Happy Samhain-All-Hallow’s-Eve-Halloween! Costumes ready?
The family is taking it to Oz tonight: I’ll be Ozma, the rightful ruler of Oz, the hubs the Tin Woodman, daughter Glinda the Good, and son Cowardly Lion (though it sounds more like curfew lion the way he says it).
Last week YA Review Network announced their Top 5 finalists for their 2017 Halloween contest. Horror-writer Rin Chupeco, author of the Bone Witch series, (which is on my TBR list as it looks like the only book of hers that I can read without losing sleep for a week) judged. Adoring Halloween, I submitted my short story “The Séance” and did a happy dance for a full five minutes with my four-year-old when I got the email saying I was a finalist and won a super insightful critique from Ms. Chupeco. YARN published the winning entry, “The Survey” here so be sure to check it out if you dare. Super creepy and I definitely won’t be accepting cookies from anyone anytime soon.
As I had a few people ask to read my entry, I thought I’d share it here. It’s a short story from my YA novel that’s being shopped around now, THE EXISTENCE OF BEA PEARL. Feedback urged for more mystery and less magical realism, so this chapter was cut out and reformed around the jaggedy edges to make it a stand-alone. Well, a bit more stand-alone-ish as the rough loose ends were mentioned in my critique-prize.
Hope you enjoy!
“Brought the stuff for tonight,” Honey says as she drags her bag closer to me
I perch on a stool, watching a yellow jacket discover a blot of dried sweet tea on the counter of the concession stand. Its tiny body hums with pleasure, even when I put a clear cup over it. It doesn’t notice, as if the cup doesn’t exist to it.
“Brown candles, for finding lost things and illumination. We’ll need to pick some flowers right before—fresh is best. And,” she pulls sheets of computer paper from the bag and waves them at me. “Instructions so we don’t mess up and let loose demons upon the earth.”
I can’t help but smile at her dramatics. I can always count on her to bring me out of whatever funk I’m in, however deep, and since my brother’s sudden disappearance and my parents’ refusal to acknowledge it, she’s definitely earned her best friend status. The trench in my head is sometimes as unscalable as the Mariana and just as full of deep sea freaks like goblin sharks and anglerfish. “Or evil ghosts.”
“Or the undead.” Honey shudders. “Eww, what if we had a zombie following us around? Fall Break would suck.”
“Nah, it’d suck if we invoked vampires.”
She laughs, almost rocking herself off the stool.
It’s Honey’s idea to have a séance on All Hallow’s Eve. Because it’s probably nothing but my overactive imagination reacting to closed off parents and fear for whatever happened to Jim. But what if the darkness in my head never leaves? With the end of the year fast approaching, my summer has disappeared, and with it, myself. I know I’m not crazy, but maybe I’m going there and I want at least one person to know where I’m headed.
Of course, with Honey planning a séance, she might be headed to Crazy with me. Which is fine because I like her company. Maybe we can get discounts on travel arrangements if we bring a buddy. Or more likely, she simply sees it as something exciting to do on a quiet night in a small town in lower Alabama. We’re too old to trick-or-treat, have too strict of parents to party like trolls under the bridge with the seniors.
Jim’s bedroom door stays closed though I’ve seen my mom rub the door handle like it might be a genie lamp and all three of her wishes would be: let me open that door and my son be asleep, or open sesame so my son comes out to eat one last meal with us (it would be fried pickles on top of bbq-smothered hotdogs, Jim’s fave), or even, why Jim? Why not take Bea Pearl? Yeah, I’ve heard her whisper that when she didn’t know I was on the other side of the door, movements frozen in an irrational fear of being caught. Caught at what? Being a tiny bit closer to Jim in a room of still unmade sheets and a rubbery smell of basketballs, looking for anything that could tell me where he is now.
We’re waiting for the dock to clear out, for night to fall heavy around us. A moth chases off the yellow jacket, as hungry for our light as the wasp was for our sugar. Bats chase the birds that ruled the day, slurping up their mosquito snacks midair. I turn off the lights, leaving only the faint glow from a streetlight. We walk down to the lake.
“Why the dock?” I whisper. It feels right to whisper as our feet leave land and echo hollowly on the weathered boards.
“Water. It’s an in-between place, from what I read on the ten million websites I found. That’s important to spirits, so I figured we’d have better luck.”
The moon is almost full. With it shining down, and its reflection on the water shining up, it’s easy enough to see.
Honey smoothes out a website print-out, reading it over again before lighting the candle. She hands me an orangey-pink rose and pulls petals off her own to throw into the water. “Water spirits are attracted to beauty. Toss these in the lake so they know we’re friendly.”
Silliness and nervousness run circles in my stomach, causing goose bumps to pop up on my arms. This is a game, but it’s not. Especially if it works. The seriousness of the occasion combined with sweet smelling, freshly torn rose petals makes me peer expectantly into the dark, still water.
Honey sits down on the dock and places the candle between us so we are facing each other. “We’re supposed to put our legs in the water to communicate better.”
“Fat chance,” I say. “There might be water sprites in here but there are without a doubt alligators that are accustomed to being fed from this dock.”
She smiles, looking relieved. “That’s what I was thinking too. Ready?” She holds my hands, one each side of the flame and closes her eyes. I’m too tense to shut mine, so I watch the flame flicker. “Water Sprites, please accept our gift of rose petals. We ask for your help in return. Since water travels in rain and fog, from lakes to creeks to rivers to oceans, in all your travels, have you seen Bea Pearl’s brother?”
“His name is Jim,” I whisper to whatever is listening.
