Variations on the Theme of Adelaide Vaughn

Author: Alexis Ames

Content Warnings: Memory loss, hubris.

Tarot Cards: Temperance, The Fool

Addy flexes the muscles of her magic as she waits for the judges to call her name. 

She summons it from deep within her core, lets it simmer under her skin, then pushes it down again. Summon, simmer, banish, repeat. It’s a reflex, a comfort, a reminder that her magic hasn’t deserted her. Her greatest fear, ever since magic first manifested within her, is that one day she will wake up and it will be gone. 

Summon, simmer, banish, repeat.

“Adelaide Vaughn,” someone calls, and she steps out of the shadows and into the light.

Addy had long ago learned to wear flat, soft-soled shoes to auditions. She crosses the stage as silent as any man, without the tell-tale click of heels to give her away. She stops behind the black curtain that separates her from the judges, her eyes tracking a mote of dust while she waits. It drifts lazily through the air, carried by invisible eddies. She breathes–once, twice. 

“Begin,” someone says.

She tucks her violin under her chin, and begins to play.

Her arms tingle as the magic courses through her. Her fingers dance across the strings. Her bowing is sharp, precise, perfect. As the music swells, the tightness in her chest intensifies until tears spill down her cheeks. 

When it’s over, she disappears back into the wings where she’s left her case and packs her instrument away, scrubbing at her cheeks with her sleeves to erase all evidence of her emotional display. It’s unlikely she’ll encounter any of the judges on her way out, but if she does, she needs to look as though she’s about to step onto the stage for the Philharmonic’s opening night. 

By the time she walks out of the concert hall, her violin strapped securely to her back and black shades on her face, she’s as cool and composed as ever. 

It’s not until she’s in the taxi on the way home that she probes her mind to see if she can suss out what she’s forgotten this time. Sometimes it’s as apparent as a thunderclap; other times, she has no idea what she’s lost until she’s in the middle of a conversation and the words desert her entirely. 

The taxi lets her out in front of her building. Addy makes it through both sets of doors without issue, but then when she’s standing in front of the elevator, it hits her.

She doesn’t remember her apartment number.


Addy had been sixteen years old and riding the high of a callback from Juilliard when magic first appeared in the world. 

No one can say where magic came from, or why it had manifested at all, or why it only gave magical powers to those living within a certain distance of the epicenter of the Incident and to no one else. Equally puzzling was the fact that some people gained near-superhuman powers, while others had magical abilities that were mundane at best, like the power to enchant blades of grass to sway to an imaginary breeze. Addy’s newfound magical ability meant that she could play any piece of music perfectly, on any instrument. She had spent her whole life striving for perfection, and since each person’s magic was wholly unique, it meant that Addy and Addy alone had been given this power. It had to be for a reason.

She had only used her magic sparingly, at first. A tricky phrase, a difficult key change. Nothing that she couldn’t master later, on her own, with no one around to hear. But in rehearsals, auditions, and performances, she was unmatched thanks to her powers. Her fingers flew across the keys or danced delicately over the strings. She was a rising star at Juilliard and after, earning coveted spots in prestigious orchestras all over the country—Cleveland, Chicago, LA. 

Ilse, unfailing and constant, had followed her from city to city, putting her own career on hold and picking up odd jobs to support them. She hadn’t been gifted with magical powers, having been visiting family in Maine when the Incident occurred and thus being too far from the epicenter for magic to manifest in her, but that never seemed to bother her. 

“Knowing my luck, I’d have been given something useless like the ability to never lose a bobby pin,” she’d quip, pressing a kiss to Addy’s hair. “Or the ability to hear the thoughts of worms. Can you imagine?” 


Addy spends several minutes loitering in the lobby, digging through the recesses of her mind for her apartment number, before an idea sends her scrambling for her phone. She unlocks it and scrolls through her purchase history. For the past three years, everything has shipped to the same address. She catches the elevator up to the eleventh floor, and then pauses in front of apartment 1137. She waits for a glimmer of recognition, but of course, there is none. Sighing, she digs her keys out of her purse. She has to try every key on the ring, but eventually the door opens. 

Recognition floods her, and she goes weak at the knees with relief. She hasn’t forgotten her apartment, then, only the number on the door. 

