Chapter 6: Bears to War

Ghost and the Daemon is a serialized young adult fiction work I’m posting here, chapter by chapter, as I write it, along with my occasional doodles.


Ghost-C6-Spies-webCrows burst into the air like fireworks and disappeared as quickly, finding distant stations on the fringes of the town where they ruffled their feathers in baffled misery. The feathered, fluttering slips of gold that had driven them off now cooed as a hulking pile of patchwork fabric lifted his hands skyward with offerings of sweat-salted seeds and black breadcrumbs.

“Hey. Hey d’you know it’s called a murder of crows?” Parker rasped.

“Everybody knows that, Parker, so shut up,” Darla hissed.

Ghost curled her fingers around the crumbling edge of the brick building and held her breath. She smelled the corn chips on Darla’s breath before she felt her lean in.

“Move back a little,” Ghost whispered. Heat radiated from the buildings sandwiching them; the pavement exhaled the oily spirit of a merciless noon.

“I wanna see,” Darla complained.

“Well here then,” said Ghost. She moved to let Darla take her place, attempting cat-like stealth only to trip over her feet. She had to grab onto Parker’s hair to avoid a noisy fall and thought he’d squeal. But Parker brayed mutely, too surprised to find his voice.

Now Ghost leaned over Darla’s shoulder. “What’s he doing?” she asked, blowing brush-ravaged curls out of her nostrils.

“I dunno. He’s swaying or something. Wait. He’s singing–no! He’s humming.”

“Humming?” Parker crinkled his nose in offense.

Ghost and Darla shushed him. Parker didn’t seem capable of dropping below a nasal shriek most of the time and whispering was against his beliefs. As they feared, the man’s head jerked up. Everyone froze except Jo-Jo who continued to read his book, leaning back against the molten building.

The man’s back faced them. His nose was a brindled sliver. His hair was a matted pile stacked atop his head. Gray, red, brown, white, black, every color shot out from his scalp and mushroomed around him with great violence. That hum Darla had caught in the momentary breeze–that low, throaty chant like something Ghost had heard before–stopped suddenly as he stared at the dusty red wall three, maybe four feet from where the Conundrum Council hid in the alley. The buildings surrounding the small square where the man roosted with his birds were windowless. Their ivy-covered faces saw no one, but Ghost, Darla, Parker, and Jo-Jo had found the man.

The Council had schemed to leave Pip behind. “Official business,” Darla had told her mother with grave bureaucracy. Mrs. Pumpernickel had peered at the Council dubiously, but then she said, “Have it your own way this time, girl. But don’t get used to it.”

Darla could be pretty clever sometimes. She was the one who had come up with a possible solution to their first conundrum. And so Ghost’s proposal to figure out who had lived in the shack that now served as their clubhouse had turned into the mystery of the bird man.

“I’m sure he used to live here,” Darla had said. “He arrived with a traveling circus. Or, wait wait! He used to work at the arcade.”

“Yeah, uh-huh,” Parker had chimed in through a mouthful of candy as he hopped a hydrantGhost-C6-BirdMan-web outside of Mr. Coffee’s Toffees. “I think I saw him at the arcade too. Nah, hold on–it was at Lumberg’s Fine China Depot with my granny. That’s where I saw him.”

Jo-Jo lifted an eyebrow, frowned, and said nothing. Ghost shot him a knowing glance. “A minute ago, you said he could control birds,” she argued. “What would someone with that sort of power be doing at an arcade or a china depot? Maybe a circus,” she trailed off.

“What are you some expert on the subject?” Darla asked, lifting her nose even higher.

“What if I am?” Ghost said.

“Look there,” stuttered Parker. Four chins lifted as the first round of crows evacuated the alley.

Now, almost half an hour later, the bird man resumed his feathered lullaby.

“I don’t think he saw us,” Ghost said.

“Let’s go,” Darla whispered. “I’m over it.” Ghost heard the tiny crack in Darla’s voice and decided to keep her mouth shut and make for the exit.


“You shouldn’t spy on people like that.”

Ghost had been excited to tell her mother about the Conundrum Council’s first mystery but now she felt deflated and shame-faced.

“People aren’t mysteries for you to solve–they’re people,” her mother continued. “And people have complicated backgrounds that land them in circumstances you may not understand. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings. I hope you’ll keep that in mind when you’re looking for entertainment. You and your new friends.”

Ghost’s mom paused and turned around with an apologetic smile. Ghost had decided to look out of the window, keeping her face turned as far from her mother as she could without spraining something. But she listened as her mother continued.

Ghost-C6-ChitChat-web“I am happy that you’ve found friends, sweetie. I know you understand that I’m not trying to discourage you.”

Ghost did know. But why did it always seem like she was doing something wrong? It was like her parents were sifting through her chatter for anything to criticize these days.

“You look nice,” Ghost said, ready to change the subject.

Her mother kissed her on the cheek. “Thanks, sweetie. You’ll be alright at Matilda’s? Dad and I should only be a couple hours.”

Ghost’s father was downstairs, playing music, getting into the spirit of going out on the town for an evening. Her parents explored every town they had ever lived in through its culinary scene. It was easy to find new places to try as much as they moved around.

“I’ll be fine,” Ghost promised.

“Okay. Well, now that I’ve got your vote, I think we’re ready to go.”

Ghost’s parents walked her next door and rang the doorbell. Matilda’s door swung open venting a haze of sage and cat litter into the cool evening.

“Thank you so much,” Ghost’s parents said until she grew cross.

When they were gone, at last, Matilda shut the door and clapped her hands. “Well. I hope you like bolognese,” she said.

