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): October 23 - The Plan
October 23 – Jayla’s Journal (Real) – First Entry
This morning Lola woke up with a gasp. It scared me.
I was having a nightmare about Mom. She had filled up the whole house with darkness, only it wasn’t the kind of dark soft smoke that makes up Ghost Cat, and that is—my power?
In my dream, the darkness was thick and wet and sticky and heavy. It oozed over the floor, covering everything, then started creeping upward and upward from the basement. I was alone and I was hiding in my room. The worst part was the sound of it, making squishing and sucking noises as it rose. The steps creaked and windows broke, electricity burned and crackled and smelled bad. The fire alarms went off for a while but the darkness oozed over them until the sound was drowned out.
Even though the darkness was black, I could see things inside it, under the surface.
Dad was alive again.
He was home.
He and Mom were smiling and watching me, and I was a little kid again, playing on a swing in a park. Mom looked pretty and happy and Dad had his beard shaved and no white in his hair anymore.
He turned away from the little-kid me, and he smiled the way I always wished he would smile at me when he was still alive. He wasn’t sad at all, he was paying attention, all his attention.
He held out his hand so it touched the underside of the black goo.
I almost took it. I reached my arm out. The goo oozed slowly upward toward my fingers.
Then Mom looked at me, and I could feel her wanting me to reach out. It almost felt like she was moving my hand, not me.
The ooze was up to the level of the top of the bed when Lola woke me up.
I was crying.
“Sorry,” I said.
It was dark, not time to wake up yet. She has an alarm on her cell phone that wakes us up in the mornings with music, not the weird loud braaaaaak braaaaaak noise that my clock alarm makes.
She made a fist with one hand and slapped it into the palm of her other hand.
“It’s Miss Emma.”
I didn’t understand. I asked her to explain.
She pointed at me. “You are a witch.” She pointed to herself. “I am a witch.” She pointed toward my mom’s room. “Your mom is a witch.”
“Yes,” I said. “But what does that have to do with Miss Emma?”
“Don’t you see it? She’s a witch! She’s behind all of this. She doesn’t like it that you and your mom moved here.”
“What about you? I don’t think Miss Emma is trying to get rid of you. She keeps giving you books.”
Ghost Cat jumped up on the bed and curled up in Lola’s lap. She started petting by scratching her fingers down into his fur. He stretched and stuck out his paws. There was fur between his toe beans.
“Miss Emma is either trying to get me on her side or take me over. She keeps giving me books to read, and the books are about how women have to stick together and not trust men. Or something like that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t read all the books she gives you. Just The Stepford Wives.”
“And then there’s the fact that she works at both libraries,” Lola said.
I’m pretty sure that having two jobs doesn’t mean that you’re a witch. I said so to Lola.
Lola said, “No, I’m right about this. It’s the same way all the nurses in Pokemon are Nurse Joy. I go to both libraries a lot and I used to see different librarians. Now there is only Miss Emma. And not only that, but I think she has been wearing the same clothes this entire time. Miss Emma has taken over this town and she is trying to get rid of you and your mom.”
I shook my head. “You’re guessing. I don’t know what you want me to do about it. I can’t make mom run away.”
“Maybe you could if you were a witch,” Lola said.
I squished up my face and crossed my eyes.
Ghost Cat made a soft ack ack ack sound, jumped off the bed and walked toward the window. He jumped up, then watched birds flying back and forth.
“There. I tried. Nothing happened. I must not be a strong enough witch.”
Lola slapped my shoulder but not hard. “Here’s the plan. We’re going to go to the school library this morning and the town library after school. If she’s at both places wearing the same clothes, then that means she’s a powerful witch who has been replacing people.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. If she goes from one library to the other library right away, of course she’s going to wear the same clothes.”
Lola made a face. I don’t know what it was supposed to mean, but she squished up her lips until they touched her nose.
“Just wait,” she said. “I have a plan.”
October 23 – Jayla’s Journal (Real) – Second Entry
Lola’s plan worked.
I hate that she’s right. It makes me sick to my stomach.
We both went to the library during English class, together. Mr. Henderson said we could go after we wrote our journal entries. We both wrote them very quickly. I wrote about a dog that scared me once when I was little and Lola wrote about missing her mom and dad and her sister.
I don’t understand why it’s so hard to remember why she has a sister.
I feel like someone is trying to make me forget.
Miss Emma, maybe.
