Updated: Aug 7, 2022
An Exclusive Excerpt
Copyright 2022 by Maggie Shayne Lewis
All rights reserved. No copying of any kind is permitted.
Johnny cursed My Cousin Vinny and slammed the steering wheel for the twelfth time. So far the steering wheel was winning.
“Maybe I should drive,” Chris said. “Woman trouble?”
Johnny looked sideways at Chris, who was helping him move his stuff from his grandfather’s village rental to Jack’s cabin. “Not anymore, I guess.”
“Oh, man. You and Maya broke up? Dude, I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
“You uh…want to talk about it, or…?”
Johnny shook his head. “No point.” The light changed and he drove on.
“This truck is dope,” Chris said in a transparent effort to change the subject. “I can’t believe how quiet it is.”
“It took some getting used to it being electric.”
“What did it cost, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Damned if I know. It was a gift.”
Chris was waiting for further explanation. Yeah, Johnny had been pretty tight-lipped about his private life, and he knew everybody was curious. “From my wealthy, white mom and stepdad.”
“Ohhhhhhh,” Chris said. “So then your grandfather…?”
“I tracked him down last fall. Came here to get to know him, stayed with him for a month, and all of the sudden, he up and leaves without a word.”
“That’s weird. It was weird for all of us, him just leaving like he did.”
“None of you know why, either?”
“Nope. We figured you knew and it was none of our business.”
“Said he was going to Florida to spend time with old friends and he’d be back when he was ready.”
“You have an address?”
“Yes, and cell phone number, but he hasn’t answered a call or text three days.” Johnny turned a corner, and drove away from the village, over a narrow, winding road with no painted lines and little intact pavement. “I’m getting worried, to be honest.”
“You were probably hoping he’d teach you about your heritage and stuff.”
There was an extended silence and then Chris said, “People probably take one look at you and assume you know how to dance up rainstorms and talk to animals.”
“That what you thought, Chris?”
“It’s what I hoped,” Chris said. “Is that racist? I hope it’s not racist. I just meant… Come on, you gotta admit, it would’ve been cool.”
Johnny attempted to give him a stern glare, but he couldn’t keep the laugh inside. Chris elbowed Johnny in the ribs and started laughing, too, and then a person ran in front of the truck and THUD. He felt the impact, slammed the brakes, and saw the person lurch and tumble toward the ditch, all in the space of a second.
The truck had skidded sideways. They both dove out and ran toward the ditch. Johnny’s heart was in his throat. In the ditch, a skinny teenager pushed his long, dark bangs off his face. His eyes were brown. There was dirt smeared on his forehead.
“Are you okay?” “Are you hurt?” They asked at the same time, and Johnny reached out to clasp the kid’s hand and help him up.
“I’m okay,” he said. “I think.” He brushed at his clothes and stepped out of the ditch onto the shoulder of the country road, looking around them as if he expected to see someone else.
Johnny looked around, too. The paved part of the road had ended a half mile back. This part was dirt and gravel. Every spring the town road crews dumped fresh gravel on top, and every fall it was mostly all ground in or gathered along the shoulders as a blatant challenge to joggers and cyclists.
The kid had come tearing out of the woods off to the left. The right side of the road was a wide patch of brown, muddy meadow that Chris said would be thick with grass and wildflowers once spring took hold. As of now they were stuck in the in-between. Snow melting. Temps warming. Mud everywhere.
“I’m sorry, man,” Johnny said. “I didn’t see you.”
“It was my fault. I ran out in front of you.” The kid turned to glance behind him.
“Why do I get the feeling somebody was chasing you?” Chris asked, following the kid’s gaze and taking the same visual tour Johnny just had, but from the perspective of someone who knew the area better than he did.
“You see anybody chasing me?”
“Ah, the sarcasm of sixteen.”
“Seventeen,” the kid said.
Chris shrugged. “So why were you running then?”
“You ever hear of cross-country?”
Chris looked at Johnny. Johnny looked at the kid’s shoes - hiking boots. He wore them with jeans and a winter coat. Not exactly running gear. “Isn’t the high school just the other side of that woodlot? That where you’re coming from?”
“Yeah and I have to get back.” He started to turn away, but Johnny felt an irresistible urge not to let him leave just yet. Something was wrong.
