Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sample Work

Hello everyone:

So for the last month or so, I've been begging you for money without giving you anything (apart from gratitude) in return. And since we've reached "Crunch time"--with only 10 days to go and just under $600 to raise, I've decided to give up the goods.

Below you'll find the first chapter of each of my novels, both sitting on the desk of unnamed editors, awaiting their big break. I'll also enclose three of my published poems, in case you're into that sort of thing :)

So if you like what you see, and you want to see it keep happening, please donate!

Alright, (*big breath*) HERE GOES:

(Chapter 1 of Dying for a Living--Adult urban fantasy novel)


1
            “Good morning, Mr. Reynolds.” I used my best sing-song voice. “Are you ready to die today?”
            “I don’t think we should stand so close to him,” Ally said, pulling me away from the bed.
            Mr. Reynolds still didn’t respond when I turned on the bedside lamp, illuminating his bedroom in a butter-yellow glow. I nudged him, getting impatient. “Good morning.”
            His eyes fluttered open. He sat up quickly, pressed his back against the wooden headboard, and gathered his fluffy comforter to his chest. He removed an earplug from each of his ears with a fumbling urgency. His darting eyes searched our faces.
            “Who are you?” he asked. His graying-brown hair was disheveled and thinning in front. His blue eyes, set in a wrinkling face, squinted against the sudden onslaught of light. Though he was an enormous man, six feet tall and nearly 300 pounds according to our profile, he looked dwarfed in this large bed.
I flashed a look at Ally, my personal assistant, who stood beside me. Ally was talle­­r than me by a few inches, making her 5’8 or so. Because of the warmth of Reynolds’s apartment and the act of climbing several flights of stairs, she unbuttoned her red A-line coat to reveal an off-white ruffled blouse and dress pants underneath. Her straightened blond hair, chocolate-eyes and tiny diamond nose stud, all caught and held the soft light of Reynolds’s lamp as she adjusted herself. She looked at the photo attached to the front of the file folder she held and then she nodded twice, which meant yes we were in the right house, on the right day. Of course, I could still have fun with this.
            “Burglars,” I said with my mouth full, chewing. “If you could just strip those pillowcases off and fill them with your valuables, we’ll be on our way.”
            His eyes fixed on the half-devoured sugar bomb in my hand. “Is that my muffin?”
            I slowed my chewing, thinking of how best to answer this inquiry. “Could be. It was on your
kitchen counter.”
            “So you just took it?” He pushed the comforter off his chest. The disorientation of sleep wore off as he realized what was happening.
            “Mr. Reynolds.”  Ally leaned toward him gently, pushing her hair behind her ear as it fell forward. Her tone was professional and kind. She was good at being professional. Me? Not so much. “We’re here about the death-replacement you scheduled in April.”
            His face remained pinched with confusion. One of the problems with letting hospitals orchestrate death-replacements is that clients don’t meet their agents until the actual death-day.
            “At the hospital, remember? You scheduled this replacement with your physician.” Ally continued, patient. “This is Ms. Jesse Sullivan. She will be your agent today.”
            He turned his narrowing eyes from her to me. “She’s the zombie?”
            Was it my job to remind him “zombie” is a derogatory term? Yes. “Necronite,” I corrected. I threw the muffin wrapper in the bedside trashcan. “I’m the Necronite here to die so you can keep on a-livin’.”
            I said that last part in the twangy, country music tone our fair city of Nashville was known for. He looked me over, head to toe. What did he expect a Necronite to look like? Probably not a 5’2, 24-year-old girl wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I’d try not to take it personally if he found me underwhelming.
             “How did you get in?”
            “Doorman,” I answered. “Look—”
            Ally intercepted my irritation. “It’s important Jesse stays close to you until the incident occurs. As the doctor probably explained during your consultation, she will shadow you for the entire day.”
            Mr. Reynolds turned to the bedside clock. “It’s only midnight.”
            “That’s generally when the day starts,” I said, stretching my cramped neck to one side.
“Your death-day is September 18th, right?”
            “Yes.” He didn’t sound so sure.
            “Ta-da,” I said, throwing my arms wide. Startled, he leaned out of my reach. “Here I am.”
            Ally elbowed me and I jerked my arms in to protect my ribs. She forced another smile at Reynolds. “We tried to call you earlier, but you didn’t answer. When we rang the doorbell and knocked, you still didn’t answer.”
            I folded my arms over my chest, tired of standing over him. “We thought you’d already died.”
            He uncurled his beefy fist to show the earplugs he still held. “I wear these when I sleep. I guess I didn’t hear you.”
            “We were concerned, that’s all. It’s our job to keep you safe,” Ally added. “We apologize for entering your home without an invitation.”
            She nudged me with her elbow again. I grumbled, “Yeah, sorry.”
            His shoulders slumped and he seemed to relax the longer Ally smiled at him. It was her gift, I guess, putting people at ease. It certainly wasn’t a trait I possessed.
            “Sir, if you can just act normal today, follow your usual routine, we’ll be here and ready for
anything,” Ally grinned. Her weight shifted. She was tired of standing too. “Please go back to sleep. We’ll remain close if you need us.”
            I gave him credit. He did try to go back to sleep, though he left the earplugs out, probably
suspicious of us. I guess I wouldn’t be able to sleep with two strangers leaning against my bedroom
wall watching me, especially someone as fidgety as myself. Thirty minutes into this babysitting,
guard duty from which I derived an income I was so bored, but waiting for death to show up was a
normal part of the replacement process.
            At 7:45 A.M., Reynolds was finally dressed and ready for work. He swore he usually walked to
work, so walk we did. Franklin Street was busy, the honking horns conveying not everyone was happy to be alive on this fine Monday. The morning air held a characteristically September chill to it, so I zipped my dark hoodie up closer to my chin and warmed my cooling hands in the back pockets of my jeans.
            I have nicer clothes at home, but when I work a replacement job, I can’t wear those. Doctors really like to cut my clothes off. I mean, they see my dying body and it’s like “Nurse! The scissors, please.” The time I was hit and killed by a bus they cut my clothes off, and I was wearing my favorite Three Stiffs with Picks T-shirt. The local band’s three members were Necronites and they had signed it, for goodness sake. The hospital ruined it more than the bus did. I could’ve kept it, damn them. Blood on a rock T-shirt is cool.