“Please give us a sign you hear us.” Honey opens one eye. “Please give us a sign you’ve seen Jim.”
We hold our breath. Cicadas saw away in the pines, canoes bob gently against the dock. I strain to hear anything out of place in the night. Then, a fish splashes.
“Was that a sign?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Maybe? Look, there are rings around the petals.”
“That’s what water does,” I remind her.
“A website says the rings are water spirits.”
I roll my eyes. “More like surface tension.”
She sticks out her tongue. Then: “Did it just get darker?” she whispers.
I look up. “There’s a cloud covering the moon.”
The candle’s flame sputters and goes out.
“Why’d you blow it out?” she asks sharply.
The cicada’s buzzing grows louder. Another fish splashes and it sounds closer, bigger. “I’m not so sure this was a good idea,” I whisper, goose bumps now on my legs. I want to itch them, but I’m not letting go of Honey’s hands.
“Me neither. What if some evil thing has Jim? And now it’s coming for us. Olive Mangled Ghouls, did we open a gateway to Hell?”
“You had to say that out loud?” I tighten my grip, her ring cutting into my fingers. Way back when we were in elementary school, we swore we’d never be one of those O.M.G girls: the annoying ones with beads crocheted on the socks, white Ked’s that never got dirty, the gum-smackers, the ones who laughed the loudest when you came back from the bathroom with your skirt tucked into your panties or toilet paper stuck to your shoe. So instead we used the acronym to inspire the randomest words on the tip of our brains. Back then we thought we were progressive. Now the habit’s ingrained into our friendship, probably for forever.
Something moves in the water.
We lean toward it, unaware ‘til after the fact that we’re mimicking each other, a mirror and a reflection, still clenching each other’s hands.
Something huge and dark rises and we shriek loud enough to wake the dead. We don’t wait around to see what happens next. Honey lets go and grabs her bag. I snatch up the hot candle and in that second of looking down, I hear a low snarling, snicking noise I can’t place, Honey’s cutoff scream, and a splash.
The dock is empty except for me and the dark candle in my hand. I blow my bangs out of my eyes but they’re stuck to my forehead with cold sweat. Again! my brain screeches at me, you’re letting this happen again! “Honey?” My voice is hoarse as if I screamed, but the only sound that reaches my ears is a whisper. No, no, no. She’s the only friend I have left.
I can’t let her disappear too.
Then moonlight reflects off churning water and a hand shoots out of the darkness, followed by Honey’s head. I drop to my stomach onto the dock, the air whooshing out painfully, and reach out to her. “Grab my hand. What’s got you?”
“My leg!” Honey finds my hand and I pull her toward me. She spits out water. “Something’s got my foot.” Her voice is pinched with panic. She belly crawls onto the dock but in the cloud-covered light, I can’t make out what covers Honey’s leg. “What is it? Get it off!”
I fumble for matches or a lighter in Honey’s bag that she somehow never let go of. I find a flashlight instead and switch it on, my hands trembling. A hysteric sort of giggle bubbles up through my insides. I startle both of us as I let out a sharp laugh.
“What’s wrong with you?” Honey demands, and then gives her ankle a closer look. “Oh snap. Is that a fish net?”
I nod, laughing too hard to answer.
“Get it off!” She shakes her leg at me. “It’s probably covered in fish poop.”
I kneel down and untangle her. “We must not have noticed it when we came down here. You know, thinking we’d see water spirits, not get caught in fish nets.”
“Whatever, make fun. Is my flip flop in there?”
“Nope.” I hold up a sun-dried bluegill. “Just this guy.”
She grimaces. “So this is a bust.”
“Did you really think it would work?” My voice wobbles. I get to my feet and help her up. I don’t know what I think, or what I expected. “You didn’t happen to see anything while you were down there?” I’m kidding, I know we wouldn’t see Jim’s ghost because he’s not dead. But a little spiritual help finding him would’ve been nice.
She shivers. I’m sure the October air is chillier to her wet skin than mine. My goose bumps borne of fear have pretty much disappeared. “I think he drowned.”
My head jerks at the sharpness of her words. They hang in the moonlit air like a watchful spirit. It is Halloween. The veil that I don’t know for sure if it exists might be thin enough that demons dangle from hateful words. “Because you tripped over a cast net and fell into a pond?”
At her widened eyes, that scathing demon might dangle from my mouth instead. I think she’s going to respond, but instead she shakes her head the tiniest bit. “I need a shower.”
She walks off. I don’t stop her. There’s no way Jim drowned. There’s no way she had that little epiphany in the seconds she was underwater. She knows something and won’t tell me.
I go back after my own shower, too worked up to sleep, and realize what we saw was probably a canoe bobbing. But we were both sure the thing in the water rose level with the dock and Lake George doesn’t get swells. So even if it was just a canoe, someone or something would have had to lift it. A ghost? A demonic water sprite? An alligator? More believable, but just as scary. The goblin I think I see hunkered in a black corner of the little bait lean-to at the beginning of the dock is more likely a bag of catfish food. But I don’t know for sure. Ghosts and water sprites and goblins haven’t been proven to not exist.
I sit, my back against the dock step and watch fog raise up from the warm water to the cooler air. A light breeze pushes it along so ghostly bodies waltz along the slick, black surface, disappearing when the moonlight touches them.
Why is everyone so adamant that my brother never existed? What happened to him?
With anglerfish, the male is absorbed into the body of the much larger female. She’s the one with the light.
He’s only a mouth, a toothy maw that bites, latches,
and then disappears.
So what do y’all think? Unsettling without being in-your-face-scary? Does it make you want to read more?
Enjoy your treating and tricking tonight!