✅Clean YA Portal Fantasy
✅Slow-burn Romantic Subplot
Brenna James wants three things for her sixteenth birthday: to find her history notes before the test, to have her mother return from her business trip, and to stop creating fire with her bare hands.
Yeah, that’s so not happening. Unfortunately.
When Brenna learns her mother is missing in an alternate reality called Linneah, she travels through a portal to find her. Against her will. Who knew portals even existed? But Brenna’s arrival in Linneah begins the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, including a royal murder and the theft of Linneah’s most powerful relic: the Sacred Veil.
Hold up. Can everything just slow down for a sec?
Unwilling yet left with no other choice, Brenna and her new friend Baldwin (Um, hello, Hottie!) pursue the thief into the dangerous woods of Silvastamen and beyond. Exactly what Brenna wanted to do for her sixteenth birthday. Exactly. When they spy an army marching toward Linneah, Brenna is horrified. Can she find the veil, save her mother, and warn Linneah in time?
And more importantly, why on earth doesn’t this alternity have Belgian waffles?
Tiny flashes sparked from my fingertips. I yanked on my locker, and the door crashed open. Thrusting my shaking hands into the murky interior among the books and papers, I waited.
It had happened again.
The magnetic mirror on the inside of the door reflected my pale face, my gray-blue eyes too wide. My heart pounded, making my head throb with a dull thud thud. One by one, the flashes winked out. Releasing a breath, I sagged against the bank of metal lockers. All day long, whenever the flickering lights sparked and flashed, I hid my fisted hands in my hoodie pockets. Dry, fall air created static. That must be it. Don’t freak out.
Closing the locker, my hands tingled a warning. Warmth spread over my palms, making them sweat. Maybe I carried a bizarre incurable disease. Didn’t strange stuff like this happen before a diagnosis on those cheesy television movies? Nausea swirled through my stomach, flipping my lunch like pizza dough. Closing my eyes, I leaned against the wall. Scents—floor polish and chicken noodle soup from lunch—mingled in the hallway. I hated chicken noodle soup.
At mid-period, only a couple of kids roamed the blue-tiled hallway. Tiny, my best friend, would be here any moment. She’d borrowed my American history notes, and we’d planned to meet here so I could get them back. I checked my watch. The pass from the study hall teacher was only good for a few more minutes. Where was she? I needed every available minute to cram for the test. Tomorrow morning. In first period.
Despite my good intentions, I’d spent last night watching the new reality show on television. Thank you, ADHD.
Tiny appeared at my side, her blue eyes laughing. “Jumpy much?” Her long, platinum-blonde hair hung straight down her back, emphasizing her petite five-foot frame. Even in a baggy hoodie, gauzy skirt, and boots, she didn’t weigh more than eighty pounds after a Dunkin’ Donuts binge.
Buried in the pockets of her hoodie, her hands were shapeless lumps. She pulled them out, and I stared at her hands. Her empty hands.
“Do you have my notes?”
Dumb question. Of course she did. Dependable Tiny—one of the few people who didn’t get annoyed when I zoned out or hyperfocused. We’d been inseparable since I moved here.
“Um, funny thing about those notes…”
My heart sank. “Yeah?” Why oh why had I watched that stupid reality show?
“They’re kinda, um, lost.” She offered me a guilty smile.
“What?” My voice was loud in the empty hallway.
“I’m sure I’ll find them.”
“Tiny, I need them for the test tomorrow morning!”
“Look, they’ll turn up. Or I’ll find them. Okay?”
Without those notes, my exam would receive a big, fat, red F scrawled on top. Definitely not okay.
Behind her, next to a glass trophy case, hung the school spirit display. Red and white glittery pom-poms surrounded a sign reading Go Cloverdale Lions! I bit back my rising anger and focused on the red block letters until my eyes crossed. Breathe deeply. Inhale. Exhale. Not helping. One, two, three…
Her voice interrupted my efforts. “Maybe if you would’ve studied more, the notes wouldn’t be so important.”
My temper exploded. “Thanks a lot! It wouldn’t matter if you hadn’t lost them!” I pointed a finger. A narrow yellow flame burst from my fingertips, shooting over her shoulder.
The fire didn’t fizzle into a shower of sparks like embers from an arc welder. Don’t know why I was expecting that. Instead, the flame arrowed straight into a red pom-pom, melting a hole and shriveling the glittery plastic strands. With a quiet hiss, it devoured all the other pom-poms arranged in the display. In seconds, the blaze engulfed the pep-rally poster.