            Anyway, that was the last straw, so now I only wear clothes I don’t care too much about, which means I own a plethora of dark jeans and hoodies which I can pull on or zip over any number of T-shirts. Sometimes Ally is able to intervene and save my clothes, but most body fluids stain, so I still go through an entire wardrobe quickly—shoes too. I don’t know how I lose my shoes when I die. I have a whole basket at home of shoes I only have one of and I refuse to buy more. So I’ve taken to wearing mismatched pairs. Like today, I was wearing one red Nike sneaker and one blue Reebok sneaker, each one tied with floppy laces. Maybe that’s why Reynolds kept staring at my feet as we walked.
             We’d only made it two blocks down the road, pushing through the swarming crowds, past opening shops and businesses, when the conversation took an inevitable turn.
            Mr. Reynolds turned to Ally and flashed what I suspected was a well-rehearsed smile. His
voice shifted to an even, carefully inflected tone. “Are you a zombie too?”
            “Necronite,” I said, correcting him again. If I wanted to playfully call myself a zombie that
was one thing. I was trying to reclaim the word after all. But people can’t just go equating my
lifestyle to mindless, brain-eating corpses. “The politically correct term is Necronite. You don’t call
black people the n-word.”
            “Necronite, got it,” he blurted, embarrassed by the fact that I was speaking at full volume. His eyes nervously scanned the passing crowd for any signs that someone had heard us. He tried to speak to Ally again. “Do you reanimate also?”
            “Ooo, reanimate. Breaking out the big words,” I said. “No, Ally doesn’t die. She is one hundred percent mortal.”  I’ve seen the ‘Let’s get to know the cute assistant’ bit before. I don’t blame him. Ally is gorgeous. I’ve made a play for her myself because gorgeous is gorgeous. I’m just lucky that Ally likes women or I’d probably look just as ridiculous as Mr. Reynolds here.
            “I’m just the personal assistant,” Ally said with a polite smile, which had become permanently fixed on her face when mediating between me and my clients. Maybe it was her round cheeks or tiny cute nose that made people like her. She just looked like a nice person—unless you pissed her off, of course. “Jesse’s schedule is hectic, and it’s my job to keep her sane.”
            “You must have your work cut out for you,” he said.
            Did he just insult me?
            I could play. “You’re not her type. You need breasts, bigger ones.”
            His jaw set tight. “Is she always this…charming?”
            I opened my mouth to show him just how charming I could be when Ally shot me a pleading look behind his back. Brinkley, my handler, popped into my head. One more bad review, Jesse, and I’ll kill you. A couple of times. If Mr. Reynolds thought I was a challenge, he should try dealing with Brinkley sometime.
            I rolled my eyes at Ally and said my rehearsed speech. I didn’t even bother to deliver it any
better than deadpan. “Dear Sir or Madam, I am sorry for your inconvenience. In the light of your
impending death, this must be a stressful time for you. Please accept my apologies for this
inconvenience and let me offer my reassurance that no matter what happens, you can count on me
to save your ass.”
            Brinkley made me memorize this verbatim, and to be spiteful, I haven’t changed a word. Not even the Sir or Madam part, as you can see. Okay, maybe I changed “save you” to “save your ass”, but what’s the difference really? I can’t technically save one without saving the other.
            Reynolds blinked twice and stared. After apparently reaching no conclusion, he opened the door to his office and entered without saying another word.
            The South Tower where Mr. Reynolds worked was huge, stretching far up into the overcast gray-white sky. The building looked like a cat to me, with a pointy radio antenna on each side of its roof. We followed him and his swinging briefcase through the revolving glass doors into the building. With our plastic visitor badges attached, we took the elevator up to Reynolds’s office on the fifteenth floor. The office was the coolest, yet strangest thing I’d ever seen.
                It was laid out like a bi-level, encased in glass. The entrance was two glass doors that pushed open. The outer wall was a full window overlooking downtown Nashville. The floor was hardwood, something pale like pine, and quite shiny in the slanted autumn light. A spiraling staircase with see-through steps coiled off to the right, very modern. The lower level held only his secretary’s desk and a clear view over the city. Reynolds’s desk was located on the upper, loft-like part suspended in the air. Good thing he wasn’t into dresses or the poor secretary would’ve had more than a downtown view.  His desk, bookcase with reference materials, and the window behind him were all transparent. I gave Ally a weary look.
            “We need your blood type,” she said, almost as soon as Reynolds put his briefcase on his
desk.
            “O-positive, why?”
            “This is a lot of glass.” I leaned over the metal rail encircling the loft area to see the
secretary’s desk and floor just below. I know people dig the sleek, modern look, but all I saw was an
accident waiting to happen. “We might have a problem if you cut yourself on any of this.”
            Reynolds was confused. “The doctor told me any type of death was replaceable.”
            I was certain no one told him that because I can only do so much for a body. Most of my clients still require post-replacement medical care. Point-blank gunshot wounds to the head, for example, are unlikely replaceable. What did he expect me to do? Pick up his brain chunks and restuff his skull?
            Ally sat her purse in one of the four bright red chairs, the only splash of color in the whole place apart from the light and a hanging fern with its greedy outstretched tendrils.
             “Jesse can keep you from dying, but she can’t heal your body. If you get hurt on any of this glass, you’ll need blood.”
            I surveyed the titles on his bookcase and found not an ounce of pleasure reading; a real bore, this guy. Ally pulled a survey packet and clipboard from her bag, before fishing for a pen. Then she extended the ballpoint with a click, and settled into the chair.
            “While you set up, I wonder if I can ask you a few questions about your replacement
experience?” Ally asked.
            Unraveling his laptop cord, Reynolds paused in his unpacking. “She hasn’t done anything.”
            “No, not yet,” Ally replied, flashing her work with me grin. “You’ll receive your post-replacement survey in the mail in a week or two. Hopefully, you’ll fill it out and return it in the postage-paid envelope. These questions don’t pertain to the death-replacement itself, but rather the enrollment process.”
            Reynolds bent down and plugged the cord into the surge protector under his desk. “All right then, Ms. Gallagher, if it makes your job easier.”
