08 November, 2015

#SpecialFeature :: Read an #Excerpt from Phoenix Child by Alica McKenna Johnson

*** Special Feature - November 2015 ***

About the Book

There should be a law, a Universal Rule, as to how much weirdness can happen to a person. 
Fifteen-year-old Sara walks into the San Francisco Center for the Circus Arts determined to ignore the freaky things happening to her. As powers she doesn't want and can't control overwhelm her, Sara must decide if she can trust the strangers who say they are her family ... descended from a common ancestor four thousand years ago.
Sara clings to her contented and well-planned life as a foster kid, successfully working the system, as dreams, powers, and magical creatures drag her towards her destiny. 
When the ancient evil that killed her parents comes to San Francisco, Sara is forced to choose between her fears and her desire to protect those she loves. 
Sometimes great things are thrust upon us. Sara wishes this supposed 'greatness' didn't include a new name, unicorns, and catching on fire. 

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Phoenix Child - Excerpt

Chapter One

"Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix."
~Christina Baldwin

Alien abduction? Extreme makeover? Witch's spell?
Something had to explain the changes that happened to me overnight. Even the doctor Melanie dragged me to offered no explanation, but apparently, I’m in perfect health. I barely managed to stop myself from demanding to see his medical license. How can it be possible to wake up looking completely different and still be in perfect health? I looked down at the coppery tint that appeared this morning on my skin. Stupid doctor.
Thick fog covered the brightly painted row houses, making them look dull and plain. Only the Christmas lights came close to cutting through the cold gray blanket. I leaned back into the seat of my houseparent's Honda as I took in the familiar beauty of the city.
"Sara, we'll figure this all out, don't worry," Melanie said as she drove down one of San Francisco's seven hills. My stomach did a little flip as we crested the top. One would think after driving over these streets all of my life I would have become numb to them, but they still made my stomach flutter.
"With all the tests the doctor ordered, he'd better figure something out." The nurse had trouble finding a vein for the lab draws, and a bruise had formed in the bend in my elbow. Rubbing my temples, I pushed back the headache and tears. This morning had been hell.
My fingers twitched in shock as they touched the soft curls resting on my forehead. I tugged my bangs down and tried to hide my eyes, which had also changed. Instead of the dull gray-green I’d grown-up with, now they were a clear pale green with flecks of gold. My first day as a fifteen-year-old and already the drama level had reached insane.
I ran my hands over the bandana covering my hair. Until I knew what had happened to me, I wanted to keep the flame-red streaks that highlighted my midnight curls hidden. I didn't recognize myself, and didn't like being so out of control. If I couldn't control my hair color, I could at least control who saw it. Maybe it’s childish, but hey, I’m only fifteen, no one expects me to make good choices yet.
Melanie flipped through her CDs, her eyes darting between bright jacket covers and the foggy road. I adore Melanie, she’s a great houseparent, but every time I get into her car, it’s a near-death experience. "I'm going to have to file an incident report with your caseworker. Between the fever last night and the changes this morning, he needs to know what's going on."
"I'm fine. The report will make Five worry." I crossed my arms and scattered a pile of half empty water bottles as I stretched out my legs.
"I know, but these are the rules," Melanie said, her voice soft and even. I called it her 'calm houseparent' voice. She uses it to try to keep us kids from losing our tempers. I hated having it used on me. "And your caseworker's name is David. It's rude to call him Five."
I rolled my eyes and chose not to say anything.
"Are you sure you want to go to camp? Maybe you should rest today," Melanie said.
"I'm sure. If I sit at home, I'll worry." I shifted so I could see the clock. Damn. "I'm going to be so late."
"It'll be fine. I bet they haven't started anything important yet. The first day always starts with introductions and rules anyway."
I sat back. There wasn't anything I could do about it now, and Melanie would get irritated if I kept complaining. She’s in charge; it’s best to keep her happy.
I could feel how close we were to the school before I could see it. The itching need to get in that building intensified. My fingers and toes twitched and every cell in my body vibrated with nervous excitement. I sat on the edge of my seat and stared out the windshield, my breath catching as the bright, multi-colored swirls on the outside of the converted warehouse came into view.
