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First pages

ONE

Most people have a pet. I have a giant black-haired wolf named Ezzy who stands about five feet tall at his shoulder. His coat is long and soft, and always looks freshly groomed. I’m not sure how; he’s not the kind of dog you can exactly wash.

My girlfriend, Maebry Rosado, teases me sometimes by calling him “Clifford.” If anyone else said it, I’d get pretty mad, but since it’s Mae I don’t mind. Besides, no one else on Earth knows about Ezzy, which is sort of funny because everyone on Earth has a Familiar, too. They just never know it.

I don’t much like this heat, Briar, Ezzy says as I lounge against his flank as if he were a massive furry pillow. He says this telepathically, not with his mouth. His mouth isn’t articulated to speak. I’m the only one who can hear him. That’s how it works with Familiars.

“I know,” I say back, reaching behind me to scratch Ezzy’s ears in his favorite spot. He whines and stretches his legs in the grass of this junior high soccer field, where it’s so dark no one could possibly see us. “We’ll move somewhere colder for college, I promise.”

Phoenix in May can reach 100 degrees during the day. It’s better now, at night, but still warm. Once we had a high of 122 degrees. It’s not bad tonight, but the heat is reason enough to plan on moving somewhere cooler next year after graduation. Every city has indoor weather and outdoor weather; in Phoenix, our indoor weather is summertime. Two weeks from now, Mae and I will be out of school, camping out in movie theaters, libraries, malls, coffee shops, and anyplace else with air conditioning.

College? Ezzy asks. Have you and Maebry decided where you are going?

I stop scratching his ears.

“Technically we haven't talked about it yet.” What I don’t tell him is that we’re specifically looking for places where two girls can be together without catching a lot of hell for it. Phoenix is not always that place.

You might want to discuss it soon, says Ezzy. Since you both are—

He stops talking. I hear his nose sniffing intently.

“What?” I say.

People, he says.

I sit up and make Ezzy disappear, squinting into the darkness of the park. Four figures coming close. Crap, who would even know I’m out here? It’s the middle of a junior-high soccer field after dark, no one should even be able to see me. It’s why I bring Ezzy here to hang out: invisibility in the open.

“Hey, look, it’s that faggot,” says one of the four figures.

A guy. I know his voice, which means I know the other three, too.

The Churchboys.

It didn’t used to be quite so bad as this, even just a couple years ago. Then suddenly, almost overnight, it felt like not everyone got the memo that no one should be called that name, ever, boy or girl, gay, straight, whatever. The Churchboys delight in calling me and Maebry that name, though. Even at school, where it’s supposed to be against the rules but somehow isn’t. They never got in trouble for it. Not once. Maybe it’s because we’re not boys? Is that what makes it “okay?” We used to have a GSA at school, but they shut it down before the beginning of the year, and so far, no one’s told us why. Political stuff, I guess.

I stand up, sighing. Why are they even here? It’s after dark, Papago Junior High School is closed, there is no one around. What are the chances they were just happening by?

I could end whatever’s about to happen before it even starts if I’d call Ezzy to my side to defend me. It’s something Counterparts like Maebry and I can do as easily as making a fist: Counterparts can will their Familiar to their side any time, any where, then send them away again just as easily. Sort of a unique form of teleportation, I guess. Knowing Ezzy is out there somewhere and can appear as soon as I think of it gives me courage, but knowing I shouldn’t reveal his existence sucks out loud. People on Earth would go nuts if they knew about Familiars. No Counterpart has revealed their Familiar in hundreds or even thousands of years. Well, no; there’s one chump in northern California who keeps bringing his Bigfoot-like Familiar to our world now and then, generating enough sightings to keep his History Channel reality show running. What a scam. Familiars shouldn’t be used like that.

I kick dust off my turquoise Vans as the Churchboys surround me. Andrew, David, John, and Ryan. They all go to this church down the street from school where the pastor tells everyone that women need to be subservient and guys need to be Men For Christ. The Gays—a complete phrase which I think he has had trademarked—should stick to fashion design and quit trying to pretend God blesses our relationships, which are, quote, “an abomination.”

