The Sun and the Void - Excerpt

The Birthing of Stars

There was no way the babe could be alive.

Not in the biting cold of the páramo mountains, where demons crawled out of burrows and prowled from stunted trees to barbed shrubs. Where in the height of night the breath came out smoky white, and icicles crusted the spikes of cacti. Here, an abandoned babe was nothing more than an easy meal.

So Reyna hurried. Her transplant heart thrummed as she hiked the tundra in the company of shadows. Cacti tugged her trousers and dead twigs snapped under her weight. A lone breeze sang past the sparse trees, then chilled her, despite the density of her doublet.

It wasn’t so much that the darkness frightened her. It was what her presence meant, that had her spine tingling. What rescuing the babe meant.

Cold perspiration clung to her palms underneath her leather gloves. Her hand found the hilt of her sword on its own, the feel of it a reassurance. She couldn’t shake the feeling of being followed.

Perhaps the páramo had wards. The sorceress doña Wilgeva could have employed any kind of spell to alert her whenever someone with Reyna’s exact intentions crossed these paths. It was almost stupid of her to come on her own, thinking she had the power to change anything.

A shadow shifted from the corner of her eyes.

The tall grass stopped breathing. Or maybe she did.

Reyna leapt away from the sounds of a pursuer, scrambling over stumps and slippery, mossy rocks.

With a bold arch she swung her sword around. From the shadows came the pursuer, and Reyna blocked them out of instinct, or sheer luck. Then her breath died at the depths of her throat as she realized who hunted her.

Her attacker froze with recognition washing over their face. A girl, whose scythe clanged against Reyna’s sword, stopping but a hair away from the tender flesh of her neck. The girl gasped like a fiend-dragon breathing condensation, “Por la Virgen.

“Celeste,” she said, “Please don’t kill me.”

Celeste huffed and shoved her scythe away. “You gave me a fright!” Her words were deep and throaty, like the sound incense would make it if had a voice. “What are you doing here?”

 Celeste wore a tight-fitting jacket that accentuated her sharp shoulders and small waist, the fabric embellished with a brocade finish. Her stunted antlers, the mark of her valco breed, jutted out of the top of her blunted bangs like a brutal crown. She carried a magical scythe, one she had summoned from an incantation enabled by iridium metal. Celeste was the first and only daughter of Enrique Águila, the caudillo of Sadul Fuerte, and everything about the way she carried herself attested to that.

Reyna took a shaky step back, her transplant heart calming. “I should be asking you the same,” she said and sheathed her sword. “There are whistlers in the páramo, and who knows what kind of traps doña Wilgeva could have planted here.”

Her gaze lingered on Celeste a little too long, so she looked away. But no matter how often she was entangled in this dance, in this realization of her staring, Celeste’s face always drew her back. To eyes that were a cloudless midday sky, or to lips with that overused plum lipstick, the pigment so rich the stain persisted even after she wiped it off.

It wasn’t jealousy that took Reyna’s gaze prisoner. It was… the flutter in her chest.

“I came to intervene,” Celeste said.

A laugh broke out of Reyna’s lips.

“What’s so funny?”

I came for the child,” Reyna said.

“For your grandmother?”

Reyna shook her head. “I’m saving them.”

Celeste regarded her with a smile she almost missed to the darkness. “You came to betray your grandmother.” There was incredulity in her tone.

“It’s not betrayal. I’m loyal to doña Wilgeva.” It was a reminder to herself—a disclaimer. “I’m not here because of her. I’m here because I can’t let this ritual keep claiming the lives of babies.” She tucked behind her ears the curly hairs sticking out of her braid. “They’re innocent—used as tools. It’s not their fault your father’s entire court is obsessing over Rahmagut’s legend. Unlike them, I can’t watch idly anymore.”

“Oh, and you think I put up with this… ridiculous legend?”

Reyna shook her head. On second thought, she shouldn’t be surprised to see Celeste here. Despite the fact that Celeste’s father, don Enrique, was who orchestrated the pursuit to unearth Rahmagut’s legend, Celeste was one of the few in his court who cared.

If anything, Reyna was more complicit. For it was her grandmother, doña Wilgeva, who had abandoned the babe near the mountain summit, where the nights were colder and the fiends hungrier.

Abandoning them was part of the ritual to determine whether doña Wilgeva and don Enrique Águila had in captivity a Dama del Vacío—what they called the reincarnations of Rahmagut’s nine wives. Doña Wilgeva’s imprisoned girls were forced to give a blessing of protection to an unbaptized babe. If they were truly a reincarnation of a wife, the blessing was meant protect the babes overnight.

The test was cruel, and though so far it had worked on six babes, a dozen or so had been forsaken to their gory deaths by the claws of páramo fiends. Reyna couldn’t allow another bloodstained dawn. Especially not when it was her who doña Wilgeva barked at to retrieve the “results” of the test.

Reyna resumed the hike, climbing on a slippery rock and extending a hand to Celeste. Thunder rumbled in the distance, despite the glow of the crescent moon and her shimmering companions peppered around her.

“But you shouldn’t be here,” Reyna said.

“I shouldn’t be here?”

“It’s not proper that you’re sneaking out in the middle of the night to meddle with doña Wilgeva’s work.”

Celeste scoffed. “Spoken like a true lapdog.”

Reyna stopped; gave her a look. It wasn’t the first time she heard the words, and every time it didn’t hurt any less.

Celeste squeezed her arm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

“You know what I mean. If we’re caught and talk gets out that you’re intervening, they’ll start to wonder why you’re betraying your father’s cause. If I’m found…” Maybe it was the chill of páramo making her blood run cold. “I’ll just be punished.” She grasped for a rock to pull her up to the next ledge, avoiding the cacti to the side. Then gave Celeste a hand.

“You’ll ‘just be punished?’ If doña Wilgeva gets wind of this she’ll lash your back until you can’t tell your flesh from your blood. It’s not beyond her. And you’re more worried that the idle oligarchs of Father’s court will realize I hate your grandmother? Which, let me be clear here, is a fact.”

