Careers and Storytime [fiction]

Long ago, I typecasted Vree as a main character-of-interest with an INFP personality. For the most part, INFPs are highly curious, inquisitive, innovative, highly creative, and people who enjoy doing things by themselves … ALONE. Vree has always been an excellent artist, but one who enjoys working in solitude. It’s difficult to craft action stories around a person who would rather be alone making art than being center stage, resolving a central story problem. It’s like trying to pound a large square peg through a small round hole. The writer must spend extra time whittling the character down until she is cooperative, supportive, and flexible with people trying to help her, while being passionate and energetic enough to put her own personal stamp on her work. Sometimes, finding the passion and drive in an INFP character who would rather be somewhere else, doing something else, alone, is maddening.

But I digress. Vree needs a career appropriate to her personality.

In past stories, I experimented with making her a minister. This idea came from the book, Do What You Are (third edition, 2001), by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger. The book was—and still is—a useful reference for creating character personalities based on the 16 types (discussed in my last post), and to give my characters jobs. For the INFP, Do What You Are lists careers in Arts, Education, Counseling, Religion, Health Care, Organizational Development, and Technology.

From Arts, I chose Artist, Writer: poet/novelist/journalist, Editor, Architect, and Musician as possible careers for Vree. After all, can’t she have more than one career?

From Education, Counseling, and Health Care, College Professor of humanities/art, High School Counselor/Nurse, and Librarian interested me.

I passed over Technology and Organizational Development because I could never see Vree satisfied working in a business field. However, websites such as indeed.com and truity.com claim that INFPs’ sensitivity to the emotions of others and their supportive nature makes them valuable team members with people that have similar passions of discussing complex topics, being creative, and use big-picture thinking.

Still, I can’t see Vree working 9 to 5 in a diverse and technology focused high-stress business, dealing with sales, customers, and meetings. She would lose her mind.

She needs lots of quiet time, which is why I made her a minister—an ideal job for an INFP character because it allows her to be on her own when her church is not in session. In 2006, I co-authored and published a short story based on this idea at my old blog. I changed Vree’s name in the story, which I always did when I published stories about Vree when she wasn’t a teenager—I was never committed to write about a grownup Vree until now. As a bonus, I have attached that story at the end of this post.

I can still see Vree as a minister. She could paint and sell her art at shows, write novels, work part-time in a library, and write, sing, and record her own music for an independent record label. Would that leave her time for a husband, her obligations as a minister, and some rest and recreation to recharge? I don’t know. But I’m willing to make her that kind of character.

Next on the agenda, I must consider where she lives, what sort of home life she has, and what her husband’s personality is like. Stay tuned.

And now, as promised, story time:

Haunted

Co-authored with Lola Gentry-Dey, 2015.

How could such a beautiful house be haunted? To know the place, it looked no different from any other Victorian country house in Ridgewood.

Reverend Gloria Jackson walked the estate’s sunny grounds that October evening and sensed the leftover energy of a time when wealthy Victorians spent an incredible amount of time socializing inside their homes. In Victorian America, nothing displayed your status like your house, and the house of a successful Victorian family was more than merely a home; it was a statement of their taste, wealth, and education. This house was one of them, preserved to remain impressive through time by superb artisanship and great care. Sprawling over half an acre, with its neatly manicured lawn and shrubbery, it seemed at first glance the most unlikely of places to house demonic spirits.

“Fiona was calling forth the dead,” Melissa Bay told Gloria after dinner later that Friday night. Melissa, a strong-backed woman, sat across from Gloria at the long table. Richard sat to Melissa’s right inside the spacious dining room.

“That’s an alarming statement,” Gloria said.

“It’s true.” Richard sounded ashamed. “She wrote all about her occult doings in her diary.”

When Gloria asked what diary he meant, he fetched a black leather book atop a china cabinet. Gloria leafed through the diary and listened over a glass of tawny port.

Melissa said, “As you know, reverend, when her husband Charles died this past summer, Fiona withdrew. But she seemed happiest inside her library, so we left her alone to paint and read there. It was the library she withdrew to after the funeral. She barely ever left that room.

