This year’s October fiction project is a short middle-grade horror novel. The working title is “Turning Leaves,” but that will probably change.
Here are the rules (which I am making up as I go along!):
- Write every day.
- Write about a thousand words every day.
- Write words the same day the characters would be writing them, for the most part (that is, Oct 1 words in the story = Oct 1 words in real life).
- Don’t plan ahead.
- Don’t quit.
I don’t have an outline or even a plan.
It’s been a while since I wrote middle-grade fiction. This should be fun.
2018 – Tales of the Normal – Twilight Zone-style surreal stories.
2019 – Crime du Jour – Short crime stories.
2023 – Turning Leaves – Middle-grade horror.
Turning Leaves (Working Title): November 1 - Afterward
It’s been ten years now since the night my mom collapsed.
Technically I’m an adult, although I don’t know whether I’ll ever feel that way. (It turns out being “an adult” is something adults don’t feel like most of the time.)
I’m sorry the story is so confusing. But I’m also not sorry. I agree with Lola that it’s better to leave the story kind of messy. It’s a messy story. The only way to really understand what happened, is to understand that what happened was too big for two twelve-year-old girls to understand.
If you’re confused, imagine what it felt like to be us, two kids who never felt like they belonged, trying to figure out what felt like the end of the world.
Imagine what it feels like to be any kid in a situation too big to deal with.
Lola and I have talked about what happened a lot since then, usually via emails and texts and across different types of social media, using artwork and fiction (Lola) and playlists and even formulas and papers for my psych classes sometimes (me).
We ended up calling what Mom had created a “witch house” or a “witch space.” A place created by a witch, a place that was a witch, or at least part of one. Miss Emma’s library was a witch space.
Most of our town had become a witch space by the time Mom crashed.
Not that most people noticed.
Partly because Miss Emma was there, keeping Mom’s collapse from being worse than it already was.
But also partly because all the magic that happened inside the witch space, it turned out to be not a big deal in the outside world.
I’ve learned that that is pretty normal, too.
What happens inside a witch space almost always feels bigger than real world can contain. But the outside world just keeps going…and going…and going.
In the real world, people forget what it was really like to survive something terrifying or painful. Most people can’t stand thinking about things that are terrifying, or painful, or confusing, or where they’re wrong.
Some people can’t forget and they can’t forgive themselves, and they get broken.
In the real world, my mom ended up in a mental hospital for a while.
Spoiler alert, she’s still not okay. But at least she’s home with Dave right now.
Here’s what happened, as far as I’ve ever been able to tell:
When my mom was a kid, she had an older sister who was a witch.
She was friends with Dave and Dad (Steve).
Mom’s older sister was mean and she bullied Mom constantly.
Mom’s older sister told Mom that everything that she, the sister, did, was Mom’s fault.
One day, the mean sister collapsed and turned destructive. Mom tried to save her, with the help of Dad and Dave, but the sister ended up killing herself and Mom’s parents.
After that, Mom had to live with her grandparents.
Mom’s sister was the witch who broke Dave so that his real self and his fake self could both exist at the same time. I think Dave is sort of a witch himself, but I’m not sure and he won’t really talk about it.
Mom was so upset that she couldn’t think about her older sister at all, and my great-grandparents pretended she never existed.
Mom lived, but she felt like it was all her fault, and she ended up taking on some of her sister’s magic (the stinky vomit part).
It turns out that absorbing part of someone else’s magic is pretty common. As a witch, you have to be very careful about the people around you, because it’s really easy to hurt them and because it’s really easy to pick up some rotten ideas, even from nice people.
Mom, Dad, and Dave got recruited by a company that works to stop bad witches. I wish they hadn’t. I mean, the company okay. They’re still in existence so I won’t tell you what they’re called. But they have a lot of outdated ideas, and I think if Mom had gotten help instead of thinking that being a witch was bad, then things might have happened differently. They want me to work for them but I think I’m going to say no.
The company learned about a strong witch living in the same town where Mom grew up and decided to try to stop her. They didn’t know who the witch was.
From some of the things Dave has said, it sounds like Dad had kind of a natural resistance to witches, and he thought he was strong enough to protect Mom and me.
