“Deathwatch” © 2015 by Katie French
“Tides” © 2015 by Sarah Dalton
“Shadowspirit” © 2015 by M.A. George
“The Little Girl” © 2015 by Jamie Campbell
“The Ghost Below” © 2015 by Ariele Sieling
“Slave Runner” © 2015 by H.S. Stone
“Farewell Ohana (A Ghostly Mini-Wave)” © 2015 by Sutton Shields
“Ghost Girl” © 2015 by Susan Fodor
Cover Design by Sarah Dalton
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the products of the authors’ imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Charlotte looked down at the Snickers bar in her hand and up at the gun pointed at her chest. A sugar rush was not worth getting your guts blown out.
Her sister Georgie was the trembling shape behind her. Charlotte tried to stay calm as the two masked robbers waved their weapons around the convenience store. It was hard to keep her head. The guns were so big, the men so angry. The robbers were young and white; she could tell that much. They had on matching black ski masks, jeans, and long black shirts, standard robbery uniforms. Except, one guy had on the new red Jordans.
Bad move, hot shot. Haven’t you seen CSI? They can track your shoes to the store you bought them from. They’ll know shoe size, when you bought them, everything, Charlotte thought smugly.
“Get down!” the closest robber yelled at her.
All smugness fell away as Charlotte nodded and lowered herself to the floor. Sweat was collecting on her upper lip and her limbs trembled. Behind her, she heard Georgie drop to the dirty tile floor with a thump.
“Now!” the robber shouted.
Charlotte sunk to the floor. Tears were pooling in her eyes. This isn’t real. It doesn’t feel real.
She’d just wanted candy, maybe a Monster Energy Drink and a walk in the first warm spring evening. Georgie had wanted to tag along, hoping an older guy might buy her a pack of smokes. Charlotte had spouted off something about, Sure, smokes for sexual favors. That snide comment had made Georgie clam up for the entire five-block trek.
Now those might be the last words Charlotte would ever say to her older sister.
Charlotte lay on the tile and tried to breathe. The floor was filthy. Hairs and specks of something orange clumped beneath her fingers. As the robbers demanded money from the clerk behind the counter, Charlotte focused on two things: not moving and thinking about how many disgusting germs she was currently touching by lying face-down on a gas station floor. When had it last been mopped, the Clinton era? If she could tell Georgie this, her sister would say something like, Why do you always think of the weirdest shit? Charlotte would shrug. Because she was weird. She read manga, knitted, and was a member of the school live action role play club. (L.A.R.P. if you’re down with the lingo.) She was frickin’ weird, okay? Georgie would roll her eyes and text someone.
Tension was mounting at the counter. Charlotte watched as the clerk angrily drew bills out of the cash register and shoved them in a plastic bag. The clerk was in his fifties, but his arms were muscled, and his t-shirt hugged him snuggly. No paunch belly like most men his age. His hair was short and brown, his eyes brown, too. He had big ears and a small puckered mouth that gave his face an unfortunate shape. Was he new here? She’d come to this store many times in the past few years. She didn’t think she’d ever seen him before.
The clerk drew out another bill and shoved it in the sack. He was being painfully slow. Deliberately slow. His mouth was set in angry defiance.
“Move your ass, grandpa!” the taller robber shouted through his mask. He smashed the butt of his gun down on the back of the clerk’s head.
Charlotte gasped. Behind her, Georgie started to cry.
“Thought we said no violence!” the shorter robber yelled. He was jumpy, watching the road and pacing. He stared at the injured clerk, who was rubbing his skull furiously.
“Shut up, T,” the taller robber said. He turned to the clerk. “Get the money in the bag, or I’ll use the other part of the gun.”
Charlotte knew she should be fearing for her life, but her brain loved to dig for clues. She had an addiction to mystery novels and spent way too much of her summer vacation watching reruns of Law and Order. Right now her mind turned away from “Oh shit, I’m going to die,” to “There are some pieces of evidence I need to collect.”
First, she was pretty sure she knew the shorter robber, the nervous one pacing by the door. He sounded familiar. Like a boy who’d graduated a couple years ahead of her. His name was Trent, and he’d had pottery class with her freshman year.
The second bit of evidence centered around the guns.
Charlotte wasn’t just a L.A.R.P. enthusiast. Much to her older, cooler sister’s dismay, she went with friends to play Airsoft from time to time. They’d dress in camo, paint their faces, and drive to abandoned warehouses to shoot small, yellow pellets at each other, and then argue about who’d cheated. Airsoft weapons looked and felt like real guns, except for one minor detail—they had orange tips. This was to keep you from being shot down by police while you played. But sometimes people painted those tips black. And judging by the streaks of orange around these guns, that’s exactly what these two had done.
They’re not real guns! she wanted to shout. But what if she was wrong?
The clerk put the last of the money in the bag. The taller robber grabbed for it, but the clerk held the bag tight. The taller robber yanked the bag. The clerk held on. Charlotte watched the bag’s plastic slowly split.
“What the hell are you doing, old man?” He pointed the gun in the clerk’s face. “I’ll blast your ancient brains out!”
The clerk gripped the bag harder. “Do it.”
Charlotte tensed. If the gun was fake, the clerk had just called the robber’s bluff. If it was real…
For a moment, the robber aimed at the clerk. They locked eyes.
“Come on, B!” the shorter robber shouted. Charlotte was pretty sure it was Trent. “The cops’ll be here any minute!”
“You think this is funny?” the taller robber asked the clerk. “You’ll think this is real funny, then.”
He stomped down the aisle toward Charlotte and Georgie. Charlotte hunched up small, but he strode past her and stood over Georgie.
Oh God, not Georgie.
Charlotte turned in time to see the robber grab Georgie by the hair. Georgie screamed and stumbled to her feet. Her hands went to her hair, curled in perfect brown ringlets until now. Tears streaked down her face. Her eyes were terrified.
Charlotte watched helplessly as the robber shoved his gun into her sister’s temple.
“Please, please!” Georgie cried. Snot ran down her nose. Her trembling hands were up.
Charlotte had to do something. She rolled over and sat up, facing the robber. “Please,” she said. “Don’t hurt her.”
The taller robber glared. “Shut up! Both you bitches.”
Charlotte’s mouth dropped. Oh no, he didn’t.
“Come on!” Trent shouted. He’d run to the door and looked like he was going to bolt.
The taller robber backed toward the door with Georgie in tow.
Charlotte thought she heard sirens in the distance.
The guns were fake, right? She looked at the tip. Now she couldn’t see any orange. Maybe she’d imagined it.
The robber dragged Georgie to the door. He was going to take her with him. Charlotte couldn’t let that happen.
Charlotte forced her trembling legs to stand. “Let my sister go!”
The robbers looked at her like she’d sprouted wings.
The one holding Georgie by the hair pointed his gun at her. “Bitch, lay back down.”
He pushed open the door, dragging Georgie with him.
Charlotte’s mind ran all the scenarios of what would happen to her only sister. All were horrible.
Terrified, Charlotte ran at the robber.
She smacked into him, grabbing for his arms. Shocked by her sudden onslaught, he let go of Georgie’s hair. Georgie ran screaming to the back of the store.
Charlotte watched her, relieved.
Then the robber backhanded her in the face.
Heat and pressure surged up her cheek. Stars flashed before her eyes. She hit the ground hard.
The world dimmed.
Something was happening. Charlotte heard a commotion at the door. And sirens. Definitely sirens.
She rolled over, trying to focus her eyes. Her cheek was throbbing, and she tasted blood.
Commotion drew her attention. At the door, the clerk was fighting the robbers. He punched the shorter one in the face over and over. The taller one lay on the ground beside Charlotte. She scooted away and shook the dizziness from her head. She must be seeing things because the clerk had a dark halo buzzing around him. It looked like dozens of…bees circling him as he punched and punched the robber.
The robber’s name is Trent. He made a ceramic vase for his mother in pottery class.
The buzzing grew louder. A dark cloud was blurring out the clerk’s face. Charlotte felt like she was going to be sick.
Pummeled and beaten, Trent slumped down the glass door, leaving a small streak of blood next to a faded Budweiser ad.
He’s finished, Charlotte thought with relief.
The clerk drew out a Swiss Army Knife and flicked it open.
What is he—
The clerk stabbed Trent in the chest.
Trent gasped, his eyes going wide behind his ski mask.
Charlotte lurched back. The clerk had stabbed Trent. Trent who was clearly incapacitated. She watched in horror as the blood drenched Trent’s shirt and began painting the floor. It ran down the grout lines toward her.
She was going to pass out. Where was Georgie? Where were the cops? She couldn’t hear the sirens over the buzzing. And why, in God’s name, did he have so many bees around his head?
The clerk wiped the knife on his sleeve and stood up. When he turned toward Charlotte, she screamed.
His face, his eyes, his mouth were covered in huge, black beetles.
Then she saw no more.
Charlotte’s mom ran across two lanes of traffic and clambered into the ambulance. Her short blonde hair was a mess and her eyes were red.
“Oh my God, girls, are you okay?” She touched Charlotte’s cheek with a trembling hand.
Charlotte sat on one stretcher, Georgie on the other. The ambulance’s interior lights were too bright. She just wanted to go home and… What? Take a shower? Scrub and scrub until she could slough this day away. But she could never scrub her mind.
His face was covered in beetles.
“Charlotte,” her mom said, leaning in to look in her eyes. “Are you okay, sweetie? The police said you were attacked, but the E.M.T.s said you didn’t have any severe injuries. Does anything hurt?”
Charlotte shook her head.
“What about me? I was attacked, too,” Georgie whined. Somehow she’d already combed her hair and put on lip gloss.
“I know, sweetie.” Her mother moved to the other cot and began petting Georgie’s hair.
“Ma’am,” the E.M.T. said from the ambulance’s open back door. “I’m going to need to speak with you for a moment.”
Their mother nodded and climbed out of the ambulance.
Charlotte turned to Georgie. Her older sister looked surprisingly unscathed. She tossed Charlotte her lip gloss. “Here. Put some on in case the camera crews come.”
Charlotte set the lip gloss in her lap. “When the clerk went after the two boys, where were you?”
Georgie closed her pocket mirror and looked up. “Hiding in the back under the Doritos like you should’ve been. Thanks for saving me by the way,” she said, leaning over and patting Charlotte’s hand. “Guess I owe you for that. That dude was for sure going to rape me.”
“But did you see anything?” Charlotte asked, pressing her fingers to her eyes. “Did you see the clerk’s face?”
Georgie shook her head. “I was in the fetal position. You know, protecting this.” She gestured to her face. “Thank God for the old guy, though, right? He’s a frickin’ hero.”
Charlotte followed Georgie’s gaze across the street to the gas station. The clerk was outside, talking to the police.
“Yeah,” Charlotte said coldly. “A hero.”
When the news reported their story later that night, the reporter called the store clerk a hero as well.
Charlotte watched from Georgie’s bed, clutching a pillow to her chest. The eleven o’clock news started with their story, making Georgie squeal and then text seven people simultaneously.
Charlotte turned up the volume.
The blonde anchorwoman stared into the camera. “A convenience store escaped being robbed today, and locals are calling the store clerk a hero. We head over to Langdon’s east side for more. Chuck?”
They cut over to a young African American reporter in a blue windbreaker standing outside the convenience store.
Georgie pointed. “There it is!”
Charlotte shooed her hand away and leaned in closer.
“Thanks, Joan. At about eight PM this gas station convenience store on the corner of Harper and Wayne was the scene of an armed robbery. Witnesses say two masked men carrying guns burst in and demanded the clerk hand over all the cash in the register.”
The report cut to Georgie standing outside the gas station. Her hair and lip gloss looked impeccable.
“There I am!” she squealed, bouncing on her bed.
“My sister and I were just, like, getting some snacks and in busted these two thugs. And we were like, ‘Oh my God!’ They started yelling, and one grabbed me and was going to rape me, but my sister attacked him.”
The TV cut back to the reporter. Georgie frowned at the screen. “That’s all they’re going to show?”
The reporter in the blue windbreaker continued. “The two girls escaped with minor injuries because the store’s clerk took matters in his own hands.”
The TV cut to a distant shot of the clerk talking to police. When he sensed the cameras on him, he stepped behind a pillar and was hidden from sight. A black shape flew after him.
One of those horrible beetles. Charlotte pulled her pillow closer to her chest.
“The man identified as fifty-two-year-old Darren Warzinski declined to comment, but witnesses say he confronted the armed gunmen and saved the girls’ lives. The men were thought to be armed with high-powered rifles, but the police later revealed they’d been using replica weapons.
“During the scuffle one of the young men was killed. His name, as well as the name of the other gunman, has yet to be released.”
His name was Trent. She couldn’t stop picturing the image of the knife plunging into Trent’s chest, of the blood. She closed her eyes and tried to think of anything else.
The TV droned on, but she’d heard enough. She turned the volume down and lay back in bed. Across the room, Georgie was texting furiously. She had Twitter and Tumblr up on her computer. She was loving every minute of this.
Charlotte just wanted it all to go away.
She pulled out her laptop and Googled images for black beetles. After looking at pages and pages of gross insects with antennae and segmented legs (enough to make her skin crawl and her scalp itch), she finally spied what she’d seen on the man’s face. It was called the deathwatch beetle. Wikipedia said it was, among other things, an “omen of impending death.”
“Great,” she said.
When Georgie answered her phone and started talking a mile a minute, Charlotte pushed off the bed and headed down the hall to the bathroom.
She stripped down and turned on the shower. She lit one of Mom’s smelly candles and turned off the lights. The candlelight and shower noise were soothing. She stepped in the spray and let it bathe her for a long time.
When she was pruney, waterlogged, and a little more relaxed, Charlotte turned off the shower and stepped out. Reaching for a towel, she spotted an image in the dark mirror.
There, in the mirror, was an image made for nightmares. Charlotte’s reflection was gone, replaced by a dead thing. A dead girl. Her white, sagging skin and sunken eyes stared out. Her lank hair clung to her scalp in chunks. Her shirt and jeans were crusted with dirt and beginning to decay.
The girl was dead. And she was staring at Charlotte.
Charlotte clung to the wall, afraid to move. She glanced at the door. Getting there would require her to move closer to the corpse in the mirror. Her legs wouldn’t allow it.
Would her family come? She heard nothing.
She couldn’t take her eyes off the dead girl. Her neck had a gaping wound, as if someone had slit her throat. Who would do such a thing? And why, dear God, was Charlotte seeing her?
It’s just a hallucination, Charlotte told herself as she tried to unlock her legs.
The dead girl turned. Charlotte watched horrified as the girl puckered her chalky white lips and blew.
The candle in Charlotte’s bathroom went out.
Charlotte sprinted to the door and yanked on the knob. Her heart was leaping out of her chest. The knob would not turn.
Behind her, the mirror began to pulse with an eerie green glow.
Charlotte pounded the door.
“Help! Help! Mom! Dad! Georgie!”
No one came.
Slowly, Charlotte turned around, clutching the doorknob like a lifeline.
The dead girl was the source of the glow. The pulsing swamp-green glow seemed to come from within her body like a firefly. Her eyes, white and filmy with decay, were fixed on Charlotte.
“Please,” Charlotte whispered. “Don’t hurt me.”
The girl slowly raised her arm, turned her palm over, and opened her fist. Sitting on her hand was a small golden shape.
Charlotte looked between the girl’s decaying face and the shape in her palm. “D-do you want me to see that?” Charlotte asked. God, was she really talking to her own hallucination?
The dead girl nodded.
With one hand still clutched around the doorknob, Charlotte leaned forward. She was going to faint any second, but the investigator part of her brain had taken over. She was curious. If Georgie were here, she’d say something about curiosity and a dead cat.
Charlotte didn’t want to die.
When she leaned in closer, she could see the gold shape was a pin. The kind men wear on vests or lapels. It was the shape of a bird of prey, an eagle maybe. There may have been words etched on a plaque at the bottom, but it was too hard to read them. She would need to stand toe-to-toe with that dead girl to see and even her investigator mind couldn’t bring her to do something as stupid as that.
“Does it say something?” She looked into the dead girl’s face. She really wasn’t all that horrifying once you got used to her. And for some reason Charlotte had the feeling she was trying to tell her something. “Can you speak?”
The ghost watched her with that same blank expression. Slowly, she opened her mouth.
A dark shape fell out and plopped onto the counter. Then two.
Beetles, hundreds of writhing, clamoring beetles, poured out of the girl’s mouth. Several began buzzing toward Charlotte. One hit her cheek and clung to her shoulder.
“Oh God!” She swatted the air in a panic.
Terrified, Charlotte yanked on the doorknob. This time the knob turned. She tore out of the bathroom.
“What’s wrong with you?” Georgie stared, cellphone clutched in her palm.
Charlotte tried to slow her breathing long enough to answer. “Freaked. Out. I saw something.”
Georgie set her phone on her comforter. “Oh yeah, I know. I can’t stop thinking about that robber pressing that gun to my head. He was, like, seriously going to murder me.”
There was nothing like Georgie’s self-centeredness to draw Charlotte out of her terror.
“The guns weren’t even real.”
Georgie batted a hand in the air, dismissing Charlotte’s comment. “They were real enough. One dude is dead because of them.”
Charlotte climbed under her covers and kept her eye on the door and the bathroom. Her heart was still racing a mile a minute. “Didn’t you hear me pounding on the door?”
“My Twitter is blowing up,” Georgie said, texting again. “I’m the bomb dot com, right now. Even Jessica texted me, and you know she called me a colossal bitch at the last basketball game. I don’t even think she can spell colossal.”
Charlotte let Georgie talk. It was comforting to know that there were people in the world who didn’t change. Finally she said, “Do you think you could come in the bathroom with me?”
Georgie looked up from her phone. “What? Why?”
Charlotte shrugged. The blanket was making her hot, but she snuggled down deeper anyway. “I want you to look at something.”
“Do you have a rash? Gross. I am not your OB GYN.”
“No, Georgie. Hell. Can you just… Can you just be supportive for, like, two seconds? Then you can ignore me and go back to texting Brandon or Brenden or whoever.”
Slowly, Georgie set down her phone. “Harsh.”
Charlotte shrugged. “Sorry.”
Georgie got up, walked down the hall, and threw on the bathroom light. “What am I looking for?”
Charlotte sat up in bed. “Do you see anything?”
Georgie took a step in the bathroom. Charlotte held her breath.
“Oh my God,” Georgie gasped.
“What?” Charlotte’s heart was in her chest.
Georgie stepped out holding Charlotte’s dirty underwear. “Are these Sponge Bob?” She tossed them at Charlotte’s bed.
“You are the least helpful person in the mega-verse,” Charlotte said, sinking back onto her pillow.
Georgie climbed into Charlotte’s bed with her. “What’s up, Char? Did today freak you out? I thought you were the unfreakable one. I’m the damsel-in-distress-cry-her-eyes-out one.”
Charlotte pulled the blanket down to her chin and looked at her sister. “I guess I’m not unfreakable.”
That thing in the bathroom, it had to be a hallucination, right?
Georgie lay down beside Charlotte. “Today was messed up. It’s okay for you to be, too.”
Charlotte nodded. “But I’m way messed up.”
“Well, we all know that.” She nudged Charlotte playfully. When Charlotte didn’t respond, Georgie sighed. “Look, I didn’t see that guy get jacked, and I don’t really want to know what that was like. I’m sorry you had to watch, though.”
Charlotte wanted to tell Georgie about the clerk’s beetle-covered face, about the hallucination in the bathroom (It was a hallucination, right? A stress-induced PTSD freak out, right?), but she couldn’t choke out the words. She swallowed hard and worked on her nerve. “Georgie?”
Georgie’s phone beeped. She sprung off the bed and grabbed it.
Charlotte sighed, rolled over, and kept a constant vigil on the bathroom.
School was a nightmare.
The next day Charlotte and Georgie couldn’t make it through the parking lot without a throng of people mobbing them and asking a million questions. Georgie, her hair perfectly curled, smiled and nodded and answered all the questions like she was their spokeswoman. Charlotte kept her head down and slinked in behind her sister.
First hour was worse. Mrs. Hunter was sick, and they had a substitute who put on a video about tectonic activity and buried his face in his Kindle. That allowed everyone who sat near Charlotte to ask her unending questions. She mumbled a few answers about, “No, I didn’t get raped,” and “No, it wasn’t true I went all Rambo on the guy’s ass.”
Halfway through the hour, Charlotte shot up in her seat.
“I need to go to the office,” she announced.
The sub looked up. “Take the hall pass with you.”
Charlotte grabbed her bag and shouldered out the class without another word.
Her mom picked her up thirty minutes later, bursting into the office, looking as terrified as she had in the back of the ambulance the night before.
“Are you okay? What happened? Did someone bully you?” her mom asked the minute they were alone in the car together.
Charlotte sighed. More talking. “No one bullied me. It was just… too much.”
Her mother nodded. “Your Aunt Wendy said this might happen.”
Charlotte’s Aunt Wendy was a child psychologist. Her mother went to Aunt Wendy with all issues the girls had. It was pretty annoying.
“Did Aunt Wendy say anything about hallucinations?” Charlotte asked, picking at a rip in her jeans.
Her mom shot her a glance before turning her eyes to the road. “No. Why?”
“Just a joke,” Charlotte said, throwing on a smile.
Her mother narrowed her eyes.
“Really. A joke. Ha ha. Okay?” Now her mom was going to spend an hour on the phone talking to Aunt Wendy about teenage hallucinations.
To distract her mom, Charlotte pulled a wrinkled newspaper out of the crack between the seats and opened it.
“Is this today’s?” There, on the front page, was a picture of the clerk from last night. In the photo, Darren Warzinski stared off with a troubled look on his face. His features were harsh, his eyes dark and shifty. She got chills just looking at it. But there were no beetles in this picture. Just an old man who stabbed someone and then wiped the knife on his sleeve.
Then she saw the spot of gold on his shirt collar.
She pulled the paper closer, zeroing in on object pinned to his shirt. It was hard to tell, but she was pretty sure it looked like a golden bird of prey.
“Holy shit. The same pin,” she whispered.
“Huh?” her mom asked, looking over. She had that worried, spaced-out look in her eyes. “You want anything at Starbucks?”
When she got home, Charlotte looked up every picture she could find of Darren Warzinski. There were surprisingly few. Sure, there were lots from last night, but she was only able to find one other photo on the internet from before the incident. Darren Warzinski had won a fishing tournament up in Leewanaw Heights. She squinted at the photo of him next to a huge trout. There was no pin on his lapel. And yet, in every photo of yesterday, the pin glinted like a beacon. She was sure the pin was the same one the ghost had shown her in the bathroom. But why?
Listen to her. God. She was already believing her hallucination was a ghost sending her messages from the other side. Maybe she needed Aunt Wendy to prescribe something.
Or maybe she needed to go back in that bathroom and see what else the ghost had for her.
Charlotte glanced down the hall to the bathroom. Then she thought of the beetles spilling out of the ghost’s mouth.
She crunched down further in her chair and banished the idea.
Instead, she Googled eagle and raven pins, comparing images until she found one that matched what she had seen. It was the Fraternal Order of the Hawk. She Googled that and found there was a local chapter with a clubhouse nearby. And then, much deeper down the page, she saw Darren Warzinski’s name listed among others as a contact for a local benefit for fallen soldiers.
“He’s a member,” she whispered. Then louder, “Mom!”
Her mother came running. “What is it? Are you okay?”
“Fine. Hey, do you know anything about the Fraternal Order of the Hawk?”
Her mom twisted up her mouth in thought. “They have a local chapter. It’s downtown past the Dairy Queen. But you have to be a member to get in.”
“Do the members go there every night?” Charlotte asked.
Her mom shrugged. “Some go there to socialize and have an adult beverage. Marcy’s uncle— You remember Marcy I work with?”
“Well, her uncle’s a hawk, and she says she always has to go pick him up on Thursdays because they have a big Euchre tournament.”
Charlotte chewed her lip. “Today’s Thursday.”
Her mom nodded. “Why the sudden interest in the F.O.H.?”
Charlotte turned back to her computer. “It’s for a project. I don’t want to get behind in school.”
Her mom walked over and kissed the top of Charlotte’s head. “That’s my good girl. You holler if you need anything. I’ll just be working downstairs.”
When Georgie got home a few hours later, Charlotte showed her a picture of the pin.
“The clerk was wearing this last night. I think it means something.”
Georgie took a quick glance at Charlotte’s laptop and flopped on her bed. “I am tres exhaust,” she said, using an awful French accent. “Everyone, and I mean everyone, wanted to talk to me today.”
Charlotte waved the comment away. “Listen. This is important. I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with Darren Warzinski.”
Georgie lifted an eyebrow. “Who?”
“The clerk who killed that guy last night.”
Georgie continued to stare at Charlotte like she’d grown another head. “You mean the hometown hero?”
“He’s not,” Charlotte said, frustrated. “Everyone keeps saying that, but I saw what he did to that boy. Trent didn’t have a real gun. He was trying to leave. The clerk stabbed him just for the hell of it.”
Georgie curled up one corner of her mouth. “Did you tell the cops this?”
“And did they think it was important?”
“No. I don’t know.” Charlotte slammed her laptop closed. “I’m going to check something out tonight. You can come, or you can cover for me with mom.”
Georgie shook her head. “Can’t. Have plans.”
Charlotte pushed out a frustrated sigh. “Fine. I don’t need you.”
Georgie cocked her head and stared at Charlotte. “Why’re you getting all weird? Is this about last night? Do you need some happy pills or something?”
Charlotte glared at Georgie. “What do you care?”
Georgie’s jaw dropped. “I care.”
Charlotte crossed her arms and turned away.
“Fine. Count me in, Scooby Doo. Let’s hop in the Mystery Machine. Get us some Scooby Snacks.”
Charlotte scowled, but she was happy that Georgie had caved. She didn’t want to go alone. “If I’m Scooby, you’re Shaggy.”
Georgie fluffed her hair. “Everyone knows you’re Velma, and I’m Daphne.”
Charlotte nodded. “Can’t argue with that.”
The Fraternal Order of the Hawk hall looked like a great place to conduct a murder.
Charlotte and Georgie found the long, narrow driveway with the F.O.H. sign easily. Their bike ride had been uneventful and pleasant in the warm May breeze. But the lightness Charlotte had felt as they’d pedaled side-by-side evaporated when they rode into the building’s dark parking lot. Not only was the parking lot empty, but the large, square building in front of them was pitch black inside. Hedged by trees on three sides, the moonlight barely penetrated the lot enough for them to make out the concrete hawk at the entrance. If there was a welcome sign, Charlotte couldn’t see it. Even if she could, she didn’t feel very welcome.
Georgie braked and straddled her bike. “This is what you wanted to check out? Jesus, Char, you are one morbid mama.”
Charlotte shook her head, letting her eyes rove over the parking lot and building. Not a car in sight, but now she noticed, a creepy, black van parked near the building’s side entrance. It had a giant red ant stenciled on the back.
“Exterminators,” Charlotte said, pointing at the van. “That explains why no one’s here.”
Georgie pushed a strand of hair away from where it clung to her lip gloss. “So we can leave this creepfest?”
Charlotte’s eyes stayed locked on the van. Exterminators. A chill ran up her arms. “The beetles,” she whispered.
Georgie frowned. “Like, the band? You are losing it.”
“No, no,” Charlotte said, putting her kickstand down and leaving her bike. She strode toward the dark building with her heart hammering in her chest.
“Where are you going?” Georgie called.
“We came all this way. I have to see.” Charlotte walked up the concrete parking lot, keeping her eyes on the dark windows.
She stopped just in front of the main doors. The filtering moonlight cast enough glow to reveal a gilded crest, featuring a bird with talons outstretched and a beak open in mid-screech. A plaque at the bottom listed when this branch had been established and the founder’s names. In the door’s sidelight window, a poster for a fish fry dinner hung askew.
It all looks quiet, Charlotte thought.
Then the ghost appeared.
There, in the glass’s dark reflection, the dead girl’s horrific face swam up—all sunken eyes and sagging skin, the wound on her neck yawning open, bone and tendons and flaking skin.
Charlotte was too terrified to move.
In the glass, the ghost reached out a hand. Charlotte cringed when she noticed missing fingernails. Her gorge rose. She clamped both hands to her mouth and tried to breathe. She felt lightheaded.
The ghost pointed to the right. Charlotte turned her head slowly. The ghost was pointing Charlotte to the door.
“Y-you want me to go in?” she whispered through her fingers.
The ghost nodded.
“Oh God.” Charlotte smeared the tears across her cheek.
“What’s going on?”
Charlotte turned her head. Georgie was standing beside her, looking pale and frightened. “Are you okay?”
Charlotte shook her head. “Do you see it?”
She turned back to the window. The ghost was gone.
Georgie put her hand on her sister’s arm. “I see you clearly freaked out. We should go. We’ll hurry home, and maybe Mom can call Aunt Wendy—”
“No,” Charlotte said, wiping her face. “There’s something we have to do.” She reached out and took the doorknob in her palm.
“What are you doing?” Georgie’s voice was shrill. “You can’t just go in there. It’s creepy. And also, it’s, like, trespassing.”
Charlotte took Georgie by the arms and looked into her face. “Listen, I need to go in there.”
Georgie pulled back, shaking her head. “Nuh-uh. No way. This is nuts. We need to go home. Now.”
Charlotte looked sadly at her sister. “I can’t.”
Georgie plunged her fists down. “Charlotte Marie Beckett, I’m telling you we go home. Get your bike.”
Charlotte thought of the girl in the window. If this was a message from beyond, Charlotte couldn’t just ignore it. And so much of her wanted to see how far down this rabbit hole went. She stayed stock still. “I can’t.”
Georgie let out a groan of frustration. “Well, I’m going home. I’m going to tell Mom, and you’re going to be grounded for life.” She stalked back to her bike and got on. “I mean it, Charlotte!”
When Charlotte didn’t move, Georgie turned around and pedaled away. Charlotte watched her sister’s shadow disappear with a heavy heart. This would’ve been so much nicer with someone at her side. No matter how much Daphne annoyed Velma, it was pretty clear Velma liked having Daphne around.
Charlotte turned the knob and stepped into the dark interior.
She stood in the open doorway, her heart pounding, and waited for her eyes to adjust. It was ten times more terrifying inside the building. She could see a breezeway and another door ahead of her, also closed. Taking a deep breath, she tiptoed forward and pulled it open.
She could tell by the echoes of her movement that she was in a large space. Straining to see, she began to pick out shapes—tables and chairs, lots of them. The far wall had a large dark shape running along it, probably a bar with stools ringing the outside. She’d been in one of these halls before, a wedding her mother and stepfather had taken them to. She was pretty sure most of these halls were the same—a large space with moveable tables and chairs, a bar, severed elk and bear heads on the walls, posters and plaques celebrating the F.O.H.’s many achievements and services. There was no Darren Warzinski or any of his horrible beetles.
Thank God for that.
But then, why had the ghost led her here?
She shuffled along the wall, one hand on its surface so she could feel anchored. She bumped a chair, and it made a horrible screeching sound as it skidded across the tile. Charlotte stopped and tried to slow her rapid breathing. This wasn’t some episode of C.S.I. Miami. This was her life and she was scared as hell. Maybe she should just turn around and—
A beam of light danced across the cavernous room. A flashlight.
Someone was coming.
Charlotte dropped to the floor. Her breathing was coming too hard and too fast. Whoever was coming would see her, and she’d be dead.
A voice of reason chimed in her head. Not dead. In trouble, probably. Whoever it was, a night janitor or the exterminator who came with the truck, would flip on the lights, spot her and shake his head. He’d call her mother. She’d be grounded for a month.
Then she heard the buzzing.
A deep droning began heading her way, gaining volume and momentum as she crouched on her hands and knees. It sounded like a terrible swarm was filling up the hall.
Charlotte pushed to her feet and ran.
She barreled through the dark, the droning following her. Her feet slapped on the tile as she streaked toward what she thought was the door. It was so dark, and she was so frightened. Her hip clipped a table and teetered to the side. The sound of winged insects was everywhere, disorienting her. Something pelted her cheek, and she screamed. Another beetle smacked into her forehead and scurried into her hair. She beat at it with her hands, staggering. More began to pelt her clothes and clung to her skin. She could feel their awful legs scurrying up and down her arms.
She screamed and flailed, cried and ran.
When she collided with a large shape, she hit the ground hard.
Terrified, she shot up, beating away the bugs, but there was a new terror now. She was almost certain the thing that she’d run into had been human.
A hand seized her arm.
“Ahhh!” she screamed, yanking away. The hand held on. Charlotte scrambled backwards.
“Charlotte!” the shape yelled. “What’s happening?”
“Georgie?” She felt through the dark and found the shape of her sister beside her. “You came back!”
“What are these?” Georgie shrieked.
Charlotte could tell Georgie was batting away bugs.
But there were too many. A swarm. A host.
It shouldn’t be a murder of crows, Charlotte thought. It should be a murder of bugs.
They ran across her scalp and under her shirt. She beat at them, but it did no good. Tiny, segmented legs scrambled up her face. Antennae brushed past her lips.
The bugs were everywhere. She’d go insane.
Suddenly, the room went quiet. Charlotte kept slapping, only… The bugs seemed to have disappeared.
Georgie sat beside her, panting. “D-did they leave?”
Charlotte shook her head, brushing her tattered hairdo out of her face. “I don’t know.”
Across the room, a light clicked on, illuminating the far side of the hall. Past the tables and chairs, a figure stood in the doorway. The shape was dark, humanoid, and writhing.
“He’s covered in… b-b-bugs,” Georgie whispered.
Charlotte lurched up, grabbing for Georgie. She found an arm and hung on. “Run!”
They sprinted to the door and found the handles, but no matter how they yanked it wouldn’t budge.
“Why is this happening?” Georgie sobbed. She pulled and pulled. Then she began digging at the crack with her fingernails.
Charlotte whipped around in time to see the beetleman run at them.
He was a shape made entirely of insects. The black carapaces wove and spun on his body until every inch of him was a writhing black nightmare. There was no face, but there were holes for eyes and a big yawning mouth spilling over with bugs. The bug-covered legs propelled him towards them. The arms reached out with long, bug-covered fingers.
“Georgie!” Charlotte yanked on her sister, spinning her around.
Georgie’s scream was lost in the awful droning.
It hit them like a wall of scrambling parts. Every inch of Charlotte’s body was crawling. She clamped her eyes and mouth shut, but there was nothing to stop them from worming their way up her nose. She shook her head back and forth.
They’ll eat their way to my brain!
She beat with her arms, kicked with her legs, but the bugs merely separated and swarmed around her again. It was like fighting the tide. An awful, creeping, biting tide.
Where was Georgie? Oh God, she’d gotten her sister into this, and now they would die. Charlotte’s hand pushed through the swarm and found smooth skin. She grabbed her sister and held on.
A bright green light seared Charlotte’s eyelids. Instinctively, she opened her eyes. Through the cracks between bugs, the light was needling its way in. The pulsing, green swamp light widened gaps like green shoots wriggling into cracks on the sidewalk. Charlotte heard a strange sizzling sound and realized that the light was scorching the beetles. Their bodies clacked on the floor as they fell and writhed their last movements on their backs, legs in the air. They fell away, covering the floor in black bodies. The girls panted and gasped and yanked bugs from their hair.
But the bugs left behind Darren Warzinski.
He stood in front of them. His posture was stooped. HIs eyes were on the floor. His hair and clothes were a disheveled mess like he’d taken a tumble down a very steep hill.
Charlotte and Georgie stared at him. Their minds had been short-circuited.
Darren’s head snapped up. HIs eyes were vacant, but his expression was fierce. “You killed them.” His voice sounded like the droning of dozens of insects.
Charlotte took a step back. “Darren. M-Mr. Warzinski, I don’t know what just happened, but maybe we should get out—”
“You killed them.” He took another step. A beetle slid out of his nostril and clattered to the floor.
He hit Charlotte hard, forcing her against the door. His hands were at her throat. They squeezed and squeezed. She grabbed his hands, wrenched at them, clawed them. They would not let go. He opened his mouth in a terrible grimace and she could see beetle carcasses between his teeth.
Her throat closed. Her air disappeared. It hurt so much. Splotches floated in her vision. Her arms sagged.
A loud thwack cut through the room. Darren’s hand released. Charlotte fell.
When she opened her eyes, Georgie was standing over her, a chair in both hands like a medieval club.
She hit him in the head with that, Charlotte managed to think. My sister is a badass.
Georgie dropped the chair. “Come on,” she said, lifting Charlotte up. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Georgie managed to help Charlotte through the door. When Charlotte looked back, she could see Darren Warzinski’s shape, surrounded by his beetles.
But he’s not dead.
“Let’s hurry,” Charlotte said to her sister.
Outside, Georgie shut the door and dragged the heavy hawk statue in front of it.
“Won’t stop him, but at least it’ll slow him down,” she said as she dug out her cellphone. Charlotte watched as her sister dialed 911.
