"Got your cell?"
"Yeah . . . . Don't see what good it'll do me."
"I'll text you if anything happens that you should know."
"Text me? Javier, we'll be in the afterlife."
"You never know. Maybe they get a signal."
Discover why Kirkus has called Booraem's work "utterly original American fantasy . . . frequently hysterical." This totally fresh take on the afterlife combines the kid next door appeal of Percy Jackson with the snark of Artemis Fowl and the heart of a true middle grade classic.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Death stalked the spider, pre-algebra book in hand.
The spider was slightly bigger than a pencil eraser and definitely wasn’t poisonous, this being 36A Crumlin Street, South Boston, Massachusetts. But it skittered and it scuttled all over the ceiling—if Conor didn’t squash it now, who knew where it would be after supper.
He thought about getting his sister to kill it. But Glennie would call him a wimp and would tell all her ten-year-old friends at school. And they’d tell their older brothers and sisters who went to Conor’s middle school. There would be sniggering, maybe even a new nickname, and he hadn’t quite lived down the old one.
Which was “Pixie,” by the way. Who nicknames their baby boy “Pixie,” for cripes’ sake? Brian and Moira O’Neill, 36A Crumlin Street, that’s who.
The spider was over his bed, preparing to drop itself and hide in Conor’s actual, personal sheets. He weighed the book in his hand—three-quarters of a pound, easy. It would squish twenty spiders that size. But what if he missed? He pictured the vibration shaking the spider onto his face or, worse, down his neck.
Standing on the bed, weapon at the ready, he imagined himself high in the mountains, Conor the Bold versus the Invader from Planet Arachnid, humanity’s fate on the line.
If only it were a humanoid invader. That would be something resembling a person, and people weren’t scary.
Not like spiders or snakes. Or heights.
The world was a lethal and unpredictable place. He felt this in his bones, in spite of the twelve totally uneventful years that had been his life so far.
The bedroom door slammed open. “Supper,” Glennie said, then saw that her brother was standing on his bed with his pre-algebra book. One side of her mouth curled up in a half smirk, hot pink with her mother’s lipstick. “What are you doing?”
She stepped closer. “Oooo, a big scary spider. Want me to get it?”
“Wimp. Javier’s here, if you care.” She left. The spider scuttled away to the corner, where Conor would have to clear off his desk to get at it.
Defeated, he headed for the stairs.
Grump was coming in from 36B, the other half of the house. “Hey, kiddo,” Grump caroled as they headed into the kitchen together. “How’s the Land of Shanaya?”
Conor’s hand-drawn maps—some of real places, some not—took up fourteen extra-large spiral-bound notebooks. Grump loved the troll-infested Land of Shanaya, partly because its existence annoyed and baffled Conor’s dad, but also because it was proof that Conor had what Grump called “the O’Neill Spark.” Which went with the O’Neill Blue Eyes. And the O’Neill Black Hair, at least on Conor, his father, and Grump before he went bald.
“Shanaya’s good, thanks, Grump.” With his grandfather standing there—big, beaming, confident, glasses perched on the bulbous end of his nose—Conor felt braver about the spider hovering over his desk. It was, after all, roughly the size of a pencil eraser. He took his place at the kitchen table with head held high.
His dad shook his head about Shanaya but would never criticize him in front of a guest, even if it was only Javier. Everybody said Brian O’Neill would be elected to City Council within five years. Tact and relentless cheer were his campaign strategies.
“How about them Red Sox, Pop?” said Dad, no doubt choosing the most un-Shanaya-esque topic he could think of.
“Bums.” Grump tucked his napkin into his belt.
“It’s only April. They lose early, they win late,” Dad said.
“Baloney,” Grump said. “I’m telling you—”
But then Grump shut up tight and listened as a car alarm went off on the other side of town, faint but with that echoing, anguished-yeti quality so common in the Irish neighborhoods of Southie.
The sound made Conor shudder. His dad frowned but said nothing. Everyone stayed quiet until the noise faded.
“What does it take to turn off a car alarm?” Dad’s tone was fiercer than you’d expect from a tactful, cheerful person.
