind of a bust this year, actually. It’s not exactly a challenge getting people lost in the woods when they’re already going willingly, for a preplanned midnight drum circle or whatever.”
“Or a guided microdosed nature walk,” the other brother adds, looking disgusted. “With maps and flashlights and GPS.” The three shake their heads in unison like they’re wondering what this world is coming to.
“Bummer,” Hailey says, jostling her pack to make extra space at the top for a couple of hand fans. “Sucks that you’re having a hard time luring people to their deaths.”
Scott whistles his familiar whistle, like wind through the tops of poplar trees. “Shots fired and landed, Noon Witch. But don’t be so dramatic. We’re not as big on the death part as your crew.” He pokes her pack with a bare foot. “What’s all this?”
Hailey has no interest in explaining herself to Scott, in part because now her phone says ninety-seven degrees and she’s on a schedule, but mostly because she knows he won’t get it. While she refuses to take up her mother’s work—ever since they read a Noon Witch story during story circle in daycare and she saw the looks of horror in the other kids’ eyes—Scott and his brothers are all too happy to follow in their dad’s footsteps. Hailey’s mom and Scott’s dad knew each other back in Russia, worked in different districts but ended up moving to the States around the same time. But while Leshy married Samodiva, the vindictive forest nymph, making their three sons full-bloods, Hailey’s mom always had a soft spot for mortals. A trait she apparently passed down to her daughter.
“Wait.” One of the brothers kneels down to get a closer look. “Is this SPF 95? I didn’t even know they made it that high.”
“Noon Witch, Noon Witch, Noon Witch,” Scott chides, furrowing his bushy eyebrows into a show of disappointment. “You didn’t come all the way out here to help these people, did you?”
“These people are my friends.”
“Oh, they’re your friends, huh? My bad. Which ones are you here with?” Scott casts his head around, pointing to a shirtless guy playing ukulele to the right of them, then a group of girls hot-gluing jewels onto each other’s shoulders to the left.
Hailey crosses her arms, indignant. “They could be my friends, is what I mean. Anyway, you”—she thrusts her chin at Scott—“shouldn’t be pissing on festival property. But if you must, at least pay attention to the color. Dark yellow is a sure sign of dehydration.” Then she picks up her pack, gives them a tight-lipped smile, and walks briskly out of the campground.
Behind her back, she hears the brothers jeering: “When’d she turn into such a narc?” and “Gee, thanks, Mom!” She wonders if she ever really liked Scott, and if he ever really liked her, or if they only got together because people expected it: the Noon Witch and Leshy, how perfect is that? Regardless, those days were some of her darkest, the most painful for her to remember. She isn’t proud of the way she acted back then. She was right by his side while he terrorized his neighbors; he howled at their dogs and she blew out their AC. On her sixteenth birthday, he took her to a sketchy tattoo parlor that he knew wouldn’t card them and they got tiny matching wolf tattoos.
Still, fond and not-so-fond memories aside, she can’t let Scott’s presence at Sound Planet derail her. In fact, she’ll probably have to work twice as hard now, to counteract whatever havoc the brothers Leshy are sure to wreak.
• • • •
It’s a big enough festival, with enough hair-braiding stations, body-painting stations, and chakra-centering stations, that Hailey doesn’t cross paths with Scott again for most of the day. A rush of people came in overnight, since the most popular bands play on Saturday, so the meadow is even busier than before. There’s Chris Babin-Roberts from AP English maneuvering a remote-controlled truck through a sandpit. And there’s Alex Pasternak playing hackysack with a few kids Hailey doesn’t recognize. He looks like he’s had about four growth spurts since she last saw him. When a wayward kick sends the hackysack flying in her direction, Alex starts jogging over to retrieve it, then he sees her standing there and pivots quickly back to his friends.
The more Hailey walks past groups drinking and dancing and snapping silly pictures together, the more alone she feels. The people she knows from home—and there are quite a lot of them—keep a safe distance because, to them, she’s the Noon Witch. The people she doesn’t know—and there are plenty of those too—don’t give her the time of day because, to them, she’s nobody. She sees Becca Smolina again, walking toward the frozen slushie stand between two friends, their elbows interlocked, and she thinks about tossing them a few energy bars, like a nutritionally balanced olive branch. But the way Becca rolls her eyes when she sees Hailey, the way she steers her friends in a wide, dramatic semi-circle around her, Hailey can’t take it anymore. She doesn’t know what comes over her; she swore she’d never use her powers against mortals. But by the time Becca and her friends get their blue raspberry slushies, they’re melted down to a pool of sugar water. The way the three sip happily, though, it’s hard to tell if they mind.