“Does it have bologna in it?” Ghost asked, knowing the answer.

“No–it’s just pasta with meat sauce. Ground beef,” Matilda shrugged. “But really good pasta with meat sauce,” she added with gravitas.

Ghost eyed her suspiciously, wondering if Matilda thought she ate spaghetti from the can. “I like pasta,” she said.

“Good. I just need to hover over it awhile. Would you like to keep me company in the kitchen?”

Ghost followed Matilda into a warm kitchen of saffron walls and pleasing clutter. The smell of oregano made her mouth water. Matilda looked a bit lost flitting from her cookbook to her pot and back to her cookbook. She frowned.

“I live off of takeout,” Matilda admitted.

“I would’ve eaten takeout,” said Ghost.

“No way,” Matilda shouted. “This is my first babysitting gig–I need to impress.”

“I don’t know, babysitters always order pizza in horror movies. And then they invite their friends over to do stupid things.”

“Your parents let you watch that stuff?”

“Sure,” said Ghost.

“It’s a long time since I was seventeen and my cats aren’t keen on large parties, so there will be none of that.”

One of Matilda’s cats was lying on her side under the table, trying to shred Ghost’s boot.

“Good because it usually leads to bad times,” Ghost said, smiling down at the cat. It gave her one look and darted away.

“So your mom said you made some friends.”

“Yeah, I’ve been hanging out with some kids from the neighborhood. They’re cool. We have this sort of secret society.”

“Tell me all about it,” Matilda said, shutting the cookbook and tossing hot peppers into the pot.

“It’s secret,” Ghost said snottily, and then, “It’s called the Conundrum Council and we solve the town’s mysteries.”

“Ooh, that does sound exciting. What mysteries have you solved?”

Ghost cradled her chin in her palm. “None.” Matilda lifted one sharp eyebrow. “I mean, not yet,” Ghost added. “Actually . . . ” she considered a moment. “Have you ever met someone who could control animals?”

Matilda’s spoon stopped stirring. “Hmm, you mean commanding a dog to sit or a cat to use the toilet? Or more like leading your bear minions to war?”

“Bears to war,” said Ghost.

“I’ve known of that sort of thing.” She said nothing more for a while. “I mean, there’s that guy on TV with the dogs. I always thought he might be secretly training everyone’s pets to eventually overthrow their owners and join him in some unholy battle.”

Ghost snorted. “Never mind. Silly question.”

“What makes you ask?” said Matilda.

“Just Council business.”

Matilda nodded sagely. “Council business. Right. Well, my mysterious friend, I hope you’re ready to eat, and I hope you like heat because I think those were habaneros and not mini heirloom tomatoes.”

“I’m ready to suffer. Can I use your restroom first?”

“Go on then. Down the hall and to your right.”

Ghost wandered down the hall. Embarrassing family photos decorated the walls of Ghost’s home but at Matilda’s it was cat photos. Here was the tabby wearing a cowboy hat and a scowl; here was the butterscotch ball of fluff wearing a top hat, bow, and scowl; here was the rotund, immobile Scottish Fold wearing a tiny elf’s hat and a lolling tongue. Ghost preferred these photos to her own wrinkled infant face nailed to the wall like evil eyes warding off spirits.

She stopped in the middle of the hallway. Matilda had said, “down the hall and to your right,” but she counted three doors along the hall to her right. Ghost didn’t want to be caught looking like a snoop. She decided to try the first door. Matilda would have told her which one if she didn’t mean the first.

Proud of her ability to sift logic from the vague, Ghost turned the door handle, opened the door, opened her mouth, and screamed.

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Chapter 5: The Tale of Minoned

Ghost and the Daemon is a serialized young adult fiction work I’m posting here, chapter by chapter, as I write it, along with my occasional doodles.

Tale of Minoned 1On a warm island all furred with olive trees lived a farmer, a shepherdess, and their daughter. The three led a mostly placid life, but one day The Blight crawled up from the Underground full of boredom and ill intent and threatened to squander their crops and the feed for their sheep. The farmer and the shepherdess begged for mercy. The warm season was ending and they would not survive winter without olives and sheep to trade the sea merchants for salted kraken and the whale fat that kept their hearth lit all the months long.

But The Blight would only agree to keep his nubby fingers off the crops if the farmer and the shepherdess gave him their daughter to take as his wife. As the couple thought their daughter terribly dull and without aspiration, and as the task of making a baby would curtail the boredom of the lengthening nights, husband and wifey quickly-quietly made the exchange.

The girl—

“What was her name?”

Nix pursed his lips. “Harbo, not that it matters. Anyway—“

Harbo found herself in the Underground with The Blight who, as it turns out, had one million bartered wives. One of many, Harbo moldered for near a century within the smelly caverns of The Blight’s home. The Underground isn’t a place for mortals. It’s lousy with monsters and angry gods—not that there aren’t some good ones. Harbo could safely go no farther than the river that sloshed past The Blight’s caverns and throughout the Underground, and it was there that she came across the goddess Minoned while throwing rocks into the frothing waters.

“You shouldn’t do that.”

Harbo looked up from the dark water to find a young woman watching her from an idling boat.

“Do what?” asked Harbo.

“My sea serpents swim in there. I imagine they don’t enjoy taking rocks to the head, though I can’t be certain since they’ve never said as much.”

Giving the woman a once-over, Harbo asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m the goddess Minoned. I tend to the beasts of the Underground,” Minoned shrugged. “Who are you? I’ve never seen you around.”

“I’m Harbo of the Olive Isle, wife of The Blight. Well, one of them. And I don’t get out much.”

