As a consolation, here is the first chapter of the new book. I know that doesn't make up for being late, but it's all I got. I am so brain dead at this moment, I'm amazed I'm typing semi-coherent sentences.
I hope you enjoy chapter 1 of Broken Spirits!
ETA: Hold the phone! Amazon has done a terribly quick turnaround and Broken Spirits is now LIVE!
ETA: Now on Barnes & Noble!
As Mary walked home from school, all of her attention was focused inward on one thing: she was going to the homecoming dance. The fact still amazed her. She, the most feared girl in school, was going to homecoming. With a date.
It just boggled the mind. She’d talked to Kyle that day about the dance, and it’d been almost a total disaster. He still couldn’t believe she’d said yes, and she still couldn’t believe he’d asked her. Homecoming was two weeks away, and reservations had to be made and clothing coordinated. He’d wanted to know what color her dress would be. She had to tell him that she didn’t know. They talked about what sort of restaurant to go to. She liked Chinese, but he wasn’t a fan. He suggested a steakhouse. She unconsciously wrinkled her nose as she said okay. He quickly backpedaled and offered Italian. They agreed on that. She shook her head as she went over what they’d decided: dinner, leave from her place at five, and a white corsage. She’d been oddly touched that he wanted to give her one.
She stopped to get the mail. She leafed through it as she went up to the house. It was the usual credit card and car insurance offers. She grabbed the screen door to go inside and kicked the package waiting there. It was the size of a shoe box. She picked it up and saw it was for her.
“Oh, boy. What the heck is this?” she muttered, turning it around in her hands. She hadn’t ordered anything. Her name and address was handwritten in thick, black, blocky letters. There was no return address. It had a bit of heft. The postage said it weighed 1.57 pounds.
When she went inside, she didn’t call out to Gran because she knew her grandmother was in with a client. She dumped her book bag on the floor and set the package on the coffee table. She thought about leaving the package alone until Gran was done. Getting strange things in the mail felt like something to be suspicious of, but Gran wouldn’t be done for another hour at least.
She sat down on the sofa and found herself staring at the package. It looked innocuous enough. It wasn’t ticking or growling. Maybe it was a present. She didn’t know why someone would send her a present out of the blue, but it was a nice thought. The flip side was that it could be a piece of hate mail. Maybe it would turn out to be a voodoo doll made to look like her with all the limbs ripped off. Obviously, the voodoo doll hadn’t worked, but unfortunately, that seemed more likely than a present. If it were some sort of prank or hate mail, she would rather open it without Gran seeing it and becoming upset. And she was really curious about what it was. Maybe it was something she’d unknowingly lost?
She seized the box and gave it a careful shake to make sure she hadn’t missed any ticking or growling sounds. Or maybe she should worry about hissing. A box full of snakes would be bad, too. She held the box to her ear and heard no ticking, growling, or hissing. Satisfied that she was in no imminent danger from her mysterious package, she pried the tape up carefully. She slowly pulled open the flaps, wishing she’d thought to put on some sort of mask or eye protection. Maybe gloves. She should probably be wearing gloves, but she was too far along now to stop and equip herself. Once the flaps were totally peeled back, she allowed herself to fully look inside and found nestled on a bed of Styrofoam peanuts another box.
The inside box wasn’t cardboard but made from a dark wood, maybe walnut. The center of the top had a pentagram with intricate inlaid carving around it. She reached in to lift it out and received a physical shock. It was like a powerful static shock but with goose bumps. The shock passed quickly. She jerked her hand back and looked down at the box in distrust. The shock hadn’t hurt her, just startled her. She didn’t know what the sensation had been. It had not been normal. She quickly went to the kitchen and grabbed a pair of oven mitts. That would teach her to never keep going when she could stop and equip herself.
She came back to the coffee table with her hands safely covered and reached down to pick up the wooden box. She set it on the coffee table and placed the cardboard box to one side. She studied the wooden box’s top. The design looked vaguely Celtic, but she didn’t recognize it. The pentagram obviously meant it was an occult object, but she’d never been affected by an occult object before.
She tried to open it with her mitt-covered hands but couldn’t seem to get a good grip on the lid. She’d have to use her bare hands. She steeled herself and slipped off one of the oven mitts. Pinning the box to the coffee table with her still oven-mitted hand, she extended her bare index finger and let it just barely touch the box. Her finger tingled again, but the sensation died down pretty quickly. It didn’t go away exactly, it was like when she smelled something really strong, but then her nose got used to the smell and stopped smelling it. The tingle reminded her of when she held a ghost’s anchor. It was a psychic sensation, not a physical one. The psychic sensation wasn’t the same, though. An anchor had a low hum about it while this box had a higher buzz. She tentatively touched it with the rest of her fingertips. Each new contact tingled, but the sensation quickly faded away. Still perplexed, but feeling the box was safe, or at least safe-ish, she removed her other oven mitt and tried to open it.