“That,” Grump said, “was no car alarm.”
Dad dished up the green beans and canned corned beef hash. “How was school today, kids?”
Grump stuck to the topic of yeti-like noises. “Burt Kavanagh thinks he had a screech owl outside his house Saturday.”
Glennie eyed her hash and made a beautifully accurate retching sound, violating the house rule on disgusting noises at the table. In the name of her mother—out at nursing school, and therefore present only in spirit—she was banished to the front hall for ten minutes by the kitchen clock.
Conor took a bite of hash and commenced to chew it fifteen times, a house rule that everybody ignored except him. His mother said digesting unchewed food was the chief cause of flatulence in the American male. Conor didn’t think chewing made him fart any less often, but a rule was a rule.
“Of course,” Grump continued majestically, “that was not a screech owl.”
“So, Javier,” Dad said, “what badge you working on in Adventure Boys right now?”
“That was a banshee,” Grump said. “Kavanagh’s uncle died in his soup Saturday night. He lived right next door to Kavanagh.”
“I’m going to die in my hash,” Glennie’s disembodied voice contributed from the hall.
Javier, who normally would have been eating something home cooked and spicier two streets away, smiled into his green beans. His parents and two older brothers had gone to the airport to greet a visiting cousin from San Juan. Javier had stayed behind to do homework. The reward for his virtue was eating canned hash with Conor.
Also listening to Glennie, which Conor could have told him was no reward. But Javier didn’t have a younger sister. He thought Glennie was a barrel of laughs with fluffy blond hair.
In reality, Glennie was a soul-sucking demon warrior.
Conor reached chew fifteen and swallowed. “How’d Mr. Kavanagh’s uncle die in his soup?”
His father sighed.
“Heart attack,” Grump said through a mouthful of unchewed hash, in direct violation of house rules. “Suppertime. Fell over with his face in the shinbone stew.”
“Cripes,” Dad said.
“Cool,” said the spectral voice from the hall.
“Tell us about banshees,” Javier said, even though he’d certainly heard Grump talk about them before.
“There’s no such thing,” Dad said. “I heard a cool fact today. Did you know—”
“A banshee,” Grump said, “is an ancestral spirit, often a girl who dies too soon and then she comes back and keens when somebody in her family’s about to bite the big enchilada.” Grump liked to use Spanish terminology when Javier was around, to show he was okay with the neighborhood not being all Irish anymore.
“Enchiladas aren’t Puerto Rican,” said Javier, who hardly ever spoke Spanish outside the home. “They’re Mexican.”
“Ain’t Irish,” Grump said. “But that’s perfectly fine.”
“Keening is Irish mega-weeping,” said the spectral voice. “Like if you had to eat hash all the time.”
“Glennie, get in here and eat your supper,” Dad said. “And wipe that lipstick off your mouth.” He gave Grump a change-the-subject-or-else look.
Which Grump ignored. “Only the very oldest Irish families have banshees. The O’Neills, naturally, but also the Kavanaghs. And Conor’s mum’s family, the O’Briens.”
“Grump has a birthmark shaped like the map of Ireland on the back of his leg,” Glennie told Javier, taking her place at the table.
“I know. Purple, with a red spot for Dublin.”
“Everybody thinks they’re so cool if they’ve heard a banshee.” Dad forked a green bean as if he were killing it. “Then it turns out to be a screech owl or a car alarm.”
“Funny how the Irish seem to attract screech owls and car alarms,” Grump said. “Especially Irish hospitals and nursing homes, anyplace people kick the bucket.”
Javier was frozen, fork suspended halfway to his mouth.
“Javier-silence,” Glennie announced. That was their term for when Javier was processing data.
Javier reached a preliminary thesis. “Doesn’t anyone ever see a banshee? Then they’d know if it was an owl or not.”
“They maybe saw one before the keening started, but they didn’t know it,” Grump said. “Some of the tales say a banshee looks like a regular girl. But then the Death draws nigh”—you could always tell when Grump was quoting from folklore—“and the banshee assumes her true form, the wraith, a wispy ghost in the form of an old hag. No one who sees the banshee’s wraith lives to tell about it.”
