Iron Henry

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Henry swigged a melting mouthful of the hearth witch’s tea and clutched his chest. Eyes bulging, beet face glistening, he waited on the precipice. A grand suck of air. A glimmer of gritted teeth. The medicine took. After his affliction smoothed its feathers and he could breath again, Henry slid down the wall of the well and grated a coarse hand across his shining brow.

A bit of cold water would have gone a long way, but Henry knew better than to stick his hand into the iris of the well to freshen his face. And yet…Henry peered down into its mirthless depths for one look, but the frog was gone again. Plucked. Stolen. The well witch’s pincers had dragged him back down to her breathless underworld. Was his prince happier with that sea serpent? He couldn’t be. What a silly idea. Henry repeated these mantras as uncertainty sickened his mind with hypothesis and jealousy. He rapped on his chest three times with four knuckles like knots in birch and lumbered up from his seat wondering when his prince would appear again.

“Fool,” Henry said, the word lush with longing.

The next day Henry again squished through the rank marsh to the green-furred well and called down into the water, watching his pleas ripple across its glutinous surface.

“Prince! My prince! Your man calls you,” he sobbed. The forest responded first, laughing at poor Henry. Birds shrieking slurs, dripping hot white fervor to the forest floor. But a pale specter grew out of the well’s thunderhead. An emerald body rose. A horror. An extraterrestrial sun in the familiar night sky.

“My prince! Ah,” Henry said, doubling over as his heart swelled against its cage. His cry held the power of resurrection. A hand shot up thin and bare as a wintered branch to pull the frog down, down, down to the bottom of the well.

Henry slid to the damp grass and nestled his head against the mildewed stone, salting it with fresh loss. When a long time later he lifted his face to the darkening day, Henry found himself staring at the witch, her arms hooked over the sill of the well to pillow her brown, waterlogged cheek as she looked sidelong at the man and clucked.

“Poor Henry,” said the witch. “I am sorry.”

“You aren’t though,” Henry said, too weary to brew stronger poison. “You have him and you couldn’t be happier.”

“Oh Henry, it’s not that simple,” the witch said as she brushed a water moccasin away from her face to peer at the man with avian ferocity.

“I’m confined here. You’ve known love while I’ve known nothing so deep as my own well. My heart will never find home with another, but at least I’ll have a companion now.”

“So you have spoken. Now leave me be,” said Henry, clutching his heart.

“It was unfortunate that you and your prince came along, but that can’t be helped. I’ll not spend my centuries alone,” the witch said, trailing off. She studied Henry. “What have you done to yourself, Henry?” she said. “Something in you has changed.”

Henry grimaced. “I had the blacksmith cage my heart in iron,” he said. “To keep it from bursting.”

The witch sighed as Henry rallied. “What if I offered you a deal?” the witch said. “A chance to regain your beloved’s life.”

Henry’s spine snapped into place. “I dare not believe–” but the witch stopped him with one uplifted hand.

“Even if you succeed, you won’t get all that you want. But your prince will be free. He will recover his true shape and a life outside my well.”

Henry stood. “Tell me then. I have nothing to lose and my true love’s freedom to gain.”

The witch, leaning too far over her well, cringed back. Henry drew close to hear.

“There is a princess in the next kingdom. It was her ancestors who banished me to this well. If I find her a prince to marry, my spell will be lifted. Should you convince her to take the prince for a husband as he is, his spell too will be lifted. But you must not tell her his true identity and they must remain husband and wife or he will be called back to me. And if that should happen, your prince will turn frog again, never surfacing to see you.”

Henry said nothing for a long time. “It will be done,” he decided at last. “My prince will see the sun again, if not his faithful Henry.”

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The princess was out walking in a brightly scented meadow. Every now and then she slowed her step to toss a ball into the air. High above her the golden orb gleamed, dazzling the sky as its gems caught the sun’s fire. It would have put the queen into a spin to see the princess toss her hard-won golden egg, but the young woman knew her mother wouldn’t notice if it went missing for an hour or so each day, and she took wicked pleasure in using the priceless treasure as a plaything.

With a thrill of jubilation and daring, the princess flung the egg as hard as she could up to the sky and as she did a shadow fell over her. Before she could even sound her alarm a fury of feathers swooped down from the sky taking hold of the egg with precise talons.

“Oh no,” the princess cried, chasing the bird through the woods. She barely looked down from the hunt until something heavy fell on her shoulder and pulled her back.

“No, princess,” warned a low voice.

“How dare you,” the princess spat at the man who had clapped his hand on her shoulder.

“The well,” he said, and the princess looked back and saw it then. The chase had so consumed her, she had almost tumbled heel over head into the black pool.

“You saved my life,” she breathed. “But, oh, my egg,” she wailed.

“Your egg?”

