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The Ghosting of Gods
By Cricket Baker
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2012 Cricket Baker
All rights reserved.
My secret fear is the priests are right to doubt me.
Cemetery. October winds have piled up dead leaves to cover the names of those sleeping here, like they don't matter. The iron gate resists me. I coax it open and knock over an abandoned lantern. It jingles, and I see that tiny bells are tied to its handle with wire. No doubt Poe placed the lantern there last night, a makeshift alarm to wake him if I showed up, but last night I was sleeping.
I ignore all the tombstones I pass so that I don't get distracted.
My gut tells me not to be here. But I have to act.
A storm front seeps across the northwest sky, bruising it purple. A spiritual color. This is just the sort of weather that will entice Poe outside, to write a few lines of poetry, and then he'll almost surely come after me.
Sinking to my knees, I take a steadying breath before facing my task. Her name on the stone helps to strengthen my resolve. Dead leaves stir, one in particular scratching at the carved date of Emmy's death. I set aside my hammer, place both palms down, and feel the grass on her grave. "It's me," I whisper. "It's Jesse. I'm still your big brother, and you have to listen to me. You have to come, Emmy. Now." Faint rumblings of thunder give way to a hush that falls over the graveyard. A pellet of hardened dirt strikes me on the cheek.
This is how it begins.
I make no move to shield myself as a bigger clod jiggles free from the earth to fling itself at my face. The sting of it sharpens my vision, helps me to focus on my sin so that I attract more of the dirt. Small eruptions of yellowed grass and black soil splatter my body until I'm covered in the same earth that buries my sister. This is justice.
The tragedy, as everyone in town calls it, happened.
Because I didn't protect her.
There's dirt in my eyes. I wipe at it. My sister's grave is a mess; little grass remains rooted. The cemetery around me fades as my hands begin to tingle. There's a heavy calm, then the earth over my sister's grave percolates gently. I can't wait any longer. Pawing clumsily at the ground, I seek what I need, sifting grave dirt like a demented archaeologist.
This is day nineteen. It started with me needing to see her, but then I realized she was trapped, in need of salvation.
I have a new plan.
I have a hammer.
Looking around, I make sure there are no witnesses. Other visits were late at night, to be careful, but Ava and Poe take shifts during the dark hours to make sure I'm not committing transgressions when I should be sleeping. If someone does happen along, maybe they'll believe I have good reason to be here since I'm employed by the priests. Everyone knows what I am.
A glimmer against the dark earth catches my eye. I swallow. Lean down to see better. It's a sphere. An orb. A time capsule containing the past.
A crystal ball.
This is what inspires the priests with dread, I'm certain of it.
The purple storm has arrived to conceal my actions. Squinting into the blur, I hesitate. A sheet of rain blowing off the caretaker's shed resembles the flowing robe of a priest. I consider the risk I'm taking here. The church will not forgive my attempt to unravel the mystery of ghosts. I accept this risk.
But what will they do to my friends?
I can't bear Emmy's suffering. I must end it. Now. And then never come back, no matter how much I want to.
Using a pine twig, I brush aside dirt so that the crystal is revealed.
Shadows shift within the sphere, white and gray and black, hiding the contents of the crystal ball. Carefully, I scoop away the dirt from beneath it. Loosed from the grave, it floats upward, bobbing in the rain like a fishing cork. It's a perfect globe two inches in diameter. As if tied to an invisible line, it refuses to blow away. It's anchored to Emmy's grave.
Unnatural light dances within the crystal. Shadows fade against the glow and a warped image begins to form.
The crystal ball contains a tiny Emmy in a ghostly world, her face pinched with fear as she looks back over her shoulder. I recognize the alley around her. See the trash bin. Inside the crystal ball, Emmy stumbles.
I'm desperate to stop the bad thing from happening, make it never happen—
The head of my hammer glances off the surface of the ball, only making it roll. I can't get a good hit on it. I suck in my breath, reach out with one hand, and grab the ball to hold it still. The skin of my palm sizzles with cold ... but I can now swing the hammer effectively. I bring it down with all my heart.
Falling from my singed hand, the crystal cracks. It breaks free of whatever anchor holds it. Wind carries the globe, spinning it, but I can see the murder scene within continuing to play. I chase after Emmy, reaching for the crystal ball that contains her life.