She had a sudden memory of Georgie carrying her through the yard. Charlotte had been six and Georgie seven when Charlotte had fallen headfirst off the top of the slide. When Georgie had realized Charlotte’s ankle was broken, she’d carried her little sister all the way to the house. Georgie had held Charlotte’s hand as Mom rushed them to the ER. That day Charlotte had thanked God for older sisters. Just like today.
Georgie was taking care of her.
Sitting in the ambulance with Georgie felt like deja vu. In fact, nothing about Charlotte’s life felt real anymore.
The EMT explained to Charlotte about her bruised windpipe and told her to rest and be silent. As soon as their mother arrived, they’d transport her to the hospital.
Charlotte nodded, but even that hurt. She lay on the stretcher inside the ambulance and let Georgie rub her back.
When the EMTs were gone, Georgie leaned down and stared into Charlotte’s eyes.
“Can you believe what just happened? All those gross beetles and then that guy Darren what’s-his-name. You were right about him. He was a bad dude. Do you know they found a secret room in the back of the hall where he’d been storing creepy knives and rope and other serial killer-type stuff? I guess he worked as the janitor here. The policeman told me they found traces of blood, too. He wasn’t supposed to tell me, but I think he thought I was cute, and, anyway, he said that this guy is probably responsible for that missing homeless dude from last winter and maybe more, too. Can you believe it?”
Georgie brushed hair out of Charlotte’s eyes. “And what was up with that light? It sizzled the bugs like bacon. Where did it come from?”
Charlotte pointed to her throat to indicate she couldn’t answer.
What she didn’t tell her sister was she knew it was her dead friend—the terrifying, yet helpful ghost who’d led them there. She’d saved them.
Charlotte pictured the ghost and sighed. Maybe the good outshines the bad. And maybe the good doesn’t look like an angel in white. Maybe the good is a dead girl taking matters into her own hands.
Did Darren Warzinski and his demon bugs kill that poor girl? Charlotte thought so. She hoped her ghost could rest in peace now.
As for Charlotte, she might need Aunt Wendy’s therapy. She wouldn’t rest in peace for a while. But that was okay if they’d helped get a serial killer off the streets. And she’d get over this with time. She knew she would.
In the distance, headlights sliced through the night. Charlotte thought it’d be her mother, but when she saw the Channel 4 camera crew van, she groaned.
Georgie’s eyes followed the van and watched as they unloaded their gear.
A reporter jumped out and clomped on high heels toward the open ambulance doors. Charlotte rolled away. The last thing she wanted was to be on camera. She was sure Georgie would talk enough for the both of them.
When she heard the ambulance doors creaking closed, Charlotte rolled back over. Georgie was keeping the reporter out. Charlotte looked up with confused eyes.
Georgie shrugged and sat back down beside Charlotte. “I’m a hot mess, and besides, my little sister needs me.”
Georgie was her big sister. Georgie would make sure everything was alright.
Katie French imagined herself an author when her poem caught the eye of her second grade teacher. It was about birds and frankly, it wasn’t very good, but it sparked a love of literature. In middle school she spent her free time locked in her room, writing her first young adult novel. This thoroughly solidifying her status as a class-A nerd. She currently works as a high school English teacher, a job that she loves even when it exhausts her. In her free time she writes, reads great books, and takes care of her two beautiful and crazy children. Her young adult best selling series, The Breeders, is available now. You can find her at .
She woke with dirty feet again. Salt in her hair. Sand under her fingernails. The bottom of her nightie was wet. As she waited for the kettle to boil, she felt the drag of tiredness pulling down her eyelids. When they closed, the whisper of a breeze brought the memory of the tide. She gasped, and forced her eyes open as the water bubbled. When she looked down at her fingers, they gripped onto the kitchen counter.
On the table in the centre of the room, there was a white envelope with the name Andrea written in cursive script. It leaned against a small jam jar filled with dying flowers. The petals littered the table, and there was a water mark from where the old water had evaporated. Andrea pulled the envelope out from under the flowers and tore it open.
Gone for a walk. Will be back for tea. Love always, Mum.
Why did she feel the need to put this note in an envelope? Andrea pinned the letter to the fridge with a magnet of a Welsh dragon. She’d bought it in Llandudno on holiday. There was a chip on it now, from one of the many times the magnet had been knocked from the fridge. Once she’d even prised it from the jaws of their Jack Russell, Sophie. Sophie left with Dad six months ago so there was no one left to chew the magnets to pieces.
There were many similar letters from Mum: gone out for milk, will see you after school, got a job interview, at last!, out for a walk. Where did she walk? The cliffs? Did she imagine Dad and Sophie were with her, walking by her side? Ghosts of the past kept in the present by a troubled mind. Andrea saw little of her mother since Dad left. At first she seemed positive and determined. But soon the job interviews, haircuts, and trips to the shop had been replaced by walks. Such long walks that she stayed out all day. Andrea cooked the meals after school. Beans, pasta, burgers, whatever she could find in the fridge or freezer. Mum barely ate a mouthful.
But now that school was over for the year, Andrea had the days to herself. At first she spent them reading on the beach. She’d found a secluded spot not known to the tourists. They stayed in holiday cottages in the village and went to South beach where colourful beach towels littered the golden sand. No, this was different. It was a little alcove where the sea lapped against seaweed covered rocks. She took sandwiches with her, and bought chips on the way home. Half of her chips she gave to Mum later in the day, but when she woke the next morning they were usually in the bin, hardly touched.
She walked along the cliffs one day to see if she could see her mum. That’s where she picked the wildflowers and put them in the jam jar on the table. That was a week ago. She’d hoped the sight of them might cheer Mum up a little, put a smile on her worn out face. But it didn’t. And then the flowers died.
Why did she put the note in an envelope?
It was when Mum started her long walks that Andrea noticed strange things happening. First, her feet. She woke up with them all dirty, as though she had been walking barefoot over mud. Then strange memories filtered back to her through the day. They caught up to her as she read on the beach, or made her stop and gasp as she cooked dinner. Always the same. The little boy.
The little boy had eyes dark like mahogany and hair like a copper penny. He crouched with his feet splayed apart and his backside close to the ground. He didn’t smile so much, just like Mum. He didn’t talk so much either. And yet, Andrea felt a strange connection between her and the little boy. He was small, no bigger than a five year old, and yet there was something wise about him. Perhaps it was his eyes: so calm and still like those of an old soul. There was a part of Andrea who felt like a big sister to this strange little boy, and a part of her who looked up to him as a wise brother.
The memories of him came rushing in a few moments at a time; snapshots of his face; the bowl of hair; the dirt on his face and hands; him dragging a stick through the sand. She was confused. Who was this boy and why was he in her dreams?
But then came the taste of salt on her lips, the wind-tangled hair, and the memory of cold feet. The sand in her bed. The broken fingernails. Then she remembered the moonlight on copper hair, and the shadows cast over his features. This was no dream. She had been there. In her sleep.
Most of the time, the memories were of her just standing and watching the boy as he dragged his stick through the sand. Sometimes she stood in the sea, letting the waves crash against her calves. There were conversations, too. The boy told her about his favourite shell: a pearlescent monster with deep grooves. He showed it to her and it sparkled in the moonlight, bright as a precious stone. She asked him about her mother and he said: “Grown-ups get scared when they hurt” then went back to playing in the sand.
“I’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll build a sandcastle,” she remembered saying.
But when she went back to the beach the next day he wasn’t there. She tried to talk to her mum, but she wasn’t responsive again. Not even when Andrea insisted that a young boy his age shouldn’t be on the beach at night on his own. She didn’t seem to care. She didn’t care about anything anymore, except walking, and sleeping so heavily there could be an earthquake and she wouldn’t wake. Andrea was as alone as the boy on the beach.
She stared down at the envelope. Such an odd thing to do. Then again, Mum was not in her right mind. Putting a note in an envelope was hardly as strange as walking all day and eating hardly anything.
When Andrea showered, she thought of nothing but the sea. And when she dressed, she noticed light scratches on her ankles, scrapes akin to slipping on rocks. Had she ventured further out than usual last night? Where did she go?
It was sun dress weather. The house was filled with sunshine, warming the cool, blue walls. Mum loved blue. Every room had something blue in it. Royal blue on the feature wall in the living room, duck egg blue in the kitchen, pastel blue on the walls in Andrea’s bedroom, checked blue curtains in her parent’s room. White walls in her parents room. It had always been the brightest room, with tall windows, the view of the sea, crisp linen. Mum was always a neat freak.
That was until Dad left and she gradually stopped caring.
As Andrea passed her parent’s bedroom, she closed the door. The sight of it made her stomach hurt. It was too empty. Too quiet. The whole house was like that, but she couldn’t shut it all out. That wouldn’t be right.
The bread had mould on it, so she had to walk to the village. They lived in a small seaside village that lost most of the tourists to the larger resorts along the coast. It made for an idyllic, yet expensive, place to live, and Andrea hadn’t been given any money from her mum for over three days. She had once made twenty pounds last a week by saving leftovers and heating them the next day in the microwave. But the five pounds she’d been given from her bewildered mother, who seemed to have forgotten the concept of paying money for goods, was almost done. The Queen’s profile looked up at her from the palm of her hand. Twenty five pence.
She could get nothing for twenty five pence.
Her stomach growled.
Her best friend from school was on holiday with her parents. They had gone to Greece for two weeks. She had no other family in the area. There were acquaintances from school, two of whom she knew the address of, but the thought of turning up unannounced and eating their food seemed embarrassing and desperate. What if they started looking into her family life? What if they took her away from Mum?
Call Dad, she thought. Just call him. He’ll send money. He’ll help.
She fingered her mobile phone in the pocket of her dress. Whenever she thought about calling him, something stopped her. The sound of the last argument between Mum and Dad rang in her ears. He wasn’t the Dad she used to know, the one with the soft voice and the warm hugs. He was tense and fidgety now. One of her last memories of him before he left was watching him tap his fingernails against a glass of scotch. Then he dropped his tie on the floor as he stumbled through to the kitchen for a top-up. He shouted a lot. He was a drunk. No, she wouldn’t call Dad. Not yet. But she had to eat.
Andrea was not a thief. She was a quiet teenager, one who stayed away from the bad kids. One who kept herself to herself. But she considered it today. Just a bottle of water and a Mars bar. She could pay them back another time. The hard kids from school stole from the corner shop all the time, she’d seen them.
All she had to do was wait until the old man behind the counter served a customer and then she could quickly pocket something before going back to browsing the magazines. She had a tote bag, she could drop food and water in that.
Could she do it?
Would he recognise her face?
She stopped outside the shop. It was old, like everything in the town, yet the quaint stone front made it seem welcoming. Accessible. She wouldn’t get into too much trouble here. Surely. They wouldn’t call the police. Not here. In a city somewhere with knives and guns they might, but not here. Here was safe. Right?
The boy from the beach would be able to steal. He would walk into any place and do whatever he wanted. How else did he get away with spending the nights dragging a stick through the sand on the beach? He was fearless. This was what fearless people do.
She sucked in a deep breath and opened the door.
When the old man smiled at her, she almost bolted. How could he still be so nice? Even after all those years of all those kids nicking sweets and chocolates when his back was turned. She hated him then, for his niceness. Didn’t he know he wasn’t supposed to play that character? He was supposed to be the grown up everyone could hate. The one that made it okay to get back at. Instead, his amiable blue eyes twinkled at Andrea and he offered her a piece of liquorice as she walked past the counter.
“I remember you,” he said. “From the school, right?”
She answered mid-chew. “Yes.”
“You’re one of the good ones.” He moved his glasses up his blood-shot nose. Andrea’s eyes lingered on the ruddiness of his cheeks, and the strange way his eyebrow hair poked out at all angles. She felt sick. She couldn’t do this.
“I wanted to look at the magazines,” she blurted out.
“Of course, dear. They’re at the back with the chocolate.”
She knew. She knew exactly where they all were. She was about to turn and leave, to run away and forget the foolish notion of stealing, when three disheveled men stepped in and began to boss around the shopkeeper, asking for various kinds of old-fashioned tobacco and spirits. Andrea’s heart began to beat faster. The scent of stale beer drifted to the back of the shop. Their tracksuits crinkled and crunched. Now was her chance. With shaking, fervent fingers she snatched a bottle of Evian and a handful of chocolate bars, shoved them in her tote bag and hurriedly made her way back to the entrance. Each step felt like an eternity. It dragged, as though she walked against a tide, yet she was certain she was moving fast, suspiciously fast.
“Hold on there,” called the shopkeeper as she reached the entrance.
Andrea felt sweat beading on her forehead and down her back. Her face was red, she was sure of it.
“Didn’t you find what you were looking for?” he asked.
She shook her head, too nervous to speak.
“Is it something I can order for you?”
Tears welled and burned behind her eyes. She longed to blurt out her crime.
I stole it, all right. I stole it.
But her stomach rumbled and she remained silent.
His eyes narrowed as his gaze followed her hands gripping the side of her tote bag.
“Is everything all right?”
“Oi, mate,” interjected one of the men. “You serving us or what?”
The shop keeper turned back to the men and frowned before returning his gaze to Andrea’s tight fist around the top of her bag. She sensed his suspicions and began to back away. When she noticed the man’s jaw slacken, and the disappointed shrug of his shoulders, she realised that he knew what she’d done.
“You didn’t? You didn’t take something did you?”
And that was it. Her legs were moving faster and faster, her feet tripping as she ran. If she turned back, she thought she would see the face of the man hurrying towards her, she could hear his shouts and it brought the tears out. Wind and tears. She ran.
Copper hair in the moonlight.
She had run like this to the water’s edge one night. As the shops whizzed past her in a blur, they faded into the jagged rocks of the cliffs. As her hair trailed out behind her, she imagined the breeze coming off the sea, instead of the startled look of the passers-by.
On and on without a break, running at a sprint only the young can manage. She thought about that note. She thought about the empty fridge and the boiling kettle and the quiet house.
The blue on her dress.
It all merged.
And as she ran, seemingly aimlessly away from that shop and the little man inside, she realised that she knew where she was running to. And sure enough, she was trotting down the many steps to the small, secluded alcove that had been her home while her mum walked and walked. Steps carved into a cliff, older than the safety rail that accompanied them.
When her feet hit the hot sand a sigh of relief escaped her lips. She threw herself onto the sand, stopped crying, and laughed instead. If this had been some sort of initiation into a group of bad kids, she would have passed. She would be one of them. She could swear freely, and spray paint onto walls, and sniff glue in the park. See, the thing was, people were so busy telling you what it’s like to do the right thing, they never told you what it felt like to do the wrong thing, and it felt kind of good.
She pulled herself half up and crossed her legs under her. Her hands trembled, partly from the chase, partly from the lack of sugar in her blood, so she gulped down a quarter of the water first, then took a big bite of the Mars bar.
This was the beach from her dreams, or her sleep walks. She knew why she was drawn here during the day. This was where she talked with the copper haired boy under the moon.
It was a part of the coastline that seemed dug away by a spoon, like the clumsy first portion of a jelly. It was rounded and yet jagged, with lots of rocks piled haphazardly. The waves crashed against the rocks, but it was a warm, not too windy day, which made the sound more relaxing than overbearing. There were few seagulls because there were no people to feed them.
Andrea was alone. And for the first time she really felt it. She was aware of the loneliness. Perhaps it had all built up to this moment. She stared down at her stolen food and hugged her knees.
The sun cooled as the day moved on. She ate one chocolate bar at the beginning of each hour until the sky turned blood red and the tide withdrew away from the rocks. She pulled a cardigan out of her tote bag and wrapped it around her shoulders.
Mum can make her own tea.
Would she be missed? Would her mother know?
There was an ache coming from deep inside her. The muscles of her legs were tight and weary. She checked her phone for calls and messages. There were none.
She leaned back and watched the bruised sky turn black. At least her father had never hit her mother. There is that. But he did take Sophie with him, and that left her with nothing.
There was no moon tonight.
She slept and awoke, with the feeling of not being alone. Before her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she heard the soft scrape of a stick in wet sand. The tide had come back in, and her toes were tangled with seaweed. When she reached forward to remove it, she saw him.
“You’re here,” she said. “And you’re real.”
He continued to write in the sand.
“Where do you come from?”
He shrugged, still crouched down with his feet planted firm and flat on the beach. “Here.”
“You live here?” she asked.
“How long have you lived here?”
“Don’t know.” He had a child’s voice with a dark edge. Like a sharpened butter knife. “I didn’t always live here.”
“Where did you live?” Andrea asked.
A strange jolt ran down Andrea’s spine. It could have been be a jolt of recognition, or a jolt of fear, she wasn’t sure.
“No… that can’t be right. You must be confused.”
The boy shrugged and continued to drag his stick in the sand.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
But he didn’t answer. “You are Andie.”
“How do you know my nickname?” Andrea’s skin had chilled. She pulled her cardigan closer.
He shrugged. “Just do.”
Andrea sat and watched the boy for a few moments, when she realised that he was writing one word over and over in the sand. There was little light on the beach, only the faintest glimmer of street lamps from up on the cliff somewhere, probably from the town. She had to lean forward very close to the sand. When she read the words her hand rose to her mouth and she moved away from the boy, because she finally knew his name.
She had always known his name. Why hadn’t she realised?
The boy watched with his calm, dark eyes as she bundled up her knees and rocked forward and back.
“That won’t stop it,” the boy said. “It won’t make it go away. I know that because Mummy knows it too. She says it when she comes to visit sometimes. She says it’ll never go away, no matter how much she walks and walks.”
Andrea’s mind raced as she put together all the fragments. The lack of photographs at home, the quiet rooms, the screaming matches between her parents. And then the envelope. There was a reason for the envelope, and a reason why she wrote ‘love always’ on a random note.
“Where is she?” Andrea breathes. “Where did she go?”
The boy shrugged again. Except he wasn’t the boy anymore. How could she have forgotten? What happened to her mind?
Charlie stayed silent.
Andrea reached for him, to grab his arm like she used to when he was alive, but he faded into the darkness.
And now she remembered: the pitying glances at school, the sad day stood around a hole in the ground as they lowered his tiny wooden box into the soil, the way her parents clung to each other at first, and then moved further and further away until they never touched, never talked, only screamed.
When Dad left with Sophie, something happened to her mind. She realised that now. Something happened to her as well as Mum. They both went missing in different ways.
Andrea stood and walked to the edge of the sea, letting it lap against her. She turned to the right, where she knew was a natural cave tucked into the cliff. She knew what she would see before she even looked.
She’d found her. After all those days of looking, all those walks on the cliffs, all those silent meals, she had finally found her. For the first time, she thought her mother beautiful and not just Mum. A woman, almost a stranger, stood with an arm around her little brother, Charlie. Their faces remained solemn and dark, with the same soulful brown eyes. They were barely visible in the darkness, little more than shadows. She wished they looked peaceful.
Sarah grew up in the middle of nowhere in the countryside of Derbyshire and as a result has an over-active imagination.
She has been an avid reader for most of her life, taking inspiration from the stories she read as a child, and the novels she devoured as an adult. She is the author of popular YA series The Blemished, and the YA horror series Mary Hades.
“Remind me never to agree to this in the future,” Cyril pants, arms pumping faster.
A bloodthirsty roar echoes through the glen, closer behind us than a moment ago. “You had better run faster, or you shan’t be having a future,” I wheeze, surging ahead to jump a split-rail fence. My feet are moving again the moment they find land, tall rye grass whipping my boots. Thank the stars I’m too poor for underskirts and satin slippers.
Cyril’s palm presses against my back, as if either of us could run any faster. “The next time you have a mind to summon a grimwraith, Henta—“ Another ravenous roar interrupts his train of thought. Bickering will have to wait for a time we’re not running from the spawn of Hell. Cyril darts around a haystack and points ahead to a plemwood thicket. “Do you really suppose he’s going to help us?” He glances over his shoulder, never breaking stride.
A guttural snarl snaps at our heels. “Does it sound like he’s going to help us?”
“Your idea, not mine.” The sweat of Cyril’s palm presses into my back again. “Just trying to stay optimistic.”
We plunge headlong into the thicket. Cyril tries to hold back the branches, but they lash and scratch and slice at my face, grasping with their reedy arms, giving way with reluctant snaps and pops as we wade forward through the brambles. I try to calm my huffing breath, ears searching through the whistling twilight breezes and chirping yulejays and Cyril’s muffled panting beside me.
“Perhaps he’ll move on,” he whispers, pressing forward into a clearing, “and we can abandon this plan altogether.”
I arch an eyebrow. “That thing could hear a Talis heartbeat across the earldom. You expect he’s going to saunter past two of them? Pounding like this?” I press my palm to my heaving chest and crouch beside Cyril on the edge of the clearing, the new spring leaves overhead shadowing the sun’s fading rays. “And this plan is all we’ve got. We need answers.”
He draws his dagger, but it’s not for defense. Grimwraiths laugh in the face of sharpened steel. Cyril begins tracing an arc of runes around us, and I use my own blade to complete the circle. Neither of us admits that grimwraiths also laugh in the face of fortification runes.
A sharp gust of wind cuts through the thicket, whipping my hair from its braid, and sending the yulejays screeching for the skies. The earth itself trembles in fear. Cyril sheathes his dagger, taking my hand instead. “Ready?”
“No.” I meet his eyes and nod anyway.
A brief smile flickers across his lips, quickly squelched when a roar that would wake the dead booms overhead and underfoot. It rattles the leaves and shudders my bones, filling my ears and sucking the breath from my lungs. I rise to stand and shout into the tempest, “Emissary of Lucifer, spawn of Hell’s womb…It is I—Henta Mourngard, daughter of the Darkheart bloodline, conjurer and necromancer—who call you forth from the depths this day, seeking your counsel.”
A low, eerie rumble stirs the trees, morphing into an amused chuckle. “What do I care for divination, young Talis?” The voice smolders, coming from everywhere at once, resonating like a battle horn—grim and deep—humming through my skull. “Humans always ask for destiny foretold, and it is always the same in the end…Death.” Another rumble of laughter resounds in my ears.
I hold my ground, even as a figure materializes at the opposite end of the clearing. At least twenty hands high, maybe thirty—if you count the horns aflame—like a bull standing on hind legs, but with the muscled torso of a man, and flesh the color of rotten trout. Smells roughly the same, if said trout died by firestorm.
I try to stand a little taller. “My destiny is mine alone,” I reply. “It is not my own fate I seek…but that of another. One who has already crossed beyond the veil.”
Another haughty chuckle rumbles from the grimwraith’s chest, a cloud of smoke puffing from his gaping nostrils. “If you wish to see what lies beyond the veil, perhaps you should cross it yourself, Talis.” His hoof edges toward me, a greedy forked tongue flicking over his decaying lips.
Cyril rises beside me, muttering a stream of incantations. Between calling for the Protection of the Ages and summoning the Divine Star’s fortitude, he sandwiches in, “Are you sure this is a good idea, Henta? As grimwraiths go, this one is particularly ill-mannered.”
I reach for his hand, feeling his fingers reflexively threading through mine, but my eyes stay trained on the grimwraith. “I seek a shadowspirit, a watchman of the Seventh Order, my protector—“
“Some protector, this shadowspirit.” The grimwraith’s right hoof steals another step my way. “Perhaps he has already foreseen your fate this day, and surrendered his soul to the underwraiths in forfeit.”
I scoff. “He would sooner die.”
“A commendable feat. I should like to meet this shadowspirit who would manage to die twice.” The grimwraith smirks, a hideous twist of his maggot-ridden maw. “Seventh Order, you say? Had a bit of a quarrel with such a watchman recently…seemed to think he should have the run of my archives. A pity I did not think to try killing him.”
“Where is he?” I step forward, but Cyril keeps me tethered. Obviously, I shouldn’t make a habit of stepping closer to demons…but desperate times call for exceedingly stupid measures. The grimwraith leers, relishing my desperation, but I press on. “What did Jakob seek from your archives?”
Scorn ignites his eyes. “Had the gall to ask after a grimoire, as if a common shadowspirit could barter for such a prize.” Laughter rumbles deep in his throat, a sputtering crucible of smoke and embers. “’Twas a bold request, as bold as it was futile. Your watchman’s bravery does him credit.” He inhales deeply, ribbons of smoke snaking back to his cavernous nose. “I detect a seasoning of that courage in you, young Talis. Delectable.”
“If—” I swallow. “If Jakob has been harmed, you shall answer for it.”
“There is a narrow line betwixt courage and insolence.” His head cocks to the side, a burst of flame arcing between his towering horns. “Take care not to cross it. Insolence has such a bitter aftertaste.”
“I shall ask you once more…” My teeth grind, though my knees quake. “Where. Is. Jakob?”
“You can command me from the depths, Talis,” he sneers, “but I am no common hellhound, tail wagging at your feet. I answer as I choose…and your incessant questions only stir my hunger.” Another hoof clomps down, narrowing the distance between us, the dry leaves smoldering underfoot.
Cyril takes a matching step backward, tugging me along, still muttering a steady stream of charms and curses. “We’ll find Jakob another way,” he urges under his breath. “Shall we send this devil back whence he came, before he dines on our souls and sharpens his claws on our bones?”
“Must you be so morbid at a time like this?” I snap.
“At a time when we’re communing with a demon of the underworld? Yes. Yes, I suppose I must be morbid.” Cyril jolts as the runeshield deflects a spray of flame from the grimwraith’s nostrils. “A little urgency would be appreciated, Henta…”
I let him pull me a few steps back. “Jakob wouldn’t have left me unattended if it were my fate to die today.”
“Fine,” Cyril huffs, “then you can survive to watch this beast feed on my entrails…because my spirit guide barely knows my name, let alone the moment I’m in mortal danger.”
“Jakob knows your guide is useless. He wouldn’t leave either of us unattended.”
“I know, but—“ Cyril’s shoulders deflate. “We have to consider the possibility that Jakob isn’t abandoning us voluntarily.”
My jaw clenches. “Of course he isn’t abandoning us voluntarily.”
“What I mean is…” Cyril stammers, pulling us back another step. His blue eyes flicker orange, reflecting the stalking beast’s horns, another surge of flame testing the runeshield. That one singed my eyebrows. “We have to at least consider that Jakob is gone.” His eyes flit to mine, heavy with sorrow. “Gone…and never coming back.”
I pull my hand free from his, planting my feet. “Impossible.”
Before Cyril can respond, a ravenous growl shakes the trees, leaves raining down and scorching on the grimwraith’s hungry breath. The demon charges across the clearing, hooves pulverizing the twigs and leaves between us. Cyril moves to shield my body with his, but we both know chivalry is useless against a charging grimwraith. I ball the shoulder of Cyril’s tunic in one hand, and stretch the other palm overhead, shouting, “Emissary of Lucifer, Daemon Farorhan! By thou true name have I called thee from the depths, and I command thee hence…by right of the blood of Sariel!”
Putrid breath roars upon us, flaming horns bearing down. Within inches of goring us like skewered rodents, the grimwraith evaporates into smoke. A wave of heat and ash blows back my hair and scalds my squinting eyes. The trees shake and settle, squawking yulejays still too timid to perch. All that remains of the grimwraith’s hulking body is a puff of cinders slowly drifting on the breeze.
Cyril sinks to his knees and shakes a weary head. “Thank you, Henta.” He wipes the soot and sweat from his forehead. “Next time, do you think you could cut it a wee bit closer?”
I’m trying to sleep, truly I am.
Sleep has eluded me these two weeks, and with each passing night it becomes more of a stranger. Two weeks, and not so much as a whisper from Jakob. Meddlesome spirit hasn’t given me a moment’s privacy since I was an infant, and now…
I’ve managed to get myself into twice as many scrapes as usual—just trying to provoke him from wherever he’s skittered off to—and nothing. Not a familiar ghostly chill down my spine, not a gravelly scolding or a disapproving shake of his spectral head. He’s my spirit guide, his fate is eternally bound to mine. Surely if his soul were forfeit, I would sense it somehow?
I sigh, murmuring in a haze of half-slumber, “Where are you, Old Man?”
I think I was close to finding sleep at one point, following its trailing skirts across the threshold of a dream. Then the infernal crickets groaned and chattered all around, the grain swished in the night breeze, and the earth refused to give even one inch, pressing stubbornly against my shoulder. And now the campfire…It prattles loudest of all, cracking and popping and—glowing green?
Wait just a second…
My eyelids flutter open, and—bright as barley grass—the campfire flames are writhing and shimmering, dancing higher, the eerie glow flickering across Cyril’s captivated face.
I press up to sit, not bothering to pluck the dried sprigs from my hair. “Why are you awake?” I squint against the sparking green, my fuzzy mind finally whirring into action. “And where did you get your hands on conveyance powder?”
Cyril’s eyebrows waggle. “Talked a blacksmith into trading it for a fox pelt yesterday in the market. Convinced him ‘twas actually wiltroot dust, would give him warts and bogpox.” He winks and takes another pinch from a leather pouch in his hand, carefully tossing the granules into the fire. The flames surge high as a haystack, scorching my cheeks and painting the night sky a brilliant emerald.
Cyril flinches back, cautiously uncovering his eyes as the flames calm again. “Would you like to do the honors, or shall I?”
I stare transfixed, the ethereal glow swaying and snapping, flames coiling and hissing like a serpent-charmer’s pet. “I, um…” I chew my lip, flicking a glance to Cyril. “I’ve never trusted conveyance powder. Too chancy. Too unpredictable.”
“This from the girl who would singlehandedly summon a grimwraith for a chat, like she’s asking a common farmhand to go halfsies on a pint of ale?” He pinches off a few more granules—this time taking care not to overdo—and flicks them into the flames, to a fanfare of green whizzes and sparks.
I scowl. “If being a Talis meant I attracted half as many farmhands as I do demons, I wouldn’t mind paying for my own pint of ale.”
“You can’t afford your own pint of ale.” Mischief dances with the emerald firelight in Cyril’s eyes. “Nor can your wispy limbs hold that much drink without stumbling drunk.”
I aim a pebble straight through the flames to his forehead, but he dodges in the nick of time. I frown. “Try saying that again sometime I’m not half asleep and blinded by your enchanted bonfire, and I’ll show you the agony ‘wispy limbs’ can inflict.”
Cyril snickers with glee, the imp. He manages to regain his focus on the dying flames and scrambles to scrape the last dash of conveyance powder from the pouch. Before he tosses it into the fire, his eyes meet mine. “Now or never, Henta. Are you with me?”
I watch as the flames flourish, the embers pulsing green. As the flaring sparks subside, the roar calms to a chatter of whispered crackles, echoing Cyril’s words in my ears.
Now or never.
I look up to meet his eyes across the blaze.
And I nod.
“Have I mentioned what a phenomenally ill-conceived plan this was?” Cyril gulps, wary eyes scanning the yawning cavern around us. Sulfurous liquid sheens the walls with an eerie underground glow, drip-drops of stale water pattering from the rock-spired ceiling above.
“There was a plan involved?” I cup my hand over my nose to filter the stench of sulfur and death. “Seems to me you nicked a pouch of conveyance powder off a blacksmith, and decided to just wing it from there.”
Cyril shrugs. “’Tis enough to constitute a plan, I should say.”
I smirk. “And where does this ‘plan’ take us from here?”
“Hey, I got us to the Crossing. You can take it from here.”
I scowl. “What kind of deal is that?”
“Take it as a compliment. You can solve a predicament that I cannot.”
“Charming.” My eyes adjust better to the low lighting, and I make out a throng of ghostly spirits meandering about—like a crowded marketplace, if all the patrons were recently departed. They wander forlornly through the space, spectral eyes dazed and lost. I’m used to ghosts and spirits—some of them even still manage to spook me—but these are just pitiful. I shake my head at Cyril. “I’m sure the small victory of outwitting you will console me when I’m trapped in eternal limbo, shuffling aimlessly with this lot.”
“Nonsense.” Cyril dusts a sulfurous drip from his shoulder. “We belong to the Living Realm. We’ll be pulled back there as soon as the campfire flames die down. Or so they say with conveyance powder…”
“And have you ever had substantiated proof of that claim?” I cross my arms. “Oh, don’t give me that look. Of course you haven’t got proof.” I sniff the air and wrinkle my nose, cupping my hand over it again. A few of the spirits begin to alter their wandering paths, slowly shuffling our way. “We’d best get started looking. We’ve been noticed, and I’m counting on being long gone from this place before one of these ghouls gets too friendly.”
“Stupendous plan. Knew I could count on that cunning intellect.” Cyril winks, tongue pressed into his cheek, and I pull a face in reply. He grins. “Shall we?” He points the way to a slimy sidewall, smoothly stepping out of the path of a skulking dreadspirit. “Let’s duck along that way. Maybe the delightfully pungent aroma will throw the beasties off our scent.”
I concur, tiptoeing to the side, unconsciously pressing my palm against the dank cavern wall. I pull back my hand and debate whether to wipe the foul ooze onto my pants. I decide to use Cyril’s tunic instead. Not surprisingly, he sees no harm in it. As we slink along the rocky curves—skimming the tangle of wandering spirits for a familiar face—the aimless crowd begins to take on a more determined purpose, the vaporous forms of the meandering dead veering and merging into a crowd of phantoms ambling toward us, like cattle drawn to a trough.
I have had many moments in my life of loathing my Talis blood. Count this among those moments.
Many people have claimed to see ghosts and spirits through the ages. Some shout their tales from rooftops with pride, as though recognizing a phantom is a mark of great distinction. Others curl into blubbering heaps, fearing that seeing the deceased is the first sign of madness. Still more toil over cauldrons and scattered chicken bones, laboring endless hours to coax a spirit from the deep.
And then there are we Talis.
We take one breath, utter one peep, lift one finger or stutter one heartbeat, and the dead come flocking to our doorstep. Our flesh itself is a talisman for creatures of the deep, the flame that draws all manner of ghostly moths. We are the beacons that call them back from the veil, their guiding stars to navigate the Crossing and reenter the Living Realm. We see more spirits in a week than any cockeyed street illusionist can conjure in a lifetime.
Believe me, the novelty of communing with the dead loses its shine right early for our kind. It relegates us to lives of outcasts, fugitives, peasants and thieves. Communing with creatures of the deep isn’t just creepy, it’s outlawed. Forbidden. Taboo at best, and punishable by beheading at worst.
We Talis are a lonely lot. Whether we die from a severed head, starvation, plague, or just catching a demon on the wrong day—we don’t tend to be an enduring bunch. Cyril is all the family I can claim, and we share no blood (save whatever common thread courses through the veins of all Talis). We met when I was eight, and he seven. Collided head-on in the middle of the forest—he fleeing north from a woodwraith, I bolting south after a dreadspirit-conjuring gone awry. Our skulls knocked together like pints in a tavern, sending both of us out cold on the forest floor. We’ve grown into experts at dodging all manner of pursuits—assailants both with and without a pulse—and sometimes for an hour or two, we manage to convince ourselves that life borders on normal. Then a dreadspirit comes tapping on our shoulders, and the illusion evaporates.
So what in the blazes are we doing now, voluntarily entering the realm of the dead?
Technically speaking, the Crossing belongs neither to the living or the deceased—but to that hazy border betwixt the two—where misguided spirits wander, hoping to find their way to eternal rest beyond the veil. I’ve always wondered why that journey poses such a challenge for some spirits. Is the veil so concealed, as to be detected only by the keenest senses? Only now does the quandary strike home…
When wandering blindly through the Crossing, how does one avoid inadvertently stumbling beyond this cryptic veil?
It’s a question I’d usually pose to Jakob. He would reply in his raspy, whispery spirit voice, “Even the clumsiest dimwit of drunkards cannot stumble his way across the veil, if Destiny has not so determined his fate.”
Then I would say something like, “Are you calling me a clumsy, dimwitted drunkard, Old Man?”, and the three of us would compete to see whose laughter could be held back longest. Cyril would crack first—he always does—and Jakob might give in to a momentary upturn of one corner of his ghostly mouth. On a day he’s feeling particularly jovial.
Jakob. Stars, how I miss that old bird.
“So, do you think we should be following the putrid stench of rotting flesh, or running from it?” Cyril’s innocent inquiry stirs me from my daze. “You know I love Jakob, but if he’s taken to reeking like decaying pig innards…”
I turn with a hissing shush. “Jakob would die for either of us a million times over. He’d find a way to resurrect himself, just so he could die again and again, if that’s what it took to save us.”
I see on Cyril’s face that my words cut deep. He looks away. “I know, Henta. I’m sorry for making light.”
I blow out a sigh. “I’d have to worry about you if you weren’t making light.” I reach back to take his hand. “I’m just getting impatient.”
“Getting?” He arches a cautious eyebrow.
“Okay, perpetually impatient. Now bordering on frenzied.”
“Ferocious, more like. Savage, perchance?”
I nod. “Irrationally so.”
“Prone to senseless and unrestrained violence?”