The lid wouldn’t budge. She couldn’t figure out why. She saw no lock. It was obviously meant to be opened because it had small metal hinges on the back. Perplexed, she set the wooden box aside to look inside the cardboard box. She rooted around in the Styrofoam peanuts and snagged a folded piece of paper from the bottom. It had her name written on it. She opened the piece of paper and immediately went cold. It was a letter to her, and at the bottom, it was signed Ezekiel White.
If you’re reading this, then it means you have somehow killed me. I can’t fathom how, but the pig entrails are rarely wrong.
I send you this box, then, as my dying curse. Don’t bother trying to open it. You can’t. Don’t bother trying to destroy it, either. And get rid of it at your own peril.
Mary grabbed the cardboard box to look at the postmark. It was three days old. Mr. White had sent it the day he died. She couldn’t believe he’d sent it. Why would he have mailed anything to her? He’d intended for the Shadowman to kill her. She picked up the wooden box again, her confusion ruling out all of her caution. Even as her fingers tingled, she shook the strange box to hear what was inside. There was something, but it was muffled. She couldn’t tell what it was.
She could hear Gran finishing up with her client. Mary grabbed everything and took it to her room. She didn’t know what to make of it, but she didn’t want to show Gran. Mr. White’s betrayal and death had hit Gran really hard. Mary had found her looking through some old scrapbooks with a sad look on her face. When Mary had asked what she was looking at, Gran had closed the scrapbook and said “bygone times”. Her voice had sounded so sad that Mary hadn’t asked any further questions. She’d caught a glimpse of a black and white photo of a young Gran flanked by two men. She recognized Grandpa on her left and the other smiling man looked like Mr. White. They’d had their arms around each other’s shoulders and were all smiling widely for the camera. This final act of hatred would devastate Gran.
“Mary, are you home?” Gran called.
“Yeah, Gran. Just putting my stuff away.” She shoved the box under her bed and promised herself she’d come up with a better hiding spot later.
She went back down to the living room and joined Gran on the sofa. Gran had the remote and had turned the television to a game show. “How was your day at school?” she asked.
It’d been her first day back since Mr. White’s death, and with how crazy things had been, with how crazy she’d been, she hadn’t told her yet about Kyle asking her to homecoming. “It was fine. I’m going to homecoming with Kyle.”
Gran turned to her and blinked. “The boy we helped with Ricky?”
“You like him?”
She was kind of surprised by Gran’s incredulous tone. “Yeah, he’s pretty okay. Why?”
Gran shook her head and turned back to the television. “Nothing. I just thought you were interested in his brother.”
Mary grimaced at the mention of Cy. “I was, but he’s dating Vicky.”
“So now you like Kyle instead?”
She didn’t understand her questions. “Yeah, why?”
Gran waved off her question. “Nothing. That’s nice, dear.”
Feeling weird about Gran's questions, Mary rose from the sofa. “I’m going back upstairs to do homework.”
Gran nodded absently. “I’ll call you for dinner.”
“Where are you ordering from?”
Gran shrugged. “Don’t know. How do hamburgers and fries sound?”
“Sounds fine. Yell when the delivery person gets here.”
She went back to her room. She’d lied about doing homework. She’d get to it later. Right now, she needed to figure out what this box was that Mr. White had sent her. She pulled it out again and stared at it. What could the curse be? Mary had no experience with curses. Gran didn’t make them. As far as she knew, Gran had never been consulted to break one either. Mary remembered reading that deathbed curses were the worst kind. But she felt like Mr. White calling this his dying curse was a little melodramatic. When he’d written the note, he was alive and well. Remembering how sallow and thin he’d appeared, Mary amended that thought. He, at least, hadn’t been desperately fighting for his life at that very minute.
She stared and stared, but the box did nothing. If it was Mr. White’s dying curse, what was it supposed to do? How was it supposed to mess her up? She poked it to test the tingle. It was weird, but it wasn’t making her quake in her boots. She shook it again. Whatever was in there didn’t rattle around. There was just a dull thud sound.
“Mary, dinner’s ready!”