I’d first seen the San Francisco Center for the Circus Arts months ago when Melanie and I stopped at the cafe across the street. Instantly I wanted—no, needed—to go there. I felt like the building called me, invading my dreams and my thoughts. It took six months and a rather crafty plan, but I made it. I hoped whatever part of my brain latched onto this place would feel happy now that I was finally attending classes here.
"Here we are, come on," Melanie said, yanking me out of my obsessive thoughts.
Melanie has the best parking karma of anyone I know. She always finds a parking space in front of whatever building she’s going to, and in San Francisco that is a miracle.
I ran my fingers over the school's huge front window, the need to go inside as physical as if a rope were around my waist pulling me. A flash of red caught my eye. In the window hung a red crystal bird with a long tail. It flashed again, like it was winking at me.
When we entered the building warm air surrounded us, carrying the smells of floor wax, sweat, and incense, and the happy sounds of Celtic music. The converted warehouse looked like a huge dance studio with its scuffed wooden floor and wall of mirrors. The ropes, trapezes, hoops, and fabrics secured to the two-story high ceiling, and other circus equipment around the room let me know I’d have a lot more fun than in some stuffy dance class.
I glared at Melanie as we walked to the tall front desk. Divided into groups, the other campers were already learning circus arts. She ignored me and looked over the fliers and brochures scattered over the counter.
"Why don't you put your stuff away?" Melanie pointed to the wall of brightly painted cubbies. Maybe my staring bothered her. I strengthened my glare before doing as she asked.
I tucked my stuff away, and checked out the class closest to me. Their feet were bare. I took off my shoes and socks. I made it inside the stupid building, so when would this itching need stop? My fingers twitched in sympathy; they didn't like this either.
"The teacher over there has hair like yours," Melanie said softly, when I came back.
Following her glance, I saw a teenage boy teaching one of the classes. My instincts screamed ‘run’ when I saw his tight black curls that looked to be studded with rubies. The draw to come here, could it be some implanted beacon from a government experiment our parents had been a part of? Or perhaps we were alien/human hybrids and the mother ship called out to us to take us home. Or were we mutants drawn to this school by a psychic call from a group of superheroes? Or maybe I should stop reading things recommended to me by geeky staff?
I tried not to stare at him; however, my eyes kept being drawn back to the tall ebony boy with hair so close to mine in color. Looking over the rest of the students I didn't see anyone else with hair like ours. There were several Mohawks, a few people with dreadlocks, a girl with orange spiky hair, and one boy with black- and blue-streaked bangs. Maybe this wasn't some great conspiracy. Maybe he'd dyed his hair that color and this was nothing more than a freaky coincidence.
"Sorry for the wait, I'm Philip. How can I help you?"
Philip looked young at first. He wore sweats, cut off at his knees, and a faded David Bowie concert tee shirt. His ears were decorated with silver hoops. Only his three-inch salt and pepper Mohawk that curved between the sides of his shaved head, caused me to wonder at his age.
"No worries, this is Sara Fokine, she's here for the winter camp," Melanie said.
"Great, I have a few things for you to sign." Philip walked behind the high counter and handed Melanie some papers and a pen. Melanie scooted down to find an empty spot on the cluttered counter and began to read the papers.
Ignoring the mess, Philip crossed his arms on the counter, his eyes sparkling. Why did he look so happy? Part of me wanted to smile back, another part wanted to know what he was up to.
"Are you having a good birthday, Sara?" he asked.
"How did you know it's my birthday?" The itching need faded as he spoke, and a sense of safety and calm moved through me. I didn't trust it, or him. Could he be the government agent or alien in disguise? I stepped away.
He tilted his head toward Melanie. "The paperwork."
"Of course. Um...it's been different. I went to the doctor." Why would I tell him this? I never gave away personal information. I narrowed my eyes, as if that would help me find out the truth.
"Well turning fifteen can be challenging. I'm sure your mom wanted to take care of you."
I didn't bother to correct Philip. I didn’t correct people when they mistook Melanie for my mom, or (her preference) my older sister. Most people didn't know about houseparents, which meant I needed to explain that I belong to the state. That got looks of pity or suspicion. I found it easier to keep my mouth shut.