“Then I discovered this morning that she had locked herself inside. She refused to let me in. Her voice sounded agitated … upset, so I called Richard.”

“I had to kick in the door,” Richard said. “And that’s when, crazy as it sounds, she wasn’t there — and all the windows were locked.

“Even crazier was when we found a Ouija board and tarot cards inside, as well as her diary which tells of how she has been trying over the past several months to conjure up my father’s spirit.” Sadness and confusion twisted his features into a horrible grimace. “What’s happening?” he asked. “What has she done?” He shook his head and groaned before Gloria could answer. “Until today, I never believed in the paranormal, the metaphysical.” He searched Gloria’s face for answers. “What happened to my mother?”

Gloria’s wine glass flew from the table and shattered against the stone fireplace across the room. The Bible she had brought with her—which she had placed the diary on top of—followed her glass. The diary remained unmoved.

Surprised, Gloria and Melissa yelped. Richard cried out, “Mother.” He jumped to his feet. “Is that you?”

The air turned frigid and burned against Gloria’s cheeks. She felt a winter-blooming nip at the tips of her ears and nose.

Richard yelled at the room. “Where are you? Show yourself. Please.”

Large and heavy books thumped to the floor inside the library across the hall from the dining room. Then the chill left and all quieted.

Richard settled his nerves with a hearty gulp from the wine bottle—glasses and etiquette be damned, Gloria reckoned, considering the circumstances. Richard went to the library door where either he or Melissa had nailed a cross to the damaged door as Gloria had instructed earlier during their phone conversation. Richard cursed all that is holy. When he finished, he said, “Exorcise the place, reverend. Whatever my mother has done, fix it. Please.”

Gloria joined him at the door. It had taken great force to open the large oak door. She fingered the splintered wood. “Tell me about the voices,” she said.

“Whispers,” Melissa said as she joined them. “Vague chattering whispers.”

“And laughing,” Richard added. “A woman’s laugh, but not my mother’s.”

Gloria removed the cross from the door and stepped inside the library. A chandelier lit the room and seemed to turn the oak bookshelves and furniture to gold. She helped Richard and Melissa replace the toppled books, many of them art history texts and artists biographies. Outside the room’s tall, rectangular windows, the night had become pitch black. A clock inside the dining room chimed seven o’clock.

A painter’s large easel stood near a window. As Gloria looked at the portrait, the unfinished canvas showed the swift strokes of a seasoned painter. Fiona Bay had sketched her subject with lines of umber and sienna, whisked in golden hues next to gentle blues and pink, and had started forming the glow of flesh with buttery mounds of paint. The woman in the unfinished portrait seemed to be dressed in multicolored satin linens and silk scarves. Her face was promising the color of the finest gold, ruby and sapphire. Her eyes sparkled emerald green and sky blue. Her unpainted long hair flowed down a seemingly endless body of shapely beauty.

“Absolutely beautiful,” Gloria said of the painting and the subject. “She looks familiar. Who is she?”

“I don’t know,” Richard said. “No one has been to the house to sit. My mother likes her time alone, even before father died.”

Gloria looked back at the painting. The cheeks and mouth were refined, as though someone had added paint to the portrait while she had looked away.

She looked away and back again. There was no mistaking it: The painting appeared to be painting itself.

Melissa screamed. “The light. At her easel. What is it?”

Gold light grew suddenly in front of the easel. Inside the brightness, an apparition of Fiona painted with excitement. Unaware of Richard, Melissa and Gloria, Fiona rushed her canvas and painted, and then stepped back to admire her work before repeating the process.

At Fiona’s side was her soul-stealing succubus dressed in a multicolored chiffon robe.

“Keeley.” The color fell from Gloria’s face. Even the fearful cry of the female demon’s name somehow permeated the room with beauty.

“Who is Keeley?” Richard asked.

Gloria’s throat tightened. “Someone I thought I’d never see again.” She thrust her Bible at arm’s length. She had to save Fiona, no matter the consequences. “Set her loose, demon.”

Keeley laughed. Tittered, actually. “The poet is a ministrant. Oh, my long-ago lover, what have I done to you?” She took a step forward and her robe flowed with her.