Still, Hailey never feels more alone than when she’s trying to erect the E-Z UP.
The sun has reached its peak in the sky, and she’s collected herself after the slushie incident and restocked her supplies twice, when she encounters a group of women twirling batons in the middle of the meadow. She waits for a break in the music to pass around what she’s come to think of as her keep-sunstroke-at-bay goody bag, but when the music stops, the twirlers keep going. It’s as if they’re in a trance: they move in slow, synchronized circles, the batons spinning around their wrists and elbows, the tops of their pinkening arms. When she suggests a water break, they show no signs they’ve heard her.
So Hailey does the one thing she can think of. She runs back to her tent and grabs an E-Z UP.
The most poorly named product in Hailey’s kit, hands down, the E-Z UP is meant to go up easily and instead takes her forty-five minutes and all her remaining strength and patience to assemble. The directions packaged with the shade structure are for two people, so Hailey figures that’s part of it. But with the wind blowing the canopy off every ten seconds and one of the legs dropping to the ground just when she gets the other three extended, she thinks it would take an army to do this. And an army is the one thing she forgot to pack.
She’s just about ready to give up and resort to steering the baton twirlers toward safety at the nearest campground when, in a blaze of red hair and crochet, Laurel appears.
If Scott and his brothers are the bad crowd Hailey fell in with in high school, Laurel is the worse crowd she managed to avoid. If there’s anything that could have made Hailey even more untouchable than she already is, it would have been that.
Laurel is a year younger than Hailey, in the second semester of her senior year, and Hailey thinks it’ll be a miracle if she graduates with the rest of her class in May. That’s because Laurel is what the guidance counselor, Ms. Merrill, would call “a wayward young person”: she simply won’t be told what to do. And as far as Hailey has observed, getting through high school is almost entirely dependent on doing the things a series of older people—teachers, parents, coaches, Ms. Merrill—demand. But Laurel hardly ever shows up to class, and when she does, she doesn’t pay attention to the lecture, choosing instead to draw little permanent-marker doodles on her arms or read from the romance novel in her lap.
It’s not that she isn’t smart, or good at other things. Hailey remembers her being an amazing runner, actually. She was poised to become captain of the track team until one day, at the regional meet her junior year, just as she was rounding her final lap, she slowed down and, of all things, she began to skip. Afterwards, when someone from the local paper interviewed her about why on earth she would do such a thing, she shrugged and said she wanted to see what it felt like. And when he asked, okay, what does it feel like, she said that it was really interesting. That when you’re bouncing, you can really feel the rubber in the track.
He said, he meant what does it feel like to lose regionals single-handedly, by just four points.
Hailey figures Laurel’s acting out because she’s the principal’s kid. Principal Stucky is this imposing, mustachioed man who puts the flag up himself every morning before announcements and who Hailey only ever saw wear one of three things: a well-pressed suit, a Santa Susana High jacket on game days, or a Stanford hoodie. Rumor has it he still hopes Laurel will go to college there, like her old man, after the gap year she’s announced she’s taking. But fat chance Laurel is going to do anything just because someone else has done it.
“You need a hand with that?” she asks cheerfully. She’s wearing a crochet halter top and a matching crochet skirt, and Hailey winces when she sees the holes in the knit, all the places the sun can get through.
“Sure,” Hailey says, glancing at the welt forming on her hand where it got pinched by one of the E-Z UP’s metal joints. “That’d be great, actually.”
Nearby, the baton twirlers are still at it. Laurel grabs one side of the canopy and motions in their direction. “What’s with them? Hypnosis?”
“Sun poisoning, probably,” Hailey mutters.
Laurel laughs. “Nah, they’re just in the zone. I used to get that way at track practice. It’s easy when you’re all wearing the same thing, doing the same thing, to get kind of locked in, you know? To go on automatic. Like you’re part of the herd.”
Hailey shakes her head and starts stretching her side of the canopy over the legs. “They’re like robots. It’s creepy.”