Ready? She pushed everything back under the bed and went downstairs to find Gran at the stove. She’d cooked dinner instead of ordering. Mary gave her a silent disapproving scowl as she swooped in and took the two plates of cheeseburgers and French fries. Mary had given up trying to make Gran use the crutches at home to keep weight off her sprained ankle, but she still tried to keep her from standing for any stretch of time. Gran’s ankle was on the mend, but it was slow. The swelling had gone down, but she still limped a lot and winced when she moved too quickly. Mary worried that Gran’s ankle wouldn’t fully heal if she didn’t keep off of it. As Mary rushed to get napkins, ketchup, and sodas out, Gran shut off everything on the stove and hobbled to her seat. Mary made a point of putting the cushioned footstool by her chair to prop up her foot.
“You know, you’re ignoring everything you told me when I hurt my ankle. You wouldn’t let me get up for anything. You tried to get me to use a bedpan.”
“That was only the first few days, and I’m much better now. It barely gives me any trouble.”
Mary shook her head, knowing better than to argue. She put ketchup on her cheeseburger and took a bite. No matter how much she nagged, Gran would always be more stubborn than her, just like she’d always be older. “How was your day?” she asked around her bite.
“So, so. Do you remember Mrs. Polk?”
Mary swallowed her bite with a painful gulp. Guilt and sorrow constricted her throat. “Did she come looking for Chowder?” Chowder had been Mrs. Polk’s dog. She’d left the ghost dog with them because he’d caused problems with her new living dog. He was supposed to have been safe with them. Instead, he’d been destroyed protecting them.
Gran reached over and patted her hand. “No, Mrs. Polk has lost her latest dog Tipsy, a Dachshund. She asked for my help finding him.”
“When you say lost, do you mean location-wise or road kill?”
“Location. She thought maybe I could sense him and tell her where to find him.”
“Can you do that?”
Gran sighed. “No, I’m not capable of that. I read her fortune and was able to tell her that Tipsy will reappear but not how or where. There are those who can do that. It’s called remote viewing. They think about what they want to see and it appears in their mind’s eye.”
“Huh. That sounds like a neat trick.”
“Yes, it was considered such a ‘neat trick’ that the CIA and the KGB tried to train soldiers to do it to help them with espionage.”
“Could anyone in our family ever do that?”
Gran didn’t answer right away. “I think I remember hearing about an uncle or someone who once could. Abilities are prevalent in our family.”
“How’d he use it?”
She shook her head. “I can’t recall.”
“Still, it sounds pretty neat. He could’ve been a detective, specializing in missing person cases. He could’ve been famous.”
Gran frowned. “He didn’t use it that way.”
Gran shook her head with a shrug. “Maybe because he wasn’t as clever as you.”
“Did anyone else have some different abilities?”
Gran smiled. “What? Precognition, clairaudience, and remote viewing aren’t enough for you?”
“I was hoping for some telekinesis or telepathy. Ooh, what about pyrokinesis?”
Gran laughed. “No, thank goodness.”
“So no X-Men in the family?”
Gran’s brow scrunched. “That’s one of your superhero movies, right? I watched it?”
“Yeah, it had the bald guy in a wheelchair. You thought he was cute.”
Gran grumbled. “Older men are not cute. He was hot.”
Thankfully, Mary wasn’t taking a sip of her soda when Gran said that, or she would’ve done a spit take.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
That Saturday, Mary had the house to herself. Gran had gone out shopping. She’d asked Mary if she wanted to go along, but she’d said no. She’d led Gran to believe she was going to just laze around the house, but she had plans. Or rather a plan. She was going to bury that box. Mr. White had sent it to her to mess with her. She still didn’t know how, but she wasn’t going to play along. Mr. White’s letter said she couldn’t open it or destroy it. Fine. She’d bury it and forget it. How was that for revenge?
She grabbed the trowel from the back porch and stopped short as déjà vu hit her. She’d too recently used the same tool to bury something else. Her hand with the trowel shook, and her eyes became wet. The grief hit her by surprise. She took a few deep, calming breaths. She couldn’t let it debilitate her. She needed to deal with the box.
Her first instinct was to bury it far away. Maybe not even on the property. She played with the idea of going out to find an abandoned lot somewhere filled with trash and junk, but she worried that that might activate whatever curse was on the box. She wished she could curse Mr. White for not telling her what the blasted curse he sent her was. Though the little dog deserved better company, Mary went to the crooked tree and began digging a few feet from Chowder’s mound. She couldn’t help speaking to the grave. Being able to speak to ghosts made it hard not to speak to someone even when their ghost was no longer there. It made her feel a little better, too.
“Hey, boy. Need you to guard something for me. Can you do that?”
She could almost hear the ghost dog’s pants, but they were only echoes of memories. Still, it made her smile to think about. One day unfortunately, the echoes would fade, and she’d have trouble even remembering what he’d looked like. Mr. White had done that. He’d taken Chowder away from them. She really wished she knew a curse that she could hurl at him even if he was dead.
