FOR USE IN SCHOOLS AND LIBRARIES ONLY. It's been months since the ghost of Anna Korlov opened a door to Hell in her basement and disappeared into it. Ghost hunter Cas Lowood's friends remind him that Anna sacrificed herself so that Cas could live, but he can't move on.
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KENDARE BLAKE holds an MA in Creative Writing from Middlesex University in northern London. She lives and writes in Lynnwood, Washington.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I think I killed a girl who looked like this once.
Yeah. Her name was Emily Danagger. She’d been murdered in her early teens, by a contractor working on her parents’ house. Her body was stuffed into the attic wall and plastered over.
I blink and mutter a vague answer to whatever question the girl next to me just asked. Emily’s cheekbones were higher. And the nose is different. But the shape of the face is so similar, it’s like I’m staring at the girl I tracked into the upstairs guest room. It took the better part of an hour, hacking with the athame at wall after wall as she seeped out of it, quietly trying to get behind me.
“I love monster movies,” says the girl beside me whose name I can’t remember. “Jigsaw and Jason are definitely my favorites. What about you?”
“I don’t much care for monster movies,” I reply, and don’t mention that neither Jigsaw nor Jason is technically a monster. “I like explosions, special effects.”
Cait Hecht. That’s this girl’s name. She’s another junior at Winston Churchill. She has hazel eyes, sort of too big for her face, but pretty. I don’t know what color Emily Danagger’s eyes were. By the time I met her, all the blood had leaked out of them. I remember her face, pale but not sightless, materializing through faded flower-print wallpaper. Now it seems dumb, but at the time it was the most intense game of dead-girl whack-a-mole ever. I was covered in sweat. It was a long time ago, when I was younger and more easily rattled. It would still be years before I’d go up against ghosts of any real strength—ghosts like Anna Korlov, the girl who could have torn out my spine anytime she liked, but wound up saving me instead.
I’m sitting in the corner booth of a coffee shop off Bay Street. Carmel’s across from me with two of her friends, Jo and Chad, who I think have been a couple since seventh grade. Gross. Beside me, Cait Hecht is supposed to be my date. We just saw a movie; I don’t remember what it was about but I think there were giant dogs in it. She’s talking to me with oversized gestures, cocked eyebrows, and teeth made perfect by a childhood full of retainers, trying to keep my attention. But all I can think is how much she looks like Emily Danagger, except far less interesting.
“So,” she says awkwardly, “how’s your coffee?”
“It’s good,” I reply. I try to smile. None of this is her fault. Carmel’s the one who talked me into this farce, and I’m the one who went along with it to shut her up. I feel like an ass for wasting Cait’s time. I feel like a bigger ass for secretly comparing her to a dead girl I killed four years ago.
The conversation stalls. I take a long drink of my coffee, which really is good. Full of sugar and whipped cream and hazelnut. Under the table, Carmel kicks me and I almost spill it down my chin. When I look up she’s talking to Jo and Chad, but she meant to do it. I’m not being a proper date. There’s a tic starting underneath her left eye.
I briefly contemplate making polite conversation. But I don’t want to encourage this, or lead Cait on. It’s a mystery why she wanted to go out with me anyway. After what happened to Mike, Will, and Chase last year—Mike getting murdered by Anna, and Will and Chase eaten by the ghost that killed my father—I’m the pariah of Winston Churchill. I was never linked to their murders, but everyone suspects. They know that those guys hated me, and that they ended up dead.
There are actual theories about what might have happened, big, swirling rumors that circulate and grow before finally reaching epically ridiculous proportions and dying off. It was drugs, people whisper. No, no, it was an underground sex ring. Cas was supplying them with amphetamines so they could perform better. He’s like a druggie pimp.
People pass me in the halls and avoid my eyes. They whisper in my wake. Sometimes I second-guess my decision to finish high school in Thunder Bay. I can’t stand that these idiots have all these theories, most of them outlandish to the extreme, yet none of them have thought to mention the ghost story that they all knew. No one has ever talked about Anna Dressed in Blood. That, at least, would be a rumor worth listening to.
Some days, I open my mouth to tell my mom to get ready, to find us another house in another city where I could be hunting any number of the murderous dead. We’d have packed up months ago had it not been for Thomas and Carmel. Despite all efforts to the contrary, I’ve come to rely on Thomas Sabin and Carmel Jones. It’s weird to think that the girl across the table, giving me secret dagger eyes, started out as just a mark. Just a way to know the town. It’s weird to think that I once saw Thomas, my best friend, as an annoying, psychic tagalong.
Carmel nudges me again and I glance at the clock. Barely five minutes have passed since the last time I looked. I think it might be broken. When Cait’s fingers slide against my wrist, I pull away and take a drink of my coffee. I don’t miss the embarrassed and uncomfortable shift of her body when I do it.