“I wonder what a herd of robots is called.”
Hailey thinks. “An intelligence? A google?”
“How about a beep-boop.” Laurel puts on an exaggerated robot voice: “Beep-boop, beep-boop—band?”
The two girls laugh.
Her classmates have always been allergic to Laurel, in part because no one knows what she’s going to do next, which is an uncomfortable feeling, and in part because, whatever it is, it’s probably going to piss off the principal, and they don’t want any part in that.
But Hailey has one good memory of Laurel, from back when they were in elementary together. It was before the incident at the botanical gardens, so she was still getting occasional invites to parties, the ones kids’ parents sent out of obligation to everybody in the class. At this one party, Phil Kozlovsky’s seventh birthday, Phil said his only wish that year was for the Noon Witch to light his birthday candles. And Hailey said she didn’t think she could do that, and Phil whined please, please, and his mom and dad stood there holding the cake twelve inches, then six inches, then four inches from her face with expectant looks in their eyes. Everyone else was staring at her, half-interested but mostly hungry and annoyed at having to wait, and one particularly grumbly kid asked another, “Why won’t she just do the trick already?” Hailey was on the verge of tears, trying to concentrate on the seven candles spiraled like barbershop poles, willing something, anything to happen, as the minutes ticked painfully by, when finally young Laurel pushed her way to the front of the crowd and shoved her whole hand into the cake.
“I’m bored,” she said, bringing the crumbling fistful of funfetti to her mouth. “She doesn’t wanna do it. Let’s eat.”
Laurel rescued Hailey then and now she’s rescuing her again. Before Hailey knows it, the E-Z UP is erected and they’re lifting it over the mesmerized baton twirlers, bathing them in sweet, merciful shade. One tosses her baton and it bounces against the fabric ceiling, then plummets to the ground.
“Here,” Hailey says, digging a travel tube of sunscreen from her pack. “Take this. As a thank-you.”
Laurel brings it closer, inspecting it like the weird gift it is, then tucks it into the waistband of her skirt. “I gotta get going. But maybe I’ll catch you later. I like your hair, by the way. The faded thing looks good on you.”
Hailey feels her face grow hot and takes a step back under the shade structure. Laurel’s own hair is wild and curly, a strawberry red that looks unwashed and muted from the dust it’s picked up over the past two days. It swishes to and fro as Laurel skips in the direction of the food court.
“Stay cool!” Hailey shouts after her, and immediately regrets it. It makes her sound like a mom, like she’s from a different decade, a different century. Even though she meant it literally.
• • • •
If problem one with the youngest Leshy is that he looks infuriatingly good in everything, and problem two is that he’s always up to no good, problem three is his magnetic personality—people are inexplicably drawn to him. So Hailey isn’t surprised when she finds him surrounded by a mob of people between two competing kombucha stands two hours before sundown. What surprises her is that Laurel is among them.
Hailey’s making her last rounds of the day, distributing water bottles, laying straw hats over the faces of sleeping people who have dozed off away from their tents, in broad daylight, still worn out from Friday night’s shows. Today was harder than yesterday. She even had to break out the ice packs, a last resort, for a guy in a tie-dye jumpsuit who was complaining of dizziness and kept calling his fanny pack Fanny, carrying on whole conversations with it like it was his dog. She managed to bring him back from the brink, but she knows tomorrow will be even harder. After that, though, it’ll be over. Sound Planet will be a wrap and she’ll be out from the Noon Witch’s shadow at last.
Last night, she was too tired to go to any of the shows, even though some of the headliners looked pretty awesome. She can already tell this evening will be no different. And here’s Leshy having the time of his life, in the same paisley pants and a sequined vest this time, and he’s teaching the crowd around him how to glove.
Gloving is . . . an art? Hailey guesses. A skill? In the way anything, if one person knows how to do it and another doesn’t, could be considered a skill. It involves making shapes with your hands and fingers, shapes that look cool, allegedly, when it’s dark and you’re wearing light-up gloves and everyone around you is drunk or high or both. It’s also called finger dancing, Scott explains, and demonstrates by performing a move he calls the combo figure-eight stacked finger roll.
Hailey thinks it might be the stupidest thing she’s ever seen.
