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Young Adult Speculative, Tatiana Schlote-Bonne, THE RULES OF HAUNTING


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Hello, this is my opening scene (my whole first chapter, actually, since it's 4 pages single spaced.) This introduces the antagonist (though my protagonist doesn't know Griselda is the antagonist yet,) establishes the setting of Whitefall and the conflict of Lucina's memory loss, and foreshadows the soul-eating monster (aka Griselda) conflict. Hopefully, Lucina comes off sympathetic and enjoyable to read about too! 

Chapter 1: Transition Numbness

I think I might be a ghost. My limbs are weightless. Feathery. I bring my hand up to check, and yep, it’s see-through.

Shit.

My life is over. Literally. 

I’ll never get to travel to the Amazon rainforest. I’ll never adopt another rat. I’ll never have sex. I hate the concept of "virginity," like a girl who has sex is impure. But now, that’s all I can think—I’m a virgin ghost girl. I shouldn’t have told Silas I wanted to wait until senior year. I should’ve done more. So much more. Why am I not freaking out? A wave of hysteria should be hitting me like a wrecking ball, but for some strange reason, it’s not. Normally, I have a panic attack by lunch.

I don't even know where I am or how I got to this place. I’m standing in a wooden shack stocked with pickaxes and corroded barrels. The room is windowless, the air hot and stuffy, but there is a door ahead. I should find out what’s on the other side. I step forward, reaching for the rusty handle, but my hand swipes through. Oh, right. I walk through and emerge in sunlight. I'm on a dirt street, old wooden buildings to my left and right, each place with its name painted on the front: SILVER BELLE SALOON, MOJAVE BANK, COYOTE HOTEL, LADY LUCK CASINO.

This doesn't look like California, at least not the part I'm from. It’s too quaint for hell, but not nice enough to be heaven. Purgatory, maybe? And if it is, what did I do to deserve this? I try to picture what happened when I died, but all I remember is getting out of my chemistry final and heading home. The plan was to change, then go to the beach with Silas. We kissed, I put my backpack in my car, and then, nothing. My memory fogs over. I clench my eyes, trying to picture it all again, but can’t. It’s an impenetrable haze, like trying to remember a dream I’d had weeks ago.

Voices come from inside Lady Luck Casino. I step closer and peer through the window. A transparent man is dealing cards to two women wearing vintage halter-top dresses. By the slot machines, a teen boy folds over into a back bend, his ribs pointed toward the ceiling, and scurries around like the girl from The Exorcist. He reaches out and fist-bumps a shadowy humanoid shape drifting by.

A slight smile tugs at my lips. Horror movies are my favorite. I'd made Silas see all The Conjuring movies with me in theaters. He'd clung to me and watched through the cracks of his fingers. Now I am a ghost. He would find that funny. Well, maybe after he gets over my death. Why am I still so calm about that? Trying to parallel park normally has me short of breath, blood pounding in my ears. Maybe that's it: no blood, no anxiety.

A pale, thin middle-aged woman floats toward me from across the street, her feet hovering a few inches above the ground. “Hello, dear.” She fixes the collar of her Old Western light blue, long-sleeved dress. “I’m Griselda, the director of Whitefall, and we're so excited to have you join us. How was your transition into the afterlife?”

“Umm,” I say, trying to think of an answer, but still, no memory of how I died.

“Poor thing. Must’ve been a rough death." Griselda frowns, her brown hair billowing around her head, like she's floating in a pool. "It's normal to feel a bit out of it. All new ghosts experience Transition Numbness as they adjust to their new reality. Don’t worry.” She pats my shoulder with her cold, gelatinous hand.

I shiver.

“Your memories and emotions will all come flooding back soon. What’s your name, dear?”

“Lucina. Is this purgatory?”

“No, dear.” Griselda laughs. “Whitefall is our little oasis where we can exist freely and practice haunting.”

“Am I in California?”

“This is an old mining town in Nevada. All new ghosts spawn in areas rich with spiritual energy. Spirits need community. You’d be lost and alone if you spawned where you died.”

Where I died. Right. That could’ve been on the side of the freeway, or maybe I made it to the beach and drowned, got carried away by a riptide—that was always one of my biggest fears, yet I'm picturing it happening to me now, and the idea doesn’t scare me at all. It's kind of nice. “How long does the Transition Numbness last?”

“Not long. Usually clears up in a few hours.”

I nod. Hopefully, the memories of my death aren't too bad when they return.

“Come along, dear,” Griselda says.