These people—people who say and believe stuff like that—they really exist. And these four Churchboys have bought it. They’re all in. Personally, I think that means at least one of them is gay himself and is just hiding it, but I can’t prove it. It should be kind of funny but mostly it’s just depressing.

“Leaving now,” I say, and step forward to push my way between John and David.

They block my path.

Goddammit. Ezzy could swallow any one of these guys whole. If they ever pushed hard enough, I’d have him do it, too. The Churchboys haven’t gotten physical with me and Maebry, though. Not yet.

“Where’s your girlfriend?” Andrew says, and his breath stinks like pizza topped with asshole.

“None of your damn business.”

John, the shortest of them, clicks his mouth like some old-school gangster wannabe. “Shouldn’t talk like that, Brian.”

“That’s not my name, I don’t care what you think, and go eff off.” I take another step, this time aiming for the gap between Ryan and John.

They close the gap quickly so that I bump into their shoulders. Or maybe they bump their shoulders into me, it’s hard to say.

David leans closer, so close I can see beads of sweat in his flat-topped blond hairline, even in the darkness of the field. “Why don’t you both just go someplace else?”

“Clearly I’m trying to. Jerk.”

“Nah nah nah, I mean another school?” David says, wrinkling his eyes as if he’s asking a serious question, which he isn’t. “I mean, no one even likes you here. Just, like, go somewhere else. Go to one of those atheist schools.”

Even though I know it’s a bad idea, I start laughing. I can’t help myself. “What exactly is an ‘atheist school,’ you idiot? We go to a public high school, not the Vatican.”

Which makes just as little sense as ‘atheist school,’ but when dealing with these mouth-breathers, sometimes I get pulled down to their level without meaning to.

They’re too stupid to figure out what a dumb response it was.

“What about San Francisco?” Andrew says, blasting me in the face with his pizza breath. “Isn’t that where all the fags hang out? You could move there.”

I laugh again . . . except this time, I have to force it. I’m so angry and sick to my stomach I don’t know what else to do. “Can you even hear yourself talk? Where are you from, man? What year is this? What country?

David shoves my shoulder. Not too hard, but I do have to take a step back to balance myself.

“Shut the fuck up, lez!”

Now I smile a nice, big, fake smile. Pointing to my own shoulder where he shoved it, I say, “And that’s assault. In fact, coupled with your oh-so-articulate language, legally it qualifies as a hate crime. So, do you want me to get the local ACLU involved, or would you rather I just went home and crawled into bed with my girlfriend so you idiots have something to beat off to besides boob shots on Instagram? Because here’s what I don’t get: let’s scroll through your history and see what kinds of porn you’ve been surfing, hmm? Because I bet there’s a lez or two in it. Is that irony or just colossal hypocrisy? I-I’m sorry, I just, I get little confused on that point.”

They don’t quite know what to make of that. By the looks on their faces, I hit it pretty close to the mark.

In the amount of time it takes them to decide whether I’m serious about legal action, I bolt through an opening between them and run hard and fast for the chain link fence surrounding the field.

Instinctively I expect to hear them chase me, but they don’t. Instead, one of them—I can’t tell which—shouts, “Dumb bitch!” and that’s all.

I hit the fence and vault it in one motion—thanks for ten years of gymnastics, Mom!—and keep running to burn off the anger, the shame, and the nausea. I have nothing to be ashamed of, I know, but the way they talk . . . as if we’re not even human. Like it wasn’t hard enough feeling different and strange after finding out I could summon a giant animal from some other dimension, I have to deal with their shit, too?

Two miles pass before I feel like my head is clear. I’m breathing hard, but not panting. I run a sub-21:00 cross country 5K these days so two miles isn’t enough to knock me out. Plus I wasn’t going full-tilt, just enough to put distance between me and the Churchboys and to drive their hateful comments from my head.

Assholes.

Okay, so, maybe it didn’t drive out the comments as much as I’d hoped.

