Second Place Winner of 2020 The Voyage YA First Chapters Contest judged by NYT Bestselling Author Dhonielle Clayton
The antique golden rings on Emerald’s middle fingers began to vibrate and glow softly. She twisted the one on her right hand clockwise and waited. A second later, a vision that took the form of her elder cousin, Frankie, appeared and spoke to her. “Ready when you are.” The vision of Frankie flickered and then vanished in a cloud of golden smoke. She was waiting at her apartment in the mortal realm for Emerald to arrive. Emerald quickly turned the ring to the left and a golden cloud reappeared, forming a mirror image of her own face. She spoke into it, saying quickly, “On my way,” and squeezed her ring gently to send the message. The image turned back into golden smoke and dissipated.
Emerald looked around her sage-colored room. It looked as though a bomb of clothing had exploded. The bed had been taken over by a large suitcase that was overflowing with crop tops, overalls, and pencil skirts. At the foot of the bed was an open steamer trunk also overflowing with sweaters and boots, items that would take her into the brisk Virginia fall.
“You know,” came a voice from the doorway, “You don’t have to take the sweaters and things yet. Fall is more like an extended summer in Virginia.” Her mother was leaning against the door jam, looking fashionable and comfortable in her sapphire-colored tunic and white jeans. Chunky golden bracelets clanged together as she let her hand fall to her side.
“What do you mean no fall?” Emerald asked, her eyebrows furrowing together.
“You’ve been to Virginia in the fall,” her mother replied, stepping inside and moving aside a small mountain of scarves from the end of Emerald’s bed so she could sit down. “It pretty much goes from sweltering to freezing in about two weeks.”
The idea of a life without fall was baffling to Emerald. She lived for autumn. Brisk mornings, sunny afternoons, chai lattes, and bonfires with her friends after school—
Well, no more bonfires, she thought, a frown passing across her face. No more friends…
Her mother reached out her brown hand and clasped it over Emerald’s.
“You’ll be fine,” she assured her.
“Stop reading my mind,” Emerald snapped, pulling her hand away. A look of hurt passed across her mother’s lined face, and she instantly felt regret for her sharpness. “I’m sorry, I’m just a little nervous.”
“You can visit whenever you want,” her mother replied gently.
“Yeah, but it’s best if you fully immerse yourself in the mortal realm…” Emerald replied, tucking in a loose coil that kept getting caught in her eyelashes behind her heavily pierced ear. She was reciting what she had read in Wild Magic about young witches who wrote articles about their year-long forays into the mortal realm, colloquially referred to as “Passage,” and returned to tell the tale. Most witches and wizards did their Passage in the mortal realm as “gap years.” Others preferred to go as exchange students in universities. Few and far between actually enrolled in mortal universities for a four-year education, and yet Emerald had decided when she was sixteen that this was exactly what she wanted to do.
Emerald had heard strange reports about things happening in the mortal realm. There were groups of kids about her age that were developing special abilities. The mortal government had no idea what to make of these cases, but more often than not the person who had developed these abilities was Black, and she heard more and more cases of Black people being killed by local police forces.
Though she couldn’t prove that all of the murdered Black people had abilities, she had a hunch. And as a highly-skilled empath, a skill that she had honed through training with her mother, her hunches were usually right on target.
Emerald wondered about these murdered people more than she cared to admit: Were they magic? How did they get their powers?
But they couldn’t be magic, Emerald had once decided. Each person with an ability tended to have one that could potentially manifest in different ways. Magic did not work in this way—babies were born with the ability to do magic, and then they honed the skills. Everyone learned elemental magic, telepathy and telekinesis, spell casting, and flying. There were some who preferred one form over another (her mother preferred telepathy and telekinesis) but if it was magic, anyone with the Gift that ran through their veins could perform it—with practice.
So, if they weren’t magic, what were they?
“Well…” Emerald’s mother said finally, running a hand through her straight hair. “You about ready to go, then?”