            She tucked her hair behind her ears and tried to look sweet. “It does, thank you.”
            Ally might be a lesbian, but she knew how to flirt. I rolled my eyes. Geez, these two were
making me nauseous. She readied her pen and read the first question aloud. “Did you intentionally
plan your death-screening or did your physician recommend it?” 
            He settled into his seat and turned on the computer. “I went to get my blood-pressure checked and the doctor recommended it. He explained my health insurance rates would lower if I pre-screened.”
             “How much time passed between the physician’s referral and your meeting with the A.M.P.?”
            “Amp?”
             “Analyst of Necro-Magnetic Phenomenon,” Ally said, flawlessly. It’s no wonder that those of us without genius level IQs shorten it.
            “The psychic,” he said, his eyes lighting with recognition. “I met her two days later.”
            “Psychic is another derogatory term, Mr. Reynolds,” I said. Not to mention an inaccurate way to describe these ex-military, medically-altered analysts. My favorite A.M.P. was Gloria. She hated the term psychic and you’ve got to defend your friends when they aren’t around to defend themselves. “We talked about derogatory terms, didn’t we?”
            The public wasn’t supposed to think of them as psychics anyway. Somehow that dirty little secret leaked to the public. PR pushed A.M.P.s as nothing more than gifted statisticians, brainiacs who could take all the factors of a person’s life and guess when they’d die within a twenty-four hour window, up to one year in advance. Use the word “psychic”, or “guess” for that matter, and no one would have invested in the replacement industry because the modern mind only believed in the power of science and money. Of course Lane, my sometimes beau, argued that telling people AMPs were guinea pig soldiers tortured into becoming drug-dependent psychics, wouldn’t incite much faith either. He had a point.
            The Death-Management Industry, the whole screening to replacement process, had a 99%
success rate. That’s as good as birth control. No one wanted to be surprised by death and now they didn’t have to be. People liked the security. The federal government liked the fact that every aspect of the process was taxable. Hello, revenue. And the military liked that they were putting a positive spin on their greatest screw-up this decade.
            Mainstreaming the Death-Management Industry created jobs, fattened pockets and basically pulled all our heads above the waters of a recession. Hell, even China and Japan have launched their own Death-Management Industries in the last few months. Yet despite the fact that death-screening commercials now outnumbered breast-cancer commercials 2:1, the industry was slowing down. Somehow, the mask had slipped and it was getting hard to maintain the Death-Management Industry as purely “scientific advancement” or yet another “modern marvel.” People were questioning the morality of the process.
            I blamed the Church, who had launched their own anti-Death Management campaign not long after the industry was established. But it wasn’t until lately, when the conservative party took office, that their power was really felt. Less people were screening. Those fat pockets were thinning. I was looking at the possibility of unemployment in a year or two. Frankly, I was okay with that prospect, but for other reasons.
            “Your A.M.P.’s name and how long it took for her to complete your evaluation?” Ally asked.
            “Cooper something. Gildroy, Godfrey, or…,” he said. His eyes glanced down, unfocused. “I only remember the doctor called early the following week and asked me to come back in to discuss my options.”
            Cooper Gooding. We only had one death-replacement agent named Cooper in Nashville.
             “How did you feel when you first learned the news?”
            He leaned back in his chair, running his thick hands through his hair. “You mean, when the
doctor informed me some psychic—sorry, A.M.P.—said I was going to die? I didn’t believe it at
first. It’s not the conversation one professional has with another.”
            Ally kept scrawling on the page, nodding. “Did he make your options clear?”
            He scratched his chin. “Either I took my chances and hoped the day passed without incident or I took precautions. I’d say my choice was pretty clear.”
            “Was it a difficult decision?” Ally asked, looking up from the page.
            “Not really,” he answered. “I get the money back if nothing happens. If it does, I’d say my life is worth more than a mere $50,000.”
            “That’s right,” Ally said. I’d also have to return the $50,000 fee if I screwed up and he died. I wouldn’t even get to keep my 20% cut. Since he’d be dead, I guess that didn’t matter to him.
            She reached the last question. “Would you recommend death-replacement to a family member or friend?”
            “Ask me that one at the end of the day,” he replied. “Once I see what happens.”
            Ally was packing up but I had one more question. “What do you do here?” I swept the grandeur of his office with my eyes.
            “I’m a marketing and media consultant,” he said. “We do advertising for local businesses, night clubs, and popular consumer products.” 
            I bet he was one of our very own PR guys. Otherwise, I wasn’t quite sure why Brinkley put him in my bin. Not that Brinkley would tell me if I asked. Boss Brinkley only showed interest in telling me what to do, never anything useful. Despite how harsh Brinkley could be, I was curious about him. He’s about twice my age, so he could be my father.
            No, really.
            I didn’t remember my father at all. In fact, I remembered so little about my life before my first death. Immediately after it, I was recruited to become a replacement agent for Brinkley. I know that I have a little brother, a mother, and that she remarried an asshole. I also didn’t remember Ally from high school, but shortly after she became my assistant, she told me we were friends back then. She seemed familiar we when met, but no real memory of her existed. The one thing that I did know was that I’d died in a barn fire—my very first death. It had not been an accident, nor had I died alone.
            When the secretary went home at 5:00 P.M., I decided to play in her desk to ward off
sleepiness. Since this job started at midnight, I’d been working seventeen hours straight. In addition to an impressive array of writing utensils, the secretary’s desk had several pictures of her kids and a coffee cup that said, “Procrastinate and you tempt fate!” A real go-getter this one. I played with her label maker, placing labels that read “Zombie touched this. Eek!” on everything: her chair, her cup,
her computer. I spared the kids’ pictures.
            I was about to turn on the internet when the computer popped then fizzled out. Was that smoke? What the hell? You know, that’s not the first time this week, month even, that I’d had something short out on me. It was like I short-circuited electronics by my touch alone. This was a brand new problem that I could do without.
