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Authors: Lisa Papademetriou

Atale of highly unusual magic

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This book is dedicated to my daughter,

Zara Marguerite Usman,

with love and extra magic.

ContentsDedicationAuthor's NoteNoteChapter One: KaiChapter Two: LeilaChapter Three: KaiChapter Four: LeilaChapter Five: KaiChapter Six: LeilaChapter Seven: KaiChapter Eight: LeilaChapter Nine: KaiChapter Ten: LeilaChapter Eleven: KaiChapter Twelve: LeilaChapter Thirteen: LeilaChapter Fourteen: KaiChapter Fifteen: LeilaChapter Sixteen: KaiChapter Seventeen: LeilaEpilogueAcknowledgmentsBack AdAbout the AuthorCreditsCopyrightAbout the PublisherGuideCoverContentsChapter 1iiivixxxixiii1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738394041424344454647484950515253545556575859606162636465666768697071727374757677787981828384858687888990919293949596979899100101102103104105107108109110111112113114115116117118119120121122123124125126127128129130131132133134135136137138139140141142143144145146147148150151152153154155156158159160161162163164165166167168169170171172173174175176177178179180181182183184185186187188189190191192193194195196197198199200201202203204205206207208209210211212213214215216217218219220221222223224225226227228229230231232233234235236237238239240241242243244245246247248249250251252253254255256257258259260261262263264265266267268269270271272273274275276277278279280281282283284285286287288289290291292293294295296297299300ivAuthor's Note


Let me tell you how it found me. My great-grandfather was German. During the First World War, he was stationed in France. He missed his family a great deal, and one day, he bought a gift for his then six-year-old daughter, my omi (grandmother). It was a book of fairy tales, written in English, because that was a language he wanted to encourage.

Omi was the only member of her family to emigrate. She and her Greek husband moved first to England and later to the United States, escaping Germany just before the outbreak of the Second World War. She brought the book with her, where it sat on a shelf in New Jersey, waiting.

When I was ten years old, my parents separated. That summer, probably to help me escape the misery that hung through our house like fog, my parents sent me to visit Omi. As a birthday present, my grandmother gave the book to me.

Being a girl with a vivid imagination, I knew immediately that the book was magic. The royal blue covers decorated with golden fairies held an elegant, old-fashioned volume of fairy tales, many of which were unknown to me. The full-color illustrations were beautiful, each set on its own special sheet of creamy smooth paper. The stories were written in elegant Victorian style, and when I ran my fingers across the type, I could feel the letter-shaped craters left by the old metal press. Those words gave me an enormous sense of comfort from the universe; their antiquity was a reminder that the book had come to me across continents and decades and landed at the very moment I needed a little magic.

When I was in high school, my friend said to me, “Lisa, isn't it comforting to think that, right now, God is preparing someone special, just for you?” We had been talking about finding the perfect husband. I replied, “But what if that one special person for me is in Japan? What if I never meet him?” My friend rolled her eyes, but the joke is on her: at that very moment, my future husband was in Lahore, Pakistan. The joke was on me, too: Ididmeet him. That's the way magic is. My husband, Ali, wasmeant for me the same way my book was meant for me. We belonged together: it was fate.

I have heard of a Chinese legend that the gods use a red thread to connect lovers who are destined for each other. I imagine all of us as points that exist in space and time, with red threads that unite us to our important people, places, events, and even things. These threads cross and intersect. They tangle. They are a huge web that circles the world.

Stories are the way we reveal these threads.This happened, and because of that, this.This is the way human beings understand ourselves and how we have come to be who we are; narratives show us what is important in our lives. Stories make the magic of fate visible.

My magic book is the way my great-grandfather managed to reach me—his American granddaughter, someone he never knew—across time. He bought the book for Omi, but it was meant for me.


THIS IS A WORKof fiction. Any similarity to persons, living or dead, or actual events is entirely coincidental.