Reyna chewed the insides of her lips, a ghost itch running down her back at the memory her last lashing, when doña Wilgeva beat her for daring to attend don Enrique’s latest ball.

In a ballroom full of humans and valcos, the attendance of doña Wilgeva’s half-breed nozariel granddaughter had sparked an outrage. Reyna had shown up because of Celeste’s insistence. “You’re my best friend,” she had said, “I’m old enough to be important in the gentry. They’ll respect that.” The governor and the noble families of Sadul Fuerte had respected it, at the moment, only whispering their outrage between toasts and behind closed doors. It turned out, Reyna’s presence had been an insult. In their eyes, her nozariel blood made her unworthy of such a night.

Celeste flew to her once doña Wilgeva had finished with her. And she nurtured Reyna with her signature pity and indignation through a sleepless night made bearable only thanks to her company.

“A lashing isn’t worse than the death of an innocent,” Reyna murmured the same words she had told herself, over and over, as she gathered the courage to come for the babe.

She listened to the sounds of night, to what was ahead and to what they were leaving behind. The cacophony of night shrouded them only so much. The song of tall grass. Crickets committed to their chorale. The faraway, timid cry of a fox. None were the sounds she expected this high in the mountain. What she awaited, as they drew nearer to the location of the abandoned babe, was the signature song of a whistler.

“I hope my future husband is as noble as you are,” Celeste said lightly behind her.

Reyna stopped. “Future husband?” That didn’t sit right in her chest.

A sigh escaped Celeste’s lips. “Father just told me. He ‘found a candidate,’” she said in a mocking manner.

“But… I thought you said you were going to be like your grandmother—that you were going to marry on your own terms.”

They had talked about it while lying on the grass under a starry sky. That night, Reyna’s feelings hadn’t seemed as inappropriate as they did all the time.

“Trust me, I’m trying to avoid it as much as I can. But your grandmother, I swear, she wants me gone. I bet she’s whispering ideas of alliances and how happy I’ll be to have a man by my side. That devil—” Celeste’s voice trembled, her nostrils flared. “The moment I take over I’m going to send her packing to a place so far from here she’ll forget what the páramo ever looked like.”

“You’re never going to send her packing anywhere if she summons Rahmagut’s favor for don Enrique.”

A silence hung pregnant between them. It would happen soon—if the latest girl brought into Águila Manor turned out to be the seventh. Once they found all nine, don Enrique and doña Wilgeva meant to parley with God Rahmagut, lord of the Void, and demand his reward. If the legend was true, they could ask for the prize of ascension; to sit beside him like a god.

A soft whistling cut through their pause. The melody of climbing notes, one over the other. It came from far away, easy and without intent, as if being whistled by an unsuspecting traveler. But Reyna knew the song—from the horror tales told by the children and country folk of the páramo—and the realization brought gooseflesh all along her arms.

Moments passed and the whistling faded. Stopped. Then it started again, faint and broken as if coming from very far away.

A swoosh cut the air behind her, and Celeste gasped, yanking her forward and out of the way of a slash.

The sound was sucked out of the night as Reyna whirled around to face the bipedal fiend. A tall whistler emerged from behind a crooked tree, hunched, claws outstretched and ready for a second strike. Its eyes were shrouded in the shade of a straw hat, the bottom half of its face gnawed bloody, probably by the other whistlers of the territory. Caked blood stained the sides of its lipless mouth, trailing down to the tattered clothes of a farmer.

Reyna forgot to breathe as the whistler regarded them with a gaping grin. Her gaze found Celeste’s. She was saying something, but Reyna couldn’t hear a thing. She couldn’t hear the crickets; the rustle of grass. She couldn’t hear her own thrumming heart.

It was what whistlers did, jumbling sound to confuse those they hunted, their whistling loud when they were far and faint when they were close to their prey.

The whistler slashed a second time. In forgetting how to breathe, Reyna also forgot how to move.

Celeste wrenched her out of the way. They hurled to the ground, slamming on rocks and on a cactus as the whistler shredded the air where Reyna had stood.

“Reyna!” Celeste’s voice snapped her back to reality, “Remember your training.”

Reyna sprang to her feet. Her sword whizzed out of its scabbard to become an extension of her arm. With the sword she was in her element. And she swung at the slashing claw, severing it in a clean swipe.

Celeste swung her scythe at the other arm, hacking through sinew and bone and nearly getting stuck along the way.

The whistler let out a deafening high-pitched whistle as Celeste rammed her way through the cut. Without its arm, it ran at Reyna, snapping bloodied teeth for a desperate victory. But this time Reyna didn’t hesitate. She swerved out of her way, her legs acting on muscle memory, and muted the whistler with a thrust right through the heart.

The smell of sweet, rancid flesh slapped her across the face.

Reyna let the body fall to the ground and yanked her sword out. She was wet with foreign blood and tendrils that smelled of corpses. A smell she knew well.

Despite the stickiness, Celeste took her in an embrace that grounded her. Reyna shuddered in her arms. Celeste’s touch made her remember she was here, in the páramo, and not in the hellish memories of her childhood.

Together they took a deep breath that seemed to return the sounds of the mountain.

Celeste let go. She watched her, eyes surfing Reyna’s curly braid and tawny face. The scale on the bridge of her nose and pointed tips of her ears. The marks of her nozariel blood.

Reyna’s pride made her say, “You didn’t have to do that. I could have handled it.”

“You froze.”

Reyna was supposed to be the one saving Celeste. She was supposed to be the better warrior, because it was all she had. If she wasn’t worthy to humans, and if she didn’t have a family or a fortune to her name, the least she could do was be self-sufficient. And not freeze.

So she offered Celeste a very reluctant “I mean—Thank you.”

Celeste nodded.

They turned to the fallen body. Sores and cuts oozed with black-red blood all along the whistler’s pale skin. It looked like it had been a farmer, or a shepherd, its human clothes still clinging to the body despite the decay.