I nod more fervently this time, my hand finding the hilt of the dagger at my waist. “I’m on the verge of hacking through every last creature from here to the abyss, until Jakob is the only soul left standing.”
“Well…” Cyril clears his throat. “Considering that mine is the only hide that dagger will injure in these wilds, what say you to trying our hand at calling Jakob’s name instead?”
I pause, my fingers contemplating the leather grip of my dagger. I know a blade wouldn’t do a lick of good against a swirling crowd of phantoms and dreadspirits, but it might have been cathartic to try. “You have a point,” I concede. Cyril responds by pulling in a deep breath, and I follow suit, each of us bellowing Jakob’s name with all our might.
Our calls echo through the dank cavern, one reverberating into the next. We stay in motion, weaving across the sprawling space and along the time-carved walls, the swirl of the ghostly throng shifting directions with our changing course, like pond fish chasing crusts of bread. The occasional straggler passes clear through me, sending a shiver down my spine and setting my heartbeat skittering.
We keep up this goose chase for hours—maybe longer—until our throats burn, and our boots have rubbed holes in our heels. I can’t say whether the leaden drag of my legs is from exhaustion, or because the last of the conveyance powder is fading in the campfire embers in the Living Realm, the magic that brought us here dwindling. Whether we’re reclaimed by the Living Realm, or left here to starve until we become two more mindless souls wandering the Crossing, one thing is certain: “We’re never going to find him.”
Cyril looks back at me and frowns. “What makes you say that?”
My voice cracks, hoarse from futile bellows and choked-back tears. “I’ve never had to call for Jakob before. He doesn’t require words to know when I need him.” I sink to sitting, unfurling my legs on the cold, sticky floor. “He’s gone.” My lip quivers, and for once I don’t even care to squelch it. “Jakob’s—“
“Don’t say it.” Cyril cuts me short, doubling back to kneel beside me. He shivers when an aberrant spirit’s foot ambles through his body, and impatiently shoos the ghost away. “Jakob is going to be okay. We’re going to find him, and bring him back with us.” He takes both my hands in his, cornering my eyes into meeting his. “At least we don’t have to worry about him dying. He’s already got that part out of the way long ago.” A faint smile quirks the corner of his mouth. “Am I right?”
I can’t help but muster a tiny answering smile. I nod, sniffing back the tears.
Cyril turns his face to the rocky ceiling, his raspy voice echoing through the cavern, “Let it be known for all the ages that on this day, Henta Mourngard admitted that I am right.” He smiles softly, squeezing my hands tighter as he adds in a whisper, “Now get up, Lazy Bones. We have a shadowspirit to locate.”
I’m tempted to worry that this popular claim—the one alleging we’ll magically revert to the Living Realm when the conveyance powder runs out—is pure bollocks. How long could one campfire take to burn down? Surely it’s been at least three days.
I try to swallow, but it hangs up in the back of my throat, like my mouth is so dry it’s forgotten the concept. The result is a fit of hacking and sputtering that frightens even our adoring crowd of spirits away.
Cyril catches up to me, thumping me on the back. “We need water.” His voice is barely a grate, but it hasn’t stopped him from doggedly calling Jakob’s name. “Is it just me, or is licking that wall beginning to sound like a viable plan?”
I grimace, but admittedly give it a moment’s consideration. “Wait…” My ears perk, finally able to make out something beyond the murmurs and wails of wandering spirits. If I’d known a coughing fit would repel them thus, I’d have been employing that tactic ages ago. “Do you hear that?”
Cyril strains an ear, but gives up with a shake of his head. “It’s just the muck dripping from the ceiling.”
“No,” I insist, holding a shushing finger to my lips. “Listen harder. It’s more than that.”
He tries again, and this time breaks into a giddy smile. “It’s flowing. And fast!” He seizes my hand and darts for the sound, the crowd of spirits moaning and wailing in our wake. We scurry around a cluster of rocky spires, our boots slipping and sliding on the moist ground, as it begins to slope downward, angling into a night-black cavern, the babble of a running stream echoing from the chasm.
Cyril slows his pace, gripping my hand tightly, as he traces a careful path into the cave. My senses shift to rely on sound over sight, while my eyes adjust to the darkness, and I wonder how my ears could have missed it before. What had seemed like a trickle—a stream at best—now echoes with the roar of a river coursing through this cave. Sweat beads on my forehead, as the dank chill of the cavern is replaced by a muggy heat, sweltering warmth and moisture trapped in this hidden space.
“Look!” Cyril’s eyes are quicker than mine to adapt, and he points excitedly at the source of the watery sound. Suddenly his body goes rigid at my side. “Oh stars, no!” Excitement gives way to horror, and he darts ahead in a frantic sprint. “Please, no!”
Things snap into focus, and I race to keep up with Cyril. His feet plunge impulsively into the water, but before he can wade three steps into the coursing river, he cries out in pain. In a few quick strides, I’m echoing his sentiments. Boiling-hot water laps over my boots, soaking through my pant legs and searing my thighs. I snarl a string of curses and seize a fistful of Cyril’s tunic, as we scramble to drag one another back to the shore.
Cyril braces his hands on his knees and winces. My feet dance on the rocky shore, trying to cool my stinging legs, or at least distract myself from the pain. “What in the name of Sariel were you doing?” I pant, fanning my legs. “I know you’re thirsty…but you don’t have to dive headlong into the river to drink.” As my dripping sleeves cool, I wring a few drops into my mouth.
Cyril’s eyes are still frantic, his thirst forgotten. “No…Look.” He spins me by the shoulder and points to the middle of the river. “There. On the rocks.”
I squint, following the line of his pointing arm through the darkness. My eyes settle on a cluster of sharp rocks in the midst of the boiling rapids. “Jakob!” I start to dart back to the bank. “Oh, Jakob, no!”
Cyril catches me by the arm just in time to shock some sense into me. My feet skid to a halt at the edge of the steaming water. “He can’t boil, Henta. He can’t drown.” Cyril squeezes gently around my arm, his shaky breath betraying the calm in his voice. “We have time to figure out how to get to him.”
With reluctance, I nod in understanding. The faint light in the cave seems all too vivid now, casting a sickly glow on the wilted body of my spirit guide. He’s sprawled lifelessly upon the rocks, his lower half buried beneath the churning current. The water’s force doesn’t stir him, coursing instead straight through his ghostly frame.
“Jakob!” I bellow his name, eking all I can from my shattered voice. “We’re here, Jakob! We’re coming for you!”
Cyril grips my shoulder, not quite trusting that I won’t try to brave the boiling current. “Yes,” he calls out, seconding my claim. “We’re coming for you, Jakob!” His voice drops to a mutter as he looks to me. “The question is…how?”
“We can’t just keep standing around like a couple of dolts.” My boots press pacing footprints into the black sand. “He’s just lying there. Stranded. Helpless.” I stare harder at Jakob’s faintly shimmering form, hoping for just one twitch of movement. “There,” I crane my neck, standing on tiptoe to better see. “Was that his arm moving? Did you see him wiggle his fingers?”
Cyril sighs, not wanting to dash my hopes. “Perhaps,” he offers. “It’s possible I just missed it?”
I groan. “We have to get to him somehow. We need a boat.”
“Ah, yes. I forgot to pack my boat when I leapt into charmed flames and was transported to the gates of the underworld.”
I choose to ignore that. “A rope, then.”
Cyril at least humors me by glancing around. “Fresh out.” He looks to the mouth of the cave, where a cluster of spirits meanders and moans, watching our plight with ghostly curiosity. “Hey, any of you boggers have a rope?” A few shake bewildered heads and moan incoherently. Most of them just stare blankly at us. “Or a boat? No?” Cyril gives me a puzzled look. “Pests wouldn’t spare us an inch of free space for hours on end, and now they’re hovering off there in the distance, like we’ve got the pox. Not that spirits give a rat’s arse about the pox…” He glances again over his shoulder. “Why do you suppose that is?”
“Sixteen years we’ve been stalked by the dead, and now you’re going to complain that they’re leaving us alone?” I puff the sweat-matted hair from my forehead. “Stick to the task at hand, Cyril.” I try not to notice how the mob hangs back, hovering at the cave entrance, moaning confusedly over the roar of the river. I have to confess, the moaning is a mite creepy. I shook my fear of the walking dead ages ago…but that’s because they’re usually not that much different from the living. Demons and wraiths are the pure stuff of nightmares, but most spirits have thoughts and aspirations and opinions and quirks. It’s just when they walk through you and freeze your heart stone cold for a moment that makes them disturbing.
These mindless phantoms, gawking and gathering—never saying an intelligible word—these aren’t the spirits I’m used to. Sure, they look the same—misty and half-transparent, all clad in wispy robes and tattered shreds, their coloring faded to a sickly blue—but none of them are saying anything. It’s as though their minds haven’t caught up to their spirit bodies.
And that’s it…
Over the years, I’ve asked Jakob a million questions about the afterlife. What does death feel like? Does your soul have to struggle to makes its way across the veil? Or does it just slip like fingers through a cobweb? At least now I can scratch off my list any questions about the Crossing, which is both exactly like I’d envisioned and even worse than I’d feared.
Jakob tends to leave most of my questions unanswered—he seems to think it would ruin the surprise—but he did let one thing slip once. He said, “Passing through the veil is indescribable, Tadpole.” I assumed he meant that it’s such a bizarre or painful or euphoric feeling that nothing else could compare, but Jakob took care to clarify. “No one knows what it feels like to cross the veil,” he explained, “because spirits’ minds grow more clouded, the closer they pass to it. They may grow confused—lingering in the Crossing, like helpless sheep—or return to the Living Realm.” I’m well familiar with the ones who take a wrong turn back to the world of the living, following the beacons of Talis blood, or the call of magical objects, or—
My hand jerks to Cyril’s forearm, my fingers digging into his skin. He doesn’t look startled—more so relieved—because he knows I’ve had a realization. “It’s the veil,” I breathe.
“The river,” I stammer, the words tumbling urgently from my tongue. “The river is the veil—or at least the entrance to it—and it’s making the spirits all fuzzy-headed and frightened. They can’t decide whether they want to pass through it.” As if my suggestion was the extra nudge he needed, a lonely dreadspirit shuffles up to the water’s edge and cautiously steps out into the stream. The current only flows through him at first—just the way it passes through Jakob—but then the spirit’s expression changes, from fear to peace—acceptance even—and in the moment the will to surrender crosses his face, the current bears him away, whisking his body off into the black reaches of the cave.
I look back to Jakob’s body, still lifelessly strewn upon the rock, half-buried in the coursing river. He shows no sign of acknowledging the push and pull of the water, or the trickle of spirits now breaking away from the flock and surrendering to the deep, or Cyril’s hoarse voice still calling his name. Jakob doesn’t acknowledge any of it…but he also doesn’t give in to it.
“He’s fighting it!” I’m suddenly bursting with optimism. I ignore Cyril’s puzzled expression, as he wonders how Jakob’s limp droop could possibly be construed as fighting. I explain in a rush, “He hasn’t surrendered to the current. He’s refusing to let it carry him through the veil.”
Understanding dawns on Cyril’s face. He concedes with a nod. “That’s brilliant, Henta…but we’re still in a predicament as to how to get him out of the river, before—“ He doesn’t want to finish that sentence.
“Before he gives up,” I finish for him. “You don’t have to worry about that. Jakob would never give up. He knows we need him, as much as he needs us.”
“Right, then.” Cyril nods, clenching and relaxing his fists a few times, like he always does before a fight. Steeling his courage. He stares into the river, contemplating the steaming rapids. “At least if I don’t make it across, I’ll be on a direct path for the afterlife, right?” He gives me a half-hearted smile, eyes still focused on the river, and draws a resolute breath. “Here goes, then,” he decides, stepping forward with determination.
I seize hold of his sleeve. “Whoa there…What do you think you’re doing?”
He studies my fingers clenched around his sweat-stained shirt. “I’m going after him.” He looks back up, not quite meeting my eyes. “Promise you won’t pretend not to know me, if this fails and I come back to follow you around, all blue and misty and croaky-voiced?” His voice cracks, and he laughs to himself. “At least I’ve got the croaky part mastered already.” He leans in to give me a farewell peck on the cheek. His nose brushes lightly against my cheekbone, hesitating for a moment. “One way or another, I’ll still be your shadow.” His hoarse whisper barely carries over the roar of rapids and my thundering heartbeat, as his forehead presses against mine. “Wish me luck.” When my own voice chokes up in my throat, he starts to turn back for the water.
I come to my senses and grip tighter, holding him tethered by the sleeve. “I’m not letting you dive into a boiling river. Especially not one that leads straight to the underworld, you oaf.”
He looks back, undecided whether to put up an argument. “You have another idea?”
I nod, slowly relaxing my grip on his tunic. “We’re going to summon him.”
“Summon him?” He shakes his head, already starting to turn back toward the river. “We tried that weeks ago, and repeatedly since. Remember?”
“Of course I remember.” I make a face. “I’m no daft spirit. This river isn’t mucking with my memory yet.”
“We’ve tried summoning Jakob a million times, Henta. We tried it a matter of hours ago, and nothing. What makes you think it would work now?”
“Because now we’re close enough for him to hear us.”
“You said yourself he doesn’t actually need to ‘hear’ us to heed our call.”
“Don’t be so literal.” I frown, jerking him back from the bank. “Maybe the river is weakening his senses. Maybe he’s stuck halfway across the veil and needs a bigger push to break free. Maybe we didn’t keep the chants up long enough, or got too sloppy writing the runes. I don’t know.” I cross my arms. “But I do know that we’re going to summon Jakob’s spirit again. And this time, we’re getting it right.”
Cyril starts upstream and I downstream, carefully tracing runes along the bank with the points of our daggers. Cyril lags behind, meticulously tracing the curves of each symbol—not his typical style at all. I think he fears what I’ll do to him if he mucks this up. We angle to a triangular point as we meet up in the middle, the apex lining up with Jakob’s body across the rapids. I start to return my dagger to my belt, but Cyril keeps his ready. He gives me a meaningful look, ceremoniously spreading his hand, and slices a shallow line across his palm. He’s trying not to flinch, and I’m impressed that he almost succeeds. Balling into a fist, he begins to drizzle a line of blood in the black sand, tracing the shape of a homing rune. He looks up with a sheepish smile. “We’re going all-in this time, right?”
Before I can turn coward, I quickly rake the edge of my own blade across my palm, wincing when my skin warms with the ooze of blood. I go over the curves of his rune, making sure the lines converge in all the right places. I meet his eyes. “All in.”
We shrink to the ground, kneeling at the point of the triangle, facing out across the river as a few more brave spirits are whisked downstream. I try not to think about them, clearing my mind and focusing my eyes on my target. It’s not the usual way of things that I can already see a spirit I’m summoning. Usually I have to visualize my objective in my mind’s eye…but this is different. Easier, in a way. The sight of Jakob’s lifeless limbs needs no embellishment from my imagination. Easier…yet so much harder.
“Alright, Old Man…” A tear trickles down my cheek. “Let’s do this.”
Cyril begins, slowly and distinctly, chanting the Evocation of Purity and leading straightaway into the Calling of the Ancients. I join in, our monotone voices blurring into the rush of the river, the hum of the water drowning my own words from my ears. I chant louder, and Cyril follows suit, rolling into the next incantation without missing a syllable or stopping for breath. My hair starts to rise, prickling cold along my scalp, my shoulders quivering and my spine going numb. My lids are beginning to droop, and stars stipple my vision, but I keep my eyes trained on Jakob.
He doesn’t move.
I growl in frustration.
Cyril doesn’t stop chanting, wrapping his arm across my shoulder, his muscles shivering in time with mine. Our words pick up faster, forgoing the careful enunciation and aiming for volume and speed instead, pushing to force more sound from our parched throats.
Still Jakob doesn’t stir.
We chant harder, faster—doubling back to the same incantations when we’ve run the list of every one we know—Cyril squeezing my shoulder tightly against his. I rest my head into the crook of his neck, squeezing my eyes shut tight, the image of Jakob’s stiff body burned vivid on my mind.
And I chant.
The thrum of Cyril’s throat vibrates against my forehead, his words blending with mine as one voice, our bodies trembling with cold despite the sweltering steam filling this cave.
Cyril gives my trembling shoulder an urgent squeeze, never breaking his chant, and flicks a nod across the churning river. My head pops up to follow his eyes, and I almost miss it…a tiny little twitch of Jakob’s right arm. It twitches again, moving absently to rest across his chest. His head lolls to the side, his lips moving as though he’s trying to speak.
I jolt upright, stretching tall on my knees, every few words of my chant now nothing more than a pitiful squeak. Even so, I squeak on. Something warm oozes through my pant leg, and I look down to see the bloodrune under my knees beginning to glow softly, slowly building until the deep scarlet is replaced by a shimmering bright green.
Strange. I’ve never seen a bloodrune glowing.
I turn to give Cyril a questioning look, but his face is blurry—indistinct—the bridge of his nose and blue of his eyes blending into the shadows of the cave walls. “Cyril?” I break my chant, reaching out for his arm, but my fingers can’t seem to find a grip. He looks down, and I follow his eyes back to the glowing bloodrune, now flickering and sparking a deep shade of emerald. No sooner have my eyes recognized the familiar hue, than I feel a great pull from within, as though my body and soul are being sucked into a whirlpool. A great green flash fills my eyes and my head, and a horrifying cracking sound threatens to cleave my skull from within.
And then all is lost.
I hear the faint chirp of yulejays flitting overhead, grazing cattle lowing in the far pasture, the rye grass stirring in the breeze (at least the shoots of it that aren’t pressed firmly against the earth by my face).
My eyelids flutter open, and I press groggily up to sit, squinting into the rays of sun just peeking above the horizon. I turn to scan for Cyril. ‘Tis a good thing the campfire has burned to ash, because his body lies sprawled and soot-stained over the cinders.
“Cyril!” I scramble to his side, shaking his shoulder. He rolls lazily onto his back and sputters a mighty snore. Relief and despair hit me all at once. He is alive…but the flames have died down, taking any hope of rescuing Jakob with them. “Wake up, Cyril.” How can he slumber so soundly at a time like this?
“Let him sleep.”
My head darts up at the sound, eyes scanning the pasture. The rye grass sways tall, but not tall enough to hide a whole person. “He has had a rather exhausting eve,” says the whisperer. It’s a croak—barely a shell of a voice—but I would recognize it anywhere. I sit up tall.
“Jakob!” I feel his presence before I see him, the cold tingle shivering down my spine. Slowly, the morning shadows in the grass begin to meld into a form. It rises up into the misty figure of a man robed in wispy, flowing blue. The rays of sunrise shimmer through his face, the faint hint of a smile turning the corner of his mouth. My eyes fly wide. “Oh, you stubborn, grim-faced, dear old man!” I rush impulsively to hug him, but as always, my arms pass clear through him, my heart skipping a stunned beat at the icy chill. I’m too elated to feel silly for trying to embrace a shadowspirit. “I thought we would never see you again!”
“A rational supposition,” he nods, arms crossed in the folds of his robes, “considering the state in which you last encountered me.” He glances away. Funny, I don’t recall ever seeing Jakob looking sheepish. It lasts but a moment, and he’s back to his usual dignified self, his ghostly-blue forehead all stern creases and furrows. “It appears,” he observes soberly, “Destiny has other plans for my soul.”
“’Tis a good job it does, or Destiny and I would be having some rather heated words right now.”
“It is wasted industry to do battle with Destiny, Tadpole.” Jakob gives me a most familiar look. “We must all follow Fate’s design, whether it be agreeable or not.”
“I see a brush with eternal confinement hasn’t weakened your ardent loyalty to Fate,” I smirk, “or your ability to make that face.” Our eyes wrestle for unblinking supremacy, but eventually I yield. “Don’t think that just because you win every staring contest, it means you’re always right,” I protest. “’Tis an unfair advantage when you have no need for blinking.”
Jakob allows another tiny hint of a smile, tipping his spectral head into a polite nod. The smile fades as it always does, grave purpose darkening his brow. “You should not have entered the Crossing. Have I taught you nothing of the disadvantages of wanton recklessness?”
I grin. “Only every day of my life.”
He allows a brief groan of self-pity. “The Crossing is a dangerous place for any living creature, even more so a Talis. You are fortunate an overzealous netherphantom did not tuck you under his arm and spirit you away beyond the veil. Yes, you do well to shiver with dread,” he admonishes. “The river is savage and unpredictable, at times overflowing with raw power. What you saw this day was a subdued demonstration of its might. Once the veil claims a soul, it is most unlikely that soul shall ever return.” He cocks a forbidding eyebrow. “Swear you will never tread near it again. Not until Fate ordains it.”
I nod, my eyes trained on the grass. “I swear it.” The heat flooding my cheeks slowly begins to fade, and I look up to meet his sober gaze. “Now for your turn, Old Man. What in Sariel’s name were you doing run adrift on the rocks, bobbing in the current of this ‘savage and unpredictable’ beast? Who needs a sermon on the disadvantages of wanton recklessness?”
He looks away again, this time less sheepish than troubled, puzzled even. “I was looking for something. It is of little importance,” he dismisses it, “You need not trouble yourself over the matter.”
“A shadowspirit does not challenge an ancient grimwraith for the contents of his archives for any reason. Certainly not one of little importance,” I challenge. “I am no longer a foolish child, Old Man. Do not play me for one.”
“You were never foolish, Tadpole—only headstrong. And you are still a child in my eyes.”
“That’s because you’re hundreds of years old!” I stamp my foot. “Oh, don’t arch your eyebrow at me, Old Man. I’ve earned the right to blow steam, after what you’ve put me through these weeks.”
Stirred by my infantile outburst, Cyril snorts and sputters awake. “Henta?” He groggily shields his eyes from the rising sun, laboriously pushing himself up to sit. “Are you squabbling with yourself again?” He looks over himself with puzzled curiosity, dusting the ashes from his palms and hair. For his effort, he only manages to smear a sooty streak across his forehead. It takes a moment, but the memory of desperation and futility settles over him, and his eyes turn somber as they meet mine. “We’ll get our hands on more conveyance powder.” He’s already working to his feet. “We’ll find a way to get back to the Crossing before the day is out.”
“On my grave you will, Young Man.” For a shadowspirit, Jakob can muster a rather robust chiding when he’s really riled. “I should have you flogged for leading an innocent young woman to the brink of death.”
You’d think Cyril has just been awarded a knighthood, rather than offered a flogging. “Jakob!” His face is pure joy and sunlight, as he bounds to my side to greet his favorite person in all the world—alive or deceased. “I knew you wouldn’t forsake us! With all the mischief Henta gets herself into, we’d be doomed for certain without you.” He answers my punch to the shoulder with an impish wink.
Jakob sighs. “Clearly neither of you can be trusted to mind yourselves, gallivanting off to romp with demons and dance at the gates of the underworld.” Apparently, even while unconscious in a raging river, he sees all.
“Back to the point…” I set my sternest look on Jakob. “What was it you risked your soul to coax from the grimwraith’s archives?”
He hesitates. “A grimoire. One that was lost over a millennium past.”
I frown. “What use do you have for a dusty old, forgotten spellbook?”
Jakob’s look says I’ve missed the point. “I said the grimoire was lost…but it has never been forgotten.” The furrows of his brow deepen. “I went looking for it, so that I might ensure it would stay hidden. This grimoire was not scribed with wicked intent, but for evil purpose will it be used. Until the day it is reclaimed by its rightful owner.”
Another question is ready to leave my lips, but Jakob’s press into a tight line. He’ll say no more on the matter. He folds his arms into his gauzy sleeves, eyes silently examining me.
I shakily clear my throat. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
He shrugs. “No particular reason. I suppose I just missed your lovely face, Tadpole. Of course, ‘tis a much pleasanter sight when you are not scowling so.”
I let the scowl linger on. “Is that your backhanded way of saying I look like hell this morn? Because you know whom to thank for that, Old Man.”
He meets my challenging gaze, not surrendering an inch. “Had I desired to be followed, I would have told you where I was going. As it happens, I took express care not to impart that information.”
“Whether it is your desire to be followed or not,” I retort, “rest assured you will never be crossing the veil alone again. How did you know you wouldn’t be stranded forever on the other side?”
“I did not know for certain,” he concedes, “but I trusted that Destiny would not allow it.”
“You know I don’t believe that life is preordained, just a stage play we’re all acting out. Our choices matter. They can carry us one direction or another, whatever Destiny had in mind.”
“Says the girl who boldly challenged a grimwraith ten times her size,” Cyril interjects, “on the assumption that it was not her fated day to die.”
I shoot him a look. “So maybe I believe in Fate just a little bit,” I concede, “but I still don’t want to know what lies ahead.”
Jakob nods, unsurprised. “Sometimes it is best for the future to remain clouded. If you always know what is coming, you will never make mistakes. And mistakes—and their consequences—are the surest means of education.”
“Is that your way of admitting that you let me run into that tree trunk when I was ten? So I could be educated in the godforsaken pain that comes with a broken nose?” I fight to keep a smile in check.
Jakob’s answering face is a block of stone. “Perhaps.” He clears his croaky throat. “Perhaps not.”
Cyril cracks first—he always does—clapping me on the back and breaking into hearty laughter. “Broken noses aren’t so bad. With the fourth or fifth one, your face just kind of goes permanently numb. After that, you barely feel but a wee crack.” He winks, smile brimming with mischief.
“Good to know,” I smirk, “Next time I’m feeling angry, I’ll just take out my frustrations on your face.”
Cyrils bows gallantly. “Glad to be of service, milady.”
Jakob mutters with a longsuffering sigh, “Children…”
Cyril grins, looping his arm around my neck, as we follow Jakob into the village, bickering into the dawn of a new day. Between snide remarks and petty slaps to Cyril’s arm, I breathe an internal sigh of contentment, knowing all is now right with the world.
And then the roar of a grimwraith echoes from the parish watchtower, the screams of fleeing villagers funneling down the cobbled lanes.
Yes…Life is definitely back to usual.
M. A. George is an author of young adult science fiction and fantasy, including the Proximity series and Aqua. She is also a happily married mother of two adorable children. In her spare time, she works as a super top-secret agent. Oops…probably just lost that job. Writing is what keeps her up into the wee hours of the night. Fortunately, she has a lot of energy. (Read: caffeine is her lifeblood.) She has a bit of an obsession with music (which does a fantastic job of tuning out rambunctious children while she attempts to focus). She sincerely hopes people enjoy reading her work as much as she enjoys writing it. And if anyone hears of work for a super top-secret agent, she’s now available (discretion guaranteed…).
The home looked like something out of a storybook. Two levels with large windows and a front door right in the middle. It was big, and perfect for a fresh start.
“Dibs on the bedroom at the front!” Bea squealed as she ran from the car. I wished I had her enthusiasm.
This was our fifth house in two years but I tried to remain positive. It would be different here. We’d moved towns for a fresh start, and surely things couldn’t all be bad in a place called Buttercup Bay.
“It could use some maintenance,” my mother said as she stood by my side and assessed the house. We’d bought it unseen, crossing our fingers and hoping it would work out. “But it’s nice, right?” She bumped me with her hip.
“It’s nice,” I agreed. Besides the overgrown yard, the house did look nice. It was big and spacious, giving our family of four plenty of room to move.
Bea ran back from inside the house, giggling with her loose hair flying around her face. “It’s pretty! I love it! Can we stay here forever?”
“We’ll see,” Mom said. Dad pulled up in the moving truck, backing it up so that the end was close to the door. When you moved as many times as we did, you got pretty good at it.
A bunch of kids joined us on the lawn, a few were on bikes. “Are you moving into this place?” a boy asked, he was probably about ten.
“Yeah. I’m Penny. Do you live around here?”
They all nodded. A girl younger than Bea spoke up. “Nobody’s lived in this house for years. It’s always just been here, looking sad and all.”
“I guess it won’t be sad anymore,” I replied. The little girl had a faraway look to her face, like her mind was a million miles away.
“You can play with us if you like,” the boy said.
“Thank you. Once we get settled in, maybe you could show me around?” Rule number one of moving to a new place: make friends. Rule number two: learn where everything is in town. Two birds, one stone.
The boy started peddling his bike. “Sure. See you around.”
They all took off after him, an entourage of about eight kids in total. It was probably the entire school right there, the town was that tiny.
We’d lived in cities and medium sized towns before, but this was our first small town. My parents thought it might be different if we didn’t have so much busyness around us. If everything was slower and calmer, maybe we wouldn’t have the same problems anymore.
I hoped they were right.
Buttercup Bay had a good feel to it. We could start over again and maybe be able to stay for longer than a few months this time.
A girl could dream.
I grabbed a box of my stuff and went inside. The large windows let in lots of light, flooding the house with warmth.
The kids had been right about no one living here in a while. Cobwebs were the main feature, the floor had a layer of dirt covering it, and the stairs all squeaked when you stepped on them.
Still, it was our home now and we would have it looking fresh and clean in no time. I made my way up the stairs and found my bedroom. Bea had claimed the one at the front which left mine facing the backyard.
The yard was huge and surrounded by a picket fence. Bea would be able to ride her bicycle around in large circles out there until Mom said she could ride on the road.
My eyes caught movement and saw something at the edge of the yard. It was a little girl. She held a teddy bear in her hands, gripping it tightly against her chest. Her nightgown was white and long, her blonde ringlets framed her face.
I’d seen her before.
It had followed us.
A sick feeling started in my belly and crept up my throat. I blinked and the little girl went away, leaving me covered in goosebumps.
We’d tried to get away from her so many times, tried everything possible to shake her. And yet here she was, in Buttercup Bay and still haunting me.
All the hope I’d had shriveled up and died. We wouldn’t be staying in the small town for long. The little girl would see to it until we were so desperate we would disappear in the middle of the night without mentioning to anyone we were going.
I didn’t tell anyone I saw her here. Mom, Dad, and Bea all seemed so happy and they wouldn’t be if they knew. The little girl was my problem, not theirs. For some reason she singled me out, haunting me until I was terrified of her.
Later that night I went to bed. Boxes were still stacked against the wall of my bedroom but my bed was exactly like it was in our last house. The first thing Mom always did was get the beds ready in a new place. It didn’t matter if we had chairs or silverware, as long as we could go to sleep.
Every time I closed my eyes I saw the little girl. She was always there in my memory, showing me things I didn’t want to see.
I heard a creaking noise and closed my eyes tighter. The noise continued while I balled up my courage and peeked over my doona.
The door to my room was opening and closing. My windows were closed. The old house might be a little breezy but it couldn’t control the door like that.
Open and closed.
Open and closed.
The door swayed both ways before it slammed shut. It stayed that way, keeping me on the inside so I couldn’t run anywhere quickly.
I gripped onto my doona, holding it up over my face so only my eyes peered over the top. My heart raced in my chest while I waited to see what else the little girl was going to do.
She liked playing with me.
I was her favorite game.
My breath was visible as it puffed into the air and hit the sudden chill in the room. I shivered with the cold, reminding myself that it was actually summer in Buttercup Bay and was supposed to be dripping with heat.
Footsteps padded against the floor, belonging to invisible feet. She was coming for me and I couldn’t do anything to stop her. I braced, waiting for the inevitable horror that she could inflict on me.
It was different every time. The little girl rarely repeated the same thing, preferring to show me all her skills and terrifying abilities like it was a talent show.
The footsteps came closer, inch by inch bringing her lifeless body nearer to mine. I was completely frozen, knowing running or hiding weren’t options.
The little girl would always come for me.
No matter what.
The bed creaked as she sat down on the end. The mattress dented with the weight of an invisible body. I could feel her body against my legs, the cold chill of her skin giving me goosebumps.
Her bony hand grasped my ankle so I couldn’t move it, no matter how hard I struggled under her touch. It was like her fingers were made out of ice, burning my ankle with its coldness.
All of a sudden the door to my room burst open again and Bea ran at me, crying and sobbing like she’d had a nightmare.
The little girl instantly vanished, the dent in the bed smoothed out and I could move again. The heavy cold she had spread in my room lifted so I could breathe again.
“Penny, I can’t sleep,” Bea whined. “It feels bad.”
I pulled up the edge of the doona, inviting her to dive into the bed. She curled up beside me, her skin feeling extra hot after the previous coldness in the room.
“What happened?” I asked gently, not wanting Bea to relive her nightmare but needing to know exactly what had upset her so much.
“It was dark and I couldn’t see. I was scared.”
It was difficult to know whether Bea was just dreaming or whether something had happened to her while she was awake. Either way, I didn’t want to scare her anymore and cuddled her closer.
At least the little girl had gone.
When I woke in the morning, Bea was gone. I found her in the kitchen, happily eating breakfast with our parents. She didn’t seem to be scarred from the night before so I decided not to bring it up again. Bea was probably just having normal dreams, not experiencing all the paranormal things I was.
“Can you look after your sister this morning while your father and I go out for a few hours?” Mom asked as she placed some toast in front of me.
Panic gripped me. It was too soon to be left alone. I wasn’t ready for it after last night. “Can’t we come with you?”
“We won’t be gone long, you’ll both be bored. You can take the time to unpack your rooms and get settled in.”
“Please? Let me come?”
“We won’t be long, honey. You’ll be fine.” Mom patted my shoulder like it would make everything okay.
The little girl didn’t appear to my parents. As long as they were around, she wouldn’t do anything. The moment they were gone she had free reign to do anything she liked to us.
But maybe last night was a once off. We’d moved all this way to start over and get away from the little girl, I had to give the new place a chance. Perhaps I had dreamed everything too, like Bea. Maybe it was only the memories of the past haunting me now.
Our parents left straight after breakfast. Bea decided she wanted to watch television instead of unpacking her room so I set her up in the living room. The reception was terrible so she had to settle for a DVD.
I walked around our new house, looking in every corner and finding nothing out of the ordinary. Everything looked like it belonged, there was nothing out of place.
There were no signs of the little girl either. It boosted my theory that last night had all been imagined. I was very tired and my fatigue was probably blurring the line between waking and sleeping.
It was a nice house this time. We’d gotten lucky. Some of the homes we lived in over the years were tiny and falling apart. We never inspected a house before we moved in, there was never time. The day we moved in was the first time we got to see where we’d be living. It was a bit hit or miss.
I had a good feeling about Buttercup Bay. It was summer, we didn’t have to worry about school for a few months, and the town was small enough to embrace the newcomers.
“Penny, the DVD isn’t working,” Bea called out. I returned to the living room, finding the television showing only static lines and buzzing with an angry noise.
The sound of something coming down the stairs stole my attention away. A red ball the size of a soccer ball bounced down each of the steps until it reached the bottom. It moved slowly until it stopped beside my foot.
I’d never seen the ball before.
I went to pick it up but it was frozen cold. I dropped it again, recoiling from the freezer burn. “Is this your ball, Bea?”
She stood on the couch to see over it. “No. Can I have it?”
I opened the front door and kicked it out. “No, don’t ever touch it, okay? It’s not ours, it’s dirty or something. Just don’t bring it inside.”
Bea nodded, knowing something was wrong but not asking what it was. “Can you fix the DVD now?”
But no matter what I played or how many wires I fiddled with, the television wouldn’t play anything but static. It had been working fine at our old place.
The little girl was getting stronger.
I unplugged all the television cords. “Bea, we’re going for a walk. Come on.”
I shot her a look. Bea knew when I wasn’t messing around. She closed her mouth and followed me, managing to keep up with my fast pace.
The moment I stepped outside it felt like I could breathe again. Fear kept me going. I didn’t want to be anywhere near the house, not when the little girl was growing in power. Nothing like these events had happened before.
“Penny, slow down,” Bea whined.
Only when we were down the road did I slow down. “Sorry, kid.”
“Where are we going?”
I had to think quickly before I scared her. The last thing I needed was Bea seeing ghosts too. “Let’s look around the town and explore. That will be fun, huh?”
She seemed satisfied with that idea. We walked slower now, taking in all the houses in our area. Buttercup Bay wasn’t big by any standards. Only a few hundred people called it home.
It was only a short walk to the main street, if you could call it that. A few stores lined the road on both sides. Half were boarded up and closed.
The place was busy, considering the size of the town. At least a dozen people were standing on the sidewalks. They were all staring at us as we walked past.
They gave me the creeps. Even when I stared back at them they didn’t look away, just openly gaping at us. All the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I was covered in goosebumps and it was summer.
I tugged on Bea’s hand so she walked faster again. “Want an ice cream?” I asked.
“Yeah, ice cream!” If she noticed all the weird townspeople, she didn’t let it scare her like it did me.
One of the few stores open was a small supermarket. I put my head down and made a beeline for the door. It was only a few yards away but it seemed much further.
At least the single checkout operator didn’t stare at us. She looked up from the magazine she was reading and then went back to it. They also had air conditioning, which was another huge bonus.
Bea took her time in choosing the perfect ice cream, which was fine by me. I grabbed a chocolate flavored one and was done with it.