Except for the magic parts.

Those are real.


NOBODY HAD EVER TOLDKai that she should hold her breath when passing by a graveyard, but she did it anyway. She held it and gripped the door handle of the massive powder blue 1987 Dodge pickup as her great-aunt barreled bat-crazy past a large iron gate and up the driveway. Kai gaped through the smudgy truck window at ancient crosses and crumbling white grave markers that hunched, lurking, behind the sagging iron gate. “You live by a graveyard?” she asked, squeezing the door handle like she might just jump out.

“Quiet neighbors!” Great-Aunt Lavinia yelled so Kai could hear her over the Jay-Z song blaring through the radio. The Big Ol' Truck spat gravel as Lavinia slammed the brakes, lurching to a stop. She leaned against thesteering wheel and turned to face Kai. “And they never complain about my music.” Lavinia cranked up the volume for a moment, rapping along, then switched it off with a wink. “Most people round here like country, but I can't stand it.”

“Okay,” Kai said, because she thought she should say something. Conversation wasn't really her strongest subject, to tell you the truth.

“You like country?”

“Uh, no.”

“Well, all right, because you ain't gonna hear much of it in my house.” Lavinia yanked open the door and spilled out. With a deft move, she put one foot on top of the rear tire and hauled herself over the edge of the cargo bed, grabbing Kai's bag and violin case.

Kai wasn't nearly as swift—or as smooth. Gingerly, she pulled back the handle and looked down at the gravel driveway. It seemed like it was about forty feet below her.

“Do you need me to come and get you, sugar?” Lavinia called from the front steps.

“Coming.” Clinging to the door, Kai managed to awkwardly half swing, half sprawl onto the pavement. Shedusted off her hands and slammed the truck door, giving it a pat as she hurried toward the house.

And what a house!

It had a high peaked roof, and a front porch that had been nearly swallowed up by creeping vines and aggressive shrubbery. A bush with flowers big enough to sit in bloomed just beyond the vines' reach. Everything seemed to join together at odd, tilted angles, as if the house had come home late and rumpled from a particularly wild House Party. A tired picket fence lined the property, and a crooked gate complained at every breeze. The whole place looked like it belonged in a book, but perhaps one that wasn't very nice. I'm talking one where the children get gobbled up in the end.

A mailbox crouched at the end of the footpath. A name was painted on the sign in elegant silver letters.Quirk,it read.

You got that right,Kai thought.

So far, her great-aunt Lavinia was a bit . . . odd.

“Your father always called her Auntie Lavinia, but she's actually your great-great-grandfather's cousin, so she must be eighty or ninety years old by now,” Kai's mother,Schuyler, had said right before putting Kai on a plane. “She probably needs a lot of help around the house, the poor, frail old thing. You'll try to be helpful, won't you?”

Let me tell you that Great-Aunt Lavinia was about as frail as a Sherman tank. Kai was never good at judging heights, but I am, and I can tell you that Lavinia was over six feet tall. She carried Kai's suitcase like it was a pocketbook. Kai guessed that she was sixty, but this was one thing that Kai's mother had right: Lavinia would turn eighty-seven at the end of the summer. She had a few wrinkles at the corners of her mouth and eyes, and she had gray hair. But the gray hair was long, almost down to her waist, and held back in a thick braid. Lavinia wore jeans. Not the grandma kind, either, but dark-wash skinny jeans, and red Converse sneakers. Her fingers were full of chunky turquoise jewelry. She looked hip and fashionable, despite the fact that she was shaped a bit like a turnip and one of her eyes was bigger than the other.

This lady,Kai thought as she trotted after her great-aunt,doesnotneed my help around the house.

Kai hesitated in the doorway a moment, but Lavinia was already jogging up the wide wooden staircase, calling,“Your room is up here, sweets!”