Gloria told her to stay back, but Keeley advanced slowly, her gaze fixed on Gloria.

Melissa grasped Gloria’s left arm. “Reverend, who are you talking to?”

Gloria thrust her Bible into Melissa’s arms. “Count to ten, then you and Richard go to Fiona. Get her out of here while I distract the demon. Then lock the door and bar it with another crucifix.”

“I see no one,” Richard cried out. “Only that strange light around my mother’s easel.”

“Go into the light, Richard. Your mother is there. You must pull her out while I distract the demon.”

Before he could object or ask any more questions and put all their lives at risk, Gloria rushed into Keeley’s warm, tender and passionate embrace. Evil was not always cold.

“I knew I’d find you again,” Keeley said. Her fervent kiss fell upon Gloria’s lips. Her spicy smell and taste came delivered more delicious than Gloria remembered. Keeley’s long, soft hair—now a gorgeous mélange of burnt sienna, gold, and black—brushed Gloria’s face. It aroused her, but not as it had done more than twenty years ago when she and Keeley were college students.

Within Gloria’s concerned gaze, Richard and Melissa pulled Fiona from the room. Fiona struggled but Keeley’s hold on her had weakened. Gloria expected Keeley to intervene. She didn’t. Her mouth writhed wickedly against Gloria’s and her eyes fluttered with passion.

The door slammed shut. Fiona was safe on the other side.

The kiss ended and Keeley’s embrace weakened. She took the cross from Gloria’s hand and dropped it to the floor. “We won’t need this where we’re going,” Keeley said. Her teeth penetrated Gloria’s neck.

Gloria’s concerns fell away as she plunged into a familiar world of darkness she found both sinful and heavenly.

# # #

Hellhounds Unpublished, Chapter 4 [fiction]

A fun piece of writing that my friend Lola Gentry-Dey and I wrote many years ago for my Night of the Hell Hounds story I started in 1999. This cliffhanger never made it into the published short story.

Ashley started to stand, uncertain of where to look first, when one of Jerry’s beefy hands clutched her by the shirt and whisked her to her feet. The force snapped the front clasp of her bra and her breasts loosened against her shirt. For a moment, she remembered Daryl’s soft caresses while they embraced in her bedroom—caresses that had quickened and hardened and became aggressive. For a moment, she remembered her love turning into fear, anger, and finally disgust.

She pulled from Jerry’s grasp, turned away and struggled without success to fix the undone clasp.

Jerry shouted. “You guys see it?”

“No,” Sherry and Daryl said. Sherry sounded excited but Daryl sounded unconvinced.

Ashley looked down at the burned remains of the house and saw Ben Myers’s ghost walking across the ash and grasses that had once been a floor. The ghost looked real, as solid as the foursome standing on the ridge above. Then the ghostly image wavered and disappeared.

“Did you see that?” Jerry said. He looked happy for a moment. Then fear contorted his face into an image of shocked realization. His breathing became forced. “It’s real. Ben Myers’s ghost is really real.” He trembled.

The wailing in the ravine stopped and the sound of barking dogs took its place.

“H-hellhounds,” Jerry said. “Do you hear them?” He stumbled backwards, tripped over his guitar and fell hard on his butt. His face looked deathly white in the moonlight.

“I hear them,” Sherry said. She looked startled as she drew closer to Daryl. She reached out to him, then stopped. The confused look on Daryl’s face told her that he didn’t hear the hellhounds. She turned to Ashley. The vicious barking below them had grown louder. As it drew closer, so did the brutal pounding of invisible paws against the ground.

Jerry’s eyes widened as he looked at Sherry and Ashley. “Run,” he said. “They’re coming to get us.” He used his guitar to force himself up. Then he staggered away.

Sherry called after him, hollered for him to come back, but the surging howl of hounds drowned out her voice. She ran after her brother across brushy ground illuminated by moonlight.

“This isn’t good,” Ashley said to Daryl. She tried to control the fear gripping her like a winter chill. “You’re the only one who doesn’t hear the hellhounds. But the rest of us do and I’m getting out of here.”

