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.