We drift by the next building: a barbershop, its candy-cane sign faded from the sun. Griselda’s reflection passes in the mirrors lining the back wall, but I don’t see myself. I stop and lean forward—I do have a reflection, but from this distance, it’s almost invisible. My brown eyes are colorless. My curly black hair floats around my face in transparent strands. I should’ve worn a cute sundress instead of this old David Bowie t-shirt and baggy cargo pants, which make my translucent legs look puffy. I wave to myself, barely noticing a blur in the air.

“Why am I translucent but you’re not?” My voice is monotone, and the question comes out more interrogative than I meant to sound. “If you don’t mind me asking,” I add quickly. For all I know, it’s rude to ask in ghost culture.

“We ghosts are capable of a range of solidity, depending on how we want to interact in the world. Translucent, you can only touch other ghosts, but soon you’ll learn how to interact fully with the world again.”

“Oh.” I guess it makes sense.

We pass Town Hall, the largest and tallest building on the street with a pointed roof and broken archtop windows. Inside, rows of ghosts watch a dark-haired man hovering by an old projector. He displays a slide of an abandoned building with the title: Stairwells, Hallways, Elevators—How Can Liminal Spaces be Inhabited for Maximum Dread?

A woman in the front row raises her hand.

Did I really just finish my junior year of high school, only to die and end up right back in classes? I have the worst luck.

Griselda keeps moving. I follow. The desert beyond town is vast, mountains lining the horizon. The ground is dry dusty earth, the only plant sagebrush: a brittle, greenish-brown shrub, a tumbleweed before it begins tumbling. For a fleeting moment, I miss the palm trees and sea breeze of my hometown, but then the numbness returns.

Griselda stops in front of an old house, white paint peeling from its siding, broken steps leading to the front door. A charred brick chimney sticks out of the roof. “This is where you’ll be staying.” She passes through the wall.

A sagging, floral print couch and a faded piano occupy the living room. The floor is littered with charred bits of wood from the blackened fireplace, and across from the couch is an old…microwave? It’s square with buttons and knobs. I get closer and realize that it's actually a TV. An ancient one. 

“Camilla inhabits this space as well," Griselda says. "She's around your age. I’ll let her know you’re here.” She leads me upstairs to a small bedroom with a stuffy, mushroom smell. A stained, sagging withered bed is against the wall, a desk and peeling leather chair across from it. A pile of dusty human remains—skull, finger bones, a few strips of rotting leather—lie in the corner by the closet.

Griselda sits in the chair, yanking open the creaking desk drawer. She pulls out a notepad and pen. Maybe this room has special furniture only ghosts can use? I try to sit on the bed, but I fall through the mattress, my body and head submerged beneath the fabric. I leap out.

“It's okay. You won’t get stuck or anything, dear,” Griselda says, peering at me over her shoulder. “Unless, of course, it's an inanimate possession gone wrong. Poor Jefferson…” She shakes her head. “But don’t worry. As a new ghost, you’ll first establish your Unfinished Business and learn how to solidify.” She writes on the notepad. “Then you can decorate, clean up the room." She gestures at the bones like they’re forgotten dishes. “Camilla will accompany you to your Unfinished Business meeting tonight. In the meantime, try to make yourself comfortable.” She slides the notepad closer. “This is your lesson schedule.”

“That’s it? I just go to ghost school now?”

“While we do offer lessons, it’s not exactly ‘school.’ There are skills to learn. Traumas to sort out.” She smiles at me, and drifts through the wall.

“Oh,” I say to no one. I thought there’d be some process, some attempt to move on to heaven or hell, but maybe those don’t exist, and I get to go full poltergeist right out the gate. I’m okay with that. I look over the note.

Unfinished Business Counselling: Mondays, 10 pm, Town Hall

Haunting Skills: Tuesdays, 8pm, Casino

Animal Spirits: Wednesdays, 3 pm, Saloon

Sounds better than my fall schedule of AP Gov and Calculus II. I stand by the desk, running my hands over my arms, feeling the cool, gummy texture of my translucent skin. If I press hard enough, my fingers dip through, like penetrating a bubble. It’s oddly satisfying. If only I’d felt this relaxed during life, then maybe instead of worrying about each word I'd ever said and what every single person I met thought of me, I could've enjoyed things more.

The sun begins to set. Shadows spread across the room. My chest tightens. My cold, viscous fingers suddenly feel wrong and foreign. Do all people become ghosts? Are my grandparents here? My dad? Will everyone at school think I'm stupid for dying so young? I'll never graduate. I tried so hard to get As, for nothing. Has my family heard the news of my death yet? Is my mom okay? Silas? My lips quiver. Will my mom feed my pet rats? She probably will, but she won't remember that Minky needs chia seeds. He has back pain.