“They die?” Javier said. “Just because they saw it?”
“Oh, cripes.” Dad slammed down his fork.
“Yup,” Grump said, proud that his ancestral tales were so gruesome. “Drop dead, right on the spot. And that’s not even the death the banshee came for originally—she gets that, too. There’s stories of whole neighborhoods keeling over, and all because of one little—”
“That’s enough,” Dad said.
“I’m satisfying the boy’s curiosity. He’s on a quest for knowledge.”
“It’s dumb and it’s garbage, and I’m sick of hearing it.”
“It’s your heritage and you should respect it.”
“I respect my heritage. Garbage is garbage.”
Grump furrowed his brow and drew a debater’s deep breath. But he never got a word out, because Brian O’Neill, future councillor, was too fast for him. “A-a-anyways,” Dad said. “How about them Bruins?”
They had fruit for dessert—house rules had banned sugar ever since Conor’s mom had studied nutrition in nursing school. To her children’s regret, house rules saw nothing wrong with canned hash.
After supper, Conor hustled Javier to his room for homework. Someone like Javier was handy to have around when you did pre-algebra—particularly if you needed help faking a sudden inability to determine the speed of Train A in relation to Train B. The right answer required brains, but a believable wrong answer? That took real talent.
“I don’t get it,” Javier said. “Why do you want to blow pre-algebra? I thought you wanted to get into Latin School.”
“Dad wants me to get into Latin School.” That was all Conor was prepared to say.
Javier narrowed his eyes. “Are you just trying to stay in Southie? You gotta leave sometime.”
“You didn’t go to math and science school when you got in.”
“My mom decided I’m old enough to commute now,” Javier said. “If I even get in again.”
“You’ll get in. They’re not nuts.”
If you kept your grades up and did okay on the entrance tests, the city would send you to an “exam school”: the ancient Boston Latin School or another college-prep academy. Not one of them was in South Boston—also known as Southie, the familiar grid of narrow streets between Fort Point Channel and Boston Harbor. Nor had Conor located any of them inComprehensive Maps of Greater Boston, although he had to admit he hadn’t tried all that hard to find them.
Conor didn’t believe in going places that weren’t obvious on maps.
“Why you worrying about it now, anyways?” Javier persisted. “The tests aren’t ’til fall.”
Conor blew air out his nose. Javier was so dumb about some things. “Right. So I’m supposed to be a math genius now and then totally flunk the exam next fall?”
“Don’t worry,” Javier said. “You’re not a math genius.”
Which was true. If Conor was going to blow an entrance exam, algebra was the clear choice.
Here’s what Mrs. Namja posted in her math classroom when they started word problems:
1. Understand the problem.
2. Translate the problem into an equation.
3. Solve the equation.
4. Double-check your answer.
Well, Conor’s problem was staying out of Latin School. Which translated into blowing an exam. For now, the solution was screwing up just enough homework to maintain credibility without ending up in summer school.
Truth to tell, the whole idea made him breathe funny, even though he kept telling himself he wasn’t breaking any rules doing this.You can’t get caught, he told himself. It’s foolproof. To make himself feel better, he filled out his complete name and grade and the date on his algebra worksheet, which nobody else ever did because it was too much work and also uncool.
The bedroom door crashed open. “I’m doing homework in here with you,” Glennie said.
“No, you’re not,” Conor said.
“I can sit right here on the floor.” Glennie flopped herself down in Conor’s Boston Celtics beanbag chair. “I just have to read.”
“Where’s Javier going to sit?”
“Right here.” Javier heaved his backpack up on the bed. Conor almost said “Watch out for the spider,” then thought better of it. The spider was nowhere to be seen, although he did plan to strip his bed and shake out the sheets before he went to sleep.
Something revealing must have shown on his face. “Where’s the big scary spider?” Glennie said.
Conor strode to the door. “Da-a-ad! Glennie won’t leave us alone.”
“Glennie.” Their father was in the kitchen, working on his Internet accounting course. “Go to your room and do your homework.”