Cemetery soil levitates.
What the hell?
The crystal ball slips from my reach and rises, as if the sky is sucking it up through a straw.
It's not a straw. It's a vortex. A tunnel, black and writhing, has positioned itself directly over the cemetery. Emmy's crystal ball disappears into the blackness above. For a moment I am perfectly still, disoriented, my hand reached out—
The vortex pulls down, swallowing me.
Clanging seemingly comes from every direction. Clothing flutters against my face. As I twirl, my hands grab and find nothing. The clanging of the iron gate fades, and I realize this is no twister spawned from a storm. This is a vortex of another kind, and it's lifting me into heaven.
I smell dirt.
Light waits for me at the end of the tunnel, just like it's supposed to. I look back to see my body one last time. It's not there. The graveyard is empty, and a bad feeling comes over me. My ghost hasn't left behind my body. This vortex is malfunctioning, breaking Universal Law. Death is required to pass to another world.
Yet this vortex consumes flesh and blood.
Ahead of me, Emmy's crystal home disappears beyond the multiplying curves of the monster twister.
I'm flying, and I'm not alone. There are other people in the vortex with me. They speak, though the noise of the twister obliterates their voices. Help me. No one pays attention to me or even to the grave debris blowing around them. I recognize these people. Shame floods me. My secrets won't be contained here. I'm watching a movie of my life, a replay of badly edited scenes, one spliced into the next.
It's not my life. It's Emmy's.
I think ... I broke open the crystal ball containing Emmy's life, and now she's loose in the twister.
Despite the grit, I keep my eyes open and watch Emmy's life pass me by.
A birthday cake with pink icing and two candles. Painting a cookie plate for Santa Claus. Tears when the puppy is taken away. A splinter in her foot. Skipping through the water sprinkler. "Look no more far than your own back yard!" she shouts happily, faintly.
I need to grasp her fingers, hold her tight, but she whirls out of reach.
Ahead, the end of the tunnel is revealed behind the last of the twister's curves, and I see a pinprick of light. It appears to explode as I speed toward it.
I'm tumbling down. The ground rushes up at me, and I release my fists. Close my eyes. Surrender.
The vortex is gone.
Sunlight glares off broken glass in the town street. Rotting waste in an industrial garbage bin stinks up the alley, and Emmy is pinching her nose with her fingers.
"Ooey!" she says.
She points out the source of the smell with a chubby finger to the four boys who are following her. They're tossing stones into the air and winking at one another. "You won the lottery," one of them says. "Just like in the story Teacher read to us today."
Emmy doesn't notice me. She's talking to the boys. "That bad story scared me good," she says, and bends to tie her shoelace. Her shoes are on the wrong feet, and the boys laugh. Fumbling, she can't get the shoelace tied. "I need help," she announces.
My gaze settles on the small round stone that rises and falls from the hand of the boy named Jamison. He hates Emmy for being how she is. I hate him for hating her. My priests want me to forgive him. I will never. Please, no, don't hurt her, please, please.
Why can't I move? Why can't they hear me? She'll die again if I don't do something.
The scene lurches, speeds up on fast forward. They're getting away from me, down the alley, closer to the trash bin. Where are my legs? The scene pulls like taffy. I'm getting farther away instead of closer to Emmy.
Strands of Emmy's long hair catch in her mouth as she adamantly shakes her head. "I can to spell my name! E-M-M-Y."
One of the monsters throws a stone. It barely misses Emmy. Uncertainty fills my baby sister's eyes. She turns, looking over her shoulder at the boys, fear pinching her face. Again. She's chained to this past as much as I am, reliving it over and over.
The scene goes black, then starts up again in spurts, like a movie with projector problems. I have to save her, so I pray. I beg. I rage.
I'm supposed to be special. Why can't I help her?
Emmy's eyes find mine. She sees me at last. Her expression changes from bewilderment to one of calm. I'm aware of the returning vortex overhead, but I ignore it. She trusts me. I can see she's not afraid now that I'm here. "Jesse," she says, and when she does, I am overwhelmed with the presence of her.
Something wants to happen.
Strange. The boys continue their taunts, as if they don't see me. Stop it! Leave her alone! The boys draw near to Emmy, taking aim, and my horror swells. My lips move, I feel the vibration in my throat, but I can't hear myself speak.