I stop at a Circle K and sit on the sidewalk in front of it. Wednesday night, not too busy, just people coming in for smokes and snacks. I text Maebry.

Still at church?

A thumbs-up icon pops onto my screen instantly. Maebry goes to a United Methodist church where no one cares we’re dating, or if they do, they’re not saying anything about it, not that it’s anybody else’s business in the first place. She’s asked me like five times to come help out at this monthly event they call Open Table, which is for LGBTQ people and friends, but I never do. It feels hypocritical to do something at a church, even an open one. God and I aren’t exactly on speaking terms.

I buy a Cactus Cooler for myself and a bag of Cheetos for Ezzy. They’re his favorite treat. Improperly hydrated with soda now, I walk through dark, quiet neighborhoods of matching tan houses to get to Maebry’s church. She should be getting out just about the time I’ll get there.

My stomach has calmed down somewhat by the time the tall spire of United Methodist comes into view, but my mind hasn’t. Who the hell did those jerks think they were? And, really, people walk around talking that kind of shit?

Yes. They do.

I shouldn’t pretend to be surprised. Of course people do. They always have, but over the last couple years, it’s gotten worse. No matter what hot Hollywood star or sardonic late night host tries to do to help, it still comes down to people feeling like if you are different, you deserve to be treated Less Than. Like a math problem. If you are X, then X

I hop onto a short wall surrounding the church parking lot, kicking my heels against the stucco. So much for running off my anger; I want to scream and throw rocks and generally beat the crap out of something. I’m squeezing my arms so tight around my stomach I have to remember to breathe. I wish I could call Ezzy and burrow into his warm fur for an hour or ten.

A moment later, I sense Maebry. It’s not a girlfriend thing, it’s a Counterpart thing. We can sense other Counterparts, people who can call their Familiars to this world. The sensing is kind of like a sneeze that never happens: tickling and irritating, and would feel so much better if you could just get it out. The sense doesn’t target people specifically; you’d have to be pretty much within a few feet of another Counterpart to identify them explicitly. But if one is within, say, a hundred or two hundred yards, that “sneeze” reflex kicks in. Of course it’s not a sneeze, that would be weird. It’s just a tickle in your head, or in your brain maybe.

It’s that sense that first made me aware of Maebry at school. I’d just started freshman year, and I’d only felt the sensation a handful of times up till then. But as Mae and I passed each other in the hallway that first day, two lost freshman souls trying to find their classes, we looked up at the same time and made eye contact and knew the other was a Counterpart.

We’ve been friends ever since, and more than friends for a year.

Maebry appears a second after I sense her nearby, walking with a group of other kids who are pouring out of a classroom. Wednesday night is high school Bible Study, and she’s only invited me once because I made it clear I was not about to step foot into a Bible Study class lest I burst into hellfire. She’d laughed, saying there was no such thing as Hell, but didn’t push me.

I shout her name. Mae looks up, and even from fifty yards out, I can see her smile. It’s like a beacon, and I love it. She appears to say goodbye to the group, then comes running toward me, holding her gray cotton backpack to her chest.

“Hey!” she says when she reaches the short wall. She leans in and kisses me, and I taste some kind of fruit punch on her breath. “What’s up?”

“Those asshole Churchboys, that’s what.” I’m so pissed and shaky I could spit against the blacktop, but I don’t.

Mae’s face instantly tightens. “Oh, no. What now? Something online?”

We’ve had our share of online bullshit from them in the past. She sits beside me, dangling her sandals from her toes as I shake my head.

“I was hanging out with Ezzy on the Papago Junior High field. You know, where it’s so dark?”

“Sure, sure.”

“We were just sitting there and then they came out of like nowhere and started talking shit, and then John shoved me and—”

Maebry stands back up, letting her backpack fall to the blacktop. “Shoved? He shoved you, Briar?”

“Yes! I mean, okay, it wasn’t super-hard, but . . . I swear to God, Mae, I just want to get out of here, except that’s what they said to do, you know?”