The supermarket was quite well stocked for being in such a small town. I’d never lived anywhere so under populated before so I didn’t have a comparison but it seemed good to me.
Bea finally chose – vanilla, of all the flavors – and we went to pay for them. The checkout chick was about my age and she seemed friendly enough. As soon I paid, Bea took her ice cream outside to eat.
I hung back. “So is there anything to do around here? My family just moved in yesterday.”
“Not really. Some people go swimming at the creek, which is fun. It’s a little hard to find though unless you know your way around.”
“Swimming sounds good in all this heat.”
“Yeah, Buttercup Bay is like an oven in summertime. It messes with my hair like nobody’s business.” She tugged at her strawberry blond hair. It looked fine to me. “Where did you say you lived?”
“I didn’t. We moved into the house at the end of Sunflower Road.”
“That house?” Her eyes grew wide. “Nobody’s lived there for a long time.”
“There’s a lot of history with that house. It’s been vacant for as long as I can remember.”
“Why? Did something happen there?” I was starting to get that creepy feeling again, making all my hair stand on end.
She shook her head. “It’s not for me to say. Nobody should talk about the devil.”
“The devil?” My voice was about as high as a screechy bird.
Her face relaxed into a polite smile. “Have a nice day. Welcome to Buttercup Bay.”
I eyed her suspiciously but she never faltered. I picked up my ice cream. “Thanks. I guess I’ll see you around.” She watched me leave, every step I took.
Something weird was going on in Buttercup Bay and I got the horrible feeling in my gut that I’d only touched the tip of the iceberg.
When I joined Bea outside, people were staring at her. She was completely oblivious to them all as she ate happily. I sat next to her on the curb and tried to do the same thing.
What was their problem? Staring back at them didn’t work, neither did making a face. They continued to stare without flinching.
Even with all the people looking, we took our time going home. I wanted to ensure we gave our parents enough time to beat us. There was no way I wanted to be in that house alone anymore.
When I saw our car parked out the front, I knew it was safe to return. Mom was on the porch, she ran for us when she saw our approach.
Sweeping us both into a hug, she said, “I’ve been worried sick. Where did you go? You didn’t leave a note or anything.”
“Sorry, Mom. We went to look around and got an ice cream,” I replied.
Relief washed over her. “Make sure you send me a text or something next time, okay? Save my heart from having an attack. Come in and I’ll make you some lunch.”
Mom and Dad never said where they went, avoiding the subject when I brought it up. We ate sandwiches together but I still couldn’t relax. There was something going on in this house and it put me on edge.
I could barely stand being inside. As soon as lunch was finished I went outside again, riding my bike around in circles on the driveway.
Eyes were on me. They drilled into my back and sent goosebumps prickling down my arms. The girl was watching from the second-floor window. The faint outline of her body could be seen in the shadows when I looked up.
She was always watching me.
“Hey, the new girl,” a boy’s voice startled me as I whipped around to face him.
There were a half dozen kids staring at me. For once, all of them were real. They ranged in ages from about ten upwards to sixteen. Judging by their tanned faces and carefree attitudes, they were all locals.
And not being haunted by a little girl.
The boy continued. “We’re going to the hole to swim. Wanna come with?”
Being anywhere other than the house was a good option. Add in some cool water swimming and I would be in heaven. “Sure, I’ll just grab my suit.”
They waited for me while I ran inside and yelled my intended whereabouts to my parents. My dad replied so at least one of them heard me.
There were no signs of the girl when I hurried through my room. I grabbed my swimsuit from a box still to be unpacked and remembered to pick up a towel on my way out.
The moment I hopped on my bike, we were off.
The swimming hole was a small lake, barely bigger than my house. It had huge trees overhanging the water, making their branches perfectly designed for swinging from.
Feeling the cool water was a relief from the humid heat that scorched the air. I swam until I was refreshingly cold and then headed for the bank where some of the others had stretched out on towels.
I lay my blue towel on the grass, close enough so that my feet could still dangle in the water. The trees provided shade from the burning sun.
The girl with ginger hair beside me squinted to look at me. “You live in the Sunflower Road house, right?”
I nodded. “Yeah, we just moved in yesterday.”
“Are you brave or just stupid?”
She flipped over and rested her chin in her hands, still looking at me intently. “Why’d you choose that house to move into?”
“My parents found it on the internet, I guess. I don’t really know. Why?”
“Nobody’s lived there since the Carlsons. Nobody has been game enough to stay longer than one night.”
My skin had that prickling tingly feeling all over. “Why won’t people stay in the house?” I asked. I was almost too worried to find out. Maybe I didn’t want to know what was wrong with my new house.
The young girl on my other side sat up quickly. “You shouldn’t be telling that story, Sadie. You’ll freak the girl out and she’ll be too scared to go home.”
Sadie – the ginger-haired girl, apparently – shrugged. “She has a right to know. I’d want to know if someone was murdered in my house.”
“Wait, someone was murdered in my home?” My voice took on that screechy tone that I always used when I was about to freak out. The other girl was right.
The younger girl nodded with wide eyes while Sadie continued in her matter-of-fact voice. “Not just one person, but a whole family. Mom, Dad, and two daughters. They went to bed that night and never woke up again. They’d only lived in the house for a few weeks.”
I gulped. The story was too much like my own family to throw away as just a ploy to scare the new girl. I knew the house didn’t feel right, but I thought it was because of the little girl.
Maybe she had helpers now.
“How were they killed?” I crossed my fingers, hoping it was a peaceful gas leak or something.
“Their heads were all hacked off,” Sadie said, slipping into storytelling mode. “They say late at night you can still hear them walking around, looking for their heads. They drag their feet and bump into things because they can’t see. The moment they find somebody, they try to pull off their head so they can use it as their own.”
“Sadie!” the other girl scolded. “You shouldn’t be talking about the ghosts. They’ll come for you. My grandmamma always says the dead only have power if you talk about them. It calls them back.”
The story Sadie was spinning could have been an urban legend, or something the kids said to the new kid to see what she was made of. I wished it was that, but I got the feeling there was more truth to the story than fiction.
I’d heard the dragging feet.
It wasn’t hard to believe the story was true. Not when I’d heard and seen things in the house that might not all be attributable to the little girl. Maybe she’d finally met her match.
I swallowed down the fear and tried to keep my voice level. “How long ago were they murdered?”
“About ten years, I think. Everyone knows the story, that house is a legend around here. Kids break into it every Halloween, daring one another to stay in the rooms alone.”
“Did they find the killer? The one who cut off their heads?”
“Nope. They say he’s still out there, taking heads and keeping them in his basement as a reminder. He could be anyone and anywhere.”
“But it’s only a story, right? Nobody has actually seen the ghosts?”
“I’ve seen them,” the girl said in a small voice. She instantly captured all of our attention. “When it’s a full moon, they come to the windows like they are waiting for something.”
“I have, too,” a boy beside Sadie said suddenly, sitting up on his orange towel. “Heaps of times. They stand in the windows and look out as if they still had heads. All you can see are the bloody stumps of their necks. It’s really gross.”
I listened as more and more kids added their sightings to the list. My head was spinning by the time they changed the subject. I needed to get home and warn my parents.
We needed to move again.
I packed up my towel and threw apologies at the kids, claiming I had a ridiculously early curfew to meet. My bike didn’t peddle fast enough as I whizzed through the lonely streets of the small town.
By the time I arrived home and left my bike on the lawn, I was puffing. Nobody was in the first level of the house. I took the stairs two at a time and stopped in the middle of the hallway.
My parents were talking in their bedroom, the dull thud of furniture moving sometimes covered their voices. I froze as I listened to their conversation.
“At least we have a new start now,” Mom said.
“I hope it’s the last one,” Dad replied. “Our savings are almost gone. Moving isn’t cheap.”
“I like it here, I have a feeling it’s all going to work out. Once we find jobs we’ll be able to build up the savings account again.”
Dad sighed and they moved another piece of furniture. I couldn’t go in there and tell them what I’d learned about the house. I just couldn’t. They would both look at me with disappointment in their eyes, even though they would try to hide it.
Every time we moved it took something away from us. Money, opportunity, friends, everything. If we ran away now the whole thing would start over again.
It had only been two days here, maybe we could stick it out a while longer. All I needed to do was keep the little girl under control. Maybe she would be able to deal with anything else that happened in the house from the murdered family.
I turned and changed course for my bedroom. The minute I opened the door I knew the little girl was around. Everything was icy cool even in the blazing heat of summer. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
Warily, I walked to my bed and sat down.
She was there. I just needed to wait for her to show me her form.
I was tired of waiting. “I know you’re here. You don’t scare me anymore.”
The air rippled in front of me before her body took form, almost like she was made from the atmosphere and not the body of a dead child.
I lied about her not scaring me anymore. She terrified me. The little girl, in her perfect white dress, wasn’t scary to look at. It was more the feeling she gave me. A feeling of evil.
Her eyes were hollows but it felt like she could see everything I did. Her hands always remained at her sides but I knew they could strangle me if she wanted to. Her feet hovered above the ground, making her glide instead of walk.
A smell like rotten peaches filled my nostrils, the same stench she always brought with her. It choked me, even when my hand covered my nose and mouth.
“You have to leave me alone,” I told her. She continued to float in front of me, oblivious to my pleading. “Please, I don’t want you here. We have to stay, we can’t keep running. Please leave me alone.”
She shook her head side to side slowly, giving me the answer I expected. She would never leave me alone, no matter where we ran, no matter how many times we moved. She would follow me forever.
“What do you want? Why are you still here?” I asked, my breath hitching in my throat. “Why won’t you leave me alone?”
“I’ve got help now,” she replied.
That was the first time the little girl had ever spoken to me. She smiled and giggled, like my terror and fear were just one big joke to her.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I ran from the room, doing anything I could to put some distance between me and her. There was only so much evil I could handle at one time. She’d reached her quota for today.
Stumbling down the hallway, all I could think of was reaching my parents. The little girl was following me, still giggling.
By the time I reached my parents’ room I was breathless and shaking with absolute terror. They both turned to look at me as I rushed for them, concern written in each one of their features.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” Mom said, reaching for me and wrapping me up into a hug. Over her shoulder I could still see her. Her laughter had died down as she returned to her usual staring.
“Can you see her?” I asked, pointing at the doorway where the little girl stood. She held up her hand to point back at me. “She’s right there. Please tell me you can see her.”
Mom and Dad both looked at the doorway before exchanging a glance. Dad stepped closer to me, placing his hand on my shoulder. “There’s nothing there, sweetheart. You have to remember that.”
My head was shaking like it had a mind of its own, my voice lost in frustration. Nobody had ever been able to see her before, not in any of the houses we’d lived in. She was as plain as day to me, almost as real as a living human but with a shimmery glow around her form.
“Come on, Pen. Let’s make a start on dinner. We can have pancakes tonight, you love pancakes,” Mom soothed. I wished I could have taken some comfort from her but there was no way I could.
The little girl was real.
They had to believe me before it was too late.
Dad sat with me in my room while I fell asleep that night. He promised he would only leave once I was sleeping peacefully. It was the only way I could possibly stay in my room.
I must have fallen asleep at some stage because I was awoken with a start hours later. My alarm clock had just ticked over to midnight.
Midnight. Otherwise known as the Witching Hour.
My room was completely dark except for a single moonbeam casting a shadow on the floor. The full moon sat stubbornly in the sky. I sat up quickly as I realized what had pulled me from my dreams.
Noises were coming from outside my room. Someone else in the house was making a racket, loud enough to cut my sleep short.
They were the usual sounds I was accustomed to. Something rattled, something else banged. My parents never made that much noise in the middle of the night and Bea should have been tucked up in bed.
The room was freezing cold even though it was the middle of summer. I pushed back the blankets that I’d pulled over myself in my sleep and stood. The wooden floorboards made my feet tingle with the sudden cold.
I crept over to the door and opened it slowly, my eyes constantly scanning for the little girl. I couldn’t see her but that didn’t always mean she wasn’t there.
The hallway outside was dark but I could still hear the banging noises. Going back to bed and ignoring it wasn’t an option. There was no way I would be able to sleep now.
Each step I took down the stairs was tentative and careful. I prayed I was wrong and I would find my parents putting up family pictures or rearranging furniture. Maybe they had a serious case of insomnia and couldn’t sleep.
The light in the living room was on, spilling its orange glow into the foyer. Shadows moved in the light, it had to be my parents. I was getting all worked up for nothing.
I rounded the corner.
It wasn’t my parents in the living room. Sitting on the couch were four skeletons, two larger and two smaller. Pieces of skin were hanging off their bones, their ribs just black hollows.
They had no heads.
And they were alive.
The skeletons moved, their bones shifting and turning like any living human would. The loose and decomposed skin stretched and contorted with their movements.
They were watching television. At least they would have been if they had heads. The screen was nothing but static, flickering grey and white and emitting an unnatural sharp hum.
The four turned their bodies from the television to me, the bloody stumps of their necks oozing black liquid. I’d never seen anything more terrifying before.
It took a moment for me to realize the scream I was hearing was coming from me. I backed away from the living room and bolted up the stairs. I needed my parents, I needed them to see what was going on. Even if they couldn’t see the little girl, I was certain they would be able to see the grotesque skeletons.
I took the stairs two at a time, never moving faster before in my life. I rounded the top banister and sprinted toward my parents’ room.
Bursting through the doors, I had to catch my breath before I said anything. “Wake up–”. The words died on my lips.
Their bed was empty.
I checked the bathroom, then the closet, and then under the bed, just to make sure. They weren’t anywhere. I ran for Bea’s room, hoping the three of them were all in there and safe. I would worry about their concern and disappointment in me later. Right now, I had to find them.
Bea’s room was empty. I checked her closet too, making sure they weren’t all playing some kind of horrible trick on me.
“What are you going to do now?” The too-high pitched voice of the little girl made me snap around to face her. She glowed brighter now, as if somehow strengthened. My skin broke out in goosebumps.
“What did you do with them?” I demanded. The quiver in my voice was apparent with every word I spoke.
“Don’t worry, you’ll join them soon.” She started giggling again and my blood ran cold. Her voice was suddenly amplified as if it were everywhere all at once. It was all I could hear as it flooded my senses and made me dizzy.
I couldn’t think straight and I couldn’t see properly in the darkened house either. A part of me knew I needed to get out of there but my body wouldn’t cooperate.
The little girl was everywhere.
A loud bang shook the house. I could feel the vibrations through my feet. It sounded ominous and foreboding, a warning sign that I needed to get the hell out of there.
I ran for the stairs but the little girl blocked my way. The only other escape route was through the window of Bea’s room. I bolted for it, ready to jump out the second story window just to get away from whatever was in the house with me.
My fingers pried at the windowpane but it wouldn’t budge. I clawed at it, trying desperately to open the window so I could escape.
Even though it was icy cold in the house, a sheen of sweat was covering my skin from the fear and exertion. My fingernails all broke as I scratched endlessly at the window that would not open.
I was trapped.
And then it got even worse.
When the little girl said she wasn’t alone now, she wasn’t joking. All I did was blink once and the whole room was filled with ghosts.
They were crammed in to every available space, all with their hollow eyes staring at me. Their faces were twisted with maniacal grins, their focus solely on me.
I recognized them.
They were all in the main street yesterday. They weren’t townspeople, but dead spirits. They had learnt to follow me, even then.
I couldn’t see anything apart from them as they crowded me. Bea’s bed, her closet, even the walls were impossible to see. The ghosts groaned and grumbled, nothing but nonsense coming from their mouths.
I tried to scream for help but I couldn’t. My mouth merely flapped open and closed, my voice lost somewhere in the sea of spirits.
They mocked me with their sound, laughing at my horror like it was nothing. All I knew was that they were trying to get to me. I had a feeling once I was caught my life wouldn’t last much longer.
All of a sudden there was another loud bang. The crowd stopped for just a moment before they parted. Bea was standing in the doorway, so small it was heartbreaking. A rush of relief flooded through me.
I rushed toward her, the ghosts following me the entire few steps it took to reach her. Bea was staring at me, her eyes fixated on nothing but my face.
“Bea, thank goodness. Where were you? Where are Mom and Dad?” I asked, all the words spilling from my mouth all at once.
She didn’t answer so I repeated the questions. I placed my hands on her shoulders, making sure she knew how important it was that I had the answers I needed.
“We have to get out of here, Bea. Are Mom and Dad outside? Is that where they are?”
Bea continued to stare. For the first time I realized there was something different about her. “Bea?” I shook her, trying to get rid of the glazed look on her face.
Her eyes met mine as she cocked her head to one side. “We’ve got you now,” she said. Except, it wasn’t her voice speaking. It was deeper, louder, definitely not the voice of a child.
I took a step back from her as her lips quirked up into the evilest grin I had ever seen. “No, not Bea. What have you done to her?”
Bea laughed as the little girl stepped next to her. They emanated an evil aura that I couldn’t get away from. Everything they were screamed only darkness and horror. I felt the coldness of their glares, every hair on my body standing on end.
They started walking toward me, their hands linked together like they were friends. I backed up, matching them with every step they took.
“No, Bea. Please, no. Don’t.”
I hit the wall, unable to go any further. The window was still unmovable and the door was now further away than ever. The corridor the ghosts had left for them closed over, trapping me in completely.
My mind raced while I tried to think of a way to get out of there. The little girl and Bea were talking now, chanting underneath their breath in a language I didn’t recognize.
There was only one thing I knew for certain.
They were going to kill me.
“No!” I screamed, throwing up my hands and putting every last piece of energy I had into that one word.
The little girl had haunted me for two years. We had travelled all over the country to try to get away from her. My parents had spent thousands of dollars. Bea and I had to make countless new friends at new schools – only to move again the minute we did.
I wasn’t going to take it anymore.
“None of you are going to scare me any longer!” I sounded like a madwoman but I didn’t care. All I could think of was getting rid of them, forcing the little girl to stop torturing me.
The little girl and Bea exchanged a glance and smiled, sharing a conversation I couldn’t hear.
I slumped against the wall as they took another step closer. I closed my eyes but it was worse when I couldn’t see them. At least I knew where they were with my eyes open.
There was no way I could stay there. Apart from the evil girls, all the other ghosts seemed transparent. I didn’t doubt they could touch me if they really wanted to, but I had to take a chance.
This time I did close my eyes.
And then I ran for the door.
Coldness shivered through my body, making every part of me shudder. I could feel their bodies like a whisper as I passed through them. My feet moved like they were stuck in quicksand, making the door impossibly far away.
I kept going because I didn’t have much of a choice. When I opened my eyes again I fixed them on the door. Bea had left it open and my sole goal was to get through it.
Chancing a glance over my shoulder, the girls were following me. They weren’t running – they didn’t need to – they simply walked after me, their hands still linked together.
Finally, the door was in front of me. I barreled through it and ran for the stairs. It no longer mattered where my parents were, all I knew was that I had to get outside and away from the ghosts.
The little girl had never followed me off the property before. She always remained on the boundaries, no matter how small or large.
But, then again, she’d also never spoken before.
My feet stumbled as they tried to get down the stairs too fast. I grabbed onto the banister to stop my fall down the remaining stairs.
The light in the living room was off now, the skeletons no longer watching television. I gave the room only a fleeting glance before I lunged for the front door.
It was locked.
I tried everything I could to open it, including throwing a chair at the surrounding windows – it merely bounced off, almost hitting me in the process.
The girls had me pressed against the wall with nowhere to go. Fear that I never knew could be experienced raced through me. I didn’t even think to cry or have my life flash before my eyes. My body was reacting with a stone cold freeze.
Bea stepped backwards one step, the little girl dropping her hand. Her eyes were cast downwards, as if she were deferring to the little girl in a submissive pose.
The little girl glared at me, her expression so smooth and unfeeling. She didn’t regard me with anything other than distain and amusement. She hated me, she had to the way she’d made my life a living nightmare.
She started growing. At first I thought it was just a trick of my eyes, but she was definitely getting bigger. She grew to my height, then my father’s height, and then she was so big she could touch the ceiling with the crown of her head.
The face of the little girl stretched and contorted. Her skin was twisted as if her bones were trying to break free from inside. She was nothing but sharp angles and sickening black shadows.
There was nothing resembling human in her when she’d finished her horrifying transformation. She looked like she had escaped from Hell and was on a mission to kill everything in her path.
Her eyes glowed orange, set deep into what should have been her face. The rotting skin hanging from her figure was flapping as if she was caught in a wind tunnel. The atmosphere grew so cold I started shivering, my teeth chattering together.
Evil rolled off her in waves.
My brain screamed to move, to do something so that she didn’t kill me. I was certain that was her intention, this moment was two years in the making. She wouldn’t lose her chance to finish with me now.
I forced my body to move, told every limb to fight back and do whatever I could to save my life. The little girl already had the upper hand, I couldn’t let her have any more advantage.
My hands clasped around the only item I could reach – an umbrella stand. I picked it up with both my hands and threw it at the ghost.
It passed right through her.
How on earth was I supposed to fight a transparent spirit?
As panic truly gripped me in its hold and threatened to shut down my body, the necklace around my throat started to burn with heat.
My fingers closed around it, feeling the warmth radiating from the pendant. It was a gift from my grandmother, given to me when I was even younger than Bea. It was a rose with a crystal in the bud. I wore it every day because I loved it so much.
Before I could pull the heated necklace off, everything flashed white.
The white was so bright my eyes had to squint to stay open. I could only make out shapes rather than actual objects. Bea was still there, I would always recognize her form.
When the white finally faded away, we were no longer alone. Standing on both sides of me was a wall of ghosts, all shimmering with the white glow around their bodies.
I recognized them, too.
My grandmother, grandfather, nana, pappy, my uncle John, and just about everybody else we had lost in our family were standing shoulder to shoulder with me. The only one I didn’t recognize was the man directly by my side.
He wore brilliant white wings.
My guardian angel.
I didn’t have time to stare at them in awe. We had to fight and we needed to do it quickly before the little girl took them all away again.
They ploughed into the fray, the white lights fighting the dark shadows of what was once the form of a little girl. My family of ghosts surrounded me, forming a protective shield so the evil spirit couldn’t reach me.
The little girl roared with anger as she fought back. Arms and legs were thrown around so quickly it was making me dizzy trying to keep up with everything happening. It was all just a swirling mixture of the good and the evil as they went to battle for my soul.
I’d always been close to my grandparents, and absolutely devastated when they grew old and passed over into the hereafter. Seeing them now, they were back to their old selves except that their bodies were repaired, they looked younger, and they could fight like nobody’s business.
My guardian angel held a long sword, wielding it with crazy skills and using it to slice at the little girl. They were both impossibly large, almost filling the room just with their ghostly forms alone.
The angel delivered a heavy blow to the little girl’s twisted head.
She went down.
Everybody attacked, the white light finally having the upper hand as they took her out. The entire room lit up with the incandescent light of their auras. I could feel the goodness again, knowing they had finally put a stop to the evil that was pretending to be a little girl.
She made one last bellow before she disappeared all together.
The atmosphere instantly lifted. It had been so heavy before and now it felt warmer and lighter. They’d really done it. They got rid of the little girl forever.
The lights returned to normal, every single bulb in the house turning on at the same time. For once, they didn’t flicker. They remained on as the house settled back to normal.
All my ghosts turned to face me, including my guardian angel. They had a serene smile on their faces as they stared for just a moment and then blinked out.
It was just Bea and I left.
I hurried over to my little sister, grabbing onto her shoulders and shaking her body. “Come on, Bea. You’re free now, come back to me. I need you.”
She blinked several times before my shaking had an impact and she shook her head. Her eyes changed, no longer dead but alive and alert. “Penny? What happened?”
“You were sleepwalking,” I lied. Trying to explain anything to her would be nearly impossible. I still didn’t really believe it and I had been a witness to the paranormal events.
She opened her mouth to ask more questions but was cut off by a loud bang on the front door. We exchanged a worried glance before I approached it.
“Who’s there?” I asked. Maybe the little girl hadn’t disappeared after all. If I opened the door, surely she could just walk back into my life and haunt me forever.
“Penny, it’s Mom. Open the door, honey.”
It sounded like her but the little girl had fooled me like that before. She always liked to play games with me, get inside my head and make me believe all kinds of things.
My hand went to the doorknob. It was warm now, the temperature it should have been and not the icy cold of the ghosts.
I could feel my heart beating in my chest as I twisted the knob. It opened freely, no longer locked and refusing to budge.
My parents were standing on the stoop. I fell into their arms, my tears finally able to sting my eyes and flow down my cheeks.
“Where were you?” I asked as Bea reached us, joining in the group hug we had going on.
“I don’t know,” Mom replied. She looked at my father for some answers. “I can’t remember anything. Can you?”
“Last I remember I was going to bed,” Dad said, equally as dumbfounded. “Then we were standing at the door a moment ago.”
They looked at me for answers. It was going to be a long story.
When I awoke the next day, it was like my life was only just beginning. My room was airy and bright, warmed naturally by the summer sun.
I no longer felt the sheer terror of the little girl lurking around every corner. She was no longer one blink away, always there with her coldness and evil.
My parents said they believed me when I told them everything that had happened the night before. I wasn’t sure if they really did but they were relieved anyway.
My hand clasped around my necklace as I left the house. It wasn’t burning anymore, but its weight reminded me that loved ones were always close by.
For the first time in my life, I could make a home here in Buttercup Bay. We weren’t going to be moving any time soon.
Jamie Campbell discovered her love for writing when her school ‘What I did on the Weekend’ stories contained monsters and princesses – because what went on in her imagination was always more fun than reality.
Primarily writing Young Adult Romances of all kinds, Jamie also delves into murder mysteries and ghost stories. Basically, whatever takes her fancy – she lets the characters decide.
Living on the Gold Coast in sunny Queensland, Australia, Jamie is constantly bossed around by her dog Sophie who is a very hard taskmaster and lives largely on sugar.
Step by step, she moved through the starboard side of the dark interior, touching cables, tightening their junctions, and listening to the hiss of the air system. The only thing separating her from the deep recesses of space was one metal wall. She loved how it made her feel—the thrill, the excitement, the constant reminder of her own mortality. The bowels of the ship were dark, warm, and comforting. The headlamp she wore provided enough light for her to do her work, and the soft glow of the fiber optic cables gave the space a warm, mysterious feel. She loved the ship.
Occasionally, she wiped dust off of the wires’ casings or bent down to listen to them. They sang to her in many voices, but if she heard the snapping of sparks, she marked it with a red flag made from a tiny LED with a magnet, and came back later to adjust it. Her routine looked something like this: rounds, minor repairs, rounds, minor repairs. If a major repair needed to happen, then everything else stopped. Sometimes she even thought time stopped, because whenever she finished fixing something, she felt her brain SNAP and everything was just like it had been before.
She stepped into the steam room, which, as usual, was filled with clouds of steam. The plumbers loved it in here—the steam operated certain parts of the machinery in the ships, and it wasn’t supposed to leak, but the plumbers left a few holes and used it like a sauna, where they would just hang out and relax. Her routine took her through here once a day, unless a major repair interfered.
“Hey, White Rabbit,” Logger said, doffing an imaginary hat. In her mind he was the king of the plumbers—and not a very good one, at that. He was the only one who talked to her. The others sat, lounging on crates with their shirts off, chattering about meaningless drivel that didn’t concern her. She preferred the plumbers that ignored her for a wide variety of reasons, starting with the fact that Logger was a creep.
“Hello,” she said, trying not to make eye contact. She skittered out the other side, following the long EM2156L cable which started in the Emergency Control room and spidered out all across the ship, and crossed her fingers that Logger wouldn’t follow her—again. She wanted to finish this whole run today, and she was pretty sure she could, although it might take a bit longer than her shift, particularly if she got stuck trying to avoid Logger for any period of time. She was the fastest of the runners and wore white, so they called her the White Rabbit. Plus, her white hair, in sharp contrast to her dark skin, often stuck up like the towers of the Great Rindal Palace and looked a bit like short rabbit ears.
The other side of the steam room was always like a breath of fresh air, for a moment. But then she saw Logger, who just happened to be lounging at the next junction point. He was an expert at this move, and she couldn’t figure out why he kept trying. It wasn’t like she hadn’t tried to get rid of him, every single day. Then again, maybe her tactics weren’t as obvious as she thought.
“How’s the cable runnin’ going today, sweetie pie?” he asked. “If you’ve got time, I know a great little spot on deck 14 where we can have some… alone time.”
She smiled nicely and nodded, murmuring something unintelligible and trying not to meet his eyes. She did this deliberately, hoping he would think she just didn’t want to talk and that he would go away. But she did it every day, and it never worked—perhaps a new strategy was in order. She cleared her throat.
“Hi,” she said.
His face burst into a lascivious smile. She frowned. This tactic wasn’t working either. In fact, it seemed to be having the opposite of the desired effect. She wasn’t good at thinking on her feet, but the third option she had come up with was by far the worst: telling him point blank to leave her alone. It might, however, be the only option she had left.
“Why don’t you ever talk to me?” he asked.
She gave him a blank look. She talked to him every day.
“I mean,” he amended, stepping closer to her, “you say ‘hello,’ but that’s all. You never ask me how I’m doing or what it’s like in the plumbing world.”
She shook her head and stepped back.
“It’s because I don’t care.” She turned back to her cables. “And I wish you would leave me alone.”
There. She did it. A brief sense of elation filled her as she felt proud for standing up for herself, but was quickly replaced by fear. What would he do? What would he say? She hated this junction with every ounce of her being, and she knew that the feeling had nothing to do with the cables. Perhaps more accurately, she thought, she hated him.
“What do you mean you don’t care? And go away?” he asked, stepping closer to her. She could feel his breath on her neck, and though she wasn’t looking at him, she imagined he had a frown of some sort on his face.
“I’m sorry,” she said, moving away from him and down the line. “I have to finish running these cables.”
Please go away, please go away, she thought desperately. She walked a little faster, hoping he would get the hint.
He made a growling sound in the back of his throat.
“Damn you, think you’re better’n me! You think you can tell me what to do?” he exclaimed, grabbing her arm so tightly she feared he might leave bruises. She cowered as he glared down at her.
“You can think that alright,” he continued, little bits of spittle flying from his lips, “but I’ll show you! I hope the ghost gets you!” He released her arm with an angry thrust and then stomped down the hall away from her, back towards the steam room.
White Rabbit swallowed. That was the worst insult anyone on the ship could give, and although she wasn’t afraid of the ghost itself, she was afraid of Logger and what he was planning to do.
It all happened the day the virus got loose. It ate up the systems of a thousand battle ships and left hundreds of thousands of people running out of oxygen, running out of food, and inevitably flying at great speeds towards the nearest star or planet without the ability to steer. No one knew where the virus had come from, but it was transmitted from ship to ship through wireless communications, and spread through each ship’s systems like virtual wildfire.
Her ship had just been lucky.
While the other ships were losing control, the Admiral of the Paka Fleet, where she lived, had been forced to shut down all of the fleet’s wireless capabilities in order to deal with some teenage vandals. They had written a program that made pop-ups of inappropriate content appear all over the place—private computers, public consoles, even on the computers that did the calculations for speed and jumping. Because it was interfering with the navigation and jump systems, the Admiral had ordered all ships in the fleet to shut down temporarily, while the computer technicians figured out the origin of the pop-ups.
The Admiral had been furious that day, but everyone was secretly glad: a little virus had saved them from a big one, had saved them from burning up in the heart of a white dwarf.
While the ship was down, the Admiral received a radio transmission begging for help from the nearest out-of-control fleet. There was nothing he could do, but he never turned the ship’s wireless communications systems back on again. That was when White Rabbit got promoted to a cable runner, tasked with making the ship run with wires, instead of without.
White Rabbit loved her work, but sometimes she got sick of wires. She followed them, she fixed them, she hid them in nooks and crannies and corners. When she got bored, she would sometimes bend and twist them into colourful sculptures or words. Then she’d untwist and coil them neatly the way they were supposed to go. After work, she would head back to her deck and find her room, where she would discover that her Dad had left on another business trip to some other ship in the fleet, and her two sisters wanted her to make dinner, because she was, as they said, “the best cook.”
So she would cook, but only because it was better than doing nothing. Then she would read for a while and head to bed, drifting softly to sleep to the sound of her sisters watching reruns of their favourite vid-decks.
The next morning, she would wake up to the sound of artificial birds, rouse her sisters, and head back to run more wires.
But that was tomorrow, and today was today. She still had to finish the emergency cables in the stern of the ship, around the drive units. Quite the opposite from the steam room, the stern was her favourite part of the ship.
In the stern she felt safe.
Everyone who knew this found it quite odd, because everyone else felt just the opposite.
“It’s spooky down there!” they said.
“I wouldn’t go down there for a hundred Euros!” they said.
“I think it’s haunted!” they said. “I heard voices once!”
“That’s where the ghost lives!” they said.
White Rabbit didn’t care what everyone else said. The small spaces made her calm because she always knew where she was and where she needed to go. In the darkness, no one else could see her, and she could always hear when someone else was approaching far before they heard her. The voices that people heard… she heard them too, but she talked back. And the hazy figures people saw, she saw them too. Plus, it wasn’t voices and figures—it was just one voice, and just one figure.
“Hello?” she said softly. “I’m back.”
“White Rabbit.” The voice emanated from the blackness. Bits of light flickered in and out of her peripheral vision. The Ghost was trying to become visible. He often tried, and some days all she heard was his voice, while other days his entire blue form became visible.
The Ghost, she had learned, though the sound of his voice tended to hiss in and out like a bad comm, liked beaches. She herself had never been to a beach, as she was born and raised aboard this ship, but it sounded nice. The voice also liked pie and listening to music. Better yet, the voice liked to read, and could talk at length about many of the ancient texts White Rabbit had found in the library.
Perhaps her favourite thing about the Ghost was that it so terrified anyone that came near. Whenever Logger came to visit while she was working near the voice, the voice would say, “those eyes that burn… and if he has to kill a thousand men, then he will kill and kill again!” and then laugh. White Rabbit knew they were just lyrics from a very, very old Earth opera, but Logger didn’t read.
She still cherished the memory of Logger’s wide eyes and terrified grunts as he had fled from the dark tunnels towards the lighted and warm interior of the ship.
“How are you today?” she asked.
“It…. very cold… good,” he said.
She translated that as, “It is very cold in here, but I am good,” based on things he had said to her in the past and the length of time that came between words. She often had to translate, as many of his words didn’t come through very clearly.
“I’m sorry you are cold,” she replied.
“What… working… ing today?” he asked.
“I am doing the same thing I do every day,” she said. “Just checking the wires, and then checking more wires and more wires. I love wires, and I hate them. They are so unchanging, but so comforting.”
“I feel the same… memory foam…”
White Rabbit had looked this one up last time he said this. Memory foam was a type of malleable mattress that conformed to the body, used several centuries ago.
“I looked that one up,” she said. “It is a type of mattress used a very long time ago. How old are you anyway?”
“I… year 2321 to Achieng and Otieno… Kenya.”
“Wow!” White Rabbit was stunned. “You are over 500 years old!” She shook her head, and then realized she had stopped working. She quickly bent over and began examining the wires once more.
“…not old… trapped.” The voice was fading more.
“You’re fading again,” White Rabbit said. “I’ll talk to you when you get back.”
“…back…” the voice seemed to echo, and White Rabbit finished her rounds in silence.
The next morning, White Rabbit rolled out of bed, sleepy but satisfied. She had stayed up far too late reading a modern translation of an old text from the nineteenth century, but she hardly even thought about it as she rushed to get ready. Today was a red-wire day. That meant they were live and any screw-ups could cost time, money, and possibly lives.
Her sister, Ann, waved at her as she went out the door. “Say hello to Logger for me!” she called.
White Rabbit scowled at her. Ann knew that White Rabbit hated Logger, but for the love of the fleet, couldn’t understand why. “He’s so charming!” she had said one day. “And handsome! You should feel lucky that he’s interested in a shy thing like you! You silly girl.”
White Rabbit had stormed into her room and refused to talk to Ann about it after that. What was the point, after all? Everyone loved Logger. Except her.
She stood in a line with the other ten cable runners, her white uniform starched to perfection. Mac, their boss, was giving them a lecture on speed, safety, and accuracy.
“Daph!” he called.
“Sir!” Daph yelled back.
“What’s the number one rule?”
“The number one rule, sir: DON’T TOUCH THE WIRES.”
“GOT THAT EVERYBODY?” Mac was shouting now. “WHAT HAPPENED LAST TIME SOMEBODY TOUCHED A WIRE?”
“PADDY GOT SICCED!” everyone shouted in unison. “PADDY GOT SICCED.”
White Rabbit always whispered instead of shouted. She was afraid that if she shouted at that wrong time, everyone would hear her and notice her. Particularly when they were shouting about Paddy. Paddy was a wire runner who got fried when he put his hand across an entire strip of hot wires. There was no consensus about whether or not it was suicide, sabotage, or an accident, but all three were viable options.