Minoned made a face. “The Blight? He smells like thousand year-old unwashed underpants.”

Harbo couldn’t disagree.

“Want to paddle downriver with me?” asked Minoned. “You’ll be safe on my boat.”

Harbo gladly accepted the opportunity for a break from the caverns and the nonsense chatter of the million wives. She’d spent half a century in their company and she still had no idea what any of them were saying.

“Half a century?” said Ghost. “Harbo must’ve been ancient by then.”

“Aside from the fact that at sixty-seven one is not ancient, everyone knows that all living mortals who enter the Underground stop aging,” said Nix. “The entrapped don’t die either, much as they wish it.”

“If they don’t die, why would they worry about monsters and mean gods?”

“I said they don’t die of old age,” Nix snapped.

“No you didn’t.”

Nix gave Ghost a long, but weary, stare. “Alright, a mortal can die of unnatural causes, which may include being swallowed whole or having her atoms dispersed by a god. But if that happens, her soul doesn’t get to slum the world sniffing freshly baked bread or scaring children or whatever it is the departed enjoy doing. She gets to wander the Underground eternally, except it’s like one of those bad dreams where your body can only float a millimeter above the ground–where you move at such a crawl even a squashed snail would beat you in a race. Now,” Nix cleared his throat.

Minoned 3Minoned and Harbo had a grand time herding the colossal lantern fish, scattering them all through the river system. They lit the dark spaces so that the gods wouldn’t bark their shins on stalagmites or fall into one of the bottomless holes that pocked the stony floor.

“It must be thrilling to go where you please and ride giant cave spiders up the walls,” said Harbo as she touched a fingertip to a fish’s lantern.

Minoned dipped a lazy oar into the water and considered Harbo’s words. “It’s alright,” she said. “It’s been my life for all of time. But this is fun. I don’t get much company down here. Sometimes, I have to chatter to my beasts because I forget the sound of my own voice.”

“I get lonely too,” confessed Harbo.

“You have the other wives.”

Harbo explained how the million wives all came from different places and times and how they struggled to understand each other.

“I’m kind of, sort of getting the hang of one of the languages, but the wife who speaks it is covered from head to toe in hair and throws sticks at me sometimes. I always end up fleeing before I can get to the bottom of her hooting and hollering.”

“Just say it. I can see that you have something to say. Just say it now before I—“

“I was going to ask how Minoned could understand Harbo if they weren’t from the same place. But let me guess: gods can speak all languages.”

“Good. I’m glad we’re making progress here. I should say that fluent as the gods are in the languages of the universe, they can’t seem to make heads or tails of body language.”

Ghost feigned shock. “Are you admitting to ignorance?”

“I am a demigod and a master of body language.”

When time came for Harbo to return to The Blight and the million wives and the caverns, she pleaded her case to Minoned.

“Don’t make me go back there,” said Harbo. “I can help you with the beasts. I can be your apprentice.”

“I’m not hiring,” said Minoned. But Harbo looked so unhappy, Minoned agreed to let her stay a little while longer.

She brought Harbo back to her temple and fed the fell dogs standing guard outside while Harbo wondered at the glowing structure of flickering candles and dripping wax.

“Minoned,” someone snarled.

Minoned turned from her task to find The Blight striding toward her, tracking a foul cloud behind him. She lit a stick of incense and stood her ground.

“Where is my wife?” he growled. “The Damp said he saw you with her on the river.”

Minoned took one look at the green thread of spit dangling from The Blight’s cracked lower lip and knew she couldn’t return Harbo to him. She glanced behind her to find the fell dogs dividing. Harbo stood on the other side of them. If the dogs continued to wander, the girl would be exposed and dragged back to the caverns never to be allowed out again.

Minoned sighed and did what she had to do. The Blight pushed past her, calling out for Harbo. A dog snapped at him as he passed.

“Where is she?” he demanded again.

The impassive Minoned watched The Blight glare beneath the surrounding rocks as if expecting to find his wife under one. “Who knows?” she said.

When it became apparent to The Blight that he had somehow been tricked, he left at last, still shouting Harbo’s name into the tunnels, pausing often to curse and kick stone rats.

“I’m a dog,” Harbo barked, wagging her black tail.

“Yes, you are and a dog you’ll have to stay if you don’t want The Blight to come back for you,” sighed Minoned.

“Why are you sad?” asked Harbo. “I can stay with you now, and we can be friends always.”

“Soon you will forget all words and all memory of your former life. You will be a beast.”

Harbo was quiet awhile, then said, “I think I’m okay with that. I’d much rather lead a dog’s life and go where I please.”

And Harbo did have a mostly happy existence running with her pack, tearing other beasts apart. Harbo also forgot her words and her old life and Minoned’s friendship, just as the goddess said she would. And that is the tale of Minoned and how she lost the only friend she’d have for a long, long time.

“What?” asked Nix.

But Ghost, having by now made it across the neighborhood to her own front stoop, could only continue shaking her head at Nix in disbelief. “That was your story? She lived miserably ever after? You know, if you were sent here to make me feel worse, I don’t actually need help with that. I’m doing fine on my own.”

“It’s just a story,” Nix called out. But he couldn’t be sure she’d heard past the sound of the door slamming in his face.

Minoned 4

Chapter 4: The Conundrum Council

Ghost and the Daemon is a serialized young adult fiction work I’m posting here, chapter by chapter, as I write it, along with my occasional doodles.

Fize_C4_webrev“Scum!” Black sand flew. “Snee’s spit!” Thunder rolled. “You will not deceive me,” Fize snarled.