“That was my first time slaying a whistler by myself—well—with you,” Reyna said, stepping back to the path.

Celeste followed her and chuckled. “Yeah. Father’s guards always made it look so easy.”

Reyna just swiped the blood of her trousers—her good pair. Thankfully none was theirs.

“Are you using an iridium spell?” Celeste asked as she caught up, “Your chest is pulsing.”

As Celeste was valco, she was capable of seeing the ebb and throb of magic as a tangible rift in light and space. She was probably seeing the iridium in Reyna’s heart, pounding from leftover terror.

Reyna reminded her, “You know I don’t use iridium.” She hated to, in fact. A complex system of an iridium ore and potion fueled her transplant heart. If she ever dared use it in combat, the same way Celeste or doña Wilgeva did, she wasn’t sure she’d know when enough was enough. The thought of running out, mid-swing or mid-jump, terrified her.

Celeste gave her a smug look that made the heat rise to Reyna’s cheeks. By the Virgin, she needed to stop staring so much.

“It’s okay, you know,” Celeste said, relentless, “We’re here for each other. The Virgin sent me here to save your life because she knows one day I’ll need the saving, too.”

“I’m not useless.” And gods don’t look out for me.

“I’m not saying you are.”

“You think I’m weak because I don’t use iridium.”

Celeste loved to harp about it. She loved to encourage Reyna to do things out of her comfort zone, and sometimes, like in don Enrique’s last ball, those things simply blew up on her face.

“I—no—well, you could be stronger,” Celeste said.

Whatever rebuttal Reyna was formulating dissolved at the sound of an anxious coo. A babe’s cry, it was loud enough it couldn’t be too far.

Reyna and Celeste met eyes.

The cries intensified.

“The baby—” Reyna said, taking off toward the sound. She hacked through the overgrowth until the path opened to an elevated clearing. There, a barricade of frailejón cacti circled a small pond in the center. And right on the banks was a bundle of hemp blankets, stirring and spilling with the cries of the abandoned child.

Reyna ran to the child first. But before she could fully reach to scoop them up, a shock of electrifying energy stopped her. Her hand reached again and the energy lapped her like fire.

She hissed and stepped away. “What in Rahmagut’s Void?”

Celeste stopped beside her, staring at thin air.


Celeste extended a hand, touching something invisible, her palm molding around the shape of a dome. “There’s a lithium barrier.”

Of course, Reyna thought. Not only could Celeste see magic summoned with iridium, she could also see magic generated by the other earth metals, like now.

“Is this what the dama’s blessing is supposed to look like?” Celeste’s gave breath to the same question flooding Reyna’s thoughts.

The babe’s cries became wails.

Celeste dissolved her scythe incantation and pick up the babe up in one smooth, unhesitant motion. She lifted them to her chest like she had an instinct for motherhood, the barrier never once inhibiting her.

“Why isn’t it stopping you?” Reyna said. She was suddenly reminded of her blood. Of all the things she couldn’t do for being nozariel.

The moonlight revealed the babe’s teary eyes and ruddy cheeks. It was a baby boy. He was distressed, but unscathed. Celeste squeezed him closer, cooing gracefully, and calmed him.

“I don’t know. I just had a feeling I could do it,” she said. When she looked up at Reyna, triumphant, it wasn’t her eyes or smile that earned Reyna’s attention.

Speechless, Reyna reached out to dislodge Celeste’s jacket from her shoulder, then her vest, revealing the paleness of her collarbone. She wasn’t thinking whether it was proper or not, and if Celeste ever objected, she never expressed it.

They were both too caught up in the sparkling dots hiving from her neck to her collarbone to her shoulder. The spots weren’t blinding, but pearlescent, shifting between a gamut of colors against the contrast of her skin. Celeste glanced at Reyna, her gaze an invitation to further pull down her jacket, vest, and shirt so they could inspect her bared shoulder.

Sure enough, the dots continued downwards. A constellation was birthing in Celeste’s body, wrapping around her shoulder toward her back.

Reyna ran her thumb along the dots, stopping where her clothes wouldn’t budge further down. Then she sobered up, pulling away like Celeste’s skin was smoldering metal. This touch was improper.

“What’s going on?” Celeste’s voice held the same panicked edge as the babe’s cries.

“You have… stars on your back.”


The babe sensed her distress and began stirring.

“Is it iridium?”

“No,” Reyna said, “I can’t see iridium, but I can see this. All of it. And I’ve seen it before—in the girls.”

“What?” Celeste snapped and startled the babe.

Reyna didn’t want to say it. Her transplant heart began to pound, dread licking its way up her spine. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not now, not here, not ever.

“They have… things that make them different. Like, their tears are crystals and their skins sometimes glow, like with stars.”

“But—” Real alarm filled Celeste’s voice. “I’m not like them. I am not.”

Despite the emphasis—the self-assuredness—it was futile to argue it. The signs didn’t lie. And they wouldn’t lie to doña Wilgeva, when she decided to risk the life of another babe on the ritual proving what Celeste was or was not.

Reyna shook the tension from her arms and shoulders, her hands navigating to the hilt of her sword. She met those blue eyes.

For months, Reyna had looked up to the skies and prayed. She didn’t just pray to the Virgin. She prayed in private to Soril, too, even if in Sadul Fuerte it was forbidden to revere Soril and Rahmagut. She looked to the skies that clutched the secrets of her destiny and begged for her luck to change. For don Enrique’s court to see her as more than a half-breed nozariel. For her grandmother’s kindness. She prayed for her heart to have the opportunity to fit in, and for a chance to prove herself to Celeste.

In a way, being the only one to witness Celeste’s manifestation—when both had come on their own and neither was supposed to be here—felt like a sign. Like the stars had heard those prayers and were giving Reyna the opportunity to seize her destiny.

But it was a cruel sign, because this would mean Celeste’s blood was all that stopped doña Wilgeva from achieving her invocation.

