Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Excerpt: Boot Hill

 Notes: Hi darlins! I'm on a LOT of deadlines right now and I just didn't have time to do Rivalries justice, so here instead is an excerpt from the first chapter of a YA ghost story I'm writing, just because I can ;)

Title: Boot Hill


Boot Hill

Chapter One




My mother left home at five in the morning, almost as silent as a ghost. The only giveaway that she was moving around at all was the metallic rattle of her keys, quickly silenced by a fist, but not so fast that I didn’t wake up and realize what was happening.

I dragged myself out of bed, grabbing my grandmother’s old quilted housecoat off the back of my closet door as I made my way into the hall, cinching the flowered belt around my waist. I caught a glimpse of her as she headed through the swinging doors at the end of the hall into the saloon and followed with a stumble, rubbing my eyes with the back of my hand as I hurried to catch up. I shoved through the double doors into the central room of the old lodging house, where kitchen appliances had been installed behind the long wooden bar that used to be part of the saloon. It was really cold in here, even through the coat, especially since Mom had already opened the front door.


She paused, one foot outside, before turning around to look at me. “Tabitha, what are you doing up?”

I hugged the coat tighter around my body as I walked across the floor to her, grimacing at the feel of grit grinding beneath my bare feet. I needed to sweep again. Or just wear some stupid shoes. “I wanted to say goodbye.”

“We did that last night.” Mom pushed a lock of dishwater-blonde hair back from her face. She’d bothered to pin most of her hair back today, and when I got close I could smell the scent of the stale foundation that covered her face’s familiar lines. “You need all the rest you can get before chores and school.”

“I know, but…” How could I say again that I didn’t want her to go? That I didn’t want to be here alone, responsible for all of Boot Hill and everyone in it, especially not this close to the anniversary?

“Look. Tabs.” She reached out and put a hand on my shoulder—no squeeze, no pulling me into a hug. She held me there, at a distance I couldn’t breach on my own. “You’re going to be fine. There’s plenty of food and money for more, and we just got your car serviced. You’ll be all right as long as you remember your chores and do not skip school. Got it?”

She must have seen something extra pathetic in my expression, because her stern look melted a little. “I’ll be back before the week is out. Well before the anniversary, I promise, and I’ll come with good news,” she said, a little bit of excitement entering her tired voice. “This is it for us, honey. If these people are legit, this is our way out, and we’ve gone over all the contingency plans for things that might happen here while I’m gone. You’ll be fine.” She leaned in and pressed a tobacco-scented kiss to my forehead, but retreated before I could try to kiss her back. “And I mean it about school, Tabs. We don’t need that kind of attention, and you’ve got a lot of work to make up already.”

“Okay,” I mumbled as she pulled away, her rolling luggage bumbling along behind her like a three-legged dog. “I love you.” She must not have heard me, because she didn’t say it back.

I watched her load her suitcase into her four-door Toyota sedan, twenty years old but still five years newer than my car, heard the door slam as she got in herself, blinked as the headlights split the darkness of pre-dawn. She pulled away down the old gravel road that led past the boundary of Boot Hill toward Alamosa, and thirty seconds later I couldn’t see her car at all.

I bit my lip and shut the front door, turning back toward the saloon. No sense in putting my chores off any longer—the ghosts waited for no one when they got hungry. I wasn’t getting started without a pair of socks and my boots, though. I shook off the strange urge to cry that gripped my lungs as I got back to my bedroom and finished getting dressed. I’d be fine. Mom trusted me to handle things here until she got back, and I wasn’t going to let her down. I took a deep breath, pulled on my thickest sweater, and headed for the kitchen.

I had the same routine every morning, whether the summertime sandhill cranes called to each other just over the dune or the winter wind blocked the door with two feet of snow. Feeding the ghosts wasn’t my only daily chore, but it was the one I liked the most. How many other kids my age could say they’d talked shop with a nineteenth-century prostitute before coming into school?

Jesus. This is what makes you weird, Tabs.

I reached under the bar and grabbed a bucket of the bonemeal that most people bought for their roses, then opened up the fridge and fished out a sealed jar of the cold chicken blood my mom got from the poultry farmer down the road who was sweet on her. I dumped the chicken blood into the bucket, listening to the glop and trying to avoid getting spattered, then set the jar in the sink and grabbed the bucket’s stirring ladle. It was long so that I could mix things up all the way to the bottom, metal so the blood didn’t soak in, and clearly labeled with orange duct tape at the top of it so my mom wouldn’t use it to cook with by accident.

Gradually the mixture came together, making a brownish-red sludge that looked and smelled exactly like what it was—a bucket of death. I wrinkled my nose, reached over and pressed the button on the coffee maker so it would be ready when I came back in, then hoisted the bucket up and staggered toward the front yard of our house. The ghosts were thickest there, and if I didn’t start with the mass casualties, they’d swarm me.