Nix gave the signal anyway and Lo-Ket coaxed a pale red spark from Freyja’s hearth fire just before Fize’s minion, Sooxa, scratched a green one out of a pane of sea glass nearby.

Freyja shook with a brief chuckle and stirred the fire.

“Once more,” spat Fize. “Winner takes all.”

“Thank you, but no,” said Nix. “Between Lo-Ket’s animas seeds and Sooxa’s, my minion will have enough to carry her through another lifetime.”

As Nix turned to leave, he heard a piece of driftwood shatter against the cliff face. The clatter wasn’t loud enough to drown out Fize’s curse, much less Sooxa’s banshee howl.

A giant dripping with kelp and and studded with barnacles and clams materialized from the wisps of chalk and charcoal fog crawling across the beach. The man joined Nix on his stroll. Drifting tendrils of fog caught on the curl of the giant’s massive green beard as they moved.

“Why do you play with Fize when you know it will only inflame his anger?” asked Meer.

“It’s only a game,” said Nix.

“But you know it’s more than that to him. And to you.”

Nix tossed out his hand. Lo-Ket vaulted off his wrist and flew into the smoky day to roam and hunt. He watched her go as he said, “It’s not my responsibility to keep the peace with Fize.”

“But it is your responsibility to attend the gatherings,” said Meer. When Nix tensed but said nothing, Meer fell to the task that had been asked of him. “You’ve become distant recently. Even more so than before.”

“You’re always over-analyzing things,” said Nix.

“I’m not the only one who has noticed. We all notice. Tristus asked me to speak with you about your absence.”

“Tristus did?”

Meer nodded. Not good, thought Nix.

“The circle is unaware of your activities, but I can guess where your time is spent.”

“I don’t want to hear it, Meer. If they want me to be more active—to ride infinity on the back of petty arguments with the rest of them, so be it. But I’m not interested in discussing what I do in my private time,” said Nix.

“You exist behind the curtain, not beyond it, and yet you waste yourself in that other world,” said Meer.

“If my hobby gives me even some small amount of joy, how is it a waste?”

Meer sighed. “You’ve let your friendships go to seed. You have made no home for yourself. The rare occasions you are physically here, your mind is elsewhere. Or, worse, you are off picking fights and generally trying to show everyone how much you dislike your own world and kind, which is by now unnecessary as you have proven your point many times over.”

“We’re the same as we’ve always been. I’ve made my memories. This place is unchanging, don’t you see?” Nix searched Meer’s face but found only disappointment in the lines there.

“You still live in those memories. You need to let them go,” said Meer, but Nix was already walking away.

**

Conundrum-Council_C4_webrev“This meeting is now called to order,” Parker whistled through the gap in his front teeth.

Ghost plopped down on one of the floor pillows she’d brought from home. By now it proudly bore a fine layer of dry earth. Darla made her way around the shack with a spray can of insect repellant as she did every time they hung out in the makeshift clubhouse. Jo-Jo, cradling a heavy book, made himself comfortable in his low beach chair next to Ghost.

Pip was quarantined in the chicken coop they’d brought in from outside the shack. Mrs. Pumpernickel had insisted that Darla bring him along after he made a strike with his toy car and some bowling pins that were actually his mother’s souvenir wine glasses. In the coop, he made clucking noises in between bites of black licorice.

“We’re not even a real club,” said Ghost.

“First order of business,” shouted Parker. “Come up with a club name.”

Darla gave the last floorboard crack a shot of acrid fumes and joined the others at the center of the square space. Old wood paneling and not much else surrounded them. Ghost had broken the lock after her new friends showed her the shack in the woods a short walk outside of town. The windows had been blacked out and the walls were covered in scratched words and symbols, but it didn’t frighten Ghost who was used to more foreboding signs.

The worse they found inside was a dead opossum. It’s sour odor was now obliterated by a few weeks of absence and Darla’s chemical warfare. They’d all had a hand in cleaning the space until it was suitable enough to be called their clubhouse.

“I was supposed to start a horror club with my friend, Poojah, back in my old town,” said Ghost.

Darla frowned at her. “Nobody else likes horror. Besides, that was your old town and your old friend. This is your new town and we need a new club idea,” she said. “We could solve mysteries or something. Truth Seekers Anonymous.”

“Too clunky,” Ghost said with a shrill note of irritation.

Parker squinted into space and stuck a finger up one nostril while he considered the challenge. “How about the Mystery Society?”

“Bet that’s been done a million times before,” said Darla.

They sat in silence and cool resentment.

“The Conundrum Council,” someone said. Everyone looked at Jo-Jo, who had only glanced up from his book to make the suggestion and had already returned to its pages.

“The good old CC,” said Parker.

“It’s settled then,” said Darla. “We’ll solve mysteries and learn every secret in this town. We’re already off to a good start with the clubhouse.”

“Secrets? Ha!” said Parker. “I’ve lived here all my life–nothing interesting ever happens.”

“Every town has secrets, Parker. Maybe you’re just too dumb to figure them out,” said Darla.

“Hey,” said Ghost. “I think I have a mystery we can solve.”

The others were all ears (even Jo-Jo though who could tell).

**

Ghost waved her goodbye to Darla as she headed homeward on her own. They’d spent most of the day at the clubhouse, making CC plans and planting a little garden with seeds Ghost’s mother had bought them after Ghost said she wanted to show Darla how to grow plants from scratch. She had consciously failed to mention that the seedlings would be planted around an abandoned shack in the woods but, Ghost guiltily repeated to herself once in a while, it wasn’t exactly a lie.

“What a sorry group.”

Ghost jumped a few inches off the ground. Nix was walking beside her.

