Katrell can talk to the dead. And she wishes it made more money. She’s been able to support her unemployed mother—and Mom’s deadbeat-boyfriend-of-the-week—so far, but it isn’t enough. Money’s still tight, and to complicate things, Katrell has started to draw attention. Not from this world—from beyond. And it comes with a warning: STOP or there will be consequences.
Katrell is willing to call the ghosts on their bluff; she has no choice. What do ghosts know of having sleep for dinner? But when her next summoning accidentally raises someone from the dead, Katrell realizes that a live body is worth a lot more than a dead apparition. And, warning or not, she has no intention of letting this lucrative new business go.
Only magic isn’t free, and dark forces are coming to collect. Now Katrell faces a choice: resign herself to poverty, or confront the darkness before it’s too late.
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I’m painting Will’s nails when she asks me to talk to her dead grandma.
“Didn’t we talk to her last week?” I don’t look up from my work as I paint a coat of hot pink. Will’s nails are short and brittle from nervous chewing, so it takes extra effort to make them look good.
“It’s been a month, I think.” Her voice is a hesitant whisper. “Katrell, please? I wanna tell her about the contest.”
I finish the second layer before looking up at her. Will’s eyes search mine, brimming with cautious excitement. She’s always been like this—desperately hopeful, but expecting someone to crush her at the same time.
Will’s big. Not just heavy, but physically imposing. Five foot ten, huge arms that could hurt someone if she wanted. But she sits with her shoulders hunched, like she’s trying to take up as little space as possible. A bear who doesn’t know she’s been let out of her cage.
I lean forward and blow gently on her nails. I’ll do it for her. Summonings aren’t difficult, and Will never asks for much. At least she has someone to summon. My only family is Mom; I don’t have any aunts or cousins or dead grandmas. Will has a whole host of dead people to talk to. Sometimes I wonder which is better—dead family or no family at all.
I lean back on my hands and study Will’s face. She’s looking down, her eyebrows scrunched, her hands clenched tight around her knees. The wet polish glimmers in the lamplight. I can’t let Clara, her grandma, see her wound up like this. Ghosts can be mean when they want to be, and I don’t need Clara haunting me for a week because she thinks I upset Will. Time to ease the tension. “I feel like the only reason you keep me around is ’cause I can talk to your granny.”
Will rolls her eyes and her shoulders relax, just a little. “Whatever. You know that’s not true.”
“Then it’s because I make your nails look like hot shit.” I smile as she laughs. Her shoulders relax even more.
“Emphasis on the shit part.” Will shakes her hand delicately, still giggling. “Conrad’s look better than this.”
My dog lifts his head from his massive paws and his thick tail thumps on the carpet. We’re in Will’s room, so Conrad had been sleeping on the dog bed her parents bought him. We’re always in Will’s room. The cream-colored walls, canvases of Will’s spray paint art, and the soft carpet feel like a second home. Way better than my leaky bathroom and secondhand mattress without a bed frame. Conrad yawns and stretches, favoring his right back leg, and then makes a beeline for Will.
“Don’t,” Will warns, leaning backward, but it’s too late—Conrad swipes his tongue over her nails, leaving streaks of pink polish up her hand.
I laugh as Will jumps up, swearing under her breath, and Conrad turns to me. He pants and licks my face, a trail of drool stretching from my chin to my temple. “God, Conrad! You’re so gross. Go away.” I wipe my face with the sleeve of my sweater, giggling.
He doesn’t listen; instead, he sits beside me and puts his heavy head on my shoulder, his dog breath wafting into my nose. Conrad is a mastiff mix, with tawny fur, floppy ears and jowls, and deep brown eyes. He’s getting older, and longer walks make him limp. I hug his neck tight, and he tries to lick my chin again. This giant, goofy mutt is one of the only things I have that’s all mine. I’ll take him, drool and all.
Will grimaces as she rubs her hand on her pajama pants. “I thought you trained him not to do that.”
I release Conrad from the hug and kiss his wet nose. “He can’t help it. He loves his Aunt Will.” Will looks unimpressed, so I continue. “Don’t be mad at him. I’ll fix your nails before Monday, promise. Can’t have them looking bad at school.”
