Lily spends the short remainder of her summer break lounging on the back porch swing in flouncy short shorts and floral tank tops, engrossed in a book series she checked out from the library as soon as the final battle and celebration ended. Her parents are across the country helping her older brother move back in to his university so he can attend hockey practice. The solitude of it hardly occurs to her; she’s just glad to have some time to relax.
And then, on the first day of school, she steps onto the public bus and chokes.
The magical not-quite-other world where Lily and the team had staged their battles over the summer had always smelled rank, like a boys’ locker room mixed with a gas station, stuffed to the brim with hint-of-weed, oil, and body odor. The smell faded, just slightly, after they beat the Summum Malum, but Lily had assumed it was just the natural stench of the place.
The bus smells like everything all at once. She picks up a twinge of acrid body odor, a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a slight whiff of something rosy and floral that seems to drift off of the two college students making out in the back of the bus. Lily flashes her bus pass at the driver, and when he huffs and waves her on, she catches the scent of frozen branches, all clean and cold.
She feels like a dog being taken on a walk for the first time. She wants to romp and sniff everything, but the moment she makes it to her usual spot, standing next to a pole, her legs lock, and she shivers. There’s too much to smell.
Lily knows without thinking that she’s smelling magic, which doesn’t make sense. She and the rest of the team should be the only ones around with any kind of magic. She’ll have to ask them about it when they meet for coffee.
The bus continues along its route, starting and stopping with its usual stutters, and the bus grows more crowded. Commuters fill the empty space, stinking up the air and shifting slowly into Lily’s space bubble. She wrinkles her nose every time someone moves and sends up a new wave of magical odor, though at one point, she gets a whiff of lemon bars, which she thinks might be coming from the trembling but smiling old woman sitting a few yards away.
When the bus finally reaches her stop, Lily shoves past a man in a business suit, pinching her nose at the awful burnt-oil stink that wafts off him, and rushes onto the sidewalk. It still smells a little bit, but it isn’t as densely overwhelming. A slight breeze lets the scents mingle and diffuse, leaving only tiny whiffs of magic.
Lily watches the other students from her bus as they tromp towards Ming Public High School and its sprawling collection of new, grey-blue buildings, then ducks her head and sniffs her armpit.
She gets a noseful of her own sweat. Gross.
Then again, it’s still August, and Lily has just gotten off of a bus packed with people. She has every right to sweat. She adjusts her backpack to make sure it doesn’t chafe her shoulders, and sets off.
The bus stop for Zhang Public High School sits on the corner of the school’s property that is exactly opposite the corner with all the buildings. Some winters, Lily has to wear snow boots to school so she can fumble her way across the snow-smothered soccer and football fields. In summers, she shoves her thumbs under her backpack straps and coaxes herself onwards with the sweet reward of air conditioning. She admires the white lines drawn on the grass of the sports fields, still bright and clean to celebrate the beginning of the school year, and keeps her head up as she treks towards the buildings.
Zhang High is practically brand new. It’s neat, with exterior walls that haven’t yet grown rain-stained and interiors that still sparkle after every deep clean. No walls have needed repainting due to graffiti, and the windows glimmer in the morning sun.
Lily slips into the arts building through a back door that the band kids leave open, even though they’re not supposed to. They’ve been at marching band rehearsals for two weeks now, and the music rooms already sing with drama and action and clutter. It smells slightly musty, and Lily peeks into the marching band storage room to see racks upon racks of blue-and-white military dress uniforms. It’s a real smell, not a magical one.
She waves to a passing band student carrying a too-big trombone and walks down the back hallway, ignoring the tile floor, white plaster walls, and copious noise in favor of sniffing. The school smells different from the bus. She notices hints of unique smells, but all of them have a slight edge to them, a little greasy and burnt, but not enough to be nasty. Maybe that’s what nerves smell like.