“A golden egg all crusted with jewels. Like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

“But I think I have seen it,” he said, holding out his palm. The other hand held hawking gloves, but that was behind his back.

“Ah,” the princess gasped. It was the egg, as perfect as ever and even more so for having been found. As the princess reached for her prize the man pulled back.

“I will return your egg to you on one condition,” he said.

“I’ll give you my pearls and my jewels,” the princess huffed. “I’ll even give you the clothes on my back–just give me my egg.”

“I don’t want your pearls or your jewels. And I’d ask that you keep your clothes on. All I want is the promise that you will accept my prince as your companion. Let him sit beside you at your golden table and eat from your golden plate and sleep in your golden bed and promise to love and cherish him.”

“A prince,” the princess said, disguising her interest with coyness but too late. “Is he as beautiful as you?” asked the pouting coquette.

“He is,” said the man, and there was such sorrow in his voice, it drove the princess ravenous.

“I’ll have him,” she said and snatched up her egg. But when the prince, all green and gray brindled, rose to the water’s surface the princess shrieked her disgust and fled into the woods.

“Wait, princess! Your promise,” Henry called after her  gauntlets pressed to his heart. But she was gone.

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The princess was dining on pheasant with the king and queen when a knock traveled to them from the castle door. The king left their table to discover the meaning of the interruption and returned with a young beauty and a frog.

“This man says you broke a promise made to him,” the king said to the princess. “Is this true?”

“He tricked me into promising my companionship, my plate, my bed, and love to that creature,” she said and scowled at the intruders.

“What trick was this?” the king asked the young man.

“No trick,” said Henry. “I only recovered the princess’s golden egg when she lost it.”

“Golden egg?” said the queen. “Excuse me.” She left the table and returned with the golden egg. “This golden egg?” she said.

“The very same,” said Henry. And the queen gave the princess such a look as would make any daughter or son wish for the earth to gobble them up.

“And did you agree to the promise?” the queen continued.

“I did, but that was before I knew his prince was a frog,” the princess insisted.

“It matters not,” said the queen. “You have made a promise and you will keep it.”

“Father,” the princess wailed.

“Listen to your mother,” the king said, tucking back into his plate. “You will not besmirch our name with your dishonesty.”

The princess opened her mouth but one look from the queen snapped it shut. Henry felt the cord pressing the frog against his hand, pulling him back toward the well, snap beneath the princess’s surrender. He gingerly placed his prince near the princess’s plate and left their company gasping at the pain housed within the iron cage.

“Push the plate close to your companion so that he may share your meal,” the queen said with a tidy, icy smile.

Empty stomach and barren of appetite, the princess took the frog to her room under her parents’ orders. But when she felt the slimy skin against her own and heard the rusty croak of her bedfellow she cried out and flung the frog against the wall. So great was collision that the witch’s enchantment smacked clean off the prince and he was freed from his froggy form.

Eyeing the prince in true flesh, the princess flew to his aid, her heart pounding with new love. The prince, seeing himself in her looking glass, pushed the princess aside and escaped the castle in search of Henry. He found him pale and clutching his heart by the well, the witch stroking his auburn hair. They started at the sight of the prince.

“My prince! You’re whole again,” Henry said embracing his other half.

“The spell was lifted when the princess threw me against the wall,” said the prince.

“Threw you,” Henry raged.

“Ah,” said the witch. “Tricky business, spells. I’m sorry to say that you’re still tied to me, frog or not. Even now the enchantment pulls you back to my well.” And the prince had moved incrementally closer to the witch and the water.

“Wait,” cried Henry. “I have a proposal.”

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The princess heard a knock on the castle door and flew to the window. Just as she’d hoped, it was him. She flung the door wide and embraced her prince on the doorstep.

“You have returned. I knew you would. There is no princess–or otherwise–fairer in the land and now you know and I forgive you,” she said, pulling him in.

“Wait, princess. First you must sever my ties to the well witch. I cannot be yours until you do.”

The princess squared her shoulders. “Then sever your ties I will,” she said. “I have no fear of well witches. Let us go directly.”

They found the witch waiting, hooked to the ledge of the well by her chin, which rested on a soft bed of moss.

“What do we have here?” the witch said through her teeth.

“The princess has come of her own volition to sever my ties,” said the prince.

“Then so shall it be,” said the witch. “Come closer, my dear, and let me tell you how it’s done.”

The princess looked at her prince who nodded encouragement. She lifted her chin, strode to the witch, leaned over the well and splash! In went the princess and off went Henry and his prince to live happily ever after.

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[Fairy Tale] East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)

retelling and pictures by S. Zainab Williams

art by S. Zainab WilliamsHis hair was thick and white as the pure snow that frosted the ice kingdom. His mouth was a slick black line opening to reveal white fangs and pant smoke into the frozen air. But it was his eyes the king saw; the half-lidded gaze of wan defeat that gave the king hope enough to cry out.