I needed to get the conversation off me. "Nice tattoo." I pointed to the faded picture of a mermaid sitting on an anchor. I could barely see it through the coat of white hair covering his arm.
Philip shook his head, a sheepish smile on his face. "I can't believe you can see it. That's a mark from another life, one full of adventure, danger, stupidity, and a scary lack of both condoms and common sense."
I slapped my hand over my mouth, trying not to laugh out loud, my face heating up. I thought Philip was an interesting person, even if he wasn't an alien here to take me back to the home planet.
"Excuse me?" Melanie handed back the papers, her eyes narrowed to the 'mom’ look.
"Sorry, I need to edit better." He looked over the papers. "She's all set."
"Thanks, I'll see you at four?" Melanie searched around the counter top.
I handed her the set of keys she searched for. "Yes."
"Cool, I'll see you later. Call me if you need anything,” Melanie said as she walked away.
Melanie's leaving never bothered me before, but today I wanted to call her back, to ask to go with her, or to beg her to stay with me. My voice stuck in my throat as the door closed.
"Come on, the group I'm working with could use one more person. This morning I'm teaching juggling." Philip held out a cloth ball.
I turned away from the door and took the ball. It squished a little between my fingers, like it was filled with sand.
Philip explained the basics of juggling. His calm, steady voice made me feel like I could learn to juggle easily.
"So once you can toss one beanbag back and forth without moving your hands to catch it, try it with two." Philip easily tossed them between his hands.
It didn't look too hard. I ignored Philip as he watched me toss the beanbag from my right hand to my left hand and back to my right. I moved my right hand in order to catch the beanbag; I normally don't throw things with my left hand. It felt awkward but not impossible.
"Good job. Try and look up when you toss them, it will help later on when you have three or more in the air. If you need any help, call for me or Shin." Philip nodded towards a muscular, stocky boy with black hair cut short, except for his blue-streaked bangs, which fell to his chin.
It took all my concentration to keep two beanbags in the air. One by one, all of the worries and wondering were pushed away, and my mind focused on juggling. My body relaxed as the pressure faded away.
Light reflected in the mirror, blinding me.
"You need to remember..." Philip's voice faded, and I heard an unfamiliar woman speaking in his place.
"You'll remember..." Images flashed in my mind.
Holding my mom's hand, running down a street, seeing a red bird in the window winking at us.
Inside the torn-up building, wood and paint cans everywhere.
My mom on her hands and knees in the bathroom, reaching into the wall, hiding something.
The sun sets behind her, I can't see her face. Her lips touch my forehead as she whispers something. It sounds like a song. When she's done, fire dances in her eyes.
"You'll remember when it's time," my mom says. "It will get dark soon, and the bad men will come. You need to go into the police station across the street. Give the nice officer this letter, and they will take care of you for me."
"I'm scared. I want to stay with you." Hot tears fall down my cheek.
"I can't let the bad men get you. I can't. You're my Jewel. I must protect you." Arms wrap around me hugging me tight. I breathe in the soft scent of flowers.
"You'll come back for me, right, Mommy?"
"They're close, baby. I have to go. I need you to be brave, and remember I will love you forever."
"Sara. Sara, are you okay?" Philip shook my shoulder.
"Sorry...I...I need a drink of water." I wrapped my arms around myself trying to hide the trembling. What the hell just happened?
"Are you all right?" Philip frowned looking me over to make sure I’m okay.
"I'm a bit dizzy, maybe something left over from the fever last night?" That made sense; it had been a bad fever. Maybe the vision came from my dream last night. At least I hoped so, but my gut told me something important just happened.
"Okay, go get a drink. If you need anything, I’m here." Philip stepped back, his frown still there.
"Thanks, I'll be right back." I reached up to rub my forehead where I could still feel my mother's lips. The spot felt warm, not body heat warm, but sitting in the sun warm.
Sitting down on a bench against the window I took a long drink of water. I didn't need any more weirdness. Wasn't there a limit, like a law of physics or something that maxed out how much weird crap can happen to you in one day?