Kai followed, but she didn't hurry. She ran her hand along the dark banister. It was the kind she had always wished for—perfect for sliding down. Back home, Kai lived in a square gray apartment building with an unreliable elevator.

At the top of the landing, Kai found a long hallway. “This one here is the guest room.” Lavinia's voice floated to her from a room on the right. Kai followed the sound and stepped into a lovely white room with a dark wood four-poster bed and matching bureau. An old, smoky mirror reflected gentle light, and crammed bookshelves lined an entire wall. An overstuffed chair lounged in the corner near a window seat that overlooked the front lawn. At home, Kai slept on a mattress on the floor, and shoved her clothes into oversize plastic storage boxes. Her mother didn't believe in spending money on furniture—every spare penny went to Kai's college fund. To Kai, this seemed like a room from a magazine, or a pleasant dream.

“Two other bedrooms up here. Mine's across the hall. One next to it's my office.” Lavinia looked around, searching for a good place to put the luggage. “This here room'sprobably thrilled to have a guest.”

“Pretty,” Kai said.

“Ain't it?” Lavinia put the suitcase down by the bed and turned to face Kai. “So, listen. I don't know how to say this, so I'm just gonna come out and say it. I can't help it if it hurts your feelings.” Lavinia's fingertips dipped into the smallest pocket of her jeans. “I never did have kids. No husband, either. That's 'cause I never wanted to, not 'cause I didn't have offers.” Her larger eye bulged out knowingly and her eyebrows danced.


“I don't know what to do with kids.”

“Me, either.”

Lavinia cocked her head, as if she couldn't tell whether or not Kai was teasing her. She wasn't. Kai really didn't get most kids. They didn't get her, either.

Unlike her peers, she didn't care much about gossip or crushes or screaming worship of the latest boy singer or movie star. She didn't even havetimefor friends, anyway. Not really.

That was something none of her schoolmates understood: that Kai had something else that was moreimportant than friends. She had a goal.Or at least,she thought,I used to.

In fact, the last week of school before summer vacation, someone had posted flyers all over the sixth-grade hall:The Cedar Creek Stealthy Awards!Anika Walters won Hottest Girl (of course), Mr. Anderson won Hottest Teacher (surprising), Claire McGowen won Most Likely to Rob a 7-Eleven (duh—she probably already had), and Kai Grove won Weirdest (sigh). When she saw the list, the principal flipped out, and said the class trip to the amusement park would be canceled unless someone came forward to confess or rat out the person who made up the awards. And so Kai was publicly insultedandpunished along with everyone else, which, according to the principal, “Should teach you all a valuable lesson about life.”

“All right, sugar.” Lavinia gave Kai a pat on the arm. “I'm just going to do . . . what I do. I'm not going to entertain you.”

“Fine. Great, actually.”

Lavinia stood perfectly still for a moment. So did Kai. Around them, the house was enormous and silent. “Okay, then,” Lavinia said at last. “There's food in the fridge. Idon't keep any soda or junk, though. If you want that stuff, you can go walk to the Walgreens.”

“By myself?”

“Why not? You're twelve, ain't ya? I was walkin' to the store by myself at age five.”

The thought of walking around in a strange town all alone made Kai feel fizzy, like a can of soda that's been shaken up. “Where's the Walgreens?”

“Five blocks.” Lavinia yanked her thumb over her shoulder, toward the window behind her, which overlooked the yard. “You can go wherever you want, as long as you're home for dinner. I don't want to have to call your mom and tell her that I lost you.”

Excellent point,Kai thought as the fizzy feeling swooshed down to her toes and out to the ends of her hair. “What time is dinner?”


“Can I poke around the house?”

“Suit yourself.” Lavinia fussed with a curtain for a moment, and then she walked out of the room.