Mae scowls and slowly sits down again as I go off.

“They literally said we should go to San Francisco where, quote, all the fags hang out. Can you believe that?”

“Mmm . . . yep.” She puts a hand on my shoulder, her unpainted nails tickling my neck for a moment. “I’m so sorry, B. They’re jerks. We need to tell someone. They can’t touch you like that, no one can.”

I squeeze my arms again, cinching my stomach tight and hating that I’m pouting now. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter.”

She’s right, and I know it. “Maybe later, okay? Right now can we just, can we like talk about graduating and getting out of here?”

“We’re almost out, babe. Hey, we could get one of those countdown apps, keep better track.”

I snort a dumb laugh. It’s the best I can manage as I fume.

“So how is Clifford doing?” Maebry says, peeking at me from under her bangs.

“Don’t call him that,” I say, trying to keep a frown on but not succeeding. Ezzy isn’t red.

Maebry starts scratching my back, which she knows I love. “Do you think they poop?”

“Our Fams? I don't know, I never really thought about it.” I bow my head to curl my back where she’s scratching. “And if they do, I don’t want to see it.”

“Well, they don't eat,” Mae says.

“Ezzy does. He likes Cheetos.”

“Not Aison,” Mae says. Aison is her Familiar, and he is not a giant dog. “He’s never eaten anything that I know of. Maybe they eat something when they’re not here?”

“This conversation is freaking me out,” I say. “A little higher, please . . .”

Mae laughs, a shiny alto as clear and unfettered as a kid. “We’re talking about being able to summon giant mythological beasts from some weird Wonderland, but the poop part is what freaks you out?”

“Weird, huh.” I shut my eyes tight and try to focus on Maebry’s fingers on my back.

Just as I do that, she stops scratching. “It’s not working, is it.”

“What?”

“Trying to cheer you up. I can feel it in your muscles.”

“Sorry.” I jump up and start pacing on the blacktop as people from her church start driving away. A couple of them call out to her or honk their horns. She waves at each one and smiles, because that’s who Maebry is and one reason I love her so much.

And being reminded of that fact just makes me more mad. “I'm furious! It’s illogical, it’s unfair, and why do they get to talk to people like that?”

Mae stands up too and slips her hands into the hip pockets of her navy blue shorts. “They don’t get to,” she says simply. “Or at least they shouldn’t be allowed to.”

I grunt a non-response and keep pacing. Maybe I should take up smoking because I really want to do something with my hands besides clench them.

“You need to find a way to burn off some of that hate,” Maebry says.

“No, I don’t need to burn it off, Mae! I need to beat the living crap out of those assholes! I’m not being facetious, I mean it. I mean like waiting for them after school some day and kicking the holy hell out of their dumb asses!”

“Violence doesn’t solve anything.”

“Oh, is that what Jesus says?”

So, that wasn’t cool, I know. I actually like that Mae believes so strongly in her faith, and we have some really fun and challenging and long talks about it, which I love. But right now, the only cheek I feel like turning is John’s: turning it right into ground beef.

I’m on the cusp of apologizing, but Mae cruises right ahead, totally unfazed by my bitchiness as usual.

“Yes, Jesus said it,” Maebry says. “Also the Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, MLK. It’s a pretty big list, actually. Look, B, I’m not going to tell you to not be mad. I’m mad. But I don’t think even kidding about beating a person up is a good idea. Too many people do it for real, and every time there’s an act of violence in the world, we all become a little less human, don’t we?”

Not that I need reminding why I love this girl so much, but damn. When she gets into her Zen place like this, I want to hug her till we both pass out.

Having said that, I’m not going to give up my point.

“Then how’s it stop? Huh? Tell me. How do we get people like the Churchboys to knock it off?”

Not that way.”

“Then how, Mae? What, we ‘tell’ on them? To who? And so what if we did? No one cares.”

She gives me a look then that I don’t recall ever seeing before. It kind of unsettles me, like she’s analyzing my soul.

