Below is chapter 2 of my new contemporary fantasy novel, A Wild Epidemic of Magic.
This all-ages novel is a sequel to A Sudden Outbreak of Magic (which is now available as a trade paperback and an ebook).
These books make up the Contagious Magic series of novels.
In case you’re just dropping in today, here are links to previous sections:
A Wild Epidemic of Magic
Kelley Strickland held her phone to her ear and crossed her fingers for luck. This would make call number twelve; if it didn’t work this time, she wasn’t going to try again. Waiting for the connection, she rubbed her arms through her thick sweater in the chill air of her hotel room. It would be a huge loss to never talk to him again, but she couldn’t keep doing this or she’d go crazy.
After three buzzes, a tentative “Hello?” tickled her ear from the other end of the line.
“Jimbo, ” Kelley said, in as calm a voice as she could muster. “It’s me, Kelley. How’s Gran?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. It was becoming his favorite phrase. “I can’t talk.”
“That’s fine. Just listen, then. I know you’ve been through a lot, and this is pretty overwhelming and all.”
A sudden hiss of air came from the other end, but nothing else. Kelley forged ahead, determined to get through to him at last.
“But you’re not alone. And you’ve been given an incredible gift. You can’t just let that slip away. We could do so much—”
“A gift? My grandmother can barely get up out of her bed anymore. Her hair turned white after that night on the boat. Completely white. And the way your brother broke her music box, and, and…”
“I know,” Kelley said, fighting the urge to apologize once more for what Jeroan had done. She’d vowed never to do that, ever again. And now she was losing Jimbo, too. “But this is something bigger than all that.”
After a pause, Jimbo finally spoke.
“Some of us don’t want to be a part of something bigger, Kelley.”
And then he hung up on her.
After five seconds of shocked silence, Kelley hit the End Call button on the eGadget gripped tight in her hand and bit back the urge to scream.
Instead of screaming, though, she hooked her phone up to its charger and paced around the tiny confines of her hotel room, with its chipped beige walls and nasty brown carpet and crooked, fake art on the walls. With each step she ran through a series of dagger-sharp thoughts, first about Jimbo, and then her twin brother Jeroan.
It always came back to Jeroan, and the stupid, reckless, dangerous decision he’d made.
Despite the cold in her room, she could feel the heat building inside her, and she had to remind herself to let it out before she exploded. Again.
She exhaled, and saw a hint of her own breath cloud the cold air.
She could almost sympathize with Jimbo’s attitude about all that had happened. His grandmother had gotten hurt badly by Dr. Azure’s magic during that wild fight up on top of the Diamond Jo riverboat back in November. For a while there it looked like she wasn’t going to make it to see Christmas. And the way Jeroan had betrayed her by taking that ancient music box from her hands and crushing it…
Kelly couldn’t really blame Jimbo for not wanting to have anything to do with magic—or her—these days.
She winced, thinking about how, near the end of the call, Jimbo had sounded petrified. As if he was afraid she’d try to pull him through the phone and into her hotel room.
I’d actually considered doing just that, Kelley realized with a smile. She turned and began the length of the cold hotel room. But I know that Jimbo has to do this on his own accord. If I just pull people here and there with magic, then I’m no better than that madman Dr. Azure.
And that thought led her to think, of course, about her brother Jeroan.
Nothing, Jeroan had said to her that night, his last words to her in two months. Nothing’s happened to me, and everything’s happened to me.
I’ll never forgive him for volunteering to join Azure’s team, she thought. Like a kid running off to join the circus. Those two goons who lifted him off the roof of the runaway riverboat back in November most likely just dropped him into the Mississippi from a hundred feet up after listening to his trash-talking for a couple of miles. He’s probably dead by now.
“No,” she whispered. The sound of her thin voice gave her the goosebumps. “I can’t think that. Ever. Plus, he’s not gone gone. I’d know if anything like that happened to him.”
She sat down on the edge of her unmade, unbouncy hotel bed and pulled out the tiny white book from Maria’s shop. More than anything else, she felt trapped and helpless in her hotel-room prison.
After I helped save all those folks on the boat, too. But do Jimbo or his grandmother remember that? Does anyone remember that? Nope. It’s like everyone in Dubuque, Iowa, has selective amnesia about that night. Even the news and the local paper had neglected to cover the huge story about the Diamond Jo riverboat busting loose and taking a night-time cruise down the Mississippi, much less the magic battle that took place on the roof of the boat. Kelley had done all sorts of searches on the Internet with her smart phone, and not even a single conspiracy theory had reared its ugly head. The event had been swept under the rug, most likely by Azure or his flunkies.
Nobody wanted to remember the magic.
Kelley shook her head and touched the elaborate, dark blue symbol on the spine of her white book. Each blue curlicue made the tip of her finger tingle, like a tiny shock of static.
To be honest, she’d been having trouble remembering that night out on the freezing Mississippi River herself. Running her finger once more over the strange, twisted symbol on the spine of the small white book, she remembered the riverboat, full of gamblers on the three floors below them, breaking loose from its dock. How it had drifted downstream, picking up speed. And how it almost crashed into the cement columns holding up the bridge to Highway 20.
