Title: UNFAMILIAR SPELLINGS
Genre: YA Fantasy
Word Count: 82,000 (projected word count: 85,000)
If people didn’t screw around with illegal magic, sixteen-year-old Albert would still have a father. So Albert confines himself to “spelling,” the only legal form of spellcasting in the United States. At least, until an otherworldly attacker tries to murder his best friend, Julia, with illegal magic—and instead ends up turning her into an African Grey Parrot.
Julia’s transformation is more than bizarre: going by the laws of magic, it shouldn’t be possible. But it’s definitely Julia snarking away from inside that little feathered body. When another inexplicable crime crops up in their sheltered hometown, Albert and Julia go hunting for a connection. Their amateur investigation crosses a line when they free a magic-wielding criminal who snatches them away to a parallel universe, one where dangerous magic is as common as electricity.
Albert is determined to get them back to their own world, even if it means trusting their tight-lipped kidnapper. But Julia’s grip on her human consciousness is faltering more and more with every snag they hit. Albert lost his dad to illegal magic; there’s no way he’s going to lose Julia too—but without a way home, the magic he hates and fears might be the only thing that can save his friend.
UNFAMILIAR SPELLINGS is an 85,000-word YA contemporary fantasy novel that will appeal to fans of Holly Black’s White Cat and Diane Duane’s So You Want to Be a Wizard.
As of July 1st, 2012: holding off on queries while I revise. If you have any questions about the querying process, click here for more info.
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Chapter One: Fog
spell, v. (spel)
1. trans. To create, activate, enact a magical process via a spelling circle.
b. To charm, fascinate, bewitch, bind by (or as by) a spell; to act as a spell
c. To protect (one) from, to drive away, by means of a spell or charm.
2. To invest with magical properties.
3. obs. or arch. To form words by means of letters; to repeat or set down the
letters of words; to read off the separate letters forming a word or words.
- Janson’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition
It was way too early to be awake. And this idea was stupid.
In the darkness of the upstairs hallway, Albert kept his hand pressed to the textured plaster of the wall, feeling his way past the door to Julia’s parents’ room. It was tempting to pull out his cell phone and use it for light, but the door to the master bedroom was open and he didn’t want to take the risk. He paused for a moment, listening for the sound of steady breathing before sliding past the doorway and tiptoeing down the stairs.
Julia sat perched on the end of the couch, her petite form a dark silhouette against the lighter darkness of the misty world beyond the window. As Albert descended the final steps into the living room, she slid off the couch with a little bounce.
“Can you move any slower?” she whispered.
“Sorry.” Albert pulled his phone from his pocket and flipped it open, wincing when the numbers 4:58 blinked back at him. The way he figured it, that was a combination of numbers you were only supposed to see when it was light outside. Definitely not now. Which brought home once again how stupid this idea was.
Pointless and illegal too. But mostly stupid.
“‘Sorry’?” Julia repeated. She pulled out her own cell phone, the white glare of its display turning her hair a pale strawberry blonde. “I was all ready to go find a bucket of cold water for you. You’re wearing that?”
“Wearing what?” Albert said, glancing down at his rumpled t-shirt in confusion. He was so tired; he felt like the fog surrounding the house had seeped into his brain as well.
“Pajamas,” Julia said, looking pointedly at his bare legs. “You’re going to freeze your ass off in boxers. The studio’s not heated at night.” She turned and headed for the foyer.
“No,” Albert said. “I’m not go—wait. Jules.” Julia had already disappeared around the corner. For a moment, Albert watched in exasperation as the glow of her cell phone’s light retreated down the hall, gleaming faintly on the polished hardwood floor.
The problem wasn’t just that the idea was stupid. The problem was also that the stupid idea was Julia’s, and hints—even big ones like “sleeping through” his alarm—did not work with Albert’s best friend. It meant he had to be awake at this hour in order to tell her that being awake at this hour was not going to help them. It was going to do exactly the opposite.
“Jules,” he called quietly. She didn’t respond. It was possible she hadn’t heard, but it was more likely that she had and was just waiting for him to come to her. Pressing his lips together, he inhaled through his nose and then blew the air out slowly before following her around the corner.
“Jules,” he said again.
Julia was in the midst of pulling her coat from the coat rack in the foyer. She didn’t look at him. “Hmm?”
“I’m not doing this.”
Julia’s movements slowed slightly. She bent down to pick up her boots from beside the coat rack, tucking them under her arm.
“Not doing what?” she asked.
“I’m not going outside,” Albert said, “and I’m not breaking into the studio.”