When Lily steps into the choir room, she picks up a burst of buttery, floral sugar. She glances around, wondering where it came from, and notices someone sitting at the baby grand. He’s tall, with silky black hair and pale skin, and limbs that stretch too far, and when he looks up, Lily’s heart lifts.
He grins. “I saw you getting off the bus when I pulled into the parking lot.”
“And you didn’t stop to give me a ride across campus?” Lily quirks a smile and drops her backpack on the risers across the room from the piano.
“Well,” Theo says, leaning back and gesturing with a long, languid sweep of his arms, “I put on like five inches this summer. Didn’t think you’d fit in the car with me anymore.”
Lily laughs and breathes in the sugar cookie smell in the room. “That’s right. I almost didn’t recognize you. You changed your hair, too.”
“Still pale as a white boy though,” Theo says. His mother is born and bred Beijing, and Lily’s father hails from sunny Tainan. Add to that the differing heritages of their white parents, and Lily and Theo turned out with very different mixes.
Where Theo is tall and fair, taking to his Scandinavian father’s genes, Lily has stayed short and tan, like her own father. Lily grows thick, dark brown curls that pin easily into princess-ey hairstyles, much like her Italian mom, and Theo has a mop of flat, black hair. He has the double-lidded eyes, and Lily just has weird corners that she can never get eyeliner into.
For all their differences, they have mutually agreed on their shared attractiveness. Being a halfie has its perks.
“How many times did you burn?” Lily asks, leaning on the edge of the piano.
Theo grumbles, and the smell in the room gains a hint of unsweetened citrus. “At least five times,” he replies.
“Wow. It's like you've never heard of sunscreen.”
The main door to the choir room, the one that opens into the wide hallways separating the classrooms from the theater, creaks, and in steps a girl Lily recognizes from last year. She waves, and the newcomer waves back. Lily’s nose twitches when she catches the tiniest whiff of vinegar.
As the clock over the door ticks closer and closer to seven o’clock, more and more of Lily and Theo’s fellow singers gather in the choir room. They mill about on the floor, their backpacks piled haphazardly on the risers, and Theo plinks out a slow and tinkling blues chorus. He enjoys pretending to be cool. Lily shrinks closer to him; Theo’s happy, buttery magic-smell is so much nicer than all the charcoal and rain tinting everyone else.
When Mr. Holtz bursts through his office door, face pink with excitement, at exactly five-till-seven, Lily takes in a deep breath and smiles. The room is lighter with the choir director there. All the nervous energy turns bright, and though something acrid still lingers in the air, fewer people smell icky.
Mr. Holtz claps his hands, and his bright tenor rises above the chatter. He points to one end of the risers and grins. “Sopranos on the north side! Basses on the south! Everyone else fill in, you all know where you're supposed to go.”
Lily stands in the front row, on the very end. Next to her is another junior girl who reeks like burnt chocolate cake mixed with pickles. It’s nasty, and Theo’s pleasant baking smell is all the way across the room. Mr. Holtz takes his seat at the piano with an excited shake of his shoulders, shuffles the papers around on the stand, and passes a stack to the short bass singer closest to him. He leans back for a moment, shakes out the single sheet of paper he withheld from the stack, and exhales.
“Alright, everyone! I know we all want to get to the singing, but rules are rules, and state law requires that I read this to you. So let’s get this over with.”
Choir is a blur after that. Lily tunes out the syllabus, tunes out the questions about principal challenges, tries her best to tune out the way smells shift, and then she’s out the door and gasping for Theo’s lovely scent.
He leans into her, confused but still happy. “What’s gotten into you? Didn’t get enough hugs from Victor before he went back to college?”
Now that zero-hour is over, the school is a mess of students. The population has grown since Lily was a freshman, and now with her nose all haywire, the hallways are as disorienting as her earliest bouts of magical combat. It sucks. The whole school smells like body odor and anxiety.
Theo pulls a sheet of paper from his backpack and steers Lily away from a pair of seniors making out in the middle of the hall. They smell less rosy and more like a cloud of pollen. It's sneeze-worthy.