But a lot of the details had grown fuzzy in the two months since then. Had it been Jimbo or Polly at her side at the end, stopping the runaway steamboat at the last second, and then hauling it back to the dock? Kelley truly couldn’t recall.
As she skimmed through her copy of Words of Magic, she wished once more for a tiny dragon to silently flutter down onto her shoulder. She’d even welcome the clattering gears and strangely heavy weight of Alexander the dragon’s original version, with his metallic green scales and blue wings. Back before he became a living, breathing dragon all in white, measuring thirty feet from wing to wing, with a Sorcerer snatched up in each front paw.
A memory popped into her head, something she’d forgotten for weeks. Maybe thinking of her dragon had snapped it back into her brain. It was something Maria had said, two months ago, back in her shop.
“Not everyone can be a Sorcerer, you know. Everyone has the ability for it, but not everyone has the knack to maintain it and use it.”
That would explain Jimbo, Kelley thought. And if he doesn’t keep practicing, it’ll probably just go away. For the past few months, Kelley had made sure to channel magic through her phone at least once a day, even if it was for something silly like getting her wild black hair to stay in place, or making the bus run a few minutes later so she could catch it. She wondered if Jeroan was learning all sorts of good tricks at the place Azure had called “the Center.”
Maybe, she thought, he was learning more than I’ll ever learn.
Maybe. Maybe maybe maybe…
Kelley closed the book after running her tired eyes over sentence after sentence that looked like so much gibberish to her. She set the book down and pulled herself up into a sitting position.
It was time to try the door again.
Rubbing her cold hands together to generate some heat, she grabbed her coat and walked up to the scuffed metal door. If I were my parents, she thought, and if I knew all that had happened back when Jeroan skipped town, I’d use some gadget magic to keep this door from ever opening. But Mom and Dad were the most un-magical people Kelley knew. They were both lawyers, for crying out loud.
“Ah crap,” Kelley said with her hand on the icy doorknob. She turned and headed back to the dresser, where her eGadget sat connected to its charger. “How could I forget that?”
She unhooked her smartphone from the charger, and then snagged two insta-chargers from the top drawer. She made a face at the loud squawk the drawer made as she pushed it back in. After tucking the phone, the chargers, and the book into the various pockets of her big leather coat, Kelley tiptoed to the door again.
When she touched the doorknob this time, she realized who she needed to see. Not Maria, who had been so busy at her used book shop since November that she never had time for Kelley, but Polly. The skinny white girl had started out as Jeroan’s friend, possibly even a potential girlfriend, but she now hated him with a passion because of the way he’d bailed on them.
Polly gets it, Kelley thought. She not only has magic in her blood, but she’s not afraid to use it the way Jimbo is.
Plus I need to see if she’s forgetting stuff, too. If I can just remember to ask her…
Kelley hit Polly’s speed-dial number and glared at the closed door as she listened to it ring four, five, six times before Polly’s voicemail kicked in. Just a computer voice, announcing that Polly was not available.
“No kidding,” Kelley whispered. She ended the call without leaving yet another message. “Nobody’s available these days.”
Sucking in a deep breath, she grabbed the doorknob tightly. Turning it all the way to the right without making any sound took at least a minute. Opening the door a crack took twice as long. But when she peeked outside, the coast was clear.
She squinted into the bright noon-time sunlight stabbing at her eyes from outside. She’d forgotten it was daytime outside. After missing the last few days of school and spending most of her time nose-down in her little white book, she couldn’t even recall what day it was. Probably Saturday. Maybe Sunday.
Whatever day it was, it was way past time for her to get out and find some answers. She closed the door behind her without a sound.
Outside in the cold, walking fast across the empty parking lot, Kelley made it two dozen steps before a sharp voice stopped her.
“Miss Strickland! Just where do you think you are going, ma’am?”
Kelley groaned and turned. A tall, thin, white woman with a puffy blue winter jacket and a black Iowa Hawkeyes baseball cap pulled low over her eyes was striding across the parking lot toward her. If it wasn’t for the serious look in her eyes and the determined way she carried herself, the woman could have been someone on her way to tailgate at a football game. Instead, she looked like a cop on a stakeout.
She also looked familiar, but Kelley couldn’t place the woman’s name. All she could think of was Harvey’s, the name of the fast-food restaurant where Jimbo used to work. Her stomach rumbled with the thought of a roast beef sandwich and some curly fries.
“Going for a stroll,” Kelley said when the woman power-walked up to her and stopped a few inches away. The woman’s blonde ponytail wagged like a dog’s tail under her cap. “Is that against the law?”
“You’re supposed to be in your hotel room, ma’am.”
Kelley took a step back. She wished she could remember the lady’s name. She never forgot a face.
So she just asked: “Who are you?”
“Your parents asked me to help keep an eye on you, Miss Strickland. Ever since your brother went missing, they’ve been understandably very concerned for your safety.”
Kelley touched the eGadget in her jeans pocket. Looks like it’s about time for my daily dose of magic, she thought. Maybe I’ll see how far I can transport myself with one quick burst of magic. Or maybe see how far I can toss this woman into the air.
