Welcome to chapter One of my contemporary fantasy novel A Sudden Outbreak of Magic. In this chapter, we hit the mean, snowy streets of Dubuque, Iowa, with Kelley Strickland in the present as she uncovers some unexpected activities in a dark alleyway…
ASOoM is a novel for all ages about magic, growing up, and finding your place within those two very different realms.
And let’s not forget that a sequel, A Wild Epidemic of Magic, is now available.
The story continues today with the Chapter One!
A Sudden Outbreak of Magic
Black girl on the streets. Better keep an eye on her, if you can.
Kelley Strickland felt like everyone in Dubuque was watching her today, thinking suspicious thoughts. Shivering inside her heavy winter jacket, she stomped her booted feet past yet another mound of gray snow piled on a street corner in this cold and dull place, in search of her trouble-making brother.
Her family had only been living in this whitebread city on the Mississippi for three and a half months, and Kelley wanted to move back to their real home—Chicago—badly. She used to be happy there, with her friends and all their favorite places to go in the city. But of course Jeroan had messed all that up with his loser friends and their little stunts.
And now he was starting that garbage again here. Already.
Which explained why Kelley found herself out on the streets on a freezing Tuesday morning in November instead of sitting next to the dripping radiator in Mr. Mottet’s Freshman Language Arts class.
Earlier that morning, she’d peeked—just for a second—at Jeroan’s laptop in his empty bedroom. Just long enough to read an email from one of his new buddies about cutting classes. The last straw. Kelley bundled up, left home, and started to track him down before he embarrassed her again and ruined her chances of ever making friends here.
As if I care about having friends here, she thought. Though she had to admit that she had a bit of revenge tied up in her plan today as well. Jeroan deserved to get punished for all his little schemes and lies. He never got caught. But if Kelley so much as looked at someone cross-eyed, Dad grounded her.
She shuffled past the clock tower on her left and got hit by another cold blast of wind. An old gray pickup truck rattled past, reeking of manure, and the driver lifted a hand, waving at someone. Kelley looked around, breathing from her mouth to avoid the stink, and realized that Farmer Joe had been waving at her.
That’s the whole problem, she decided, adjusting her lucky black cap against the cold. The people here were just too nice. They said “Hi” to you on the street, for crying out loud. Complete strangers. If you did that in Chicago in her old neighborhood, someone would smack you in the face. You definitely didn’t want to draw attention to yourself back there. Being unique was like a liability there.
She looked up and down the quiet street with its brick buildings and icy parking lots full of pickups and SUVs and rusted-out compacts. Across the street sat the office for the local news station, its glass windows almost hidden behind a big monster of a satellite dish. She could almost feel the radio waves—or whatever they were—humming through the air around that rusty old dish at KWWL headquarters.
Flecks of snow swirled in the air, and she fought the urge to sneak back home, crank up the heat, and go back to bed. She hadn’t found any other signs of Jeroan all morning.
What Kelley really wanted to do was track him with the sweet phone Mom and Dad had bought her the day before they started their new school here. One of the few benefits of having lawyers for parents—they usually had money for stuff like that. Even if the parentals didn’t have time to even hang around long enough to see her and Jeroan open their gifts.
As usual, Kelley had made a point of reading the skimpy manual cover to cover before she ever turned it on. Then she went online and read all the websites and wikis and blogs she could for the eGadget. She liked knowing all the secret features, including all the good hacks. Just in case.
But Jeroan must’ve been too far away to get a reading from the tiny little GPS locater Kelley had convinced Mom to secretly sew into the lining of his coat. She’d hacked her phone to be able to find him, but she must’ve missed a step or two—the GPS wasn’t working right.
So she had to search the old-fashioned way, without any of her best tech tools. Just walking around downtown and looking for clues and hoping to catch a break. Kelley hated the old-fashioned way.
She hiked down another block of Main Street, her breath puffing out in front of her as she hurried past a busy coffee shop and a brewpub just opening for the day for the lunchtime business crowd. Her phone gave off a soft beep, and then, after a few more seconds, beeped again.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” she whispered to herself as she slid closer to the brick wall of the store on her right. If the online forum she’d been following was correct, that meant that Jeroan had moved into range.