            I didn’t even have time to come up with an excuse for exploding the secretary’s computer when a familiar sinking sensation washed over me. My grip tightened on the edge of the desk.
            “Ally,” I said, calling her name as loud as I could manage with a tightening throat and nausea. I wanted her to know it was almost time. I looked up through the floor to see Mr. Reynolds freeze mid-motion. Ally spoke to him, but too softly for me to hear.
            My vision blurred in and out of focus, making it difficult to see exactly what he was doing as the fading light in the room intensified. It’s like being really, really drunk except I’ve got all my wits about me. This disorientation was normal—bizarre but normal, unlike this new failing electronics problem.
            I recognized Reynolds’s movements as hesitation. Clients often freeze up when I start to react. No one wants to die. To the clients, in this moment just before it happens, it seems as if any movement could be the wrong one. He stared at me through the glass floor.
            Sensing death was like a panic attack. I tried to breathe against the pressure in my chest.
Nothing was actually wrong with me, except that I knew what was coming, or at least some part
of me knew, and that part of me panicked. My limbs flooded with adrenaline and were ready for
anything. Here in this bright office, it seemed unlikely I was going to get hit by a bus, stabbed, or
suffer any bodily harm, right?
             Wrong.
             I closed my eyes and tried to quell this sick feeling. Before I opened them again, something heavy came crashing right through the desk, knocking me backwards out of the chair. I hit the back of my head on the window-wall with a thump and my ears rang on impact. Splintered glass from the crashed secretary’s desk sprayed into my face like water. I tried to shield myself with my hand and swore like crazy.
            “Who designs this shit!” I pulled a large shard out of my left forearm. It had gone straight through the skin. Blood spurted out of the wound. My jeans were ruined. Again.
            Ally came down the stairs as fast as she could without falling herself. She only took the steps one at a time, carefully holding onto the rail. Good girl. I wasn’t equipped to deal with two people dying at once. Death-replacement is a one-on-one exchange.
            “Mr. Reynolds?” It took me a moment to realize it was his body that had fallen on top of me, lying now in the mess of the secretary’s shattered desk. I kicked a chunk of desk off of me and I pulled myself out from under him, dragging my burning arm through broken glass. “Mr. Reynolds, can you hear me?”
            I checked his pulse and it was faint, slowing. I opened his suit jacket and pressed my hands
to his chest for a pulse as Ally’s voice echoed through the room. She gave the address and situation to the emergency operators on the phone. The tiny glass shards in my arms and legs burned like hell as they worked their way in deeper into my skin. I saved the freaking out until after she hung up.
            “What the hell did you say to him? We don’t do suicides.” I was talking too fast. OK, so having a body drop on me unexpectedly had caught me off guard. At least I couldn’t be blamed for the broken computer now. “And what the hell is it with fat men falling on me? That’s two this week! I’m like one hundred and twenty pounds, assholes.”
            It became a race to see who could speak the fastest with the widest eyes.
            “I didn’t make him jump, thank you. I told him when you get pale like this it means it’s about to happen. So instead of paying attention to his own two feet, he watched you. He tripped on the laptop cord and rolled right over that damn rail.” She pointed up, looking freaked too.
            “You have to stop telling them they’re about to die,” I said. I leaned close to his ear and practically shouted, “And you have to get wooden desks.”
            As if reacting to the thunder of my own voice, my vision gave over completely, switching from dizzying spottiness to full-blown waves of color.
            “Finally,” I said, relieved. “Do you see it?”
            “You ask me this every time,” Ally said. “The answer is still no.”
            The room was fluidic waves of color. Everything was a shifting aurora borealis of heat and light and a comfort to see. Even weird shit can be comforting, when you expect it.
            “Everything is light,” I explained for the millionth time because I really wished she could just see it for herself. “Nothing is solid. It’s kind of like those thermal readings.”
            “Jesse, he isn’t looking so good.”
            I focused on the man still partially in my lap. He was no longer a warm red-orange tinged with yellow like Ally. He was green now, edging his way into the dormant blue-gray I saw in so many other things like the floor, the desk, and walls. It was my job to keep the blue from overtaking him.
            I can’t explain what I do exactly.
            Death is the transformation of energy. I admit I’m guessing here. I did know that when someone was about to die, a tiny black hole was created inside them. Like a black hole in space, it looked like an empty swirling vortex. This vortex was what sucked all the warm, living colors out of a person, leaving nothing behind that could survive.
            My job as a replacement agent was to convince the fleeting red of Mr. Reynolds, so ready to
burn up its little flame and become a dormant blue, that it really didn’t want to go into that swirling vortex drain after all. Somehow I did this by willing it.
             My colors have never matched Ally’s, Brinkley’s, or anyone who’d accompanied me in the room during a replacement. Lane too, I imagine, would be a more vibrant hue if I ever got a good look at him. The point was I seemed a welcome home for blue flame since I was always blue flame.  Not the cold blue of furniture or buildings, more like a sparkly blue. Electric blue.
            With Reynolds’s blue flame drawn into my own, it gave his red-warm fire room enough to burn. But there was a special spark I was looking for, something I had to find inside him and keep it from being washed down the swirling vortex drain.
            The sounds of an elevator opening and Ally shouting to the paramedics seemed like voices underwater, distant and muffled as I focused harder on Reynolds.
            “Hurry, Jesse,” she said, so soft she could have been whispering.
            A hot-cold chill settled into the muscles in my back and coiled around my navel like an
invisible snake as I pushed my own flame further into Reynolds. I slid through him with urgency, aware I was running out of time. There—a spark where our flames danced around each other. Against the line showing the division, I pushed hard.
             Reynolds’s chest rose suddenly, jerking as he gasped, like gasoline thrown on the blaze.
             But even though I scooped Reynolds’s precious spark out of the vortex, the vortex didn’t just close. Somebody still had to go through that death portal for it to go away. Unfortunately, that somebody got to be me.
            I exhaled one last breath and gave myself completely to the waiting darkness.