Their apartment, she amends as she hears Ilse humming in the kitchen. That’s right—they’ve lived together since Addy made that first move to Cleveland. The memory of their apartment number, at least, is easily replaceable. 1137. She’ll have to write that down on the small notepad she keeps in her purse, the one that lists various mundane details about her life, everything from the names of family members to medical information to her birthdate and age. Her magic ate through the smallest memories first, small enough that it could be passed off as mere forgetfulness—where she had placed her mug of coffee, what she told Ilse she would pick up at the store. As time went on and she used it more often, her magic ate away at larger portions of her life. So far, it’s been worth it. For all of the inconveniences her spotty memory has caused, she has never once regretted it.

“How was the audition?” Ilse calls to her, pulling Addy out of her thoughts.

“Easy,” Addy says, toeing off her shoes and hanging up her jacket in its usual place on the peg to the right of Ilse’s. That had been another memory she’d lost at an audition some months ago, and a note she had discovered in her notebook: always hang your jacket to the right of Ilse’s.

It is a chore, sometimes, playing the role of Adelaide Vaughn. But she cannot afford for Ilse, or anyone else in her life, to discover what she’s been doing. It is a secret she has kept carefully guarded since she was a teenager, and revealing it could risk everything. Her entire career, everything she’s worked for and wanted since she was old enough to hold a bow, could be wiped away in an instant if it was ever discovered she was using magic to enhance her abilities. 

“Of course it was easy,” Ilse says as Addy comes into the kitchen and places a gentle kiss on her lips. “It’s you, isn’t it? You’re the best there is.” 

“Yes, I am,” Addy says with a smile, “and I always will be.”


She gets the call at six in the morning, Ilse still fast asleep beside her in bed. Addy doesn’t recognize the number, but anyone calling this early in the morning has to be doing so for good reason. She reluctantly leaves the warm cocoon of blankets and steps into the hall. When the call is finished, she goes out onto the balcony to take in the sight of the city as it slowly comes awake. They live in the thick of it, skyscrapers obscuring their view in every direction, but watching the buildings glow gold and pink with the sunrise and people hurrying by on the sidewalk below is enough. This is her favorite time, before the heat and demands of the day set in.  

Ilse joins her an hour later, two mugs of coffee in hand. She hands one to Addy and settles herself in the other chair. Addy allows herself a self-indulgent moment to rake her eyes over Ilse’s curves, her slender hands, the sleep-mussed hair that she’s pulled into a loose knot at the back of her head. Ilse catches her looking, and her smile turns teasing. 

“You could have stayed in bed instead of getting up at an ungodly hour,” she says, “and had your way with me instead.” 

Ilse’s accent, thick and honeyed, is always more prominent in the morning, and further stokes the desire simmering under Addy’s skin. But there will be time for that later. 

“I got a callback,” she says, and it takes Ilse a moment to understand. When she does, she sits up so quickly that she nearly spills her coffee. 

“A callback?”


“From the Philharmonic?”


Ilse sets her coffee on the table and then throws herself into Addy’s arms, ending up on her lap. “Adelaide, I am so proud.” 

It’s all been leading to this, Addy thinks as Ilse draws her into a deep kiss. Every lesson, every tear spilled, every rehearsal, every audition, every memory lost—it’s all been leading to this moment, and it has been worth it


Addy knows that, growing up, her closest companion was a terrier named Milo. She was virtually inseparable from the dog, leaving him only to go to school or for rehearsals. She knows that, on the day they put him down, she wept so hard she threw up. She also knows that she has a twin brother who was her biggest rival academically until high school, when she finally surpassed him. She knows that her biggest advocate, up until last year, was her great aunt. Aunt Emmaline had died right before Christmas, and Addy and Ilse had driven in blizzard conditions to make it to the funeral.

She knows these things, but she no longer remembers them. They have been leached from her over the years, drained away as she relied on her magic more and more—in auditions, in rehearsals, in performances. 