Emerald took a look around her room and stuck out her hand. “Empacare,” she said, firmly. She watched as the intricately woven golden band around her middle finger began to glow. The clothes, shoes, scarves, and jewelry scattered around the room began to twitch, then zoomed into either the steamer trunk or the open suitcase. When nothing was left, Emerald lowered her hand, closed the top of the trunk, and zipped up the suitcase.
“I guess so.” She snapped her fingers. The suitcase and trunk began to levitate. Her mother got off the bed so as to avoid being hit in the head by the suitcase and made her way out of the room. Emerald followed her down the stairs and her luggage trailed silently after her.
They paused at the foot of the stairs just before the front door. Her mother had tears in her honey brown eyes and Emerald rushed into her arms before she could shed them.
You can come visit me at Frankie’s any time, Mom,” Emerald told her, nestling her face into her mother’s lavender-scented shoulder.
Her mother nodded, but Emerald knew that she would not visit. A witch’s pilgrimage was something that one had to do alone. It was not enough to be able to do magic, so said the bylaws, but to be able to control it.
“Ready?” Her mother asked yet again, holding out a hand to her daughter. Emerald nodded. They stepped before the door then held the palms of their hands together and began to chant.
Emerald concentrated on Frankie’s brown face as she chanted, framed by neat dark brown locs that turned golden at the ends. She looked at the front door which was starting to shimmer and turn purple around the edges. They stopped chanting and the shimmering stopped, but the purple tint to the door remained. The portal was ready.
“I love you, Em,” her mother said, grasping Emerald by her shoulders. Emerald smiled radiantly back at her mother.
“Love you, too, lady,” she said fondly. They embraced quickly, and then, before the portal had time to close, Emerald wrenched open the door, which revealed nothing but pure black. She snapped her fingers again and her luggage followed her to the door. When she reached the threshold, Emerald glanced back at her mother and saw that the tears she had been holding back had finally burst free and were cascading down her brown cheeks. Emerald gave her a quick smile, then stepped over the threshold.
Stepping through the portal gave her the curious sensation of falling, as if she’d missed a step going down the stairs. But as Emerald lowered her foot on the other side of the threshold, a ground came up to meet it.
She pulled her other foot over the threshold, and once she was across, Emerald finally had the presence of mind to look around her.
She was standing in the middle of a living room furnished with earthy colored couches and pillows. A woven rug made in shades of sienna lay on the floor. On the brick walls were paintings of various animals, birds in the sky, fish in the sea, elephants roaming the savannah. Elephants were the clear favorites, as statuettes of them decorated nearly every available surface—above the fireplace, on top of the bookshelves, on the counters. There was even a woven tapestry with an elephant head hung on the wall over the couch. The room smelled of incense and after a quick glance around, Emerald found the source of the aroma on the ledge over top of the fireplace around her.
It was a moment before she noticed Frankie sitting with her back turned to her at the bar in the kitchen. She was leaned over a book, twisting the end of a loc around her finger.
Emerald cleared her throat. “Ahem.”
Frankie turned and a look of sheer excitement passed across her face. “Emerald!” She stuck a bookmark in her book then closed it with a pop and crossed the living room to hug her. Frankie smelled exactly like her apartment looked—earthy and spicy, a little like cinnamon. “I’m so glad you’re here! Let’s put your things away and go do something! Do you like coffee? Tea? There’s this quaint little shop you just have to see on campus. You’ll love it.”
Before Emerald had a chance to answer any of her questions, Frankie had touched the elephant pendant that hung around her neck then swiped her hand over the suitcase and the trunk, which vanished, presumably into the room that Emerald would inhabit for the foreseeable future.
“I’d love to grab a tea but can I have a minute first?” Emerald asked gently. Since her luggage had vanished, she had been struck with an irresistible urge to see the rest of the apartment.