The gangly kid from Friday is there, trying to mirror what Scott’s doing and looking instead like he’s playing the air piano, and badly. Others are too transfixed to move, lost in the changing, liquid space between Scott’s palms. Laurel is sitting cross-legged before him, her mouth slightly agape.
Which seems rather unlike Laurel, Hailey thinks: one, to let something hold her attention for so long, and two, to blend so perfectly into a crowd.
And that’s when she realizes it.
“Leshy,” she hisses into his ear, yanking him out from the circle. “You can’t enchant these people. I know what you’re doing.”
“Ah, Noon Witch.” He grins, letting his hands drop to his sides. “I was wondering when I’d bump into you again. Glad to see you’ve come around on the family names.”
“I haven’t. It’s still Hailey. And quit trying to change the subject.”
He sighs. “Okay, Hailey. Why not? You know who we are.” He waves toward his brothers, who Hailey now notices are holding their own gloving seminars nearby. “You know why we’re here. It’s our nature, baby.” He winks. “Terrible pun intended. So why don’t we leave you to your little, uh,”—he searches for the word—“mission? And you leave us to ours.”
“Because your mission is frying these people’s brains,” Hailey objects. She can feel a migraine coming on. “How long have you had them out here? Two hours? Four?” She frantically feels around inside her near-empty pack and pulls out one of those novelty umbrella hats, shoving it onto the first head she finds.
“Give it a rest, Noon Witch. We’re just going to take them to the reservoir a few miles up.”
“And, what, drown them?”
Hailey can sense Scott losing patience. His hair, usually soft and green as groundcover in a forest grove, is turning brown and brittle at the tips. “Statistically unlikely. Probably they can swim just fine. And if they can’t,” he scoffs, “what are they doing in California?”
“Wait, you mean the reservoir past the festival grounds? They can’t go there. It’s no reentry. Once you leave, you’re not allowed back in.”
Scott’s eyes sparkle. “Now you’re getting it.” Then he pats her shoulder and returns to his admirers. Laurel, Hailey’s horrified to find, has progressed to drooling.
No way. No way. Hailey feels the panic welling, feels she must look like a cartoon character, the kind with smoke coming out of their ears. No way is she going to let the lesser Leshys lead a hundred people into the desert and strand them there with no shade besides the occasional skinny Joshua tree and—she can’t be sure about the reservoir, but since the Leshys are involved, she’s willing to bet—no potable water. She’s so close, so close, to a complete Sound Planet weekend with zero casualties. No chance in hell she’s going to watch it happen and then take the blame.
The Noon Witch is not a cat person. She likes the color purple, hates police procedurals, likes roller coasters and nail polish, loves breakfast foods—hey, breakfast foods. She hasn’t had a good pancake in a couple of days. Come to think of it, she hasn’t had much of anything. Which is why, when she storms the main stage at Sound Planet just as the Saturday sunset show is about to start, her stomach is growling and her head’s getting fuzzy and her legs are a little weak.
But the Noon Witch has a job to do, so she doesn’t notice.
The openers are a croony dream-pop trio: a strange choice, Hailey thinks, for the twelve-piece jamgrass band that’s scheduled to follow. The audience that’s gathered isn’t dancing much, just kind of swaying absentmindedly and tapping on their phones, and Hailey almost feels bad for the band and what she’s about to do. Until she sees one of them plug in the synth.
All the missed barbecues and block parties of her childhood flash in quick succession before her eyes. All the party dresses her mom made for her that she never got to wear. The time she went out for Star Scouts and they said they lost the paperwork. The time she signed up for sleepaway camp and they said, darn it, they’d just filled the last slot, isn’t that rotten luck, so she spent the whole summer in her room, alone, just like all the other summers. Just her and her headphones and the music. And her blood boiling, Noon Witch style.
She climbs the steps and there’s even a little “Woop!” from the onlookers, like maybe this set won’t put them to sleep after all. Like maybe this surprise guest, with her furious expression and her purple-blonde hair matted into a nest is going to liven things up a bit. When she gets to the center of the stage, she drops the oversize backpack from her shoulders, revealing pale strips of skin where the straps used to be, and on either side of them, deep crimson red.