Three blocks ahead of her, on the other side of the road and moving away from her, walked a pair of boys. One black and one white—Jeroan and his buddy.
The beeping continued, each one a tiny bit faster. She pulled out her phone and hit the Mute button. Pressing a few more buttons, she keyed up the video camera tool. Gotta love the eGadget’s gadgets, baby.
She aimed the phone in front of her, squinting at the small image taking shape in the camera’s rectangular viewscreen, and waited to hit Record (she only had so much battery and disk space on her smart phone, so she couldn’t be wasteful).
Forgetting about the cold and the wind for the first time all morning, she fiddled with the touchscreen on the phone to get a better angle on Jeroan and his buddy. With the phone held up in front of her like a magnifying glass, she followed them down a side street. They were heading toward the railroad tracks and the big, brown river beyond that.
Black girl with a camera, Kelley imagined the small-town Iowans whispering to each other. Watch her closely! She’s surely up to no good.
* * * * *
A little over fourteen years ago, Jeroan Jeffrey Johnson Strickland was born five minutes before Kelley, and he’d never let her forget it. He loved reminding her that she was his younger sister. Kelley had a pretty good idea of what had really happened: he’d pushed her out of the way so he could come out first and grab all the attention.
Well, look at my “big” brother now, she thought. Cutting class and wandering the frozen streets of Dubuque with some skinny white kid in a baggy Chicago Bulls windbreaker. She’d been following them for almost eight blocks now, and as she watched from across the street, the two of them headed down an alley.
Holding her breath, Kelley tiptoed behind an old brown Chevy Blazer. If she held her phone just right, she could track what they were doing without leaving her cover.
On the screen of her phone, she watched Jeroan and his buddy creep up on a bearded old man sprawled out in the middle of the alley.
“You little hellions,” she muttered.
She felt a weird pang in her chest looking at the guy all dressed in ragged layers of clothes, with his white hair and beard standing up at crazy angles. The old guy didn’t have a clue that he was about to have visitors—he looked like he’d either just woken up or was about to pass out. His floppy red hat sat next to him on the ground, forgotten.
Jeroan and his skinny buddy were less than ten feet from the old man, stalking him like first-time hunters approaching a deer. Or gangster-wannabes approaching their first initiation victim.
And unless Kelley did something, fast, the Jeroan Delinquent Show would all start again.
She sucked in an icy breath, about to scream at them to stop. But for a few seconds her mind locked up, and she couldn’t think of any words to shout at them. Panicked, she looked at the helpless old guy and felt a sudden, weird impulse to start shouting some crazy nonsense words at Jeroan.
My brain’s backfiring on me, she thought. I gotta pull it together.
“Back off!” she managed to yell at last.
Jeroan jumped and stepped back, and his buddy had to actually lift his bony white hand off the old man’s shoulder.
And then the old man on the alley floor turned.
And looked right at Kelley.
The alley suddenly filled with light, as if a spotlight had been snapped on. At the same time, something surged through Kelley’s hand, and she almost dropped her precious eGadget. The weird light in the alley came from the man’s eyes.
But that’s crazy, she thought, blinking fast to clear her own vision. It was just the sun. Had to be the sun. And my imagination.
She gripped her phone tight and yelled again, “Back off, Jeroan!”
“Kelley!” her brother roared as he saw her at last. “Get out of here, idiot!”
Kelley wasn’t looking at Jeroan, though. She couldn’t ignore it now—the eyes of the old man next to her brother really were lit up like a pair of blue beacons. Their light ignited his bushy white eyebrows and static-straightened hair, which stood out straight from his head like pins in a pincushion.
As she met the man’s gaze, unable to look away, Kelley felt a warm trickle of sweat creep from under her black cap, roll down her forehead, and slip down her cheek.
In that instant, she had an barrage of thoughts, back-to-back-to-back.
The first was: I forgot to hit the Record button.
The second was: This old guy doesn’t need me to rescue him here.
The third was: I may have spared Jeroan and his buddy some trouble by interrupting them just now.
At last the old man blinked, and the weird blue light winked out.