(Chapter 1 of Water & Dark--YA paranormal novel)


Chapter 1
            The cemetery is dark, of course, on account of nighttime. A few light posts illuminate its borders, but inside the cemetery itself, fog and shadows prevail. The 8-foot-tall wrought iron fence isn’t the most inviting either. I do a once around to and find a place to hide my bike behind a curtain of willow tree tendrils. I tuck it deep into the shadows, just in case the suffocating fog isn’t camouflage enough against any patrolling cop cars. Even with my bike out of the way, I still have to get over this fence somehow. 
            The wrought iron is as wet and slick as everything else. This place smells like fresh dirt and the bars are cold in my hands. If I’d crossed over to the astral plane, like I was supposed to ages ago, using magic to break into a cemetery would be an option. Most witches cross over when they are twelve or thirteen years old. I
t’s an important rite of passage for a witch, to cross to the adjacent plane and meet her spirit guide. But oh no, not me. I am fifteen and I still haven’t gone anywhere because I’d rather use this crappy, half-formed magic than access my real power. Yeah, I have my reasons.
            I look up at the full moon. My spine ripples as I think about those reasons.
            When the moon rides at Her peak then your heart's desire seek.
            “Right,” I say and salute the moon. “I came out here for a reason.”  
            Though the idea of climbing and jumping anymore tonight is far from thrilling, a sweetgum tree rooted beside my co-conspirator the willow has a branch that stretches over into the cemetery.  By the splintered bark and black scuff marks on its trunk, I am willing to bet that I am not the only Einstein to get this idea. And of course, I am never one to replace practicality and pure genius with magic.
So, up and over.
            Success. Sort of. At least no one is around to see my ungraceful landing, which is great,
because if I jumped into a cemetery only to find some stranger waiting for me, I’d have totally
flipped out. Who would even be in a cemetery at this time of night? No one I’d want to run into,
that’s for sure. I’m not sure I’d even want to run into myself out here.
The cemetery appears empty. I am not sure what kind of weirdoes might be lurking, so I do
a quick lap around the place and look for anything suspicious: patchouli-smelling potheads, mouth-breathing, horny teenagers, naked virgins prepped for ritual sacrifice. You know, anything suspicious. Not that a witch would ever do anything so crude. We’re classier than that—usually.
 It’s not just humans I am watching out for either. Ghouls are not great company, nasty little jerks. I know how to get rid of them if they dare show their deformed faces, but I don’t have what I need with me because I packed in a hurry. Sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night doesn’t always allow for finesse, you know? Just thinking of ghouls makes me touch the scar on my right forearm. They might be all ghost flesh and hunger, freaking grave monkeys, but they sure can scratch and bite.
Satisfied that I am alone, I set out to find the grave I came for. It’s weird to think I’ve been doing this for months now—visiting cemeteries in the middle of the night to practice certain skills. But if I ever hope to solve my little problem, I don’t have another choice.
I find the grave I need front and center, resting as one of those square tombstones labeled:
                                    Caroline Tate
                        Beloved daughter and friend
                                 You will be missed
I double check the date against the obituary from my backpack and start to set up. I don’t want to conjure the wrong Caroline. How awkward would that be? So sorry. Hope I wasn’t interrupting a great afterlife. Then again, I am almost positive Caroline isn’t having a great afterlife, if the stories
are true.
Caroline Tate died in a car accident a month ago with her mom and younger cousin, Valerie.
They were fine, but Caroline, who’d been riding shotgun with no seatbelt in order to spite her mother over a Gucci handbag argument, hadn’t been so lucky. There’s another version of this story saying that no one had been wearing seatbelts. Her mom got a nasty bruise on her chest from the steering wheel, her cousin pinballed in the backseat a bit, and Caroline was just the unlucky one. I heard all of this second hand, of course, just like everyone else at Red Raider High, so who knows what really happened.
To communicate with the dead or even cast spells, I first have to set up two circles. Not all witches do this, so don’t be ready to lump us all together just yet. I can only speak for myself when I say that first, I cast two circles. Circle number one is to keep the bad stuff out. Tread the Circle thrice about to keep unwelcome spirits out. I read this line in my mother’s book, but I don’t just walk around in a big circle three times. I also pour sea salt in a thick unbroken line around the tombstone and myself with a few extra feet in the front so that I can sit comfortably inside the ring. If I have to guess, I’d say the circle is about five feet in diameter. Caroline’s tombstone sits in the middle, dividing my working space into two segments.
            Next, before I even get to circle number 2, I unwrap the candles and put them in the little glass holders I brought. Of course, I brought candle holders. I am not going to start a fire out here. You think I’m an idiot?
After the candles are set up the way I want—North, South, East, West—I light them. Then this is the part where, after putting a towel down to shield my butt from the damp ground, I finally settle in to cast the second circle.
It is different for everyone. To make a long story short, it mostly involves me asking the good spirits to bless this sacred space and keep me safe. Also, I picture myself glowing in white protective light that sort of amounts to seeing my body encased in a large, fluffy marshmallow—hey,
don’t judge. It works.
Let me just say that doing magic is hard work. Do you know how much concentration it takes to sit down and do a spell? I mean really? First, I have to get settled. Then I have to convince every twitchy muscle, every itch and ache to just go away. Like “not right now random itch between my toes, I have something more important to do” or “Cut it out, strange butt twitch, what is your problem anyway?”
