Happy October, y'all! Anyone who knows me knows that this is my absolute favorite month--changing leaves, college football, PUMPKIN-flavored things, Halloween, etc. etc. Considering Halloween is my absolute favorite holiday, it surprised me to learn as I began writing this story that Darcy hates it. I mean, I guess it does make some sense, considering she sees enough scary stuff year-round that having a whole day dedicated to nothing but spooky stuff would drive her batty. Plus, all the fake gore and costumes really screw with her special talent--it's hard to tell goners from the average Halloween reveler. I'm working on a new prequel novella for Darcy, and I wanted to give you a little taste of just how rough Halloween celebrations can be on my favorite psychic.
The working title for this novella is currently Grave Misfortune. It flashes back four years to when Darcy and her best friend, Charlie, were still college undergrads. On a trip to the Little Five Points Halloween Festival in Atlanta, Darcy gets roped into having her fortune told by Madame Margery, a carnival-variety psychic. But it's Madame Margery's future that really looks grim when Darcy sees that the woman is marked for death. The woman is later found bludgeoned to death with her own crystal ball, and Charlie may be dressing up in a prison jumpsuit for Halloween as he lands at the top of the suspect list. Can Darcy scare the real killer out of hiding and prove her friend's innocence?
In the first chapter below, Darcy encounters a young goner in a superhero costume and tries to save him from certain death in the middle of a crowded street. I'd love to hear what you guys think of the story so far, so feel free to leave feedback in the comments section.
“You got blood all over my favorite sweater.” I frowned at the young man standing next to me, pointing an accusing finger at his gaping chest wound.
He glanced down as some of the gore oozed down the front of his University of Georgia tee and fell to the sidewalk with a wet plop. “Whoops,” he said, looking sheepish. The corners of his mouth twitched. “Relax, Darcy. It’s just a little stage make-up. Should wash out pretty easy--and at least now you almost look like you’re wearing a costume.” The man gave me a lopsided grin. “You can say you’re dressed as the girl from one of those slasher flicks. You know, the one that barely escapes the killer because she’s a virgin,” he teased.
I rolled my eyes. My sex life--or lack thereof, at the moment--was none of his business.
“Looks more like I barely escaped a run-in with the Kool-Aid Man,” I said. I dipped my finger in the red stuff now drizzling down my blue sweater and then brought it to my lips. My nose crinkled. “Tastes like sourdough soaked in cherry cough syrup.”
My best friend, Charlie Holliday, grimaced. “If you must know,” he said sulkily, “it’s modeling clay and Hawaiian Punch with a little bit of Karo syrup to thicken it. I think it turned out pretty realistic.” He puffed out his chest, fake wound and all. “It’ll be a hit with the ladies. Girls dig Halloween.”
Poor Charlie. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the only thing he’d attract in that get-up was an army of ants. What girls really dig is pumpkin-flavored coffee drinks and dressing up as slutty versions of their favorite childhood cartoon characters. Well, most girls, anyway. I was admittedly an exception, considering I liked my coffee as black as pitch and wouldn’t be caught dead dressed as sexy Sailor Moon or a vixen version of Velma. Jinkies. Halloween just wasn’t my thing. If Charlie had seen some of the things I have, he probably wouldn’t be keen to dab on the fake blood and guts, either.
It was a Saturday in late October, and my best bud had driven down during his fall break from UGA to visit me in Atlanta. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the holiday, Charlie--or Chunk, as I’d called him since we were in grade school--had just turned twenty-one the week before. That day was also one week until Halloween, which was his favorite holiday. He insisted on celebrating, so we’d grabbed a late lunch and then headed to a fall festival in Atlanta’s Litte Five Points neighborhood. At the moment, we were standing in a line nearly a quarter mile long for one of the beer tents, and I was trying my damndest not to gripe about the wait.