And Reyna would have no choice but to bear witness to Celeste’s sacrifice, or lose everything she had dreamed of for her life.

Screaming House on Strawberry Lane - Excerpt

Part 1

I still remember her first day in class. It had felt like an oddity. Like the moment she walked in she had brought in with her a rupture in space and time, making me wonder whether I was awake or sleeping. I was knee-deep in a daydream about the weekend’s party. Matt was hosting a thing, for homecoming. And Mr. Dotson was droning on and on about ionic bonding. Or was it bionic? I wouldn’t know. He lost me within the first five minutes of class. But then the assistant principal welcomed himself in, and there she was, sheepishly following close behind him.

She wasn’t extraordinarily beautiful. Nothing about her stood out. She had a comely face and shiny hair that curled at the ends. She was dressed in a pleated skirt and knitted sweater, which made her look like she was confused of the decade. 80s or something. I couldn’t say for sure; female fashion’s never been my forte. And yet everything about her struck a chord of familiarity in me. I felt as if I had known her—in a past life maybe—or as if I should know her.

She smiled at the class, then at me, and instead of being unaffected by it, I looked away. Me. Miles Green. The guy who could score every girl of Central High without batting an eye. And I was embarrassed?

She took the seat next to me and extended a small hand, her fingernails naked and trimmed. Then she said her name in voice that sealed the deal.

“Coralie Wright.”

From the very moment, I was intrigued.

/ / /

She ate lunches by herself, either in the far off tables of the cafeteria or hidden away at the library. I kept a distant eye on her, merely as information, or to see if anyone else tried to approach her. Nobody did. The new girl wasn’t fascinating to others as she was to me. She was bookish and distant and she scurried out of school as soon as the last bell rang. By the time any of the extracurricular clubs met up, the school was empty of her pink flair.

/ / /

“You just need to talk to her, man,” Matt said after he caught my gaze following Coralie in the distance.

It was early fall, and the school trees were shedding red, dotting her in shadows as she went.

We were sitting by the entryway steps, Matt beside me while Julia sat on a step above. She was taking advantage of her elevation to fondle his hair. It was gross and weirdly unsettling at the same time.

See, Matt and Julia were together now. They were a thing (finally). After four whole years of he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not, they finally came out of their ridiculously perfect closet and confessed. It was good to hear, don’t get me wrong, but it also sent me propelling into third-wheel territory faster than I could handle. Suddenly, it wasn’t all about Miles, Matt, and Julia anymore. It was #MattxJulia.

Coralie must have felt my eyes on her, for she turned and waved at us. Even in the distance there was a warmth to her smile.

I gaped at Matt, who was waving back.

“Wait, you guys are in waving terms?” I asked, sitting up and dusting my jeans off.

Matt chuckled. He leaned closer to Julia’s touch, a streak of pleasure crossing his smile. Again, it was gross.

“What, exactly, are waving terms?” Julia asked with a laugh.

“Nothing. Miles’s just being weird. I have art with her. Believe it or not, she doesn’t bite. She’s really nice.”

“The Great Miles Green is being shy about talking to a girl?” Julia japed, “Are you sure you’re not just going through a mid-life crisis?”

Matt corrected her (and all I could do was roll my eyes, because there was some truth to it):  “Quarter-life.”


“Alright! I get it!” I said, throwing a hand in the air. I flung my backpack from the ground and began walking away, even if Coralie had long since disappeared around the block. “I can’t just go up to her, though. That’d be borderline creepy.”

“Then say more than just ‘hi’ during chem class,” Julia chided.

I had thought to, but every time I tried something came up. Sometimes it was some dweeb taking the seat beside mine, so Coralie had to go sit somewhere else. Other times she would come in so engrossed in a book or sketchbook (she sketched a lot) that all I could think about was of how she would be endlessly annoyed by me interrupting her. Just to say hi. I mean, what exactly am I supposed to say to a girl who looks just like the quirky main character of an 80s romcom?

I pulled my bike away from the railings of the entryway steps and maneuvered it back to Julia and Matt.

“You know where she lives?” I asked.

Julia shrugged.

“Joe from band told me she moved into that house on Strawberry Lane. The three-story one with the squeaky-ass gate,” Matt said.

I knew exactly what he was talking about—the “screaming” house on Strawberry Lane. We jokingly called it so because the front gates had this rusty door that squeaked loudly anytime it was opened all the way. According to neighborhood lore, the house had been abandoned since before my parents moved in. From the outside the house looked dirty as hell, and we left it alone for the most part. Except on Halloween nights, when Matt, Julia, and I used to go all the way up to the gate to pull on the door. We’d yanked on it, release it, and shoot out running while listening to the metal screaming behind us. It was a thrill. But sometime during middle school some old geezer moved in—inherited it, apparently—and told our parents to “Keep your ill-mannered brats away from my property!”

“It’s been a while since I’ve driven by,” I said, climbing on my bike and thinking of heading in that direction. The slim chance of running into Coralie was enough motivation. Julia’s and Matt’s smug smiles told me they knew what I was thinking, but I ignored them. I simply kicked on the pedal and took off into the street.

I barely rode past one block when I spotted her. Coralie was crouching behind a large SUV, her face hidden behind her cascading hair while she looked underneath the car. It was such a peculiar sight I did a double take. I kept riding out of view, then made a large U-turn, hoping in her eyes it would look as I was driving in from the opposite direction.

My brakes creaked loudly when I stopped, and she startled.

“Hey,” I said, “What—what’s going on?”

She looked to me then to the car, probably realizing for the first time how odd she looked. “Miles,” she said, glancing at my bike, “You’re here.”

She remembers my name.

“Hah—yeah. What happened, did your car get a flat?” I suggested, even if it sounded way off. Coralie walked to school every day.

She had a slight dimple on the point of her chin, barely visible. But every time she focused, she pouted. And every time she pouted, I saw it there. Just like now. I tossed my bike to the side and crouched beside her, pretending to be curious on the car and not on her.