A spark made me turn. Above me the red crystal bird spun in the window. Gripping my bottle so tight my fingers ached, flashes from my dream or memory lay over the room. Was this the same building? Had I been here before with my mom? I never dreamed about my mom, not that clearly. The memory of what she looked like and the sound of her voice had faded long ago. For all I knew I made the whole thing up. Maybe it was some post-fever-induced daydream.
Putting my water away, I went back to class. Crazy, fever-induced visions were not going to have me searching the bathroom walls. I picked up the beanbags and began tossing them again, trying but failing to find that peace and focus from before.
Staying to the back of the class, I watched the next teacher, Kayin Mangwiro. His voice sounded warm and rich with an African accent. Kayin went over a bunch of information about jumping on a trampoline safely. Even though I learned about the trampoline, I learned nothing that would give me a clue as to why his hair was black and red like mine.
When my turn came, Kayin helped me up onto the springy surface of the trampoline. My stomach flipped, and I barely suppressed the urge to wave my arms around as I fell back down. Bending my knees I tried to keep my balance, but took off towards the side of the trampoline. This was much harder than it looked.
"Try to keep in the middle," Kayin said, making sure I didn't fall off.
"Okay." I felt I did pretty well for my first time on a trampoline. When Kayin bounced, he controlled his movements. I felt lucky I hadn't fallen on my face.
"Time to switch." Kayin held out a dark hand to help me down.
"Thanks," I said, my breath coming in gasps. He nodded and went to help the next kid up.
Kayin seemed nice and answered questions when asked, but he wasn't playful like Philip. I twisted the hem of my shirt trying to get up the courage to ask about his hair. My new hair color made me look like a child dressing up for Halloween. Kayin's made him look like an African prince. His proud posture, wide flat nose, and high cheekbones looked elegant with the small ruby curls scattered among the ebony black ones.
Waiting for my second turn, I held my breath as Kayin stood next to me. How could he stand so still and with such perfect posture? I shifted from one foot to another and tugged on the sleeve of my shirt, smoothing out the embroidered silver dragon.
"I like your hair," I said, my voice barely more than a whisper. Hoping he heard me and hadn't heard me at the same time. Hey, I'm a teenager; I'm allowed to feel conflicted.
"Thank you. I woke up like this on the morning of my fifteenth birthday. It's a shocking thing, to change so suddenly, isn't it?" Kayin's gaze held mine. After a moment I felt warmth fill me and I knew. Kayin was like me. Whatever was happening to me already happened to him.
"We're family now," he said.
"I don't ...I'm not sure..." Turning away, I tried to calm my thoughts so I could make a complete sentence.
"I know this is hard to understand. I'm here if you need to talk." Kayin touched my hand, and a spark of heat ignited beneath my skin.
I rubbed the back of my hand as Kayin left to help another kid onto the trampoline. While I felt happy to know I'm not alone in this, the heat thing was strange. Oh well, one more thing to add to the 'list of weirdness'. I moved on to the next class.
Hearing Taliesin Gadarn tell us about the walking globe, a large ball that we were going to walk on, I realized he would not be here for me if I needed to talk. He looked like snow and ice. His attitude, the way he moved, the color of his hair and skin chilled me. If it weren't for his blue eyes I would have thought he was an albino.
"Are there any questions?" Taliesin asked, looking over us one by one. I tried not to feel insignificant under his cool assessing gaze. Did his high school teach him how to act like a snob, or did it come naturally?
"Line up," Taliesin said, flipping his white braid over his shoulder.
When my turn came, Taliesin braced the knee-high walking globe against his shins and held out his hands to me. Taking his hands, I climbed onto the ball. It teetered, but I managed to stay on. Clenching my stomach, I tried to find my balance on the wobbling ball.
"I'm going to start walking," Taliesin said taking a small step back.
I gripped his hands, took a small step and then another. Standing straighter, I made my steps a little bit faster. Taliesin easily adjusted. When we got to the end of the track my cheeks hurt from smiling so big.
"Thank you, that was fun." I looked up, my smile fading at Taliesin's emotionless face.
"Birds like the air," he said as he walked back to the beginning.
What did that mean? Birds? Is this some new slang? Or something to do with the changes? And how would he know? He didn't feel like Kayin, and I didn't feel any warmth or attraction to him. At this point I needed to make another entry to my list if I hoped of keeping up with the craziness of today.