“Whoa,” Tiny said, her eyes going wide.
I couldn’t move. Racing along the poster’s edges, the greedy flames crackled. The fire alarm began to shriek.
She tugged my arm. “Come on.”
We turned to leave, and the sprinkler system in the hallway kicked on. Great. Just great. I hunched my shoulders against the cold spray. Exactly what I needed to make this day perfect.
Outside, the vivid landscape of reds, golds, and browns barely registered. A flame had burst from my hands. The faint scent of smoke clung to my fingers. But no pain. What was going on? Shouldn’t my skin be red or blistered? Flexing my fingers, miniature yellow flames flared. A cold sweat broke out under my arms. I didn’t want to see that again, and I didn’t want anyone else to see it either. Hiding the evidence, I pressed my fisted hands together and joined my class lining up on the football field. Mr. Lynn, the study hall teacher, began counting students.
A fire truck siren pierced the air, growing in intensity.
Tiny stood in line, flirting with a cute guy from our Geometry class.
“Hey.” I nudged her. “Why aren’t you freaking out?”
“Like fire?” My voice cracked. “That doesn’t just happen.”
A fire truck pulled into the school parking lot, spilling its firefighters into Cloverdale High like an invasion of yellow jackets.
“You’d be surprised.” She pulled out her cell phone. “I’m gonna text my mom and tell her I’m okay.”
My mind raced while the teachers accounted for all the students and the firemen determined the school safe to reenter. A wave of homesickness flooded me, and I closed my eyes. Mom had been gone awhile, but today I really needed her. Blinking fast, I shut down the tears pricking my eyes. Maybe she’d know why I was firestarting on my sixteenth birthday. Even if she didn’t, I would’ve felt better after talking with her. I couldn’t talk to my dad. He didn’t do the up-close-and-personal thing, at least not lately. And I wasn’t sure what to make of Grandma Helen—some- what spacey, nervous, maybe a few cornflakes short of a full bowl.
After an hour on the field, Mr. Lynn herded the class together. “Due to the fire,” he said, “when you go back in, enter through the art room hallway. We’ll be monitoring the halls. Proceed to your locker, gather your belongings, and head for your bus.”
The first yellow school bus pulled up, its motor rumbling. We headed inside.
On the way to my locker, I walked past the cordoned-off hallway where the fire began. The sharp smell of burnt plastic lingered in the corridor. Black charred edges rimmed the sodden pep-rally sign. It now read Go—ions! My fault. The melted pom- poms, greasy soot, and smudged trophy case—all because of me.
Tiny, my silent shadow, followed me while I threaded through the halls on autopilot. Maybe she was worried I would spontaneously explode. I ran my fingers along my palms—everything felt normal, even if it wasn’t working the way it should. Near my locker, two guys debated the cause of the fire, their voices loud and obnoxious. One of them mentioned a smuggled cigarette. It made a lot more sense than the truth. The air pressed in, smothering like a wool blanket. Every lungful held a harsh, scorched odor. Shouldering my bag, I waved goodbye to Tiny and hurried toward the double glass doors of the building.
Past the entrance, a group of kids shuﬄed toward one of the waiting buses. Fluffy clouds scudded across the hard blue sky, obscuring the sun. I trudged across the street to the wooded trail leading to our house.
Dad and I had left Vermont and moved in with Grandma Helen at the beginning of June, so we called this place home, at least for now. The house sat about a quarter of a mile away. Pennsylvania wasn’t that different from Vermont—smaller mountains, warmer weather.
While I walked, I replayed the start of the fire, my memories looping like a broken movie reel. Me, furious, pointing at Tiny, the flame arrowing from my fingertip—
Tiny caught up to me and handed me a notebook. “Your notes. In the bottom of my locker. I’m sorry.” She furrowed her brow, her blue eyes serious.
“’S okay. Quit looking at me like that.”
“Sorry. Again. Relax, okay? It’s not your fault.”
“Not my fault? Are you kidding? I started a fire. With flames and smoke and—” There were no words for the horror story I was now living.
“Why don’t you talk to your dad? You could, um, tell him what happened, and—”
“That’s so not happening. How would that go? ‘Hey, Dad, guess what I learned today?’”
“I think he might surprise you.” She gave me a small smile and handed me a card. “Happy birthday.”
Of all the people in my life, she remembered my sixteenth birthday first. Of course.
The simple act sprang a couple of tears from the corners of my eyes, but I wiped them away. “Thanks.”
“Brenna!” Ahead on the path, my dad walked toward us, still wearing his typical work uniform of nice jeans and a blazer.