She never knows what memory is going to be taken from her when she uses her powers instead of her talent to play a piece of music. She has learned over the years that the memories she loses are bigger and more important each time, but so far, the memory loss has been manageable. She can piece together her life easily enough, from her journals and social media and old text messages. She hoards every scrap of information about her life that she can, saving receipts and Post-It notes and writing dutifully in her journals each night. She never knows when something mundane is going to be the key to piecing together a memory she has lost. 


With the semi-final audition on the horizon, Addy practices for hours every day. Practices until her fingertips blister and burst, until her hands are swollen and her shoulder throbs, and then practices some more. When it is her alone, with no one around to hear—not even Ilse—she doesn’t use her powers. No one will ever know the way she trips over a phrase or flubs a note; no one will know if she misses a key change or an accidental or a dynamic. She practices and she practices and she practices, because this is the only thing she has ever wanted in her life and it is nearly in her grasp. She will not allow it to slip through her fingers. The thought is unbearable. 

She knows that, when the audition comes, she will use her powers. This is too important to leave to chance. As the day approaches, she starts relying on her powers more and more, until she is using her magic for both pieces the entire way through. Her magic isn’t something that can be activated on the fly. She has to know ahead of time that she’s going to use it, has to grow accustomed to the feel of magic tingling in her fingers as she plays a certain piece. Her magic resonates differently with every piece that she plays, and she has to know what that feels like before the audition. It takes time, too, to draw the magic from her core and let it settle under her skin, primed and ready.

On the last afternoon before the audition, Addy sets her violin aside and goes into the kitchen for a glass of water. She feels justified in taking the break—her magic and the music have woven together seamlessly, and she can play both pieces as well as any Principal Chair in the Philharmonic. No, better than that, even. She will practice for a few more hours anyway, just in case, but she feels better about the impending audition than any one she’s had before. 

She can do this.

Addy catches sight of some photographs in the hallway, and she pauses with the glass halfway to her mouth. Ilse, resplendent in white, and Addy standing next to her, decked out in a flowing gown of crimson and gold. Addy looks at each picture that lines the short hallway, recognizing some family members—her mother, her twin, an uncle—but drawing a blank on others. Further along, there are pictures that can only have come from a honeymoon—Ilse on a beach, looking radiant in a bikini and sheer cover-up, her dark tresses being stirred by a breeze; Addy scuba-diving; the two of them mugging for the camera. Addy racks her brain, but comes up with nothing. She drops her gaze to her left hand, which is ringless–but which sports a tan line on her third finger in the shape of one. 

She’s married. Ilse is her wife, and Addy doesn’t remember it. 


When Ilse comes home that evening, Addy is in their room with her journals spread across the bed. Their wedding album is open next to her. She’s looked through the photographs so many times now that she practically has them memorized, but she cannot recall a single thing from that day. At the sound of the front door closing, Addy scrambles to close her journals and shove them under the bed. The albums she can explain, but meticulously poring over her old journals will seem odd to Ilse. The bedroom door opens, and her wife greets her with a smile.

“I thought you would be practicing for hours yet.” Ilse leans over the bed to kiss her. “Do you feel prepared for tomorrow?” 

“Of course,” Addy says, because she is. She has her talent and her magic and decades of hard work behind her, and she will not fail at this. “I was only taking a break.” 

“To look at our wedding album?” Ilse sounds amused. 

“Is it a crime to want to look at pictures of my beautiful wife?” Addy steals another kiss—and it does feel like something stolen, something snatched, something that doesn’t belong to her. She pushes the feeling away. Ilse is her wife, whether she remembers their wedding or not. She remembers the rest of their relationship, and that has to count for something. “Come. Sit. Tell me about these pictures.”

She pulls Ilse down onto the bed next to her, and Ilse huffs. “Tell you about them? Darling, you were there!”

“I want to hear about them anyway,” Addy says. She hooks her chin over Ilse’s shoulder and presses a light kiss to her neck. “Please? Tell me about our wedding and honeymoon. Pretend like I’m a stranger, and I’ve never heard about them before. Tell me about the best day of your life.” 

Ilse tells her every detail of their wedding and honeymoon, going so far as to recite her vows from memory, which turns Addy into a blubbering mess. She wonders if she cried during their ceremony, too, and hates that she can’t remember. 