*                  *                  *

Stalling without being obvious is a gift. In a classroom, the teacher is your best ally. Ask questions or offer to help. Today, I helped move mats while the other kids got ready for lunch. I wanted to sit alone. Once everyone else started eating I would venture out and claim a nook to myself.
Not everyone had settled down for lunch once the mats were put away, so I went to the bathroom - another good stalling technique.
I took a breath and prepared for the inevitable stream of questions that would race through my mind when I spent any time looking in a mirror. Running my fingers under the black bandanna, I checked to make sure my hair stayed secure in the bun. It crunched from the mass of gel and hair spray I'd used.
Did my mom have almond-shaped eyes, too? Did my dimples come from my dad? Did I look like my parents, or like another family member? Who else in my family had a nose that turned up a bit at the end?
These questions were familiar. Having no memory or pictures of my parents, I’m a mystery to myself. I have no idea who I am or where I come from. I hope that someday I will either know who I am, or let it go and get on with my life.
Looking at my changed reflection, I found new questions filling my mind. Did I look more like my parents now, or less? Was I now proof of a mistake made in their youth? An ancient family secret revealed? Would they be proud of how I looked, or lock me in the basement so no one else could see me?
I glared at myself in the mirror. "Sara, get a grip, go out there, make a list of all the craziness, and eat lunch."
Looking around the bathroom, I felt both grateful and disappointed that I didn't get any flashes of memory. My hands itched to touch the walls, hoping to find where my mom hid the package almost ten years ago. I flung the bathroom door open, refusing to give in to hallucinations.
People-watching is a sport in San Francisco, so the other students sat near the huge front windows. Philip, Kayin and Taliesin were gathered in an office behind the desk, with the door open. Shin brushed his blue and black bangs away from his face as he ate with the students. He must have drawn the short straw.
Eavesdropping is wrong; sitting where you can hear people talking is an 'accident.' The key: don't sit so close they know you hear them. Looking busy helps. Luck was with me today; a stack of mats stood a few feet from the open office door. Sitting down, I leaned against the mats and took out my lunch.
"I don't know if she's the Jewel, but she's definitely a Child of Fire," Philip said.
What is a Child of Fire? I took a bite of my vegetable sandwich. Pickle juice dripped down my chin. I grabbed my napkin before it could drip onto my shirt. I didn't want to smell like dill pickles all day.
"How did classes go?" Philip asked.
"Fine," Taliesin said.
"I'm looking forward to Gavin and Anali being here. Teaching is new to me, and I'd rather help than be in charge," Kayin said.
I thought Kayin did a good job.
"Do you think you will be ready to teach a class in January?" Philip mumbled. I guess he was eating.
"Yes. Once I get used to teaching, I should be fine," Kayin said.
"You did well today," Taliesin said. Wow, he could be nice.
"Thank you," Kayin said.
I jumped when the phone rang; not good, way too obvious. I finished my sandwich, took out a notebook, and began listing all the weird things that happened so far. Philip's one-sided phone conversation wasn't that interesting anyway, something about hoping the storm cleared and that they would arrive here tomorrow, whoever "they" were.
I kept one ear on the conversation, in case something interesting came up, but focused on my list: high fever, my hair, skin, and eyes changed color, I saw a flashback/daydream/hallucination about my mom, Kayin said we were family, and I felt heat when we touched. I didn't know what any of it meant, or what would happen next. I had a feeling the weirdness wasn't over.
The list didn't help. I hated change, even change within my control. Closing my eyes, I leaned my head against the mats.
What should I do? What could I do? I liked Melanie and trusted her, but nothing could be a secret between us. She needed to report everything out of the ordinary to my caseworker and the group home supervisor. The physical differences were bad enough. If I added these weird feelings and visions, I could wind up in the hospital for crazy people. That was not an option that appealed to me.
I guess I would have to wait and see what happened next. Maybe this was leftover brain bubbles from the fever. Just odd stuff leaking from my subconscious, and after a good night's sleep it would all go away. Yes, a good plan. I liked this plan, especially the all going away part.
An image flashed into my mind of an old leather-bound book, one I memorized and which brought me comfort and words of wisdom when I needed it. It was the only thing I had from my mom. On each page she wrote a quote, and then offered advice in small neat letters.
"Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix." -Christina Baldwin.
"Every life is full of changes and challenges. Some changes are small, while others will alter the rest of your life. Some changes you will have hoped and prayed for, while plenty of others will make you want to hide under your covers and stay in bed. Just know that your strength lies within you. No matter what, remember who you are. Change happens, finding out what new opportunities lie before you is a sign of the wise and brave."
"All right everyone, I'd like you all to finish up and meet in the middle of the room in ten minutes," Philip said.
I wasn't sure what was to come, what changes would be forced on me, or what opportunities would present themselves. What I did know was that I needed to be very careful.

About the Author
Being told she was a horrible speller and would never learn to use a comma correctly, Alica never thought to write down the stories she constantly had running through her head. Doesn't everyone daydream about flying on a spaceship while walking to school? 
Not until she was thirty did Alica dare to write down any of the people living exciting lives in her head. The relief was instantaneous. By giving them life on the page they could be released from her mind and given greater adventures. 
As her books grew in size and the voices in her head learned to wait their turn, Alica found a loyal group to journey with. Women who would help her slay her commas, and use their magical gifts to traverse plot holes, transform words into their proper spelling, and release characters from any Mary Sue spells they might be under. 
In-between magical adventures, Alica is mom to two personal kids, five foster kids, has one exceptional hubby, a bunny she knows is plotting her death, and some fish, aka her daughter's minions. 

Contact Her

Second Book in the Series

First an ancient Phoenix King and Queen and now a sleeping Mayan god, could Sapphire’s life get any weirder?
Sapphire. 15 years old, strong, intelligent, with newly acquired Phoenix powers. She travels through South America, with her recently-discovered family. Performing with Cirque de Feu Magique as a cover, the Children of Fire respond to the need of magical creatures to return home to Akasha. 
Powerful beings take a dangerous interest in the creatures they are called to save. The challenges of growing leadership and conflict with a Mayan god force Sapphire to realize she’s stronger than she thought.

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  1. Phoenix Child and Legend of the Feathered Serpent sound great, I would love to read these books. Thank you