“Hi, Mr. J,” Tiny said, sing-songing like a preschooler.
“What’re you doing here?” Most days he waited at home for me to show up.
“I texted him when we were outside. You were out of it,” she said.
His concerned eyes inspected me for singe marks. “Are you okay? Tiny said no one was hurt.”
What else she had told him? “I’m good.”
He smiled, a fake one that never reached his eyes. I hadn’t seen his real smile for weeks. “How did a fire get started in the hallway?”
“Someone said a smuggled cigarette.” I adjusted my backpack.
When we came to a fork in the path, Tiny waved. “This is where I get off. See ya tomorrow, Brenna.” She walked toward her house.
“Maybe they’ll cancel school for a few days—for renovations,” Dad said.
If I could only be so lucky.
“Anyway, it’s a moot point. We need to head out of town.”
Thunder growled out of the north and bounced off the mountains. Low clouds shifted, the sun breaking through before another bank of clouds hid it from view.
A trip sounded promising. “To where?”
“Consider it a birthday gift.”
A bright flash followed by a clap of thunder split the air. The sharp zing of ozone laced the breeze. “We should hurry home. It smells like rain.”
Checking the sky, he shook his head. “Grandma Helen’s supposed to meet us at Big Rock with a birthday picnic for you.”
I winced. Her best work wasn’t done in the kitchen.
He noticed my expression. “Be nice.”
Despite the weather’s threat, we left the well-worn path for a smaller one that veered through the woods. About two hundred yards from Grandma’s house, Big Rock stood sentinel. The over-sized rocky outcropping rested on a rise that included a view of Tiny’s house, Grandma Helen’s house, and the old Cloverdale reservoir. The now-abandoned reservoir came complete with a fieldstone wall and a cobblestone spillway.
We climbed the mound, Big Rock jutting out of the soil like a colossal sleeping giant. No sign of Grandma Helen.
“Mom?” Dad rounded the backside of Big Rock.
“Be quiet,” she hissed, her voice muffled.
I walked around Big Rock, avoiding gnarled tree roots. Both of them crouched behind a smaller cracked boulder. Steam radiated from the fissure, marring its rough surface.
“Get down, Brenna.” She yanked my arm, bringing me to ground level. “And keep away from that rock—it’s still hot from my lightning. The enemy’s here, and there’s no sense in making yourself an easy target.” Her usually braided, white hair hung frizzy and loose, and purplish shadows ringed her eyes. The inch- wide strip of dyed crimson hair near her temple fluttered like a red warning flag. “I’ve eliminated two, but there are more. They’re guarding the portal. But remember, you must get through, no matter what.” With that announcement, her eyes rolled back in her head, and she fainted with a soft thud.
“Gram?” My breath snagged, wedged in my too-tight throat. “Is she okay? What’s going on?”
After checking her pulse, Dad glanced toward the reservoir. “She’s okay. In a minute, she’ll come around.”
“Why’d she pass out?”
“She overdid it. Let’s wait for her to wake up. We have something to tell you, and I’d like her to be awake for it.”
I leaned against Big Rock, keeping a close eye on Grandma Helen’s still form and staying away from the scorched rock.
“By the way, happy birthday.” He gave me a one-armed hug. “It’s hard to believe my little girl’s growing up.”
“Yuck, Dad.” I grinned. “Don’t get all sappy on me, okay?”
“Too sappy.” Grandma coughed and struggled to sit up.
“You’re back.” He gave her an encouraging smile.
She glared, and he helped her sit up.
“We have a birthday present for you.” He pulled a box from his inner blazer pocket.
“A gift you should’ve had several years ago.” She struggled to her feet and peered over the edge of the boulder. “No change. We’re safe for now.”
My dad had dragged me into a forest meeting with my Grandma who’d ranted about an enemy, then fainted. Fun stuff. “Couldn’t we have gone to a nice restaurant instead of meeting here?”
She pulled her eyes away from the reservoir for a second to stare at Dad. “You still haven’t told her?”
He handed me the wooden box, about three inches across, with a strange seal carved on the front. The engraving covered the lid, ivy circling an elaborate eight-pointed star in the center of the design.
Inside, the red velvet lining cradled a glistening chain with a faceted stone set in an elegant silver setting. The gem glowed with a red fire, glimmering with a mystical luminescence.
“It’s so pretty. Where’d you get it?”
“This might sound a little weird, Brenna. Your mom was supposed to tell you all this stuff. But now you need to know…”
“Spit it out, Harrison. Heaven knows why you two didn’t tell her sooner.” Grandma still gazed toward the reservoir.