Glennie threw back her head for better volume. “I can do homework here. It’s reading.”
“Go to your room.”
“Glennie, I have homework myself. If I have to come up there . . .”
Glennie kicked her book to the door. “If I had a little sister, I’d let her do homework with me.”
“No you wouldn’t,” Conor and Javier said in unison.
She slammed the door behind her. Then she slammed her own door. They heard her throw something against the wall.
“That book’s going to be a wreck,” Javier said.
They settled in to work, Javier on the beanbag chair because he could concentrate anyplace, Conor at the desk. They worked their way through five algebra problems. Conor screwed up one in such a complicated way that Javier actually whistled in admiration.
The door banged open again. Conor was about to call his father, but the visitor turned out to be Grump. “Doing anything?” Grump asked.
“Algebra,” Conor said.
“Great, great. Listen, kiddo, I’m gonna need a hand with mixing fuel tonight. Mr. Danson can’t come, and I figure you’re old enough to start taking some responsibility around here.”
Ever since Grump sold his convenience store, he and a friend had built model rockets and shot them off at the park. Grump said rocket science was an important educational tool for children, but nobody’s parents would let their kids come within a hundred yards of the launch site.
“How about you sneak out around midnight and I meet you in the backyard? Can’t do it in the daytime because . . . well, let’s say your mum’s not that big on rocket fuel. Javier, you’re welcome to come, too.”
“Grump, it’s a school night. They’d never let me—”
“What part of sneak out don’t you understand?”
“How’m I gonna sneak? They’ll hear me go down the stairs.”
“Conor, kiddo, do you or do you not have a fire escape right outside your window? Best alternate route known to man or boy.”
“It creaks. It’s not safe. It’s too high. And . . . and it creaks.”
“Not if you go at it the right way.”
“I don’t know what the right way is.”
“Time to find out.” Grump headed for the door. “I’ll see you later, kiddo. Hasta la vista, Javier.”
“That means ‘see you later,’” Javier said carefully. “You will not see me later. I’m going home and staying there.”
“Suit yourself,” Grump said. “Sayonara.”
Javier’s mother called just as the boys finished their algebra. On his way out of the house, Javier stopped to help Conor’s dad get rid of a virus on his laptop. Then he was gone and Conor could relax into his customary B+/A– work on social studies and language arts. He got it all done in time to pull out his notebook of maps and create a seaport for the Land of Shanaya. His mom came home, so he scurried into his pajamas before she swept in to say good night.
When she was gone, Conor settled onto his window seat to battle soul-sucking demon warriors on his cell phone. He was about to turn off his phone and go to bed when a black dot slightly bigger than a pencil eraser emerged from the far corner of the ceiling. It skittered and scuttled until it was over his bed again. And then it halted, preparing to drop.
Conor almost thought he’d wait until his parents went to bed and go sleep on the couch. But that would be wimpy, especially for someone with the O’Neill Spark. Instead, he made careful preparations: took off his slippers for increased agility, buttoned his pajama top up to his neck, then opened the window so he could throw the spider out, in case it was only playing dead and had revenge on its mind.
Pre-algebra book in hand, Conor climbed up on the bed, never removing his gaze from the enemy. He bounced slightly on the mattress, willing himself to slap the book on the ceiling before the spider saw what was coming.
The spider froze, sensing danger. Conor had to do it now.
Now. Really. Go!
AhhAHHahhAHHahhAHHahh . . . ! A sudden wail—monstrous, insane—exploded outside Conor’s window.
It was as if all the sorrows of the universe had erupted at once. It was a car alarm from just north of hell, a jet screaming into Boston Harbor, all souls lost. Subway wheels shrieking on a track known only to rats and zombies.
Every nerve in Conor’s body twanged a great twang, and he found himself on his back on the carpet. He watched the spider scurry across the ceiling, unharmed.
The wailing stopped. The universe righted itself.
Somebody on the street below bellowed, “Another car alarm? Are you kidding me?” The front door slammed downstairs as Conor’s parents ran out to confront the owner of whatever vehicle was wreaking havoc on Crumlin Street. Glennie, of course, slept through it all—nothing woke her up unless she wanted it to.