Daryl sputtered. “First it was Ben Myers’s ghost. Now it’s hellhounds. You’re all crazy.” He pointed at the empty hillside. “There’s nothing there.”

The barking grew louder. Ashley saw a cluster of tiny blue-green will-o-wisps blinking and swarming toward her. Behind them, the pack of hellhounds came fast. They barked and growled, and in their midst she saw their red eyes of death. She turned and screamed and ran.

Suddenly, a hand tugged at her right shoulder. Fingers dug into the flesh and Daryl brought her to a halt. She struggled to break free.

“Let me go,” she screamed. Tears stung her eyes; fear and anger burned her cheeks. She wondered what she had ever loved about him.

“Leave me alone.” She slapped his face hard and Daryl dropped his grasp of her as he placed a hand over his quick-flaming cheek.

Ashley bolted and ran after Sherry and Jerry. She glanced back once to see the will-o-wisps fly through Daryl’s body. The dogs came next, several of them passing through Daryl the nonbeliever who stood in their path.

She wanted so much not to believe, too. But she did, and it terrified her to know that the strange things chasing her could kill her and Sherry and Jerry.

She quickened her pace and ran blindly into an angry black sea of brambles and thorny weeds that slapped and poked and grabbed at her, scratched her face and forearms, tore away long strands of hair, and scarred her jeans and tennis shoes.

The hellhounds came fast on her heels. The blinking lights were at her back. Ademia had called them will-o-wisps, but Ashley knew they were beacons for the evil hellhounds coming after her, zeroing in on her fear of them. But more importantly, her fear of death.

Her pounding heart pushed at her chest as she fought through the briars. Her cries climbed up her throat, tried to become screams, but became lodged as she gasped to breathe, her inhales and exhales sounding like whimpers.

Then she was free from the briars and running toward the cliff tops of Myers Ridge. Jerry stood against the starry night sky. Sherry was with him, their backs to her. They had reached the edges of Myers Ridge; there was nowhere else to go.

She ran to her friends, afraid for them, terrified of what would happen when the horrible creatures behind her caught up to them.

As she put out her arms to embrace them, wanting to protect them, to smother them with love, hoping for a miracle of salvation, she stumbled between them and went over an edge of Myers Ridge.

Original Ending of Night of the Hellhounds [fiction]

I recently found this on a backup floppy disk, lol. My friend Lola Gentry-Dey and I wrote this in 2001 for a story I started way back in 1974. Our ending went through many manifestations before we scrapped the project.

Ashley stood, uncertain of where to look first, when one of Jerry’s beefy hands clutched her by the shirt and pulled her against him. His fist snapped the front clasp of her bra. For a moment, she recalled Daryl’s hard and aggressive hands there while they embraced in her bedroom. For a moment, she remembered being in love before love turned into anger, and then hatred.

“Do you guys see it?” Jerry shouted as he released his grip. His attention focused again on the burned remains of the house below them.

Ashley pulled her arms inside her shirt and struggled out of her bra while she looked down at and saw Ben Myers’s ghost walk across the ash and grasses that had once been a living room floor.

“No,” Sherry and Daryl said beside her.

“It’s real. Ben Myers’s ghost is really real,” Jerry said. He looked happy for a moment. Then fear contorted his face into an image of shocked realization. His breathing became forced. “It’s … real.” He stumbled backwards, tripped over his guitar in front of his tent and fell hard on his butt.

The ghostly image below them wavered and disappeared. Nine barking hounds took Ben Myers’s place and barked at the four teenagers atop the hill.

“H-hellhounds,” Jerry said. “I hear them.” He looked deathly white in the midnight moonlight.

“I hear them, too,” Sherry said. She looked startled as she drew closer to Daryl.

Ashley also heard the dogs. Their vicious barking below had grown louder. She watched them assemble shoulder to shoulder at the bottom of the hill.

“They’re coming to get us,” she said. She looked at a frightened Sherry, then at a squinting Daryl. The confused look on his face told her that he didn’t see the hounds.

“You guys are crazy,” he said.

Pounding of paws against the ground kept Ashley from telling him that they weren’t crazy. She stumbled back as she saw the hounds charging up the hill.