“Mercy! Please!”

Somewhere in the distance his black mare cantered through the powder white-eyed and homeward-bound. Somewhere much farther off, deep in the cloud bank, his hunting party gave off chasing the white buck to search for their king. The bear grunted and sloped his thick skull to sniff the air around the king. Was it defeat, the king now wondered, or dire hunger that dulled the bear’s eyes?

“I have three daughters, and a queen, and this kingdom to protect. Spare me and I will give you what I can,” he cried.

The bear rose up on his hind legs and unhinged his massive jaws and the king’s hand flew to his ears to protect them from what would surely be the last sound he heard—a deafening roar that would shatter his icy stronghold.

“A bed.”

The king unscrewed his eyes to peer up at the bear.

“A bed,” the bear said again. “And a roaring fire. And a seat at your table. This is what I want.”

When her father broke free of the forest and the clouds borne on the back of a great white bear, the youngest princess left her sisters’ and her mother’s company to race across the packed white earth stretching out from the castle to embrace her broken father. The middle and eldest princesses and the queen held back, uncertain and afraid.

When the king recounted the story of how he had been lost to the cloud, how his mare had startled and thrown him off, and how the bear had saved him, the youngest princess thanked the bear.

“You are a welcome guest in our home. You will have your bed, and your fire, and a seat at our table, and we will be joyous in your company,” said the youngest princess.

But the middle and eldest princesses were not joyous in the bear’s company and the king was only anxious. The six sat around the great table by the roaring hearth. The red and orange light colored the castle walls made brick by brick of ice, but the waterstone neither melted nor wept so cold was the ice kingdom. The six ate in silence, swaddled in thick fur cloaks, a company of bears.

The youngest princess lifted her eyes from her plate to watch the bear eat with knife and drink from a goblet, but looked away again when he caught her gaze.

That night as the house slept, the bear pulled the curtains around his bed and lay back on the feather mattress. But the door creaked and pale yellow light spilled through a gap in his bed curtains. The bear feigned sleep and when the light washed over his face, illuminating his eyelids, he opened his eyes to find the sleepy face of the youngest princess.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I cannot sleep. I never can sleep. The castle is too cold and my fire never warm enough. The halls are too still and lonely always. The peasants keep to their cottages where they are safe from snow and ice, never braving the frozen climb for balls and banquets. So I shiver alone,” said the youngest princess.

The bear stared up at her with his wet sad eyes and the youngest princess stared back with curiosity.

“How is it that you eat and drink and sleep like man? How is it that you speak?” asked the youngest princess.

“That is a long tale and the moon will rise soon. My coat is warm and soft. You may stay and take comfort, but only if you promise to be asleep before the moon rises above the mountain peak.”

The youngest princess promised. She curled beside the bear and fell into a long deep sleep before the moon rose above the mountain peak. And when it did, the bear snuck a slender arm around the youngest princess and pulled her close to keep her warm.

This continued for many more nights. The youngest princess crept into the bear’s bed and slept before the moon rose above the mountain peak.

But one night the queen spied the youngest princess slipping into the bear’s room and put her ear to the door. She heard the youngest princess tell the bear stories about her childhood in the ice kingdom and she heard the bear tell the youngest princess about his childhood in the forests of a faraway sunlit kingdom. When their voices faded, replaced by long, deep breaths, the queen snuck into the room and pulled back the curtains.

As the moon rose above the mountain peak, the queen leaned over the sleeping pair and jumped to see that a young man had replaced the bear. And as the queen jumped, three drops of melted tallow fell from the three candles on her candelabra, dripping onto the young man’s bare arm.

The young man awoke as did the youngest princess. Seeing what had happened, the young man rose and pulled a great white fur around him.

“I must leave,” he said.

“But why?” the youngest princess cried.

“I have been seen by the light of the moon and so the troll princess now knows where I am. She will find your kingdom, gobble your family, and steal me back,” said the young man.

“We will fight her,” said the youngest princess.

The young man smiled with great sadness in his eyes.

“I was once a young prince in my sunlit kingdom east of the sun and west of the moon. But the troll princess and her mother came in the night to kill my father and mother. I tried to fight them but they stole my kingdom and the troll princess claimed me for herself. She cursed me so that I would turn into a bear by day if ever I fled the kingdom. By the light of the moon, I would become man again, but if anyone spied me in my true form, the troll princess would find me through their eyes.”

“So now you must go,” whispered the young princess.

And the young prince smiled sadly again, flung the white fur over his head, and disappeared out the tall open window as a great gust of wind drove a flurry of snowflakes past the castle.