She pointed underneath the vehicle, where the left rear tire was held in place by a red tire lock. The kind traffic officers put on improperly parked cars. The bright afternoon left the underneath of the car in stark shadow. It was hard to see what she was pointing at. Then I heard it, the anguished wail of a cat.

“It’s stuck in there,” she said, ducking her head even lower and pointing where a tiny, thrashing paw went this way and that in desperation.

I almost rolled my eyes. “A cat?”

She bit her lip and turned to me, wringing her small hands. “I’d help it. But I’m terrified of cats. One attacked me, when I was little.”

“That… sucks,” I said, meaning it. PTSD from a cat attack sounded crippling.

Suddenly, I didn’t need an excuse to be interesting to her. All I had to do was save the cat. I smiled and walked to the other side of the SUV. She followed close behind.

“Can you get it out of there?”

It was moaning loudly. Maybe it was in pain, or maybe it was seriously regretting its own life choices.

“Yeah sure,” I said, and I stuck my hand from around the tire to grab at it, but it began swatting me away with razor-sharp nails. One of them caught the back of my hand, scratching blood. I flinched and pulled away.

“Stupid cat,” I said, unable to help myself.

She giggled and took my hand. “Oh, no. Are you okay?” Her  tone was laced in laughter, and her touch felt cold. In a way that made me wish I could grab her hand and give her some of my warmth.

“Let’s get it out of there. The moaning’s getting annoying.”

She nodded eagerly, and it gave me the motivation to crouch closer and get to work. Even if the cat kept swatting and scratching and whining for dear life. Eventually I was able to grab onto its hind legs and yank it out.

I fell back on my ass, but instead of scurrying away (or acting remotely grateful for my help) the cursed cat turned on me. It attacked my exposed arms and face with a frenzied fervor, got it out of its system, and made a mad dash to the other side of the street. In a flurry of black, it disappeared out of view.

We both stared at its wake, numbly, then at each other.

“You know what they say, about black cats?” I asked.

Coralie took the words from my lips, finishing for me, “They’re bad luck?”

I was smiling, maybe goofily.

Then she reacted, blurting, “Your face!”

All at once the sensation of imprinted scratches burned through my skin. Maybe the adrenaline was gone (or maybe the dopamine, from being this close to her). The stupid cat left me scratched up on the cheeks; on the forearms; on the bridge of my nose.

Oh.” Coralie touched a cold finger to my affected forearm, then grazed a fingertip against my cheek. It was like soothing ice to a burn. “Are you okay?”

I smiled again, or maybe I’d never stopped. “Yeah. It’s okay. Cats are ungrateful jerks. I should’ve just left it there for the lols.”

When her smile matched with mine, her chin dimple deepened. “Do you have first-aid at home?” she asked.

I nodded. “I’ll be fine.”

We got up and dusted ourselves off. Behind me the sun was beginning to descend, showering Coralie in a reddish-golden light, highlighting the fine hairs along her cheeks. Her skin was like velvet.

I looked past her, realizing I was staring. I didn’t want the moment to end—I didn’t want the sun to stop setting, or the wind to stop tickling her honey-marmalade hair. In our silence, I grappled for the first thing that crossed my mind:

“By the way, you’re in my chem class.”

This seemed to surprise her. She hugged herself and laughed. “Yes, Miles, we sit next to each other,” she said. Then, as an addendum, said, “Sometimes. Anyway, that’s how I know you.”

“Yeah—hah—what I’m trying to get at, is, do you have a partner for the project due at the end of October?”

A gust of cold shot through us. It was almost as if autumn was trying to force itself into the conversation.

She shuddered. “Um—We don’t have to have partners for it,” she said.

Great, there went my plan.

“But—Mr. Dotson did say it’d be easier if we worked on it with someone.” She tucked a strand of that honey behind her ear and looked up at me, the sunlight catching her eye at an angle that formed crystals of green. “I don’t really know anyone in that class yet, so I hadn’t asked—”

“Would you like to be my partner?” Talk first, think later. Sometimes that worked.

“I’d love to.”

I never imagined a smile could be so pretty.

/ / /

The next day, when I walked into Chemistry, I found a scrap of paper face down on my desk. It had a silly sketch of a cat attacking a spikey-haired boy, with the captions, “I hope the kitty didn’t leave you terrorized for life.

I found her gaze across the room—she was waiting for me to see it—and we couldn’t help but share a silent, knowing laugh.

/ / /

I was running errands with Mia when a helluva rainstorm hit the neighborhood. We were on our bikes, picking up a sowing kit for Mom and dropping off a package at the post office. The craftstore was on a small shopping strip across the cemetery, from the back side, where the view was nothing more than haggard trees and the headstones from generations past.

Mia and I took shelter underneath the entryway awning while our bikes got showered in cold water. It was a blue sort of afternoon, made gloomier by the fog of rain.

Mia pressed her side to mine, shivering.

“You okay?” I asked.

Her reply was to point at the far off distance, toward the menagerie of headstones that made the cemetery grounds look like a miniature metropolis. Past the metal gates and the trees and the fog were two figures standing under the shelter of a black umbrella.

“That looks like old Dominick,” she said.

I strained my sight and realized she was right.

“And that girl you like.”

I elbowed her lightly on the side for that.

“Isn’t it?”

“Dominick and Coralie,” I answered softly. Dominick was the owner of screaming house. He often screamed at passersby as much as his squeaking gate did. Even from far away his hunched back and unfriendly walk was easy to recognize.

“What’re they doing?”

“I dunno, mourning the dead?” I said, not kindly.

“Uh—what’s up with you?” Mia asked at my tone.

“What else do you do at cemeteries?”

I looked away, ashamed of feeling so defensive for Coralie. Maybe I didn’t have a reason to defend her, just as I didn’t have a reason to like her. It just happened. Like the motions of chaos and nature, shit just happened.

The sight was peculiar enough it planted a question in my head though—a question that never relented in the way it haunted me:

What did the mean, old geezer from screaming house have anything to do with a girl like Coralie?

