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.

Advertisements

Pray the Red Sea [Short Story]

written by S. Zainab Williams
art by Robert Burrows

Pray the red sea art burrows

I watch the dragon larvae gyre in the salted earth, their pale bodies fat, submerged rings. I think about Nu’ala’s obsidian hands at the spinning wheel, working the worms’ silvery fibers into spun silk. I remember those same hands at her swan’s throat, blood molten jasper. Red as the sea closing in on the sect’s island. Pouring over her fingers and down her citrine robes. Disfiguring the pattern of flickering fans.

It was in Nu’ala that I chose to bury my secret. She pried it but tenderly, unwittingly from my gated heart. It was the High Minister who bled it out of her.

Nu’ala and I joined the sect in the same class of recruits, enlisted for our empty throats and still tongues. The voices of God are born without a voice of their own, so said the High Minister. Most in our class wrung their hands, smiling their excitement, but with eyes where fear gathered.

Our families raised us to expect the day of our enlistment after our thirteenth cycle. They taught us to meet this day with gratitude. The sect’s prayers called the water for the dragons, feeding them, encouraging the cycle of reproduction. Bringing about the larvae that webbed our desert with fibers during harvesting season. This was Sulta’s famed silk–supple star of the trade routes; our main export besides the red salt and dried eel meat that fetched small coin.

Mothers and fathers and grandparents repeated the story of the dry times when dragon scales rained down from the sky as the creatures grew sick and the exposed seabed crackled beneath the radiant planets. This was before the High Minister arrived from a faraway place with his wagons bursting with rolled parchment all blotted and inked by great plans.

He had heard of Sulta’s struggles and had traveled far to beckon God into our barren firmament. He unraveled his plans and formed the first sect with the blessing of our desperate mayor. God found his voice in the members of the sect. His song activated the High Minister’s secret machines running on holy ground in the caverns below the temple.

The people of Sulta felt the thrum of the otherwise obscure God machines deep below their feet. And then the miracle. Water flowed up from the depths. By the third day, the sea was full. Over time, the eel eggs seeded in mud cakes split open to unleash a new generation. The dragons ate and grew strong again. Once more, the desert teemed with their larvae.

While we understood our importance as members of the sect, we also understood the price of our faith. Separation from family and friends, hard work, chastity, a lifestyle founded on needs, barren of wants.

On the first day of my induction into the sect, as I and the other new recruits disembarked from the painted longboat to mark the sacred banks of our new island home, the High Minister reminded us that the world exists in a state of impermanence. The sea would disappear; the city would fall to dust without the sect. We were the strings that held our world together. And when the High Minister deemed us individually ready to command God’s voice, we would be allowed access to the holy ground and the God machines. We would leave the fold forever to join in God’s song and raise the sea from the land.

I looked at the faces of my adopted sisters and brothers to check their faith. I found the strength of my own convictions mirrored, glittering in another girl’s eyes. Nu’ala’s. That moment of shared ecstasy tethered our souls to a common anchor. We became friends and remained so even after accepting our oath to be as islands in the sea–a company of recluses living only to sleep, eat, work, and, above all, serve.

Without the secretive nature of my friendship with Nu’ala, I may not have entrusted her with my truth, but we became sisters of the shadow and night, drawing our thoughts into the twilight sand glowing white-hot beneath the jewels hanging low off evening’s neck. While our family slept, we gave darkness a home in the lines of our picture-words.

Through our silent language, Nu’ala told me she was born of privilege to a family of trade magnates. I knew of them from conversations between my father and grandmother, spoken low into the steam snaking from the thick, black khave they sipped as darkness warmed to day. I had also seen Nu’ala with her family before we joined the sect. The light caught in the stones encrusting their fingers and dripping from their ears as they walked the market and bazaar. But this was a rare sight. They had muslin-wrapped servants to buy their salted fish and flatbread, their peppery herbs and browned spices.

Traders visited their sprawling earthen home to deal in the finest spun silk. From the stout wooden box where grandmother stored the dried herbs and grains–where I hid to fill the cool, dry space with my dreams and silence during these infrequent conclaves effected by my father’s brief homecomings from the trade routes–I overheard him describe the lush oasis blooming in the family’s plaza. There, guests sipped cold, honeyed mint tea with polished gold straws while discussing business and sharing news from the outer lands.

My father claimed that, so immense was their house, a dragon once stretched herself out, snout to tail-tip, across the warm, clay shingled spine of the family’s northeast rooftop to enjoy the breeze from their garden, and had room to spare.

Nu’ala confirmed all of these tales but claimed not to miss the luxuries of her past life. She had led the lonely existence of an only child. She lacked an Anan’kin as sister and friend. I wanted to tell her the same was true for me, but some words existed without need for expression, and Nu’ala had eyes that searched out souls. Eyes so black, they could not help but take in more than you gave. They showed me then that she knew my feelings already. She had seen love lying in wait when our eyes tugged toward each other to meet above the heads of our siblings that first day on the island.

Nu’ala’s eyes learned the truth about the High Minister while I and the others blindly trailed after him.

**

Read the rest of the story at my new site, szainabwilliams.com.