“You scared me,” she said with a frown, but she was actually glad to see him. She had almost begun to question her sanity again.

“Making new friends, I see.”

“Oh. Yeah, they’re the best,” said Ghost.

“Strange choice of words,” said Nix. “They’re kind of off, aren’t they?”

“What do you mean, off?” asked Ghost, knowing exactly what he meant.

But Nix shrugged. “Nothing. I’m surprised you didn’t offer up my sighting as a mystery.”

“You’ve been spying,” said Ghost. She crossed her arms. “I didn’t tell them about it because you could be nothing more than a hallucination. My doctors said I might experience symptoms like that.”

“You’re right. I could be an illusion—that was a good decision.”

Ghost slowed. “You don’t have any way to prove that you’re real? Can you at least tell me about the place you come from, or is that secret?

“It’s a big place. That would take forever, and you would be bored,” said Nix.

“So you can’t tell me anything? That’s no fun.”

Nix looked at Ghost who stared back expectantly.

“Well. I can tell you about things that have happened over there.” Nix looked off at the reddening sky. “I can tell you a story.”

Lo-Ket_C4_webrev

Chapter 3: New Friends (and a Pest)

Ghost and the Daemon is a serialized young adult fiction work I’m posting here, chapter by chapter, as I write it, along with my occasional doodles.


Down a narrow hallway, an open door gave way to a few steps and then to a blind descent. Someone whispered indistinguishable words on the other side of the heavy basement door where a frail light puttered nervously between life and death.

Soft-ShoeThe chanting stopped as the door creaked open. Ghost poked her head out of the room and then ducked back in. False alarm.

If her mother caught her at the center of a circle drawn with an entire box of Kosher salt, she would have to come up with quantifiable proof that finding a demonic entity was worth every penny of the two bucks spent on the basement floor. But first, she would actually have to find said entity. Her dad’s Latin phrasebook fell back open and Ghost chose a random, meaningful-sounding string of words off the thin pages to speak aloud. The book was one of many relics her father’s recent spurt of spontaneous hobbies had materialized into, and like the other relics it was kept around long after the hobby was abandoned. Just in case.

Rocking back and forth on her heels like she’d seen in a documentary about spiritual trances, Ghost closed her eyes and fell to chanting. But honestly faith was a difficult thing to muster in a mold-scented basement on the hard floor with nothing but cottonmouth to show for thirty minutes’ exertion.

“What could you possibly be doing?”

Ghost started. Her eyes snapped open to find the demon before her, giving her the same quizzical look she’d received that first night.

“It worked,” she said.

“What did?”

“The spell,” Ghost said, showing him the Latin textbook. “I summoned you.”

“This may come as a surprise, but I don’t make an entrance every time someone asks for directions to the bathroom. Although, if you’d asked one more time, it’s possible I would have lost my mind.”

Ghost gently laid the book behind her. “How long have you been standing there?”

“Too long,” said the demon, delicately kicking the salt ring with the tip of his shoe.

“You can’t get past that,” Ghost stated. She watched his one foot do a little soft shoe. “Can you?”

The shoe stopped. “What exactly do you think I am?” he asked.

“You said you were a demon.”

The demon looked at her awhile. “A demon. A creature entombed in fire and brimstone, you mean.”

Ghost began to sense that she’d misunderstood something so she bought time by squinting thoughtfully.

“I’m a daemon with an ‘e.’ Or an ‘i.’ A demigod.”

“Something like a guardian angel then?” Ghost asked and was swiftly answered with a spat laugh.

“God no. There’s a fool’s trade for you. People do just as they please in the end. Why bother?” The daemon frowned at Ghost. “No. I have nothing to do with you or the course of your life. But I do stop by to see what you’re up to from time to time.”

“Why?” asked Ghost.

The daemon shrugged. “Being a daemon these days is like being someone born into wealth. You don’t need a job. Nobody expects anything of you. So you find ways to amuse yourself. I find oddballs and browse their lives for entertainment.”

Ghost rose to her feet. “I’m not an oddball.”

“Oh,” sighed the daemon, raising an eyebrow, “yes you are. Just look at you.” He nudged his chin at her helpfully. “Also,” he paused. “My curiosity was naturally peaked when I heard rumor that you managed to escape Death.”

“I didn’t escape anything. I just survived an accident.”

“If you say so.”

Ghost was old enough now to despise attempts to convince her that she knew nothing about herself.

“I’m guessing you know my name. What’s yours?”

“Nix.”

“Well, Nix. Nice to meet you and all, but I’m going to get back to my day now.” Ghost turned away from the daemon and walked out of the room without looking back.

**

Darlas-HouseGhost alternated between the shade of the big walnut tree and the warm sun by rolling back and forth on the grass. From the open kitchen window, behind the annoyed rustle of grass, came the voice of her mother asking her father to help find the Kosher salt. Ghost stopped just long enough to hear their search interrupted by the doorbell before returning to her activity.

It had proven too difficult to be indoors around her parents with the improbable and spectacular development named Nix to consider. And she had walked away from him like nothing. Yes, knowing that Nix could materialize right now if he wanted, but still.

Now she wondered if he ever would again and felt an odd pang like missing Poojah, but Poojah he certainly wasn’t.

“Ghost,” her mother called from the back door. Ghost turned to find wary excitement on her mother’s face and knew what she would say next. “You have a visitor.”

Darla would have been exceptionally pretty if not for her nose. It was turned up and smooshed in. Like a pig’s snout.

“My mother made me come over,” she explained, niceties out of the way before they’d begun.

“Okay,” said Ghost.