“Run,” Jerry said. He had used his guitar to force himself up. He dropped the guitar next to the campfire and hurried away, running between the tents.

“Jerry, come back,” Sherry hollered before the surging howl of hounds drowned out her voice. She ran after her brother across the brushy ground illuminated by moonlight.

“We need to go,” Ashley said to Daryl. She spun, threw down her brassiere, and started after Sherry and Jerry. But fear gripped her body like a winter chill and made her legs sluggish as she tried to run.

Daryl sputtered as he watched her leave. “You’re all crazy.” He pointed down the hillside. “There’s nothing there.” He went to his tent as the barking grew louder. Ashley turned and saw the dogs rush into view. They passed through Daryl and the tents, followed by a swarming cluster of tiny blue-green blinking will-o-wisps. Ashley turned and kicked her run into high. Tears of fear stung her eyes. She wanted so much to be unafraid, to be a nonbeliever like Daryl. He was safe in his blind world.

But she saw. And she was damned by it.

She ran along a path between an angry black sea of brambles and thorny weeds that slapped and poked and grabbed at her, tore strands of her long hair, scratched her face and forearms, and scarred her shirt and blue jeans.

The hounds and blinking lights came fast at her. Her pounding heart pushed at her chest as she fought past the briars. Her fear of losing the race, of not escaping, climbed into her throat and was blocked by the hard lump of a scream lodged there. She gasped to breathe; her inhales and exhales sounded like whimpers.

Then she was past the briars. Jerry and Sherry stood at the edge of Myers Ridge, silhouetted against the starry night sky. She ran to her best friends, afraid for them, terrified of what would happen when the horrible creatures behind her caught up to them.

As she took a place between them, she turned and faced the evil coming from the night.

“Stop,” she managed to say. She caught her breath and yelled at the dogs to leave her and her friends alone.

The dogs halted, shoulder to shoulder, panting and growling and slobbering. The green will-o-wisp lights hovered above the dogs, blinking and shifting, and buzzing with an energy that Ashley had never heard before.

She put her arms across the backs of her friends, loving them, knowing that having them at her side was giving her courage to face the evil that had chased them here to the cliff tops of Myers Ridge. Then she stood tall and said,

“Creator of day and night,
Protect us with your might.
In this place and in this hour,
By the guardians here tonight,
Remove the fears from our hearts
And clear the evil in our sight.”

As she finished, the will-o-wisp lights vanished. Then, one by one, the hounds vanished until one remained. Red eyes glared at Ashley as the hound uttered a growl and leapt at her, striking her chest with its forepaws and pushing her over the edge.

As the hound’s teeth snapped at her throat, Ashley’s hands shot out and the left one found the back of Jerry’s sweaty T-shirt. She clutched shirt and skin as her legs swung wide and she hovered for a moment in midair. Then her lower body crashed against the cliff side and the force knocked loose her grip of Jerry.

The hound vanished as she fell away from Jerry.

For a moment, as though time had slowed to almost a standstill, she thought about her shy and lonely life. It passed before her until she faced that day last month when she promised her parents and herself to make friends. And, although difficult, she had made friends with Jerry and Sherry. And doing so, she had found a sense of belonging with them—an intimacy she’d been afraid of for so long.

And now her new life was ending. She was going to die.

She reached out for her two friends, one last gesture to hang on to life and her dream of being lonely no more.

A pair of beefy hands lunged at her and caught her extended forearms. Jerry yelled for Sherry to help. Four sweaty hands grabbed her arms and pulled. They grabbed her armpits and shoulders and pulled harder. They grabbed the back of her blue jeans and pulled harder still. She grabbed their feet and ankles, used their legs as lifelines, and hauled herself closer to them until their heaving bodies lay exhausted on the ground, arms and legs entwined, the three of them hugging and kissing and crying.

Then Sherry stood, standing over Ashley and looking new as she offered the girl a hand. Ashley took it and grinned as Sherry helped her up. Together, they help Jerry up. Ashley hugged him and thanked him again before the three walked arm-in-arm back to the camp.