“Now go!” Mac shouted, and the wire runners took off into their respective directions. “Except you.” He turned and pointed at White Rabbit. She froze, one foot in the air.
As soon as the room had cleared out, he crossed his arms and frowned at her. “I have been getting complaints about you being rude to some of the plumbers—one in particular. Logger. Know him?”
A terrified look crossed her face.
“Yeah, I thought so.”
White Rabbit gulped. How was she supposed to say that it wasn’t her being rude, but him? It wasn’t her fault! He was the creep! He was the one that always followed her around and tried to get her to talk to him. It wasn’t fair.
“I…” she tried to say, but Mac talked right over her.
“Logger is a very respectable plumber and highly regarded across all departments, though it shouldn’t matter—you shouldn’t be treating anyone that way! Do you understand me? Now, because I can’t have you causing problems with other departments, I’m taking you off the red wires. Daphne will take your place. Instead you will be striking ghost lines.”
“Ghost lines?” she whispered. She didn’t think those were real.
“Yes, they’re real,” Mac said, sighing in exasperation. “I’ll show you where to get started. Most of them are hidden in the closed tunnels, so you’ll need some keys and a nice big wrench. Follow me.”
She fumed as she followed Mac through the corridors of the ship. She didn’t do anything! It wasn’t her fault! Logger was the jerk—he was the one that was harassing her! All she had done was try to stand up for herself, but apparently it was her job to let big, ugly louses make unseemly remarks and grab at her whenever she walked by. She wished desperately that she was braver, that she could work up the courage to stand up for herself. After all, wasn’t she a bit old to be behaving like a cowardly child?
Mac led her to the brig, hidden away in the deepest corner of the ship. White Rabbit rarely came here. It wasn’t part of her rounds, and she didn’t like being near the prisoners. Rowdy, crude, and unkempt, they had a nasty habit of yelling obscenities as people walked by. Some people argued that the prisoners didn’t deserve to be here—that their sentences were too harsh for their crimes or that they hadn’t done anything wrong at all. But White Rabbit felt that if that were true, they wouldn’t be so awful and rude when people (like her) needed to walk through.
Down here, her arms and head felt heavy and tired. Gravity was stronger this deep in the ship, as the design of the gravitation magnets were calibrated to simulate ideal gravitational conditions in the living quarters on the higher decks. As a result, the gravity increased in the lower parts of the ship, just enough to be noticeable.
“Line runners, here for maintenance,” Mac said to the guard on duty.
“IDs, please,” the guard said.
White Rabbit pulled her ID out and handed it to the guard, keeping her eyes averted towards the floor.
“Thank you.” The guard wrote something down in a book, and then unlocked the barred door that blocked entrance from the brig into the rest of the ship. He waved them through.
White Rabbit kept close to Mac’s heels as he led her deeper into the ship. The cells started almost immediately past the main gate, and angry prisoners began to call out on either side.
“Got any food?” one woman asked. “They make us eat rats down here!”
White Rabbit had heard of this before. Prisoners tried to make out that the conditions were inhumane, to get more people advocating for their release. They said awful things, but they were really just making their situation sound worse than it was. She kept her head down.
“Hey there, pretty lady,” a man jeered as she walked by. “I got a nice soft bed you can hunker down in, if you’re so inclined.”
White Rabbit swallowed nervously and kept her eyes focused on Mac’s shoes.
“Where ya’ll off to so quick-like?” another prisoner hollered. “Us prisoners, well, we just get a mite lonely from time to time! What’dya say to a quick conversation?”
Talking—this was another strategy. Rumors up top said that prisoners would try to get you to talk because they just wanted to shove propaganda down your throat, to convince you to help them escape. White Rabbit closed one eye, and kept the other trained on Mac’s heels. The fabric on his shoes was red, dirty, and well-worn.
“You up-toppers think you can come down here and ignore us? We are people too!” Someone reached out of their cell and grabbed White Rabbit’s sleeve. She gasped and pulled away, walking even closer to Mac’s heels. Despite how furious she was with Mac, she preferred his proximity to theirs.
“Yeah,” another prisoner chimed in. “We’re people too! We’re people too!”
This seemed to be a mantra among the prisoners, for almost immediately, they all began to chant as if one: “WE’RE PEOPLE TOO! WE’RE PEOPLE TOO!” Then guards swarmed in from nowhere, banging on the bars of their cells and yelling back.
“YOU AREN’T PEOPLE,” one of the guards yelled. “YOU’RE RATS.”
Almost without realizing she was doing it, White Rabbit reached up and stuck her fingers in her ears. The noise around her dulled, and she felt an immediate sense of relief.
Then, Mac turned down another hallway and the shouting of the prisoners faded behind them.
She kept her head down and eyes focused on Mac’s shoes until she ran smack into him.
“Watch where you’re going!” Mac barked. “You’ll start here. The tunnel will take you down to the bilge, and you’ll come out underneath the rudder.” He pulled out a wrench and loosened a nut on a panel covering a hole in the prison wall.
White Rabbit frowned. This seemed unsafe. If a prisoner got out of their cell, they could escape the prison through this one stupid hole.
“The ghost lines are mostly painted white, although they’re so dirty at this point that they’re difficult to see. Your job is to make sure firstly that they’re not live, and secondly, that they are disconnected at every junction. But make sure you check both ends of a cable before you disconnect it. We don’t need any explosions by removing power from a piece of machinery that hasn’t been shut off.”
Of course this made sense, but White Rabbit felt her stomach drop. This meant backtracking any time she found a live wire. Just the walking back and forth could take hours and hours, not counting the process to determine the state of the wire and to disconnect it. If she got lucky, there wouldn’t be any live wires at all, so maybe it wouldn’t matter.
“You got all the equipment you need?” Mac asked.
White Rabbit opened her work bag and let him look inside.
“Solid,” Mac answered. “Take this wrench, so you can get out when you reach the end of the bilge. You understand?”
White Rabbit nodded.
“When you’re done down there,” Mac continued, “I expect you to apologize to Logger. Can’t have you treating other members of this ship like, well, like prisoners. Especially ones as well-respected as Logger. Got it?”
White Rabbit nodded again, a small, red hot bubble of hatred beginning to glow somewhere in her lower abdomen. It wasn’t fair!
“Alright, get going! I’m going to have the guards seal this door up after you go down it. Don’t need no prisoners managing to slip out of this place.” He chuckled. “Wouldn’t want you to get stuck down there with one, eh?”
White Rabbit gulped again, eyes wide. She certainly hoped not. A brief wisp of fear flashed through her mind—what if she got stuck down there?—but she quickly decided that she would rather be stuck down there alone then have to come back up through the prison or be near Logger for any amount of time.
She reached up and turned her headlamp on, moving slowly towards the gaping black hole. Then, taking a deep breath, she crawled in. The light illuminated a short tunnel and then another hole in front of her with a ladder sticking up from it.
“Adios,” Mac called, and placed the panel back on the opening, plunging her into darkness.
The ladder creaked and groaned as she made her way down into the bilge tunnel one rung at a time. A few of the rungs hung loose, and she gasped as the rung moved beneath her weight, or sometimes, as her foot hit empty air. The light from her headlamp made a small pinpoint on the wall in front of her, and as she moved down, she could see lines of graffiti drawn centuries before, when the population of the vessel was far less, and the people had more freedom.
After what felt like an eternity, her foot hit the ground. She slowly turned, and the light spanned out over the room in front of her. Much larger than she had imagined, the room echoed as she stepped forward; the harsh metal walls boasted colourful artwork covered in a thick layer of grime.
A junction box with a big yellow X painted on it jumped out at her from the other side of the tunnel. She moved forward slowly, turning her light towards the ground.
Junk covered the floor. Empty cans, old shirts, what looked like shiny silver disks—trash from centuries past littered the length of the tunnel for as far as she could see. She carefully avoided the unrecognizable items, kicked a few of the harmless items out of the way, and made her way to the junction box by finding the floor one step at a time.
The ghost wires began in this junction box, indicated by a large white triangle painted at the beginning of any run. That is probably why Mac had made her access the bilge through the prison entrance—unless, of course, there were only two entrances, in which case she was glad he had not made her arrive in the prison. Talk about a horrible way to end the day.
She pulled out her screwdriver, loosened the junction box cover, and peered at the wires connected to the power cell: they were grimy, rusted, and clearly worn down by years of use followed by a lack of maintenance. She decided it was a good thing Mac had sent her down here. If any were live, they could cause a serious fire when a rat dragged in an old t-shirt across one to make a nest.
Next, she examined the power cell. Power cells had their own system of networked cables that led back to the engine room. Next time she got promoted (if she ever got promoted), she would be able to focus on maintaining these in addition to running wires. She pressed the ON button. It flared up in a blaze of tiny neon lights. It hadn’t even been off, just sleeping.
“Huh,” she whispered to herself. Then she sighed. If the power cell was on, the chances of a live wire were very high, and if the live wires started right here, at the beginning of the run, then she was likely going to have to go all the way to the end, and then come back to the beginning to shut the cell down.
She stared into the dark abyss that made up the rest of the tunnel. This could take days, and all she had to eat were a few granola bars. On the other hand, maybe it would be easy and only take a few hours. Then she could have the rest of the day to herself.
She turned back to the wires with renewed focus.
White Rabbit shrieked and then coughed as she inhaled a piece of dust. “Ghost? Is that you?” she asked when she caught her breath.
“It is me,” the voice said, “Imamu.”
“Imamu,” White Rabbit whispered, her eyes widening. “Imamu is your name? I’ve never been able to hear your name before!”
“I’ve tried to tell you many times,” Imamu replied. “Why can you hear me better now?”
“I don’t know,” White Rabbit said. “Do you live down here?”
“Where is down here?”
“In the bilge,” she answered.
“I don’t think so,” he replied. In front of her, a white figure blazed into view, much clearer and stronger than she had ever seen it before. “I used to live in a cabin, but now I don’t know where I am. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know where I am.”
This happened sometimes. He would get caught in some sort of loop and repeat the same words over and over.
While she waited for him to self-correct, White Rabbit pulled out her multi-meter and placed the two pins on the screw holding the first wire in place. It read 0 amperes. So did the next three. But the final one read nearly 80 amps. White Rabbit frowned. Whatever—or whoever—was using this power was drawing enough electricity to power a large kitchen appliance, like an oven.
“…don’t know where I am. I don’t know… White Rabbit?” Imamu suddenly and abruptly stopped his loop. “Why are you in the bilge?”
“I got in trouble for talking back to Logger,” she answered, the feeling of humiliation and hatred flaring up again momentarily, “and so I have to work down here. Working the ghost lines.”
“Shouldn’t he be the one getting in trouble?” Imamu asked. “For harassment or something?” He had no features that White Rabbit could have described, even in his new, clearer state. Instead, he simply had a clearer, more solid outline with a sharp edge.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I guess I could’ve been politer.”
“No, don’t say that!” Imamu argued. A blob that could have been an arm emerged from his figure, almost as if he was gesturing angrily. “You should never apologize for standing up for yourself.”
“I don’t. Maybe if I kept quiet, no one would bother me,” she said.
Imamu sighed. “I’ve been trying to tell you this for months. It doesn’t matter how quiet you are, how good a job you do, or how often you go unnoticed. Someone you don’t like will notice you eventually, and your only other option is to stand up for yourself.”
White Rabbit shrugged and disconnected the dead wires before beginning to walk down the tunnel. She kicked at the cans, bottles, and other trash scattered about the floor and the sound echoed all around her. “I will think about what you said.”
“I promise. Cross my heart.”
White Rabbit walked in silence for a while, keeping the beam of her headlight fixed on the cable that ran along the wall. Beside her, Imamu glowed, but not brightly enough to shed any additional light on the tunnel. The live wire was encased in a rubber tube, which, along with all of the other cables, had a plastic pipe wrapped around it. These protected unfortunate passersby from an unpleasant shock, and protected the wires from being damaged.
She paused for a moment as the light from her headlamp illuminated a particularly colourful piece of graffiti. It depicted a woman being lowered from a great height, wreathed in halos of light. All around her, people reached up their hands to touch her feet and legs, and around them, colourful tents and boxes sat lined up against a wall made of jail bars.
As the last echo from her trash kicking faded away, she heard another sound in the distance.
“Do you hear that?” she asked Imamu.
“What?” Imamu asked.
“It sounds like….” she closed her eyes and zoned in on the sound, similarly to when she was listening to wires, “…like humming.” White Rabbit opened her eyes and frowned. “Humming? It’s not electricity, I know that.”
“Oh, those are just the Hippos,” Imamu said. “You’ll like them.” At that moment, he disappeared.
White Rabbit turned to look down the tunnel, suddenly more terrified than she had ever been in her life. She was alone, in the dark, in the bowels of the ship, possibly about to die. The noise got louder but all she could think of was being trampled by giant Earthan livestock with strange, shiny hides and enormous teeth. Then, torches appeared in front of her, held by people dressed in strange clothing, all humming at the same time.
From what White Rabbit could see, at least 20 people stood before her. Her fear, far from receding, filled every inch of her. Their clothes, clearly made from scraps of fabric, were woven together and almost looked pretty. Most had long hair falling around their faces and were extremely thin, and White Rabbit found it difficult to tell who was male and who was female. She could, however, tell that her own hands were shaking uncontrollably.
One woman with a line painted across her forehead stepped forward, flanked by two others holding a torch in one hand and long canes in the other.
“Who are you?” she asked.
White Rabbit couldn’t speak. Her eyes felt as if they had been pinned open and her mouth was so dry, she could have started a cactus farm inside it. She tried to push air through her vocal cords, once… twice… when she finally succeeded in making words, they came out as a hoarse, guttural stutter.
“Wh… Wh … White R… R… Rabbit,” she stuttered, gripping her bag so tightly that her hands hurt.
“Why have you come here?” the woman continued.
“T… t… to check the g… ghost lines.” White Rabbit gulped. She could feel herself panting, like an excited dog, but unlike an excited dog, she was paralyzed with fear.
“Are you not afraid to be here?” The woman leaned forward, peering at White Rabbit’s face. “The uppers—they never venture down here.”
“I… I… I am a… a… afraid.” She figured admitting it was simple enough—not that it wasn’t obvious or anything.
“That’s hardly a good description though,” Imamu’s voice chimed in. His glowing form was still invisible. “She’s afraid of everything. She’s a wire runner, no need to fear her.”
“You know her, Oh Great One?” the woman asked.
“Yes. We are friends,” Imamu said.
“In that case, you are welcome and I offer my services to complete your task.” The woman turned to face her legion of people. “You may return to your tasks. I am safe, you are safe, and White Rabbit is our new friend. Say thank you to Imamu, the Great One.”
“Thank you, Imamu,” they all chimed.
“You’re welcome,” Imamu replied.
Then, one of them handed the woman a torch before following the rest down the tunnel.
“Wh… wh … who are you?” White Rabbit asked as the woman turned to look at her. White Rabbit’s hands were still shaking and she felt an overwhelming need to hide. On the other hand, one Hippo was far better than twenty.
“My name is Achieng, named for the Great One’s mother. I am the leader of the Hippos.”
“Wh…why are you called Hippos?”
“It comes from an ancient word—hypogeal—which was used back on Earth to mean underground. There is no underground on a spaceship, but we are below all other decks. We are the Hypogeans and Imamu calls us Hippos.”
Imamu chuckled. This joke seemed to amuse him for some reason. He began to flicker back into view. Achieng smiled at the ghostly figure, and then pulled up her sleeve to show a tattoo of a hippo, striped with all the colours of the rainbow. “It is now the symbol of our people.”
White Rabbit nodded, her mind whirling. Her hands still shook, but Achieng seemed nice enough, with just one Hippo and Imamu, she felt a little safer. Now she just had to quit stuttering.
“Now, Wire Runner, how can I help you?” Achieng asked.
“I… I need to get to the next j… junction box.” Only two stuttered words! Progress.
Achieng’s torch lit up the tunnel in all directions, in a way that was much more helpful than White Rabbit’s head lamp. Every inch of the walls boasted colours and lines making up massive images. White Rabbit thought they might tell a story.
“Wh… what do those mean?” she asked, pointing at one depicting a man hanging from a ladder by one hand, and a speech bubble pointing upwards with the words, “You can die down there!” carefully lettered on white.
“These tell the story of our mothers and fathers,” Achieng stated, pausing to shine her light on a couple more images.
“Many centuries ago, our first mother, Josephine, escaped from the prison through the same entry that you came through. She discovered that the bilge was actually a massive space, parts of which had once been used for storage but have long been forgotten. So she made a home. Not long after, a man name Leonard escaped from prison. They made a life together and had several children. When their children grew older, three others escaped from the prison, and as far as we could tell, none of the guards could figure out how, so our many times great grandparents began to make a civilization down here, stealing food, sharing resources, and keeping our children as safe as possible.”
White Rabbit gulped. Everyone down here was descended from prisoners. Images flashed in her head: a hand grabbing her arm, the request to talk, “We’re people too!” echoing through the halls.
“B… but w… weren’t th… they dangerous? Th… th… the prisoners?” Her stuttering got a bit worse as she imagined prisoners hiding in the shadows.
“No. Many of the prisoners in their time were simply convicted to make space for wealthier families. So they made their own space, down here. And down here, we have our own system of laws. Then, in the third generation, Imamu came and helped us further build our civilization.”
“I… I… I… see.”
“Now you must answer a question for me.” Achieng looked over at White Rabbit with a smile. “Why are there still wire runners? You are far too young to be one. Didn’t they mostly die out when our ships went wireless?”
“N… n… no, well, y… yes, b… but,” White Rabbit took a deep breath to try and stop stuttering, focusing her mind on what she knew best: the wires. “B… but the virus killed other fleets and we couldn’t, couldn’t stop it, so we had to go analog and… and now there are wire runners again.”
“What virus is that?”
“The Otieno Virus,” she answered, and then smiled a little, realizing that she hadn’t stuttered that time.
“What?” Imamu’s voice resounded. His form flickered in and out, and then disappeared again. “Otieno Virus?”
“Yes,” she said. “Why?”
“That’s…” he paused for a second and then continued, “…that’s when I died. Or didn’t die, rather. The Otieno virus had killed every other ship but mine…”
“Yes, every fleet but our fleet—the Paka Fleet!” White Rabbit could feel herself getting excited and noted that her stutter had vanished. She felt like she was about to learn something that no one else on the ship knew. Maybe, just maybe, she would redeem herself and be able to get back to wire running on the main decks. Or somewhere away from Logger.
“No,” Imamu said, “I was in the Kiboko Fleet.”
“Here,” Achieng said, pointing at a junction box.
White Rabbit opened it, made sure the power cell was on, and then clipped the dead wires, almost without thinking. She was too focused on what Imamu was saying.
“The Kiboko fleet… that was the last one to go,” she said. “We thought they had survived, but they didn’t. They were just last.”
“They died? Everyone died?” he asked, his voice suddenly filled with deep sorrow.
“Yes, they did, because they lost all their systems. They were about to enter orbit, but instead, they flew into a star.”
“The next junction box is this way,” Achieng said softly.
White Rabbit followed in her wake. “Imamu?”
He didn’t reply.
“He has gone to rest,” Achieng said quietly. “What he learned today, that would quell even the fiercest fire.”
“I’m sorry,” White Rabbit said, feeling a little confused but also sorry. He somehow knew those people, and she had told him that they all died. Now guilt filled her mind, in addition to the sadness. “I am sorry I told him.”
Neither spoke again for a long while. Achieng led her from one junction box to the next, quietly pointing out where the wires ran. White Rabbit ran through her processes mindlessly, mulling over Imamu and all that she had learned from him today.
After a while, Achieng broke the silence.
“Where did you meet Imamu?” she asked.
“In the rudder room,” White Rabbit replied. Her hands had long stopped shaking, and the flickering light of the torch made the walls of the tunnels feel warmer and more welcoming.
“He is weak in that part of the ship,” Achieng said.
White Rabbit frowned. She had noticed that he never once cut out when speaking to him in the tunnels, but hadn’t thought to ask why.
“Why is that?” she asked.
“We don’t know. He is strongest through these tunnels, but then, in the transport room, he vanishes entirely, and is weak around it. He says there is a strong interference and that he cannot shout loud enough through it. The rudder room is directly above the transport room.”
“What is the transport room?” White Rabbit asked.
“Another long forgotten part of the ship,” Achieng answered. “It is where members of the crews from other fleets would arrive to meet and discuss news, tactics, and strategies during war.”
“Like, a teleportation device?” she asked.
“Those were outlawed when the Otieno virus hit.”
“Yes, but we still have one. It is just not in use.”
“Can I see it, before I go back above deck?”
“You must,” Achieng said, “because the wires lead straight to it.”
White Rabbit tried to focus on the junction boxes, but after about three more, she gave up. Each was the same: a functioning power cell, five dead wires, and one live wire. She knew, deep in the pit of her stomach, that the teleport device was still on. Why else would her instruments be reading such a high amount of power in the wires? Unless the Hippos used the power for their laundry, which it smelled like they never did, then there was no other logical reason.
So she asked Achieng to take her there, right away.
They walked rapidly through the tunnels. Achieng pointed left and right, here and there, indicating rooms, other tunnels leading to different portions of the hull, and more massive graffiti art plastered across the tunnel walls.
The Hippos had an entire civilization down here, and from what White Rabbit could see, it was strong, beautiful, and welcoming.
After a rapid-paced walk through the bilge, Achieng paused in front of a smooth white door, somehow still clean after all its years of disuse.
“This is it,” Achieng stated. “It’s the teleport room.”
“Do you ever go in here?” White Rabbit asked. She turned and looked all around this end of the tunnel. Not too far from the white door, she noticed a ladder stretching up the side of the wall. She looked up and could see a grate. Light leaked through. That must be the exit, she thought.
“No, it’s locked,” Achieng replied. “We didn’t want anyone from the upper levels coming down and noticing us, so we never messed around with it.”
White Rabbit frowned a little and began to examine the door. The hot wire she had been following ran right through the wall, meaning that she was in the right place. The door had a handle, but a small red light indicated that it was locked. She stared at it up and down and all around. How would she open it?
“Imamu,” she whispered. “How do I open the door?”
“Kkk…..” he was trying to talk, but whatever was causing the interference made it impossible for her to hear him.
“Imamu?” she asked. Then she turned to Achieng. “Do you know of anyone that could help me open the door? I can stop the people from the upper decks from coming down by telling them it was me that did it, if they even notice.”
“I will go find out,” Achieng said.
“Kkkk…” Imamu tried again. “Kkkk….ch…ch…ch.”
White Rabbit frowned. What could he be trying to say?
She looked down at her bag and began to dig around. What tools did she have that could help?
The multi-tool jumped into her hand first. She pulled out a few of the different options it offered, and tried to jiggle them around the door handle. It didn’t work. Then she tried a few different sized screwdrivers. Finally, her hand wrapped around the massive wrench Mac had given her in the prison.
She pulled it out and looked at it thoughtfully. It certainly couldn’t pick the lock… but what if…
She raised it up over her head and brought it down with a huge smash. The door, made from some type of plastic, crumpled. Again she brought the wrench down. The plastic cracked. A third time opened a hole big enough for her to stick her arm through. She reached through and unlocked the door. It swung open.
The moment White Rabbit stepped into that room was a moment that she reflected on many times throughout the duration of her life. The scene in front of her spoke of centuries of technology built up and then torn down again in an instant. Like a scene from an old vid-deck, or a perfect replica of an old ship, this room reminded White Rabbit of every history class she had ever endured, every lecture from her father she had ever listened to, every piece of propaganda her government had ever fed her.
The main console in the center of the room hummed. The platform blinked with little green lights. The computer screens that took up every inch of wall space blinked the words: “Virus Terminated. Virus Terminated.” A fine layer of dust covered every flat surface.
White Rabbit stepped forward, trying carefully to not disturb anything. She continued to look around, her eyes taking in the old-style chairs placed at the sub consoles, the strange tubing that surrounded the platform, and the massive, old-style magnets that rose up and spun around the teleportation unit.
Something had happened here. Something had been paused in mid-moment.
This was history. This was beautiful. This was forbidden.
She took another step in.
“Imamu?” she whispered.
This time there was no sound. No crackling, no whispers, no sense that he could even hear her.
Slowly, she made her way into the center of the room. The hot wire powered the console and all of the computers. When the machine was running, she bet they drew a lot more than 80 amps. More like 8,000.
In order to cut the line, she would need to turn off the equipment in this room. No explosions, Mac had said.
She stopped in front of the main console and gazed at the screen. Bright red letters flashed, “PROGRAM IN OPERATION.” Below the screen were four buttons. Each read: ALLOW PROGRAM, CANCEL PROGRAM, SHUT DOWN, and PAUSE. The PAUSE button glowed green.
White Rabbit looked around the room. This seemed to be the main draw for all the power. So, closing her eyes and holding her breath, she hit the SHUT DOWN button. She froze and began to count. Ten… nine… eight… seven…
Fifteen second passed. She opened one eye. A message on the screen said, “CONSOLE CANNOT BE SHUT DOWN WHILE PROGRAM IS IN OPERATION.”
She thought for a moment and then reached out and hit, “CANCEL PROGRAM.”
A different message appeared on the screen. This one read, “ARRIVAL IN PROGRESS. PROGRAM CANNOT BE CANCELLED.”
Only two buttons remained: PAUSE and ALLOW PROGRAM, and the PAUSE button was already blinking. That left her only one choice. Before hitting it, Rabbit looked around the room again for an emergency shut down button or a plug, but there was nothing to be seen.
Then, without thinking about it too hard, White Rabbit reached out and hit ALLOW PROGRAM.
Immediately a new message appeared on the screen: “PROGRAM ALLOWED. PROGRAM COMMENCING.” Below the message, numbers began counting down from thirty. A loud roaring filled the room as the machine fired up. White Rabbit covered her ears. Panels on the floor folded back, and all around the platform a huge glass wall rose up, creating a clear barrier. The magnets lowered and began to spin.
White Rabbit could feel her hands begin to shake again. She swallowed and began to step backwards away from the machine. She stopped as she ran into something… or someone. Behind her, Achieng stood, breathing heavily and sweating. Her wide eyes gazed up at the machine as it whirred and growled.
Behind Achieng, Hippos began to appear, slowly crowding into the room, each covering their ears and watching with intense curiosity and mild fear as the machine worked.
When White Rabbit turned back, colours and shapes swirled like a hurricane inside the glass dome. The movement was so rapid, her eyes could barely follow it and her brain, trying to comprehend what she saw, was even farther behind.
Then, for a moment, everything turned a cloudy grey and the roaring stopped.
The respite was temporary though, as another whirring started up, and the grey smoke that filled the dome was slowly sucked out.
In front of them, a man kneeled on the floor, hands covering his head, crying.
Slowly, the dome lowered. The panels moved back into place. The computer screens cleared.
White Rabbit’s hands shook harder than a lamp in an earthquake. She stepped back, once again bumping into Achieng.
“Go,” whispered Achieng. “Talk to him.”
“I… I…” White Rabbit was so scared, she couldn’t even formulate the word “No.”
“Go,” Achieng urged. “Go.”
She gave White Rabbit a shove, and White Rabbit stumbled forward, directly into the path of his eyes as he looked up from his bent position.
Blue eyes. Deep blues, swirling like the pictures of Earth oceans, piercing like the full Moon on a clear night.
“White Rabbit?” the man whispered.
“Imamu?” she asked, shocked. She rushed forward and took his hands in hers. “Where were you?”
“Trapped,” he replied. “I was trapped in the teleport, stuck for centuries. You saved me.”
“You didn’t know where you were.”
“I didn’t know where I was,” he replied, tears rolling down his cheeks. “But I do now.”
“Oh Great One,” Achieng said reverently, stepping forward and bowing low. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
Imamu swallowed once and then stood straight up, adjusting his very old military uniform and wiping away the tears.
“First,” he said, looking out at the Hippos, “I want to say thank you. You,” he gestured toward Achieng, “and all of you,” he gestured towards the rest of the Hippos standing there, “and all of your ancestors, are what have made my life bearable for the last few centuries. I knew you, spoke with you, watched as you lived your lives as I could not. And for that, I thank you.”
“And you,” he turned to White Rabbit, “have saved me from the worst prison any human can suffer. I owe you my life.” He kneeled, in the old style, and kissed White Rabbit’s hand, which was trembling, shaking. The Hippos began to talk and laugh and cheer.
“I… I… I…” she whispered.
Imamu laughed at her stutter, but it was a kind laugh, sympathetic to her plight. After all, he knew her better than anyone had ever known her. She had told him all of her secrets, all of her hopes and desires, all of her best and her worst thoughts. All because she thought he was a ghost.
“WHITE RABBIT,” a voice roared over the noise of the Hippos. She spun around to see Mac standing there holding a flashlight and a gun. “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?” Behind him, a cohort of soldiers marched in, aiming their weapons at the Hippos.
“Get down on the ground!” one of the officers barked.
Slowly, one by one, each of the Hippos began to kneel. White Rabbit took a step back away from Mac, and stumbled, falling into Imamu’s arms. He caught her, and then looked up with feigned innocence.
“Sir! Have you received word? The Otieno Virus has been cured! My father created it,” a sad look crossed his face, “but I found the code and was able to write another program to wipe out the virus! Admiral Zuri sent me here to help you fix your systems.”
“Sir,” the commander of the cohort stated, “Admiral Zuri died over 500 years ago.”
“500 years?” Imamu exclaimed. “But I’ve just stepped out of the teleport! I just left the Kiboko fleet.”
The commander stared at him for a moment. “Who are all these people?”
Imamu looked at them for a second and then said, “Why, they are my friends… I think. My memory is very faint, but… I think they guided me here.”
“Guided you?” The officer looked incredulous.
“But it was her,” Imamu put White Rabbit on her feet again, “she saved me.”
“Preposterous!” Mac exclaimed. “She’s afraid of her own shadow.”
“But she’s not afraid of me,” Imamu exclaimed. “Look!” He held up White Rabbit’s hand. It wasn’t shaking.
“Sir, can you please tell me what year it is?” the officer asked.
“It’s year 2321, sir,” Imamu stated firmly. “Well, I mean… it was when I left.”
“I think I’ve seen enough,” the officer said. “We need to get this man to the infirmary, as is process for anyone arriving on the teleport. Do any of you other people care to explain who you are?”
Achieng stepped forward. “My name is Achieng, and we are the Hippos. We live here, peacefully, quietly, and do no harm.”
“Do no harm?” Mac interrupted. “Look at this! You’ve destroyed a door, used equipment that was banned centuries ago, risked the safety and well-being of an entire fleet… what if the virus had downloaded through the teleport and not just this… this person? What then?!”
White Rabbit stood watching, her hand still tightly held by Imamu’s, and she suddenly remembered the thing that had been smoldering in her abdomen all day. It was a red hot, fiery burning that filled up her entire body. She looked at Mac and remembered his accusations—that she had been rude to Logger, of all things—and then thought about everything that had happened since. How she had been exiled to the bilge of the ship; how people were so afraid to live above decks that they thought it was safer to live and raise families in the bilge! How Imamu had been trapped for centuries, alone, afraid, and confused. How now they were accusing the Hippos of doing something that they didn’t even play a role in! If they hadn’t been here, White Rabbit still would have turned on the machine.
She stepped forward and cleared her throat. Everyone turned to look at her and she shrunk a little, but the fiery anger that burned within her straightened her backbone and forced her to speak.
“It was me,” she said. “I turned on the machine because Mac ordered me to kill all live wires. I turned on the machine because Mac told me to make sure everything was turned off so it wouldn’t cause any explosions. I turned on the machine because Mac exiled me to the bilge as an unreasonable punishment for something I didn’t do. I turned on the machine because Mac wouldn’t bother to hear my side of the story. I turned on the machine because of him.”
She glared at him, and all of the fight suddenly drained from her body.
Mac was speechless.
“I’ve definitely seen enough,” the commanding officer said. “Soldiers, please take everyone to the hold. We will question them individually and go from there. Take White Rabbit and Imamu to the infirmary and have the doctors make sure they are healthy. Go!”
The next several hours consisted of rounds of doctors, rounds of questions, and rounds of interview rooms. Her sister Ann came to see her while she was in the infirmary.
“I can’t believe what happened to you!” Ann exclaimed, reaching out to grab White Rabbit’s hand. “You must have been terrified! But how brave!”
Then Logger knocked on the door.
Ann smiled and invited him in. She fluttered her eyelashes and blushed when he said hello to her. Then he turned to White Rabbit.
“Hey, honey,” he said. “I heard you were sick and was worried ‘bout ya. I told the doctors I’ll be taking you home when you get out of here.”
“No!” White Rabbit heard herself say. “No, no, no! I’m not going anywhere with you! I hate you! You can go to hell!”
Logger suddenly stepped forward, his massive body looming over the bed. “What did you just say to me?”
“I said, ‘no!’” White Rabbit repeated. “You can’t come home with me and I don’t want anything to do with you.”
She gulped as an angry fire blazed in his eyes. He grabbed her by the arm and squeezed so hard she saw stars.
“You don’t speak to me that way,” he exclaimed, his voice a low, guttural growl. He leaned down so that his face was only inches from hers. “I will take you home, and you will let me help you, or else. I sent you to the bilge and I can do worse than that! Now, you will say yes.”
“No,” she said.
He roared like an animal and punched the wall right next to her head. White Rabbit bent over, arms protecting her head, in fetal position.
Ann began to scream, loudly. A soldier passing by in the hall heard her shrieks.
“What’s happening, ma’am?” he asked, bursting through the door.
“He’s trying to kidnap me,” White Rabbit said, scowling at the large plumber standing in front of her, her hands once again shaking from the sudden show of violence. “And he punched a hole in the wall when he got mad.”
“Excuse me, sir,” the guard said. “Please, come with me.”
He went grudgingly. She didn’t see Logger again after that, and she discovered the next day that Mac had been fired.
When the questions and the doctors and the talking finally stopped, hours later and long after Ann had gone home, she gathered up her tools and headed back towards their apartment. It was late and the corridors had dimmed to emergency lighting only.
“Hey!” a voice behind her called. “It’s me!”
She turned. Imamu was jogging down the hall towards her.
“You didn’t wait!” he exclaimed.
“I didn’t know where you were,” she replied. “I thought they put you somewhere safe.”
“They just made sure I’m healthy, after having my atoms bopping around in a teleport for half a millennium,” he replied. “They have a place for me to stay though, so I’ll probably head there soon. Where are you off to?”
“Going home,” she replied. “I’ve had a long day, and I didn’t even manage to cut the ghost wires.”
He smiled. “Can I walk you home?”
“You don’t even know where you’re going!” she protested.
“You do,” he answered.
She shrugged, a little smile crossing her lips. “If you want to.”
“I do. Want to know why?”
“Because you saved me. And I think you are incredible.” He reached out and took her hand.
She looked down. She wasn’t even shaking. Not one little bit.
Ariele Sieling writes science fiction novels and short stories, and works to blend the potential for human capacity and future technology with a little bit of humor. She is the author of The Wounded World, The Clock Winked, and The Lonely Whelk, in addition to two children’s books. She lives in New Hampshire with her three cats.
It wasn’t the scream that woke Malika. The sudden shift in momentum when the carriage stopped jolted her awake. Her sister’s body slammed into hers, and both girls untangled their limbs as they fought to reach a sitting position.
“What happened?” Kappai asked, wiping the sleep from her eyes.
Malika’s eyes swept through the inside of the wagon. Gray streaks of light found their way though the cracks between the boards that made up their moving prison. Dawn had just broken, although the sun wasn’t high enough in the sky to illuminate their surroundings.
In the opposite corner of the wagon, an older woman, defined only by her outline in the dim light, turned once and went back to sleep. She was already in the wagon when the slave traders captured Malika and her younger sister. At first, the siblings sought out their fellow prisoner, asking her questions about who their captors were, where they were going, and what awaited them at their destination. The woman responded with few words and more often with silence. Malika guessed that she either didn’t know the answers or wasn’t interested in sharing what she knew. For the remainder of the day and night, the siblings kept to their side of the wagon, speaking only with each other.
Malika peered out of a slit half the width of her finger. They were on a dirt road. Sparse grass grew next to the edge of the path, and thin trees that had lost their leaves with the arrival of autumn lay beyond the patches of green.
A loud voice barked orders outside. She recognized the voice as belonging to the leader of the slave traders. Midway through his tirade, another scream tore through the early morning calm.
Kappai huddled close to her sister. “What was that?”
Instinctively, Malika wrapped an arm around the little girl. “I don’t know, but stay next to me.” Staying together was how they had survived thus far.
Ever since their parents died the previous winter in a plague that swept through their village, Malika had looked after her younger sister. Although she was only fifteen years old, Malika was still five years older than Kappai. With only rudimentary knowledge of how to hunt and harvest, Malika managed to keep both of them alive for nearly a year. Sometimes she begged for food, sometimes she worked for it, and sometimes, not proudly, she stole what they needed. But Malika also quickly learned that eating wasn’t the only requirement for survival. Staying out of trouble and diverting attention from themselves was just as important, especially for two girls on their own.