Once I finally get my demanding body out of the way, I have to convince my crazy mind to
settle down.  When I first try to tune out the world and focus, all I can hear are the cicadas or crickets or some kind of noisy bug going on and on. I don’t know how any little bug can even keep itself warm out here. It’s so freaking cold for the end of April.
            At that thought, I pull my jacket tighter. Whoops. There’s my body again. So needy.
If the body is a crybaby, the mind is a spoiled four-year-old brat in a toy store. As soon as I forget about the bugs, I am thinking about school. Then it’s my homework and whether or not my aunts will figure out what I am up to and—
Crap, I haven’t even started the spell yet. I told you this was hard! Here I am sitting pretty inside two magic circles thinking about stuff that doesn’t matter right now. Focus, Olivia, head in the game. I open my mother’s spellbook again and read the spell over in my mind a couple of times. Not that I am proving to be a great witch at the moment, but I know to put the book away when I’m done. Spells don’t work when I read them. I’ve got to memorize them so that I can get the emotion right.  When I want magic to happen, emotion is everything.
To be on the safe side, I ask the spirits to bless and protect my circle again. Feeling warm in the cheeks from circle building, I turn my focus to the magic. I let emotions build up in my stomach: my need and desire to speak to Caroline. I will every cell in my body to want this, focus on my wish,
and let it swell until I release it out into the universe.
My stomach fills with itchy fire that spreads as I chant. The temperature changes and the
hairs on my neck rise up. An unseen pull, like a river’s current, courses deep inside me. My body is a river of fire when I finally open my eyes and sure enough, I am staring into the black water eyes of Caroline Tate.
            She asks me something but only the word, “You?” is understandable. Not what I expect the first word of a seventeen-year-old dead girl to be. Not all attempts to speak to the dead have worked out. I fight the urge to touch my scar again and force myself to focus on Caroline.
            Once Caroline is clear enough that I feel I can spare just a minor distraction, I cut my hand open with my dad’s pocket knife and smear the ground and her headstone with my blood.
            “It’s time to rest, Caroline Abigail Tate,” I say. I have to say her whole name like this even though it sounds dumb. It keeps the ghost from doing anything crazy like coming to my house and breaking all my parent’s valuables in a poltergeist tantrum. “After I ask you some things.” Shoot, I shouldn’t say things. I should keep it formal like, after I ask you about your mother.
When working with spirits, it is important to be as clear as possible. If a witch is vague in her request, the spirit has more room to do or say what it wants. So the only way to control a spirit is to be as specific as possible. Of course, if I’d crossed over the astral plane by now, I wouldn’t have to resort to something as crude as blood magic. I’d have my own mojo to rely on. Blood magic is looked down on by witches. My aunts, for example, will kill me if they find out.
Caroline just stares at me and I hope that my blood hasn’t made her mute or something because that would suck. The wind kicks up and the candles around her tombstone flicker. I am already creeped out by the fact I am in a cemetery at night, alone. No need for the dramatics, thank you. At this distance, the gravestones could be mistaken for people in the fog, smudged figures waiting for me to get closer. I shiver.
“Do you remember how you died?” I ask, trying to get over the creepiness.
She’s not even a whole body. Maybe a witch really powerful can conjure a spirit that can pass
for flesh and blood, but apparently, my juice only gets me a face and some wavering hair sticking out
the front of the tombstone.
She still doesn’t talk. What did I do wrong? I redid every step in my mind: both circles, the candles, the incantation, even binding her with my blood. It should have worked. It worked last time with Daniel whatshisface, the 80-year-old drunk, who fell down his cellar stairs trying to get more booze. Brilliant, that guy.
Then I realize Caroline isn’t even looking at me. Her eyes are fixed over my left shoulder.
I turn around slowly and scream. I throw my back against Caroline’s tombstone, ghost or no.
Blood-red eyes and a snarling snout snap at the border of my circle. The hunched form of a grey-fleshed ghoul paces the edge of salt barrier, desperate to get in. Now that I can see the creature, the smell of it invades my nose. Road kill warmed over and half-picked by carrion. Disgusting, overwhelming smells that make my stomach turn in a very non-magical way.
Lucky for me, this one can’t enter the circle as long as the salt line remains intact. Salt is pure, the complete opposite of a ghoul, and because of this, salt burns them. As long as the salt remains unbroken, it is like I have an invisible wall around me. Except the great thing about wall, is I wouldn’t have to look at this thing’s ugly face.
It stamps the ground like an angry horse and screams in frustration. Despite how bad I want to pee myself, I turn around slowly and face Caroline. I inch my knees closer to her tombstone so that I have as much space a possible between me and the ghoul. And even though I know it can’t get past the salt, it’s not like I feel safe.
Caroline is gone. This is not a surprise since it takes concentration to keep a ghost around,
and frankly, I just lost mine because of this ghoul breathing down the back of my neck. I spill more
blood, which gets the ghoul nice and excited, and call Caroline back.
“Ignore it,” I command and she must. “How did you die?”
“The car,” she said after a moment of misty-eyed contemplation—either because it is hard
for her to remember or because I’m finding it hard to focus with only a foot between my neck and rows of needle-sharp teeth. “We were in the car.”
Her mouth opens and closes like a fish’s mouth. Her eyes are just black, gleaming orbs emerging from between the letters in her etched name.
            When some seniors swore they saw Caroline Tate walking up and down Highway 41, on two