There, Daryl waited, sitting at the fire and roasting a hot dog on a stick. When the three joined him, he listened to Ashley’s tale of almost dying while Jerry and Sherry took turns interjecting with their tales of rescue.

“I saw them,” Sherry said, putting her arm around Ashley.

“I did, too,” Jerry said. “They’re real.”

Daryl studied his best friend’s solemn face. Then, “For real?” he asked.

“For real,” Jerry and Sherry said together.

Daryl nodded at Ashley. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Ashley shrugged. She was certain that his apology was for Jerry’s benefit. But it didn’t matter. Her attention was elsewhere. Ben Myers’s ghost and his unfortunate hounds were cursed to haunt the old, incinerated house forever. And Daryl, who liked to tell ghost stories and scare others with them, would never see their ghosts … or any ghosts, for that matter. He was damned and so was she. And maybe, if she tried hard enough, they could be damned together.

The End

The Move [fiction]

The beginning of an unfinished story written by my friend Lola Gentry-Dey and me, rated PG for crude language. Lola and I co-authored stories online for several years.

Part 1 of 2: Carl

Carl Goodman coasted his 12-speed bicycle across the blacktop sidewalk through Hillwood Park until he came to the city’s oldest oak tree. He stopped at an empty park bench, jumped off his bike, and picked up the un-smoked cigarette someone had dropped. He dusted off the dirt before he took off his backpack and put his latest find inside one of the side pockets. He looked around to see if he was being watched. Although he was at the backside of the park and away from downtown, people tended to migrate to this shady area on hot days like today. However — and probably because of the steamy weather, the park was nearly vacated, except for two impish girls pestering an old man at a bench less than thirty feet away. They were barely ten, by their looks, and both wore extremely short blue denim skirts, the colors faded by design. Carl almost ignored them until one of the girls flashed her bright red underwear at the man.

Carl recognized Fiona Ramsey, the blonde doing the flashing. She and her parents attended his father’s church almost every Sunday. The other girl, the redhead who giggled and snorted at Fiona, was Libby Garr. She jumped and twirled as Fiona placed her hands on her knees and wiggled her bottom in front of the man who kicked and slapped at the air and was now shooing them loudly. The girls ignored him and giggled, which prompted a long string of profanity from him.

“Go on,” he yelled, “before I call the cops on you.”

The girls laughed and waved and merrily skipped down the sidewalk away from Carl and the old man.

“Damn little pissers,” the man yelled after them. “Someone oughtta smack your smart little asses.” He dabbed at the corners of his mouth where white whiskers formed two thin bridges of a salt-and-pepper mustache and beard. Carl wondered if his faded green Army jacket had been service issued or bought at the Salvation Army’s thrift store two blocks away.

Then, as though answering Carl’s thought, the man said, “Didn’t get my nuts nearly blown off in ’Nam just to have some little shits tease me like a couple of Asian whores.” He pushed himself up into a stoop and grunted. “The whole fuckin’ world’s gone to hell.” Then he shuffled toward Carl who pretended to inspect his bike’s rear tire. When the man passed, he jumped on his bike and raced to catch up to the girls.

Fiona and Libby were heading into a grove of maple trees when a bad feeling came over him. His vision of sharing the cigarette and maybe some pot with the girls vanished. He stopped his bike and stared at where the two girls disappeared into the dark green foliage.

“Don’t go in there,” the voice in his head warned. “Not safe.”

“Why not?” He looked around. No one was there to see him talk to the voice only he could hear.

“What part of ‘not safe’ don’t you get?” the voice asked.

With a sweaty palm, Carl rubbed the back of his greasy neck. “You’re not always right.”

The voice in his head — that irritating voice that was always right — was silent.

“Are Fiona and Libby okay?” Carl asked.

“For now,” the voice said. “But you’ll wanna get outta here.”

Carl’s cell phone vibrated in a front pocket of his blue jeans. “Home,” the screen said as it revealed a text message from his mom. “Aunt Donna and your cousin are here.”

He stared at the place where Fiona and Libby had gone, then put away the phone and turned his bike around. He craned his neck and took one more look at the trees. “How bad is it?” he asked.