A red-blond head poked through Conor’s open window. “Sorry, boy,” the girl said, floating. “And now, I suppose, that’s a cry wasted.”
She drifted, steadying herself with a hand on the window sash.
Conor blinked, thinking maybe he’d hit his head.
Because he was pretty sure the streetlight was shining through her shoulder.
Not behind it. Not around it.
The girl wafted in over the window seat, her body solidifying. By the time she’d settled herself in his Boston Celtics beanbag, she was as totally there as a middle school principal—except for her right foot, which remained translucent. As he watched, the foot floated up as if she were sitting in a swimming pool.
“Look at you now,” she said to the foot. “Why ever would you be doing that?” She used both hands to press her leg down and trapped the wayward foot with her other one. “There. All fixed.” She looked brightly at Conor. He lay there on the carpet, organizing his thoughts.
She couldn’t have floated in the window, he decided. There must have been a ladder out there. It was nighttime and his room wasn’t lit very well and he hadn’t seen her right.
“Who are you?” He sat up, so he’d look like he was taking charge.
“Oh good, you speak the Tongue. I was afraid we’d not understand each other.”
She frowned. “Our own, of course.”
“I never heard it called that. Is that what you call it?”
“It’s what it is.” Conor stood up, wobbled, and sat down on his bed, forgetting to check for the location of the spider. It could be crawling up his back for all he knew. “Whoare you?” he asked again.
“I beg your pardon, you asked that already, didn’t you? I am the daughter of Maedoc, called Ashling, I don’t know how many years dead.” She pointed at his cell phone. “That is a little computer, is it not? I was watching you from outside. What are the little creatures that jump?”
“It’s a video game,” Conor’s mouth said, although his brain yelled DEAD? She thinks she’s DEAD?
“Vid. Ee. Oh.” Ashling tasted the word, rolled it in her mouth. “Vid-ee-oh game.” She surveyed the room. “This is strange and lovely. So clean! Is it that you’re noble, or is it that everyone lives in such a way?”
“We’re not noble.”
Concern flickered across Ashling’s face. “Not a son of the Ee Nay-ill?” Or that’s what it sounded like, anyway.
“My father’s name is Brian. Brian O’Neill.”
Ashling’s face brightened. “A son of the Ee Nay-ill, then. Descendant of kings.”
Grump talked about O’Neills being kings, back in the dawn of Ireland. “There are a million O’Neills,” Conor said, feeling he should apologize. “I don’t think we’re noble anymore.”
Ashling stuck her pointy little nose in the air. “The Ee Nay-ill,” she said, “are always noble.”
Conor thought of Uncle Ralph drinking Budweiser and belching the national anthem.
Ashling stood up and walked around his room. She was wearing a green ankle-length wool tunic with a thin leather belt, a red wool cloak open in front, and rough leather shoes. Her red hair hung to her waist in a thick braid, a green ribbon woven through it.
She floated up for a closer view of the solar system map on his ceiling. She seemed real—sturdy and solid and muscular. But she was totally floating.
“What are you?” Conor asked. Why wasn’t he freaking out? He should be running out the door.
The girl landed in front of him. This time her hand stayed in the air, raised as if she were the brainy kid in class. “Did you see that? How I floated? And, mark you, I just learned this . . .” She faded to invisible, then unfaded, except for her left foot. “An amazing thing, yes? Yes?”
Conor’s rear end seemed to have become part of his mattress. “What are you?” he whispered again.
Although he was beginning to think he knew.
“Not supposed to tell what I am.” She wasn’t very tall—Glennie’s size. Standing there, she could stare straight into his eyes as he sat on his bed. Hers were a merry blue—O’Neill Blue—but with an odd wedge of gray at the bottom of each iris that for some reason made him cheerful. She smelled of woodsmoke on a chilly night. “But I don’t see why I cannot tellone person. Promise not to distress yourself?”
“I . . . I don’t know.” He thought he might be distressing himself already.
Ashling startled him with a wide grin, gleaming white except for one brown tooth on the side. “I am a banshee, of course. Your family’s banshee. Sent by the Lady to . . . to . . .Ach, you will distress yourself, will you not?”