“She told me I should introduce you to my friends.”

After an awkward few seconds of silence passed, Darla said, “Alright, come on then.”

Ghost obediently followed Darla down the street and out of the cul-de-sac to a gastric pink gingerbread home. Three kids sat in a blasted circle on the lawn, drinking a bright red beverage out of glass cowboy boot steins.

New-Friends“This is Parker,” Darla said at a boy with tightly-curled orange hair and a mouth to match. “He’s got ADD or something but he’s alright.”

“This is Jo-Jo,” she pointed to a morose-looking kid—Ghost couldn’t immediately tell whether Jo-Jo was a boy or girl. Jo-Jo had long eyelashes and delicate features but carried his or her weight like a boy. “He doesn’t talk much, but once he starts, he can’t stop.”

Lastly, Darla motioned toward a minuscule, tow-headed boy with red all over his face and down the front of his shirt. “This is Pip. My little brother,” she said. “And he can beat it.”

Pip stuck his tongue out at Darla and marched away, sloshing his drink up the incline to the house.

A giant of a woman ruffled Pip’s hair at the threshold as she stepped through the front door.

“This the new girl, Darla?” she called out.

Darla’s mother wore a Cheshire smile beneath a wild growth of frazzled blond hair. She drawled when she spoke.

“How you doing, girl? You like your new home? Good good. I’m Mrs. Pumpernickel.”

Ghost couldn’t figure out how Mrs. Pumpernickel managed to speak so slowly while giving a person no time to respond.

“You just enjoy yourself with the kids now. You want a drink? Let me get you something, child. You look in need of something that’s for sure.”

Mrs. Pumpernickel ambled back up to the house, fanning at the sweat on her face.

“Where’d you come from?” Parker asked through a congested nose.

“Just another town,” Ghost shrugged. “Nowhere special.”

“Like this town?” he asked.

Ghost considered her surroundings. The straight trees and the wide streets. The sleepy silence.

“No.”

“You won’t like it here,” Darla said. The statement was offered in the same way a person might reassure an ailing friend that they’ll get better.

Darla sat, so Ghost followed the native customs. But not so far as to gulp the acrid red liquid Mrs. Pumpernickel delivered to her.

“Hey, d’your mom let you dye your hair white?” asked Parker.

“No. I got electrocuted and it just grew out that way,” said Ghost. Get it out of the way.

But Parker just showed his buckteeth and nodded.

“How old are you all?” Ghost asked, setting aside her boot.

“Same age as you,” said Darla. “My mom got to talking with your mom at the market and found out you were our age. That’s why she made me come over and say hi.”

“You’re going to the public junior high?” asked Ghost.

Darla scrunched her face at the sun and nodded.

“How do you think it’ll be?”

“Bad.”

“Darla hates everything,” said Parker, throwing torn blades of grass in the direction of Darla’s face.

“Do not,” said the unflinching Darla. “I just call it like I see it. I see it’ll be just like Rosewood. We’ll sit in the corner all bored while everyone else has a blast.”

“What do you think, Jo-Jo?” asked Parker.

Jo-Jo’s throat said, “I don’t know,” but his mouth didn’t open.

Ghost sat back and stretched her legs out on the grass. She looked from Darla to Parker to Jo-Jo with something between a frown and a smile and sensed that she belonged.

Chapter 2: Curious Beginnings

Ghost and the Daemon is a serialized young adult fiction work I’m posting here, chapter by chapter, as I write it, along with my occasional doodles.


pancakes-1-242x300Ghost awoke buzzing with that innate recognition of the first morning of summer break.

She couldn’t decide whether the full boxes and the barren rooms burdened or lightened the skip in her step, but she was certain that the scent of pancakes and bacon masked the sorrows of moving. For now.

A golden brown disc performed a perfect flip before landing in the hot greased pan. “Ha!” Ghost’s dad shouted at the pancake.

At the old oaky kitchen table, Ghost’s mom set down the book she’d been reading and perched her sandaled feet on a mostly unpacked box of books labeled “Pots and Pans.”

“Exploring today?” she asked Ghost.

“Nah,” said Ghost. “I thought maybe you’d work on the garden.”

“You don’t have to stick around here if there are other things you’d prefer to do.”

Ghost toyed with the edge of the book, staring intently at the cover. “Yeah. I mean, it’d be nice to just hang out in the backyard.”

Ghost felt the full weight of her mom’s eyes, then, “That actually does sound like a nice way to spend the day—gardening,” said her mom. “Alright. Let’s do that.”

“I think I left my drill behind somehow,” said Ghost’s dad as he delivered a platter of pancakes. “I need to walk to the Ghost Reads-272x300hardware store in town anyway. We’ll have to part ways after breakfast.”

“Walk into town?” asked Ghost.

“Yeah, it’s only about a mile away.” He shrugged off Ghost’s confusion. “It’s a small town. But don’t worry—there’s a small serving of urban sprawl only an hour away,” he said, beaming at her helpfully.

**

A bright fleck of orange swung into the wind, dancing across the sidewalk and into the road. Ghost remembered something. A man darker than the night.

Ghost stepped back, watching another ember make its way across the street from the willow-veiled yard next door. A shadow rose from a crouch beyond the wispy branches and moved toward the sidewalk. Clawed fingers held fire and smoke. The woman raised her eyebrows at Ghost. Tiger and fawn held a stare.

“Ready, hun?” asked Ghost’s mom, appearing from the house with her keys. She looked up the street. “Oh. Hello there,” she said, walking toward the woman with a wave that tried too hard.

