Some of my stories start with a synopsis, all the important details written down in a fury of typing, or back cover copy, two paragraphs that are meant to hook people. Example:
Srgt. Steve Carter barely remembers the combat accident that stole his soul. Being dead for five minutes wasn’t bad, coming back to life as a remnant, without morals and with no way to love, is horrible. Discharged from the Army for conduct he can’t control, Carter drifts trying to get back to the man he was.
ER Dr. Jessica Kelly has just found an interesting set of anomalies on the MRI scans of a patient who died briefly on the operating room table. The changes might explain her patient’s sudden shift in personality and behavior. And if she can explain it, she can fix it. Before she can gather more data she finds herself targeted by shadowy organization, a group willing to kill to keep the remnants as they are.
It’s sad to say but stories that come to me like that, where I know who the players are and what’s going to happen in the end, rarely get finished. It’s the stories that appear as tiny germs of an idea, with one or two crystal-clear scenes, that catch my interest enough to keep me writing for 100,000 words. Here’s one that popped up a few days ago, I wicked curious to see what it becomes.
Seventeen year old Katie has spent her life happily living in her sister’s shadow. Karen is the pretty one who learns magic with ease. She’s the one their Mom loves, the one who will fight this generation’s battle with demonic forces without any trouble. Karen’s going to continue the family legacy that started hundreds of years ago. Except that Karen and her Mom die in a car accident. Now Katie, the one who can never concentrate, the awkward, gangly one, has to fight the forces of evil, and she’s only got a couple of months to figure out how to do it. On top of that she’s moved to a new town, has to make new friends, and oh yeah, try to graduate from high school if she can live long enough.
The bell rings behind me, the noise almost hidden by the high bushes. I came here looking for a little peace and instead I find Katrina, or a statue of her. She posed on a broomstick, like she’s ready to jet off into the night. Cheesy, and incorrect, it’s not the pose that gets me, it’s her face. Because Katrina’s face is Karen’s face, and I’m back in my bedroom again, looking at my big sister, talking to her, laughing with her. Except none of that will ever happen again.
Katrina. It’s Katrina. I repeat it over and over again. Katrina your great-great-great-whatever-grandmother, but you’ll tell everyone she’s you Aunt. I can hear Dad’s voice repeating the rules in my head. When they notice the resemblance you tell them Aunt, not grandmother. Except there isn’t any resemblance.
Karen looked like Katrina. Mom looked like Katrina. I look like Dad. My nose is too big and my ears aren’t exactly level, and somewhere a sculpture caught Karen’s expression, that exasperated-my-god-I-can’t-believe-you’re-my-sister expression as if she sat in front of him. It’s Karen looking down at me, and any minute now I’m going to cry. The statue is ringed with benches, and I sit down, hugging my knees to my chest. I used to sit this way on your bed, I think the words at the statue. I used to sit this way when you told me about college and how great it was.
Someone comes up the path, but I’m too sad to move. Maybe if I sit here, just like this, they’ll feel awkward and walk away.
“Oh hi. It’s Katie, right?”
So much for walking away. I glance up at the voice and see that it’s the Adonis from the parking lot. He swapped his football for a backpack, slung over one shoulder, but he looks just as good.
I nod. “Have I met you?”
“Will.” He offers his hand and I have to uncurl to shake it. “I think we’ve got some classes together.”
He laughs, because we should both be there now. “Yeah. I just, I needed someplace quiet to think.”
I know all about that so I just nod. He takes the bench not far from me and for a few minutes that’s all it is, two people in the same space, just sitting, looking at a statue of the town’s most famous witch. I want to ask him what he sees when he looks at it. I want to tell him what I see but Dad’s voice is in my head again, lecturing me to keep to myself until we know what’s what.
“Are you going to the bonfire?”
The question comes out of nowhere and I’m completely lost. “The bonfire?”
“I guess no one told you. We have huge bonfire each year. It’s a big deal. Always held on the day they burned Katrina at the stake.” He gestures up toward the familiar face.
“She was my Aunt.” The minute I say it his expression changes. A second ago he was maybe asking me on a date, now he thinks I’m crazy. I shouldn’t have said it but I was thinking about Karen. I’m an idiot. “I mean like, my great-great-great Aunt, a thousand times removed probably.”
“Oh.” The ‘she’s crazy look’ has gotten a little better, but he’s not talking, so I do, trying to fill the silence.
“My sister was named after her, sort of.” And then I stop myself, curling my hands into fists, the nails cutting into my palm. The pain is important, it stops me from talking. If it wasn’t there I’d tell him about everything Karen knew, about the books she studied and the spells she could do. I’d finally tell someone about me, how I’m the replacement-Karen and I’ll never be as good as she was.