The voice was silent. Chills ran across his back and sent him racing back toward town and the long way that would take him home.

Part 2 of 2: Emily

It was summer in southwestern New York. A glaring July sun and a storm to the north over Lake Erie had turned the afternoon humid. Inside the air-conditioned U-Haul truck filled with their belongings, Emily Bronwyn rode with her mother, Donna, to Hillwood. The thought of living in a new state, a new town and a new neighborhood filled with strangers pestered at Emily. She didn’t want to make new friends; it had taken her fifteen years to make the best of the ones she had left behind that morning.

She complained at the intersection next to a discolored brick tavern called Joe’s Pub. The pub’s grungy windows sported neon signs that advertised a variety of beer inside. An old, sickly man in a greasy Army jacket stood below one of the windows and urinated on the wall. His urine ran down and pooled along the gray and chipped sidewalk. Emily stopped complaining in midsentence. She watched the man finish peeing, zip up, and then turn and grin a toothless smile before hitching his pants closer to his chest. Emily sat motionless. She seemed unable to move her body except for her eyes. She watched the man stagger away along a street of shabby looking stores and houses.

When the U-Haul began to move, she did too. She shook her head. “Did you see that?” she asked, not looking at her mother.

“See what?” her mother said before she slowed for five sets of bone jarring railroad tracks.

“Nothing.” Emily braced herself during the bumpy ride without a complaint. Past the tracks, they wound past three blocks of defunct steel making factories with broken windows. Names and obscenities that had been spray-painted on the walls were now painted over with lines of black. It was a sudden colorful mess that reminded her of the finger paintings she had done at Brookfield Elementary back home.

Emily shuddered and said, “This town is so ugly.”

“Every town has its black eye,” Donna said. “Our new place is on the better side of town.”

Emily’s cell phone alerted her to a new goodbye message from her best friend Anna Jacobs. Then Anna was gone after a “GG” and a quick “ILU.”

“I love you too,” Emily whispered as she answered back with her own “<3.”

Homesickness tugged her into tears, which she turned from her mother.

Donna now drove through uptown Hillwood, a rolling conglomeration of sand-colored brick and cement stores better looking than the previous block. The stores here nestled lovingly against each other, selling everything from fast food to dusty antiques. Thrift shops and discount stores were busy with browsers on both sides of the street.

The U-Haul crossed a cement bridge so perfectly made it looked like it came pressed from a Play-Doh mold. They crossed a wide, shallow fording called Pine Creek. On the other side, the rosy homes and property belonged to teachers, storeowners, doctors and lawyers. Mother and daughter passed expensive cars and people wearing expensive clothes. They drove past an expensive looking elementary school with a sprawling playground filled with happy children on plastic entertainment. Next door was the proud looking high school where Emily would begin Junior High classes in August.

“I’m so excited,” Donna said. “It’s so beautiful here.” She beamed and Emily heard again how happy her mother was to be teaching here. Donna Bronwyn had worked hard to become a teacher after her divorce five years ago. And now she was moving to a community neither her husband nor her parents back at Brookfield, Vermont had ever been able to afford to live.

“This is what diligence and hard work can get you,” Donna said as she pulled into the paved driveway of 197 Franklin Street. The Victorian stone house was smaller than the older houses in the neighborhood, but it looked as beautiful.

A longhaired, red-haired woman called from the front porch as Donna and Emily stumbled from the U-Haul truck. “Together again,” Aunt Shirley cried. She met Donna with open arms at the step. Emily stayed next to the U-Haul and watched from the paved driveway. Shirley Goodman had been the driving force behind their move to Hillwood. Aunt Shirley, her mother’s younger sister, had married a wealthy minister and was now one of their many plenteous neighbors. Emily spat away a foul taste in her mouth and watched the house swallow her mother and aunt via a dark doorway that looked like a gaping mouth.

Sticky afternoon air sat upon Emily like a stone and made her thirsty. She was about to spit again when a female voice trumpeted in her right ear and caused her to jump. The smell of peppermint gum assaulted her nose when she turned.