The croony trio stops crooning and makes confused gestures at each other behind her. Staring out at the crowd, Hailey sways side to side, almost losing her balance, struck by a sudden blast of doubt. Her resolve weakens. Maybe Leshy is right. All the energy she’s put into helping these people, her ceaseless running around, and has a single one of them shown an ounce of gratitude? A word of thanks or a friendly nod? It would be easier to just do it, to be exactly who they think she is. It didn’t feel bad, actually, melting Becca’s slushie earlier. It almost felt good. She thinks about how not-bad-almost-good it would feel to melt something else. Someone else, the way her mother did it, cooking those farmers’ insides. She imagines what the Leshys would look like with their green hair on fire, knowing forests burn fast.
She loves the image as much as she hates it; she holds the two feelings inside her at once. Then she pushes it—that ugly, dangerous thing—out of her mind.
Hailey grabs the mic stand with both hands, leans forward until she feels the cool metal crosshatch on her lips, and lets a thought run through her head that’s part spell, part prayer, part promise:
No sunstroke on my watch.
Then she screams.
She screams and she screams, and Sound Planet has never heard anything like it. She death-metal screams, crust-punk screams, full-volume-screamo-on-the-Corolla-stereo screams. Some screams take the shape of words, like “Leave them alone!” and “Get away!” while others are more guttural, animal, like from a time before people had language, a time before Noon Witches were even around. The festival’s state-of-the-art sound system amplifies her voice so that it punctures everything on the meadow: every train of thought, every conversation, and every malicious enchantment—if you believe in such things.
She sees the first of the Leshy brothers’ followers snap out of their stupor and turn, bewildered, toward the stage. Then several more. They all blink, disoriented, looking first at Scott gloving manically at them, desperate to keep their attention, then at Hailey, red-faced, veiny-necked, eyes bulging, then they shake their heads and walk away. One by one, they pull themselves back to themselves and the Leshys’ crowd dissipates, until fewer than ten remain.
Among them, Hailey sees Laurel.
The group stands in unison, still under the spell, and follows the brothers away from the stage, toward the fence that separates Sound Planet from the rest of the world. And still Hailey screams, louder than ever. High and low, mad and plaintive, until it sounds almost like a song.
Hailey leaves her guts on the stage.
Then she passes out, flat on her face.
• • • •
When Hailey wakes up in med tent three, she can see dusk on the other side of the open canvas flaps. Good, she thinks, she isn’t too late, and throws her legs over the side of the cot.
An ice-cold IV tugs at the inside of her elbow.
“Hey, you’re up!” Laurel stands from a nearby camping chair, a stack of thumbed-through comic books spread out on the ground beside her. “Not so fast, though. We gotta get one of the medics to give the green light before you go.”
“You. You’re.” Hailey’s head is pounding. Her mouth feels like it’s holding an entire sleeve of cotton rounds and she’s finding it impossible to form a complete sentence.
“Me, I’m, yes. I’m here. In the flesh.” Laurel does a little twirl and the fringe on her suede pants swings back and forth. Hailey eyes the fringe ruefully. For the first time since arriving at Sound Planet, she wishes she’d stopped by one of the stands selling festival attire.
“But. I thought. You went with Leshy, didn’t you? Scott, I mean.”
“Oh, yeah. I did.” Laurel peers around the tent, trying to flag down a medic. “It was fun for a while. But then I was kind of over it. Then we passed by this pierogi stand that smelled so good. Much better than the stuff at the food court. And I was like, bye!”
“And you just . . . left?”
“Well, yeah. My dad makes these amazing mushroom pierogis. He says they’re the best recipe west of the Rockies.” Laurel scrunches her nose and smiles. “So I had to try these and report back.”
Hailey feels dizzy, like the med tent’s thick beige fabric is a long spinning skirt she’s trapped under. She pulls her legs back onto the cot. “I thought you and your dad didn’t get along.”
Laurel shrugs. “We get along fine. I mean, he’s a bit much sometimes, with his up-at-five thing and his rah-rah-Stanford thing. But it could be worse.”
Hailey leans back and closes her eyes, willing the spinning to stop. “But the skipping class and the quitting track. I guess I just thought you didn’t want to be like him.”
“Meaning…” Hailey flushes. “He’s the boss of the school. And he has everything one-hundred-percent together.”
Laurel looks surprised. “I don’t want to be like him. He always talks about me making something of my life, and right now I’m just trying to have fun.” She frowns and turns her attention to her left pant leg, fingering an especially long strand of fringe. “But I don’t want to not be like him either. Not specifically. You know what I mean? I don’t want to be the opposite of someone else. I just want to be myself.”