No one notices the approaching vortex but me.
Emmy's eyes bore into mine. "Blessed are the poor in ghost," she says.
Out of the corner of my eye, Jamison throws his stone. The vortex sinks, obscuring my vision.
The alley is gone, the boys are gone, Emmy is gone. I'm back in the cemetery. Papery leaves scratch my face. Red, yellow, orange.
There is little evidence of the vortex that ripped into graves. Loose grass and dirt litter the cemetery, but every gravestone remains firmly planted.
I collapse outside the cemetery gate. Poe is calling my name.
we may hear them screaming
I struggle to stand back up before Poe can see me. He's down the sidewalk and coming my way. Hunched over in the drizzle and walking fast, he shakes his head like he can't believe what he's seeing.
"Jesse. Where did you come from?" His expression is puzzled. "You weren't here a second ago. I was about to leave when I heard you." His bony face registers concern. "You okay? Why are you covered in mud?" Stepping aside, he looks behind me, toward Emmy's grave.
Poe will not enter the cemetery to see what I might have done. It's bad enough he knows I passed the gate. Again. He simply waits for me to explain the mud, but I'm unable to say anything, my mind wrecked.
I was there. In the alley. But I didn't save her. What's wrong with me? My mouth opens, ready to tell Poe, but my gaze falls on the crucifix hanging around his neck.
Nothing. I can tell him nothing. For his own protection. Only a week ago, the priests lynched the last known medium in town. I don't speak of how ghosts know me or what happens when I purge dwellings of ghosts. There is a fine distinction, dangerously unrecognized, between a medium and an exorcist.
My priests are watchful, suspicious. Of me. They gather in secret rooms and speak in whispers.
I want to know why.
At last Poe looks away from me, turning his back against a gust of New Salem wind, and examines the sagging heavens. There's a lull in the rain. Lightning strikes not far away, flushing thunder into the earth. Poe rubs at his hair. He recently chopped it off short, but he still pulls at it when he's anxious, which is a lot. It's so blond as to be white, and thinned, showing the scalp beneath. He locks onto me with his lime-green eyes.
"You promised to go with me to the chapel. Today," he emphasizes, and holds out a small bottle. "Look, I picked up the holy water."
I press the heels of my hands against my forehead. Breathe.
I'd forgotten about the chapel. Poe acquired it as a writing workshop, a place to inspire his three passions: poetry and horror and God. The chapel is reputed to be haunted. Since the priestly order to abandon all graveyards, Poe decided the next best location for him to find inspiration was, in fact, a haunted dwelling. A haunted chapel, even better.
"You promised me, Jesse," he repeats. "And the priests insist I take you, just in case."
"Yeah." Chills. My blood is cold, remembering Emmy's words. Blessed are the poor in ghost. Why would she quote this verse? What was she trying to tell me? That she's frightened, that she doesn't want to be a ghost?
"Jesse? You said you'd go. I don't want anybody else doing the exorcism and going insane because of me and my new dwelling."
I wipe filth from my face and brush off my clothing. "I regret agreeing to the chapel." My voice is steady; I need him to believe I'm okay so that he'll leave me. "I'm not going after all. Besides, it's safe for you to go alone."
"But what if the priests—"
"What? Do you fear the priests?"
"Of course not. The priests are good." He closes his eyes. Opens them. "You look better. I think you can come with me."
I need him to leave. He can't see me go after Emmy. It's not safe. "Wouldn't you rather go see Ava?"
He seems to consider. "She's scary lovely," he murmurs.
She's disfigured. Below her clear blue eyes and slim, perfect nose is a chin partially eaten away by an aggressive infection she had as a child. She is both lovely and scary. This attracts Poe in a way no other girl ever could.
There's nothing to do but go with my best friend. At least for now. Pain pricks at me as we pass the end of the iron rails and leave the cemetery behind. It's because of Emmy, but that's not all of it. Graves hold a kind of power over me. An attraction. People in town have noticed.
I glance at the notebook Poe carries. It's covered with Ava's initials. Poe calls her by both her first and last names: Ava Lily. Says she's his Annabel Lee. He adores the works of his namesake, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Annabel Lee poem is one of his favorites.