separate occasions, I felt like I’d won the lottery. There aren’t a lot of disgruntled spirits in
Manchester for me to practice on. My last practice session was over two weeks ago. This was my chance to see if something worked. I mean, if you had a ghost haunting you, wouldn’t you want to practice controlling it?
            Ever since Phelia—
            My fingers touch the scar before I can stop myself. The ghoul screams. And Caroline wavers for a moment before all my desperation and guilt over what happened returns. I have to do this. I have to figure out how to communicate with Phelia and what kind of emotions I can expect from her when she comes.
             “Are you mad at your mother?” I ask her, quickly. The night is writhing and I have a feeling there is more than one ghoul now, but I don’t dare turn around, even if it is impossible to ignore all the movement.
            Caroline looks confused. Her fishy features swim in her face. “I was but…no.” Her “face” pinches. “I love my mother.” She repeats herself a couple of times until I wonder if I’m losing her.
            “Not the least bit resentful? You don’t blame her at all?” I press my fingernails into my
palm. Just a little pain. Not even enough to let my body take over, but enough to calm my mind.
Nothing I can do about my pounding heart like a constant thunder roll in my ears.
“I love my mom!”
My bones vibrate. I take a breath and release it slowly. “Excellent.”
            I open my bloody hand and slap her face—the gravestone really. I smear it, so that there
isn’t a fingerprint or anything that will make someone peg me as some kind of freak cultist defacing
a poor girl’s grave.  
            Having proven to myself that I can summon, contain, and control a ghost, I still have one more goal. I don’t wait to construct the door in my mind. I’ve been practicing this door ever since I found the spell in my mother’s book. Can a ghost be moved from one plane of existence to another? That is what I need to know. According to my mother’s spellbook:
            While it is not a witch’s right or duty to decide who stays or goes, a spirit can be safely moved to another
plane if it is a threat to a living person’s well-being. All attempts to communicate must first be made because some spirits rely on the living to execute unfinished business. However, if these efforts prove ineffective, moving a spirit along is another option.
            I could say with complete confidence that my best efforts to communicate with Phelia were not working out for me.
            First, I make a door to the other side in my mind and then “open” it. I see blinding crystal light and I feel Caroline pull away. It’s like she senses the drop off and swims hard in the opposite direction, away from the swirling drain. Don’t be scared. I think. Don’t worry, you are going to a better place.  She still fights me.
             Let me be clear. There isn’t actually a magical door inside my head that can send lost spirits to the afterlife. It’s more like a translation. I know Caroline isn’t supposed to be here, so I imagine a door for her to walk through that will take her wherever she needs to be. I don’t pretend to know, I don’t even try to imagine, what is on the other side of that door. I just create the door and I try to direct Caroline’s spirit, her energy, to the right place. This kind of visualization is pretty basic and it’s meant to help me focus my energy in the right way—working with ghosts or not.
            “No no no—” Her voice is weak and distant against the pulsing world beyond the door.
            “It’s okay,” I tell her. I give her all the reassurance I’ve got. “You’re going to be okay.”
            Of course, I’m not sure. I have no idea what is beyond that door and for a second I start to
get scared when I realize this, thinking Oh God, what if I send her somewhere horrible which only makes it
worse. Then suddenly, Caroline isn’t fighting anymore. In fact, she’s not even listening to me.
            Her face, the one in my mind (not in the tombstone because my eyes are closed now), lights up with happiness and she moves through me to the door without hesitation. I guess some people might be terrified they’d be possessed, having a ghost move through them, but Caroline doesn’t want my body. She wants whatever she thinks is beyond the door. My body shivers as she passes through, but otherwise I feel the same.
            Caroline, wait! I call at the last moment, as the chill of her is leaving me.
            She stops and the stillness of the moment almost costs me my focus. The world is pressing in on me again: sounds of the night, the feel of the cold wet ground beneath me, and the new drops of rain collecting on my eyelashes. The ghouls are still here, and more than one for sure because the smell of death is smothering me.
            I hold firm to the door I’ve made and to the crawling burn of magical energy rolling up and down my limbs to the trace of cold that is Caroline. I cling to her because I have one last thing to say.
            Caroline, I don’t know how it works over there, I begin. But if you run into someone named Phelia Bishop, someone who looks exactly like me, tell her I’m sorry. Tell her, I’m so so sorry.
            I am almost certain that Phelia isn’t on the other side. She is here, haunting me, blaming me for what happened—but just in case, because she doesn’t stalk me all the time.
            Who is she? Caroline asks.
            My sister, I tell her. Phelia’s my twin sister.
            Caroline leaves me so suddenly that it is like I am falling back to Earth. My limbs fill with
heaviness. My head hurts. It’s like I need to puke or maybe eat a granola bar. My hand is on fire
from cutting it open. The towel is the only thing I have to wrap it up as I shake and shiver in the
cold night.
            With Caroline gone, now I see them. All of six of them.
            Ghouls. Their teeth gnashing at the salt line. I check to see what I’ve got on me that might get me up and out of the cemetery safely. A spellbook, some half-used candles and four glass holders, and a mushy bit of obituary, a dishtowel that I am already using to cover my hurt hand and a dangerously low container of salt.
            In other words, I’ve got nothing.
            I press my back against Caroline’s stone and stare the small herd down.
            “Get comfy,” I mutter. This is going to be a long night.