“Okay,” she says finally. “I’ve been thinking about this ever since we met, and I think maybe it’s time you see something.”

“Yeah?” I growl. Still pissed, I add sarcastically, “Is it sexy?”

“Ha ha, no. It’s more . . . something to prove a point. I didn’t think you’d ever want to even know about it, but after tonight, I think maybe it’s time.”

Mae is a fairly easygoing person, so the sudden shift to a serious tone makes me stop pacing. I look into her bright brown eyes, and see her expression is utterly serious—and maybe a bit mischievous. Not a word I think I’ve ever used out loud, and definitely not to describe Maebry. She tends to be a goody of the two-shoes variety. I’m more of a . . . goody one-shoe, at best.

She clears her throat a little, as if to stall before saying, “Have you heard of the Meets?”

“The what?”

Maebry slings her backpack over her shoulders, takes her phone out with one hand while intertwining her fingers with mine with the other.

“Let’s call a car.”

“You going to Uber us all over town?”

Mae doesn’t smile. “Briar . . . you need to see this.”

TWO

“Are you sure you want to get out here?” our driver says as he pulls off the freeway and onto a dirt road.

We’re about thirty miles outside of town by that point, and no amount of pestering has gotten Maebry to open up about where we’re going. Frankly, I agree with our driver; is Mae sure we ought to be getting out here in the middle of nowhere?

“It’s okay,” Mae says confidently. “Just a little boondocker. We’ll be fine, thanks.”

The driver sighs and rolls to a stop. “Whatever you say. Better not see you on the news later.”

“Trust me, you won’t,” Mae says. “Thanks for the ride.”

We climb out, and I raise my shoulders as the car drives off, kicking up dust. I feel cold, even though it’s got to be at least eighty out tonight.

“If you ever wondered how much I trust you,” I grumble.

“I’ve never wondered that,” Mae says with a smile. She takes my hand again and starts leading me to a massive concrete building that reminds me of a Roman coliseum.

The building is a landmark for anyone who’s ever driven on the I-10 leading west out of Phoenix toward Los Angeles. It used to be a racetrack—horses, I think—but was left to fall apart decades ago, way before either one of us was born. It rises three stories or more into the air, and is surrounded for maybe a mile on all sides by flat desert and scrub brush. It’s as dark as the night sky above us, crumbling concrete pillars struggling to stay upright through the years of disuse. Further out, south of this relic, I can see a bunch of cars parked haphazardly in the desert.

Something about them makes me nervous. Why so many cars in the middle of nowhere? Is it really a party? Because we are not party chicks.

“What the hell are we doing here, Mae? Come on.”

“Just follow my lead, and don’t freak out. It’s going to be hard not to, but just don’t.”

While I trust my girlfriend, I still have a bad feeling about this. “No promises, Mae.”

She walks us through the dirt to a concrete patio, and I notice the dirt on its surface has been disturbed. Not swept, but definitely walked though, presumably recently.

“Mae, seriously . . .”

She stops in front of a dark archway. The darkness strikes me as something supernatural, though; it looks like a living ink curtain, so black it’s much more than a shadow. And there’s something more—something like my ability to sense other Counterparts, like Mae, but it’s not the same brain-tickle. It’s almost a scent, some kind of exotic spice I can’t place that either tastes so good it’s bad, or vice versa.

“Briar,” Mae says as I instinctively brush at my nose, “not every Counterpart knows about the Meets, or even that they can go to the Familiar’s world—”

I have never heard this before. “What?

Mae runs right over me. “—and it’s not the kind of thing you can un-see. But I need for you to see for yourself how awful this is and that it’s not something we should even joke about. Never mind Jesus or Gandhi, this is the real shit. Okay?”

“Uh, no, not okay, you’re talking in riddles. Mae, no one can—”

Maebry takes my hand and steps through the darkness beyond the arch.

And then, as her Bible would say, there was light.

I blink against the suddenness of it more than the intensity, because it’s not bright. And then, even as my body tries to assimilate the light, the sounds hit my ears.