/ / /

Sometimes when we worked together at the library her hand would graze mine, briefly, and her touch would be ice.

Other times, there was a paleness to her skin that made me resent Dominick. I would get wild ideas of him starving her. If he couldn’t be bothered to take care of his yard, how could I assume he even bothered to stock groceries?

That’s when I started buying her food.

That’s when we started eating every lunch together.

/ / /

“You’re looking awfully thoughtful today,” Mom said, setting down my plate of food. “Soccer’s got your head in a bind?”

She was right. I’d been staring so hard at the tree outside our kitchen window that my eyes were beginning to water. Autumn had stripped it of its last leaf, so it stood skeletal and emaciated in the backyard, Mia’s swing on it moving from the slight push of the wind.

“Everything alright?” she prodded.

“Hey mom, can I ask you something?”

“You can ask me for the world, doesn’t mean I’ll deliver,” she said with a wink. Her signature words.

I cleared my throat and offered her a weak smile in return. Then I got to it: “What happened to old Dominick’s house? Why was it abandoned for so long?”

“Hmm.” She unstrung the apron strings from behind her neck and set it down on the table. “Honey, the house was vacant when we moved in to the neighborhood.”

“Yeah—but… you never asked around?”

She stared out the kitchen window, the gentle squeaking of Mia’s swing briefly capturing our attentions. “The realtor mentioned something about a death.”

I frowned. “Mom, you didn’t ask? That’s kind of a big deal.”

Mom clicked her tongue. “Oh, that’s right. Now I remember. There was a murder. A jealous husband killed his wife and son. It was kind of a big deal around here. You know how this neighborhood is; you can’t fart without the neighbors telling everyone and their moms about it.”

I laughed. It was true. Last time I had a girlfriend, mom knew all about her before I even brought her home.

“But yeah, it was pretty brutal. Murder suicide. Someone in Mr. Dominick’s family, too. Made the evening news. It was no wonder the family couldn’t sell the house.. The daughter survived, apparently, but who knows what ended up happening to that poor girl.”

My gaze fell down on the food. Meat pot pie. I hadn’t been too hungry, and I was even less now. The meat look rich and glossy, sauce oozing from under the edges of the cut pie.

“Do you think the house is haunted?” I asked, thinking of Coralie. How could she deal with calling that place home?

Mom chuckled. “Of course not. Honestly Miles, you should have outgrown ghost stories around the same time you stopped believing in Santa Claus.”

I rolled my eyes. It wasn’t an unreasonable thought. There was something unsettling about Dominick; something that simply didn’t add up.

“Honestly. It’s nonsensical. Now eat your food.”

/ / /

Our exposition was tomorrow. I didn’t have a problem presenting to the class; I was born for public speaking. Now, Coralie, she was a whole different story.

She liked receiving attention; I learned that as I watched her sketch funny comics for the people in Chemistry. She did it because it earned her oohs and aahs and giggles from our classmates, and she was really good at drawing. But it was in a private setting. She made caricatures of one or two classmates a day, impressed everybody, and lathered in the attention.

Yet for some reason, the thought of standing before class and blowing everyone’s minds with her badass knowledge on acid-base reactions (she carried the shit out of our project) made the color drain from her cheeks.

“But Miles, I’m gonna choke,” she told me during lunch, wringing her small hands under the cafeteria table.

I tried not to lean too close. Even though all I could think about was reaching forward and gently tucking behind her ear that stray curl hanging by her temple. “Mr. Dotson said both partners had to present.”

“It’s gonna be a disaster.” There it was again, the dimple on her chin.

“Coralie, you do realize I know, like, a quarter of what you know about this stuff? I could stand up there and clown around all we want, but we both know I need you.” Not in the literal sense, of course. But seeing her every day had become as necessary as having that early morning soccer practice, when the grass was crisp and moist with dew. Her smile, her voice, the lingering scent of autumn from her morning walk on her sweater. There was something wildly addictive about it.

“I’d do a lousy job presenting our project,” I finally said, “Seriously. You know it better than anyone. Do you really want that, after all your hard work?”

She pouted and looked away, her clenched hands the color of alabaster.

“See it as practice, for when you become a badass artist and have to give a speech at your gallery opening. You can’t choke then, huh?”

That made her smile more broadly than I expected.

“Okay, but we gotta practice first,” she said.

I shrugged. “You didn’t bring our stuff today, did you?” Every afternoon, Coralie took the cardboard, the papers, and the research home. She’d made this project her baby.

And you the baby daddy, said the cheesy, dad-joke voice in the back of my head.

Some of that brief happiness left her face.

“Come on, we can go get it. We can practice at your place if you want.”

Coralie  shriveled slightly at the thought.

“It’s tomorrow,” I urged her, “I—I don’t have to come in or anything—if Mr. Dominick is not into having visitors and stuff. I’ll wait til you get it and we can walk to the library or something—”

She placed a cold fingertip on my lips to shush me, and I swear I must have turned redder than the autumn trees outside our school, because the sight made her burst in giggles.

“It’s alright, Miles. We can go practice at my place.”

Well, at least she didn’t mind blundering, blushing Miles too much. I leaned back and exhaled with relief.

“My uncle doesn’t like people over, but he won’t be home until tonight, I think.”

/ / /

We set out soon after, but the sun left the afternoon early. There was a cold, sleepiness to the neighborhood as we neared the gates of screaming house, as if the darkness had decided to descend just for us. The sidewalk was uneven on this side of the street, the gnarled, naked trees that fronted the gates lifting the concrete with their roots.

Coralie pulled the squealing gate boldly, as shamelessly as any owner of a screaming gate would, and waited for me to pass through. The gate let out a scream that reminded me of my middle school years, of Matt’s and Julia’s mismatched Halloween costumes and of stomachaches from overeating Snickers bars.

