Emma sat in the back of her parents’ plain white Honda, staring out the window and nervously bouncing her leg. She had no idea what to expect from this meeting, since her mom had basically arranged the whole thing alone. She knew they were going to meet someone who was supposed to help with her weird new ‘problem,’ as her parents put it. Someone with the same kind of problem and some experience dealing with it. Someone who knew Miss Desavi, the tall, irritable businesswoman with the solid black outline.
That was all they really knew about the lady at the moment. Meeting her was supposed to fix that, and Emma just hoped she wasn’t as harsh as Miss Desavi. From the front seat, her mom let out another huff of irritation, looking down at her phone. “So unhelpful,” she muttered. “I asked for a description of this woman we’re about to meet, and all she said was, ‘Black woman. Braids. Big glasses. Trust me, she’s hard to miss.’ What on Earth does that mean?”
“Maybe she has bright-colored hair,” Emma suggested, fidgeting with the hem of her sweater. “Or she’ll have a big sign or something, like at an airport.”
Her mother glanced back at her, unamused. “Stop that, sweetheart. Your stomach is showing.”
Flushing with embarrassment, Emma pulled her sweater back down and crossed her arms instead to stop her fussing hands. She didn’t speak again until they reached their destination, a park by the Hudson River. Despite it being 2 p.m. on a Saturday in summer, there weren’t many people there. There was a playground visible from the parking lot, but its emptiness and the oddly cool weather just made the scene feel a little gloomy.
However, sitting on a nearby bus stop bench, there was a woman who ticked all the boxes in Miss Desavi’s description: cool, dark skin that looked more black than brown; a headful of shining black braids; large, round silver glasses; and in her strangely old-fashioned outfit, she was definitely hard to miss. She had a hardback book open in her hands, her eyes down as she read, but her posture was starkly straight, her head not bowed in the slightest. Emma’s first impression of her was, in a word, stern.
Even when the three of them approached, the woman didn’t look up from her book for a moment until Emma’s mom addressed her directly. “Ahem. Excuse me.” She looked up at them but didn’t smile. “Are you by any chance July Morgan?”
“Yes, that’s me,” she said, putting her book away in the brown leather messenger bag at her side and getting up from the bench. Her tall, thin frame was an almost shocking contrast to Emma’s mom—and Emma herself—being so short and round. “You must be Mrs. Cavanaugh.”
“Yes! My name is Diane. This is my husband, Anthony—”
“Tony is fine,” her dad said with a slight nod.
“And this is Emma,” Diane went on, placing her hands on Emma shoulders to pull her forward.
“Hi,” she muttered, only looking up briefly before going back to observing the woman’s—July’s—wardrobe. Black leather boots were just visible under the edge of a high-waisted skirt, which was paired with a silvery blouse made out of something shiny. Like the fancy table runner Emma’s mom set out on special occasions. The high collar and loose sleeves cinched at the wrist made July look like she belonged in Alice in Wonderland or A Christmas Carol. She was so fancy it made Emma’s fraying sweater and sneakers feel all the more drab.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you all,” she said. “I suppose you have some questions.”
“We do,” Mrs. Cavanaugh laughed nervously. “Do you mind?”
“No, no, it’s fine. That’s the reason I’m here. Let’s sit down, and we can talk.” There was a gazebo closer to the water where they could talk privately about this big, weird secret, so they gathered there. July sat on one side of the table, and Emma took the other, between her parents.
“So, that woman,” her mom began. “You know her?”
“Valen? We’re acquainted. Not to say we’re friends by any means, but I do know her. I can’t imagine she was easy to talk to about any of this.” July spoke very clearly, which Emma appreciated.
“Hm. That’s one way of putting it,” Mrs. Cavanaugh sniffed. Emma and her dad were content to let her do most of the talking in social situations like this. “She was completely insensitive, and she has the most vulgar vocabulary. Let me say I’m relieved you’re nothing like her.”
“Oh, God, so am I!” July laughed. Emma’s eyes widened, and she could practically feel her parents tense up. They didn’t like hearing God’s name used so casually. “So is there anything you’d like to know about me personally? I’m an open book, so to speak.”
“Well, what do you do? For a living, I mean. We weren’t told much about you outside of what you and Emma have in common.”