All of a sudden, Carmel says loudly, “I don’t think Cas has even researched colleges yet. Have you, Cas?” She kicks me harder this time. What is she talking about? I’m still a junior. Why would I be thinking about college? Of course, Carmel has probably had her future planned out since preschool.
“I’m thinking about St. Lawrence,” Cait says when I just sit there. “My dad says St. Clair might be better. But I don’t know what he means by better.”
“Mm,” I say. Carmel’s looking at me like I’m some kind of idiot. I almost laugh. She means well, but I have absolutely zero to say to these people. I wish Thomas were here. When the phone in my pocket starts buzzing, I jump up from the table too fast. They’ll start talking about me the minute I’m out the door, wondering what my problem is, and Carmel will tell them I’m just nervous. Whatever.
It’s Thomas calling.
“Hey,” I say. “Are you mind reading again, or is this just good timing?”
“That bad, huh?”
“No worse than I thought it would be. What’s up?”
I can almost feel him shrug through the phone. “Nothing. Just thought you might want an escape route. I got the car out of the shop this afternoon. It could probably take us down to Grand Marais now.”
It’s on the tip of my tongue to say, “What do you mean, probably?” when the door of the coffee shop opens and Carmel glides out.
“Oh, shit,” I mutter.
She stops in front of me with her arms crossed over her chest. Thomas’s tiny voice is chirping, wanting to know what’s going on, whether he should swing by my house and pick me up, or not. Before Carmel can say anything, I put the phone back to my ear and tell him yes.
* * *
Carmel makes our excuses for us. In her Audi, she manages to keep up the silent treatment for all of forty seconds as she drives through the Thunder Bay streets. As we go, there’s that odd coincidence of the streetlights turning on just ahead of us, like an enchanted escort. The roads are wet, still crunchy with lingering ice patches at the shoulders. Summer vacation starts in two weeks, but the town doesn’t seem to know it. Late May and temps still dip below freezing at night. The only indication that winter is ending are the storms: screaming, wind-driven things that go out over the lake and swing back in again, rinsing away the wreck of winter sludge. I wasn’t ready for so many months of cold. It clamps around the city like a fist.
“Why did you even bother to come?” Carmel asks. “If you were just going to act like that? You made Cait feel really bad.”
“We made Cait feel really bad. I never wanted to do this in the first place. You were the one who got her hopes up.”
“She’s liked you since chemistry last semester,” Carmel says, scowling.
“Then you should have told her what an ass I am. Made me sound like a moronic jerk.”
“Better to let her see it for herself. You barely said five words to anyone.” She’s got this disappointed squint on her face that’s hovering close to disgust. Then her expression softens and she pushes her blond hair off of her shoulder. “I just thought it would be nice if you got out and met some new people.”
“I meet plenty of new people.”
“I mean living people.”
I stare straight ahead. Maybe she meant that as a jibe about Anna, and maybe she didn’t. But it pisses me off. Carmel wants me to forget. To forget that Anna saved all of our lives, that she sacrificed herself and dragged the Obeahman down to Hell. Carmel, Thomas, and I have been trying to figure out what happened to her after that night, without much luck. I guess Carmel thinks it’s time to stop looking and let her go. But I won’t. Whether I’m supposed to or not doesn’t matter.
“You didn’t have to leave, you know,” I say. “I could’ve had Thomas pick me up there. Or I could have walked.”
Carmel chews her pretty lip, used to getting her way. We’ve been friends for most of the year now, and she still gets this puzzled puppy face when I don’t just do what she says. It’s strangely endearing.
“It’s cold out. And it was boring anyway.” She’s unruffled in her camel peacoat and red mittens. The red scarf at her neck is carefully knotted, despite the fact that we left in a hurry. “I was just doing Cait a favor. I got her the date. It isn’t our fault if she couldn’t dazzle you with her charm.”
“She has good teeth,” I offer. Carmel grins.
“Maybe it was a bad idea. You shouldn’t force it, right?” she says, and I pretend not to notice the hopeful glance she gives me, like I should keep this conversation going. There’s nowhere for it to go.
When we get to my house, Thomas’s beat-up Tempo is parked in the driveway. I can see his silhouette inside, talking to my mom’s. Carmel pulls in right behind it. I expected to be dropped at the curb.
“We’ll take my car. I’m going with you,” she says, and gets out. I don’t object. Despite my best intentions, Carmel and Thomas have joined the ranks. After what happened with Anna, and the Obeahman, cutting them out wasn’t really an option.