The sounds of a crowd cheering.

The sounds of two semi-trucks colliding.

The sounds of inhuman, unearthly screaming.

I cover my ears and try to hide in plain sight, but it’s no good. Maebry slips an arm over my shoulders and pulls me close.

“Stay by me!” she shouts over the raucous roar of the crowd.

My eyes, which had automatically shut against the noise, slowly peel open, and I start to make out what it is that’s happening. Once I process it, my body takes an involuntary inhale and then I can’t let it out.

It is a fight. But not between trucks, and not between people.

We’re standing on the top row of a series of bleachers that are maybe no higher than those on either side of our school gym, but these bleachers fully encircle the arena we are in. Below us, a flat, dirt field about as big as a football gridiron is laid out. Nets form a barrier between the field and the bleachers, which are half filled with people. And on the field, in a display I could only have imagined playing out at the movies, are two Familiars, beating the absolute God-almighty holy crap out of each other.

My inhale coughs out and I grab my stomach. “Mae—”

She doesn’t reply. Instead she pulls me over to an empty bench seat, and only as I sit do I realize the bleachers are made of wood, not aluminum like in our gym.

I can’t take my eyes off the spectacle in the arena. Inside the cage, two monsters are tearing into each other’s flesh with horns and fangs, hooves and claws.

“Whatever you do, do not summon Ezzy,” Mae says, leaning close. “All hell will break loose. Try to stay calm. But watch, B. See this. This is what violence looks like.”

Watching it is all I can do, even though everything in me wants to turn away.

The creatures fighting in the ring are both glorious—and hideous. One has the body of an enormous lion, but is a shimmering shade of iridescent blue, with curved claws like talons extending from its paws. The claws are covered in the blood of the lion’s opponent, a bear-like monstrosity whipping a pair of tentacles around rather than arms. Something in the dichotomy, the unnatural mutation of it, makes my throat swell up and my stomach somersault. It’s like the automatic revulsion that comes from a YouTube video you knew you shouldn’t click on but do anyway because everyone else has done it too.

The tentacle arms whirl around like snakes, lashing out at the blue lion and leaving wickedly jagged gashes in the lion’s flesh whenever they make contact. The lion roars, a sound I can only describe as bass-feedback, and responds in kind, plunging its claws into the bear creature over and over again. Blood flies and glistens on the lion’s paws.

But glistening how? I can see just fine; the arena is lit, but it suddenly occurs to me I have no idea where the source of the light is coming from.

That’s when I realize the light in the arena is sourceless. There are no floodlights on tall poles like at our high school field, no torches in sconces like you’d see in a fantasy movie. There’s just—light. Like a thousand invisible glow sticks hover around the entire room, unseen and intangible but casting a dim aura all around. Once my brain figures this out, it starts to revolt, sending signals to my stomach that something is wrong and I should probably throw up.

“I don’t feel so—” I start to say to Maebry, but she interrupts, like she knows what’s happening.

“Close your eyes. It helps. You’ll get used to it pretty quick.”

I shut my eyes and force a deep breath like when I’m recovering from a run. “It happened to you, too?”

“Yes. Happens to everyone their first time here.”

“Where is ‘here,’ Mae? Where the hell are we?”

She scratches my back. “Just breathe. I’ll show you more in a couple minutes.”

I’m not sure I want to be shown more in a couple minutes or, you know, ever, but I make myself breathe deeply and trust Mae. My stomach settles and I slowly open my eyes.

The lion has won. The tentacled bear is on the dirt floor of the ring and the lion is astride it with its forelegs. Then the bear is gone—vanished. It shouldn’t catch me off guard so much, since it’s exactly how Ezzy comes and goes, but somehow it’s still a surprise.

About half the people in the arena start to cheer and the other half boo. Glancing around at the crowd, I realize most of them are men, and that they are dressed and grouped along apparent financial lines; guys in full-on suits sit closer to one another, while guys in Dickies and work shirts are sitting closer to each other than not. Most of the white guys are loosely grouped in one portion of the bleachers, mostly black guys in another, and mostly brown guys in yet another. One thing they have in common: they’re all exchanging cash now, some just a few bills, some big wads or rolls.