“For God’s sake.” Julia adjusted her grip on the boots and coat. “It’s not breaking in. There are keys. And we agreed on this last night. ”
“No,” Albert said. He was not going to let that one slide. “No, we didn’t. You talked a lot and ignored most of what I said, and I was tired and didn’t want to argue. I’m still tired. I’m going back to bed.”
“Like I’m not tired?” Julia picked up their spellcases by the handles and padded back across the foyer, her socked feet noiseless on the smooth floor. She held Albert’s spellcase out to him at arm’s length, nearly pushing it into his chest. “That southeast adjunct has to be perfect.”
“It’s fine,” he said, taking the case from her.
“Bullshit. Right now, it works 80% of the time. It’s got to be perfect. We only get fifteen minutes in the warm-up room at the Center.” She slid past him and down the hallway towards the kitchen. “A couple more run-throughs now is better than a bit more sleep.”
Once again, he knew she expected him to follow her, and in spite of his resolve to stay cool to argue his case, Albert felt a little spurt of irritation. There was something about that assumption—its casualness, maybe—that irked him. Worse, she was right. He trotted down the hall after her, the metal fastening of the spellcase cold against his fingers, the scent of leather and mandrake faint but unmistakable.
“We should be well-rested,” he whispered.
“So we’ll nap at the Center. We’re not on until 10:15. You really want months of work to not pay off?”
Albert held up his phone to check the time again. Two minutes had not made a difference: it was still disgustingly early.
“How are you planning to get in?” he asked.
“Like I said: keys.”
“Do you actually have the keys?”
“No,” Julia said. “I left them cradled in Dad’s hand as he slept. Of course I have the keys. God, I need coffee.” She set down her boots and spellcase and pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, yawning, then began pulling on her coat. “Seriously, go put some pants on. Your future children will thank you.”
“I never said I was going.”
Julia glanced pointedly at the spellcase dangling from his hand, and Albert realized what she meant—she’d handed him the case, and he’d accepted it. Irritation surged up in him again, pressing against the deep-rooted fact that fighting Julia always took so much energy. And he was so tired.
“You were the one who told me about that study,” Albert said quietly, setting the spellcase on the kitchen counter. “The one where they said sleep deprivation was like the same as being drunk.”
“Are you actually going to get more sleep at this point?” Julia said. “You’re already up.”
“I’m really, really good at sleeping. I’ve been practicing my whole life.”
“Come on! Forty-five minutes of dozing, or three more chances to nail the adjunct spell.”
“Three more drunk chances.”
“Slightly tipsy,” Julia corrected.
Albert just looked at her, then turned back the way they’d come. Only once he was halfway up the stairs did he allow himself a very quiet swear word under his breath. In Spanish, just to be safe.
In the Flicks’ guest bedroom, Albert pulled a pair of jeans and socks from his backpack and yanked them on. The denim of the jeans was freezing against his bare skin, and he shivered. He’d left his sweatshirt on top of the quilt at the foot of the bed, and as he reached out to retrieve it, he fought the magnetic weight drawing him back towards the warm nest of bedclothes he’d left behind.
He could stay. He could flop down right here and snooze until Julia came looking for him. Or he could pretend that he’d only meant to sit down for a moment and then accidentally fell asleep. It would only be a partial lie. But he knew Julia wouldn’t let this go, and though he hated to admit it, she was right: they’d be screwed if they messed up that adjunct today. Could they really get some rehearsal time in before Robert woke up? He found himself imagining all the potential outcomes of this plan, and every version of it seemed to end with Robert Flick appearing in the doorway of the spelling studio and demanding to know what they were doing there unsupervised. A nervous jolt lanced through him and settled, fluttering, right below his ribcage.
Albert glanced at his phone again: 5:03.
“Shit,” he muttered, then pulled on his sweatshirt and slipped back out into the hall.
He swung by the foyer to collect his shoes and coat before returning to the kitchen. Julia slouched against the countertop, her thumbs flickering across the glowing screen of her phone, but when Albert let his sneakers fall to the floor with a thwomp so that he could put them on, she looked up at him sharply, her features drawn in bold lines of light and shadow.
“He can’t be that light of a sleeper,” Albert said.
“I’m the one who lives with him,” she whispered, stuffing the phone back in her pocket. “Not taking any chances. God, I can’t wait until we have our licenses. He’s so anal about the law.” She said “the law” like it was the name of a cheesy horror film villain. Privately, Albert thought that his mentor had a good reason to be concerned about legality, but that wasn’t something to point out at this moment.
“I need coffee,” Julia said again. She pulled open the freezer door, and icy white light poured out into the kitchen. “But I think all we have is whole beans, and the grinder sounds like a dying cat.” She pulled a small brown bag from the freezer door and opened it; even from several feet away, Albert could smell a hint of coffee in the cold, stale air wafting from the freezer. “Yeah. Unground.”