Hailey nods. She thinks about her lists of likes and dislikes, and how many of those things are related to her mom. Like brownies with walnuts: does she really hate those? Or is she just remembering the time her mom made a batch as a pick-me-up after Hailey got uninvited from a pumpkin-patch trip with some of the kids from school?
“They can’t uninvite you,” her mother argued.
“What do you mean, they can’t? Of course they can. They can and they did,” Hailey snapped. And when she cried that night, her mom did too, and their tears dried the instant they hit their faces, as Noon Witch tears tend to do. But Hailey didn’t remember that part, until now. All she remembered was the awful taste the walnuts left in her mouth.
Maybe Laurel’s right. Hailey could try to be her own thing, instead of her mother’s opposite. Or maybe it’s silly to take advice from someone who, just like her, has no friends, and is no better off.
A medic comes by and takes Hailey’s temperature, raises an eyebrow, and scribbles something on a notepad. “Bit higher than we like to see. But promise you’ll take it easy the rest of the day and you should be good to go.” She begins to unhook the IV, glancing at the clock hanging on one of the tent walls. “And not a moment too soon. Gates close in an hour. We’re closing up shop here, too.”
Hailey realizes the tent is entirely empty except for the three of them. “An hour . . .?”
“That’s right, sleepyhead,” Laurel beams. “You snoozed the whole day away. I’m not exactly shocked. Seems like you’ve been running on empty.”
The medic grunts in agreement. “First festival, huh? Fluids are gonna be your best friend at these things. Sunscreen. Shade. Salty snacks. Plenty of rest. Sunstroke’s one of the most common issues on the festival circuit, but that doesn’t mean it should be taken lightly.”
Laurel puts her hands on her hips and wags a finger at Hailey. “Yes, you really must take better care of yourself.”
The medic rolls her eyes and hands Hailey a pamphlet with KNOW THE SIGNS printed in big orange letters above a sun-drenched field of wheat. “Weird thing is, we didn’t see any other cases this year. The whole staff thought we might set a record. But then some kids brought you in.”
Hailey flashes a look of appreciation at Laurel, but Laurel says, “Don’t look at me. Pierogi quest, remember? Anyway, you didn’t miss much. Sunday’s shows are always too mellow for my taste. And yours too, clearly!”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you totally turned your powers up on that stage last night. Sound Planet will never be the same.”
Hailey balks at this and heaves herself off the cot. When Laurel offers her hand for balance, she swats it away.
“I did not use my powers. I don’t use them like that, on people, ever. The whole reason I came to this stupid festival is because—”
“Hey, hey.” Laurel holds her hands up like trying to call a truce. “I meant your voice. Very cool, very death growl. I heard it rattled the jungle gyms all the way in camp zone two. Major superpower.”
Hailey relaxes and thinks back on the previous night, grinning in spite of herself. “I don’t know about that. But I’ll agree it’s better than your”—she mimics Laurel’s impression from earlier, swinging one arm at the elbow to achieve the full effect—“Ro. Bot. Voice. Beep-boop. Beep-boop.”
Laurel walks Hailey back to her tent, which, because she assembled it so hastily, didn’t even bother staking it down, is laying crumpled on its side, a victim of the desert’s high winds. What’s left of her supply kit is strewn about the campground: dented gallon jugs, a half-empty water bottle bowing at the waist, a couple of hand fans missing most of their blades. And right there by one of the vestibule doors, the party-size bag of corn chips her mom brought out to the car at the very last minute, the Friday morning that’s simultaneously three days and three thousand years ago. Hailey figures time is funny like that for everyone, not just for an ageless demigod who’s still a kid.
She packs as quickly as she can.
The bag of chips is miraculously unopened. She pops it between her hands, struck by a sudden, overwhelming craving for salt and what it means: sustenance, recovery, that someone cared and cares about her. The girls pass the bag back and forth between them, crunching happily, as they walk together through the wreckage back to their cars in the waning light.
In the driver’s seat, after they’ve said their goodbyes, promised to meet up before the school year’s through, Hailey holds a chip between her fingers, studying its uneven surface. Its flecks and bubbles, rough edges and gently raised corners. She smiles to herself and toasts it lightly before tossing it in her mouth.