“I do freelance writing and editing on occasion. But most of my earnings come from my YouTube channel.”
“You’re a YouTuber?” Emma finally piped up in surprise. July looked down at her and, for once, smiled.
“Yes, for a few years now,” she explained. “I give readings of classic literature and discuss it with my viewers. Do you like to read?”
“Kind of. I’m slow at it,” Emma said, lowering her eyes toward the table, though they flickered back up now and then. Her parents got onto her for never looking them in the eye, so she tried despite how weird it felt. “I always have to recheck my books at the library.”
“That’s fine. I go to the library a lot, and I own quite a few books too, if you’d like to borrow one from me, instead.” That was a nice offer, even if it was unlikely to happen. Maybe she wasn’t quite as chilly as she seemed.
“But you don’t have a real job,” Emma’s dad asked.
“Maybe not your traditional nine-to-five sort of job. But it’s work I enjoy, and it provides for me well enough.” It was almost like she and Mr. Cavanaugh were having a staring contest for a second, like she was waiting for him to object again. “Besides, it helps for me to be able to work from home, for obvious reasons.”
“Are they obvious? We don’t really know much about all this yet,” Emma’s mom pointed out. “Can you tell us what we should expect?”
“Fortunately, with Valen watching out for us—as unfortunate as that sounds—you shouldn’t have to worry at all. She won’t let anyone dangerous near you.” That last was addressed directly to Emma.
“But in the future,” her mother insisted. “She won’t always be here. Could you give us an example, based on your own experience?” July went beyond not smiling and distinctly frowned.
“There are several different kinds of immortals,” she said at last. “Hundreds. It’s been about nine years since I came into my Sight, so I’ve interacted with quite a few of them. Some, usually the higher-ups, will ignore you. Others will see you as a threat because you see them for what they are. Still others will recognize your power and try to take it for themselves. They’ll offer you all sorts of deals and trades, but none of it will ever be worth the price they ask.”
“What price?” Emma asked. She had so many questions already that all she could do was ask the most immediate one first.
“Most often, your…” July sighed. “For lack of a better word, your soul.”
As if on cue, a chilly gust of wind rushed through the gazebo. Surprisingly chilly for summer. “Oh.” Emma had started to fidget again, her leg bouncing rapidly until her dad grabbed her knee and held it still.
“But ask is the operative word there,” July went on quickly. “Even if they are dangerous, none of them can get at your soul without your consent.”
“Oh, thank Heaven,” her mom breathed, one hand on her chest, clearly just as nervous as Emma was. “That is such a relief. Emma wouldn’t—”
“It’s not always so simple.” July was still frowning. She looked at Emma, then at each of her parents and asked, “Would it be possible for me to talk to Emma for a few minutes? Just the two of us?” Her parents exchanged glances.
“I guess so,” her mom said haltingly. “We’ll wait by the car. Just let us know when to come back.”
Once her parents had left, Emma alternated between looking down at the table and out at the river, anywhere but at July. Sitting on her hands, kicking her legs beneath the wooden bench, she waited to hear what kind of trouble she was in.
“So,” July began, “how did you know?”
“Um. When we lived in Hanover, I had a teacher who was…uh, I don’t know. Something else. I didn’t notice anything weird about him at first, but after a while, I started to see…” Her face screwed up as she searched for the words. “It’s hard to explain.”
“Believe me, I know. But if you try, maybe I can help you figure it out.”
“Okay. He was like, a different color from everyone else?” Seeing July nod in understanding, rather than frown or look skeptical like her parents, encouraged her to elaborate. “People don’t usually have colors, but I kept seeing him—‘glow’ isn’t really the right word. It wasn’t a light. It was just an outline around him. Like, really dark brown-green.”
Again, July nodded. “It’s called an aura. Only immortals have them. That color, to me, sounds like he might have been a shapeshifter, but it’s hard to know without seeing for myself. Was he the only one you saw?”
“Yeah. So far, him and Miss Desavi are the only ones.”
“He and Miss Desavi. And when did she come into the picture?”