“You could grab a bean and chew on it.”
“Ha.” Julia’s mouth quirked. “Yeah, I—”
A soft clicking made them both freeze, and the nervous jolt hovering under Albert’s ribs shot upwards into his chest. But a few seconds later, he realized that the sound was only Rosie, the Flicks’ golden retriever, trundling across the kitchen towards them.
Julia groaned and shut the freezer door.
“She thinks we’re going in the car,” she muttered. “No, Rosie. You have to stay here. Stay.”
Rosie obediently sat down, then stared up at them dolefully, her chocolate-brown eyes wide in the light of Julia’s phone, her silky tail sweeping back and forth across the smooth tile. Albert knelt beside her to ruffle her ears.
“Lo siento, Rosita,” he murmured.
“She’s going to forget all the French I ever taught her if you keep doing that,” Julia said.
“And that’s…bad?” Albert asked, smiling in spite of himself.
“Screw you, amigo,” Julia said, but she was grinning too. “Some of us actually have to work at being bilingual.” She pulled the back door slowly open, and Albert shivered as a wave of cold air spilled into the warm kitchen; beneath his hand, Rosie tensed. He got to his feet, zipping up his jacket as Julia slipped out into the mist and headed for the spelling studio across the yard.
The Flicks’ house was located in the hills above the valley, a rural area where the town of Gainsbury melted into the mountains and forests that surrounded it. In the pre-dawn twilight, the fog blunted the edges of everything, turning Robert’s studio into the blurred figure of a building and the trees at the far edge of the yard into grey smears. Even the harsh light of Julia’s cell phone had become a soft halo around her hand. Albert flipped open his own phone and picked up his spellcase, but as he followed Julia out, a rumble began in the back of Rosie’s throat.
“No. Shh,” Albert said. He opened the door to look at the dog, who was staring intently out into the mist. He tried to close the door again, but the growl grew steadily louder until it threatened to become a bark.
“What the hell is going on?” Julia called softly.
“Rosie’s acting weird,” Albert said. Rosie let out a muffled woof and pushed past his legs, out onto the frosted grass of the backyard. “No, wait! Shit, she’s out.”
“Rosie!” Julia cried in a strangled half-whisper. She reached out and managed to snag the dog by the collar, and Rosie jerked against the restraint, though thankfully she did not bark again. Albert saw Julia glance upwards towards the house and knew that they were both praying the commotion hadn’t woken Robert.
“We’ve got to get her inside,” Julia said.
Albert nodded, but something else had caught his attention. He had suddenly become aware of a peculiar humming in his ears, almost too high-pitched to hear—more of a feeling than a sound. He pressed a hand to one ear; if anything, the hum got louder. He shook his head. Maybe some electrical device was on the fritz, or perhaps one of Robert’s spellings was to blame, though both seemed unlikely.
No sooner had the thought flashed through his mind than the sound faded away, and Rosie stopped straining against Julia’s outstretched arm. Her ears stayed perked, but she appeared to be casting about as though she’d lost track of whatever she’d been after.
“Did you hear that, Jules?” Albert murmured.
“No,” Julia said, sounding irritated. “But it must have been a raccoon or something. Stupid dog,” she added, looking down at Rosie. “This is why we don’t let you out at night.”
“Wait, did it sound like a raccoon to you?”
“I just told you, dumbass,” Julia said. “I didn’t hear anything. But obviously Rosie did. And it can’t be a cougar. She’d be making a lot more noise, or running away. She’s a coward at heart.” Julia tugged at the dog’s collar, but Rosie seemed to have other ideas: she began to pull Julia steadily towards the trees at the edge of the yard, aiming for the corner farthest from the house and spelling studio. Julia stumbled forward, twisting back to look at Albert.
“Hey! A little help?”
Albert trotted after her, but he’d only gone a few feet when Rosie yanked free of Julia’s grip and raced towards the place where the Flicks’ yard faded into the forest. A second later, she began to bark.
“Shit!” Julia hissed. She dropped her spellcase on the frost-encrusted lawn and dashed off across the grass. Albert set down his spellcase more carefully and followed, but as they neared the place where Rosie stood barking, Julia’s steps slowed.
“What is—” she started to say, and then yelped. Half a heartbeat later, Albert saw it too.
A man had appeared out of the fog barely fifteen feet away.
Standing at the edge of Julia’s back yard.
For one confused moment, Albert was running towards Julia as she spun about and dashed back towards him. The next thing he knew, they had practically collided and Julia had seized his arm, clutching it so hard it hurt.
“Oh my God.” Her voice was as tight as her grip. “Holy shit.”