Of course, of course, let me give you the grand tour,” Frankie said. “This is the kitchen.” She gestured to the stainless steel appliances that stood out against the brick backdrop of the wall. “This is the living room.” She swept her hand grandly in front of her, gesturing to couch, the television, and fireplace. Then, she took off down the hallway. “This is the bathroom that we’ll share.” Emerald peaked in. It was decorated in earthy colors that matched the living room, shades of brown and tan and orange. Emerald noted another tiny elephant, which held Frankie’s toothbrush. She smiled to herself.
They moved down the hallway a little more and Frankie stopped in front of a doorway that was decorated by a beaded curtain. She moved the beads aside and led Emerald in. “This is my room.”
Emerald ducked under the curtain and took in her cousin’s room. It smelled wonderful, like sandalwood and patchouli. Emerald saw more incense on her cousin’s wooden desk that was lodged underneath the only window in the room. Next to the desk was an open closet that overflowed with shawls, kimonos, and duster cardigans. The bed, which was against the wall closest to the door, was draped in a purple canopy and covered in an ocean blue duvet. Books lined shelves which occupied all of the rest of the empty space in the room, all mismatched in various sizes and colors. Emerald had just enough time to note the presence of multiple posters featuring jazz legends plastered on her cousin’s walls before Frankie swept out of the room again.
They walked down the hall a little further until they reached a door, which revealed the plainest room in the house with the exception of an accent wall that was painted a glorious shade of jewel-toned green. It was furnished only by a queen-sized bed and a wooden desk, beside which her trunk and suitcase stood at attention.
“And this is your room!” Frankie said with a smile, gesturing to the room at large. “I didn’t do any decorating because I figured you’d want to do that yourself. But I’m happy to take you shopping for some things.”
Emerald found herself smiling. “What made you decide to paint the accent wall?”
“Oh,” Frankie said, her face falling, “Do you hate it? I can repaint it—” she raised her hand preparing to snap and change the wall to a different color.
Emerald quickly stopped her.
“No, no! I love it!” she told her cousin.
“Oh, good.” Frankie beamed. “So, I’ll give you a minute to get settled, then we can go out.” She edged out of the room, closing the door quietly behind her.
Emerald rubbed at a knot in her neck and then cracked it gently by leaning her head from side to side. Then, with a quick inhale of breath, she cracked her knuckles and swiped her hand in the air over her luggage. The trunk and suitcase fell flat with a dull thud and opened. She snapped her fingers and clothing began flying out of the luggage and rearranging itself quite neatly in the open closet. Another swipe and the drawers underneath the bed opened and began to be lined with undergarments and socks. With her index and middle finger, she directed her shoes to the bottom of the closet. They marched directly in, orderly lining up.
When she was done, Emerald took stock of the room, now filled with her things. It was still rather bare, even filled with clothes and shoes. She sat on the edge of the bed, thinking of how just moments ago she had been sitting on her bed with her mother, and now, she was in her new home, on the brink of Passage.
Before she had too much time to get lost in her thought, Emerald decided to take Frankie up on her offer to visit the local coffee shop. She got off the bed and crossed the room briskly, making sure to grab her purse, then let herself out to find her cousin.
Frankie was back at her perch at the bar, reading.
“What are you reading?” Emerald asked, trying not to startle the serene reader.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Frankie told her, not quite taking her eyes off the page yet. When she had reached the end of her sentence, she looked up at Emerald, her dark brown eyes open wide from the thrill. “It’s always interesting to me what mortals think of death. It must be painful to think that it is so final.”
Emerald was silent as she took in her cousin’s words. To witches, death was merely another state of being. The dead communicated with the living magical beings through dreams and visions. Even though her grandmother had been dead for five years now, she still came to Emerald when she least expected it, like when she smelled the aroma of vanilla creamer in her coffee or when she saw a yellow rose. She could see her smile or hear her laugh, and it was enough to let her know that she was at peace.