“Mr. Taylor caught me staring at him a few times. I think he figured out I could see him. I mean, really see him. He told me to come to his room after my last class, but when I did, he was mad.” She tensed up in her seat, lowering her head and starting to fidget with her mess of ginger curls to deal with the discomfort this memory brought up. “He said he knew what I was, and I better not say anything about him. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I definitely didn’t know anything about him. But I told him I wouldn’t say anything. I was scared. I wanted to tell my mom, but I thought…” She sniffled, hunching her shoulders slightly.
“I understand,” July said gently. “How long did that last?”
“A couple of weeks,” Emma said, sniffing now and then between her words but trying to focus on telling the story. “He acted normal mostly, but he kept giving me these scary looks. Nobody else noticed, I guess. Then Miss Desavi came to our class one day. She knocked on the door and asked to talk to Mr. Taylor. He was in the middle of our lesson, but he still went outside with her. He looked really nervous.”
“I can imagine,” July said with a slight smile.
“Yeah. She’s pretty scary.”
Tilting her head to one side, July asked, “Does she scare you?”
“Kind of? I don’t know.” Miss Desavi hadn’t threatened her or tried to hurt her, so it didn’t seem like there was any reason to be scared. Emma just got a bad feeling around her. Nervous, like she very easily could be dangerous. “I think she’s trying to help, but I don’t really know why. And she’s not very nice.”
July suppressed a snicker. “No, she’s not. And that’s the reason you moved?”
“Yeah. My mom got scared when she found out about Mr. Taylor being some kind of…”
“Immortal,” July prompted.
“That. She got scared and wanted my dad’s job to transfer him. Miss Desavi said it wouldn’t matter because they’re everywhere, but then she told us about you being here, and I guess she changed her mind. She asked if we wanted help. So here we are.”
“I see. Well, I’m going to do everything I can to help you learn how to stay safe.”
“Okay.” Emma smiled, glad that July was turning out to be patient and nice rather than grouchy like Miss Desavi. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Do you have any questions for me? Before I ask your parents to come back?”
There was a silence in which Emma realized that her parents didn’t necessarily have to know what she talked to July about. “You haven’t met any friendly immortals?” she asked. “Not even one?”
“That’s the thing: a lot of them are friendly. Or they seem to be at first. They’ll be nice to gain your trust and then try to persuade or trick you into giving them what they want,” July explained. “I’ve learned to always be careful with them and stay wary no matter what. That’s one good thing about Valen, though: she’s honest, and she’s unlikely to ask you for anything. She may not be the friendliest person, but you can at least trust what she tells you.”
“But no one else?” Emma insisted. Surely they couldn’t all be bad. If there were as many of them as July was saying, that just didn’t make sense, statistically.
“That’s what I’m here to help you decide. It’s my personal choice to distrust them on principle, but you may not feel that way. That’s something you’ll only be able to judge once you’ve learned more about them, though. As to your question, the only one I’ve ever found to be genuinely trustworthy and benign is Cupid, but—”
“There’s a Cupid?” Emma interrupted, suddenly lit up with interest. “A real one?”
“Yes. You’ll learn that a lot of the ‘myths’ you’ve heard of are based on some version of the truth, like Valen being the Grim Reaper. But—”
“What other kinds are there?” Emma sat up on her knees on the bench, now too distracted and curious to hear the negative parts. July frowned again.
“Like I said, several. They’re usually very good at hiding themselves among humans. That’s the reason some of them get angry when people like us exist. They don’t like anyone seeing through their lies.”
“What about mermaids? Or fairies? Are those real? Could I see them too?” Maybe she shouldn’t have been as excited as she was, but these were things she’d always been interested in but assumed were made up. Now that July was saying otherwise, there were so many new possibilities that she had a hard time thinking of them as dangerous.
“Yes, but not in the way you’re thinking,” July said, shaking her head, her tone getting sharper and calling Emma back from her wandering imagination. “Emma, listen. These people are not what you might think. They’re real, but they aren’t the cute fairy tale versions you know, and they don’t want to be friends.”
She sank down to sit on her legs, frowning. “How do you know?”
“I’ve been dealing with them for a long time,” July said bitterly, folding her hands on the table. “I’ll teach you how to make your own judgments, but for now, please, just trust me: you want to avoid them. Consider that your first lesson.”