Even in the dim light of the phone, Albert could tell that the stranger was oddly well-dressed: his suit and hat would not have looked out of place in a 1940’s film. He stood several yards away from them, right at the boundary between the lawn and the forest with his hands raised in front of him, palms out, almost like he was preparing to defend himself from Rosie. But although Rosie stood only a few feet from him, barking furiously, he did not so much as spare her a glance. Instead, he stared straight ahead, looking directly at Albert and Julia. His features were difficult to make out, but Albert had the eerie impression of being studied, examined in the way a cat watches a bird. For a moment he wondered if he was asleep. But Julia’s fingers dug into his elbow like a tourniquet, and the morning air sliced into his lungs with each icy breath he took.
And still the man stood there: not advancing, but not leaving either, his outstretched hands flat as though he were pressing them against an invisible wall. Julia tightened her grip on Albert’s arm, but Albert couldn’t take his eyes off the man. Just his presence in the Flicks’ yard—the wrongness of it—illuminated him like a spotlight.
“Excuse me,” said a voice.
Albert bit back a yell of surprise as a tall figure strode past them, making a beeline for the edge of the yard. Albert’s first thought was of Robert, but the voice was too light, and as Julia swung her cell phone up in front of her Albert saw that this was a young man—dark-skinned and much younger than Robert. He probably wasn’t much older than they were.
“Who the fuck are you?” Julia said.
Like the staring man, he was dressed in a suit and brimmed hat, and as he stopped and turned to face them, he stood casually with his weight shifted to one hip and his right hand shoved deep in his trouser pocket. Albert’s stared, his pulse ticking faster and faster. Could there be a knife in that pocket? A gun?
“Nobody,” the young man said.
“Like hell you are.”
“Nobody of importance. And no threat to you, I promise,” he added. There was something peculiar about his speech—not so much an accent as a carefulness in the way he pronounced the words. He slowly removed his hand from his pocket, then held both hands out to show they were empty. “I’m sorry if my uncle is misbehaving. He’s been a bit confused recently. I hope he didn’t frighten you too much?”
Albert gaped. From the way he acted, you’d think they were meeting on a busy street corner in broad daylight, not on private property in the misty grey of early morning. Julia made a peculiar noise in the back of her throat, and Albert guessed she was thinking along the same lines.
“I’m very sorry to have disturbed you,” the young man said in his careful way. “We’ll be leaving in a moment.”
Albert glanced towards the edge of the yard. The first man hadn’t moved. Rosie had stopped barking and was now simply growling at him in a low, continuous rumble.
“No,” Julia said, shaking her head. “Hang on. You can’t—”
“What I can’t do is wait around,” the young man said. He glanced back at the house, then stared at them intently. “You must not say that you saw us.”
“What?” Albert said.
“I mean,” the young man said, once more looking towards the house where an upstairs light had just come on, “that your dog was barking at an animal of some kind, and that if anyone asks, that’s what you’re going to say.” He began to walk with long, smooth strides across the frozen lawn towards the first man.
“Why the hell would we do that?” Julia asked.
The young man reached the edge of the yard and thrust out a hand to grasp his uncle’s arm. “Because we’re leaving, and it will be easier for everyone if you don’t mention us. Trust me.” Beside him, the older man continued to stare, his gaze piercing, calculating.
Albert heard the rattle and thunk of a doorknob somewhere behind him, and a moment later a wash of light spilled out onto the lawn. He turned towards the house. Silhouetted against the glow from the kitchen beyond, Robert’s tall frame filled the doorway. Albert looked back toward the trees, but the two figures had vanished into the misty woods. Rosie abandoned her post at the edge of the yard and came trotting up to join them, her collar jingling cheerily.
“Julia?” Robert called, his voice heavy with sleep and annoyance. “What the hell is going on?”
Albert glanced over at Julia as she pressed her lips together. Then, abruptly, she released her grip on his arm, shoved her hands into the pockets of her coat, and strode back towards the kitchen door. Robert flipped on the outside lights, and suddenly recognizable shapes sprang up everywhere as though they’d just been spelled into being. The dark thickets under the kitchen window became budding lilac bushes, and the leather of Albert and Julia’s spellcases stood out starkly against the grey-green lawn. Albert half-expected Julia to ignore the cases on the off chance that Robert hadn’t spotted them yet, but to his surprise, she paused to grab both of them before continuing on towards the house.
Albert ran to catch up with her, his sneakers crunching on the frozen grass.
“What are we going to tell him?” he muttered as he fell into step beside her. Julia raised her eyebrows but kept her eyes fixed on the ground.
“I’m sorry,” she said under her breath. “Is there something to tell?”