Eventually, she peels herself away from Ilse’s side and returns to practicing. She’s able to run through her pieces virtually flawlessly without magic more than once, but there are other times that she flubs a note, and what if that happens tomorrow? It would be a tragedy to come this far, only to lose out on her dream because of a missed note or mangled rhythm. 

Addy lays awake for hours that night, staring at the ceiling long after Ilse’s steady breathing fills the room. Misery courses through her veins, and worry churns in her gut. What will she forget tomorrow, when she puts her bow to the strings and lets her magic flow through her fingers? Somehow, in all the years she has been using her magic and forgetting, she managed to become complacent. She somehow believed that there were certain memories that were too big, too integral, to be taken from her. 

This changes nothing, she tells herself firmly. She has come too far to leave this to chance now. She will rely on her magic tomorrow. There is no other way.


Addy has learned over the years that when her memories are taken from her, they usually vanish in clusters. Her magic chips away at a period of her life, or a certain person, until they are gone entirely. She doesn’t remember her high school years, for one. She doesn’t remember her grandfather. She doesn’t know any Spanish, though she studied the language for six years. She can’t even remember the classes she knows she took for it. 

And now, her magic is targeting Ilse. 

She attends the callback, and in the moment before her bow touches the strings, she considers not using her magic at all. She has already lost their wedding and honeymoon. What will an audition that is this taxing take from her? She has been relentless, working her fingers to the bone year after year in order to be the best. She has been preparing for this moment since childhood. She should be able to do this on her own, without magic. 

But then why was she given magic in the first place? Why, of all the powers she could have been granted, was she gifted with this one? This is her destiny. This was meant to be. It would be a waste of her magic, to not use it to achieve the dream she’s been chasing since she was a child. She cannot squander this opportunity.

Not for anything.

What follows is the best audition of her career. She knows that even before she finishes the final strain. Euphoria sweeps through her, and she feels as though she can conquer anything

The elation wears off when she steps into her apartment and realizes with a nasty jolt that she isn’t alone.

“Ilse,” she says blankly. “What are you doing here?” 

They’ve only been on a handful of dates, and though Addy likes her well enough—all right, perhaps more than likes—she doesn’t know the other woman all that well. Certainly not well enough for Ilse to show up at her apartment unannounced. 

“I took the afternoon off to surprise you,” Ilse says, beaming, and she comes over and kisses Addy fully on the mouth. Addy is too startled to do anything but respond. “How did it go?”

Oh. This is what magic took from her this time, then. Addy’s gaze tracks to the wall, drawn by the collection of framed photographs there, and it isn’t too difficult to draw conclusions from there. She fell in love with Ilse. They moved in together, got engaged, got married. 

She has lost seven years of their life together. 


Falling in love with Ilse again is as easy as breathing. Ilse lives beneath Addy’s skin, has written herself into Addy’s marrow. She knows, as certain as she knows that music is her lifeblood, that she will always love Ilse, that it’s the one thing magic can’t take from her. It can take her memories, it can erase the years they had, but it can never take that love.

Can it? 

Addy has scoured her journals and her various social media accounts, has read every news article about herself that she can get her hands on. She memorizes facts about Ilse, as though that is an adequate substitute for lived experience. She learns Ilse’s favorite meal, her favorite color, her secret comfort books and movies from the pages of her journals. Still, it isn’t enough

Ilse knows that something is wrong. 

Addy finds herself scrambling with nearly every interaction she has with her wife. Ilse talks about people she doesn’t know, common friends she now doesn’t remember because she met them through Ilse, and magic has taken all of that. Ilse mentions a vacation they once took together, a memorable meal at a restaurant, a visit with her parents just last month. Addy can’t even dredge up a scrap of memory, a hint of recognition. She’s a decent enough actor—she’s been at this long enough—but Ilse knows her too well. 

What is going on with you?” Ilse finally bursts out one evening, when she mentions a dinner they’ve planned with Ben and David—neighbors of theirs, Addy has learned through social media—and Addy only stares at her blankly. “I know how much this means to you, Adelaide, I do, but you’ve never been like this during an audition period. Half the time when I speak to you, you look at me like I’m from another planet! Is—is something happening? Medically?” 

