[The following is from the opening chapter of OCTOBER ANIMALS. The novella is still being worked on, so some elements may change before publication, as this is not a final edit. Thanks, and enjoy]
Risk existed in the collapsing space between lips just before a kiss and the banks of the Mississippi were a cemetery to all that the river no longer wanted. Fireworks exploded, violent rainbows that looked of the heavens but stank of sulfur, and crackling light reflected across black waters. The people of Alton gathered here, as did the great beast, unseen, who patrolled those waters. Here they gathered, but their ceremonies were not the same. And the beast was not greedy; only a few would be chosen.
Elizabeth Batson, Lizzie Bat to her friends, was a senior at Riverbend High School. She gazed at the technicolor display and listened to the drifting static as the shower of light wilted, a dying electric flower. Another bloom erupted in the fertile darkness, it’s explosion whispered across the fine hairs on her arms. Her eyes lost focus and she daydreamed of floating through an outer space awash in sunsets and sunrises. All the light in all directions falling and twinkling, a universe of broken glass. She searched for father’s face amongst the celestial blur. Lizzie Bat remembered there is no air in outer space, so she fell back to Earth.
“Are you crying?” said Owl.
“I can’t do this anymore,” said Lizzie Bat.
Owl, long-suffering, was Lizzie Bat’s best friend and confidant. The two had lived across the street from one another since they were little girls, and were rarely sighted apart. But an intangible distance grew between them, these days, a dark and terrible shadow cast by grief. Lizzie Bat’s heart ached for her father. Owl’s heart ached for Lizzie Bat.
“It’s no use, Owl,” said Spider. “Bats couldn’t open up if she was a window.”
Spider, perpetually behind his friends—both figuratively and literally—wasn’t one to mince words, though he never meant to hurt their feelings. What he lacked in tact, he made up for in loyalty. And he wasn’t one to tolerate bullies, which was evident in his bruises and his scars, not all of which you could see. Spider had his secrets, and he kept them.
Owl raised a fist. “One of these days, buddy.”
“No offense,” said Spider. “As always.”
Lizzie looked over her shoulder. “None taken,” she said, and then flipped him off and grinned. “As always.”
“I know the fireworks meant a lot to your dad, but don’t beat yourself up,” said Kat. “We can leave if it’s too much. If you start crying, then I’ll start, then it’ll be Owl. We’ll all look like a gang of raccoons.”
Kat, adored, was the newest member of the group, though she’d been around just shy two years. She grew up in California, but moved to Illinois with her father after her parent’s divorce. Of the four, only Kat possessed both license and car. The red convertible Mustang had been a birthday gift from her mother.
Spider cleared his throat and put a hand to his chest. “Well, I don’t wear mascara, but I love garbage,” he said. “So, this raccoon votes for drive-thru.”
“Let’s go to the city,” said Lizzie Bat. “Let’s go try something new.”
“Across the river?” Spider scoffed. “But I’m hungry now.”
“Lizzie always wants to leave,” said Owl.
“There’s nothing here for me,” said Lizzie Bat.
“Oh,” said Owl. “Thanks for letting me know.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
Owl looked to Spider and Kat. “See you at the car,” she said, and then retreated through the crowd.
“Wait up,” said Spider. He whipped around to Lizzie Bat and said, “Good job.” And then, he dissolved into the crowd, too.
Lizzie rolled her eyes and let her shoulders droop. “I ruin everything,” she said to Kat.
Kat held out a hand and smiled. She pulled Lizzie Bat to her, turned her around and pointed up. “Two more firecrackers,” said Kat. “One for your dad, and one just for us.” Lizzie rested her head on Kat’s shoulder and Kat put an arm around her friend.
“Thanks,” said Lizzie Bat. “I just feel like a ghost, sometimes.”
“We all do,” said Kat. “But you’re our ghost. Remember that.”
“Does that mean I get to haunt your house?”
The black sky cracked and in the very next moment a sea of red shimmered for Lizzie Bat’s father. Red had been his favorite color. And Lizzie allowed herself a hint of a smile, both mourning his absence while being thankful for his memory.
“What’s that perfume?” asked Lizzie Bat.
“Lavender,” said Kat. “I got it at the mall.”
“I like it.” Lizzie’s fingers brushed against Kat’s wrist, and Kat took hold of Lizzie’s hand.
Rockets whistled to their heights and the fireworks burst near simultaneous, their invisible waves rushed the onlookers who gasped in awe of the purple and green hearts. But Kat and Lizzie Bat did not see the titanous figures hovering over the wide river. They saw only each other.
The crowd ceased to exist and Lizzie Bat floated in outer space, once more, now carried by a green and purple supernova, and she was not alone this time. The constellation before her shouldn’t exist, felt somehow impossible. But an invisible wall, some treacherous forcefield, kept her from getting any closer. Risk existed in that collapsing space.
An older boy in the crowd watched them and, once Lizzie noticed his gaze, she remembered there was no air in outer space. She fell back to earth. But the constellation remained.
“We should go,” said Lizzie Bat.
Kat looked over her shoulder at the boy ogling them. She turned towards Lizzie and crinkled her nose. “What a creep,” she said, and laughed.
They hurried away from the riverbank and up the grassy slope to the loose gravel where row after row of cars waited patiently. Windshields reflected the fireworks and for brief moments it was as if someone shined a great light upon the dusty lot. The spaces between parked cars echoed the pleasures of the crowd. The girls maneuvered through the automobiles like mice in a maze.
“Who was that weirdo?” said Kat.
“Graduated from Riverbend two years ago,” said Lizzie Bat. “Lawrence Ragsdale, used to tell everyone he was a vampire.”
“Mister popular, I guess.”
“Didn’t matter. He had a ton of money. His parents own Trick R Treats.”
“The Halloween store? It’s only open, like, three months out of the year.”
“Alton’s claim to fame is being the most haunted city in the country. You’ve seen how busy Trick R Treats gets. People here go apeshit for Halloween.”
“Maybe I should get a job there. Save up some money for Spring Break.”
“He’d be your manager, you know. You’d be better off robbing the place.”
“He can’t be that bad.”
“He only hires girls. I hear stories, Kat. For all I know, he really is a vampire.”
Spider and Owl were leaning over the trunk of the Mustang, sharing a cigarette and talking to each other in hushed tones. Kat apologized for their taking too long as she unlocked the car. Owl sat in the passenger seat; she liked being in charge of the radio. Spider laid across the back, his head in Lizzie Bat’s lap, and he begged for French fries. Lizzie, lost in thought, said nothing. Instead of outer space, she found herself inside Trick R Treats. She wasn’t greedy; it wouldn’t take too much money to start life somewhere else, to become a real ghost.
Four had stood out amongst this year’s offering. The smallest girl left, followed by the only boy. Two remained, then, close enough to appear briefly as one, until they, too, retreated. Many offerings remained, their illuminations still drumming the surface of the river kingdom, and their selflessness was humbling, but unnecessary. The ceremony had finished the moment the four had gone. The choice was made.
They would do, thought the beast.
[And that’s that for now! I’ll be sharing artwork and order details here and at roosterrepublicpress.com]