“Anyway, are you ready to check out that coffee place?” Frankie asked her, shoving Sing, Unburied, Sing into her large crocheted purse. Emerald nodded. Frankie reached for her hand and Emerald instinctively held up her palms, ready to create a portal, but Frankie pulled away, grinning as if holding back a laugh.
“What?” Emerald asked, lowering her hands.
“We’re going to walk,” Frankie said, laughing, as she took Emerald’s hand and pulled her towards the door.
They were out the door in seconds. Frankie locked the door behind her and then they were off up the street, lined with other apartments and little houses, which it was clear students shared. They passed people out walking their dogs, parents pushing strollers, teenagers walking with their heads together over a phone, giggling. The air was filled with excitement as the school year approached. The environs would soon be buzzing with students ready to begin another year at Piedmont Valley.
After a few minutes of walking, Frankie led Emerald into what appeared to be the campus bookstore.
“I thought you said we were going to get coffee?” Emerald asked, confused.
“We are, the shop’s upstairs,” Frankie told her. Sure enough, when they reached the top of the stairs, they were in the midst of a charming coffee shop, outfitted with well-worn and comfortable plush chairs around small tables just big enough to hold a few cups of coffee.
Frankie approached the counter and leaned over it to say hello to a red-headed girl manning the espresso machine. “Hey, Karen!”
Karen looked over. “Hey, Frankie! Who’s your friend?” she asked, gesturing to Emerald.
“This is my cousin, Emerald, she’s starting at PV this year and living with me,” Frankie told her, throwing an arm around Emerald.
Karen wiped her cheek on the arm of her shirt, not quite getting rid of the streak that had landed there. She put down the drink she was holding on the counter and called out, “Small caramel macchiato!”
A handsome dark-skinned man with thick black glasses approached the counter for the drink. Emerald couldn’t help but stare. He noticed, and grinned at her. She grinned back and before she could stop herself, she’d held out her hand and blurted out, “Hi, I’m Emerald.”
“Hello, Emerald,” he said with a smile on his face. “I’m Carter Faison. You new?”
“Yeah,” she replied a little breathlessly. Karen and Frankie exchanged amused smirks. “I’m a freshman.”
“I’m a sophomore,” Carter told her. “Let me know if you need any advice or anything. I’ll make sure to say hi if I see you around.”
Suddenly, Emerald was aware that he was reaching for his coffee and was turning to go.
“Actually,” Emerald said quickly, piquing his interest again, “Do you maybe have some time now? Frankie was just going to get some books for class, and I have so many questions.”
“I was?” Frankie muttered to Karen.
Emerald shot her a look.
“Yup, actually, I’ve got like two dozen books I need to get so, I’m just gonna go…Guess I’ll get my tea later,” Frankie said.
Frankie whispered, “By the way, you’re glowing,” in Emerald’s ear before she headed down the stairs, her brown sheer kimono flowing behind her like a cape.
Emerald quickly turned her head and glanced at her hands. Her golden antique rings that adorned her middle fingers were glowing golden, which meant that her eyes were turning from honey brown to gold as well. She took a deep breath, and the glow softened until it was noticeable to no one except her.
When she turned around again, she noticed Carter was standing back in front of the cash register.
“Can I get you something?” he asked, pulling his wallet out of his front pocket.
I think I can get used to this, Emerald thought. She nodded and leaned forward to give Karen her order.
Nearly an hour later, Carter left with Emerald’s number and a promise to text her later. Satisfied with her first day of Passage, Emerald waited patiently for Frankie to return. Almost as though she had read the very thought that had passed through her mind, Emerald saw the top of Frankie’s head appear as she made her way up the stairs. She made a beeline for Emerald’s table and sat down, plunking her stack of books for the semester down on the table between them.
“Carter Faison, huh?” Frankie said with a smug expression. “Not a bad choice. Everyone’s after him it feels like.”