Will shifts a little, not looking me in the eye. Her shoulders are tight again. “About school . . . Why were you late yesterday? Was Gerald—”
“No.” I cut her off, the smile vanishing from my face in an instant. I don’t even want to think about my mom’s boyfriend, with his bloodshot eyes and rancid breath. I dig my fingers into the plush carpet. “Just overslept. And I wasn’t late for work, which is what really matters.”
“They’re gonna kick you out of school, you know.”
“Good.” I turned sixteen a few weeks ago, so I just have one more year until I can drop out. The only thing holding me back is Will; I’d miss seeing her every day at lunch. That, and most jobs won’t give a full-time schedule to minors. I can’t even lie about my age—I have a round, pudgy baby face that’s ruined every fake ID I’ve ever tried to make.
Will’s got her disapproving I know you’re full of shit, Katrell face on, so I change the subject. “Why do you want to talk to Clara, again? About the contest?”
Will starts to answer, but we’re cut off by my phone ringing. When I pull it out of my jacket pocket, my stomach sours. Gerald.
Will and I stare at the phone until it stops buzzing. It immediately starts again. When it stops for the second time, there’s a lull . . . and it starts up again.
I silence the ringer, my fist clutching the phone so tight my knuckles hurt. Will watches me with a pitiful expression, somewhere between anxiety and fear.
The phone stops vibrating in my hand. A voice mail notification pops up.
Will shakes her head. “Just leave it,” she says. She’s practically begging.
I can’t leave it. Call it morbid fascination or self-loathing, but I always listen to his voice mails. I play it out loud.
“Damn girl never—where are you? Huh? You ain’t been back in days.” He’s drunk; his words are slurred and his voice thick. “You gon’ stop ignoring me, Katrell. When you get back, we’re getting your disrespect problem straightened out.” There’s a loud crash, like he slammed his hand against the table, and the voice mail ends.
Will meets my eyes like she wants to say something, so I grab my backpack. I don’t want to think about Gerald. I come to Will’s to get away from him, but he’s always hanging over me like a shadow. He’s like a living ghost—gaunt face and form at the edge of my vision, glaring at me. Except, ghosts can’t hurt you. Gerald can do a lot worse than watch me from the corner of my room. “Let’s talk to granny, yeah?”
I grab my notebook, a battered spiral one I took from the lost and found at school. “I’m sure she misses you. It’s been a while.”
“Trell, I don’t think you should go home tomorrow—”
“Here, I’ll start. The usual?” I don’t wait for her reply. I open the notebook and start writing the letter that’ll allow us to communicate with Clara, who died when Will was five.
I don’t know much about my powers. Mom doesn’t have any special abilities and no one knows who my dad is, so I’ve been winging it for years. At first, I could just see ghosts out of the corner of my eye. At night, shadow figures without faces would hover at the edge of my bed and in the corners of the room. Sometimes they’d touch my arm or shoulder—their touch was heavy and warm, like a real hand. Then Will helped me discover the letter-writing skill. Will’s social worker wanted her to write a letter to her grandma to help her “let go,” but she couldn’t do it. I volunteered and that was it—Clara’s first appearance. After that, I didn’t see ghosts anymore, but I could talk to whoever I wanted through letters.
Communicating with the dead isn’t a big deal. Not anymore. When I first discovered the skill four years ago, it was horrible; I’d get the shakes, like I had the flu, and I’d be so exhausted I couldn’t move. But it was worth it. I don’t charge Will, but I quickly figured out that people like to talk to their dead relatives and they’ll pay me to help them do so. It’s easy work—I write a letter, a simple one that says why the client wants to speak with the dead subjects and asks them to appear. I sign my name at the bottom, and bam! We can talk to a ghost.
I start with my usual opening: I, Katrell Davis, compel you to answer my call. Will says I’m too dramatic, but hey, it works. I scrawl a quick message mentioning Will and the art contest and sign my name. The ink turns orange, as usual, and then the letter bursts into flame. I drop it and the paper burns up before it hits the carpet. The ghostly image of Will’s grandma floats out of the smoke. Full size, barely translucent. It’s like she’s really standing here. The ghosts were just disembodied voices when I first started, but I’ve improved over the years. Practice makes perfect and all that, I guess.