“Don’t run off. My pal Chris just has a curious mind. I’m Johnny."
“Ryan.” He pushed his hair again. He had one of those long side bangs that guys his age were constantly pushing out of their eyes.
“Can we give you a ride somewhere, Ryan?” Johnny nodded at the truck, sitting kind of cockeyed in the road.
“Looks like you’re already on your way to somewhere.” Ryan nodded at the load of furniture and boxes in the pickup’s bed.
“I’m moving into my new place,” Johnny said. It was odd how it felt like a lie to call it his place. It was Jack’s place, but Jack was currently co-habiting with Kiley over at Spook Central, so Johnny had agreed to rent his isolated log cabin. “It’s only about a mile from here, actually.”
Ryan nodded slowly, then said, “I’ll take a ride, yeah, but I’ll help you unload first. If you want.”
“Shoot, are you sure you weren’t dropped in front of us by the Moving Fairy?” Chris asked, grinning ear to ear. “Hop in.”
Ryan hopped in, taking the truck’s back seat. As he pulled into motion, Johnny saw him looking behind them. He glanced sideways and saw Chris noticing it, too. No way somebody wasn’t chasing the kid. Johnny felt heat rising up the back of his neck. He knew about bullies. He’d dealt with his share of them, having been the only native kid in his mostly white private school. Somebody was bullying this kid, and he decided then and there to find out who, and help put an end to it.
Kiley stood on the front porch of her gorgeous, hundred-and-thirty-year-old Victorian house, manhandling a long-handled paint roller back and forth over the porch ceiling. The entire house needed painting. All of it, from the witch’s hat turrets to the sunburst high peak panels to the turned posts and spindles. All of that was on the schedule for actual spring, not this crazy, windy, precursor known as March. But the porch, Maya had insisted, could not wait.
Maya was manning another long handled roller a few feet away. She said, “Careful not to let it–“ just as a glob of paint dropped right onto Kiley’s upturned face, splatting across her nose. “–drip on your head,” Maya finished.
Kiley lowered her roller to the nearby tray, leaned the handle against the wall, and pulled a ratty old dish towel from her farmer jeans’ back pocket to wipe the pale blue-going-on-gray paint away.
“I’d think you were pulling a Tom Sawyer trick on me, if it wasn’t my own house we were painting.”
“Oh, it’s a trick, all right,” Maya said. “Just not on you.”
“I get the silver coins and old iron nails hidden near every door and window, since ghosts allegedly hate silver and iron. And I get the bottle tree…” Kiley trailed off, because the breeze came up almost as if answering her summons, and the bottles of every shape, size and color dangling from the elm tree on the front lawn, began to clink and clatter. The sound magical. She kind of loved the bottle tree.
“It traps and confuses malevolent spirits, you said.”
“I figured we’d try everything.” Maya finished the final stroke and lowered her roller into an empty bucket.
“Including this pale blue paint on the porch floor and ceiling,” Kiley said.
“Not just blue. Haint blue.”
“Haint blue?” Kiley arched one eyebrow. “The hell it haint.” Then she slapped her thigh and laughed at her own joke.
Maya laughed but not enough. “The lore says ghosts can’t cross water. Haint blue is supposed to look like water so they don’t come in.”
Kiley looked up at the porch ceiling. Then she looked at Maya again. “I have never seen water that color.”
“The circle I cast will be the part that counts, with wards at the four directions and elementals keeping watch.”
“Be doubtful all you want. When I finish, not one ghost is ever going to set foot in your house again.”
Someone laughed from inside. A female someone. Kiley frowned and looked at the closed door. “Who was that? Is the TV on?”
“Who was what?” Maya asked. She unscrewed the extra long handle from the paint roller and picked up the bucket with the used rollers inside.
Kiley grabbed the paint and the tray and the rest, and they carried the mess around to the side of the house where there was an outside spigot. The ground was still cold and hard, but would soften to sticky later in the day. Most of the snow had melted except for a patch here and there, and the powdered sugar sprinkled on by the night before.
Maya picked up a roller and began rinsing the Haint Blue away under the faucet, over a bucket.
“So what’s up with you and Johnny?” Kiley asked. She’d been dying to ask, and now she was asking. For a while there it had seemed like they were … not together, but maybe pre-together. But the past couple of days, things between them had seemed colder than the water coming out of that spigot.