Ghost expected the woman to dissipate in an impressive display of thunder and cloud, but she smiled back at her mom and said, “Hello,” in a silky baritone.

“Sabrina,” said Ghost’s mom, shaking the woman’s free hand. “Is that sage? Smells wonderful.”

Matilda-287x300The woman nodded. “Matilda,” she said. “You just moved in.”

“That, we did.” Ghost watched her mother inanely gesture at the moving van still parked in the drive. “Me, my husband, Lucas, and my daughter here,” she beckoned Ghost.

Ghost’s legs stiffened as she approached the awkward interaction to stand beside her mother.

Matilda’s slitted violet eyes peered at her behind their thick black lashes. They moved across her face and hair.

“And your name is?”

“Ghost.”

Matilda nodded. Whether approvingly or apathetically Ghost couldn’t tell, but she was determined to find even a trace of the former.

“We’re off to run some errands,” said Ghost’s mom. “But we’d love to have you over for dinner once we’re settled in.”

“That would be lovely. And please,” Matilda slanted her eyes at Ghost again, “my door is open if you ever need help.”

**

“I could not get comfortable around that woman,” Ghost’s mom said once the car doors were securely closed and the windows rolled up. “There was something,” she wrinkled her nose, “witchy about her.”

Ghost pretended to look out the window while her mom darted a glance in her direction.

“That was a terrible thing to say, wasn’t it?” asked Ghost’s mom as they drove past town only a minute later.

A handful of khakis, some pale summer dresses, crisp shorts, and navy shirts dotted the streets in front of pristine gingerbread stores. Even now people pushed their chins forward to see into the unfamiliar car.

“I thought you liked witches,” said Ghost.

“I do. I like witches in books and movies. I like people who own one too many cats and set up altars cluttered with interesting things in their living rooms.” The tires rolled over loose gravel as they pulled into a nursery’s parking lot. “But she was, oh I don’t know. Too intense.”

An elderly woman with purple-tinted hair gave Ghost a look as they walked through a verdant trellis into a wonderland of black plastic pots and dwarf citrus varietals.

“Anyway,” Ghost’s mom concluded, rolling a platform truck to her, “she’s probably a very nice woman.” She stood behind her own cart. “Ready?”

fizzle fingers-243x300Whenever they moved to a house with a garden, the rule was that Ghost could choose ten plants, and her mom could choose ten. They would continue on in that fashion for a number of trips to the nursery until they had a discordantly glorious garden. By now, Ghost knew her mom’s batch would include fragrant lilies, bright sunflowers, and white hydrangeas. Ghost would gravitate toward the crawling jasmine, irises, snapdragons, and strawberries before seeking out something new. The two parted in a competitive flurry, but Ghost quickly found herself daydreaming into the silly face of a snapdragon.

She’d given it some thought and decided that the man had in fact been real and not a figment of her imagination. The memory of the encounter had by now returned in full. But for all the danger implicit in that brief meeting, Ghost wondered if she had made some mistake. In the early afternoon warmth with the scent of jasmines beckoning, he appeared again in her mind’s eye as a curious neighbor. Not unlike Matilda.

The only detail she couldn’t reconcile was their conversation. What had he meant about being able to see and hear him?

Ghost frowned at the orange snapdragon. She could swear it had been yellow seconds ago. But now the color deepened to crimson, then with a blue stem. A cloud gathered over the tray of flowers. Ghost looked up to find the man himself looking down on her.

“I wish you wouldn’t gape like that. I’m not a spectacle.”

Ghost closed her mouth. “Sorry. I,” Ghost faltered, “I think we’re neighbors. My name is Ghost.”

“I know who you are. But we aren’t neighbors.”

Ghost looked around the nursery for her mother, but the entire place seemed to have cleared out while she’d been daydreaming.

“I should get back to my mom.”

The man crossed his arms and shrugged his shoulders. Ghost turned to go, but stopped. “Well then who are you? Why were you sitting on the street?”

“Free country. Isn’t that what people say?”

“Okay. Then why are you following me around?”

The man uncrossed his arms and smiled wryly. “There’s the question.”

“Well?”

“Because you can see me,” he said.

“Of course I can.”

“That’s the thing. You shouldn’t be able to see me.”

“I don’t get it,” said Ghost. “It’s not like you’re invisible.”

“Yes. I am.” He rested his hand atop the head of a snapdragon. It fizzled like a sparkler before disintegrating. “You’re gaping again.”

“What are you?” asked Ghost.

“I’m a daemon.”

A demon, thought Ghost.

“What do you want from me?” she asked.

“I want to know why you can see me. And I’m not going away until I find out,” said the daemon.

“That’s it?”

Ghost spun around to find her mom surveying the one bucket of jasmines on her cart.

“Only one plant?” her mom continued.

Ghost turned around again, but just as she expected, the daemon was gone.

Chapter 1: Embers in the Wind

Ghost and the Daemon is a serialized young adult fiction work I’m posting here, chapter by chapter, as I write it, along with my occasional doodles.


Constance-1Once upon a time, Ghost’s name was Constance. But when she electrocuted herself on the exposed cord from a string of jack-o-lantern lights and was pronounced dead before coming back to life five minutes later, her parents changed her legal name to Ghost. Ghost called the white skunk trail falling over her long, black hair her Bride of Frankenstein streak.

She tugged at the streak when she felt anxious. As she did on her last day of elementary school. Poojah didn’t have a streak to pull so she cried instead.

“But why are you moving now?” Poojah wailed. Ghost gave her streak two tugs and wondered how Poojah could get any words out of her scrunched face.