I whirl on Maebry. “They were betting?

“Yes,” Maebry says, and she sounds like a snake. “It’s a big business, bigger than you might think.”

“I’ve never thought of it, what the holy hell is happening here?”

Maebry turns to face me, genuine anger and sorrow both on her face. “Come on, let’s get you out of here.”

She takes my hand and leads me not toward the arch where we came in, but to another exit that isn’t cloaked in inky blackness. I follow Mae through it, and find myself in another world.

“Mae?” I whisper.

She puts her arm around my waist and pulls me into a side-hug. “Crazy, isn’t it?”

We’re standing basically right where we got out of the Uber car, in the same type of flat desert as before. I can see the same mountains in the distance that you can see from I-10, and the abandoned racetrack building is still right behind us . . .

But this is not Earth. No Earth I’ve ever known.

It’s dark, for one thing, dark like a bedroom lit by only a lamp or a few jar candles. There are no stars overhead, and a reddish cast coming from nowhere and everywhere at once provides the only means of sight. The air feels heavier, like it’s getting ready to rain, but there are no clouds. Looking up into the vaguely crimson sky—if it is a sky—makes me think of being inside a fishbowl or snow globe. There is nothing to orient to, and the effect, like inside the arena, is unsettling at best.

“Okay,” I say. “Okay. Okay. Where are we?”

Maebry gazes all around us, her previous expression softening with the hint of a smile on her face. “Their world. Where our Familiars come from. Stay close, we won’t go far but it’s not super-safe for humans. Even though we’re Counterparts.”

I squeeze her closer to me. “That’s not filling me with confidence. When’s the sun come up?”

“It doesn’t. There is no sun. Not that I’ve ever seen.”

“Then where’s the light coming from? And how do plants grow? I mean, what’s the ecosystem?”

Maebry squints an eye at me. “You . . . do know this is, um . . . magic, right? Not everything is answerable to physics.”

“For an alternate dimension, it looks an awful lot like Phoenix,” I point out.

“I know, right? It’s like a mirror of our world, but no one knows how it works. Whatever happens on Earth has some kind of counterpart here. We build buildings, they show up here. We tear them down on Earth, they crumble here. It’s not the kind of thing anyone’s had time or resources to devote scientific experiments to. But I’ve heard it has something to do with multiple dimensions, um . . . a multiverse, I think. Come on, let’s take a walk.”

I follow, more from muscle memory than desire. “I thought it wasn’t safe.”

“It can be unsafe. But we can call our Fams just as easy as at home. This is where they live, after all.”

So I almost do it, almost call Ezzy right then and there, because having him walking along beside me would be really, really nice. But I hold off, deciding to trust Maebry’s apparent experience here. Wherever here is.

I take my phone out to start capturing video of this nut-basket of a place, but when I turn it on, the screen jitters and scrambles all over, and the time—when I can see it clearly enough—appears to be 73 o’clock.

“Whoa. What’s up with this?”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

AJ Adam is a writer living and working in the southwest U.S.

Q. What books are you reading now?
A.
I'm reading TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING by Ada Palmer, which has some incredible world-building. I am also reading an old horror novel by David Morrell called THE TOTEM.
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
At its heart, BRIAR is about the destructive and seductive nature of violence. Violence is not exclusively physical; it can be emotional or even spiritual. I hope readers will first and foremost enjoy the story for the adventure, but also consider their own attitude toward violence.
Q. Tell us about the cover and the inspiration for it.
A.
I have seen this artist's work on other novels and fell in love with it. She has done another cover for me already for a book I hope to get out soon. There is a sumptuousness to her colors and textures that I enjoy, and she is wonderful to work with!

Next in:
Teen & Young Adult
Birthright
In one night Kita's entire life changes.
Saints and Sinners
How would you feel if it happened to you?
HEROINE
Two teens willing to kill for perfection.