“No!” Addy says quickly, leaning across the kitchen island and seizing Ilse’s hands. “No, darling, I promise. It’s nothing like that. It’s only stress. I’m preoccupied. Yes, we’ve been through audition periods before, but this…this is huge. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.” 

“I thought I was all you ever wanted,” Ilse says a bit ruefully, but her expression softens. “I know what this means to you, Addy. I do. I just—I just wish you were a bit more present. I feel like I’m living with a stranger, sometimes.” 

Addy’s heart seizes, and she goes cold with panic. Ilse can’t know, can never find out, what Addy has done. What she has been doing all of their years together, trading memories for the chance to achieve her dream. The strings of her aching heart grow taut, too, at the thought of what it would do to Ilse, what it’s doing to her already; about how profoundly unfair it is to her that Addy doesn’t remember the seven years they’ve shared. 

This has gone too far. 

“I’m sorry, love,” she chokes out, and to her horror, feels her eyes start to burn. “I never—I didn’t ever want you to feel that way. I’m not myself, you’re right, but I’ll do better, okay? And you’ll have me back as soon as this final audition is over, however it goes.” 

Ilse gives her a faint smile and squeezes her hands. “Alright, darling. I suppose I can live with that.” 

Addy breathes a small sigh of relief, and resumes chopping the onion while Ilse handles the rest of the vegetables. Soon, the kitchen is warm and heady with the smell of dinner. Addy cannot remember—quite literally—the last time she was this content.


The final audition is held in front of the music director. 

Addy waits in the wings, along with four others who have received this final callback. 

Four others who didn’t need magic to make it this far, a nasty voice whispers in the back of her mind, but she shoves it away. No, she has earned this. She has worked for it from the moment she picked up a violin at three years old and first touched bow to strings. Her magic only enhances what is already there. She is meant for this. Otherwise, her powers would have manifested as something else.

If she doesn’t succeed here, now, everything she has done, every sacrifice she has made, every memory she has lost, will have been for nothing. 


Yet. Ilse is waiting for her at home. Ilse, her wife, who Addy fell in love with for the first time seven years ago and who she has been falling in love with all over again since her last audition. Beautiful, unfailing, constant Ilse, who deserves to have a wife who remembers their life together. Ilse, who Addy’s magic is now targeting, chipping away at Addy’s memories until someday, there might be nothing left. 

It could happen today. She might walk out of this audition without any memory of Ilse—not anything from the past few weeks, not their first meeting, their first date. Nothing. 

I’ll fall in love with her again, Addy tells herself. It doesn’t matter if she loses every scrap of memory about Ilse, because the one thing magic can’t take is love, and their love transcends all else. 

Doesn’t it? 

Can their love survive if Ilse remembers everything and Addy nothing? And if Addy can’t remember Ilse at all, then there will be no longer any way to hide what she’s been doing for all these years. Would Ilse ever forgive her? 

There is one terrifying, obvious solution—she can play her audition without magic. She can trust in the work she’s put in for so many years, trust in the sweat and blood and tears the bow has drawn from her, trust that she can do this without relying on magic. She will play her audition, and she won’t lose anything more of Ilse. 

That means, of course, the very real possibility of losing this seat. In the Philharmonic. How could she ever forgive herself if that happened? She will always wonder if magic would have made a difference, and she will always regret not using it. Would she resent Ilse? Blame her, even? Would their love die out anyway, no matter what Addy had given up to preserve it? 

Addy flexes the muscles of her magic, calling it forth and then pressing it back down again. She closes her eyes and feels the tug of it in her nerves, her veins, her marrow. As always, the mere act of summoning and banishing her magic calms her instantly. The thrum of it through her body slows the jack-rabbit beating of her heart and gentles her breath. She was meant to have this power. To not use it would be a travesty, a betrayal. 

And yet, using it would betray the woman she’s pledged her life to, the one who will be at her side long after age takes away her ability to play as beautifully as she does now. Even magic cannot stop her joints from hardening, her eyesight from failing, her mind from deteriorating. 

Someone calls her name. Addy crosses the stage and stands before the music director, this time without the barrier of the curtain. On instinct, she flexes her magic. Summon, simmer, banish, repeat.

“Begin,” someone says.

She breathes.

She tucks her violin under her chin.

She begins to play.