POETRY
Evolution


The seaman took the boat out, roared
so far beyond the dock the water wasn’t grey anymore
but the translucent blue of unsettled ice.
They dropped their nets into the water,
pulled out starfish to collect on the deck.
Once the deck was so full the planks disappeared,
the seamen gathered them in their hands, one at a time
and tore the starfish into smaller pieces.
After separating each limb they tossed the fragments
overboard, grabbed another and began again.
They didn’t stop until the planks were clean
though wet and slick like their hands.
They did this to be rid of them, to save their oyster crop.
The men called it—control. At first they didn’t know,
if torn from their center, leaving a remnant of core still
attached to its limb, a starfish can remake itself.
But they learned when they returned after two summers
to find thousands of stars in the water.



 
Inverted

I have a suspicion the gypsies
are the closest to being right about these things:
a red sky rising behind a knot of trees

first thing in the morning means
don’t sail that day, storms imminent.
Or to see a bird spiraling, broken-winged:

your enemies will advance
and soon. Careful, now. How do they know this?
Who taught them the natural placements,

positions of this or that mean that or this?
When I walk through a spider web, I don’t think
“Wonderful, money’s coming!” and spit

on the ground for luck. I force back frank
panic because hell, there’s a spider on me.
And yet, I disagree with you if you think

gypsy fortune-telling
is rubbish. Nothing means what it’s supposed to.
What you think is, isn’t happening.

My father said I was too
big once. Compared to what?
Certainly not compared to the moon,

or the stars which must
look small from here but are actually bigger than our
whole planet, Moron. Oh, and they’re dead. But

he’s not the only one making these assumptions. All
of us are. You’re doing it now
with this poem. You think you understand all 

of its implications and finer technicalities. Wow,
what an ego you have. Maybe I don’t mean anything
by it at all. Maybe I’m just rattling and scouring

my own existence for a piece of anything
tangible I can trust. Dig up and dust the bones—thank God it is
done. Haven’t you been listening?

Nothing is done, ever. You make a list:
groceries, chores, errands. You scrawl it off with black ink
and I promise you’ll make a list with

the same shit on it a week, month from now. Think
about what I’m saying. Examples? Fine. When you clear your throat
it’s not to speak clearly. You don’t do the dishes for an empty sink.

She had her own reasons for wearing that ring, touching his throat
just to look at it in the light nearest him. And he has his own reasons too.
And he thinks she’ll never understand them which is why he boats

around Navy Pier even on cold Sundays in lieu
of church. Hey, judge your own religions, your reasons for reading poetry.
And it’s the same reason I went to

the damn gypsy to get my palm read.
But don’t worry, our reasons will continue to sustain us, even in the shadow
of a shadow we’ve named the wrong name.



 
World’s Strongest Man Dies

As with every feat, the point is mastery.
First I fathomed only the physical—muscle,
the tangible, what could be conquered
and molded by a man’s will. Possessing more
than another man was the point. There is
comfort in it, a sense of security derived
from such accomplishment. Take the New
York executive come down to Coney Island
to see my show. When I bent the quarter
between my forefinger and thumb, I saw it
in his eyes. He’d glimpsed
what he’d been looking for. It pleased me
back then—until I got to thinking. First came
what? as in what does bent quarters mean
to a man?
This is when I first saw the line,
you know. That line between surface tension
and the overlooked motions beneath.
The Jersey shore in summer.
You see all that sparkly water, a distant white
boat cutting insignificant waves. You forget
the squall is a mile away. The trump card ending
the game. And then came the why?
WHAT is always followed by WHY. I worked up
my own laundry list: I was strong for my sister.
These arms flew her to bed. Flew her
to breakfast. Over my head, her laughter breathed
warmth into the winter air. I was strong for
my widowed mother. The sight of a man
in a doorway, or squat between a half-devoured
plate and wooden chair, softened the corners
of her mouth. I was strong for me. I liked having
what the business man wanted, free of the suit. 
When my baby sister pulled the pan from the stove,
scalded her face and arms, again I got to thinking.
Surface tension. The world in motion. Her gauze
 wrapped limbs spoke of what a body cannot do.
And that’s what I was thinking about, on the corner
of 3rd and Wesley. My hands were in my pockets.
I fingered the corrugated edge of a quarter,
stepped off the sidewalk and inhaled the Jersey shore.
I thought, I am not the sun,
only the light reflected in the hood of a car.



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