Dave already lived in Mom’s old house. He had bought it after he grew up, because he was afraid that there was leftover energy from Mom’s sister there, and he didn’t want it to spread to anyone else.
Spoiler alert, there was still energy left.
According to Dave, one day when Mom was feeling super depressed, she went over to her old house to watch movies in the basement. And her sister’s magic got inside her. Mom had never really gotten over her sister’s or her parents’ deaths, and I guess she didn’t really want to.
But Dave didn’t know that.
One day when Mom was fighting another witch, one who had gone bad, she lost control and tried to kill the other witch and Dad tried to stop her and…couldn’t.
There’s probably a lot more to that story, but Dave won’t tell me about it.
After Dad’s death, Dave married Mom so he could legally take care of her and me, and brought us back to the house where Mom had been basically tortured by her sister.
Which turned out to be not such a great idea.
Lola’s parents are just regular people, as far as we can tell. Mom was mad that I had made a friend. She felt like I was abandoning her, but she couldn’t say that. So subconsciously she lashed out at Lola’s parents, trying to make them go away and take her with them. But Lola is a witch and ended up staying here and even moving in with us, which Mom hated.
I think that’s everything I know?
After Mom collapsed,
Miss Emma—Ms. Emma Shaltrow, that is—let both Lola and I stay at her house for a few nights while the adults got the situation figured out. Dave, the real one, had been trying to find Lola’s parents and sister. His “fake” self was destroyed but the real guy was alive and okay. Which was good. I don’t know what would have happened if the real one had been killed; probably I’d have had to go into the human services system.
Which is not my idea of a good time.
Nobody in the real world ever realized that my mom had caused my dad’s death. Even at Dave’s company they thought the other witch had killed him. But Dave knew the truth.
He forgave her and tried to take care of her, but she didn’t feel like she deserved compassion. The more he tried to help, the worse she got.
Until finally she went to the mental hospital. She had to get away from us. One of the people at Dave’s company got hired on as an assistant to help keep an eye on her, but I guess it was really dangerous.
Lola and I went to school and learned witchcraft from Miss Emma, including how to protect ourselves from other witches (and from our own thoughts, too). But at the end of the year, Lola and her family moved to Seattle. Her parents didn’t know why, but they knew they didn’t want to be near the town anymore. I couldn’t blame them.
But I still missed Lola more than I can say. Even if Dave did break down and let me get a cell phone so we could stay in contact without traveling through the place with all the boxes.
Lola’s still my best friend. She’s just not my (literally) closest one. We visit each other when we can, but I’m still studying for my master’s in Denver and she’s busy with work in Seattle. She’s a writer now, working full-time for a big company as a book marketer, which I think sucks, because she’s a really good fiction writer, and I think she deserves to be famous herself instead of helping other people become famous. She likes her job, though, or at least she says she does.
But she is such a good writer.
I should know. She sends me everything she writes.
Yesterday afternoon, I passed out candy at the clinic where I work. I dressed up in a witch hat tied with glow-in-the-dark star beads and wore a purple-and-black striped dress. I wore Ghost Cat as a big pin with glowing green eyes, which the kids loved.
Then I went back to my apartment and passed out candy there. Ghost Cat wandered the neighborhood and made sure none of the kids walked into the streets. Although there weren’t too many kids, which is sad. There are fewer and fewer kids every year. I hate that people are so freaked out about staying inside their own little social worlds that they forget what it’s like to connect as a real community, even just for Halloween.
The world is becoming scarier and sadder and lonelier, and I worry about what that will mean for people like me, witches and non-witches alike, who want to be good people, but who can get twisted up inside and become dangerous to the people around them.
I can’t fix them, the same way I couldn’t, and I can’t, fix my mom.
All I can do is hold space for her, in case she fixes herself.
Tonight I’m going to visit her at Dave’s house. We’ll eat supper and hang out and watch creepy old black and white movies on the downstairs TV, and I’ll remind myself over and over again not to try to make my mom do or be or feel anything, and just let her be who she is.
I have to finish up this note quickly so I can get to supper. After that I’m going to be busy.