Shadows fell over the alley and its three occupants, along with a rush of cold air. Kelley let out the breath she’d been holding and heard the echo of strange words somewhere in her head, like far-off music spilling out of someone’s car window two blocks away. Words she’d never heard before.
And then she had to grip her phone tight and run, because her brother and his new pal were charging after her, leaving behind the old man in the alley. She spun on her heel and sprinted hard up the street. This day had gone from bad to worse, and then it had turned into something completely nuts. And maybe something incredibly awesome.
If Kelley had any breath to spare in her lungs, she would’ve been laughing like a madwoman.
* * * * *
After ten minutes of hard sprinting, Kelley knew she needed someplace quiet and out of the way if she was going to stay safe. A store or restaurant she could go into and tell some sob story about the mean boys chasing her, and then maybe call a cab—if this city even had cabs—to whisk her back home safely.
So far, though, all the buildings on this side of the street were either empty or still “Coming Soon!” according to their signs. Kelley looked back, just for a second, and saw that Jeroan was a block behind her, cussing and yelling her name. Jeroan’s buddy already lagged ten feet behind him, fading fast.
Kelley laughed out loud as she put on a burst of speed and flew past the huge gold-domed Court House, dodging patches of black ice on the sidewalk. Jeroan could really sprint, but she could always take him in the long distances. She just had to make it a few more blocks, find a place to hide, and she’d be in the clear.
Her good spirits disappeared, though, two blocks later, when she saw a police cruiser hum past one street up, close to the tall clock tower she’d passed earlier. She saw red brake lights. Her old Chicago instincts kicked in, and she pivoted hard and sprinted down a narrow one-way street, breathing hard now and feeling a bit panicked.
As soon as she’d run a dozen steps down this street, Kelley looked to her left and saw a tiny shop with an “Open” sign in its small front window. Like magic.
She skidded to a stop and looked up, panting. A faded wooden sign above the windowless door announced “Haze Books and Gifts” in bright blue letters. Above to the name, a winged white horse reared up next to a grinning green dragon.
Working hard to catch her breath so she didn’t burst inside looking like a criminal on the run, Kelley pushed against the heavy wooden door and entered the shop.
A tiny bell above her let out a sharp, tinkling sound that nearly made Kelley yell out in surprise. Not even daring to breathe, with her heartbeat like a series of gunshots in her ears, she stood with her back against the closed door until she heard her brother thunder past, followed five seconds later by his stumbling and wheezing buddy. She gave them another ten seconds before exhaling.
Just like old times. She peeled off her lucky cap and shook out her thick, shoulder-length hair. Jeroan and I will have to sort it all out tonight, back home. After he cools off. He just better not bother any more bums today.
With that thought in her head and the tangy smell of incense filling her nose, Kelley took a cautious look around the shop.
Luckily, the store contained no people, not even a shopkeeper, but it was filled with just about everything else. Covering the walls from floor to ceiling, black bookcases overflowed with paperback, hardcover, and leather-bound books. More books were stacked on top the cases as well, until the books touched the ceiling.
And in front of Kelley, stretching out across the interior of the store, stood two dozen long, wooden tables, each filled with a different arrangement of related artifacts.
A smile crept across her face as she gazed at the neatly arranged rows of crystal balls, pewter figurines, jeweled necklaces and bracelets, wildly colored magazines and newspapers, bottled spices, and all sorts of musical instruments. There was even a table full of windup toys, which came in the shape of knights, wizards, sorceresses, dragons, trolls, and other fantasy creatures and monsters.
The toys caught her eye, and she moved toward that table in the center of the shop. The store seemed much bigger from the inside, and she felt like it expanded with each step she took. She’d covered half the length of the store before she realized she was tiptoeing.
Relax, she told herself. It’s just a store. Maybe the first really worth-a-crap store I’ve come across in this boring little city. She rubbed her cold nose and fought off a sneeze. Even if they do burn too much incense here.
When Kelley took a step closer to the table full of windup toys, the table exploded.
Every single one of the windup toys burst into motion—wizards waggled their tiny staffs, knights raised their shields, warrior women swung their swords, centaurs reared up and kicked their hooves, and countless other mythical beasts clattered and danced noisily on the table. The insane clattering and clicking made Kelley want to dive under the table full of fragrant herbs and incense sticks next to her.