For the sake of my friendship with Charlie, I was enduring two things I hated: Halloween celebrations and crowds. I know what you’re thinking: who could possibly hate Halloween? Candy, fun costumes, the Charlie Brown special about the Great Pumpkin on TV. What’s not to love? All the fake guts and gore, that’s what. It’s not that I had a weak stomach for that kind of thing. Quite the contrary, actually. The problem was that all those people walking around sporting pretend carnage did a number on my sixth sense.
Oh, right. I probably should have led with that. I drowned nearly eleven years ago, on my tenth birthday. Granted, I was revived after less than a minute, but the spirit world sent me back with a spooky little present. I’d been gifted with the ability to see dead people--before they actually die. When an event triggered the death of someone near me, I could see their fate manifested in their appearance in the form of whatever wound or affliction would kill them. Yippee. Happy Birthday to me. Next time just give me a watercolor set or a card with a twenty dollar bill.
For obvious reasons, I referred to my macabre ability as the Sight. Some might consider it a cool ice breaker or neat party trick, but I preferred to keep the whole “I can see your death” thing under wraps. Aside from Charlie and my grandmother, Wren, no one knew about my secret doom radar. Well, except for the people I’d tried to save before, but most of them weren’t talking--or even still breathing, for that matter. I limited my interference in Death’s plans to helping only victims of accidents or foul play. Of course, only a small percentage of those people actually heeded my warnings. Not that I could blame them. Nobody wanted some whack job rushing up to them in the middle of Starbucks to tell them that they were going to get electrocuted by a falling power line later that week. Don’t believe me? Try it sometime--and don’t forget to send me a postcard from the looney bin.
Given my unique condition, was it any wonder that I was less than thrilled to be smack dab in the middle of a crowd full of zombies, vampires, and chainsaw murderers? I’d think not. I huddled close to Charlie in the beer tent line, my gaze fixed on the grinning Jack-o-Lantern logo printed on the awning so that I wouldn’t have to make eye contact with the group of undead clowns walking past us.
It wasn’t that I was afraid of the gruesome masks and makeup--although clowns, living, dead, or zombified, are creepy as hell. In all honesty, the heart palpitations I was experiencing were probably from the Big Gulp-sized thermos of Death Wish Coffee I’d been sipping for the past half hour. I had an incredibly high tolerance to caffeine, given the unholy amount of it I consumed to fight off sleep. With all the grisly psychic visions I’d had over the years, night terrors were inevitable. Every now and then, though, I’d come across a coffee strong enough to throw my pulse into hyperdrive. This was definitely one of those brews.
Charlie placed a hand on my shoulder, causing me to jump. “Sorry,” he said. His brow furrowed. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice sheepish. “Just a little antsy, I guess.”
Charlie nodded in understanding. “You should probably lay off the caffeine.” He looked pointedly at the metal thermos still firmly gripped in my right hand. “You want a beer?”
I hadn’t realized that we’d finally reached the front of the line. I glanced down at my coffee. Maybe a little booze will even things out. “I’ll take a hard pumpkin cider, if you’re buying.”
Charlie placed our order and then paid for the drinks. “Here you go, Darce,” he said, using the abbreviated version of my name that he’d called me since we were kids. Before we were Darcy Harbinger, art major, and Charlie Holliday, leisure studies student, we’d been Darcy Dreadful and Chunky Charlie, elementary school misfits extraordinaire. Kids can be so cruel when they sense that you’re different from them. We’d bonded over being the class outcasts and had been the best of friends ever since.
“Thanks.” I smiled warmly as I took the cider from Charlie’s outstretched hand. Halloween may not be my favorite holiday, but I love everything else about fall: the crisp air, the turning colors of the leaves, and the decadent combination of pumpkin, nutmeg, and cinnamon. I took a long pull from the cup, rolling the rich cider around on my tongue while I savored the flavor. Hey--I only said I don’t drink those froofy pumpkin spice lattes. I don’t mind a little fall goodness in my booze, though.