“So I can’t even leave that nasty hotel room and get some fresh air?”
“This is one of the finest establishments in Dubuque, ma’am. My cousin is the manager. And to answer your question, yes, you may leave your room. But not without a chaperone. I’m Nanci Beyers, by the way.”
You’ve got to be kidding me, Kelley thought, staring at the woman’s unsmiling face and feeling the cold January wind cut through her coat and sweater. I sent away a Sorcerer who was hundreds of years old from Mercy Hospital and helped stopped a humongous riverboat from crashing into a bridge. I don’t think I need a babysitter.
“I’m going to meet a friend,” Kelley said. “And she, um, she’s expecting me. So I’ll be seeing you, Miz, um, Beyers—”
Without waiting for a response, Kelley turned and started walking into the cold January wind.
The woman fell in step next to Kelley without missing a beat.
Beyers sniffed in a deep breath and let it out in a big plume of warm air that the cold wind dispersed in an instant.
“Good day for a walk,” she said, with the hint of a grin on her lean face.
“I don’t believe this,” Kelley muttered. She gave up on heading over to Polly’s dad’s apartment. This woman would certainly not be welcome there. Instead she turned and headed east toward the river, her boots crunching on the gray snow at the edge of the sidewalk. She heard a distant train whistle and hurried after it.
Maybe I can jump aboard that train, she thought, just like old Archie did with Polly’s pink phone in his gnarled hand, and lose her that way.
“Strange times here in Dubuque,” Beyers said as they walked. Kelley glanced over at her and the memory clicked into place—this was the female cop that Jeroan somehow knew firsthand. She and her partner had been at the scene of Jimbo’s accidental “triggering” at Archie’s hands. The old guy, who was now missing along with just about everyone else Kelley cared about (outside of her parents, of course), had knocked Jimbo out there while eating a late, greasy breakfast.
Boom. Just like that, Jimbo was infected with magic.
They passed under Highway 151, cars and trucks thundering overhead, and then stepped over the rows of train tracks breaking up the sidewalk. Up ahead, the old tan and brown shot tower loomed over the river and the black railroad bridge.
After walking another block, Kelley’s curiosity got the best of her. She put on her most neutral face and looked over at Beyers.
“What do you mean, strange times?”
Beyers gave Kelley a curious glance before turning back to the road.
“Well, other than your brother going missing, that is, there have been reports of weird behavior and dangerous activities. Did you know that Mercy Hospital has been treating people for a rash of fall-related activities? Nearly three dozen such cases since Thanksgiving. And we’re talking big falls here, like people thinking they could fly or something. Gravity told ’em otherwise.”
“Wha—?” Kelley nearly coughed as she sucked in a cold breath of air. “Did you say ‘fly’?”
“I know, it’s weird. And most of them had trouble remembering the circumstances related to their accident. Like they’d just blanked out or something.”
Kelley flinched as a shadow shot across the road to her right. She recovered and gave Beyers a nervous look, hoping the lady cop hadn’t seen her jump.
It was just a plane, she thought. I’m jumping at shadows, like a nervous old lady who was afraid to ever leave her home.
“Listen, your parents care about you,” Beyers said after they’d crossed another deserted street and came up on a gray warehouse as wide as a city block. “You know that, right? They’re not doing this to punish you, but to keep you safe. We’ll find your brother soon, don’t worry.”
“Safe,” Kelley said, suddenly short of breath.
If Mom and Dad ever knew what Kelly had done—what she was able to do now, with just a burst of energy through her eGadget and a keyword—they’d never let her back into the house. She’d be as gone as Jeroan was. There was no such thing as magic in their world.
Another plane passed over, and this time both Kelley and Beyers looked up at it. This plane and the other one were too close together, Kelley realized. And going in opposite directions. They could’ve crashed up there. Unless…
Was that a high-pitched screech I just heard? Kelley squinted into the late-morning sunlight, which seemed even brighter now that she was out in the empty no-man’s-land here between the river and the warehouse district. Just parking lots, train tracks, and the shot tower up ahead.
A flapping sound from high above got Kelley moving again. She had to smile when she saw Beyers stumble trying to catch up.
“More strange stuff,” Beyers muttered, just as Kelley jogged ahead of her down the gravel road leading to the tower. “Wait up, Kelley!”
They both were nearly running when they came around the corner of the old cinderblock warehouse, and Kelley got her best view yet of the fifty-foot-high shot tower.
Behind her, Beyers sucked in her breath in shock at what was perched on top of the tower: a white dragon, easily thirty feet long from his flared nostrils to the pointy tip of his tail.
The huge beast puffed black smoke from those nostrils as he smiled down at them, making Beyers pivot in the road and run off in the opposite direction with a loud splutter of gravel.
“Alexander!” Kelley called, looking up at the dragon with both of her arms still raised up in the air like an Olympic gold medal winner. “You really do have a flair for dramatic entrances, don’t you?”
And that ends chapter 2 of A Wild Epidemic of Magic. If you want to keep on reading, here’s chapter 3.
Thanks, as always, for reading! If you enjoyed what you read, feel free to make a donation via PayPal:
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