Malika did her best to protect her sister, but her efforts still couldn’t prevent them from ending up in their rolling locked cell.
Through the slit, Malika spotted a slave trader running past the wagon. His leader shouted in his direction, but the harried man ignored the words. He turned his head once, looking back with eyes wide open and mouth agape in fear, but Malika didn’t think it was the leader he ran from.
Was their wagon under attack? As hopeful as she was that someone had rescued them from the slave traders, Malika was also wary that their saviors would become the girls’ new captors. A wagon with three women inside wasn’t worth as much as a bag of gold, but each of them, even the woman in the corner, would fetch a fair price in the slave market.
Malika waited for the next sounds, but nothing reached her ears. Had their attackers left after vanquishing the slave traders? It seemed odd that not one of them remained behind to inspect the carriage.
Making up her mind, Malika let go of her sister and shifted her body so that her legs pointed in the direction of the wagon’s door. She asked Kappai to do the same. “We have to get out of here before anyone returns.”
From their seated position, the girls kicked at the wooden door together. It shook but held firm. They took a deep breath and kicked once more. This time, the entire carriage shuddered, but the door didn’t crack.
“What are you two doing?” The older woman propped herself up on one arm. “You’re going to get us in trouble if you keep doing that.”
“The slave traders are gone,” Malika explained. “Someone drove them away, and we should leave before they come back.”
The woman’s interest suddenly piqued. She stood up and joined the siblings in front of the door.
“Once more, all together this time,” Malika said.
In unison, the three women struck the door with their feet. A satisfying crack signaled that the door had splintered from its hinges. They gave one more kick, and the door fell open.
The woman jumped out first, followed by Malika and Kappai. Before she gave the sisters a chance to thank her for her help, the woman ran toward the front of the wagon.
“No!” Malika shouted, but it was too late.
As if she had suddenly fallen asleep, the woman’s feet stumbled, and she fell. A scream emanated from her mouth, but it died in her throat before it reached full volume. The woman didn’t try to cushion the blow of her body as it struck the ground. Her arms hung loosely by her side as she collapsed in midstride. She was dead before her face hit the dirt.
Three other bodies lay in front of the wagon. The two screams they had heard earlier, both slave traders. The third corpse belonged to their leader. The horses the dead men rode on were gone, but the horses that pulled the wagon remained tied in place. Their lifeless bodies lay in the road, as inert as the dead men and woman.
Kappai shivered as she held her sister. “What happened to them? And to the woman who was with us?”
Malika saw what caused their deaths hovering in front of the carriage. She also knew why Kappai was unaware of what had happened. Malika possessed the rare ability to see the floating apparitions. “We shouldn’t go that way. There are ghosts.”
The sisters stepped between the trees as quietly as they could. The bed of dead brown leaves that littered the ground made it impossible to walk in silence, but they did their best.
Having fled in the opposite direction, the ghosts weren’t whom they tried to hide their presence from. The otherworldly creatures also barely acknowledged the existence of the people and objects in Malika’s world. Although Malika was one of the few who could see ghosts, she knew as little about them as everyone else. Their occasional intrusion into her world was a fact, but no one knew where or when they would appear. Why or how they crossed over was also a mystery, but one that fewer people cared about. From Malika’s past experiences, the ghosts appeared oblivious to their surroundings. They merely existed, and the fact that they killed anyone or anything they came into contact with was, in her opinion, tragic but unintentional.
Malika was more concerned with the slave traders or other strangers they might encounter. Two slave traders had fled when the ghosts appeared, and the sisters had seen no signs of either man since. Because of the ghosts’ location on the road, Malika chose a route that took them in the same direction in which the two men had run. There was no telling if they stayed on the road or if, like Malika and Kappai, they had also wandered into the woods.
A larger problem facing the sisters was the lack of food and water. Hours had passed since they escaped from the wagon, and their last bite to eat took place the night before, when the slave traders gave the three prisoners a loaf of stale bread and a canteen of water to share between them.
With the arrival of autumn, the trees had already lost their fruits. Bare limbs adorned with a few browning leaves stretched from the tree trunks. Malika scavenged the ground for something to eat but found nothing safe. Occasionally, they spotted small animals scampering along the branches, but neither girl had weapons with which to kill their prey, and there was no fire with which to cook a meal.
As they walked, water became a more pressing concern. The hours of walking dehydrated them to the point of exhaustion. The sisters rested frequently, but their thirst only grew.
By the late afternoon, they no longer cared about stealth. They trudged through the woods, feet heavy and sore, throats and lips parched, with their only motivation laying in the knowledge that they had to find some food and water in order to survive. Malika considered letting Kappai rest while she continued onward in search of sustenance for the both of them, but she feared leaving her little sister alone.
As the sun began its descent from the sky, the woods came to an end. Through the last line of trees, Malika saw a humble village not far away. Buildings of stone and wood dotted the horizon.
She urged her sister onward. Kappai, unaccustomed to the strenuous exercise that they had endured, begged for more rest instead. Malika gave her a few minutes. “Let’s try to reach the village before the sun sets. If the villagers are kind, they’ll feed and shelter us, and you won’t have to worry about being tired or hungry anymore.”
She didn’t voice the alternative. If the residents of the village were unkind, hunger was the least of their concerns.
Before they reached the village, Malika saw that something was wrong. There were no signs of activity as they approached. She expected someone in the village to see the two girls draw near and sound an alarm or come out to meet them. At the very least, she expected to see people walking about the village or busying themselves with work.
Instead, the buildings stood quietly. No fires burned inside any of the homes despite the coming evening. There were no signs of life at all.
Kappai was the first to spot the corpse. A woman lay on the ground near the first house at the outskirts of the village. An empty bucket rested out of reach of her fingertips. Malika saw two more dead bodies outside one of the other buildings. A man and a boy had fallen while carrying piles of kindling. The branches lay scattered around them, and no one had bothered to pick up the pieces.
“Ghosts?” Kappai asked. Malika nodded. There was no other explanation for the sudden deaths. “Are they still here?”
Malika scanned the area, but she didn’t see any of the deadly, floating spirits nearby. “Not that I can see, but they may be elsewhere in the village. Stay here while I check things out.”
Kappai tried to sound brave, but her voice faltered as she answered, “I will.”
Malika kissed her sister on the forehead. “I’ll be right back. Shout if you see anyone, but don’t go into the village until I tell you it’s clear, all right?”
“Yes,” came the whispered reply.
Malika smiled at Kappai, hoping to pass along encouragement and courage in the gesture. Then she set out for the nearest building, a modest house where the woman with the bucket had come from.
The door to the house was unlocked, and Malika pushed it open easily. A quick inspection showed the house to be empty. She left, looked in Kappai’s direction, and waved to her sister. Kappai smiled and waved back, but she didn’t move from where she stood.
Malika went through the remaining buildings as quickly as she could. Inside most of them, she found the bodies of their inhabitants. They had been in the middle of their usual daily activities when the ghosts swept through the village, killing them before they knew what had happened. Malika felt sorry for the villagers, but their deaths solved a problem for her and her sister. She and Kappai now had a place to stay for the night with plenty of food and water.
Malika returned to Kappai and told her that the ghosts were gone. She also shared her plan for the two of them to spend the night at the village.
The sisters chose the house that belonged to the woman with the bucket. Not only was it the closest one, but it was already empty. They didn’t need to worry about disposing of a dead body inside.
The kitchen housed more food than they had seen in a long time. The two girls gorged themselves until they were well past feeling full. Malika felt guilty about raiding a dead woman’s kitchen, but she also knew that the food would only go to waste if they didn’t eat it. After the meal, she found cloth bags, which she packed with more food for their journey tomorrow. Between her and Kappai, they could carry enough to sustain them for a week.
Instead of sleeping in the woman’s bed, the sisters chose to sleep on the floor. They had grown accustomed to doing so for the past several weeks, and it was more comfortable than squeezing into the small bed.
“Where are we going tomorrow?” Kappai asked when they had settled under a worn out blanket.
Malika had been thinking for a while about their next course of action. The village where they had grown up was gone, wiped out by invaders. Malika and Kappai were lucky to be away at the time of the attack, hunting for food when the intruders killed their neighbors. The slave traders found them roaming the deserted streets afterwards.
While they were imprisoned in the carriage, Malika overheard snatches of conversations between the slave traders. They talked often of riches and women and topics that she didn’t understand, but she remembered one exchange. A man spoke of someday retiring to a city of riches by the ocean. He had never been to the city, but he had come across merchants who had. The slave trader he was talking to scoffed at the idea, saying that the first man would never retire because he’d most likely die in a tavern fight or by the hands of their leader before earning enough money to fulfill his dreams. Both men laughed at the prediction.
The name of the city stuck in Malika’s mind ever since.
“We’re going to search for Talin. It’s west of here, by the ocean.”
“I’ve never heard of it. How far away is it?”
Malika had no idea, but she lied, “Not too far. Just a few days’ journey.”
“What’s in Talin?”
“A great city, and a new start for us.”
Kappai didn’t ask any more questions. She lay in the darkness, and Malika wondered if her sister’s mind conjured the same images of the city that hers had. If Talin was half as promising as her imagination suggested, she was willing to make it her new home.
The sun was already high in the sky by the time they woke up. Malika found her legs tight and sore, but she also felt refreshed. She stretched and flexed her limbs, trying to rub some of the soreness from them. Her movements woke Kappai, who felt slightly worse but recovered more quickly.
The sisters ate a breakfast of fruit and bread. They washed it down with water, but the pitcher they drank from was the last full one in the house.
“That must be why the woman was carrying a bucket,” Kappai suggested. “She was getting more from a well or a stream.”
Malika agreed. She didn’t know where the water source was, but she knew that one of the other houses must have more water in their kitchens. “I’ll be right back. I’m going to get water from another house.”
Kappai nodded absentmindedly. She returned to kneading her muscles, wincing when her fingers found a particularly sore spot.
Malika left the house where they had stayed the night and walked to its neighbor. It was even smaller, and inside, she found the body of an old man at the kitchen. Pieces of glass lay on the floor where a pitcher had shattered. The water that had been inside had evaporated. Malika looked for another pitcher in the house but couldn’t find any.
She left and proceeded to the next house. There she found three pitchers of water, enough for the family of four whose corpses now occupied the residence. However, Malika encountered another problem. She couldn’t carry the glass pitchers with her when they traveled. She needed to find canteens or waterskins to hold the water.
Malika searched the house but didn’t find anything suitable for carrying water.
She left and made her way to the subsequent residence in line.
The quest for water was turning out to be more complicated than she expected. Fortunately, the village was well stocked. It took her only three more houses before she found two canteens and two waterskins, enough to hold water to last her and Kappai for half a week. Carrying more water than that would weigh them down, so they would have to look for another source during their travels.
Malika filled the containers and set out for the house where Kappai awaited her. She could already feel the weight that she carried. Kappai wasn’t as big or strong as she was, so she would tire more easily. Perhaps they could sacrifice some supplies in the hope of finding food and drink within a couple of days. They could also eat another hearty meal before they set off today, and they wouldn’t have to eat again until tomorrow. Or they could simply stay another night and fully recuperate before setting out again.
“Kappai,” she called when she opened the door. “I have another idea. Let’s leave tomorrow instead of today.”
Her sister didn’t answer. She wasn’t in the front room, nor was she in the kitchen. Malika set the canteens and waterskins down and went through the house. “Kappai!” Her shouts were met with silence. Where was she? Why hadn’t she stayed in the house?
Then Malika saw the blanket under which they’d slept. A tear in the fabric nearly split it in two. A broken plate in the kitchen also hinted at a struggle and told her that her sister hadn’t left voluntarily. Someone had taken her.
Malika darted out of the house.
“Kappai!” She snapped her head in every direction. Why had she left her sister alone? Why did she think that this village was safe?
Malika raced around the side of the house to face the rest of the village. A man dragged a girl toward one of the small homes at the far end.
“Malika!” Kappai’s voice echoed across the village before the man who held her slapped a hand over her mouth.
She couldn’t be sure, but Malika believed that he was one of the slave traders who had run away. She didn’t know if he was alone or if his companion was also in the village, waiting in the building for him.
Malika broke into a run, any soreness in her legs erased by the adrenalin flowing through her. She had to reach her sister before they harmed her.
The blow came from out of nowhere, knocking her onto her side. Malika’s ribs hurt from where her body struck the ground. She rolled onto her back just as her attacker pounced on her. The other slave trader who had fled. He pressed his body against hers, pinning her to the ground.
Malika pushed against the heavier body, keeping him as far away from her as she could. The man didn’t strike her again, but he grabbed her by the wrists to subdue her flailing arms.
“Don’t fight it, girl,” he said with a grin. “It’ll be easier on you if you do what I say.”
Malika planned to do no such thing. She brought her knee up to his groin. The man let out a yelp but stayed on top of her. She grabbed a fistful of hair and pulled as hard as she could. The man yelled again, prying her fingers off.
Malika took the opportunity to roll away. She scrambled to her feet before the slave trader recovered. The two of them eyed each other, both bent at the waist and breathing heavily.
The man snarled. “You did it now. I was going to go gentle on you, but now I’m going to enjoy making you hurt.”
He lunged at her, but Malika dodged out of the way. He was twice her size, but she was quick and not as helpless as he assumed she’d be. The months of fending off strangers from her and her sister had taught Malika the basics of protecting herself. She was far from being a skilled fighter, but she was no weakling either.
The slave trader rushed at her again with his arms outstretched, but Malika slipped to the side and out of his reach. She could keep dodging him until he grew tired, but that left too much time for the other slaver to harm her sister. Malika had to finish this confrontation quickly.
The man’s face reddened at the frustration of not being able to capture his quarry. He came at her with fists swinging. Malika backed up until her back hit the wall of the nearest house. She feinted to one side and then moved to the other.
The man’s momentum carried him in the wrong direction, but one fist clipped the side of Malika’s face, sending her spinning. Her attacker regained his sense of direction and punched at her again. Malika, still dazed from the first blow, couldn’t get out of the way of his second attack in time.
A fist struck her on the side of her head, and she fell to the ground. She tried to move, but her mind felt heavy, unable to send the right commands to her body.
The grin returned to the slave trader’s face. He fell upon her and straddled her waist. With one hand, he gripped her jaw so tightly that her cheeks hurt. He leaned toward her until his face was just inches away.
“I’m going to enjoy this, and so will you.” Malika felt the hot breath on her face when he spoke, and the reek of his odor overwhelmed her senses. She didn’t know what he intended to do, but she knew that she couldn’t allow it.
With both hands, Malika searched the ground around her. If she could find a large rock or branch, she could hit him on the head with it. However, the area within arm’s reach was surprisingly devoid of anything that could be used as a weapon. She squirmed, wriggling her body back and forth.
“Keep moving like that,” the man taunted. “I like it.”
Malika inched forward bit by bit. Her arms still groped for anything nearby that she could use as a weapon. One hand finally landed on a small stone no bigger than the man’s nose. It was too small to do him much damage.
Nevertheless, Malika brought the stone up against the side of her attacker’s head. He yelled in pain, but the blow hadn’t knocked him out. However, he let go of one hand to rub the spot where she had struck him.
With the freedom gained by not having the hand holding her down, Malika hit him in the throat, leading with the stone.
The man’s eyes opened wide in surprise. He tried to talk, but no words came out. Both of his hands now went to his throat. Malika hit him again on the head. This time, he tilted to the side, and she pushed his body off of her. The man was still conscious, grasping at his throat.
Malika found a larger rock a few feet away. The slave trader’s attention was no longer on her. She stepped behind him and bashed the rock against the back of his head.
He fell face forward in the dirt.
His eyes closed, but his chest rose and fell in slow rhythm. Malika hadn’t killed him. She had mixed feelings about the result, but as long as he was no longer a danger to her, she had achieved her goal.
She set her sights on the house at the far end of the village. Her more immediate goal now was saving her sister.
At the threshold leading into the building, Malika debated whether to sneak in from another entrance, perhaps a window. Her indecision ended when she heard the voice inside say, “I know you’re out there. You might as well come in.”
Malika pushed the door open and took two steps inside, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer lighting. The second slave trader stood at the far end of the room, a knife in one hand. Kappai’s prone form lay by his feet. Her eyes were shut, and she didn’t stir at the older girl’s entrance.
Malika’s heart pounded in her chest. She was too late.
“Don’t worry. She’s not dead, if that’s what you’re afraid of,” the slave trader said. “She’s no good to me dead, and neither are you.”
Malika let out a long exhale. Her sister was still alive. There was still hope for both of them. She asked, “What do you plan to do with us?”
The man twirled the knife in his hand. “That’s a good question. I don’t have a wagon and horses, so there’s no easy way to transport you two, but I still need to bring both of you to the nearest town with a trading post if I’m going to make any money off of you.”
In a way, hearing the man talk of selling the sisters as slaves brought Malika relief. He wasn’t a pervert like the man whom she had knocked out. He was only looking to make money. That made him both safer to be around and yet more dangerous because he couldn’t be as easily enticed.
Malika pointed to Kappai. “What did you do to her? How long will she be out?”
“Maybe for just a few minutes. I gave her a dose of this.”
With his free hand, he brought out a small bottle. Malika hadn’t seen it before, but she guessed that the slave traders used the same chemical on her and Kappai when they were captured.
“Are you going to use that on me too?”
“No. Lucky for you, I used the last of it on your sister. Besides, you’re more useful to me awake.”
Malika needed to stall the man until Kappai woke up. Although the slave trader had a knife, perhaps the two sisters together could overpower him. No, she contemplated, the risk was too great. Malika wasn’t willing to put her sister’s life in danger. She thought of making a dash to the kitchen to retrieve one of the knives there, but she didn’t know what the man would do to Kappai if threatened.
There was also the first slave trader to consider. Once he regained consciousness, the men would outmatch the two sisters.
Malika’s eyes searched the room, looking for anything that might help her gain an advantage over the armed man.
“Stop scheming!” he said. “I can see it in your eyes. Don’t even think of escaping, or I’ll cut your sister’s throat.”
Her gaze returned to the man before her. She needed to lure him away from Kappai so that the threat of her life didn’t weigh in any actions Malika might take. “I was just thinking that it would be easier if you bound our hands. We can walk to the nearest town, but with our hands tied, it’ll be harder to escape.”
The slave trader pursed his lips and furrowed his brows, pondering the offer that Malika made. Finally, he answered, “Fine. Go find some rope.” He crouched down, placing his knife next to Kappai’s neck. “But if you try anything funny, I’ll spill her blood.”
Malika nodded. She walked to the kitchen, careful to make slow, deliberate movements so that the man holding the knife to Kappai’s throat wouldn’t harm her sister out of panic. She made a show of opening every drawer and cupboard in the kitchen. Instead of rope, she found a ball of string used for tying up bags of food for storage. It looked sturdy but thin enough that she and Kappai might somehow escape from the bindings later.
“This is all I could find,” she announced, showing the man the string.
He frowned but beckoned her closer. “Come tie your sister’s hands together.”
Malika approached with the ball of string. The slave trader shifted his position so that he could keep an eye on her while staying in easy reach to cut Kappai’s throat with one swift swing of his arm if needed.
As she drew near, Malika saw the hair hanging in front of Kappai’s face flutter with every breath. Her face maintained its healthy pink color. As far as she could tell, her sister was asleep but unharmed.
She unwrapped a length of string and wound it around Kappai’s wrists.
“Tighter!” the man commanded.
Malika made the next loop tighter, but she was careful not to let the string dig into Kappai’s skin.
“Two more loops,” he added.
She did as he asked and then tied off the string in a knot.
“Now it’s your turn.”
“How am I supposed to tie my own hands together?”
“You get started, and I’ll finish the knot.”
Malika didn’t want to protest. She considered it a minor victory that he allowed her to tie her own hands because she could add a little slack to the bindings. She held one end of the string with one hand and looped the ball around her wrists.
“That’s too loose,” the man complained.
“I told you it was hard to tie my own hands.”
He brought his knife up, pointing it at her head. “Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not! I promise.” Malika dropped the ball of string. It skittered away, unwinding more string as it rolled toward the kitchen. She turned around to retrieve it, and an idea came to her. “Can you let me use the counter for leverage?”
The slave trader eyed the counter. It was clear except for a basket containing a loaf of bread. Deeming it safe, he granted her permission to move to the counter. He followed, keeping enough distance from her so that Malika couldn’t reach him if she tried to grab his knife or attack him, but close enough for him to lunge at her and cut her in a split second.
Malika leaned against the counter, setting the ball of string on it. She started tying her wrists again, but her hands shook.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Just nervous, that’s all,” she said with a forced smile. She fumbled with the string again. Then she glanced at the window next to her. “Can you move to the other side? You’re blocking the light.”
The slave trader grumbled and did as she asked. Malika pressed her body as close to the counter as she could to let him pass. She held herself still.
“Is this better, you demanding– “ The man’s face twisted in pain. An anguished cry left his mouth as he realized what had happened. He fell forward, and Malika jumped out of the way. Without checking, she knew he was dead. She unraveled the string around her wrists.
The man’s knife tumbled out of his hand and fell a few feet away. It landed not far from her, but Malika couldn’t reach it because of the ghosts hovering where the knife lay. She saw them enter the house and hoped that they could do to the slave trader what she couldn’t on her own.
The nearest ghost brushed past her, coming within a hand’s breadth of touching her and ending her life. Malika raced away from the kitchen and returned to her sister’s side. Tugging at the string, she freed Kappai’s bonds. Then she shook her sister until Kappai began to rouse from her sleep.
“Wake up, Kappai! We need to get out of here. There are ghosts in this house.”
Malika turned to the door. It was too late. The ghosts barred the route to the exit.
With Malika’s help, Kappai stood up on shaky legs.
“What happened, Malika?” She saw the slave trader’s body. “Did you kill him? Are we safe?”
“Not quite,” Malika answered. Her eyes swept the area between the door and the kitchen. Seven ghosts had passed through the walls and entered the room. They floated aimlessly, unaware of their surroundings, including the dead man on the kitchen floor. More ghosts streamed in while others left, unaware that they passed through walls as effortlessly as through the air.
“Ghosts?” Kappai whispered.
Malika swept an arm in front of her. “There.”
“How do we get out of here?”
“I’m working on that. Can you walk on your own?”
Kappai flexed her legs. “Yes, I think so.”
“Good, come on. Follow me.” Malika slid along the back wall of the room, staying as far away from the front door and the kitchen as she could. She entered the only other room in the house, a sparse bedroom with a single window.
There were no ghosts inside, and Malika sprinted to the window with Kappai at her heels. She unlatched the window and pushed it open. The ghost that passed just outside missed her face by inches. She recoiled in shock, bumping into her sister.
“What happened, Malika? More ghosts?”
Malika nodded, recovering from the startle. “There’s a horde right outside the window. We can’t leave from here either.”
“What do we do now?”
“I don’t know yet, Kappai.” She left the bedroom. A gathering of ghosts still hovered at the front of the house, and two more joined the group by the door. Unlike the ones outside the house, however, these moved more slowly, almost lethargically.
The ghosts at the door prevented them from leaving that way. They couldn’t even reach the doorknob to open it. However, the pair near the kitchen window had dispersed somewhat, offering a possible chance to escape.
“Kappai, step where I step, and the ghosts won’t touch you.” Malika held her sister’s hand and slowly approached the window. She stopped three feet away from the nearest ghost. Malika glanced out the window. There didn’t appear to be any ghosts outside the front of the house. She turned around and placed her hands on Kappai’s shoulders. “Listen to me. You have to do exactly as I say. When I tell you it’s safe to do so, you’re going to jump on the counter and then crawl out of this window. You move exactly when I tell you to. You got it?”
“What about you?”
“I’ll be right behind you, but I need to be your eyes right now so that you can escape first.”
“I’ll join you as soon as possible. I promise.”
Kappai wrapped her arms around her older sister. “You’d better.”
Malika didn’t look down at her sister. She didn’t want the last image that Kappai saw of her to be a face full of doubt. No, Malika told herself, it wouldn’t be the last time that Kappai saw her alive. They were both going to make it.
Kappai balled her hands into fists, her legs ready to spring into action. Malika timed the movement of the ghosts before them. As soon as they left an opening for Kappai, Malika yelled, “Now!”
She had never seen her sister jump so fast. The little girl leaped onto the counter, pushed open the window, and fell through to the other side. A moment later, her smiling face appeared. “I made it, Malika! Now it’s your turn.”
In the seconds that it took Kappai to escape, the ghosts reversed their course and blocked the path to the window again. Malika waited for them to move out of the way, but one of them stopped as if it could sense her presence.
Kappai inched toward the window. “What are you waiting for, Malika?”
“Stay outside, Kappai! There’s a ghost right in front of the window.” The little girl backed away. “That’s good. Just stay there.”
Malika took a step to her right to see if the ghost would follow her, but it didn’t move. She walked back and forth in the kitchen, taunting the ghost to leave its place in front of the window. A second ghost passed through the first one, and both started moving again. Malika set off as soon as the path to the window cleared. She climbed onto the counter. Putting both hands on the window frame, she prepared to push off.
The first ghost changed direction again. It came back in her direction. Malika pulled her body through the window. She kicked off with her feet and tumbled onto the ground outside.
She had made it. She was still alive.
Malika got to her feet. An assembly of ghosts continued to enter and exit the house, but none hovered outside where the sisters stood. Pulling Kappai along with her, Malika took a path around the ghosts and away from the village.
They walked in silence until they reached the first line of trees in the woods.
“Are we safe now?” Kappai asked.
“Yes,” Malika answered. Safe from the ghosts. Safe from the slave traders.
“What do we do now?”
“The same thing we had planned to do last night. We’ll wait until the ghosts clear out, grab our food and water, and then head for Talin. How does that sound to you?”
Kappai leaned her head against Malika. “It sounds great.”
Malika wrapped an arm around her little sister. If they could survive hunger and ghosts and slave traders, they could survive anything. “Don’t you worry, Kappai. As long as I’m around, you’ll be safe.” She meant every word.
Even before he could read, H.S. Stone wanted to write a book. Fascinated by the stories that seemed to leap from his kindergarten teacher’s books, he went home and wrote his own book, with illustrations and bound by staples. Of course, since he didn’t know how to read or write yet, the book was full of gibberish.
Undaunted, H.S. eventually mastered the ABC’s and continued to write throughout his grade school years, adolescence, and into adulthood. Despite earning a degree and working in a field not related to writing, he continued to pursue his writing passion.
H.S. Stone’s publications include novels aimed at Young Adult and Middle Grade readers as well as several short stories. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Kauai Camp for the Curiously Creepy. Morning. Winter. Life in Hawaii had always been peaceful, simple, and existed almost entirely outdoors. We had plush sandy beaches that warmed your skin like a down comforter and an ocean so blue and clear, you’d think it was a painting come to life. And then there was the sky—a sky that proudly produced flawless rainbows against a perfect blue backdrop during the day and darkened at nightfall to show off its myriad of twinkling stars just waiting to be wished upon.
Mom used to rock me in her arms in our big hammock, and say, “The spirits of night sing our land to sleep, tucking it beneath its deep blue blanket, readying it to face a bright, new day.”
She’d then ask me to pick a star, any star, to hear its story; it was our nightly tradition. I’d point my stubby little finger at the tiniest one I could find, and not simply because it looked sad and lonely and in need of a hug—I picked one Mom may not be able to find. See, I developed the talent of improbable night vision at a very young age. My eyes were basically the equivalent of night vision goggles…only better, way better. After many guesses and giggles, Mom crafted a spine-tingling, awe-inspiring story for even the most miniscule star; whether she actually ever found the one I’d selected or not remained a mystery. When the tale was over, Mom would stroke my hair and sing her version of Aloha ´Oe. I could still hear her deep, warm voice, singing me to sleep as the warm ocean breeze kissed our cheeks:
“My baby, how I love you
My love can’t fade
I’m there, one star away”
Sitting on my small, rickety cot, the memories burning my soul, I roughly wiped tears from my eyes. Today was the anniversary of my parents’ deaths. My mom and dad passed away shortly after I was institutionalized, yet the cut in my heart was still painfully raw. What I wouldn’t give for my last vision of my mom to be in that hammock, singing me to sleep. Instead, my final memory of her was from the day the Imperia—a special branch of government dedicated to institutionalizing youths who show unusual talents—ripped me out of her arms. I was just a child at the time. My beautiful mother’s tear-stained face occupied my mind, as her piercing, wounded cries invaded my ears. I hadn’t set eyes on the sand, sea, or sky since that day…and at this moment, I was afraid I’d never see them again.
“Maile? Are you okay?”
“She’s thinking about her mom, Gus. We shouldn’t bother her.”
Guston and Gullivere Pensmackden were my best friends in the institution. They were a peculiar set of twins I’d met my first night here; no one else wanted to be near them, though I could never understand why. Sure, Gully was a bit, well, odd, but weren’t we all? I mean, so what if she starts jumbling her words when her hair falls down? Granted, it was a tad bizarre at first, but I’d learned to decode her babble on those occasions. Though, admittedly, I always tried to ensure her long honeysuckle-blond hair was tied up in a braid or ponytail. Gus, on the other hand, had always been quite intimidating, even as a small boy. He seemed to use his silent, stealth-like demeanor and severe caramel-brown eyes to distance himself from everyone but me and his sister. He’d since grown into my protector and boyfriend.
“The day is dark,” I said quietly.
Gully sighed. “Yes, it is quite morbid. I hate draining days, when the doctors start trying to remove our talents. It’s really very painful. And I hate the screaming…”
I shook my head. “No, I mean literally the day is dark. I absolutely cannot see anything. At least I could see shadows and shapes yesterday. Today, it’s like someone put a blindfold on me. You were right, Gully. Your decoding was dead-on.”
Being a code decipherer, Gully was able to de-cryptic just about anything. For several weeks, I’d had odd dreams, almost as if they’d been planted in my brain; when I’d wake up, my ability to see in daylight had dramatically deteriorated. Gully guessed my dreams were clues pertaining to my loss of sight, possibly sent to me by my ancestors.
“Hmm? Right about what?” Gully asked. “Ooh, you mean how palm trees are really portals to alien societies? I’m surprised it’s taken you so long. I’ve know for ages.”
“Uh, no, not about the palm tree portals. About my fading sight and family trying to warn me through my dreams,” I reminded her.
“Oh.” There was a long pause. “No, I don’t remember that.”
“It was only a few weeks ago, Gulls,” said Gus, slight frustration in his voice.
“Nope, still can’t recall. But I am sorry I was right. I’d like to be less right sometimes…but not about palm tree portals and aliens.”
I couldn’t help but giggle. Gully wasn’t the most focused person, but she was as loyal a friend as you’d ever find.
“That’s it,” grumbled Gus. I felt the bed move as he sat beside me, stroking my long black and magenta-streaked hair. “Someone is targeting you especially, Maile, trying extra hard to kill your talent, and whoever it is won’t stop. They’ve already taken your day vision. We’ve got to get you out of here. Tonight.”
I flipped my head to face him…or the boarded up window…or the trash can. At this point, my sense of direction pretty much sucked. “You’re crazy! No one has ever escaped an Imperia institution. It’s not possible!”
“Oh no, it’s possible,” trilled Gully. “Gus can get us out. He’s been working on it for months.”
“But…how?” I asked, astonished, my eyes wide…and probably staring at Gully’s earlobe or temple.
Gus squeezed my hand. “The particulars aren’t important. Just leave everything to me. Pack a small bag and be ready by eleven o’clock tonight, when everyone’s asleep. I’ll pick you up while Gully keeps watch.”
“The doors will be locked. Don’t tell me you figured out how to pick an electronic lock,” I grumbled.
“Something like that.” I could hear the smirk in Gus’s voice. “Tonight, we save our own lives.”
Eleven o’clock. I fidgeted with the fraying strap of my tatty blue bag, anxiously waiting for Gus. Everyone around me was fast asleep—a day full of needle-laden torture would knock anyone out…except me. In fact, the only way I made it through Draining Day was by focusing on this very moment. Not only were we about to attempt the impossible—break free from institution hell—but with nightfall came one very big bonus: my eyes sprang back into full night-vision power. I could once again see everything around me.
Amidst the snores and wheezes, the creak of a floor and shuffling of feet just outside the room caught my ear. Soon, the wall to the right of the door quivered, turning oddly blurry, as two figures suddenly appeared in the room; one was my boyfriend, Gus, flashing me an ‘I told ya I could do it’ grin. The other figure was a resident I knew very well—we bonded in the basement of the institution while sifting through scraps of discarded clothes, determined to find, design, and craft something better than the horrible gray and brown uniforms we were assigned; of course, anyone we made clothes for had to hide our fun, handmade garments and only wear them at night or during free hours.
She was known as Wall-Walking Wanda, for her talent was quite literally the ability to walk through walls. She was basically a living ghost, for lack of a better description. Wanda was a slight girl with ghostly pale skin, thick yellow-rimmed glasses, and shoulder-length, cherry-red hair. Her clothes were always wildly mismatched. Tonight was no exception: teal top, lime green skirt, bright yellow tights, and pink sneakers.
Gus made his way to me while Wanda waited beside the wall. Upon reaching me, he whispered, “How are your eyes?”
“Night vision is still working. I can still see at night.”
Gus exhaled. “Thank God. I was hoping it wasn’t too late. Ready to get outta here?”
“Lead the way.”
Taking my hand in his, holding it tightly, Gus and I swiftly joined Wanda, who immediately pivoted around, turning her back to us.
“Hand on shoulder,” Wanda instructed flatly. Gus and I did as directed. “Keep a firm grip. You don’t want to get stuck between the walls. Very uncomfortable, little smelly.”
Shooting Gus a wary glance, I took a deep breath and followed Wanda through the wall. The sensation was different than I imagined—what I expected was more akin to slamming my head against a brick wall. Instead, it was sort of like maneuvering through a giant stuffed Thanksgiving turkey. And I have absolutely no idea how or why my brain reached that particular description, but there it was in all its bizarre glory!
Once we were on the other side of the wall and in the darkened hallway, Wanda said, “Gully’s waiting around the corner, keeping watch. I can get you all through the front door and front gates—it’s the best way to go. After that, you’re on your own. I’m certainly not sticking around to face any night marchers, or aren’t you all aware of those guys?”
A cold chill ran up and down my body. “I’m aware of them.”
Looking from Wanda to me, Gus, his brow furrowed, asked, “Uh, what are night marchers?”
Wanda glared at Gus. “Don’t you ever pay attention to island folklore?”
“No,” replied Gus. “I put my energy into avoiding the crazy ass doctors and administrators who spend their days trying to rid us of our powers.”
“Night marchers,” I began, “are warriors who still roam the island.”
Gus waited a moment for me to expand, which I so wasn’t ready to do. “And the big deal would be?”
Yeah, I wasn’t prepared to tell Gus about night marchers…for a couple of reasons. “You know what? We’ll worry about them later.”
“Ha! Understatement of the century,” Wanda bellowed, before a thought obviously crossed her mind. “Night marchers wouldn’t like me, since I have ghost powers without actually being a ghost.”
“Huh?” Poor Gus. He was going to be so ticked at me for keeping him in the dark.
“Wanda…why don’t you leave? I mean, with your talent, you could leave whenever you want,” I said. “There isn’t a wall on this planet that could contain you.”
Wanda dropped her head. Moving the toe of her sneaker across a small rip in the carpet, she meekly whispered, “Because I’m waiting.”
“For what?” asked Gus.
“Just…waiting.” It was clear she wasn’t comfortable talking about this any further. “Follow me. We need to move fast. The guards will be on hall patrol in ten minutes.”
“I can hide us from the guards,” Gus informed her strongly.
Rolling her eyes, Wanda snapped, “Yes, I know, human chameleon dude. But wouldn’t it be nicer if we could wander the halls without the threat of any run-ins?”
“Okay, point well-made.” Gus grinned mischievously.
“Let’s go. Be as quiet as you can, especially on the lower levels.” Wanda took off jogging down the hall. Gus and I were quick to follow.
When we rounded the corner of the long, seemingly endless hallway, we found Gully patiently awaiting our arrival.
“Come on, Gully,” Wanda demanded.
“Do we have to run? I don’t really like running. Makes my hair come loose,” said Gully with a disappointed sigh.
“We’re only going to run for a little bit.” I took Gully’s hand in mine and pulled her along.
We continued through the halls and down several flights of stairs until we reached the main entrance hall—a vast, immaculate room made entirely out of bamboo; the arched ceiling made it feel almost magical…if only that were the case.
The front doors to freedom were merely steps away. Just as we were about to cross the grand hall, a loud clamor from a nearby office stopped us cold. To our horror, Headmaster Akalonna was exiting his office.
“It’s the headmaster!” I frantically whispered.