He glared at her. “Sarah wanted to wait until signs of a talent appeared.”
She pursed her lips but said nothing more.
Dad turned back to me. “That pendant is a Hualos Jasper from Linneah. It signifies Elyon, the Most High King, has blessed you.”
Grimacing, I traced the glowing stone. Geography and I weren’t close friends. “Is that one of those little countries next to Russia?”
“No. Grandma Helen is from Linneah. It’s a parallel reality, called an alternity. Another world, like Earth, but not.” His shoulders slumped. “I’m doing a lousy job of this.”
“You certainly are,” she said.
“Ha. Funny.” Opening my backpack, I pushed aside my History notes and my Art Club binder. If I moved the jumble of pens and an old Snickers wrapper, the box would just fit in the corner at the bottom. “I’ve sat in on some of your classes, so I’m not falling for that one.” Dad taught quantum physics at the local college.
“Forget my classes. There are parallel alternities, and Linneah is one of them. Your mom planned to take you for a visit at the beginning of the summer, but then she was called away on that business trip. And now time is something we don’t have. All Linneans must cross the portal on or before their sixteenth birth- day. Today.” He sighed. “I kept waiting, hoping your mom would come home. She really wanted to share the trip to Linneah with you.”
“For some reason, someone sent deterrents to make our journey more difficult,” Grandma said. “Not impossible, but a wrench we hadn’t planned on.”
Alternities, portals, Linneans. My mind spun, the words making no sense. I shook my head to clear it. “Why do I have to go at all?”
“You have a special talent you’ll grow into during your teens. All Linneans go through this. They can help you learn how to use it,” she said.
Buried in my bag, my hand froze. “What kind of talent?” Did pyromania count?
Dad gave a small shrug. “Whatever it is you’ve been blessed with. Each child’s different.”
Different. I knew all about that. Having ADHD automatically set you apart from everyone else. I knew the names, too: space cadet, stupid, airhead, ditz, among others.
“Can’t you help me instead?” I zipped my backpack.
“Sorry, that’s not my department. Your mom and Grandma Helen are Linneans but not instructors. You have to go, Brenna.”
“Relax,” Grandma said. “I can guide you both through.”
Dad’s brow furrowed. “The portal’s dangerous to foreigners. But with you two, I should be okay.”
“You haven’t tried it?”
“Um, no.” He shot me a sheepish smile.
“There’s another plus about this trip.” Grandma Helen brushed off her pants.
“What’s that?” I slipped the backpack on my shoulders.
“Your mother’s in Linneah.”
I glared at Dad. “You said she left on a business trip.”
“Yes, in Linneah. We expected her to finish in a few days. Although that didn’t happen, every week we received an update from Mom. Those stopped a month ago. I’m sure she’s fine,” he said. But he didn’t sound confident. “When we get to Linneah, we’ll ask around.”
“We have a problem.” Grandma scowled at the reservoir. “Or rather, four problems.”
I glanced behind me. Taking a step backward, my stomach went hollow. Aliens. We’d been invaded. Four green creatures waited near the stone wall. Each was a clone of the next—four flexed, skinny legs, two muscular arms the same length, triangular heads, long necks, and big abdomens. They stood tall and rigid in green skirts. When the skirt flapped wide on either side, it morphed into a set of powerful wings. My knees turned to water.
Leaning against Big Rock’s bulk, I let it take my weight. “They look like insects.” But that couldn’t be right. Bugs weren’t five feet tall.
She shared a look with Dad. “Largamants, sent through the portal to stop us. Someone knows it’s your birthday.”
“What are they?”
She cocked her head. “They’re kind of like giant praying mantises, only vicious and a lot smarter.”
Cold sweat slicked my palms. A bad experience with biting ants had soured me on all bugs, small or giant.
“Here.” Dad handed me an old pocket knife. “This is the best I can do for protection. Use it if you have to.”
“She’s not going to need it, Harrison.”
I tucked it in my palm, closing my fingers around the red, plastic handle. Oh, yeah. Huge help against five-foot bugs from who knows where.
“Here’s the plan—we use the available camouflage.” She pointed to a stand of trees and tall bushes scattered throughout the forest. “When we get to that last cluster of trees, the maple with the double trunk? We gather there, then run. Jump the stone wall and head for the spillway. I’ll protect you.”
“Sounds scary,” I said. And insane, and suicidal, and…
“It is. Does anyone have a better idea?”
“No. I wish I did.” Dad paused for a moment. “Okay.”