Gray smoke and white clouds curled around the youngest princess’s brindled mare. She pulled the thick gray fur hood over her head to protect her ears from the swirling snow. Her sisters called out in the distance, but she moved deeper into the forest, deeper into the clouds.

As their voices faded, new sounds came to replace them: the howling wind, snow shifting on tree limbs, a wood fire crackling in someone’s yard, small feet crunching the white floor cover—wolves, deer, or maybe even the boar she and her sisters had been hunting in place of their father, still bedridden by the injuries from his fall.

And then other sounds still: water gurgling, birds chirping, the swoosh of a warm breeze melting the clouds away. The youngest princess emerged from the forest into a springtime town dotted with windmills and tulips. A smokehouse branded with silver crescent moons blew fragrant smoke from its chimney and someone beat on its door from within.

“Help me,” cried someone from within. “I have been trapped in my smokehouse by two plump children!”

The youngest princess gathered all of her strength to break the door down, freeing a gray crone all red from the smokehouse. The youngest princess peered through smoke fragrant from timber and flesh for a glimpse of plump limbs red as the crone’s face. The crone invited her to step into the smokehouse and take a haunch of her own choosing, but the youngest princess could see what she was up to and took up her reins.

“You have saved my life and for that I owe you a gift,” said the crone.

“Do you know how to reach the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I do not, but I will give you a bag of golden baby teeth and a boat to cross the fjord,” said the crone.

The youngest princess accepted these gifts and stroked across the glassy blue waters of the springtime fjord. A fiddle all lacquered and fretted with silver stars swept down a channel of rapids near the shore. The youngest princess gathered all of her nimbleness to navigate the rapids and rescued the fiddle from the river. Near a white-bearded waterfall, the youngest princess came upon a comely fossegrimen weeping into the foaming waters. His pale yellow hair pooled around him and curled around the kelp.

“Why do you weep?” asked the youngest princess.

“I have lost my fiddle to the rapids,” said the fossegrimen.

“Well here it is,” said the youngest princess and presented him with the lacquered fiddle.

The fossegrimen took up the fiddle and played a tune so sweet and haunting, the youngest princess was almost moved to slip out of the boat and remain in the pools forever. But the youngest princess could see what he was up to and took up her paddles.

“You have saved my fiddle and for that I owe you a gift,” said the fossegrimen.

“Do you know how to reach the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I do not, but I will give you a golden fiddle string and a strong stick to hike the mountain,” said the fossegrimen.

The youngest princess accepted these gifts and hiked up the tulip-speckled climbs of the springtime mountain. A young goat-herd dragged from a mountain cave a beautiful huldra dressed only in irons chased with silver comets.

“Free me,” cried the huldra, her cow’s switch twitching behind her. “He will take me to the church and chasten me. And I will grow old and ugly.”

The youngest princess gathered all of her courage and drove the young goat-herd away with her stick. Free of her chains, the huldra pet the youngest princess and entreated her to a glass of akvavit in her cave. But the youngest princess could see what she was up to and took up her hiking stick.

“You have saved my fiddle and for that I owe you a gift,” said the huldra.

“Do you know how to reach the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I cannot, but the East Wind may know,” said the huldra. “I will give you a sturdy kite to catch the wind and a golden vial filled with a golden potion to cure any curse.”

The youngest princess accepted these gifts and scaled the mountain peak. She let out her kite and caught the East Wind as he drove the springtime breeze.

“Can you take me to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I cannot, but my brother the West Wind might,” howled the East Wind.

So the youngest princess let the East Wind carry her across the sky until they met the West Wind.

“Can you take me to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I cannot, but my brother the South Wind might,” howled the West Wind.

So the youngest princess let the West Wind carry her across the sky until they met the South Wind.

“Can you take me to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I cannot, but my brother the North Wind might,” howled the South Wind.

So the youngest princess let the South Wind carry her across the sky until they met the North Wind.

“Can you take me to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I blew a flurry of snowflakes there from the ice kingdom once. I will take you to the castle,” howled the North Wind.

So the youngest princess let the North Wind carry her across the sky, beyond the springtime into summer, east of the sun and west of the moon.

art by S. Zainab Williams

A towering castle of stone and glass formed the peak of a forested mountain Goliath. Standing on the warm, cobbled stone of the castle courtyard, the youngest princess knocked thrice on a heavy oak door with its hooped brass knocker.

“Who knocks at the door of the troll princess?” called a voice from within.

“Only a girl come from a land of ice far away to behold the wonder of the troll princess and her kingdom,” said the youngest princess.

The door creaked open and a piggish eye the color of a dead toad stared down at the youngest princess from a great height. And when the door swung wide, there stood the troll princess, a massive beast formed of rock and algae and meanness.

“What would you have with me?” the troll princess frowned. “Tell me now or I’ll spit you, and roast you, and eat you whole.” Her voice boomed down the empty halls of the castle.