Kai turned to her bags. “Stop looking at me,” she muttered as she nudged her violin case with her foot, pushingit into the closet and shutting the door. Sighing, she hauled her suitcase onto a low table but left it closed. She stood beside the window for a moment, just smelling the air in the room. It smelled like clean, old things. White linens lay crisp across the bed. She walked over and scanned the books on the shelves. They didn't seem to be arranged in any order. Paperbacks and hardcovers comingled, with a title about art seated beside a cheap crime novel. A leather-bound book with gold lettering on the spine caught her eye.The Exquisite Corpse,it said. Kai pulled it out. She didn't mind creepy titles. She kind of liked them, in fact.

The title was stamped in gold on the front cover, in that curlicue-style writing that people these days think of as “old-fashioned.” Below the title was the image of a skeleton hand holding a plumed pen. Instead of an author, it listed Exquisite Corpse Co., Kalamazoo, MI. She flipped through the book, but the thick, gold-beveled pages were blank.Hm,she thought,peculiar.

Flipping through more slowly, she realized that there was a proper title page (again, no author) and one page of print.

Greetings, salutations, and welcome to the Exquisite Corpse! Just as your grandmother and grandfather used to play the old parlor game in which one person would draw a head, and then fold it over, and another would draw a body, and another would draw legs, and so on—you will breathe life into a creature of your own making. You are about to embark on a journey of magic beyond your powers of discernment, imagination, and belief! All it takes is one person bold enough to set the story in motion!

Let the magic begin!

Beneath this, someone with excellent handwriting had written the name Ralph T. Flabbergast.

There was something about the book that made her shaken-up feeling come back again. And then Kai did something that she never really understood. She pulled a pen from her pocket. AfterRalph T. Flabbergast, she wrote,was a complete fool.

She looked down at the page, dread pricking across her skin on little insect feet.I shouldn't have done that,she thought.That was rude. Not that Ralph was likely to care. He'd been dead for almost fifty years.

Kai shut the book and put it back onto the shelf. She stared at the gold letters on the spine for a moment, and then turned away.

Outside, the sun shone bright and high. She had been sitting in an airplane for almost four hours, which made her restless. There was no reason to stay indoors. Kai decided to go explore the neighborhood.

It was her second mistake.


IT WAS NOT GRAND,but Leila thought it was the most elegant room in the world. She had never been in a private library before. The closest thing at her house was the basement, where there was a sagging bookshelf, a TV, and a decrepit Ping-Pong table. Her mother preferred reading on a Kindle. Her dad only read articles online. They were not romantic people. Leila doubted they would have appreciated a classy room like this one. She wondered if everyone in Pakistan had a library in the house.

Yes, you heard me: Pakistan.

I know, I know—you're thinking,What? We were just in the United States! Has this narrator lost her mind? Why is she going off on a whole new story?

Well, that's my own business. Maybe you'll figure it out.

Maybe you won't.

That all depends on you, now, doesn't it?

The walls were curved, as if the library were in a tower, and there was a lovely window seat that looked out onto the garden. Leather- and cloth-bound hardcover books, as still and straight as soldiers, lined the dark wood shelves. A massive wooden desk, richly carved with lions and men in turbans astride horses, stood to one side of the bay window.I could write a novel at that desk,Leila thought.A really thick novel!

The whole thing was old-fashioned and charming and absolutely not what she had expected to find. She felt like a princess, or like one of the characters in her favorite book series, Dear Sisters. In fact, she feltexactlylike Elizabeth Dear, the bookish (yet still beautiful) sister, in the story where the two girls went to England and Elizabeth fell in love with someone who shethoughtwas a stable boy, but who was really the son of an earl.

“Oh, I dosoadore a library,” Leila said aloud in a truly awful English accent, thinking about how much she would love to have an adventure like Elizabeth's. And in Pakistan, maybe she would! At least here, she had achance. Back home in the suburbs, it was impossible.

Leila perused the shelves, hoping to discover a fewgoodbooks. Most of these looked dead boring, like the ones her “academically gifted” younger sister, Nadia, liked to read.Depth of a River. Tom Wickersham. The Pealburl Papers.

