I keep having the same dream. Night after night I fall asleep knowing that I’ll wake up sweating, with my heart racing and my hands curled into fists. Even after I’m wide awake, I hear a man whispering in my ear: “I’ve been waiting for you, my son.”
Nobody calls me “son”—not anymore. Sometimes I wake up so upset that I can’t tell what’s sweat and what’s tears. I wash my face in the bathroom and then try to fall back to sleep. Sometimes I can. Sometimes I can’t.
I haven’t told Mama. She’s got enough to worry about, and talking about my father just makes her sad. Plus, she’s a really sound sleeper, and I’m too old to be waking my mom up just because I had a bad dream. It’s not really a nightmare, but I told Ma because I don’t keep secrets from her. She’s a good listener, and, well, she’s a witch! So there’s always a chance she’ll be able to share her special knowledge with me.
Ma isn’t my mother or my grandmother, like I once thought. We’re not related at all, but right now Mama and I are living with Ma while our own apartment is being renovated. Now that school’s out for the summer, I spend a lot more time with Ma. She has a thick Book of Dreams in her library, but Ma won’t let me read it yet. Instead, she made me describe the dream over and over. Then she told me to write down all the details I could remember as soon as I woke up each night.
I don’t see how that will help, but since I’m Ma’s apprentice, I do as I’m told. Some nights the dream does change. Last week I felt the man’s hand on my shoulder as he spoke—like he was standing behind me. But last night the hand was in front of me, reaching out from a fun house mirror that turned the man’s body into a rubbery smear. I couldn’t see his face, and I hate to admit it, but I don’t remember what my dad’s hands looked like. I remember how safe and strong I felt whenever he wrapped his fingers around mine, but that’s it.
I’m busy writing all this in my Apprentice Journal when Ma knocks on the door with her cane.
“Ready?” she asks.
I nod and close my notebook, but Ma isn’t there to see it. I hear her shuffling down the long hallway that leads to the front door. Today Ma is wearing a bright orange bubble coat that’s so puffy, it rubs against the wallpapered walls as she walks. She’s got her purse slung over one shoulder and her folding stool tucked under her other arm. When Ma’s got a job to do, she’s totally focused and ready to get started with or without me. That’s Rule #1: Always be ready.
I shove my notebook inside my knapsack before hustling down the hall after Ma. She’s already outside the apartment waiting for the elevator, so I grab my sweatshirt and holler, “Bye, Mama!” over my shoulder as I slip out the front door.
“Got your gloves?” Ma asks. Her eyes are watching the illuminated numbers that show the elevator’s ascent, but I take my gardening gloves out of my bag and wave them at her anyway. I have just enough time to pull my warmest hoodie over my long-sleeve T-shirt before the elevator bell rings, the doors open, and Ma nudges me inside. She passes her stool to me, and I hold it close to my chest. It’s a tight squeeze with Ma’s puffy orange coat taking up most of the space in the elevator, but soon we reach the ground floor and head over to the park.
My recurring dream isn’t the only strange thing that’s happening around here. There’s also something wrong with the weather. Summer in Brooklyn is usually sweltering, with lots of humidity and heat rising in waves off the concrete. But when Ma and I reach the park, nobody’s wearing shorts or tank tops. It’s too cold! Even the joggers are wearing tights, and one guy races by with earmuffs on! I don’t blame him—it’s the middle of July, but it feels more like the end of November.
Ambrose would be warm enough with his many layers of clothing, but he hasn’t been stationed at the park entrance since last spring. Bro’s gone, the guardhouses he protected no longer travel between realms, and Ma’s turning me into a botanist instead of a witch. Almost every day we come to the park to forage. Fortunately, the cold weather has scared off all the bugs, but it’s still no fun crawling all over the park while Ma stands over me pointing to different plants with her cane.
The first plant she taught me to spot was poison ivy. But turns out that’s not the only plant that can make your skin itch. So I started wearing Mama’s gardening gloves, and that helps, but foraging still isn’t my favorite activity. Ma says being a witch is mostly about helping and healing. And making medicine from plants is one way to help folks heal. I get that—I really do. But when I decided to become Ma’s apprentice, I thought I’d be doing something more . . . exciting.
I mean, Ma and I went back in time and saw dinosaurs! We found a special crystal, and I delivered baby dragons to the realm of magic. I know no job can be that exciting all the time, but . . . well, pulling up plants day after day is just boring! Ma won’t even let me study the different plants listed in her books. All of a sudden, her entire library is off-limits.
I snuck into the living room last week and pulled one book off the shelf—Shape & Substance: A Beginner’s Guide to Transmogrification Spells. I managed to smuggle the heavy tome into my bedroom without anyone noticing, but when I locked the door and opened the book, all the pages were blank! And I could hear Ma cackling with delight in the room next to mine. She outsmarts me every time.
Ma says I’m not ready to learn about the spells contained in those books. She insists that I need “hands-on training,” but I’m the only one who’s crawling around on their hands and knees. Ma supervises me while sitting comfortably on her collapsible stool that I carry to and from the park. I doubt her back aches as much as mine, but what bothers me most is, I don’t feel like I’m learning anything important.
“What’s that over there?” Ma asks after her long, loud yawn finally ends.
Since she’s sitting a couple of feet behind me, I follow the general direction her cane’s pointing and reach for a plant that has round, glossy leaves and tiny yellow flowers. “This one?” I ask.
“No!” she barks. “That other one.”
I move my hand to the left and point at another plant. “This one?”
Ma sighs with impatience. “No! Look where I’m pointing, Jax.”
I press my lips together so I won’t say anything that might sound like sass. Mama taught me to respect my elders, and at her age, it’s not like Ma can get down here in the dirt with me. So I just point my index finger and slowly move my arm from left to right. Ma grunts and sighs some more until I point at a strange purple plant with triangular leaves. It’s nowhere near where she was pointing her cane, but Ma finally seems satisfied.
“That’s the one,” she says. “Pull it up gently, Jax, so you don’t break off any of its roots. That’s the part we need.”
I do as I’m told and shake off the loose soil before handing the plant back to Ma. She sniffs the roots and even takes a small bite before placing it in a mesh bag.
“Good. Now keep your eyes peeled. We need a whole lot more of these.”
“How many more?” I ask.
Ma shrugs and pulls her pipe out of her coat pocket. She taps a bit of ash out of the bowl and says, “A couple hundred should be enough.”
Copyright © 2022 by Zetta Elliott. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.