Inside the house, Thomas looks like one big wrinkle plopped down on the sofa. He stands up when he sees Carmel, and his eyes do their usual googly routine before he adjusts his glasses and goes back to normal. My mom is sitting in the chair, looking comfortable and motherly in a wrap sweater. I don’t know where people get these ideas that witches all wear a metric ton of eyeliner and bounce around in velvet capes. She smiles at us and tactfully asks how the movie was, rather than how the date went.
I shrug. “I didn’t really get it,” I say.
She sighs. “So, Thomas tells me that you’re going to Grand Marais.”
“Seems like as good a night as any,” I say. I look at Thomas. “Carmel’s coming too. So we can take her car.”
“Good,” he replies. “If we take mine we’ll probably wind up on the side of the road before we even cross the border.”
There’s a brief moment of awkwardness as we wait for my mom to leave. She’s not a civilian by any means, but I try not to bother her with details. After my near death this past fall, her auburn hair has become peppered with white.
Finally she stands and presses three small but very smelly velvet bags into my hand. I know what they are without looking. Fresh, herbal blends of her classic protection spell, one for each of us. She touches my forehead with a fingertip.
“Keep them safe,” she whispers. “And you too.” She turns back to Thomas. “And now I should get to work on more candles for your grandfather’s shop.”
“The prosperity ones have been going faster than we can get them on shelves.” He grins.
“And they’re so simple. Lemon and basil. A lodestone core. I’ll stop in with another batch by Tuesday.” She goes up the stairs, to the room she’s taken over for spell work. It’s full of block wax and oils and dusty bottles of herbs. I hear that other mothers have entire rooms designated for sewing. That must be weird.
“I’ll help you pack the candles when I get back,” I say as she vanishes up the stairs. I wish she’d get another cat. There’s a cat-shaped hole where Tybalt used to be, floating in her footsteps. But I suppose it’s only been six months since he died. Maybe that’s still too soon.
“So, are we ready?” Thomas asks. Under his arm there’s a canvas messenger bag. Every scrap of info we get on a particular ghost, a particular job, he stuffs inside that bag. I hate to think how quickly he’d be tied to a stake and burned if anyone ever got hold of it. Without looking into the mess, he reaches in and does his creepy psychic thing, where his fingertips find whatever he’s after, every time, like that girl from Poltergeist.
“Grand Marais,” Carmel murmurs as he hands the papers to her. Most of it is a letter from a professor of psychology at Rosebridge Graduate School, an old crony of my dad’s, who, before buckling down and shaping young minds, expanded his own by participating in trance circles led by my parents in the early 80s. In the letter, he talks about a ghost in Grand Marais, Minnesota, rumored to inhabit an abandoned barn. Six deaths have occurred on the property over the last three decades. Three of them have been deemed as under suspicious circumstances.
So what, six deaths. Stats like that don’t make my usual A-list. But now that I’m rooted in Thunder Bay, my options are limited to a few road trips a year and places I can get to over the weekend.
“So, it kills by making people have accidents?” Carmel says, reading over the letter. Most of the barn’s victims appeared to be accidental. A farmer was working on his tractor when the thing slipped off the bricks and pinned him. Four years later, the farmer’s wife fell chest-down on a pitchfork. “How do we know they aren’t really accidents? Grand Marais is a long drive for a no-show.”
Carmel always calls the ghosts “it.” Never “he” or “she” and rarely by name.
“Like we have anything better to do?” I say. In my backpack, the athame shifts. The knowledge of it there, tucked into its leather sheath, sharp as a razor without ever needing to be sharpened, makes me uneasy. It almost makes me wish I were back on that damned date.
Ever since the confrontation with the Obeahman, when I found out that the knife had been linked to him, I … I don’t know. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. It still feels like it’s mine. And Gideon assures me that the link between it and the Obeahman has been severed, that the ghosts I kill now no longer go to him, feeding him and increasing his power. Now they go where they were supposed to go. If anyone would know, it would be Gideon, over in London, knee-deep in musty books. He was with my dad since the beginning. But when I needed a second opinion, Thomas and I went to the antique shop and listened to his grandfather Morfran run through a speech about how energy is contained on certain planes, and that the Obeahman and the athame don’t exist on the same plane anymore. Whatever that means.
So I’m not afraid of it. But sometimes I feel its power reach out and give me a shove. It’s a little bit more than an inanimate thing, and sometimes I wonder what it wants.
“Still,” Carmel says, “even if it is a ghost, it only kills once every few years? What if it doesn’t want to kill us?”
“Well,” Thomas starts sheepishly, “after the last time we came up empty-handed, I started working on this.” He reaches into the pocket of his Army surplus jacket and pulls out a circular piece of light-colored stone. It’s flat and about one inch thick, like a large, fat coin. There’s a symbol carved into one side, someth...
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