She’d put the strange box back inside the cardboard box it had been mailed in so she wouldn’t have to touch it. She’d also put Mr. White’s letter in the cardboard box as well. Everything involved was going in the hole. She was hiding a lot from different people. She hadn’t told Rachel about destroying the Shadowman. She’d shut Kyle out from all of it. And now she’d resorted to literally burying her secrets from Gran. Mary wasn’t sure if she liked the person she was becoming. Lying and hiding stuff weren’t scary. They were underhanded and despicable. She couldn’t even bring herself to keep up a running chatter with Chowder. She felt alone.
She went back inside and turned on the TV to distract herself, but nothing was holding her attention. The box kept intruding into her thoughts. What had Mr. White sent her? What was it supposed to do? Her grand plan to forget it seemed to be failing. It was a relief when the phone started ringing. She checked the caller ID and recognized Rachel’s number.
“Hey,” she said in greeting.
Luckily, Mary knew Rachel’s voice so well that she recognized an exaggerated plea for help, as opposed to a sincere one. “What’s your mom trying to get you to do?” she asked.
“Clean the attic! It’s terrible. There are spiders and old stuff!”
Mary laughed. “So what do you want me to do?”
“Meet me at the park to study for a nonexistent English quiz?”
“Should I bring anything?”
“Snacks would be good. I’ll bring sodas.”
“Okay, I’ll meet you there.”
Mary left a quick note for Gran telling her where she’d gone and raided the kitchen. As she was closing a cupboard, her eyes went out the window to the crooked tree. She couldn’t see the fresh mound through the tall grass, but she knew exactly where it was. She worried the box might harm the tree. It had never been very healthy, but it had held on tenaciously all of Mary’s life. She hoped Mr. White didn’t manage to take something else from her.
Mary got to the park in twenty minutes. Rachel was already there, sitting at a picnic table. She’d probably sprinted there as soon as she’d hung up the phone. She had two sodas sitting out sweating.
“So what are we not studying?” Mary asked as she tossed a bag of cheese balls onto the table and sat down across from Rach.
“Vocab. I made a list of words. Here.”
Mary frowned as she took the sheet of paper. “You made a vocab list?”
“Had to show the parental units something. Dad will likely quiz me when I get home.”
“So you do have to study?” Mary asked, beginning to regret agreeing to Rachel’s scheme.
“Well, I already know the words, but you might want to learn them.”
“I have to study?” Mary was regretting even picking up the phone.
“Only if you want me to stay out of trouble.”
Mary frowned more as she began reading over the list. Rachel munched on cheese balls and played a game on her cell phone. Mary wasn’t too resentful of the surprise vocab lesson. It was a good distraction. She’d been dreading any questions her friend might have. Mary had told her Mr. White had died but not how. Considering he’d been old and recently in the hospital, Rachel hadn’t pressed for details. But she still thought the Shadowman was out there and that they should do something. Mary hadn’t planned on not telling her best friend any of it, but now she didn’t know how to even start. Or if she should tell her anything at all. It was over now. No need to rehash it. She wanted to forget all about it. Never mind the cursed box in her backyard.
Rachel always seemed to know exactly what not to ask, though. “Are you sure the Shadowman’s gone?”
Without lifting her head, because she worried her face might give something away, Mary answered, “He’s gone. Vicky even confirmed it.” The definition for caitiff jumped out of the list at her: a contemptible or cowardly person. Yeah, but she didn’t need to learn that word. She was embodying it.
“Has the Hickey popped in on any more of your dreams?” Rachel asked.
Mary finally looked up. “No, thank God. I think she was only able to do it because of the coma, but I can’t be sure. It’s not like I’m going to ask her.”
“You know I’m beginning to feel left out. Everybody’s developing mutant powers but me.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I think of you as a mutant.”
“Aw, aren’t you sweet.”
The girls shared a smile.
“Still wonder where the Shadowman went, though. And if it will come back,” Rachel said.
Mary stared back down at her list of vocab words. She was trying to channel sanguine. She put on a calm, confident air, though cheerfulness was tough even when she wasn’t hiding something. “If it comes back, we’ll deal with it. Some good flashlights are all we need.” Lying to Rachel turned Mary’s stomach, but she couldn’t tell her the truth. She focused on the next word: crucible. Was this a severe test? Or was this a situation of concentrated forces that would develop her into a stronger person?
Rachel snatched away the piece of paper. “Oh, forget that. I doubt Dad would quiz you anyway.” Mary wished she’d let her keep it. It had been a nice shield. “What I really want to know is where are you and Kyle going on your first date?”