Tomorrow I’m going to pick up Lola and Pink Dragon at the airport. They’re coming back for two months and Lola says she had two books she wants me to read, besides this one.
We’re even going to meet some of Miss Emma’s witch friends for some tea party thing and bring copies of this book for them to look over and make notes on.
They seem to think what Lola, I, and sometimes Miss Emma have written is a magic book. Which sounds sketchy to me. As I told Miss Emma, we didn’t learn magic from this book and there are no real spells in it (except the ones I made up, which did nothing, really).
It turns out there’s no book that teaches magic.
There are just books we end up writing together, as we become magic.
Jayla’s Spell for Waiting for Tomorrow
– Clean the apartment.
– Send Lola a dozen messages saying Are you here yet?
– Try to pet Ghost Cat and annoy him by rubbing his fur the wrong way instead.
– Grade Psyc 101 papers.
– Get sick of grading Psyc 101 papers.
– Check the time, jump up, say, “I’m gonna be late!” and throw on a coat.
– Realize this file needs to be send to Miss Emma tonight so she can print it for the tea party.
– Think about running spell check but don’t.
– Type THE END and try not to cry.
– Take a moment to breathe deep and feel love and hope and peace.
– Then hit send and run out the door.
Mom is a giant standing above me, looking down at me. I hold out my arms to hug her.
I want her to
I am sad. I get to be sad. I get to cry and be sad.
I reached out to hug my mom but it didn’t work.
It didn’t change anything.
She looked down at me and didn’t reach back for me.
She growled and whipped an arm at me like she was going to hit me.
When her arm was about to hit me, I changed.
I couldn’t be Jayla anymore.
I couldn’t be my mom’s daughter anymore.
I had to be a witch, a witch so big that my mom couldn’t hurt me. I was too big to hurt.
The spikes and the muscles and the bones went through me like smoke.
Because I am a witch.
Except it did hurt. My heart hurts. I am still crying. I don’t know how to stop crying.
My mom’s arm went through me. She tried to claw at me, to kick me, to bite me. Her whole body was poisoned with the goo and she tried to hurt me.
I tried to hold her but she only tried to hurt me more.
I couldn’t be Jayla anymore. I love my mom. But I couldn’t be her Jayla anymore.
Behind me, Lola said, “Jayla?”
I was crying.
I didn’t want to let go.
But my mom was getting angrier and angrier, and the replacement people all around us were walking toward her like zombies.
They were getting sucked into her body.
As her body grew, it pulled the couch inside it, one big lump that got stuck on her leg, then moved upward to her belly and disappeared in the black ooze.
The floor pulled after it.
I was getting smaller and smaller, too.
I looked back.
At the bottom of the stairs was Lola, looking like a grown up person, reaching her hand out. Ghost Cat was there, and a pink dragon, too, its snake-head sticking out from between curls of her pink hair.
I wanted to take her hand.
But if I did, I’d have to let my mom go.
“Jayla,” Lola said. “You don’t have to stay here. You don’t have to be small anymore. You can grow.”
I watched my mom suck the TV into her other leg. I watched Stepdad Dave and my dad turn into flakes and get absorbed. I watched a bunch of people get sucked in. The rest were turning blurry and becoming flakes and dust.
The walls were twisting and breaking.
The house was coming to pieces.
I stepped back from my mom and she screamed at me.
At least I’m not a bitch!
I wanted my mom to stop hurting. I wanted her to stop hurting so I could stop hurting and being afraid. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that someone hurt my mom and made her like this. It’s not fair that I have to know that my mom is like this. My mom should be better.
She couldn’t be better.
Not now. Maybe not ever.
Everything was broken and maybe never would be fixed.
But I couldn’t stay there and let mom hurt me. I didn’t want to get so hurt that I hurt people, too.
So I turned and walked back toward the stairs.
Then I bent down and picked up Ghost Cat.
I took Lola’s hand and started crying harder.
We walked up the stairs.
Lola went out the door.
I looked back.
“When you’re ready, Mom,” I said.
I couldn’t say anything else. My throat choked.
I rubbed my face in Ghost Cat’s fur.
Then I went out.