So remarkable, her sister,everyone gushed.So talented! Nadia Awan is the most brilliant girl at school!

Ugh,Leila thought.Nadia Awan is so dull.

She scanned to the end of a shelf, where her eye fell on one with a catchy title,The Exquisite Corpse.

A corpse sounds promising, she thought. She liked mysteries, especially if they involved a girl detective. She reached for the spine, and then hesitated. After all, this wasn't her house. It was her uncle's house, but he probably wouldn't mind.Then again, what if he does? Maybe I should ask. . . .

“Yes or no, girl? Don't stand about like an indecisive sheep!”

Leila screeched, whipping around. “W-w-what?” she stammered, staring at the man who had suddenly appeared behind her.

The man pursed his lips, pointing his silver mustacheat the bookshelf. He wore a brown three-piece suit and brown bowler hat, and was definitely not her uncle. Her jaw dangled as she struggled to make sense of this man's presence, his outfit, and his accent, all at once. To her jet-lagged brain, the man's accent had sounded like, “Don stun aboo lie an indessclive ship!”

“I'm sorry, I don't speak Urdu,” Leila told him.

“For heaven's sake!” The old man huffed, straightening his blue tie. “Don't you understand English when you hear it? Idiot!”

“What?” Leila asked again. She had understood the words “English” and “idiot,” but that was it.

The man leaned on his cane and flashed his dark eyes at her. “Don't just stand there like a fool,” he said, deliberately and slowly. “If you want the book, then you should take it!”

Well, once he slowed down, the words finally managed to reach something deep in Leila's brain. “Oh!” she said. “Youarespeaking English.”

The man looked as if he had a very low opinion of her. “If you want a book,” he said again, “take one.”

“I don't really want a book.”

He scoffed. “Of course you do.” He rapped on the floor with a silver-handled cane. Leila looked back at the book. She looked at the old man. She had no idea who he was, but she was fairly certain of one thing—he did not live in this house. Yesterday, the entire family had come to pick her up at the Lahore airport: her uncle, Babar Awan; his wife; and their three children. And now, here was some old man in a three-piece suit in the family library.Should I call 911?she wondered. Could she even use 911 in Pakistan? (Just to let you know: the number is 1122. But if you can't remember that, and you're having an emergency in Pakistan, just yell real loud.)

It finally occurred to her to yell real loud, but Samir—her cousin who was only five months older than she was—walked right in and said, “Oh, hi, Leila. I see you've met Mamoo.”

Mamoois the Urdu word for “uncle.” Actually, it's the Urdu word for “my mother's brother.” There's a different word for “my father's older brother” (taya) and “my father's younger brother” (chacha). With a mother, there's just mamoo.

This mamoo looked disgusted. “She's too shy to take a book!”

Leila squirmed.

“What sort of book would you like?” Samir asked.

“I don't really—”

“Where's your father?” Mamoo narrowed his eyes at Samir. “The man spends all of his time ignoring me.”

“He's at work, Mamoo,” Samir replied. “It's Wednesday. He'll be home at dinnertime.”

“Oh, he will, will he?” Mamoo stroked his mustache. Leila thought that he sounded like he didn't believe it, which—I can tell you—he didnot. “I'll be back at nine o'clock sharp. But don't tell him I'm coming!” He scowled at Leila.

“I'mnot gonna tell him,” she said.

“He really isn't avoiding you, Mamoo,” Samir called down the hallway.

The old man shook his cane, but didn't turn back.

Samir faced Leila. He pushed his rectangular glasses farther up his long nose. One of his thick black eyebrows was permanently arched, which made it look as if he was mocking the world. People often took that eyebrowpersonally. Right now, Samir was looking at Leila's hair, which made her smooth it self-consciously. “What sort of book were you looking for?”