I am scared, not the kind of scared when someone jumps out at you and says “boo,” not the kind of scared when you think about your parents dying, but the kind of scared when you think that everything ever has been untrue.
Dizzy and sick.
I tried to throw up after we left the town library but nothing came up.
This morning, we went to the library together. Lola was hiding something in her pocket. I didn’t see it.
She started talking to Miss Emma at the main library desk, which is big and has wooden slats around the bottom as decoration to cover up the computer equipment underneath.
They were talking and Miss Emma asked me what I liked to read and I said “horror” and she started asking me if I had read Dracula or Frankenstein or The Stepford Wives. I said yes to all of those and she got excited and named off more and more books, until she had figured out three books that I hadn’t read (I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter).
We both walked around the desk to look at Miss Emma’s computer screen while she was asking me about books.
She seemed totally normal.
While Miss Emma was distracted, Lola took the thing out of her pocket. It was a permanent marker.
She put a dot on the back of Miss Emma’s white blouse. Black marker juice spread out on the fabric.
When Miss Emma got up to get the three books, Lola said, “Miss Emma, can I take your picture? I want to post your picture in my digital scrapbook.”
Miss Emma was looking at shelves full of books. “That’s fine.”
Lola took out her phone, woke up the camera, and took a picture of Miss Emma from the front.
I got the books in a canvas tote bag. Then we went back to English class.
All day I was wondering what Lola was planning. She wouldn’t tell me.
We walked to the library after school.
Miss Emma was there.
She waved and said, “Can’t get enough of the library, can you!”
Lola said, “There are things at the town library that aren’t at the school library because of stupid parents. I want to check out a movie for Jayla.”
“What is it?”
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“Oh! That’s a good one. Have you read the book?”
“Yes!” Lola said excitedly. “Do you know where the movie is?”
Miss Emma led her to the movie shelves.
On the back of her blouse, there was no more marker, none at all.
Probably because Miss Emma had changed her shirt, I thought.
After Miss Emma found the movie for Lola, Lola said, “May I take another picture?”
Miss Emma laughed. “Sure! Third time’s a charm!”
Lola took her picture again. Not of the back where the marker spot was missing, but the front. Then she waved goodbye and we left the library and started walking toward home.
When we were away from the library, Lola said, “Fingers crossed.”
She took out her phone and showed me a picture of Miss Emma, wearing the same shirt. “Look here,” she said, and pointed to the front of the shirt, Miss Emma’s shoulder. She zoomed in.
There was a small yellow stain on Miss Emma’s shoulder, from mustard I think. She was holding The Bloody Chamber.
“This was the first picture I took.”
She swiped to another picture of Miss Emma, this time standing in front of the glass panels in front of the school library entrance, in the main hallway. The photo showed Miss Emma from the front with the yellow stain, but also a reflection of part of her back. Miss Emma was waving cheerfully.
Including the black marker stain.
“This was the second picture I took, right as we were leaving. I don’t think you noticed.”
“I didn’t notice,” I said.
The hairs were starting to stand up on the back of my neck, but I didn’t understand why.
She swiped to the picture she had just taken, of Miss Emma at the town library.
The front of her shirt still had the mustard stain.
I knew that the marker stain was gone from the back.
Suddenly I was freezing cold.
I wanted to argue that Miss Emma could have changed to a clean shirt that was exactly the same, except the same mustard stain was on the front. It wasn’t a new shirt.
I wanted to argue that she had cleaned the black marker spot off her back but hadn’t seen the one on her front, except that the shirt wasn’t wet, even though only a few minutes had passed between the last two pictures. It wasn’t the old shirt.
“She’s a copy,” Lola said. “She noticed the mustard stain on the front so when she copied herself she copied the mustard stain. But she didn’t notice the marker stain when she made the copy. So she didn’t copy that.”
We walked the rest of the way home. Stepdad Dave is gone and Mom is in the basement making hammering noises. I made pizza rolls and carrots for supper but Mom didn’t want any.
Later, after Mom went upstairs, we watched the movie, which was about a man who goes crazy because he can’t be normal anymore.
Then we both did our homework in the breakfast nook in the back kitchen.
After a while, Lola looked up and said, “If it’s Miss Emma, I’m scared. She knows too much about books. She knows even more about stories than I do.”
I can’t help it. I keep thinking, “It’s bad when the serial killer knows more about horror movies than the heroines do.”