"Ava Lily is home," Poe says after a long silence. "What will she say when she sees you filthy with dirt?"
"I need you to lie for me. Don't tell her where you found me. She'll only worry."
Slowing his steps, he keeps his eyes down.
We negotiate. He won't lie, but he won't go out of his way to inform on me, either. In return, I'll go to the chapel.
We pass newly carved pumpkins on our way. Poe stops to admire some of them. My town is burdened with houses full of amalgamated families on sustained charity, but no one has skimped on Halloween decorations. Pumpkin lanterns look better on these houses than Holy Night lights ever could, so the expense is worth it. No one has power for lights, anyway.
My shaky hands are hidden in my pockets, my voice is ridiculously loud and confident, but I don't know if I can keep down my queasy stomach.
I'm afraid for Emmy. But it's more than that. When will God hear me, give me a sign?
Pitted roads give way to dirt paths. Choosing one, we pass a few prayer altars and leave behind any curious eyes. Outside the town's jurisdiction, the chapel Poe seeks is abandoned. Only he would be interested in it. His tastes run counter to those of the general population. Hence his attraction to Ava. We have much in common.
Poe and I have an unspoken agreement: We do not speak of my past relationship with the girl he loves. We certainly don't talk about how she still lives with me.
Raindrops fall from electrocuted clouds, and I think how it's colder than it should be for October. Evergreen, mixed with rotting underbrush, scents the air. I inhale deeply. Intermittent tremors in my right leg cause me to stumble in the pine straw. Poe pretends not to notice. I try to concentrate on his explanation of the themes in Shelley's Frankenstein, but my mind drifts back to Emmy and graves and bad tunnels ending in light ...
"Hi, Jesse," Leesel shouts. She's covered head to foot in donated rain gear and looking smug. Poe groans. I'm surprised as he is to see we aren't alone.
She's Ava's seven-year-old adopted daughter. The real mother is dead, like so many following the last wave of plague induced by spiritual warriors. Leesel follows me around and tells me how she loves my funny weird way of exploring, especially in someone so old. I'm eighteen. Of course, her "mommy" is only nineteen. There are few older people left since the threshing holocaust, of course, so Leesel doesn't really remember what old looks like.
You would think she'd be scared to leave the town boundaries, but then, Leesel is a little scary herself. She's a bona fide genius, and like many true geniuses, she's different in unsettling ways. I love her like she's my own blood.
Unbelievable she's tracked us so far without us knowing it. Makes me nervous who else might be out here with us. I shoot her a stern look. "Leesel Lily. I thought you had testing today after school."
She rolls her eyes. "I'd rather know what you're doing. I told you yesterday I had no intention of submitting to their evaluations of my brain. They're ruining my life."
"So you've said. Does your mommy know where you are?"
There's no immediate answer. She takes her time tying her shoelace. "Sure. With you," she says.
The shoelace ... Emmy ...
Poe optimistically fakes a smile. "Hi, Leesel. You look cute in your pink rain coat. Neon! And I like those matching boots. But are you warm enough?" He tugs at his hair. "I think maybe you should go home."
She ignores him. Stares straight through him, as if she were blind or something. Poe flinches.
He bugs his eyes at me, but I'm not going to send Leesel home by herself. She knows this and beams at me. Zipping her rain jacket higher, she smoothes her crazy hair that's thick and kinky. Ava makes her tie it down in two waist-length braids for school, but once she's home, Leesel undoes the braids, letting her hair go wild so that you can hardly see her face beneath the bush. She's a cute little girl—hair dusky blonde, skin coffee and cream, eyes blackest black.
Poe massages his temples. I'm not real happy with Leesel myself. I can't have her shadowing me like this. What if she'd seen me go in the cemetery? As a witness, she would be guilty. Unless she turned me in.
She runs circles around us, singing something about a princess in the woods.
"She shouldn't be here," Poe whispers to me. "She needs to play with little girls her own age."
Using my forearm to block the limb Poe lets snap back at me, I keep my voice low. "You know the other kids don't like her. Give her a break. Keep being nice to her. Maybe she'll come around. They're working with her, according to Ava, trying to help her with her social issues."
Excerpted from The Ghosting of Gods by Cricket Baker. Copyright © 2012 by Cricket Baker. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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