“I . . . I just . . .” Leila blushed a little under Samir's gaze. If only she were Elizabeth Dear! Then she would have thought of something witty and charming, yet utterly unassuming, to say. Even Nadia could have spouted some kind of Noteworthy Quotation from a Literary Luminary about the Importance of Story.

But Leila was stuck being herself, and all she came up with was, “I like all different kinds of books. I wasn't looking for anything in particular.”

“Take any book you want,” Samir told her.

Leila's father was from Pakistan, and she knew one thing for sure about the culture—if someone thought you wanted something, be it a pancake or a bar of gold—they would insist that you take it from them. They would insistforever. Pakistani hospitality is an irresistible force and an immovable object rolled into one. There was really only one way to solve the problem. She grabbedThe Exquisite Corpsefrom the shelf and mumbled thanks.

They stood in silence for a moment, as perfectly stillas the shelves around them. “Do you like reading?” Samir asked at last.

“Of course. I read all the time.”

“Kim's gun is on display here in Lahore, if you'd like to see it.” Leila's face was blank, so he added, “Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling used to live in Lahore. Have you read it?”


“Oh.The Jungle Book? TheJust So Stories?”

“I knowThe Jungle Book,” she said. She didn't want to admit that she had never heard of Kipling. She'd always thought that Walt Disney wrote the movie.

“They make us read Kipling in my school, since he lived here and won the Nobel Prize. What was the last book you read?”

“Sweeter than Sugar,”Leila said. It was #32 in the Dear Sisters series. “It's really good,” she added, wondering if she sounded as intelligent as Elizabeth Dear.

“I'm sure it is,” Samir said with that arched eyebrow. “We could go see the gun, if you like.”

Now, Leila had about as much desire to go see a gun previously owned by Kipling as she had to mop up a hairballmade by her cat, Steve. But Samir's brown eyes were gleaming, and Leila sensed that this was some famous Pakistani thing she was supposed to be all excited about, so she said, “Okay. Sounds great.” Leila hated to hurt people's feelings.

“Oh, by the way,” Samir added as she started to turn away. “Rabeea was looking for you earlier. I think that she and my mom want to take you shopping. They said that you wanted somesalwar kameez.”

“Yes!” Leila cried. “I love Pakistani clothes, but I never get a chance to wear them at home. Where's Rabeea?”

Samir directed her to the front sitting room, and she hurried away. Leila rounded the corner so quickly that she nearly ran into someone. “Oh, sorry!” Leila gasped.

This was Chirragh Baba, the cook. He said something sharp in Punjabi. He had the sort of face you would draw with heavy lines—wrinkles ran from his large, long nose to his puckered mouth, as if he had done a lot of frowning in his life. (He had.) His hair was dark orange—henna dye over gray—and his black eyes seemed to lead down a deep, deep well. They were eyes to nowhere. Leila had met Chirragh the night before, and he had given Leila an unwelcoming welcome.

“How long is she staying?” Chirragh had demanded,scowling. He'd said it in Punjabi, of course, but seven-year-old Wali had helpfully translated for Leila.

Now, Chirragh's eyes glittered like something that just might bite you. It was his signature look. He reminded Leila of the evil butler inDear Sisters Super Special #8: The Case of the Creepy Castle. That guy had been super-duper bad news.

“Uh, sorry,” Leila muttered again. She looked down at her shoes, avoiding that disturbing dark gaze.

Chirragh didn't speak another word, but continued limping down the stairs, supporting himself on his strong, right leg.

Leila looked up and watched him go.I'd better keep an eye on him,she thought, half hoping that he would turn out to be a major villain—maybe stealing spoons or spreading false rumors. That would open up a lot of adventure possiblities!

She stopped by her room and put the book at the edge of her bed.The Exquisite Corpse.Definitely a mystery,she decided. Leila knew that Elizabeth Dear wouldn't be in it. Still, she was hopeful that it would be both utterly romantic and moderately gruesome.

She couldn't wait to read it.

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