Mary almost choked on her tongue. She wanted the vocab shield back. NOW. “What?”
“Your first date,” Rachel repeated.
“You mean homecoming?”
Rachel shook her head. “No, your first date. You two are like a couple now, right?”
Mary felt like she was a deer caught in the headlights of a car. Couple? What couple? Her and Kyle? “We’re going to homecoming together.” It seemed to be all she could say.
Rachel sighed disapprovingly. “That can’t be your first date. Homecoming is way too big to add first date stuff to it as well. Anyway, don’t you want to go on a regular date with him?”
Mary heard a car horn on that dark mental road. The headlights were getting brighter. She had no idea if she wanted to go on a regular date. The whole Kyle thing was so new.
“You should totally call him and ask him out! Take the initiative. It’ll make you appear super cool.”
The car wasn’t swerving as it came at Bambi-form Mary. Her ask Kyle out? “Wait, I don’t know if he’s into me that much. I mean he asked me to homecoming, that’s it. Maybe that’s all he wants to do?”
“Maybe, but you won’t know unless you ask him. Maybe he likes you more than you think.”
Rachel was the one driving that car and she was not slowing down. Ask Kyle out? Ask him how much he liked her? Why not ask him how he felt about having kids while they were at it? She was bolting. No way was she becoming road kill. “No, there will be no asking of anything.”
Rachel began giggling.
Mary shot her a look. “Were you teasing me?”
She nodded and kept giggling. “Your eyes kept getting bigger and bigger, and you actually started going pale.”
“So you weren’t serious about any of that?”
Rachel shrugged. “Well, some girls could do all that but obviously not you.”
“Obviously not?” Rach was right, but it stung a little to hear her say it.
“Oh come on, you’ve never had a boyfriend. You’ve been on one date and that was a total disaster. You have no relationship experience whatsoever.”
“Oh, and you’re an expert?”
“I’ve gone out more than you.”
“Yeah, but all you and skater boy did was go to skate parks.
“Still, those were dates.”
“You’d go there together and then he’d start doing jumps, and you’d watch from the sidelines.”
“I was being supportive.”
“You were bored out of your mind.”
“Fine. What are you and Kyle going to do on your date?”
“We’re not going on a date.”
“Then why’d he ask you to homecoming?”
That made Mary freeze. Why had he asked her? He’d said he liked her, but how did he know? They’d never hung out. She knew next to nothing about him. She didn’t know what type of music he liked or what sorts of shows he watched. They barely knew each other. Why like her? And did she like him? Was the car circling back to make another go at her?
“What if this is one big mistake? What if we totally hate each other?”
“That’s positive thinking.”
“I’m serious. He seems like a nice guy. Don’t get me wrong. It was sweet that he was worried about me during that stuff with Vicky, but we don’t know each other. What could we possibly have in common?”
Rachel sighed. “You won’t know until you go out with him. Like I said, ask him to the movies.”
Mary looked down at her fisted hands in her lap. She forced them open. She made herself take a few deep, even breaths. She couldn’t believe how nervous she’d gotten just from the idea of going out with Kyle. Rachel was right. If she planned to go to homecoming with him, she had to get more comfortable with him or the dance would be a complete disaster. “He’d probably want to see that Hollywood remake of that Japanese ghost movie.”
“And you don’t? Just don’t heckle the screen too loudly and get kicked out again. You two will have a fun time.”
“You were the one throwing popcorn.”
“Who wears heels to an abandoned house? It’s just insulting.”
They fell silent. Rachel asked, “Do you want me to ask him for you?”
“Oh, that’ll make me appear un-loserish in every way.”
“Fine. Just don’t stress about it. Do it like a band-aid. Don’t pick at it and draw it out, just ask him in one go.”
“What should I say?”
“You should say, ‘Kyle, movie, me, tomorrow?’”
Mary glared at her. “Why don’t I just hit him over the head with a club and drag him back to my cave?”
“Because he’s too big to drag. Just call him up and say, ‘Kyle would you like to go see a movie with me?’”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Yes, that’s it.”
“I’m still gonna screw this up. You know that, right?”
“Seriously, do you want me to ask him for you?”
Mary was ashamed to admit that she wanted to say yes.
“No, I’ll do it.”
“Atta girl. Just remember to breathe.”
“I gotta breathe, too? I’m no good at multitasking.”
“Promise me you’ll ask him.”
“Really? I have to?”
“How’d I get into this mess?”
“By going through a little thing called puberty.”
“I don’t think anyone would disagree with you.”