Fight the Stars

by Sophia Alapati and Bethany Wheeler. Shortlistees of the Best Novel Opening for Children or Young Adults competition 2023

Holland could tell the question was coming. For the past five minutes, the boy in the neighboring seat kept sneaking glances at them, his brown eyes darting from Holland’s patterned jeans and cerulean button-up to their short, dyed hair. Holland hated that strangers felt entitled to ask not only this question but several inevitable follow-ups. They wished he would get on with it.

When the headmistress finished her orientation speech, the boy finally leaned over. ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’

They’d been holding the answer in their mouth like a mint. ‘Neither.’

Now that they were fourteen, Holland was used to explaining their gender, but their chest tightened with the apprehension that came with not knowing how a stranger would react. In Pittsburgh, they could call their parents to take them home if it went badly. At Hadrian Albright School for Lucent Adolescents, Holland would be away from home for months at a time. Their usual summer vacation was cut short because Albright’s term began in July, and they wouldn’t see their parents again until winter solstice break. Holland would miss cheering at Steelers games with Dad. They would miss Mom’s spicy sambar with fluffy idli, and her magic, warm and melodic, like wooden windchimes clattering in a summer breeze.

Like the other ninety-nine incoming first-years, Holland’s magic had begun to flourish from a fledgling thrumming beneath their skin to a force strong enough to wield. Albright would show them how.

Mom sometimes talked about what it was like when she lived in enclaves, but Holland had never set foot in one before today. At first glance, Embers Edge could have been any small town in Pennsylvania, except there were no telephone wires or road signs or dumpsters, as though everything that made the town run was hidden away. There were no cars, only orange driverless vehicles the size of vans. Mom called them fireflies, but Holland thought they looked like aliens, with big black oblong windows for eyes.