“Weather’s been nasty,” the teenage girl with no tan whatsoever said. “Much too humid for July, don’tcha think?” She snapped her gum and tilted her head at the silver sky. Her silky black hair flowed long and dark down her back like a single brushstroke of India ink, which made her pale face look ghostlike. She was tall and thin like Emily, but had enormous breasts. Emily’s had just begun to develop — a late bloomer. She steeled her eyes from the girl’s short, tight-fitting top that matched the color of her hair. Silver rings and studs decorated her face in a kind of punk-look explosion, and she wore bright red lipstick and fingernail polish. A black leather micro miniskirt showed too much of her upper thighs, and her long legs ended in a pair of black platform sandals that revealed red polished toenails and silver rings on her toes.

Emily brought her gaze back from the ground and the girl snapped her gum and continued to stare at the sky. “Where ya from?”

“Brookfield,” Emily said. “Vermont.”

The girl stopped chewing for a second. “Ain’t that the town that passed a resolution endorsing the impeachment of President George W. Bush?”

Emily lowered her head. “You know about that?”

“Uh-hum. Civics class.” Then, “It’s awful to sweat like this all the time,” she murmured.

“I suppose,” Emily said. She saw no perspiration anywhere on the girl’s skin. She stood up straight and held out her right hand. “I’m Emily.”

The girl looked her up and down with ice blue eyes, and then pointed at the driveway’s edge. “The neighbor’s dog puked there because of the heat,” she said. “Next rain’ll clean it up, though, unless he comes back and eats it first.” She emitted a short laugh. “I mean unless the dog eats it, not the neighbor.”

Emily stared at the yellow vomit, uncertain of how to reply to the girl’s odd statement. “Of course,” she managed. “I knew what you meant.”

The girl looked again at Emily. “I hit you with a tennis ball three years ago.”

Emily stiffened as she recalled a tennis ball striking the back of her head while she was at her mom’s car, putting one of Aunt Samantha’s apple pies in the back seat.

“Me and your cousin Carl were out here whacking balls with my dad’s old rackets,” the girl said. “You and your mom were here for a Sunday dinner. Carl said he’d give me five bucks if I nailed you in the head with the ball.”

Emily scowled at the girl. “You hit me on purpose?”

“Nothing personal, Emily. It’s just that Carl said I had a lousy throwing arm and I needed to prove him wrong. Plus, I needed the cash.”

Emily’s cheeks burned. “Carl’s a jerk. He’s nothing but trouble.”

The girl nodded in agreement. Then she said, “I’m Kennedy Killbourn. I live across the street.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. Emily glanced at the yellow house peeking from between maple trees and knew she would always associate the house with dog vomit from now on.

“Moving in, I see,” Kennedy said. She nodded at the U-Haul next to them.

Emily shrugged. “Not by choice.”

“It’s nice place,” Kennedy said. “My best friend Lucinda Nelson lived there. I used to play here all the time until…” Her voice dropped and she looked again at the sky. “Her parents were out when she died. They found her body when they got home that evening. Lucinda had hit her head on the bathtub faucet and bled to death.”

Emily sucked in a breath. Her throat tightened and her voice squeaked. “Omigod-I’m-so-sorry.”

“It sucks to lose a best friend.” Kennedy sighed. “Mrs. Nelson went crazy afterwards. She started seeing Lucinda’s ghost inside the house, so Mr. Nelson took her away … to Pennsylvania, or maybe Ohio … wherever she came from.”

The back of Emily’s neck prickled. “That’s awful.” She stifled a yelp when Kennedy placed a cold hand on her shoulder.

“I’ve seen her, too,” Kennedy said. “A few times this summer … late at night … standing on the porch and looking out at the street.”

Emily shivered as she looked at the porch and the house’s large door waiting for her.

“Ghosts don’t bother you if you don’t believe in them.” Kennedy turned and walked past the driveway, past the yellow vomit. Emily brushed at the goose bumps on her forearm and watched the girl leave without saying goodbye.

When Kennedy had crossed the street, Emily started toward the house and the awaiting porch. She stopped, changed course, and returned to the U-Haul. Safe inside the truck’s cab, she told herself that ghosts weren’t real. But she knew otherwise.