When the troll princess smiled a wicked smile, the youngest princess said, “I come with a gift of golden teeth. Take me in as your guest and I will set them in your mouth.”

The troll princess’s horny hand flew up to cover a mouth filled with rotten teeth. She looked to eat the youngest princess right there and then, but the youngest princess opened the crone’s bag of golden baby teeth and presented them to the troll princess on her palm.

“Come in, come in,” crooned the troll princess then. “You are welcome here.”

The youngest princess could see what the troll princess was up to, but she followed the troll princess into a large room with tall, open windows from wall to wall. The troll princess lay back in a chair that creaked and groaned beneath her weight and let the youngest princess pluck tooth after tooth from her rotten mouth.

The troll princess raised a looking-glass to see her golden smile and pulled the mirror’s handle away to reveal a cruel knife. But the youngest princess had moved behind the creaking chair to grab the two ends of the golden fiddle string she had laid across the gray-green neck while she worked. The youngest princess pulled back with all her weight until the string jerked back. The troll princess’s head rolled across the warm stone floor. Two dead toad eyes gaped at the youngest princess.

The troll queen swung the door open to see why her daughter screamed so. When she saw what had been done, she flew at the youngest princess. But the North Wind had been watching from the tall windows and he called for lightning to scare the troll queen away. And the troll queen did flee, and such a mighty and thunderous storm did the North Wind inspire that all the trolls in all the world fled and were never seen from again.

The North Wind carried the youngest princess up, up to the highest room in the tallest tower where she found the young prince asleep under a deep spell. The youngest princess poured the huldra’s golden potion down the young prince’s throat and he awoke from the spell, no longer a beast.

And they lived together in the summer castle until the sun and the moon fell from the sky.

☽☾

[Poem] icy HUGH

icy Hugh

words and pictures by S. Zainab Williams

i see dead things all around,
from the blackened red stain on the frozen ground
to the campfire badge all charred and browned.

i see tires on the jagged stone row,
them frayed, ragged feathers like a broken crow,
the gutted parcels and the little pink bow.

i–i see rags ‘mongst the salt and rust,
about the glistening innards of a decayed sea bust
what cracked its belly open, paid the fathomless trust.

i see no one in the cooling beds,
here the presents stay wrapped; there white snow, motley red,
ho! deep troughs, not of sleds.

my dead eye sniffs them out
what my shorn tongue never will shout.

But
Once I saw
A moon maiden’s grove
Where the silvered oaks shimmered and no man would rove,
Where the stars swayed, bright flowers in the quake
Of fine-boned feet skimming, scattering the lake.
Toward me, toward me, ah the lovestruck fool
Wrapped warm and unaware in summered tulle.
She reached out her hands to beckon me in

then i saw the hook took my dazzled eye
oh i saw my tongue from its home she did pry.

i see dead things all around,
from the blue-black temple tween the mother crowned
to my own black hole where i make no sound.

[Short Story] Bird of Prey

First a word of warning. This story isn’t YA fiction. It’s horror written for a mature audience, whatever age you may be.

Bird-of-Prey-Woman-WebBird of Prey
words and pictures by S. Zainab Williams

Rags and alligator skin shouted at the sky in an angry language before turning heels on the celestial offender. A filthy sheet fluttered around the man’s shoulders as he staggered over to a gleaming, beige car. He shook a tin can at the tinted windows, but abandoned the unpromising scene to give chase to a stray dog.

Hamilton peeked over his dashboard to make sure the man was gone. He downed a few pills and wrestled with his conscience again. He considered leaving her alone, going back to his safe, familiar home and buying another ticket to the bird show. But he raised his binoculars to watch the woman enter the motel with a man.

He noted her time of arrival in his diary where it mingled with information about her purchases from the liquor store–mixer and tequila. Always the same thing. In a margin, he had scribbled a note about the way she twitched when she was swept up by large crowds. He hypothesized in neat and frilly script. Nervous disorder? Xenophobia? Drugs?

The illustrations of hawks and sparrows had thinned, giving way to the rise of this new subject. She hadn’t made it easy. Her gypsy lifestyle was hard on Hamilton. She always traveled by night. The woman and her two suitcases. Hamilton, used to a ten o’clock nightcap of tepid milk and vanilla extract, had almost lost her a number of times during these twilight transfers. Sometimes she’d shoot down an alley and Hamilton would have to find the outlet in time and without appearing obvious.

Then there was the bevy of lovers, or dealers, she brought to her ever-changing residence.

But Hamilton worked hard at prudence and patience, aided by foxed copies of The Vigilant Owl in the passenger seat. He flicked open his favorite issue and sipped cold coffee, determined to keep his eyes open and see this new man leave.