The front lawn was a jungle of dead weeds and rotted out tree branches. It smelled decayed, like when rain saturates the air with the stench of dead frogs. Ahead, the house was a three story monstrosity of dirty windows and uneven panels. The upmost window (I think it was supposed to be the attic window) was shattered, and behind it stood something too solid to be a shadow. I couldn’t make out what it was, and before I could stare at it long enough it moved or otherwise, Coralie touched my hand and beckoned me to the front porch.

The paint was peeling off the walls, and the wood of the front door looked rotted. It wasn’t scary, just unsettling. If someone like Coralie could live here, then the house couldn’t be too bad.

“Sorry, it’s kind of a dump,” she said, bunching up her caterpillar eyebrows in a way that made me forget all about the house.

“Is it just you and your uncle?” I asked, but I wasn’t sure she heard me. She opened the door and made a half-acknowledging sound before welcoming me in.

The air was sodden inside, stuffy and wet like a dirty sock. She flipped a switch that turned on the flickering chandelier hanging from a high ceiling. Our footsteps were loud on the wooden floors of the antechamber. It made me think of that sound effect from Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And it was cool; I was in the mood for it. After all, Halloween was just around the corner.

Coralie offered me an apologetic smile, and I smiled back. “Let’s go to my room,” she said.

She led me up the spiraling staircase, which wrapped around the antechamber and branched off to the second and third floors. As we walked up, something squeaked behind us. When I turned to look, there was nothing but dust floating in the air.

We stopped at the second floor landing and headed down a hallway without light, though Coralie didn’t seem to have a need for it. The hallway was illuminated by dim rays that managed to filter through the dirty windows. We reached the last window, near where the hallway met a closed door, and I half-mindedly peeked out.

A boy stood near one of the stripped trees. My breath hitched. Nine years old or so, in a dirty t-shirt and jeans. He was bouncing a red ball in one hand—and he was staring right back at me.

Coralie stopped. I almost bumped into her.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“Uh—there’s—” I smudged a finger on the glass, eyes wide in search for the boy. He was gone.

She frowned, looked out, then back at me. “Is my uncle back?”

“Never mind.”

Her pretty eyes were dark when she stared at her feet. She was wringing her hands, as she did every time there was something difficult to say.

The air, which had been stale and dusty a moment ago, felt like it moved behind me. I wanted to whip around and stared wildly at whatever was there, but Coralie looked like the words were right at the tip of her tongue.

“My uncle doesn’t like it when I have people over.”

“That’s fine.” I wasn’t unacquainted with protective relatives. Every pretty girl on TV had at least a jealous relative with a gun. It was a tried and true trope. I figured Coralie couldn’t be any different.

“No, seriously. He’ll lose his shit,” she said, half smiling half concerned. “If we hear him coming, we get you out of here.”

“Of course,” I said, the anticipation of getting into her room eating me inside. I’d agree to anything at this point. I was thirsty for learning about her—her past, her worries, her aspirations—and her room was like the spring water well I’d been looking for all along.

When I nodded, she opened the door and welcomed me in.

Inside, the world changed. Inside, there was no musk or dust; no peeling paint or flickering lights. Inside, the air was a brush of roses, with dim sunset spilling over clean windows, reflecting onto a universe of pink. Her walls, her bed sheets, the embroidered details on her picture frames and on her cosmetics and even on her hanging bathrobe, were all pink.

It was as if the room was a snapshot of a moment in time, decades ago.

She turned to me, and there was pride in her eyes. “My uncle doesn’t care about the house, but I care about my space.”

I closed the door behind me. “Honestly? I’m not surprised. It does look like you.”

Her laughter was so full of warmth, I imagined even her fingers would stop feeling so cold.

Coralie pulled out the project cardboard while I sat on her bed. It was fluffy under my weight. My eyes trailed to the frames against her wall. One of them had a faded photograph of her and an older woman of an uncanny resemblance. Her mom? The woman was wearing a printed dress and an apron. She looked like a housewife from a 50s advert, the ends of her short hair rolled up. And in it Coralie still wore her signature sweater and skirt. The photo couldn’t have been taken too long ago.

“Where did you move from?” I asked.

“From the north,” she said, airily. It was a political answer, I could tell. It told me just enough to make me understand she wouldn’t say details. “But honestly,” she added, “I wish I’d grown up here. I could have been part of the three musketeers.” She touched her lip and considered it, “Well I guess in that case it wouldn’t be ‘three’ musketeers.”

“Oh, you mean me, Julia, and Matt?”

She nodded.

“We’re not the three musketeers—”

“You’d kill for each other.”


“That’s a bond to envy,” she said, and instead of focusing on the cardboard, she went and sat next to me, the mattress sinking even lower with her weight. She was so real and warm and tangible, yet so far away.


“Yeah?” I said, maybe too quickly.

“Do you really think I could be a badass artist with a gallery?”

“Are you kidding me?”

She watched me in anticipation with big eyes.

“Do you really want a biased answer?” I said. “You’re really good, but… if I’m being honest, I think I’m the worst person to give you a critique.”

“A biased answer…” she repeated thoughtfully, “Why are you the worst person?”

Is it not obvious, that I’m head over heels? I couldn’t give breath to the words, not while we were alone, in the intimacy of her room. Coralie had welcomed me into her life, finally, and I wasn’t about to mess it up. I lamely said, “I’m kind of a big clown. I only know about soccer.”

“You’re not!” She laughed. “Okay, maybe you are.” And I laughed.

I watched the world beyond the window. In here, everything felt so safe, so detached, like time could freeze and we’d never grow old or tired. But seeing the street outside had the opposite effect on me. It made me feel like in reality, the world was not safe.

When her warm, creeping fingertips touched mine, I snapped out of it.

“You still have so much of life ahead of you,” she said, “And I’m stuck here.”

“What? Coralie, you’re the one with the artistic talent. I’d be lucky if I can get some scholarship through soccer. But from the looks of it, I’ll be working for the rest of my life to pay for a stupid degree I don’t even know I want.” I’d been accepted to the business school of a state university not too far from home. “If you can’t do anything worthwhile, do business,” Mom had preached over and over last year when I submitted my applications.