But instead of running off once more this morning, she stepped closer to the chaos unwinding on the table. She reached out for a noisy green and blue dragon that was barely half a foot tall, its curving gray wings beating the air madly as it hovered a few feet above the table.
Kelley stepped back, afraid to exhale.
With a graceful movement, the dragon flew toward her. Without thinking, Kelley held out her hand, and he dropped onto her palm. As soon as its cold metal talons touched her, the crazy orchestra of windup toys stopped clattering.
“Hey, little fella,” Kelley whispered to the wound-down dragon in the sudden silence, her voice cracking. She couldn’t stop grinning. “You’re the best thing I’ve seen all winter. Even if you and your friends nearly did give me a heart attack.”
Letting out a shaky breath, she admired the intricate scales carved into the dragon’s muscular back. He was surprisingly heavy, because he was made of metal instead of plastic like she’d expected. What toys were made of metal these days? Totally old-school.
She was tempted to turn the metal key in his back, just below his wings, to wind him up again, but decided against it. Instead, she gazed at the earnest look on the dragon’s face. The little guy almost seemed to be smiling at her with his rows of wickedly sharp metal teeth.
He was the best, Kelley decided. No doubt about it.
“May I help you?” asked a voice from directly behind her.
Kelley jumped again and let go of the dragon. The little beast’s metal gears clattered back into action, and he circled around Kelley’s head twice before landing obediently next to her dripping boots. Kelley turned toward the voice with her face burning hot.
A petite white woman with black, gray-streaked hair stood looking up at Kelley from next to a table piled high with masks of all shape and color.
“I am sorry, miss,” the woman said. Her eyes were the light blue color of the summer sky, and Kelley saw a hint of laughter in her mouth. “I did not intend to frighten you.”
She didn’t seem all that sorry for scaring me, Kelley thought.
“Um, hi,” Kelley said. “Sorry for messing with your dragon. And all your other toys.” She looked down at the metal dragon on the floor, his front paws and left wing still twitching. “Is he broken?”
“I am sure Alexander is all right,” the woman murmured, with the hint of an accent that Kelley couldn’t recognize. “I am Ms. Haze. Welcome to my shop.”
She held out a hand, and Kelley shook it. The woman’s fingers were like ice, though the shop was warm and she wore a thick purple shawl over a woolen gray sweater.
“What can I help you with today, Miss…”
“Strickland, but just call me Kelley.”
Kelley fiddled with the cap in her pocket with one hand and tried to pat down her wild hair with the other, stalling for time. She felt like she needed an alibi, since this was a school day, after all.
“Well. I have a report due for this class at school—today’s an in-service day—and I needed to pick up some…” She glanced around at the walls and gave the woman her most convincing grin. “Books.”
Ms. Haze nodded and said nothing, watching almost expectantly, with that smidgen of a smile still on her face.
In for a penny, Mom always said, in for a pound. Whatever that meant.
“So anyway,” Kelley continued, “I’ve covered pretty much everything our library had to offer, and I was hoping you’d have something more.”
“And your topic is?”
“Oh.” Kelley’s mind raced for a moment until she remembered the strange blue light in that old man’s eyes just a few minutes ago, back in the alley. She shuddered as she remembered how weird and almost dizzy that light had made her feel. And then she thought about how she’d found the store, just like that. Like snapping your fingers. Just like…
“Magic,” Kelley said, and then swallowed. “My research paper, I mean. It’s about, um, magic.”
“Ah,” Ms. Haze said, leaning closer. Her smile grew wider. “Of course.”
Kelley felt like she should say something more as the older woman gazed at her without blinking. She fought the urge to rub her nose as the smell of incense tickled her nose again. Then Ms. Haze stepped back and made small humming sounds while she gazed around the shop. Kelley exhaled with relief.
“Let us try something over here, Kelley, in section sixteen. Follow me.”
Without waiting for her, the little woman marched off toward a tall set of bookcases on the far wall, plucked five books from five different locations, and plopped them into Kelley’s arms.
“You could try these for a start. I do not think your school library will have these in its collection. Now, let me check a price for one of your books. One moment.”