Emerald tossed her coily hair over her shoulder. “Maybe, but they’ve got nothing on me.” Frankie laughed and Emerald smiled obligingly. She took a look at the stack of books on the table. “You really did have to get about two dozen books?”
“Lit major problems,” Frankie said, “I’m taking Shakespeare: Comedies and Tragedies, Major African American Women Writers and Afrofuturism, plus some general area requirements.”
“How many books do you have to read for each class?” Emerald asked, horrified.
“About eight to ten,” Frankie said smoothly, reaching for a copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream off the top of the stack and scanning it.
“That’s like thirty books!” Emerald gasped.
“Welcome to college,” Frankie retorted, amused at Emerald’s shock.
She was just recovering when a group of students walked into the shop, speaking to one another in hurried, hushed voices.
“Genie,” one of them said in a voice verging on exasperation. She was short, curvy, and had short red hair styled in a bob. “We don’t know. We don’t know if they’re after us. We don’t know if they’re after James.”
“We’ve been followed, we’ve been chased, and more than once we’ve been cornered. We’re in trouble,” said the other girl in the group. She was tall, lean, had hair that resembled a lion’s mane, and eyes that glinted like a cat’s.
“And if James can recreate the serum, then he’s in trouble, too,” said one of the boys. Though she was certain Frankie wasn’t listening, when Emerald glanced at her cousin, she met her eye and held a finger to her lips, then continued thumbing through the pages of her play.
Emerald took a chance and peeked over at the group and another of the boys saw her glance. He was taller than all of the rest of them, built like a football player, and wore his locked hair in a bun. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him wave the group’s attention, point discretely in Emerald’s general direction, and then shush them. A moment later, Emerald felt something shift in the air around her.
“Ah!” she cried out, holding her hands up to her ears to stop the pressure. Frankie was also clutching her ears in pain. The group of students looked at the cousins, then without another word, trouped back down the stairs, all but shoving one another in an effort to get out of the coffee shop.
When they’d left, the pressure on her ears had lifted and Emerald gingerly removed her hands. “What was that?” she asked Frankie.
Frankie gave her a serious look. “I think those mortals have abilities.”
“I’ve heard about them on the news…” Emerald said, rubbing her still ringing ear. Frankie raised an eyebrow. “Not them specifically, but their kind. I thought it was a hoax.”
“Their abilities are not natural, not God-given like ours,” Frankie told her, “They can interfere with our own magic, but I’ve never gotten close enough to one to find out how. Until now.”
Then, as Emerald considered Frankie’s words, she felt telepathic energy break into her mind. She was used to this kind of touch from her mother or other witches; their energy glowed gold as they reached into her mind. When she touched the mind of a mortal, the energy glowed silver. This energy, however, as it approached her, was a deep violet, nothing she had ever experienced before. Emerald considered blocking it but found herself overwhelmed with curiosity.
I can tell you what you want to know.
Emerald knew enough to know that to create clear communication between beings, they had to be in a relatively close proximity unless they were a particularly powerful witch. She looked around the coffee shop to see where the telepathic voice was coming from.
Her gaze fell on a girl sitting in the corner half-hidden by a copy of the school newspaper. She must have felt Emerald’s stare, because she dropped the paper, revealing a brown face with a serene smile upon it. The girl was beautiful. She had kinky curly hair that she piled on top of her head in a messy bun. She wore paint stained overalls with a black crop top underneath. She stared back at Emerald.
The same purple energy that had approached her was radiating from this mortal in an aura stronger than she had ever experienced in someone without magical powers.
The girl approached Frankie and Emerald’s table. “I can tell you what you want to know,” she said aloud. “But a war is coming and we’ll need your help.”
“What war? Who are you?” Emerald asked haltingly.
“I’m Dove,” she said simply, giving Emerald a gentle smile. “Will you help us?”
Emerald turned to Frankie. “Is Passage like this for everyone?”
“No,” Frankie sighed, folding her arms across her chest, “Just you.”