“All of you—grab hold of me,” Gus demanded.
Gus wrapped his long arm around me and Gully, pulling us close, while Wanda jumped into his free arm; with us all against him, he swiftly swiveled around and slammed our backs against the wall. The thud alone would have awakened the night marchers.
“Who’s there?” shouted Headmaster Akalonna, his large, intimidating figure charging toward us.
Stopping directly in front of me, Headmaster Akalonna surveyed the room with his emotionless eyes. Soon, his mean gaze landed right on us. But thanks to Gus, all our headmaster could see was a bamboo wall. Gus was a hider, or as Wanda called him, a human chameleon. He could make himself and anyone in his grasp take the form of nearly anything.
“Humph!” groaned Headmaster Aklalonna. “Must’ve been the drums of the night marchers.” He then twiddled off to his private quarters, which were rumored to be embarrassingly luxurious—far cry from how we lived.
Once the headmaster was out of sight, Gus peeled us from the wall.
“Nicely done, hider,” I murmured to Gus, giving him a kiss on the cheek.
Puffing out his chest, Gus replied, “Yeah, it’s the most effective way to keep you locked in my arms.” I couldn’t help but giggle.
Wanda scowled at us. “Oh. My. God. Are you flirting? There’s no time for flirting! Unbelievable! Please, kindly bury the flirt and let’s move our butts.” Once we were standing before the front doors, readying ourselves to pass through, Wanda added, “You know the drill—grab hold of me, we ghost through, and then Gus takes over. Hider, we’ll need you to camouflage us in order to get past the ring of guards and to the front gate. Clear?” We all nodded.
As each of us placed a hand on Wanda, Gully mused, “Flirting. I don’t know what that is. Don’t think I’ve ever done it. Pretty sure I have no idea how.” Yeah, Gully was oftentimes delayed in her responses and thoughts. Gus and I agreed it was part of her charm. Not everyone felt the same though. Case in point: Wanda.
“Wow. Really?” muttered Wanda.
With wide, blinking brown eyes, Gully whispered, “Really what? Ooh, did I miss something?”
“Did you miss something? No, I just think there’s a lot missing there,” Wanda said, gesturing Gully’s brain.
Gus playfully grumbled, “Hey, watch it. That’s my sister.”
“Um, what does that mean exactly?” Gully asked me.
“Nothing, Gulls, forget it,” I said quickly.
Wanda jerked her shoulders forward. “Yes. Forget it. We’re moving.” And with that, Wanda moved us through the front doors with hardly a shudder.
In one fluid movement, Gus immediately took Gully and I by the hand; Wanda speedily grasped his right arm. We ran through the night disguised as anything that would get us through the wall of guards: floating bits of pavement or gravel, palm leaves, grass, and even flowers. Admittedly, it was amusing to hear the sounds of our footsteps leaving the guards utterly mystified.
“Did you hear footsteps?”
“You didn’t hear drums, did you? ‘Cause if you did, we’re in real trouble. Night marchers.”
“We’re safe behind the gates.”
“Something moved by me! I think it was flying gravel!”
“Yeah, right, you probably just had too much to drink again tonight. Tell us, how much did you down to impress the little barmaid this time?”
The guards’ confused mutterings faded away the closer we moved to the gate. Gus positioned us within the shadows of two large palm trees where the guards wouldn’t see us. Wanda once again took the reins, ghosting us all through the wrought iron gate.
Once we were in the clear, Wanda said, “This is where I leave you…or, more accurately, where you leave me.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?” I asked again in the vain hope she might reconsider.
“Maile’s right,” said Gus. “If you move back through that gate and across institution grounds, the guards will see you. I can’t even think about how the headmaster will punish you.”
Wanda smiled knowingly. “The headmaster won’t punish me because the guards will never see me.”
I smirked. “This isn’t the first time you’ve broken out, is it?”
“I have a little hideout where I can watch the waves. I know the schedules of every guard, what hallways are empty and when…I’ll be fine,” Wanda said, reassuring us.
“Bye, Wanda.” I pulled her into a hug. By her delayed return-squeeze, I gathered she wasn’t used to someone hugging her.
“Be careful,” she said, moving back through the gates. “And good luck.”
In the distance, I heard the faint whispers of chanting and the rumble of drums. Staring down the beach, I could even see the flicker of torches. The night marchers were on the move…and they were heading right for us.
“And when I say good luck, I mean about them.” Wanda pointed down the beach.
“Night marchers,” I whispered, as Wanda slipped within a thick section of shrubbery and disappeared.
“Yeah, is anyone gonna fill me in on the ‘Oh holy crap, it’s the night marchers’ drama?” asked Gus, frustrated. “Why is Wanda so afraid of them?”
I swallowed hard. “Because they’re constantly recruiting… If you make eye contact with them, you’ll die and your spirit will be forced to march with them for eternity.”
“Alright, then, think we need to go in the opposite direction of the night marchers,” said Gus, starting down the other end of the beach with Gully by his side.
“I agree with Gus,” said Gully.
“Wait,” I cried. “I-I can’t leave yet. We have to meet them along the shoreline.”
Gus tossed his hands up, exasperated. “Have you lost your mind? I know you’ve lost your day-sight, but don’t tell me you’ve lost your rational brain cells along with it!”
“I have to say goodbye to my parents, my mom. Night marchers are the only ones who can make that happen.”
Gus took my trembling hands in his as the sound of drums drew closer and closer. “Maile, your parents live in your heart.”
“No, Gus, they’re here. Hawaii is all my family has ever known, and I’ll be leaving here…leaving them. You wouldn’t understand.”
“But that means we have to march toward the ghosts,” said Gus.
“I know,” I replied coyly.
“Ghosts that could kill us,” Gus added.
“I know that, too.” He wasn’t making this easy. Maybe I was being stupid…maybe there was no ‘maybe’ about it.
“Ooh, ghosts!” trilled Gully, merrily swinging her shoulders back and forth. “I love ghosts! I think we should definitely go say ‘hi’ to the ghosts!”
Gus dropped his head and groaned. “Maile, how could this possibly result in anything but our immediate deaths and subsequent admittance into the ranks of killer ghosts?”
“I have an idea. I just need you to trust me,” I said, my eyes boring into his, imploring him to believe in me.
Finally, Gus smiled slightly. “You know I do.”
“Does this mean we get to move toward the ghosts?” asked Gully.
“Yes, Gully, it does, but it also means you and Gus have to listen to what I say and do exactly what I tell you to do. Can you promise me that?” I asked.
“You’ve got my word,” said Gus.
“Thanks,” I said, before turning to my best friend. “How about you, Gully?” No answer. Oh dear, she must be disconnected. Again. “Gully? Gully. GULLY!”
“Hmm? Oh, yes, I’ll listen to you,” she finally replied.
“And you’ll do as I say?”
“Mmm-hmm.” I had the feeling Gully wasn’t sure she would pay attention long enough to listen, much less do what I say.
I shot Gus a skeptical glare, which he had no problem translating.
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure she hears and does.”
“Thanks.” With a giant exhale, I said, “Okay. Let’s go face a group of angry, tortured warriors. Yeah. How could this possibly go wrong?”
“I know!” Gully chirped, raising her hand.
“Kind of a rhetorical question,” I said.
Gully blinked twice, and muttered, “Yeah, I don’t know what that is.”
“Think it’s best if we just keep moving forward,” said Gus. As we made our way to the shoreline, he added, “Maile, I do love you, but I think you’re crazy for doing this.”
“Well, I love you and don’t blame you for thinking I’m crazy…because I probably really am, like in a bad way,” I agreed.
My blood chilled as we neared the shore, where the sea kissed the sand. Even the wonderfully warm Hawaiian winter felt the effect of the night marchers’ presence as the torches, drums, and chants grew closer.
Once the glistening, foggy figures came into view, I turned to Gully and Gus. “Lie down in the sand. And whatever you do, do not look up, do not make eye contact. If you do…you’re dead.”
“But I want to meet them,” Gully whined.
“No, Gully…these ghosts are not of the friendly variety. Just lay down, now, please,” I said.
“Fine,” Gully sighed. “But I think it’s ridiculous. I don’t think they’re as bad as people make them out to be. Misunderstood, maybe…but not bad.”
“Maile…” The helplessness in Gus’s voice broke my heart as he gazed up at me from the sand.
“If this has a chance of working, I’ve got to risk my life,” I said.
Gus was beyond furious. I knew what he wanted to do—he wanted to wrap his arms around me and his sister, fade the three of us into the sand, and let the warriors march on by. He wanted to save me, and I loved him for that. We had to leave Hawaii, I understood that fact; we had to try to find a place where we wouldn’t be institutionalized. Truthfully, I was skeptical such a city or town existed out in the world. Still, we had to try and save ourselves. But generations of my family called this island home; I was raised to respect our connection to the land. We were always at one with the island, and no matter how alone we felt, our family would always be there—in every palm tree, every splash of a wave and song of a passing bird. I had to say goodbye properly, and that meant facing the night marchers, for they were my only hope of seeing my parents.
As the night marchers approached, I dropped my eyes to the sand around my feet. Once they had come to a stop opposite me, I emphatically implored them to help me.
“My name is Maile Lahela. I’ve been institutionalized for being different. I was taken away from my mom and dad. My parents died shortly after I was removed from our home. I’m all that’s left of my family. The Lahela family has been part of Hawaii for many generations, but now my friends and I must leave the island and try to escape the brutality and torture we endure in the institution on a daily basis. Before I can leave…I-I have to say goodbye to my parents. According to legend, since you walk both the spirit and living realms, you are the only ones who can bring forth fellow Hawaiians who have passed over. I need to see my parents again…to say goodbye, even if it’s only for a second…a half-second. Please. Please help me.”
There was a muttering amongst the higher ranked warriors. Without making eye contact, I dared to peek at the chief warrior as he stepped forward.
“Child, we have never granted such a request. We take. We build our ranks. What you ask of us, no one has asked before,” said the chief. “But your courage, strength, and love for your family have not gone unnoticed. We are impressed not only with your bravery in requesting to see your family, but for enduring all you have at such a young age. Thus, we are willing to grant your request.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you!” I cried, still not making eye contact with any of the night marchers.
“We can only summon a single family member. Who shall that loved one be, child?”
“My mother.” I hated having to choose between people I loved, but my mom…she was my best friend…she was everything.
“Having grown up on the island, I suppose you know the condition that must be met before we can summon the spirit of your mother.”
Nodding, I said, “Yes, Sir, I’m aware of the condition.”
“Wait. There’s a condition? What condition?” Gus muttered from the sand beside me.
Answering Gus’s frantic inquiries, the chief warrior simply replied, “We can only grant her request if she meets my gaze and a member of her family steps forward to claim her blood as family. In other words, unless Miss Lahela has an ancestor marching amongst us, she will meet her death.”
“WHAT?” shouted Gus. “But…how does she know? How would she know?”
“Shhh.” I tried to shush him. The last thing we needed was for the night marchers to grow agitated or perceive any of us as acting in a disrespectful manner.
“Don’t shush me, Maile. This is serious stuff. And you do realize I’m trying to sound tough with my face in the sand, right? This is slightly demoralizing, so some slack should be given,” Gus murmured.
Strangely, the marchers actually chuckled. I couldn’t tell if it was a sarcastic chuckle—the kind that rattled bones—or if they were genuinely amused.
“Miss Lahela will not know if she has an ancestor among us until she meets my gaze. If there is someone of her blood here, he or she will step forward, thereby saving her life. If not, she will die and join our ranks.”
“Aw, hell, that’s it!” grumbled Gus, leaping up off the sand.
“Gus! No! What are you doing?” I shouted.
“Ooh, can we get up now?” asked Gully. “I’m kinda tired of being a throw rug.” And with that, Gully popped up as well.
“Gully! Gus! No!”
“You’re not standing alone,” Gus said forcefully.
“DON’T MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH THEM!” I screamed, but it was too late. Both Gully and Gus had locked eyes with the marchers.
I watched in horror as the night marchers slowly drained the lives from my boyfriend and my best friend.
As their eyes bulged and the skin on their faces grew thinner and thinner and thinner, I screamed, “No. NO! Please spare my friends. Take me! Take me, not them, not them! I’ll trade you my life for theirs, whether I have an ancestor here or not. Just please, PLEASE STOP!” With this, I determinedly made eye contact with the chief warrior.
He narrowed his eyes on me, studying my face. Holding up his hand, he ordered his followers to stop. “Release the two companions.”
Though I never broke eye contact with the warrior, my peripheral vision told me they had ended their assault on Gus and Gully. Both of my dear friends had fallen to their knees, gasping for air.
With a simple smirk, the chief warrior proudly said, “You are brave, young one.”
“Just do it,” I demanded.
And so it began—the warrior pulled me to my death. It happened so fast—the darkness…the quiet…the nothingness.
“Stop this,” shouted a strong man’s voice. “She is my blood.”
The chief immediately stopped his attack; I dropped to the sand, landing on my side, barely able to breathe. Gus was beside me in seconds, pulling me into his arms.
“Maile? Maile! It’s okay, baby, it’s okay. I’ve got you.”
When my vision cleared, I turned to the ghostly figure claiming we shared a bloodline. “Papaw?”
Smiling warmly at me, my great-grandfather nodded.
Looking between us, the chief said, “You, Maile Lahela, have surpassed any expectation we marchers had formed about the living. We find most to be disingenuous, uncaring, and profoundly self-involved. Yet you and your friends have shown us that there are those who value love, friendship, and family above all else. Thus, you and your friends are free to go. In fact, I will see that your great-grandfather escorts you to a nearby dock, where a friend of the night marchers will aid in your escape.”
“Thank you, Sir, thank you,” I said gratefully.
“However, I have a promise to fulfill, have I not?” With a nod of his head, he and the entire group of night marchers raised their hands to the heavens. “Come say farewell to your child.”
In mere moments, a beautiful, luminous white light shone on the beach before me. As the radiant glow faded, I studied the figure kneeling in front of me. My shoulders collapsed and tears pooled within my eyes.
“My baby,” whispered my mom, holding her arms wide.
Gus released me and I crawled across the sand and into my mother’s arms. The second I felt her embrace, I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. She felt so warm, so real…so alive.
“Oh, Mama, I’ve missed you so much. So much.”
“My sweet, beautiful, brave baby,” she said. Pulling back and cupping my face in her hands, silver tears streaming down her glistening cheeks, Mom said, “I’m so proud of the young woman you’ve become, Maile. You’re brave and strong and kind, and I’m grateful to have known you, my angel. You were the best thing that ever happened to me…the best part of my life.”
I sobbed, wishing she could stay with me forever.
“Only a few more minutes,” the chief stated, though I detected a hint of sorrow in his voice.
“Don’t leave me, Mama. Please…I don’t want to do this alone. I need you.”
“Oh, Maile, I wish I could stay…” Mom’s voice cracked. Swallowing hard, she said, “Pick a star, any star.”
I wiped my blurry eyes and gazed up at the sky, just like I did as a child. Pointing my limp, shaky finger, I said, “That one.”
“Ah, that’s a good one. It’s a very important star, you know. I don’t have time to tell you its whole story, but the best part about that little star is…that’s where I’ll be, watching over you.”
The tears flowed once more as I grabbed hold of my mama.
“One last time…” she said, her voice beginning to fade. Mom gently stroked my hair, singing, “My baby, how I love you…My love can’t fade…I’m there, one star away. Goodbye, my precious baby.”
“I love you, Mama.”
“I love you, Maile.”
She held me in her arms, hugging me tightly until she faded away, back to the heavens. I clasped my hands over my mouth, the sadness overwhelming me.
“Child, it is time you move on,” said the chief.
Nodding, I choked on grateful tears and somehow managed to give him my thanks. “Thank you for this moment. I’m profoundly thankful.”
The old warrior shook his head. “It is not I you need to thank. It is yourself and your friends. You owe tonight to your own brave, endless hearts. Farewell, Maile and friends.”
All but my papaw marched forward. Gully and Gus sat on either side of me, their arms wrapped around my shoulders and arms. The last memory I had of my mom would no longer be from the sad, painful night I was ripped from her arms; it would be of tonight, resting in her arms as she sang to me one final time—on a night where a band of spirits found hope within three outcast friends and saw fit to help set them free.
I gazed up at the little star I’d selected; suddenly, that sweet, tiny star twinkled brighter than any other in the Hawaiian sky.
Smiling, I said, “I love you, too, Mama.”
And in that moment, I knew she would never be far from me, not really. All I had to do was look to the star-filled night sky and rest easy knowing she was watching over me—over all of us—as we tried to find where we belong. Right now, watching that little star smile upon us, I firmly believed we’d find that long-dreamed of place.
Ms. Shields is a sports-loving, holiday addict with a seriously stupid cricket and grasshopper phobia. To highlight her membership in the dork category, Ms. Shields simply cannot bring herself to clean out a pumpkin because, to her, it would be like de-stuffing a stuffed animal. Despite her idiocy, Ms. Shields adores her parents and always hopes to make people smile, even if it means making a fool out of herself.
When Kurt smiles he gets dimples at the corners of his lips. He drives the car, hands at ten and two, singing along to an Ed Sheeran song. His hazel eyes sparkle in the dying rays of sunlight, the calm before we reach the pounding noise of Amanda’s party.
Butterflies flutter through my stomach at his cheeky grin. “Testes is really enjoying his home,” Kurt teases. He motions to a pair of loom band smiling cherries with black bead eyes hanging from his rear vision mirror. I had made them for him a few months ago, and when he had hung them in his car he said they were his new mascots. Junior, Kurt’s best friend had been in the car and said, “It looks like gonads. You can not hang those there …”
I rolled my eyes. “Come on.”
“People will think you’re a homo,” Junior said to Kurt.
He shrugged. “People can think whatever they want. My girl made them for me and they will remain in my car. I shall name them Testes and they shall be my Testes,” Kurt announced grandly.
In that moment I’d known Kurt was a keeper. He would never be allowed to name anything or anyone in our home, but he sure knew how to make me feel valued. True to his word Testes still hung from his rear view mirror.
“I’m still not sold on the name,” I respond, shifting in my seat to have a better view of him.
When his eyes meet mine, I can see our future; high school sweethearts going to the same college in two years, getting married after graduation. I’ll work for five years before we have our first child and then settle into being a mother till our three children are all at school and then I’ll work part time and care for Kurt and our family. The future is always on my mind.
My daydreaming is interrupted by Kurt’s phone beeping. He grabs it from the middle console and glances at it. “Junior is at the junction, is it OK if we pick him up.” It’s a question phrased like a statement. We often pick up Junior, but he always puts me on edge.
I shrug. “Whatever.” I catch my reflection in the sun-visor-mirror rolling my green eyes. My red hair is blowing in the breeze from the open window, and my black spotted chiffon blouse is kicking with the faux leather skirt that arrived today off Ebay.
Kurt continues to hold his mobile, his right hand rests on the steering wheel, glancing at the road as his fingers tap lithely across the screen.
“He’s only a few miles down the road,” I say, not seeing a need to text him back. “Here, let me text him for you.” I extend my hand to him for the phone.
Kurt laughs. “It’s fine. I’m nearly finished.”
“Come on …”
Kurt’s mouth opens in a silent scream, his eyes so wide his tan face can barely contain them. I turn my face to see a truck hurtling toward us. Kurt jerks the wheel. My head slams against the window. We are spinning like a dreidel. I squeeze my eyes shut. Twisting metal. Breaking glass. Heat. Darkness.
“She’s out of the car. No pulse. No respiration,” says a wrinkly-faced ambulance officer. He is leaning over me, his hands on my sternum and cheeks flush with exertion. I feel nothing. One of his curly grey hairs flutters down and rests across my left eyelash. I should move my hand and get it out of my eye, or blink, or tell him to get off me, or something. It feels like there is all the time in the world to do those things—no that’s wrong—it feels like there is no longer time. Time no longer exists.
Another ambulance officer enters my line of vision. A small woman with thick black hair and almond shaped eyes, her uniform enhances her beauty. “She’s gone. Call it.”
“No. No. No. Keep trying.” Kurt’s voice is so filled with anguish, I want to sit up and tell him I’m okay. I am frozen, but fine.
“Zoey … Zoey … Zoey!”
The afterlife was not what I had expected. There was no paradise in the sky by and by. No burning hell. Even haunting was pretty lame. I’d imagined being able to go where I wanted when I wanted, like those ghosts who walked through walls and sent chills down spines and raised hairs on people’s arms. That was not what it’s like.
I am, but I am not.
I closed my eyes and there was nothing but the black of oblivion. I opened them to find myself in random places. For example, my room. My room hadn’t changed since I died, which to tell you the truth, I don’t know when it was.
Photos of my former life still hung on the wall. I spent most of my time looking at the picture of Kurt kissing my forehead. In the Polaroid the sun glints through my red hair, my green eyes crinkle in the corners from the smile on my coral coloured lips—I was so pretty, but I had no idea. I want my body back, it may not have been runway perfect, but it was better than this existence.
Billowy white curtains blew gently in the summer breeze. I’m not sure how many summers have passed. The window was always open a crack, because I never wanted to be closed in. Yet I am trapped listening to my parents fight. They always fight now. Before I died they would go into the car and turn on the radio to fight, now they just scream at each other whenever the urge arises.
Dad: “You shouldn’t have let her go to the party.”
Mom: “It was an accident.”
Dad: “You always allowed her too much freedom.”
Mom: “Maybe if you’d actually been a father to her …”
It was the same argument, rephrased, rehashed and re-yelled around the table at mealtime, or in the living room, or in the car. I spent a lot of time trying to comfort my parents, but they don’t feel me.
Seeing them like this was worse than hell. Maybe seeing the consequences of my death was hell? How could anyone be happy in heaven if they were looking down and seeing their family like this?
There is no heaven or hell.
I sat in my place at the dinner table. Mom set four plates on the table. It was leftover night, and three-day-old meat loaf sat on the table beside stir-fry tofu and vegetables, and pizza that had seen better days. I’m grateful for having no sense of smell, Mom’s meatloaf smelled like wet dog on its best days.
Chloe picked up my plate. “Dad will get upset,” she said, looking at Mom. My sister looked older. At some point she had dyed her strawberry blonde locks to black, and started wearing way too much eye-liner.
Are you a pirate or a vampire? I teased, but it fell on deaf ears.
Tears welled in Mom’s eyes. Chloe hugged her. I tried to hug them both, but I can never get close enough.
School was the one place I never expected to haunt, especially at lunchtime. My friends sat around the plastic table, one in a sea of tables crowded with puberty stricken teenagers. Amanda sat in my place beside Kurt.
“You can put your arm around me,” Amanda said, taking his hand and pulling it around herself.
“It’s doesn’t seem right.” Kurt grimaced, his hand limp on her shoulder. A thin silver scar from his hairline to temple was the only reminder of the crash.
“Come on dude, she’s gone. There’s no harm in moving on.” Junior laughed. His face was getter fatter by the day, his squinty brown eyes and spiked hair reminded me of a ferret.
Get stuffed, Junior, I said. While I didn’t want Kurt to stay alone, he could do better than All-The-Way-Amanda.
“I just bought the best dress for graduation.” Amanda beamed.
My friends started talking about graduation. I watched Kurt with his arm slung around Amanda’s shoulders, and she was giggling about some garbage that no one cares about—or maybe it’s just me who doesn’t care about this high school stuff anymore.
I can’t believe this is how I’m spending my afterlife. I turned, floating away.
“I can’t believe you crashed because she was giving you a blow job,” Amanda snickered.
They were behind me now, I wanted to turn around and see Kurt’s face. There was no way they were talking about me. Kurt would never support that.
“Zoey was a very naughty girl,” Junior replied, his voice dripping with innuendo. “Kurt’s lucky I arrived in time to help him tell the sheriff the truth, otherwise the whole thing could have ended badly.”
The cafeteria din was behind me. No wonder my dad was so mad, he thought the accident had been caused by … Ewwww. For the first time since I died, I felt something.
Maybe the reason I hadn’t passed on was to make things right. I was going to make Kurt and Junior pay for what they did to me and my memory.
I lay on my bed, watching the breeze dance with the curtains. The conversation at lunch played through my mind on repeat, filling me with lava-hot anger. It felt glorious, rolling around in my stomach and forcing me to focus my thoughts.
Kurt had taken my life texting to Junior, and Junior had sullied my reputation in death to protect Kurt. I’d always thought that Junior brought out the worst in Kurt, but now I saw them as two sides of the same asshole coin. I had dreams of attending college, of getting married, and having a family. They had stolen that from me, and then made me look like a whore in death. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got.
I had to do something. I had to get justice for my death. My parents deserved to know the truth, so they could stop imagining the worst. Kurt needed to be made an example of, so that no other douche-bag boyfriend would feel entitled to murder his girlfriend by texting and driving. I would get justice, but how?
I didn’t like church buildings, they were a symbol of dead faith. God didn’t live in a building. If He was real, he would live in people’s hearts, which made the church building a total waste of time and money.
After all the hours I clocked on at church, I should have been in heaven right now. Mom, Dad and Chloe were seated in a pew three rows from the pulpit. Kurt’s family were seated on the other side of the church in the front row, so Mona, Kurt’s mother, could get to the piano easier. Before the accident our families had sat together in the front.
I glared at the back of Kurt’s head, sending negative energy toward him. How dare he sit in church knowing what he had done? I hoped there was hell for that little maggot. I didn’t care if he was scared of going to jail, he could have said he was distracted, he could have said anything that didn’t mean victim blaming. Kurt glanced around; I hoped he felt the full weight of my disgust bearing down on him.
The sun shone through the stain-glassed window depicting Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane at the front of the church. It left a rainbow of light in front of me.
In times gone by the pastor had mentioned God’s throne being surrounded by a rainbow of light. Maybe the reason I was stuck in limbo was because I hadn’t forgiven Kurt or that I couldn’t let go of my family? Was heaven worth giving up for petty revenge? Was there really anything I could do in my current state? All the maybes made my head ache.
My eyes traced the edges of the light rainbow on the carpet. I must have seen that pattern thousands of times sitting with my parents, but I didn’t remember it. I didn’t remember much of anything since the accident. My memories faded like the first snows of winter, swallowed by the ground never to be seen again. Perhaps heaven was forgetting, and moving on. I closed my eyes. I love you Mom, Dad and even Chloe. I forgive you Kurt and Junior, may God bring you the justice you deserve.
Warmth filled my legs. I smiled. Time to go home.
The minister’s words filtered into my brain as I waited to cross over.
“Ecclesiastes 9:5 says, ‘For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.’ The dead are dead. They are in dreamless sleep waiting for Jesus to return. There were two choices in the Garden of Eden, death or life. Not eternal torment or eternal pleasure. Death or life. No ghosts. No immortal soul. Death or life. You’re either dead or alive. If you know something my friend, then you are not dead. So you better get busy living.”
I opened my eyes.
My legs were still warm, the sunlight from the stain-glassed window had moved to my lap. I was not going anywhere. This was not limbo, or a test for me to let go of earth.
A crotchet blanket mom had made me as a child covered my lap. I couldn’t move or feel my legs or arms or any part of my body. My eyes flicked around the church frantically, till they rested on my limp legs. Craaaaap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Sorry God for cussing in church. Crap. I’m not dead. I am very much alive, but I am trapped in my body. Please God, help me.
Now that I saw my life clearly, I wanted to return to the haze of the post-accident brain injury. Thinking I was a ghost was easier to deal with than knowing mom was sponge bathing me everyday and sticking me with intravenous nutrition.
Memories from after the accident returned in flashes. Spoiler alert: my life sucked. The ambulance officers revived me, but I was declared brain dead. Dad wanted to pull the plug, but mom refused. Now she was the permanent caregiver to an eighteen-year-old vegetable. I don’t know if I want to thank mom or slap her. I can’t move, and I’m angry. So angry that I didn’t know how my frail immobile body contained it.
Mom entered my room in the morning and bathed me before moving me into the wheelchair and inserting my feeding tube. She wheeled me into the kitchen and ate breakfast with me—she would eat and I would sit staring at the wall skewiff. My neck didn’t hold my head upright; the world was always on a weird angle.
My days were spent running errands with mom, or once a month my sister would take me to school to sit with my friends. Mom insisted the socialization was good for me; maybe it was good for Kurt to see the consequences of his actions.
Over her breakfast smoothie Mom rambled at me. “So it’s been fifteen days since we started the cannabis oil. I don’t know if it’s making any difference. I mean you look …” She looked at me tilting her head at the same angle as mine. “Do you feel any different?”
I blinked, or at least I tried to, but by the time I managed to close and open my eyes mom was staring at the seat across the table from her. “You know there’s no reason you can’t walk, no spinal cord damage, just a brain injury, well a pretty serious brain injury. The swelling has all but gone now, but there’s no brain activity or not enough to show up on the scans … There must be some brain activity for you to breath and blink … I wish scientists would do proper research on cannabis oil, I don’t even know if I’m getting the dosage right … “ Her voice was tight as she shook her head, causing her blazing red hair to dance around her face. She sipped her smoothie. “The doctors said you’ll never recover. It’ll take a miracle.” She mimicked whoever said it. Mom smiled at me conspiring. “Lucky I believe in miracles.”
I’d been vegetating for almost eighteen months. From my estimation I had twenty-seven days before the next time mom forced Chloe to take me to school again. If my calculations were correct, it would be the second-to-last lunch before graduation.
I had to get up and move.
A spring breeze blew through the window carrying the scent of flowers. The sweetness of it almost brought me to tears. With my senses slowly returning I had to do some training. I practiced blinking on command. Blink, blink, blink. It was easier than I thought it would be.
Mom entered my room. “Good morning sleepy head,” she announced with forced enthusiasm. Since my mind had returned, I noticed mom’s speech was always forced, her smile contrived. “It’s time to go to the pool.”
Three days a week mom took me to the pool for physiotherapy. With the assistance of her friend Tina, they would work my muscles in the water. Everything should have been functioning, but I still couldn’t feel a thing. Not the motion of my limbs, not the pressure of mom’s hands on my body. Heat and cold had returned, but nothing else. The water was cold, raising goosebumps on my skin. If I could have, I would have smiled, even unpleasant sensations were welcome. Every sensation was one step closer to Kurt taking responsibility for what he had done to me.
Tina handed me over to mom, who held me in the water. Light reflected off the indoor heated pool to create lightscapes on the ceiling, battles of light against shadows played out overhead.
I focused my mind on my little finger. Move. Nothing. Move. My hand continued to trail lifeless through the water. Move. Move. MOVE!
Nights were the worst. Mom put me to bed and I would lie there waiting for sleep. The television blared through the house, but was not loud enough for me to decipher what my family was watching. I stared at the ceiling willing my finger to twitch or my toe to move until the nightmares started.
The spinning car. My head crashing against the tree. Kurt laughing as he told everyone it was my fault. I raised my hand to protect myself…
I woke with intense pain shooting up my arm. My hand lay over my face. The moon illuminated my pinkie, strewn across my eye. I scanned the room, it was dark except for the moonlight creeping around the blinds. I was alone.
Focusing back on my pinkie, I whispered. Move. The word fluttered on my breath sounding like a grunt, and my fingertip twitched sending searing pain up my arm. I smiled, igniting a fire in my cheeks.
Pain glorious pain! I’d never thought I could love it with such intensity. I could feel the pressure of my hand resting across the bridge of my nose and forehead. Taste the air as it rushed across my tongue. I could see my finger twitching and hear the quiet sounds of night.
I willed my index finger to move, and it pressed into my forehead. “Yes,” I grunted, the word indecipherable. I tapped my aching fingers on my brow, until the pain receded and all I could feel was the glorious movement of my fingers.
As the sun began to peek through the curtains, I managed to get my arm to move to my side. It was not a controlled move, and it crashed heavily onto the mattress.
Nineteen days to plan and practice. Nineteen days before I saw Kurt and Junior at school.
Eleven days till The Takedown—every mission needs a title—had me drowning in guilt. Despite being able to move my hands, arms, legs, lift my head off the pillow, and whisper semi-understandable words; I still hadn’t made contact with mom. If I told her I was recovering she would no doubt tell dad, and they might tell their friends and it might get back to Kurt and Junior. So I continued to play the vegetable, keeping my head skewiff and staring at the wall as I planned how to take down the person who put me in this situation.
A week before The Takedown I managed to sit-up in bed. It was a struggle, rolling onto my side, and using my shaking arms to push me upright. Then I fell back onto the mattress. But for a nano-second I was sitting up. I waited to hear if mom had heard me. Silence. The night had swallowed the sound.
The next morning mom looked drawn. Her forced smile macabre as she performed her duties and chatted monotone. “We’ve been using the cannabis oil for a while now, and I …” Her gaze met mine.
She’s going to stop with the treatment. I felt the buzz of fear down my spine—oh fear, welcome back. Maybe it was the cannabis making me better or maybe it was just time, but I wasn’t willing to risk the progress I had made. So I looked into mom’s eyes and blinked.
Mom narrowed her eyes at me. I blinked twice. She shook her head slowly. “Zoey, if you can understand me blink twice.”
This was it, the moment I was dreading and hoping for simultaneously. Mom would know and maybe she would tell Kurt’s mom. She exhaled, her face dropping, but her gaze still held mine. I blinked twice.
Mom dropped the face washer on my bare stomach. I would need electric shock therapy to erase these sponge baths, but I had to keep my face impassive, I couldn’t reveal too much of my progress. She placed her hands either side of my face. “Blink twice again if you are in there?”
I blinked twice.
“You’re in there.” Tears welled in mom’s eyes and sobs contorted her face; ugly crying was a Saunder’s family legacy. “How long have you been awake? Is it the cannabis? Can you move?”
I wanted to respond so badly, but I couldn’t—not yet. I blinked twice.
Her red hair stuck to her tear stained cheeks, and she jumped off the bed. “I need to tell your father … and … and …” Chewing her lip, she looked from side to side, and slowly lowered herself to sit beside me on the bed. “Maybe we should wait till there’s a little more progress.” She breathed deeply, grimacing. Her gaze met mine. “I want to tell your father … but his greatest fear was your mind waking up and your body remaining asleep … So how about we give the oil a few more weeks to work before we tell him about your progress, it can be a surprise when you’re up and about again.”
She squeezed my hand. I left mine limp. In seven sleeps she would see the extent of my recovery.
“So what would you like to wear today?” She asked throwing open my closet and grabbing a pair of my jeans. “Blink once for ‘No’ and twice for ‘yes.’“
I’d made first contact. Soon I would blow Kurt away.
Three days. I love the night. Alone in the darkness I’ve mastered sitting up and walking while holding onto the bed. The darkness was broken with my quiet chatter, the times tables, songs I loved, and practice conversations with Kurt and mom.
The distance between my bed and desk was four paces. With my physical capabilities, it felt like fifty miles, but I needed my iPad.
The green digital clock clicked over 12:01. I could hear my breath in the silence as I swung my legs onto the floor. “Here I go.”
Pins and needles prickled in my feet and up my calves. The first step into the open space made me shiver. I wobbled like an inflated pin with water in the base, the room spun, but I managed to stay on my feet. The next step was easier, but the third was tricky and I fell into my swivel chair hard banging my thigh on the desk. I rubbed the spot. Pain was starting to lose its wonder, a sure sign I was recovering.
The glass-topped desk still contained my books from the day of the accident. My iPad lay in the only place uncluttered by medication or photo frames. I picked it up to discover the battery was flat. With a little effort I managed to plug it in and waited for the battery to charge sufficiently to turn it on.
Eleven minutes. It took eleven minutes for my iPad to have enough charge to turn on. I keyed two-four-zero-three, Kurt’s birthday, to open the device. There were eighty-nine updates available. My email folder boasted 479 unopened emails. I flicked to the screen with the familiar blue f, and opened Facebook, time to get some intel on the enemy. There were 126 notifications, but I didn’t bother to go there. I opened my profile, which had a photo of Kurt and me smiling. That would be the second thing I changed on my profile after my status to single.
My page was full of messages from friends and family. The most recent posts had been made on my birthday three months ago.
My best friend, Anna, had a new selfie wearing hideously oversized sunglasses. She looked older. Did I look older? Her message read. “If we lived in Australia you’d be legal. Happy 18th.” Two birthdays. I’d spent two birthdays as a vegetable. Gah. Anger coursed through my veins, I’d lost eighteen months of my life because of Kurt texting and driving.
I began searching to see if Kurt had written anything.
The light flicked on in my room. “What the … ”
Chloe stepped into my bedroom, her eyes wide and face paler than when she wore her goth makeup. I stood too fast causing the room to spin.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” I whispered loudly.
Muffled sounds filtered through my parent’s closed bedroom door across the hall. I stepped toward the bed, and tripped over my own feet. The carpet rose to meet me, and my hands cushioned the fall only slightly. Okay, I was totally over pain. I crawled toward the bed. Chloe wrapped her arm around my waist and half dragged, half carried me to the mattress.