Stepping away quickly, the petite woman disappeared behind a velvet curtain near the back of the store. Kelley hadn’t even noticed that curtain earlier.
She set the books on a rickety brown chair and picked up the first one on the pile. It was a fat leather book with a sunburst etched into the cover, and it was called An Unabridged Yet Concise History of the Mystical World, by Dr. Sarah van Prattshaw Reese. Yawn. Kelley preferred reading stuff like this on her eGadget, so she could skim faster and jump around more when she got bored.
That reminded her—she set down the big book of magic and checked her phone to see where Jeroan was. He’d gone out of GPS range again, apparently. He was probably walking by that big KWWL satellite dish again. No beeping or blinking.
Good news for me, Kelley thought, but not so good for the bums of Dubuque.
After her eGadget was back in her jeans pocket again, she unzipped her coat and looked around the store one more time. She felt like she could stay here all day long, finding new amazing stuff on every overflowing shelf and table, with no pain-in-the-butt brother around to muck things up. If Ms. Haze would let her.
A small white book in a black bookcase next to her caught Kelley’s eye. She reached up and pulled it out.
The book was warm to the touch. Its cover was blank, with an elaborate, dark blue symbol printed on the spine, nothing more. The symbol looked like a fancy “Q” fused with a “Z,” with about a hundred squiggles and curlicues. It almost looked like the planet Saturn, but with more rings and doodads orbiting it.
Kelley cracked opened the book, which wasn’t much bigger than her hand, but like Alexander the dragon, it had a good heavy feel to it. The first page inside the book announced the title as Words of Magic.
Footsteps sounded behind the curtain, and Kelley felt her shoulders hunch instinctively. She closed the book again and ran her thumb across the fancy symbol on the spine of the book. Her thumb tingled, just for a second, when it ran over the squiggly icon.
Words of Magic. Right.
Without another thought, Kelley stuffed the little white book into the inner pocket of her coat.
“Here it is, Kelley,” Ms. Haze called out faintly from the other room. She slipped through the curtain with a ledger in her hand. She set it down behind a glass countertop. She now wore tiny half-moon glasses perched precariously on her nose, and she began punching numbers into a brown metal cash register that was almost as big as she was. Each number made a loud banging noise.
“I will sell you all five books for ninety-three dollars. What do you think?”
Kelley winced at the price but handed the older woman her new credit card, courtesy of her Mom and Dad from the start of the school year. She hoped the guilt she was feeling about snatching the book wasn’t showing on her face.
“I hope these help you with your, ah, report, Kelley,” Ms. Haze said with a knowing smile as she rain the card through an old, rickety card reader. “May I get you anything else?”
Kelley swallowed and looked around the shop, taking in all the fantastic trinkets and the endless array of books. She forgot her guilty conscience for a moment when her eyes fell on the dragon once more. She walked over to him and picked him up from the floor.
“I’d love to buy him, too,” she said, handing the dragon back to Ms. Haze at the counter. “He’d go great in my bedroom. But I really shouldn’t spend any more…”
Without hesitating, Ms. Haze took the dragon from Kelley and placed him in a small, square box. She pushed the box across the counter. “He is yours.”
“What? But I—”
“Take Alexander. There is no charge. I know you will appreciate him. And he will take care of you as well.” She gave Kelley a wink so fast that Kelley thought she’d imagined it. “And I know you still believe.”
“Thank you,” Kelley whispered as she gathered up the bag of books and the box. She walked out of the warmth of Haze Books and Gifts and into the cold with her arms loaded down. She was feeling uncomfortable and guilty, but she was also filled with a giddy feeling that she hadn’t felt since she was a kid.
The title of her stolen book echoed through her brain as she stood in the tiny alcove of the store entrance.
Words of Magic. Magic!
Kelley took a few steps forward, and the harsh Iowa wind hit her like a fist. She winced, half-expecting Jeroan and his buddy to be out there waiting for her. But the streets in this section of the city were quiet and deserted, and the small book was warm against her chest, making her forget the November cold.
Black girl with a stolen book, Kelley thought, smiling, walking fast so she could get home and start reading. Someone call the authorities, fast!
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