An impatient cough chased away my autumn reverie. I glanced over my shoulder to find a man in a vampire costume glaring at Charlie and me. “Do you mind?” he asked, his black cloak billowing in the wind as he gestured to the cashier counter, which we were currently blocking.
“Sorry, Dracula,” I muttered.
He arched an eyebrow and bared his plastic fangs, brandishing the cape. “That’s Count Dracula to you,” he said in a terrible fake Transylvanian accent.
“Whatever. Come on, Charlie.” I edged my way through the crowd over to nearest street corner. Charlie held my cider for me while I screwed the lid shut on my thermos of coffee and stowed it away in my purse.
“You don’t have to be such a buzzkill,” Charlie admonished me. “We were kind of holding up the line, after all.”
“Yeah, I know. Sorry about that.” I dipped my head. I gave myself a mental kick in the pants and resolved to at least try and enjoy myself, for Charlie. “What do you want to do next?” I asked, scanning the row of storefronts to our left. The Little Five Points neighborhood was known for its eclectic array of shops, from vintage clothing at Psycho Sisters to novelties and costumes at Junkman’s Daughter. Today, you could barely see the entrance to most of the stores as throngs of people milled about, jockeying for a good position near the curb as they waited for the annual Halloween parade to begin.
Charlie sniffed the air and then licked his lips. “I smell funnel cake.” He started in the direction of the nearest food vendor.
I fell into step beside him. “How can you possibly be hungry? You just had two chili dogs less than an hour ago.”
Charlie grinned, his blue eyes twinkling. “I can’t come to a festival and not get funnel cake. It’s tradition.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Though he’d earned the nickname Chunky Charlie for his pudgy frame in elementary school, he had shed the baby weight by the time we reached the ninth grade. Now he was built like a linebacker, with broad shoulders and beefy arms, just a walking wall of muscle. Charlie’s dad had hoped he’d try out for the football team when he’d gone away to college, but sports were never really his thing. I’d never known him to follow a strict workout regimen, so whatever he was doing to eat like a pig and not gain an ounce of weight was a mystery to me.
Charlie handed me his beer and went to stand in yet another line. I hung back, sipping my cider on the corner and watching as a pair of children dressed as superheroes ran past me. The shorter of the two, a little boy wearing a Superman costume, must have visited the face painting booth and asked them to give him the Zombie Special. His skin was pasty, and there was a large, dark gash on his forehead. I had to give credit to the make-up artist that had created the nasty wound. It looked very realistic.
Wait a minute. My own Spidey sense began tingling. I narrowed my eyes and studied the little kid more closely. Below the head wound, his right eye was drooping in its socket. I doubted the event organizers had the budget to hire someone with the talent to make such realistic carnage at the kiddie booths. As I watched, the little boy’s appearance worsened, and a familiar dread filled my stomach. Oh no.
After eleven years with the Sight, I’d developed the ability to predict a person’s time of death (or TOD) with a fair amount of accuracy. I couldn’t always peg the exact minute they’d kick the bucket, but I could usually narrow it down to a window of a few hours. Taking in the grayish tint rapidly settling over the boy’s complexion, I figured that he had less than an hour left of his short life.
I’m not one to tempt the Universe by saving someone that’s not meant to live, which is why I bow out when I sense a death of natural causes. Karma from that sort of thing has come back to bite me in the ass a time or two. The gash on that kid’s head was wasn’t natural, though. He was going to be struck by something large. My jaw tightened in determination. Not on my watch.
I glanced toward the food truck, where Charlie had just reached the front of the line. There was no time to tell him what was happening. If I didn’t act fast, I’d lose the kids in the crowd. I quickly waded through the sea of people, making my way toward the two little boys. They couldn’t have been more than ten years old, and it astonished me that their parents had let them roam freely around the festival without a chaperone. If I didn’t reach the kid in time, it’d be a decision they would regret the rest of their lives.