“My parents wanted to move sooner. They decided to wait until I had to go to a new school anyway,” mumbled Ghost.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Ghost shrugged. “I’ve only known a little while. And I didn’t want you to be upset during graduation.”

“What about the summer? We were gonna start a horror movie club and sneak into the fun house at the fair.”

Poojah’s overbite was exaggerated by her open-mouthed misery. Ghost used to imagine that a train puffed along the tracks of her braces when she smiled. She’d never be able to do that again because this was the last time she’d see Poojah. That’s just how things happened when you moved. Ghost knew this from experience.Poojah-C1-3

“I know,” Ghost said. “Hey, I gotta go. My parents are waiting–they wanted to head out to the new place right after the ceremony. We’ll keep in touch?”

Poojah nodded furiously. “Forever.”

Ghost smiled. Poojah didn’t know she was lying yet, and her best friend’s earnestness was one of Ghost’s favorite things. She hugged her goodbye and turned away. As soon as she did, she felt better.

**

Ghost stuck her head out of the window and wondered what breed of dog she would be if she was reborn into the species. A blue whippet, she decided as the green hills and tall wind farms rolled against sky and cumulonimbus. She imagined her spindly whippet self flying over the grasses, going wherever.

“Are you excited about the new place?” asked her mom.

A response didn’t come right away. Hesitance was part of Ghost’s answer, but it was hard to be bothered and angry in the summer, with the warm sun and cool wind on her face. They always moved during the break and by the time her spirits could match the icy weather, it was too late. By that time, Ghost either already had a friend or had found a secret place in the new neighborhood. By then, her old friends were awash in a milky haze, and she’d feel too guilty about it to use them as ammunition.

“I guess.”

**

The sun hung low in the sky as the car pulled into a tidy driveway.

“We’re here,” announced Ghost’s dad. He gave Ghost a tired smile and shook her knee. She didn’t know whether to be aggravated or amused so she grunted without any real objective.

The houses got better each time and this one was no different. It was spacious with an innocent charm. Ghost felt like Anne Shirley on Prince Edward Island, and then immediately felt stupid for having that thought.

She almost expected the person who would become her new best friend to show up on the driveway with a plate of cookies and something quirky and memorable to say. But they unloaded the moving truck and nobody showed up.

Ghost’s room was a pretty space with a tall window facing the backyard. It came with a garish powder blue and floral window seat from which she could stare down at a half-hearted rose garden that her mother would almost certainly uproot and replant with strange tulips and vivid wildflowers. Tall trees hid the neighbor’s backyard from view.

Her mother might want to work on the yard all day tomorrow and then Ghost could sit outside with a book and not think about anything or meet anyone new.

Ghost’s dad finished putting her bed back together and smiled down at his handiwork before looking up.

“You okay there?” he asked.

“Hm?” Ghost turned away from the window. “Yeah, fine dad.”

Going-Wherever-C1-2-243x300“Me and mom thought you might like pizza for dinner. We can set up the television and watch some bad horror movies tonight if you’d like.”

“Sounds good,” said Ghost.

His quiet gaze rested on her face for a few long seconds, but then he nodded and stepped out of the room.

“Who’s next?” he bellowed into the empty hall. “You’re in for it now, breakfast table.”

**

Ghost liked the protagonist so she was relieved the girl escaped the cannibal demons from the mental ward. She didn’t mind that everyone else in the movie died though. She turned around to test a half-formed, possibly flawed comparison between “Death Ward” and Shakespeare’s Hamlet on her parents only to find them asleep on the couch.

“Horror, Inc.” was up next in the queue. She lifted off the floor cushion to stretch her legs and grab a slice of jalapeño and anchovy. One o’clock glared at her from the stove’s dashboard. But she wasn’t tired at all. It was in the moments when everyone else slept and the world was silent and dark that Ghost felt most alive.

She walked her pizza slice to the window and looked out at the empty street. A hot evening breeze blew into the house as Ghost opened the door and stepped out onto the cobbled walk. It was lined with white alyssum, which she couldn’t help but think smelled like alley pee.

Ghost knew better than to walk out of the house unsupervised at night in certain neighborhoods her family had lived in, but this was a suburban cul-de-sac of the buttoned-down variety. She was trying to remember a mean but funny movie quote about people who lived on cul-de-sacs when she noticed the man.

He wore a black turtle neck, gray jeans, and dress shoes. He looked around the same age as her parents—mid-30s maybe—but he smoked a tobacco pipe. Like an old person. Or, Ghost corrected herself, like someone putting on airs. He puffed on it now, sitting on the curb, massaging the scalp buried beneath a pile of black hair.

The man noticed Ghost just as she began backing up. She was on the verge of running for it but the expression on the man’s face stopped her. He tucked his chin into his neck, frowned, squinted one eye, and beetled his brow. He looked at her like she was the crazy one.

Orange embers drifted out of the pipe and into the wind as he stood up and walked toward her, cocking his head. Now he squinted both eyes, his face hardening. That was enough to send Ghost scurrying into the house. She didn’t want to wake her parents and start a commotion, so she closed the door as softly as she could without losing too much time. Every lock clicked into place.

Ghost crouched by the door. Silence.

Then. “Can you see me?” came an even voice from the other side.

Ghost bit her lip to shut herself up, but here it came anyway. “Yes.”

“Then you can hear me too.”

Ghost said nothing this time.

“But that can’t be,” said the man.

Ghost counted to twenty. Nothing more. She stood up. Slowly…slowly. And put her ear to the door. She flinched against nothing more than the prediction of a violent rap, but all was silent. Ghost took a terrible chance. She unlocked the door and cracked it open. And then more. Until nothing stood between her and the empty street.