Maya didn’t look up from her task, her hands apparently immune to the chill. “Nothing’s up with me and Johnny.”
“Why not? What happened?”
Maya finished rinsing her roller and tray, and made way for Kiley, who began rinsing her own. She said, “He was talking about hunting. How torn he feels about it, because he knows it’s part of his heritage, and really how his ancestors survived, and yet he doesn’t think he could do it himself.”
“So you’re breaking up with him because you don’t eat meat and he’s of two minds about hunting? Maybe he just wanted your opinion as a vegan, did you think of that?”
And since when, Kiley wondered, had she become such a Jaya stan? Didn’t matter, she was. Johnny and Maya - Jaya just felt right somehow, ages be damned.
“No. It wasn’t that. Actually, looking back I think he wanted my opinion on all of it. But you know, it was the perfect opening, so I had to reply, “Imagine you’re a deer.” Only she pronounced it “dee-yuh” in perfect Marissa Tomei. “You’re prancin’ along, you get thirsty, you spot a little brook, and you put your little deer-lips down to the cool, clear water… BAM! A fuckin’ bullet rips off part of your head!”
By the time she finished, Kiley was laughing so hard she splashed paint-tinted water on her bibs. “That was dead on.”
“Yeah.” She sighed. “Only he didn’t get the reference.”
Kiley turned off the spigot, her brain trying to catch up. “Well, not everybody’s seen My Cousin Vinny.”
“He didn’t get the reference because he wasn’t born yet.”
“Oh.” Kiley frowned. “Of all people, I wouldn’t have expected you to be worried about an age difference.”
“A twenty-year age difference.”
“Twenty-one.” Kiley bit her lip too late to keep the comment from spilling out, and fully deserved the death glare Maya sent her.
“You’ve been doing the math in your head. Everyone probably has,” Maya said. “Doesn’t matter. It was great for my ego, but it was never going anywhere.”
“So…you broke up with him?”
“We were never even… Why is this your business?” Kiley shrugged and shut off the spigot. “I don’t know, but it feels like it is.”
“Well, unless you want me asking you what Jack likes in bed, knock it off.”
“Reverse cowgirl.” Kiley picked up the pail full of freshly washed rollers, turned and pointed, “But not until near the end, because it tends to speed things up.”
“OmyGod please stop!” Maya held up both hands.
Kiley just winked and opened the hatchway to carry the tools down to the basement. She only went as far as the bottom of the stairs, set the bucket there, and leaned the extra long roller handles against the concrete wall. She gave a quick look deeper into the basement, then backed up the stairs and closed the hatch.
“Still creeps you out, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. Jack wants to finish it and light up the space. Make it a game room or something. But I’ll never feel comfortable no matter what he does.”
“I don’t know if I would, either. A lot of women died down there. But at least we were able to help them find peace and cross over.”
“And in the process made this place the most popular way station between heaven and hell.” Kiley rubbed her hands down the backs of her jeans as they went around front again and headed inside. “I really love that bottle tree,” she said, when a breeze caused the bottles to jingle and clink again, just before she closed the front door.
“I love it, too,” Maya said.
Kiley went straight into the living room and had the remote in her hand before she noticed the black screen. “The TV isn’t on. Then what did I hear before?”
“Well, what did you think you heard?” Maya asked.
“I thought…it sounded like a woman laughing.”
Maya frowned at her, then got that focused look of someone listening hard.
She looked out the window and saw a group of middle school kids walking a dozen yards away, on the opposite side of the road. Maybe not the first group to pass by. Maybe she’d just heard some kids walking home from school. Maybe when she could afford to paint more than just the porch they wouldn’t give the place such a wide berth.
No, they still would. The cops had been digging up bodies for a week, not that long ago, after all. Hell if she didn’t own it, she’d probably give the place a wide berth herself.
“You don’t think it was another…?” Maya let her voice trail off, her meaning clear.
“A ghost? No way. I’m a muggle. You, Jack and Johnny are the woo-woo crew.”
“Woo-woo crew, huh? I like it. We should have t-shirts made. Spook Central Woo-Woo Crew.”
Kiley rolled her eyes, glanced at the street again, and didn’t hoped to God one of those kids or their cohorts had a laugh that sounded like a middled-aged chain smoker with a whiskey chaser. But she doubted it.