I turn around, almost stepping into the human remains. I close my eyes, and slowly count to ten. For a minute, I return to the peaceful numbness, but the tightness in my chest returns, and I hear a scream: guttural, wet, and not mine. I look around the room. My chest pain eases. The house is still, the curtains fluttering by the open window.

I close my eyes again—the scream echoes in my head. Oh god. Something horrible must’ve happened when I died. I pace back and forth. Maybe I checked my phone and drove headfirst into traffic. Or what if there was an earthquake? Or a gas explosion in my house and my family is dead! But then they'd be here, right?

Think positive.

I count from ten to zero.

Whatever happened is done.

I hug myself, waiting for the memory of my death to come flooding back, but it doesn't. I’d almost rather not know, except, never knowing would torture me. I groan and run my hands through my translucent hair. My fingers catch on strands of something viscous. It’s clumps of a clear gooey substance. Saliva? Ectoplasm? I hold it closer to my face, and I'm hit with a smell: pungent, rotten, and strangely familiar.

I try to place where I know this scent from, but can't, and the longer I smell it, the more my stomach pits with dread. I fling the goo away, and a drop of it falls beside my translucent Converse. I look at the floor through my shoes—something's uneven about them. It takes me a moment since my clear skin and clothing look the same, but then, I see it: my right shoe is missing, and so is my big toe.

What the hell happened to me?

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Hi Tatiana! Lucina is sympathetic and fun to read about, and I love her already. The first scene is engaging and the end is intriguing, leaving the reader, like Lucina, to wonder what the hell happened to her. Just a few things, and please take them with several grains of salt as I'm no expert: 

-If I woke up and found my body in a weightless, feathery condition and I don't recall dying, I would not automatically jump to the conclusion that I am a ghost unless I ardently believed in ghosts during my lifetime. Of course, that might be the case with Lucina, and if it is you might want to sprinkle some hints here and there. If not, maybe you could have Lucina slowly realize she is a ghost through her observations of Whitefall.

-I got a little confused when Griselda mentioned "inanimate possession." I think it's referring to possessing an inanimate object like you would possess a person, but when I first read it, it jarred me out of the narrative. 

-Take this with additional grains of salt, as this may just be a personal preference of mine. When describing things, you tend to double up on adjectives (ex. cold, viscous fingers). I don't see any inherent problem in it other than that it gets tiring and awkward after a while. 

-I'm the slightest bit confused about the end. The way it's told, it seems like Lucina is looking down and noticing the gooey substance and her missing shoe and toe, implying that Griselda tried to eat her before the entire scene. But earlier, you have Lucina inspecting her ghost body as well as looking at her reflection--did she really not notice that her shoe was gone, something weird was in her hair, and that she'd lost an entire toe? That made me wonder if the attempted eating happened between Lucina getting the schedule and the sun setting, but it's not mentioned because Lucina's memory has been erased. 

Thanks for posting! Overall, you did a great job. You did very well in having the reader get to know Lucina and become invested in her story. Have an awesome day : )

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Your beginning is very good, gets my attention right away. I like this line as an explanation to her feelings:

Why am I not freaking out? A wave of hysteria should be hitting me like a wrecking ball, but for some strange reason, it’s not. Normally, I have a panic attack by lunch.

However, I notice this same explanation comes up several times in this same chapter.

"Why am I still so calm about that? Trying to parallel park normally has me short of breath, blood pounding in my ears. Maybe that's it: no blood, no anxiety."

"that was always one of my biggest fears, yet I'm picturing it happening to me now, and the idea doesn’t scare me at all. It's kind of nice." 

I understand that you don't want to get caught up in describing her trauma as too much focus on that will divert your entire story, but I think there needs to be some sort of explanation for why she's so calm. I see you're referring to it with the concept of Transition Numbness, maybe if it could be made more explicit like instead of "It's normal to feel a bit out of it" to say more clearly "It's normal to feel calm and collected despite having just died."

I like the apocalyptic Western setting you have going on.

I like a lot when you show off her attitude like in the line "Did I really just finish my junior year of high school, only to die and end up right back in classes? I have the worst luck." and I think more of that would be better. More of an emotional reaction to the broken downness of everything, for example. Not necessarily a negative emotional reaction, I like the snarky and irreverent tone you have going on.  She seems rather indifferent about what is being described as rather poor living conditions.

In fact, I think that's the main issue I keep struggling with as I'm reading this. It almost feels like it's not quite determined whether this story is going to be lighthearted and funny or serious as it keeps flirting with the trauma. I'd almost rather the entire attitude be that she's thrilled to be dead after the initial shock of realizing that she's a ghost.

Conclusion: You have great wordsmithing skills; this chapter was very easy to read. No confusion about what is actually happening and everything is described clearly and vividly. I personally am not super into ghost stories but I like your tone enough to want to keep going!

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