Because he never did see them go. Inconvenient coincidence chaperoned them out onto the shadowed street to disappear while he catnapped. Hamilton felt ill when he awoke with the certainty that they were gone, but this time he’d stay awake, he thought as his head lolled.

#

Heran squatted between two empty cars in the zoo’s parking lot and fished a small bottle out of her purse. She emptied it into her mouth, closing her eyes as the hot liquid raced down her throat.

The empty bottle shattered below the undercarriage of an SUV. Heran weaved through the packed cars, meandering on her way to the end of a snaking line. She let her thick black hair obscure her eyes as she shuffled toward the entrance with the crowd. Once through the gate, she stumbled out of the throng. Long legs took her up an incline where the crowd thinned.

In front of a glass structure, Heran pressed her hot face against a cool panel and closed her eyes. The arrow tip of a whistle startled them back open. Beyond the glass and upward, flocks of birds stared back, silenced.

She turned away to rest her back against the glass and fished a wad of paper from her purse. It received a cursory glance before being reburied deep in the battered handbag’s cavity. Heran almost turned her head back toward the birds but changed her mind and continued down the path to the stage.

#

A peal of applause echoed around the small stadium. The handler had been going on about the jungle expedition, but now that the cricket-creak of chairs had exacerbated into a froggy groan, it was time. She outspread her arms with a flourish and rotated her square, porcelain smile full-circle.

“Without further ado, I introduce you to the Staggerwald hinksy,” she said.

A thunderous flapping of wings, a sudden rush of air, and a bright fan descended to scatter light across the spectators. They peeked through splayed fingers to gape at the camouflaged cage above the stage. To watch the beast float onto the gnarled branch of a painted steel tree where the rope around its leg ended in a strong knot.

The audience took a sharp suck of gamy air and held it until the hinksy settled. The bird’s eyes darted around before roosting straight ahead.

The handler chose a child from the audience and allowed him to pet the bird. The hinksy’s head jerked back as the child’s sausage fingers pushed down its feathered flank. The handler smiled back at the audience as the child continued to explore the muzzled bird’s soft planes, rousing another round of applause as she gestured at the spectacle.

Hamilton popped a couple of pills and cursed the handler under his breath, crumpling the soda cup in his hand. He had almost made contact. For a split second, just as the hinksy had settled into itself, it had caught Hamilton’s pointed stare. Not only caught, but perceived. Understood.

He was on the cusp of recapturing a moment that had escaped him so many years ago. But now it was being suddenly and cruelly intercepted by audience participation. Hamilton crossed his arms and shifted his gaze as the child clambered onstage.

#

“Doctor says no,” said Hamilton’s mother.

He had heard this coming before he even asked to go outside to play with the other kids. Hamilton shuffled back to his perch on the window seat in the spacious living room, where he could watch the crows caw and swing above the adobe-tiled skyline. A white circle puffed into existence around Hamilton’s nose pressed up against the glass. He waited for the diminishing rustle of satin against suiting.

And he did hear the rustle, but then a grunt. A cold hand wrapped around Hamilton’s wrist, pulling him off the seat and into three layers. Sweater, vest, jacket. His mother clenched her jaw the length of the drive, but she bought him a red balloon from a cart at the zoo and succumbed to his appeals to see the bird show with only the pretense of a fuss.

Hamilton rested a feverish cheek against his mother’s arm, clasped her hand, and nestled into her powdery musk when the condor appeared. And when the handler coaxed the bird into showing its wingspan, Hamilton thought his heart would stop. His hand jerked to his chest and he lost hold of his balloon.

The condor’s head ticked in the direction of the airborne object and then down at the slack-jawed boy. A chill shivered across Hamilton’s skin as his eyes locked with the bird’s. Hamilton lost himself in sinew, muscle, power. He dropped his mother’s hand and prepared to take flight. But the handler signaled to the bird and it turned away, leaving him empty-handed. Grounded.

#

Heran’s incubated anger threatened to break loose. She felt herself rise to stand above the crowd and see the child’s hand on the hinksy. It had been hard enough to stare into the glassy eyes, to watch the graceful neck droop, note the struggle against the muzzle. To witness the handler bare her teeth at the cowed god.

Here was the last thread of Heran’s self-control flapping from the fat grip of the child onstage. He held a feather, a shard of sky above the Aegean Sea, ripped from the being’s wing.

An itching, a burning, lit under her skin. Something dark and wet peeked from a cluster of pores edging one shoulder blade.

There wasn’t anything to be done now. She couldn’t help the creature. She could only run.

#

A long time ago, when Heran was a young woman wading in the golden tide pools on Shillkrik below the gliding forms, she told her mother she was leaving home.

“There are so few of us left,” her mother had said, looking ahead at the great rock snowcapped with bird dung and bristling with clammy, graphite quills.

“I know,” was all Heran returned.