Halfway down Euclid Avenue, the other little boy, who was dressed as Captain America, darted out into the street. I closed the gap between us, following his path with my gaze. A middle-aged couple stood on the opposite curb, waving the kids over. The little doomed Superman took off after his friend, stopping in the middle of the street to tie his shoe. The thrumming of an engine filled my ears, and everything clicked into place with horrible clarity. A motorcycle was speeding down the other end of Euclid, heading toward the child at an alarming speed. Neither seemed to notice the other, and no one in the crowd reacted as if they sensed the danger the kid was in. Shit.
With no time to waste, I dropped my cider and Charlie’s beer to the ground and sprinted out into the street, diving for the little boy. I shoved him hard, sending him flying a few feet as I tumbled through the road after him. The motorcyclist gave a startled yell and slammed on the brakes. Cries rose from the crowd around us as the bike skidded to a halt, leaving a black smear on the pavement in its wake. The driver barely managed to keep from flying over the handle bars. I began to cough as the air around us filled with the smell of burnt rubber.
Wheezing, I rolled over into a seated position and reached for the little boy. “Are you alright?” I asked breathlessly, searching his face. Relief washed through me as I noted the color coming back to his cheeks. His eye returned to the proper place within its socket, and the gash evaporated. Within seconds, he looked completely normal again. I’d saved his life.
The small child stared back at me, his blue eyes wide. His bottom lip began to tremble, and fat tears welled up, quickly brimming over and rolling down his cheeks. He let out a loud, high-pitched wail, making me flinch.
“What the hell is your problem, lady?” the biker demanded. He’d climbed off his hog and removed his mask, revealing a long gray ponytail and leathery face. There was a faded tattoo of a snake on his neck that looked like something he might have received in prison. “You nearly killed me!” he snarled, stalking toward me.
From across the street, the middle-aged couple rushed toward us. The woman scooped the crying child in her arms and held him tightly to her chest. “My poor baby!” she exclaimed. She glared at me. “What kind of a monster pushes a child?” she asked in an accusing tone. Her husband remained behind her, gripping the hand of the other child. Both frowned at me in disapproval.
Are you kidding me right now? “I just saved him,” I stammered. I swept my gaze around the mass of unfriendly faces that had gathered around us. Did I mention I hate crowds? I sucked in a breath and forced it back out, trying to keep my tone even. “It looked like the bike was going to hit him,” I said.”I was only trying to help.” It took about two tons of willpower not to tell the couple that they should re-think their parenting methods before blaming me. After all, it wasn’t my fault the kid had run out into the street in front of oncoming traffic.
“I’m sorry,” I said finally, hoping they would accept my apology and let me move on before the angry mob around us decided to burn me at the stake. “I didn’t mean any harm.”
The woman hugged her child even tighter and squinted daggers at me. “Stay away from my boys,” she warned.
Fine by me. I nodded lamely and then stood up to dust myself off. The angry biker turned and stalked back to his motorcycle, which had the word SPIKE printed on its vanity license plate. Sensing there was nothing left to see, the crowd dispersed, allowing me to make my way out of the street.
I avoided the hateful gazes aimed at me as I pushed my way through the mass of people, trying not to take their anger personally. To the untrained eye, it may have looked like I’d maliciously shoved the kid. Not everyone is grateful when I save them, after all, and I wasn’t about to explain my ability to the couple or the biker in the presence of all those onlookers. Maintaining a mostly low profile is more than worth the cost of the occasional ingratitude.
Back on the sidewalk, I retraced my steps toward the pop-up shop where I’d left Charlie. At least my day can’t get much worse. No sooner had the thought filtered through my brain than someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to find a uniformed street cop standing behind me.
I cringed. Please tell me that’s just a costume.
No such luck. “Trick or treat,” he said, smirking as he pointed to my shoes. I glanced down to find the cups that had once held my cider and Charlie’s beer. “I saw you drop those. I’m going to have to give you a citation for littering.”
Man, I really hated Halloween.