Will’s grandma, Clara, blinks in surprise. She’s tall, like Will, but her frame is thin and wiry. Will told me once that Clara used to be round and plump, but cancer ate at her until there was nothing left. Despite the cancer, now her head is full of loose white curls. I don’t know what she was buried in, but she always appears in a summery green dress and red lipstick. She breaks into a brilliant smile when she sees her granddaughter. “Wilhelmina! Come here, baby. How are you?”
“I’m good, Nana,” Will says, smiling up at Clara. This is the only time when Will’s shoulders fully release from their tight knot.
I sit back while they talk. Will tells Clara about the art competition she entered, and Clara asks about school and Will’s adoptive parents. I stay quiet because I can only call Clara for about ten minutes before a splitting headache forces me to sever the connection. I’ve had several unhappy ghosts cut off midsentence because the pain got to be too much.
I try not to listen when Will and my other clients talk, but I can’t help overhearing their conversations when they’re this close. I frown when Will says she’s been avoiding driving lessons with her adoptive dad, Allen. Why won’t she let him teach her? I get that it’s weird because he’s not her real dad, but it’s been four years since her adoption. I’d kill for a dad to teach me stuff. All I’ve got is Gerald and his slurred screaming. But if my mom’s track record with men has anything to say about it, I won’t have to deal with him for long.
When my head begins to throb with pain, Clara turns to me. Usually her kind face is peaceful and calm, but today it’s scrunched in concern. “Katrell, listen. I have something important to say.”
“Yeah?” I sit up a little straighter. Ghosts hardly ever talk to me.
Clara’s eyes are dark with seriousness. “Do not contact me again.”
I exchange a stunned look with Will. “What?”
“You are at a crossroads.” Clara wrings her hands, her eyes darting to Will and then back to me. “You’ve been burning for a long while. It’s consuming you, but you haven’t noticed yet. But soon, it will be obvious to everyone.”
I stare at Clara, at a loss. Why is she being so cryptic? She was clear about telling Will to wash behind her ears because she knows Will is lazy.
“What do you—”
“I’m not explaining this well,” Clara groans. Her form flickers as the pain in my head ratchets up.
I hold one hand to my temple, gritting my teeth. “Hurry, Clara.”
“There’s no time,” Clara urges. She flickers again, like the flame on a candle, the edges of her body turning transparent. “Don’t contact me until the burning is over. This is important—don’t write any more letters at all. Be careful, Katrell. If you’re not, you’ll burn down not only yourself, but everyone and everything around you.”
With that, Clara disappears.
Will and I sit in silence for a few shocked seconds as my headache fades. Conrad whines and nudges my shoulder.
“Well,” I say slowly, still staring at the place where Clara disappeared, “that sounds like something we shouldn’t worry about.”
“That definitely sounds like something to worry about,” Will counters. Her eyes are stretched wide, like a startled deer’s. “What did she mean? How long is this supposed to last? Wait, was this the last time I ever got to talk to her?”
“Relax,” I say, careful to sound disinterested despite my thudding heart. I don’t want Will to worry about this; she’ll work herself into a panic attack. I’ll handle it myself, like I always do. “It’s probably a temporary thing, whatever she was talking about. It’s fine.”
“Let’s go to bed,” I suggest, grabbing the sleeping bag I always use from under Will’s bed. She watches as I spread it out and lie down. Her mouth is a tight line.
“Fine,” she says eventually. I grin up at her—I’ve won. “But we’re talking about this tomorrow.”
“Deal.” I have no intention of talking about this with Will ever again.
We say good night and I settle into my usual place, the space beside Will’s bed. I lay my head on the pillow, my headache gone already, and Conrad snuggles under one arm.
Even though it’s dark, even though I normally sleep like a rock, I toss and turn for hours, my stomach churning with dread. Clara’s image burns behind my eyelids. What does it mean to burn everything down?