“Does your sister go here?”
“She and my Mom died in a car accident.” I continue my streak of saying the absolute worst things ever. “That’s why we moved back here. Dad thought if I grew up in Mom’s hometown, went to her high school, I’d have some sort of a connection with her. So I’ll probably end up at the bonfire, if I can find it.”
“I could take you.” He smiles, and I fall in love. It’s not enough that he’s this big jock of a guy with perfect hair, he’s got a killer smile.
“That’d be great.” And I finally say something right.
The clouds look like dirty cotton, fluffy and gray, while the rain comes down like mist. It’s not a good day for a parade but the whole town has turned out. Dad gives me a push toward the bleachers.
“All the teenagers sit over there. The floats throw candy but the kids are too cool to dive for it. When you sit there the candy comes right at you so…”
“All the teenagers, huh? It’s something you and Mom did, isn’t it?”
He nods at me, and I can see him blinking as if he’s going to cry. As much as I don’t want to bond with my peers, watching Dad cry would suck more.
“I’ll be at the bleachers.” I offer him a cheerful grin as I bounce away.
When I finally find a spot it’s between Trina, the blond girl who helped me in math, and Raven, the one who’s trying so hard to convince everyone she’s goth. Trina and I talk a little about the parade, but Raven just gives me the cold shoulder.
“You don’t have a bag?” Trina seems genuinely concerned.
“Just my purse, why?”
“For candy, silly.” She pulls a folded up plastic bag out of her pocket. “Don’t worry, I brought two, just in case.”
Raven rolls her eyes and snorts at this. She’s got a thing against candy, or she’s just generally a bitch. Whatever. I thank Trina just before the band goes by. There’s Jeremy and the other kids I saw at lunch. They can’t wave but I notice a wink that might be directed at me. Then the floats start, all of them Halloweeny but not scary. A haunted house with little kids dancing for ghosts, followed by a smoking cauldron sponsored by the local bakery, it only takes a few floats before I’m snatching candy out of the air and laughing. For a second it feels good, it feels normal, and then a float turns the corner and I see them.
Demons. Real ones, with glowing green eyes. Two of them in the center of a float with people I’ve seen in town beside them. They make the same motions as the people around them, ahdns dipping into bags of candy. Except the demons don’t thrown mini-chocolate bars, they’re throwing handfuls of blood. No one else reacts. None of them can see it. Then the blood splatters on to the bench in front of me and I lose it, screaming.
“Chill,” Raven hisses at me. Her condescension cuts off my fear. “I’ve got it.” She reaches over to the spot and cups her hands. A second later there’s a spark of magic going from one palm to the other. Her magic is purple, like electrical sparks. When it hits the puddle the blood sizzles and then evaporates.
“Are you really doing that in public?” Trina asks, wide-eyed with disbelief. Her voice gets louder as her incredulousness grows. “Today? At the parade?”
“Well I wouldn’t of, but the new girl was freaking out.” Raven tells her, when I know it wasn’t about me at all, it was about showing off.
I’ve never been any good with being treated like some weaker, kid sister. Not even when my amazing big sister was doing it. “It’s no big deal, anyone can do that.”
The spark I build between my hands starts out bright white, but sizzles into a black core. Karen’s magic stayed white. Mom said it was because she focused better. My magic always went through all the shades, white, white-purple, purple, purple-black, and then black, crackling black. I’m thinking about Karen and Mom, the way they would shake their head at my attempts and finally send me to some other room so they could practice. I never minded being sent away. It didn’t matter if I missed half the lesson. It wouldn’t have ever mattered if it wasn’t for the old lady in her Buick.
“You’re one of us?” Trina asks me, her voice barely a whisper.
The last float is coming by, no demons here. It’s sponsored by the church. They’ve put some girl in the center of a fake bonfire, some girl who doesn’t look at all like Karen or Katrina.
“I’m one of her descendents.” I’m supposed to say her niece. Because everyone in town knows Katrina burned at the stake when she was twenty. But everyone in town is wrong. Katrina was too strong to burn, she left and swore to come back every twenty years when the demons rose. When she died her daughters started doing it. It’s what Mom did, it’s what Karen was going to do. Now I’m here and-
“Cool.” Raven breaks into my thoughts to give her approval. “We’ve never had a descendent in the coven.”
“You have a coven?” Now it’s my turn to be shocked.
“Sure.” Raven tips her backpack to me, it’s filled with new age books and moleskin grimoires. “Witches have been coming here for years to keep things safe like Katrina did.”
Mom never told me about that.
“We meet in my basement.” Trina is texting furiously on her phone, and I feel my own vibrate with the message. “You should come over tonight, get to know everybody.”