"So," Theo says, shifting to walk with his arm slung around Lily's shoulders, "you have calculus first period too, right?"
"Yeah," Lily replies. "We texted about this."
They make it to the arts building entrance unscathed and push out into the bright, late morning sun. A mosaic of other students crawl around them, also en route to class, and the backdrop of freshly watered grass, blue skies, and grey buildings shimmers like a perfect brochure photograph.
"I know, I know." Theo guides them both off the sidewalks crisscrossing the grass and shortcuts to the two-story main building. "Just checking though. I couldn't find you during schedule pickup."
"Oh yeah, sorry." She stands still as Theo pulls open the cafeteria door, and then he tugs her inside by her arm, and Lily tries to keep a wince off her face. She can't tell what is magic-smell and what is public-school-bad-syrup-and-burned-pancake-smell.
The cafeteria swells with noise, and light streams in from the glass facade near the courtyard. Lily catches a glimpse of tiny freshmen shoveling in their last few bites of dry pancake, and then hurries to catch up with Theo. He might pull her arm off if she doesn't keep up.
They walk through the hallways at a pace that might be closer to jogging, and Lily trips over her own feet once or twice. She can't help it if the floors are freshly waxed, though she does think it might help if she wasn't so distracted. The main building is lighter and brighter than the others, meant to be a real gathering space and not just classrooms and hallways, and the wide open spaces and tall ceilings mean Lily doesn't have to breathe in other peoples' stink as much.
She follows Theo into the calculus classroom and grimaces when she sees the crowd of people around the teacher's desk. Great. Assigned seats. They're juniors and seniors, not rowdy froshes who can't keep their mouths shut.
Nonetheless, she must find out what seat fate has handed her. Gritting her teeth and holding her breath, she pushes into the crowd.
Someone’s elbow catches her arm, and she inhales on accident, then blinks in surprise. The smell isn’t nearly as bad as in the hallway. Familiar voices and faces blend into a complex whirl of fragrances, like a finely cooked dish with an intense and diverse flavor profile. Lily thinks she smells fish flakes and miso, but also lime and steak, and it’s a heady, wonderful mix that makes her regret skipping breakfast. The curious scent of smoked salmon lies underneath everything, and Lily’s stomach growls.
Eventually, she makes it to the front of the crowd and leans over the desk to catch a glimpse of the seating chart. Lily can tell immediately that it's randomized, because she's been with the same people long enough to know the patterns of who goes where in an alphabetized chart. She searches for the terrible mug shot she’d taken last year and sees it next to Theo’s bright, smiling face. There’s a blank photo box and a name she doesn't recognize on her other side.
With a squeak of ‘excuse me!’ Lily backs out of the crowd. She searches the room for her new desk, and then waves down Theo, who stands apart from the crowd against a wall covered in math posters. He unfolds his arms when she beckons him to the other side of the room, finally dropping his cool.
The desks in the room sit in a big U facing a blackboard with a shiny black surface and a colorful welcome doodle drawn in the middle. Lily has heard rumors about these blackboards. Apparently, they stay clean the entire year, never once turning the sad, dusty grey that most boards eventually become. The U is perfect. The front of every desk sits flush with its neighbors’.
Lily and Theo will spend the coming semester on the side of the U furthest from the classroom door, in the dead center of that row. Lily's non-Theo-neighbor is already seated, and she sits straight and tall, her face set in a frown.
Immediately, Lily's brain spins with deja vu. She has never seen this girl, but something in the angular shape to her cheeks, the fullness of her lips, and the gloss of her dark skin is familiar. Her hair falls over her shoulders in heavy rivers of black braids.
And then she turns, and Lily’s eyes widen. Her heart picks up, and her nostrils flare, searching for a smell that should be there, but somehow isn’t. Lily thinks for a brief second that she should smell honeysuckle and roses, held together by the tang of iron and blood, but there’s nothing.