“Chloe?” Mom’s voice echoed across the hall.
I struggled to pull the blanket up. Chloe slapped my hands away and fixed the covers three seconds before mom walked through the door. Mom’s hair looked like she’d been dragged through a bush backwards, and her pupils were way too big.
“Is everything all right?” Mom asked, scratching her head.
“I had a bad dream and wanted to check on Zoey,” responded Chloe, fiddling with the hem of her pajama top.
Mom nodded, a knowing look in her eyes. “I still have nightmares about the accident too.” She crossed the room to stand beside Chloe and me. “You know Zoey is going to get better, she’s already getting better.”
Chloe furrowed her brow. “How do you know?”
Mom beamed at me. I blinked twice. “You see Zoey’s already communicating. She blinks once for ‘no’ and twice for ‘yes’.”
Chloe narrowed her eyes at me. “Is that true?”
I blinked twice.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Chloe asked Mom, crossing her arms over her chest.
“You know how your father has struggled with my decisions … He worries so much about Zoey … “ Mom forced a smile. “But she’s going to get better.”
Chloe looked away. “I’m sure she will.” She was pissed with me, but for some reason she wasn’t selling me out.
“It’s a lot to take in.” Mom wrapped an arm around my sister. “How about we all get some rest and we can talk more in the morning?”
“Can I just have a few minutes with Zoey?” Chloe said. “I just want to talk to her.”
Mom chewed her lip. “It’s after midnight …”
“Tomorrow is Saturday. I can sleep late.”
Mom looked between us. “There’s still church in the morning.”
“But it doesn’t start till ten, so I can roll out of bed at nine-thirty, and make up for any lost sleep during the service.” Chloe shrugged.
Mom shook her head smiling. “Haha, not funny … Fine, but only ten minutes. Then I’ll text you from bed, if I’m not asleep.”
We all knew mom would not be asleep; she wouldn’t sleep till everyone was safe in bed. She hugged Chloe and kissed my forehead and left.
Chloe grabbed the iPad and charger and plugged it in near the bed. She dragged the swivel chair from the desk to sit beside me, her eyes full of accusation. She pulled an iPhone from her bra, and showed me that she was clicking on the Snapchat app.
I opened Snapchat on the iPad. Chloe was already typing.
Chloe: Mom is listening. Message me.
I blinked twice, and she glared at me, before continuing to type at light speed.
Chloe: What the hell????? How long have you been walking and talking? How could you do this to mom?
Me: I thought I was dead all this time. I woke up about a month ago and have been training myself since.
Chloe: That doesn’t explain why you haven’t told mom!
Me: Do you know how my accident happened?
Chloe stared at the screen till well after my message had disappeared. A red blush crept through her blonde roots.
Me: It didn’t happen the way Kurt said it happened. He was texting.
Chloe’s head snapped up, so that her gaze met mine. “That worm!”
I pressed my index finger to my lips. “Shhhh.”
My sister’s fingers flew across the screen.
Chloe: That lying filthy low life scum. I hope he falls in a vat of honey and gets eaten by fire ants.
Chloe looked into my eyes, and whispered, “I need to go to bed or Mom will come back. Still why didn’t you tell her about your recovering?”
“I don’t want Mom to tell Kurt’s parents in case he deletes the text he sent Junior,” I replied. “I want to catch him red-handed and publicly shame him like he shamed me.”
Chloe rolled her eyes. “You don’t need his phone. All you need is his phone records.” She tapped her black polished fingernail on her bottom lip. “Louie just started as a paralegal for Mr. Tyrol the personal claims lawyer …” Louie was Chloe’s best friend’s brother, who was six years my senior. Abel who was Chloe’s best friend often said that she was their seventh sibling, so if anyone could garner a favor from Louie, it was my sister. “Although I think texting and driving would be a criminal suit … Leave it with me. I’ll get you the phone records. How do you plan to take Kurt down?” Mom’s bedroom door clicked. Chloe grabbed my iPad and stuffed it under my pillow. “Goodnight,” she said too loudly, and dragged the swivel chair back to its place and turned out the lights. Chloe was out of the room before Mom could make her way across the hall.
Darkness filled the room. I listened as Mom said goodnight to Chloe and went back to bed. I waited for a few minutes, before pulling out the iPad and messaging Chloe.
Me: Are you there?
Chloe: So what’s your big plan?
I exhaled, and began typing. “I was thinking you would wheel me up to the lunch table Monday and I would stand up and take Kurt’s phone and tell him to tell everyone how the accident really happened.” It had seemed like an excellent idea, but looking at it on the screen made it seem small—insignificant.
Chloe: That’s your part. Let me do the rest. Practice walking and talking and rest up.
Me: What are you talking about?
Chloe: Don’t you worry your disabled self. Operation Destroy Kurt is on.
Me: What do you mean?
I waited for five minutes. Nothing.
She didn’t answer. My quaint little plan was taking on a life of it’s own and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
Since Chloe knew about my recovery, acting paralysed became even harder, but she didn’t act any different the next morning. Everything was business as usual, until Chloe asked Mom if she could push me to our pew at church.
Mom’s voice was filled with pleasure behind me. “Of course. I think Zoey will really like that.”
We attended a church that looked older than the Bible, complete with stained glass windows and a huge pipe organ, which took up the front of the church. A piano played quietly off to the side of the pulpit and traditional pews lined either side of a long aisle, making our church one of the favourites to get married in.
Kurt and Amanda were standing beside the third pew from the front, opposite where my parents usually sat. Amanda was wearing a skirt short enough for a brothel and a top that left nothing to the imagination. I told myself not to judge, since church really shouldn’t be about externals.
Chloe picked up speed halfway down the aisle. Even without looking behind me, I knew she was up to something. We were headed straight for Kurt who had his back to us. I wanted to tell Chloe to slow down, to move or call out, but I couldn’t give away the game. My ears buzzed as the image of crashing into the tree flashed into my mind. I closed my eyes, hoping Chloe would slow down and swerve into our pew.
A few seconds later, Chloe called out, “Kurt.” I opened my eyes in time to see him turn before Chloe slammed my wheelchair into his legs. The safety belt kept me from falling out, but my feet fell from the footrests and my head flicked forward. Chloe rushed around to return me to my original position, while still brandishing her mobile.
“I’m so sorry, Kurt,” she said, fixing my head and placing my feet in the stirrups. “I was just checking Facebook and I didn’t notice you there. Are you okay?”
She rose from the floor to meet his gaze.
“I’m fine,” he said, his face flushed.
“Gawd, you should be more careful,” Amanda snapped, flicking her hair over her shoulder. “You could have hurt someone.”
Chloe cocked her head. “I guess I shouldn’t use my phone when I’m supposed to be paying attention to my surroundings. My bad. I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me Kurt.” Her words came out so genuine; I could hardly believe it was my sister saying them.
“It’s no problem,” Kurt said, stepping back.
“You’re bleeding,” Amanda huffed, pointing to a small red stain spreading on the shin of Kurt’s pants.
Chloe covered her mouth with her hand. “I’m so sorry. Here I’m sure mom must have a bandaid here somewhere.” She started rooting around in the bag that hung from the back of my wheelchair. “Here.” Chloe handed him a skin-toned bandaid. “I think Mom uses these when she has to change the feeding bag from Zoey’s left arm to her right.”
Kurt held his hands up in refusal. “I’m fine, there’s no need for the bandaid.”
“Are you sure?” Chloe asked sweetly.
“What’s going on here?” Dad asked, his voice hard as steel.
“Nothing,” Kurt said, his face testing all the shades of the awkward colour wheel. “We were just about to sit down.” He grabbed Amanda’s hand and pulled her toward the front pew. Dad wheeled me to the opposite side of the church, and Chloe fell in beside me.
“Don’t ever talk to those people Chloe,” Dad said. The cold in his voice made my blood freeze in my veins. He parked my wheelchair at the end of the pew and walked past me without seeing me.
Chloe shrugged, and sat beside me. “Sorry Dad.” She typed on her phone, holding it at an angle so that only she and I could see the screen.
Stage one of Destroy Kurt complete.
Despite trying to Snapchat, Skype, Facebook and text Chloe, it wasn’t till Sunday after lunch that I finally got to talk to her. She asked mom if she could take me for a walk in the woods behind our house, and after much negotiation and a long list of instructions we finally left the house and followed the broad fire track into the woods.
My wheel chair bounced on the dusty road used by emergency vehicles during forest fire season. A green canopy of leaves kept the burning sun at bay. Birds flitted across the track collecting food for their spring chicks. Chloe pushed my wheelchair off the main road down a winding track, which led to a small open space beside the creek. It was a spot which few people frequented, because only the local kids who played there knew about it. Our family had shared many picnics in the quiet clearing when I’d been younger.
With summer fast approaching it was full of white, pink, yellow and lilac wild flowers. Chloe parked the wheel chair and spread out a picnic blanket on the grass.
“Here,” she offered me her hand. “We’re safe here. Let me help you sit a little more comfortably.”
I took her hand and stepped out of the chair and slowly moved to the rug. It looked so inviting, I imagined lying on it and looking up at the clouds, but common sense took over. “I don’t think I can get up if I sit down there.”
Chloe shrugged. “I’ll help you.”
“I don’t know if I can get down there without hurting myself or ripping out my crap sack.”
My sister wrinkled her nose. “That is disgusting. Sit back in your chariot.”
I wanted to sit on the rug and run my fingers through the grass, but I wasn’t strong enough. The future held plenty of picnics; just be patient. I settled back into the wheel chair.
The warm breeze created ripples on the surface of the water. “This is beautiful,” I said, taking a deep breath.
Chloe shrugged. “It’s a place where no one would think to look for us, and we can have our privacy as there is only one way in and not many people know about it.”
“When did you become so sneaky?”
“About the same time you became veggie-capable.” She sat down on the blanket, stretching out her legs in front of her and leaning on her arms so that her face was pointing at the sky.
“Ha-ha, you’re a regular comedian.”
The right corner of her lip curled ever so slightly.
“So if smashing into Kurt’s shins was stage one of your plan, what is stage two of Destroy Kurt?” I asked, warily.
A full smile curled across Chloe’s lips, as her gaze met mine. “Did you see his face? It was gold.”
“I don’t know if knee capping him is justice.”
“Justice. Justice? This is not about justice. This is about restitution. Kurt owes us.” Chloe’s eyes flashed, as she glared at me. “Do you know what we’ve been through? You died. They brought you back, but you died.
“Mom died too. We don’t have a mother anymore. She died in the hospital beside you. You have a nurse-maid, and I … ” She drew a ragged breath. “I have nothing, but the memories of what it was like before my whole family died.”
I leaned forward to be closer to her. “We’re not dead.”
She shook her head. “You have no idea. Mom spends all her time caring for you and researching on the internet how to get you better. Dad is never home anymore. He says he needs to work long hours so that they can afford your medicine and stuff, but he just doesn’t want to be at home. He’s gutted that you were smoking Kurt’s pole leading up to the accident …”
“I know that, but no one else does. So anyway, Dad just doesn’t want to be home. Seeing you … well … no offence … it’s pretty damn depressing. You should be going to school and getting ready for prom and graduation, instead you just sit in that chair like an unanimated Larry the Cucumber.”
“So is that why you’re looking Goth?”
She exhaled causing the flowers near her feet to sway. “It was mostly to get attention. I live in a house full of ghosts of our former family. Everyone pretending to be happy and okay, when Dad wishes that mom had let him pull the plug on you so that he won’t be reminded daily of your mistakes.”
I squeezed the armrest, furious. “I can’t believe Dad is so shallow … and Kurt … damn Kurt and damn Junior …” My anger was so fierce I couldn’t string together a sentence.
“You know, I used to wish that Dad would cheat on Mom, give them both an excuse to end the sham of a marriage.” She shook her head. “Don’t worry. We’re going to get our parents back. We’ll clear your name and Kurt and Junior will pay for their misdeeds. Mr. Tyrol has agreed to take you pro-bono and he’ll have the records for tomorrow. Although I like the idea of waiting till next month, and letting Kurt suffer …”
“I can’t.” I shook my head. “I need to recover. While I get you’ve had it tough … Mom has been giving me sponge baths and I pee through a catheter … and don’t get me started about the crap sack … I don’t need a mirror to see I look like an anorexia prevention poster. My neck is killing me from constantly keeping it on an angle. No. This has to end tomorrow.”
Chloe jutted out her lower lip. “Fine. Do you know any of your friend’s Facebook log-ins?”
It was a random question, the more time I spent with my sister the less I felt like I knew her. “I used to know Kurt’s and Anna’s, but that was a long time ago. Why?”
“I just wanted to get Kurt sweating.” She grinned and pulled her phone from her pocket. “So what was Kurt’s?”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to leave a message on his status. Something like, I know you were texting. Or I know your secret. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I want to do it soon, so he can agonize about it all night—see if you gave me a month …”
“Not going to happen.”
“It’d be awesome if I could log into Junior’s account and send the messages from him. But I don’t suppose you have his log-in details?”
I shook my head. “Why don’t you just make a copy of Junior’s profile and send a message. You only have to copy his profile pic and his first few posts and then message Kurt.”
“Huh.” Her lips stretched into a broad smile.
“You’re not as brain damaged as I thought.”
“Hilarious,” I said sarcastically.
Chloe tapped away on her phone, while I looked up at the clouds and basked in the warmth of the sun. I rehearsed in my mind standing up and wrenching Kurt’s phone out of his hands and declaring, “How did the accident happen Kurt? Tell everyone the truth, or do you want me to show them the text message?”
He’d pale, and stutter out the truth while the whole school watched. He would know the humiliation my family had been subjected to. Amanda would break up with him and he would punch Junior.
“It’s done,” Chloe announced, triumphantly. “Stage two: completed.”
I smiled at her enthusiasm, grateful for the support. “Tomorrow I’ll complete stage three and our family can stop being shadows of our former selves.”
My palms were sweating as I sat at the school lunch table waiting to confront Kurt. Chloe had insisted I wait for her signal. She sat at the table across from me, where I could see her clearly, even with my skewiff neck. I couldn’t wait to hold my head up straight.
The food court was alive with conversation, but Kurt’s table was silent. Junior sat on the bench farthest from Kurt, who occasionally glared at his friend.
Chloe had messaged Kurt with Junior’s fake profile, “It’s time to tell the truth.”
Kurt had responded immediately: It was your idea. I can’t believe this …
Junior: If you don’t, I will.
Kurt: What the hell? You are the worst friend of all time. You were the one who said it. You’ll be liable for aiding and abetting. You hooked up with Amanda and then dumped her on me because you don’t want to make the commitment and now you’re trying to make me take the fall for your lie. You are a festering boil on the face of humanity. Get bent, I’ll deny everything.
“What are you not answering now? Typical. You are a coward and a pathetic human being.”
Chloe hadn’t written anything else, but the message had achieved its purpose, Kurt was miserable. That made me want to smile. Soon enough I could smile, laugh, walk—live. I would live again.
Kurt was curled in a ball three seats down from me, playing on his phone. Amanda had her arm over his back, and Anna was sitting closest to me nibbling on a salad sandwich.
“So is there a reason no one is talking?” Anna asked, looking up and down the table.
“Why don’t you ask him,” Junior indicated to Kurt. “He tried to punch me this morning.”
Kurt looked up from his phone. “If I’d wanted to punch you, you’d be bruised.” He pushed Amanda’s arm off. “Stop cramping my space.” He went back to whatever was on his phone.
“Alrighty then,” Anna said, getting back to her sandwich. “I’ll chalk it up to male PMS.”
“Why would you say that?” Junior snapped. “If I’d … ”
Chloe stood up and coughed loudly—the cue. My pulse raced, and dots danced before my eyes for a moment. I took a calming breath and stood to my feet and picked up Junior’s phone sitting on the table in front of him and ripped Kurt’s phone from his grasp. Maybe I didn’t need the phones for evidence, but it made me feel better to hold onto something.
“Hey,” he protested, but the words died on his lips when his gaze met mine.
“H…H…How did the accident happen Kurt?” I got the words out around the boulder in my throat.
“Oh snap,” Junior mumbled.
Chloe appeared at the end of the table, a smug smile on her black lips.
“Zoey?” Anna whispered. “You’re standing … and talking.”
I continued to look into Kurt’s eyes. His jaw hung open as though the hinge had broken.
“Aren’t you going to answer me Kurt?” I asked.
He closed his mouth, and it swung open again, the process repeated a few times before he licked his lips.
“You were giving him head,” Junior offered.
“Shut up Junior, you know that’s a lie,” I snapped, not taking my eyes off Kurt. “Tell them the truth.”
“What is she talking about?” Anna demanded.
“She has brain damage,” Amanda rolled her eyes, “as if she even remembers.”
“Tell them,” I told Kurt. “Or I’ll show them the text.”
“You didn’t delete it? You’re on your own fool,” said Junior, holding his hands up in surrender.
“You were texting when the accident happened?” Anna screeched.
Kurt looked around the table, his eyes glazed. He stared toward the cafeteria doors, but I didn’t want to know what had his attention. It didn’t matter who he was looking at, all I wanted was to hear his confession, to see the words fall from on his lips.
“I was texting when I had the accident. Zoey wasn’t giving me a blow job,” said Kurt.
“Crud.” My gaze followed Kurt’s. Standing behind Junior’s side of the bench was Sheriff Leaman, my lawyer and Mom. I hadn’t even noticed them, that was what Chloe had been waiting for. “You’re under arrest son. You have the right to remain silent, anything you say, can and will be held against you in a court of law.” Sheriff Leaman walked around the table to handcuff Kurt, his thin face and bushy brows scowling.
“I knew it. I asked you if it was true,” Anna yelled at Kurt, her graceful hands gesturing fiercely. “I asked you … I comforted you … I told you how Zoey was doing … You victim blamed her … You slut shamed her memory … You … You …” She grabbed the milkshake on her tray and threw it in his face. The beverage dribbled down his face as Sheriff Leanman pulled Kurt’s hands behind his back to cuff him. “I hope the inmates pass you around like a peace pipe,” Anna yelled. She turned to Junior. “And you. I know you had something to do with this. You’re dumped. Eat crap and die.”
Anna grabbed me in a savage bear hug. “I’m glad you’re back.”
As Anna pulled away, Mom’s arms came around me. Mom’s sobs echoed through the silent cafeteria, as the students observed the drama.
Kurt’s panicked voice called over Mom’s sobs. “I’m sorry Zoey. I’m …”
Mr. Tyrol interjected, “Please don’t address my client unless it is through me. We have a restraining order that prevents you from speaking to her or being within one hundred yards of Miss Saunders.” The lawyer reminded me of Clark Kent, with his too big suit and thick black rimmed glasses.
Kurt hung his head as Sheriff Leaman, a.k.a, Captain Seaman to the high schoolers, led him out of the cafeteria.
Mom continued to wail and hug me, till I said, “Mom I can’t stand anymore.” She released me and I sat down in the wheelchair.
“Mrs. Saunders,” Mr. Tyrol said to mom, his voice soothing. “We need to talk about the case. How about I meet you at your home in an hour?”
Mom swiped at her eyes and nodded. “I’ll call my husband.” She took hold of the wheelchair’s handles. “Chloe, come with us please.”
Mom wheeled me out of the cafeteria followed by Chloe, Mr. Tyrol and Anna. I expected to feel jubilant, justice had been served, the truth had been revealed.
But it felt empty.
People whispered at their tables as I was wheeled past them. Kurt’s panicked eyes haunted me. Mom’s sobbing resounding in my ears even though she’d stopped.
I’d achieved what I thought I wanted, why didn’t it feel awesome?
Mom had only driven a few miles from school when she pulled over on the side of the road. “How long has this been going on?” She asked eye balling Chloe and me. The disappointment in her eyes almost brought me to tears.
“I found out Friday night,” Chloe said, unable to look mom in the eyes.
She nodded, pursing her lips. “And you?”
I met mom’s gaze. There were green flecks in her blue eyes I’d never noticed before. The last time she’d been this mad at me I couldn’t look in her eyes, but I didn’t want to look away. It was glorious to look into someone’s eyes and talk—I’d missed out on communicating for so long I was willing to be the weirdo who held eye contact too long.
“After the death sermon a while back,” I responded.
“So almost a month.” Mom exhaled. “You’ve been walking and talking for almost a month?”
I shook my head. I could shake my head. Man, it felt good. “No. I realized I wasn’t dead then. I started to walk, maybe ten days ago, but I can’t go far and it hurts and makes me really tired, and the talking about the same. That is not so hard.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Mom asked, a single tear rolling down her cheek.
“I didn’t want you to warn Kurt. He shamed me publicly and I wanted him to take it back publicly.”
Mom turned around and checked the road and started driving without saying another word. She didn’t have to. I knew her well enough to know she was thinking, “What about turning the other cheek? What about being the bigger person?”
I didn’t want to be the bigger person, I wanted justice. The fact that I didn’t feel better was a sign Kurt hadn’t been punished enough. I needed to make sure Mr. Tyrol destroyed him.
“Mr. Tyrol called and said I needed to meet him here,” Dad said, ripping open Mom’s door the moment she turned off the engine in our driveway. “What happened at school? Are we in trouble? What have you done now? I told you not to take her there, it’s an embarrassment …”
“Chill dad,” I said. “Everything is fine.”
He looked past mom, staring at me.
“Hi Dad.” I waved at him. “I’m not a vegetable anymore. Yay.”
Dad took a ragged breath. Mom climbed out of the car. “Go hug your daughter.” Dad climbed into her seat and climbed over the console and fell on top of me in an embrace. Mom walked around the van and rolled the door open. “You could have walked around,” she mumbled, a smile playing across her lips.
My father pulled back and took my face in his hands. “I thought you were gone.”
“So did I, but I guess we’re all still here together,” I responded. I glanced my reflection in the mirror, and saw scars on my face for the first time. Angry spider-vein scars criss-crossed over the left side of my face, even the heaviest concealor would not cover it. I squeezed my eyes shut. Even though Kurt had confessed I would still bear the scars of his actions.
“Oh, Dad,” Chloe interjected, standing beside Mom. “For the record, Kurt admitted to lying about the circumstances of the accident. Turns out he was texting.”
Dad released me, his face clouded with rage. “I’m going to kill that sick …”
“He’s at the sheriff’s office being charged, and to be honest, I don’t care about Kurt at all,” Mom said, wrapping an arm around Chloe. “Our family is whole again. All I care about is getting us re-connected.”
“Sure. Okay,” Dad agreed. “But we’ll ensure that little punk gets what’s coming to him too.”
Later that day Junior had been arrested and given a slap on the wrists for subverting justice in the form of forty hours of community service. Kurt was out on bail by the end of the day. It cost his parents a small fortune and he had to wear a not-so-attractive electronic tracking accessory on his ankle till the trial, which was set for the end of summer.
Mom was opposed to the whole process, but Dad insisted we follow up the criminal case with a civil suit, so Kurt’s parents would have to pay for my medical bills. The bills had increased. A professional physiotherapist, speech therapist, psychologist and neurosurgeon had been added to my list of people I didn’t want to see, but mom was adamant; she had mastered getting what she wanted during my illness.
Things should have been getting better, but I felt bleak. Research had convinced me there was nothing that could be done about the scarring on my face, yet it seemed easier to deal with than the scarring on my heart from the betrayal. So I focused on building a happier future. I studied hard to get closer to graduating, I reconnected with friends, got involved with educating people about texting and driving, and with the help of the church pastor, who gave us free family counseling, our family was returning to life. Chloe was even growing out her strawberry blonde hair, which looked hilarious against the jet-black ends.
Despite all the positive things happening in my life I couldn’t get out of the rut. When I saw my face it made me furious, I couldn’t wait to see Kurt carted off to prison. I leaned over the desk re-writing my victim’s impact statement for the fortieth time.
Sweat beaded between my shoulder blades and rolled down my back on the warm summer evening. “How is it going?” Mom asked, standing in the doorway in a Garfield nightie.
“It’s …” I exhaled and dropped my pen on the desk. “I want to get it just right. I want them to know that he took a year and a half of my life, that even though he confessed to lying that the gossip is still out there, that I still have nightmares about the accident, and that my face will never be beautiful again, that his actions have changed the course of my life …” I buried my face in my hands. “That time is never coming back and I will never be the same.”
Mom crossed the room and hugged me. “You’re right all of those things are true. It’s also true that you are stronger than I’ve ever seen you. That you have a passion to protect young people from what happened to you. What Kurt did was terrible, and he should pay for it, but will sending him to prison atone for what’s he done to you?”
“Yes,” I said, pulling away from Mom. “My life was interrupted for eighteen months, and it’s fair for him to sit and root in prison for the same amount of time.”
“What happens if the judge doesn’t grant that?”
“He will. Judge Lawman is fair and just and he is harsh on this kind of thing according to Mr. Tyrol.”
Mom kissed my forehead. “I’m praying for you.”
I nodded, aware that Mom was retreating from a fight she knew she couldn’t win. I picked up my pen, and started writing again. It was therapeutic to be able to cross things out, so much better than the delete key, which made it seem as though I’d written nothing. I had ten pages of text, crossed out and moved around, but still evidence of my efforts. When I finished a section I would type it up. So far, there were two and a half pages of double-spaced material, but I needed another half a page. It had to be perfect for me to have any hope of happy future.
At midnight, I turned out the lights. The words from my victim statement swirled through my head. It didn’t feel right, no matter what I wrote it didn’t feel like enough. The moonless night afforded no light as I twisted and turned rehearsing in my mind Kurt’s annihilation in court.
“Zoey,” came a fervent whisper from the window. “Zoey, let me in.”
I rolled out of bed and walked to the window needing visual confirmation of the audio I refused to believe was true.
“I know I’m not supposed to be here,” he whispered. “I just needed to talk to you and after tomorrow …” After tomorrow he would be in prison.
“What do you want to say?” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.
“Please let me come in.” The darkness hid his face, but I imagined his lips curling at the ends as they did when he asked for something.
I exhaled. “Fine, but if you try to attack me. I will scream and you will end up in prison tonight.”
Kurt pulled off the fly-screen and stepped over the waist high windowpane carefully. Kurt was in my room. It had almost been two years since he’d been there, and yet the familiarity still lingered. I stepped away from him and turned on the small night-light beside my bed. Seeing him in the light, his eyes older, his frame stronger made me wish we were still in the dark, so I could pretend he was a shadow and not a person. I offered him the swivel chair and sat on the bed. “Talk.”
He sat down and leaned toward me, his hands on his knees in prayer pose. “I know that this is pathetic, but I wanted to say sorry. I want you to know how sorry I am. It was an accident, compounded by a lie and I’m so sorry, that it aches.”
“Are you sorry that it happened or are you sorry you got caught?”
I stared at him for a moment. “I’m surprised you’re being honest.”
“I’ve lied enough. Every day I got up and acted like I was OK was a lie. It was a show for my parents, for my friends, so that I wouldn’t have to go to jail. So I could go to college and move away from here and never have to think about you and what I did to you, but it would have followed me. Every time my phone makes a sound in the car, I remember the ambulance officer’s declaring you dead. I remember your bloodied face and the lie—that freaking lie—and I want to scream, but all the screaming in the world doesn’t make it go away.” A small sob escaped his lips. “Sorry is the most pathetic word in the dictionary, because it covers nothing. It’s a bandaid on an open artery.”
“And yet you’ve risked going to prison to say sorry,” I said, cocking my head to the side. I imagined myself in his place, if I’d thought I’d killed him. No I wouldn’t have lied, but would I have fudged the truth? Would I have infringed on the close relationship my father had with the sheriff?
“The device only goes off if I leave the outskirts of town,” he said, wiping his eyes on his sleeves.
“What if they programmed my address into the tracking device too?”
A smile tugged at his lips. “That’s why you were always the smart one. It didn’t even cross my mind.”
“Are you just doing this so that I don’t go as hard on you in my impact statement?”
He blinked hard. “I want to say, no. But the truth is, maybe. I’m so scared of going to prison … I don’t want to go to prison.”
Tears ran down his cheeks and left dark spots on his jeans. His hazel eyes were empty, his sandy hair disheveled, it shook me to the core.
“What do you want …”
“I want to go back in time. I want to ignore Junior’s text because it was all organized, we didn’t need to text each other. I want to keep driving to the party and have a great night with you. I want to take you to Junior prom and give you my promise ring and I want to look at your pretty face without those scars that I, me, I put on your face. You’re still so beautiful, but I want to take it all back and not ruin your life. That’s what I want,” he hiccupped, and buried his face in his hands.
My body felt like an iceberg, frozen by the size of Kurt’s grief. After a few minutes of watching him cry, a grabbed a tissue and pushed it into his hand. It should have felt good to see his suffering, but it meant nothing, and it changed nothing.
“I think you should leave,” I said, my voice hollow.
“I made things worse,” he said, his eyes searching my face.
He climbed out the window and replaced the fly-screen. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he whispered.
I waved my hand at him dismissively. I switched off the night-light, and lay down on my bed. Kurt’s words stormed through my mind. The thing that bugged me the most, was that I wanted what Kurt wanted; I wished the accident hadn’t happened either. That was something no court could remedy.
“Miss Zoey Saunders, I’ll hear your statement now,” Judge Lawman says.
Instead of riding to the witness stand in my wheelchair, according to plan, I stand and slowly walk to the seat and sit down. Judge Lawman has seen me in the wheelchair, he is aware of my injuries, and has reviewed the phone records and the negative semen swab report ignored by the sheriff.
I smooth my black skirt and adjust my white blouse, which I am rocking since I’ve put on a little weight. I clear my throat, and read. “Judge Lawman. I’m here today to tell you how Kurt’s actions have impacted my life. It’s hard for me to walk. I live on what I not-so-affectionately call the baby-food diet because I can’t digest anything that hasn’t been pureed. Worse than that, is my body’s waste disposal, which has essentially rendered me an eighteen-year-old baby. I wear a nappy most the time, to prevent accidents. My pretty face is gone, I will bear the scars of Kurt’s actions till the day I die. It is not just me that has been affected by the accident, my family not only suffered when I was unconscious, they suffer in different ways now trying to care for me.”
I took a breath to hold back the threatening tears. “Since coming back to life, I’ve wanted Kurt to know what I’ve been through. To have him be stuck in a prison that he can’t escape. I want him to experience what he has done to me … I thought prison was the solution, for him to get eighteen months incarceration in exchange for the eighteen months he gave me.” I put down my notes and look into Judge Lawman’s eyes, which crinkle kindly as he listens. Despite his shaved grey hair, he looks too young to be a judge.
“But prison is not justice. If Kurt spends eighteen months in prison then all you’ll have on your hands is two teenagers who collectively have lost three years of their young lives. Justice would be going back in time and giving me back the last twenty months of my life to be a teenager. Justice would be me being able to go to prom and graduate with my classmates. Justice would be removing these scars. But you can’t do that—not even a plastic surgeon can do that. Justice is about equity, but I can’t find any equitable way to resolve this.
“There are those who say my life is ruined. I’m eighteen and I can’t tell when I need to pee. But my life is not ruined, it’s merely different to what I’d imagined. It’s different to most people my age. That has also afforded me other opportunities that most kids my age don’t have, like telling my story to kids in schools; to tell them that this.” I point to my face. “This is the result of texting and driving. It’s going to take me time to love this face, but I believe in miracles. How could I not with my recovery?
“Maybe justice for Kurt is going to schools with me for eighteen months, or sharing his own experience without me. Maybe it’s community service of another form. All I know is that putting him in prison won’t benefit anyone, perhaps making him work in the community might? Thank you.” I fold my speech.
“Thank you Miss Saunders,” Judge Lawman says.
“May I say one last thing?” I ask.
I look Kurt in the eyes. “For the record Kurt. I forgive you. Don’t lose any more time regretting the accident, I don’t.” I slowly make my way back to the wheel chair.
Mom squeezes my hand. “I’m so proud of you.”
I nod. I’m proud of me too. Things finally feel right.
Judge Lawman asks Kurt to stand. Kurt’s hands tremble as we all await the verdict.
“Under law, I can give you up to five years for texting while operating a vehicle. You made your situation worse by lying, and blaming the victim for your crime. I believe you need to be punished and am giving you a suspended eighteen month sentence, during which time you will assist Miss Saunders in raising awareness of the dangers of texting and driving. If you are found using a phone while driving or miss one appointment to fulfill your community service, you will serve the full eighteen months in prison. And to save time, I’ve read over the Saunder’s civil claims and award them all medical costs. You will need to find a job, and pay for your mistake. Court is adjourned.” He swings his mallet and makes a wooden clack, before leaving.
Kurt’s lawyer shakes his hand. “That was a better result than I expected. Don’t screw this up.”
Mr. Tyrol steps in front of me blocking my view of Kurt. “It’s not often that I am challenged by what justice means. Thank you, but make sure he earns the grace you just gave him.”
“Grace is free unmerited favour,” I respond.
“I better watch you.” He smiles. “There may be a budding lawyer in our midst.”
Mom and dad hug me. Dad isn’t happy about the sentence but he’ll make peace with it.
Kurt’s gaze catches mine. He smiles at me and his lips dimple in the corners. I see a glimpse of a new future, but I push it aside.
The future is not as important as enjoying right now.
Susan Fodor is the author of The Silver Tides series.
A dreamer. Wife. Mother. Friend. Dessert enthusiast. Theologian/Pastor. Australian. Passionate.
Overly involved with fictional characters.
Avid supporter of International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
Has eclectic taste in music, food, and clothing.
Enjoys taking random photos of Tuvok her cat.
And always has time to look for the best in people.
Thank you for purchasing our Spectral Tales anthology. We hope you enjoyed the ghostly tales from all our contributing authors.
We always appreciate feedback and hearing from our readers. Your review of the anthology at the retailer where you purchased it would be greatly appreciated.
Whether they are spirits of the departed or figments of an overactive imagination, ghosts are a staple in fiction. Storytellers have portrayed ghosts as scary, friendly, or annoying across many genres. Now, eight authors offer their own interpretations of ghosts through a collection of short stories that will appeal to fans of horror, fantasy, or young adult fiction. “Deathwatch” by Katie French - Teenage sisters Charlotte and Georgie stumble into a robbery, and their normal life gets flipped upside down. Worse, when the clerk kills one of the robbers, his face is covered in a supernatural swarm of bugs. Charlotte must be hallucinating. It's the only explanation for the terrible things she's seen. Everyone calls the clerk a hometown hero, but Charlotte's not so sure. Then a dead girl appears in her mirror with clues to the truth, and Charlotte learns there's more horror to this world than she ever expected. “Tides” by Sarah Dalton - Andrea wakes with sand on her feet. She is sleepwalking down to the sea every night, but remembers little more than a vague recollection of a boy who lives on the beach. With an absent father and a mother who would rather walk along the coast than look after her daughter, Andrea struggles to get by. She’s haunted, but from a memory, or a spirit? “Shadowspirit” by M.A. George - On a good day, Henta Mourngard is stalked by dreadspirits and netherphantoms, a living magnet for creatures of the afterlife. On a bad day, she finds herself communing with a demon of the underworld—worse yet, interrogating one—in a desperate attempt to track down the shadowspirit who has been her guide since infancy. Demons don’t take kindly to interrogation. And the search for a missing shadowspirit leads to places the living daren’t tread (lest they no longer qualify as living). ‘Tis unfortunate for Henta that today is not a “good day”. “The Little Girl” by Jamie Campbell - Sixteen-year-old Penny is moving house… again. Starting out in a small town, she is hopeful this time will be the last. As long as the little girl doesn’t follow her, she will be rid of her past hauntings. The only problem is, the little girl won’t let her go and now she is about to grow stronger than ever before. “The Ghost Below” by Ariele Sieling - White Rabbit gets sent to run cables in the bowels of the spaceship as a punishment. While working, she discovers that the ship's ghost might be more than he seems. “Slave Runner” by H.S. Stone - Malika and her sister are captured by slave traders but receive an unexpected gift of freedom when their captors encounter a deadly gathering of ghosts. The sisters escape to a nearby village, where they learn that the new sanctuary isn’t as safe as they thought it would be, and ghosts aren’t what they most need to fear. “Farewell Ohana (A Ghostly Mini-Wave)” by Sutton Shields - Maile Lahela is under attack by someone in the Kauai Camp for the Curiously Creepy. When she awakens one morning unable to see, her peculiar, yet loyal friends decide it’s time to escape the institution—something that’s never been done. But before they can leave, Maile has a mission of her own…one that could cost them their lives. Farewell Ohana is a short, fun-filled, emotional prequel to the events occurring in Overfalls, Wave Two of The Merworld Water Wars series by Sutton Shields. “Ghost Girl” by Susan Fodor - Zoey Saunders has her future mapped out, but an accident brings her life to an untimely end. In her new state of being, Zoey feels compelled to seek justice for her death and bring healing to her family who have become a shadow of their former selves. But what constitutes justice and will getting even ever be enough to replace the life she lost?