Most of the time it didn’t hurt—the average ghost couldn’t throw so much as a grain of sand at me—but walking through them gave me goosebumps, and inhaling them made my lungs ache. The poltergeists were another story, but I had bone charms to ward all of them off if they got mean in a hurry.

“God will punish you!”

Speaking of poltergeists…I stopped right at the front door, made from gnarled willow wood and charmed to repel ghosts, and shouted, “Back away from the house, Reverend Johnson!”

You the cowardly and unbelieving, you the abominable, you the sorcerer and idolater! Come forth, and I shall rain fire and brimstone upon you!”

Well, he definitely knew Mom was gone. None of the poltergeists ever tried this shit with her, not even this close to the anniversary. “Damn it, damn it, damn it,” I muttered. I was going to have to do a banishment. I’d never done one by myself before, although I’d practiced with Mom plenty of times.

“You’ll be fine,” I told myself as I groped beneath my t-shirt for my charm necklace. Reverend Ezekiel Johnson, originally from Boston before he’d decided to try spreading his message of God’s hatred out here on the Western Slope, wasn’t the strongest poltergeist on the property, but he was one of the most persistent ones. “You can do this.”

You will drink the wine of the wrath of God!”

“Yeah? Well, you’ll eat your slaughterhouse special and like it or go hungry,” I called out as I looked through the little bones looped around the silver chain. Phalange, phalange, where was the—ah. My mom and I kept a different type of bone from each of the poltergeists with us, and the one I had for the Reverend had come from his left hand—he’d died gripping his Bible so tightly with the right that they’d had to burn the book along with his body.

I separated out the fingerbone and held it between both hands. “Ezekiel Patience Johnson!” I spoke as commandingly as I could, focused on the bone and the power inside of it, connecting to the poltergeist. “Begone from this place, Reverend Johnson! I banish you to the edge of the Boundary for the span of one day and one night, to sleep within it and do no harm!” I felt the edges of his power, the ghostly energy from the bone that fed the poltergeist. I took a deep breath, then reached into the well of power that lived in my own bones and snapped it at the Reverend’s energy like a whip.

He screamed, but didn’t stop speaking. “Sorceress! Witch! You shall not be allowed to live! You shall be stoned with stones!”

“Shit,” I whispered. He was really riled up. Usually Mom and I could get him to back down with a little cross-energy crackle, but he seemed like he was gearing up for his epic “Fire, Flame, and Brimstone” speech. It didn’t frighten me now as much as it had when I was a little kid, but the thought of hearing it was maybe a bit more intimidating without Mom around to take some of the heat. Besides, it scared the other ghosts.

I opened up the little glass vial on the chain beside the bones, poured the salt it held into my hand, and smothered the fingerbone right in the middle of it. If I channeled my energy through the salt into his bone, he’d be down for days, plural.

Of course, he’d eventually wake up hungry as hell—literally—but that was a problem for later. “Ezekiel Patience Johnson!” I tried again, forcing my voice not to tremble. “Begone from this place! Begone, begone, begone!”

A thrice-made enchantment was a tough nut for a ghost to get around, but the Reverend was really riled up. He shrieked, and with a sudden burst of power, the front door slammed open. I fell back into the center of the room, my hair blasted back from my face as an icy wave of spectral power washed over me. The Reverend stood just beyond the door, floating a foot above the dirt. His skeletal form, faintly backlit by the coming dawn, glowed blood red around the edges. His face was a shredded horror of papery skin and too-large, too-sharp teeth, and his black preacher’s robe roiled around him like smoke. In his right hand, he held a ghostly Bible, while the left hand pointed straight at me. His fingertips crackled with energy.

He opened his mouth to—scream, berate me, call me a harlot of Satan, I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I was done playing around. Mom was barely gone, and I wasn’t going to stumble this early into the challenge of taking care of Boot Hill by myself. I could do this.

I clenched my teeth, gripped the salt-crusted fingerbone tight, and slammed my hand forward like I was punching Reverend Johnson in the face. All my power snapped into the bone, amplified by the salt, which weakened him. “Get the hell out of here!” I shouted. “Now!”

The Reverend’s mouth snapped shut, and his body folded in on itself like water swirling down a drain. Once he was about the size of a pea, he flew off at top speed for the Boundary of Boot Hill. I watched him go, panting with adrenaline and anger and fear, almost snarling until I was sure he was gone for good.

Well. For a first banishing, that had gone pretty well. I bent over to pick up the bucket, but my hand was shaking so hard I couldn’t get a grip on it. I sat down beside it instead and put my forehead against my knees, practicing the breathing technique Mom had taught me for calming down after an incident like this. Four in, hold, four out, hold… By the eighth cycle, I could feel my fingertips again.

“You’re okay,” I whispered to myself. “You’re okay, you did it. He’s gone, you did it.” I’d have to let Mom know how it had gone when she called me tonight.


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