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.


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Rivalries: Chapter Six, Part One

 Notes: We get closer and closer to a meeting! Hang in there, darlins ;)

Title: Rivalries, Chapter Six, Part One



Chapter Six, Part One


Honestly, there was no real reason for Johnny to care what had happened to Charlie Verlaine.

There wasn’t! Beyond the first brief flash of surprise and sadness, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Charlie had chosen a dangerous job, and that job had done a number on him. Now he was back and reintegrating into life as a civilian. Full stop, no more rumination needed, no more thought required. It wasn’t like the two of them had ever been friends—they’d never been more than casual acquaintances. Maybe occasional enemies. Never friends. And Johnny didn’t ever think about him anymore, he’d stopped that nonsense years ago, and he wasn’t about to start it up again.

Besides, he had more than enough to deal with over the rest of this week and the next getting the kids ready to transfer into Euryale Academy. There were issues of placement, of staffing, of fucking mingling, which was code for “Keep your dirty poor kids away from our precious darlings.” Well, fuck that. Johnny was pushing for as much integration between the cohorts as possible, because he’d be damned if he was going to tolerate his kids being treated as second-class citizens in a school that was there to serve them.

At the very least, they would have combined lunches and physical education. Combined art and music too, which was mostly because those classes hadn’t been offered at Stheno for the last three years due to budget cuts and now was the perfect time to start persuading the school board that they were, in fact, useful and educational things for the kids to have the option of studying.

With scheduling, with talking to teachers, students, and parents, and with moving as many of their own supplies out of the cracked school as they could—because Euryale might be donating space but it sure as fuck wasn’t donating supplies—Johnny was busier this week than he could ever remember being. By Friday night he would have happily gone home and collapsed onto his couch for the entire weekend if it weren’t for the fact that they were having a teacher “meet and greet” with the Euryale staff tonight, compliments of the superintendent.

The party was set up in the gym at Euryale, which was extensive. Hell, it had multiple parts—the indoor track, the basketball court, the swimming pools, the section devoted specifically to kids with flying knacks…it was like walking into an upscale, members-only gym.

“I feel like I’m gonna break out in hives,” Debra Jones said under her breath as they walked in together. Debra was Stheno’s knack instructor, a woman with the ultimate knack for a teacher—she was utterly unflappable. Nothing surprised her, nothing shocked her, nothing disrupted her. Better yet, her knack was passive and didn’t require an effort of will to activate, just made its presence known when something untoward happened. She could go from cheerfully shooting the shit with her fellow teachers or calming down a crying student to coolly, calmly, and collectedly gathering her class and getting them out of their classroom after the first window shattered under the force of Roland’s tremors without batting an eye. Johnny felt like he’d learned a lot from her.

Can you get hives?” Johnny asked as they headed for the punch bowl on the closest table to the door. It wasn’t spiked—too bad—but it was made with real fruit, some of which floated in a decorative frozen ring in the center of the bowl. Yummy.

“Only if I eat peanuts, but you know what I mean.” Debra took a sip, scanning the Euryale teachers. “Is it me, or do they not have any Black people on staff over here?” She was one of five Black teachers at Stheno, but the other side was a solid sea of white so far.

Johnny scanned. “It’s…not just you.”

“Mmhmm. Or at least not teaching. Bet you anything they’ve got Black janitorial staff who aren’t invited to this little shindig.”

“Probably.” It was ridiculous, but that was the moneyed elite of fucking D.C. for you.

“They all look like they shined up nice for this thing.” She took another sip. “Too bad they aren’t bothering to talk to us.”

“To be fair, we’re not talking to them either,” Johnny said. “I guess Cochrane is talking to Principal Cross, actually…” And they looked about as friendly with each other as a pair of wolverines.

“Well, shit. This is gonna be—wait.” Debra pointed across the room at the far corner. “There he is!”

Johnny craned his neck. He couldn’t see over the teachers between here and there. “Who?”

“Mr. Verlaine, the knack teacher here.” She polished off what was left of her punch and set the glass down. “And he’s alone. Perfect. I’m gonna go talk to him.”

Johnny was somewhere between a little envious and too nervous to even contemplate it. “Let me know how it goes, yeah?”

“Oh, if he’s an asshole you’ll definitely be hearing about it.” She left, and a few moments later she was gone. Johnny contemplated following, not to interrupt their conversation, just to get a glimpse of the guy. It had been a long time, after all…did he still do that thing with his hair? Were his eyes the same shade of green?

Go find out. Johnny nodded a little too himself, still nervous but feeling his determination rise a bit. He’d have to get used to seeing Charlie around, he might as well start inuring himself to it now. It wasn’t like he had to talk to them. It wasn’t like he had to even let Charlie see him. Maybe the guy wouldn’t recognize him anyway.

The thought unexpectedly stung. Fuck this, you’re not a high schooler with a crush anymore, get a move on! Decided, Charlie set down his glass and began to gently push his way through the crown. “Excuse me…excuse me, please, coming through…”

“If I could have your attention?” The voice of Principal Georgia Cross thundered over the room. Johnny winced and looked over just in time to see her pull her face away from the mic a little. “Ah, better now,” she said, then continued, “I want to welcome the staff of Stheno High School to Euryale Academy. Obviously, we’re entering uncharted waters in our relationship thanks to the havoc your poorly trained student wrought on your school, but I want to assure you that Euryale and its teachers are pleased to have you with us for the remainder of the semester. If you have questions or need our assistance, please feel free to ask. We are, of course, always available to help those in need.” She then handed the mic over to Ira, who looked like he’d just swallowed half a lemon.

“Thanks for that…stirring welcome,” he said after a moment. “We’re happy to be here, and appreciative of Superintendent Howards’ efforts at securing a place for us at Euryale Academy. I’m sure our students will have lots to offer yours, and vice versa. I’m very proud of all the work my staff has accomplished over this past week, and I have no doubt that the transition to our two groups of students working together harmoniously will be a smooth one.” He smiled bracingly. “And that’s that! Rub a dub dub, enjoy the grub, folks!”

People began to talk again, to move to the food and drink, and it was harder than ever to push through them all to a place where Johnny could see the corner. He felt a knack pressing at the back of his chest, knew it was something that could move all these people for him, but he held it in. He had better control than that. He got through the crowd, emerged on the other side of a sea of suits and dresses a little bit breathless, and looked around.

The corner was empty. There was no one there.