“You can’t change fate,” she said.

I paused. She looked absolutely convinced. “What fate?” The fate of us being together, I hoped.

“The fate of my life. And the fate of yours… maybe.”

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to mess it up. I imagined myself embracing her and telling her that for her, I would do everything to change our fates, but even that I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything.

Coralie looked away, frowning. “I still don’t get it, what you see in me. I—I know what I see in you, but… I don’t get why it had to happen. Why? If my fate is sealed, then why did I have to see you and… and…” She took her fist to her chest, right where her heart ought to be, and leaned forward, pained.


I draped an arm over her shoulder and brought her close, cradling her to the valley where my neck met my chest. Instinctively. Acting on impulse. And it felt just right.

She was so warm, maybe for the first time. “Coralie,” I whispered, “You’re scared.” It wasn’t a question. I knew I was right.

In our closeness, I felt her nodding.

“Is it because…” I paused to swallow heavily—here it went: “Is it because of me?” I peeled her off me to stare into her eyes. They were fragile ambers. “Are you afraid of what might happen? Are you afraid that I… might like you?”

It was more than liking. It was needing.

She licked her lips, leaning closer, a motion I mimicked like my life depended on it. “Miles… I’ve been around this town for ages, going through the motions, pretending to be okay,” her voice broke, “Because pretending is all I’ve got left. But then I met you, and I realized I don’t want to pretend anymore.”

She was so confusing. Every word she uttered was a Pandora’s Box wanting to be answered. But I didn’t want to break the spell. I didn’t want to interrupt what I felt was inevitable with some stupid question.

“I want to know what it feels like,” she said.

My heart thrummed. “Like what feels like?”

“What it feels like to love,” she said, and she extinguished the wee distance between us, her lips meeting mine.

I met feathery warmth that made my heart implode in on itself. It was like eating when I was starved; sleeping when I was exhausted. I felt her pulse through her lips—so hot and bursting with life—I couldn’t help myself from leaning in on it. My hands took a life of their own, taking command over me as if they knew how to handle this moment before it even began. One hand cradled the back of her neck while the other found the small of her back.

Wherever our bodies touched, there was fire.

Time stopped, I was sure. Or maybe we kissed for so long it went right past us, moving on while the moments turned to seconds and the seconds turned to minutes. My hand brushing the burning skin of her belly. Her tangled curls tickling my neck. Her hand trailing down my chest to my abdomen.

Then she was pushing me off her, frantically.

It left me in a shock, the heat rising to my ears and making my breath hitch. I panicked for a moment. Had I forced myself onto her? “Coralie—no—I’m sorry—”

She held her hand up and shushed me, staring at her door. I heard creaking wood not long after.

The floorboards of the antechamber, a floor below, were singing the dissonant melody of footsteps.

“My uncle’s back!”

I sprang up to my feet, the mattress creaking loudly. I winced and said, “Which way should I go?”

She led the way out, nudging her door as to not make a sound. We tiptoed toward another hallway, then waited for Old Dominick’s footsteps to disappear into the kitchen or another part of the house before descending the stairs.

Coralie guided me to the front porch, squeezed my heads, and ruefully let me go.

I jogged out of the decrepit property, and right before I pulled on the screaming gate, I glanced up at the broken attic window. Stark against the rising moonlight, a person stood within the shadows of the house. Male. Intangible. And jealously enraged.

/ / /

Coralie killed the presentation, even though all we did last night was to be distracted with each other.

We sat in silence for the rest of the class, and at the sound of the bell, she scurried out. I couldn’t find her at lunch, so I ended up eating with Julia and Matt.

I didn’t see Coralie again until after school, before soccer practice, when I spotted her standing under a fiery tree at the flanks of the school grounds.

She stood like a somber ghost under the tree’s shade, the autumn wind ruffling her hair. The look on her face made my stomach knot. She was going to tell me it was all a mistake, I just knew it.

I almost took her hands in mine, but I stopped myself at the last moment. “Hey,” I said.

She licked her lips rosy and said, “Miles.”

“I… I didn’t see you during lunch. Are you okay?”

She flung her arms around my torso, surprising me. I curved into her hug. Her hair smelled of pines and crisp autumn, but again, she was so cold.

When we pulled away, I said, “I wanted to catch you after the presentation, so I could steal a kiss.”

Her hug and her smile fooled me into thinking everything was going to be alright.

“I want to kiss you so badly,” she said.

“Then do it.” I didn’t wait for the confirmation. I simply lifted her chin and made her lips mine.

She gingerly pulled away. It was like letting go of a warm blanket where there was only cold air.

“But it’ll only make it painful.”

“What?” I said, tugging her hand so she would kiss me again, but this time the self-restraint reeled her.

Coralie shook her head. “Miles, we can’t do this.”

My heart went heavier than a jug of water. “Why…”

“My uncle knows you came over. He… he knows you’re special to me.”

“So?” The anger I used to feel toward Screaming House came back to me, only this time it was all directed toward the hateful old man.

“We can’t see each other.”

“What—you’re—you’re just gonna listen to him?”

“I can’t.”

I tugged her hand harder. “Coralie, I freaking like you, since your very first day in chem class.”

Coralie shook her head. Her voice broke as she said, “It wasn’t my first—my first day.”

I ran a hand through my hair, spiky and thick, its length already getting on my nerves. “What’re you saying?”

“Why do you think I’m so good at these things? Don’t tell me you actually think I’m smart.”

“What does—what do your grades in chem have anything to do with us? Coralie—”

She wrenched her hand away, her anger reigning over mine. “I can’t be with you, Miles. Because it feels too good. Because it won’t last. Now please, just—just go back to your life.”

My face went hot. She wasn’t making any sense. All these days I’d been daydreaming about her. Yearning for her. And we finally had each other. But she wasn’t making any sense.

Maybe we didn’t have each other after all.

She peeled her eyes from mine and began to walk away.

The better part of me screamed at me to go after her. Only that better part lost.