Heran watched her mother’s regal profile disappear as the woman turned to kiss foreheads. A gull cried overhead as a tall pane of water dashed into a thousand pieces against the corroded rock.

#

Hamilton was staring but the hinksy was forgotten. Something else transfixed him. A woman seated toward the back had stood up; remained standing even as the show continued and those around her half-turned their dismay in her direction before retreating from the sharpening specter of her indignant beauty.

But Hamilton couldn’t look away. He wanted to give the hinksy another try, except her eyes had found his. They were locked there. And he saw. But she was off. Climbing over legs, picking over feet, flying through the exit.

Hamilton limped down the front row aisle, aware of the unguarded annoyance turned at him. His sweat glands were in full bloom by the time he reached the exit.

#

“Excuse me—“ Hamilton tripped on the uneven concrete outside of the zoo as he reached for the woman.

She pulled back, glaring as he lurched at her. Just before Hamilton recovered his footing, she raised her hackles and he brought his arms up to shield his face, but her shoulders dropped when she spotted the object in his hand.

Hamilton followed the direction of her gaze and gestured for her to take the tiny bottle of tequila.

“It fell out of your purse,” he offered.

The sun expanded and intensified in the charged sky over Hamilton’s head as the woman stared at the bottle. He put a hand in his pocket and let a fingertip brush the reassuring ridges of a pill bottle cap there.

But he pulled his hand away from the pill bottle when the woman’s shoulders began to shake. Hamilton thought she might cry, but she snatched at the tequila bottle, scratching his palm with a sharp nail, and walked away.

Hamilton, palm tingling, stared after the woman, watching her down the liquor like water.

#

The rest of Heran’s day hung on the verge. She spent it recovering in her motel room. A woman splashed and laughed in the pool below. For a while, Heran sat at the edge of her bed, listening to the woman and her male companion, and the smacking, jingling of the upset water. She watched the light and the moving shadows in the cracks of her door.

She shouldn’t have gone to the show. Should have stayed indoors where it was safe. But from the minute she had found the ad in the magazine she’d pretended to read while stalking that man, she’d been unable to stifle the urge to see the discovery.

The great predatory bird from the unexplored shock of subterranean jungle. Only now, in her room, plugging her ears to the squeals of breathless joy coming from the pool, could she admit to knowing all along what she’d see in the hinksy. Her self-deception might have exposed her, but that man had come along.

That man. She didn’t like the way he’d looked at her. But if he hadn’t stopped her. Hadn’t returned that bottle. She’d needed it badly.

Heran cradled a drink in her hands and frowned at the stark, white walls.

#

Tequila slithered down Heran’s neck and trekked the ravine between her breasts—a cold-bellied snake making for the warm, salted water. She turned her head away from the cracked door, from a snippet of clothes covering the stained carpet and tousled bed, cigarette butts drowned in beer bottles, tired synthetic curtains sagging from their rods.

In the bathtub with a margarita, Heran tried to relax. Milky tendrils of tobacco smoke slunk into the bathroom. She breathed them in and, on the exhale, closed her eyes and let her body sink deeper into the tub.

The Gattling gun ululations of a man clearing phlegm from his lungs nearby stilled the steady rise and fall of her chest.

“Watcha doin’, baby?”

Heran’s mind slurred as she pinched a sip from the rim of the same plastic water cup left by the sink of every motel room as far back as she cared to remember.

She opened her eyes to a young man blowing a cloud out of his nostrils. Heran took a good look at him. He was nothing like the usual catch. Rough types with strong bravado and insurmountable weakness. The kind of weakness that drew them to someone like her. No. This one was all peach fuzz and uncertainty. Was it laziness or hunger that had compelled her to take him home?

Was she getting sloppy? Heran gritted her teeth against an ice cube. A finger dented her cup.

“Hey, come on. Why don’t you come to bed?”

Heran cracked the ice between her teeth and closed her eyes again. She waited for his retreating footsteps. Something dropped to the floor with the heavy whoosh of curtains falling. She looked at him, now with his pants around his ankles and a nervous smile flickering across his mouth.

Her muscles twitched, mindless of the Epsom salts.

With a swing of her arm, she sent the dregs of her margarita flying across the room to dash against the wall.

In the blip between his shock and fear, Heran swung herself out of the tub. The orbit of her outstretched legs met the crease behind the man’s knees and sent him off his axis. He fell back, swallowing air, reaching out into empty space for something to break his fall. The back of his head cracked against slippery tile.

His eyes rolled around in his head. A black, slick crown rose from the red darkness beneath the surface of his sickening spiral. A brief moan shook out of his throat.

As his eyes stuck on Heran’s engorged pupils, a fan of daggers flickered into the revolving periphery around her face.

Heran’s talons punched through skin, muscle, and bone. Her fist sucked up out of raw, wet flesh then unfurled, talon by talon, to display a glistening red muscle, a geoduck plucked from the sticky soil. Its viscous fluids pumped out of torn ventricles.

Heran brought the man’s heart to her mouth and sank sharp, white teeth into its luscious center. His blood, rich and thick and curdling like custard, oozed down her chin. The bow of Heran’s back bent deeper over her meal. She tore into the muscle as fine, black feathers burst from her angry skin.

She dropped the meat to grab the tub’s sill as the seams along her shoulder blades split, allowing two black icebergs to emerge from each. Saliva threaded down from her open mouth. Her wings broke free with a fine spray. Heran’s hand reached out to explore the tattered, ruined relics before she could stop herself. She lowered her forehead to the ground and bit down hard on her lower lip to stave off a sob. Heran grit her teeth, squeezing her shoulder blades, retracting feathered bone.

After, she let her body quake against the tile. Her lips curled, baring fangs as she cried soundlessly. She pushed off the floor and crawled to the nightstand. A screwcap plinked against the chipped tabletop. Heat shot down Heran’s throat, mellowing to warmth, dulling the razor’s edge of pain and memory.

#

A doorbell bleated above the country ballad playing in the near-empty convenience store. At two in the morning, it was empty except for the cashier, the man making his way in from the door, and Heran prowling the aisles with a large box of heavy-duty trash bags and a bottle of lighter fluid in the crook of her arm.

Heran pretended to read the ingredients on a bottle of margarita mixer as she watched the man approach from the corner of her eye. He hesitated a little ways down the aisle so she flashed a smile at him.

“Let me get that for you,” Hamilton stuttered.

Heran glued the smile to her face as she studied him. She surrendered her items and a bottle of mixer and he walked her down the aisle. The light brightened around Heran. The lines sharpened.

Hamilton paid and they left the store together.

“Are you walking? I can drive you home,” he said beneath the flickering neon clown looming over the parking lot. His car was beige and familiar.

Heran’s wide eyes rested on Hamilton’s until he surrendered his to the gritty pavement. She was standing by his car door when he looked up again.

#

Heran got lost in the passing scenery and the night smells ripping through the car windows. She came to as Hamilton exited the highway. The urban streets gave way to narrow passages lined with track homes and defeated storefronts. They pulled into the motel’s horseshoe parking lot.

Hamilton took three pills while Heran shut the car door, downing a travel bottle. She fell back as they walked past room after room. He stopped at her door. She kept her eyes and smile on him as she fished her keys from her purse.

All of the lights were on. The room was unpretentious in the raw glare. Hamilton dithered in a rare unoccupied circle of space.

Resting her back against the door, Heran turned the lock behind her and relaxed the muscles in her face until her eyes were slits and her mouth a frown.

“You shouldn’t have followed me,” she said with a voice supple as oiled skin.

Beads of sweat pearled above Hamilton’s brow. Heran scented the sour, earthy odor radiating from his body.

“No…” said Hamilton.

“You tried to trick me.”

Hamilton’s cheeks juddered as he shook his head.

Heran’s frown deepened. “This was a trap,” she said.

Hamilton raised his hands to face his palms at her. His scratch had healed by now. His breath came out in ragged gasps. “I just wanted to know you,” he said. “I-I wanted you to know me.”

A tear tracked down Hamilton’s cheek, gathering sweat. “We belong together,” he croaked.

“I see.” She cocked her head. “You want to take me into your nice home. Feed me and care for me. You want me to show you the world. Free you from yourself.”

Hamilton choked out a breathless laugh. “Yes.” He took a step forward. “Yes.”

Heran’s frown broke. Hamilton thought she might cry.

She opened her jagged mouth. “I don’t belong with anyone.”

Hamilton experienced a moment of confusion before the pain overwhelmed everything. Then came a sensation so foreign and deep–sharp, and sweet, and total. Hamilton was awash in the mute power of Heran’s eyes. The world expanded infinitely and she disappeared in a supernova of black feathers.

#

The room reeked of bleach. A garbage bag bulged out of a large suitcase lying open on the linoleum floor. Heran stretched her back and rolled her neck before standing. She tore a wad of cash from Hamilton’s wallet before dropping it on top of the plastic bag. Hamilton’s pocket change amounted to five nights in a new motel.

It was time to pack again. She would burn the suitcase in an alley along the way to somewhere else. Heran sat at the edge of the bed and rested her gaze on the bag. She felt a pang of something. She reached for the bottle of tequila on the nightstand and swirled it around. Saliva washed through her mouth. It carried the taste of Hamilton.

Heran put her ear to the bottle to hear the amber liquid crash against the glass. It took her back to the sea. To a time long ago and a place unreachable.

Bird-of-Prey-Bird-Web

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.