Sent to . . . what?
To keen—like mega-weeping.
Before a death in the family.
Conor’s nerves erupted with another mighty twang. “Am I going to die?”
“You are distressed. I knew it.” Ashling patted his shoulder. “Calm yourself. It’s not so bad. I died once upon a time, and now here I am, all new clothes with a ribbon in my hair.” She gazed earnestly into his eyes. “Anyway, it might not be you. I’ve no idea what Death I’m sent for, see. I’ll feel it when it’s about to happen. At least, I hope I will. In the meantime, I’m compelled to keen for any death that happens near you, the Ee Nay-ill. It’s part of my training.” She frowned. “At least, I think it is.”
“You haven’t always been a banshee?”
“Of course not. This may be my one and only time. But I shall be very, very good at it. The Other Land will talk of me long afterward. They’ll say, ‘Ach, if only she’d stayed, what a wonder she—’”
“I was about to kill a spider before.”
“I know it. That’s why I keened. And a marvelous keen it was, worthy of—”
“The spider didn’t die.”
“I know it. That was odd.”
She’s a screwup as a banshee, Conor thought. No matter how great she says she is.
But he was dreaming, of course. He must have fallen asleep over his video game. He should yell for his mother, have her tell him, “It’s only a nightmare, go to bed.”I am Conor O’Neill. I live at 36A Crumlin Street, South Boston, Massachusetts, thirty-two hundred feet from Boston Harbor.
Ashling’s raised hand fell to her side. Her foot reappeared. She crossed the room to inspect his wall map of Greater Boston, Massachusetts. “I wasn’t supposed to appear to anyone,” she commented. “What a strange design this is on your wall! But you had the little men jumping, and I so, so, so wanted to find out what they were.” She knuckle-rapped on his window, then tested the heft of his hockey stick.
He pinched himself.
He hadn’t believed Grump’s Irish fairy tales for years—not since the one about the kelpie, the fairy horse that drowns and eats you. He’d stayed out of the water one whole sweltering July until his mom figured out what was going on and made Grump say that kelpies were another of his old stories.
His dad said a boy Conor’s age should be ashamed to believe such baloney.
Maybe kelpies were real. Maybe Grump did smuggle guns to Irish rebels.
He was pretty sure this banshee was real. Weird.
He wasn’t a shivering scaredy-cat. Weirder.
The spider didn’t die. “Nobody here’s even sick,” he said. “You’ve made a mistake.”
Ashling raised the hockey stick over her head, brought it down in a vigorous chopping motion. “Umph. Odd shape, but a good club nonetheless.” She shot him a look—analyzing him, amused, with a touch of lofty pity for his fate. Conor might have been a fly struggling in a web. “You may think what you like, but the Lady does not make mistakes.”
“Who’s the Lady?”
“I don’t know that she’s a who. She rules the Other Land, where the Dear Departed pass through and are counted. Where I’ve been until now. She it was who offered me my trade.”
“What does that mean, your trade?”
“She kept me to entertain her—oh, I don’t know how many lifetimes—when everyone I knew had been reborn many times over, lost to me, lost, lost, lost in the World.” Her voice rose. “And I am no bard, and yet I must tell the same old tales over and over and over and over. Ach! What a fate for a daughter of the Ee Nay-ill!”
“And now at last, at last, the Lady has said if I serve her once as a banshee she will send me back to the World. I will have a new human life.” She tightened her grip on the hockey stick, fixed him with an intense gaze. “I would do anything—anything—for a new life.”
“You mean . . . Cripes. You mean you’ll be reincarnated?”
“I have heard it called that, yes. And this will make up for the life so cruelly taken from me by the dreaded raiders of the Dahl Fyet’ugh.”
Conor’s brains went floaty. “Dahl Fyet’ugh,” he repeated, trying to match the funny guttural sound she made at the end.
Ashling scrunched up her face and slammed the hockey stick down on the beanbag chair as if beheading someone. “Curs!” she shouted. “Sons of no mother!”
I am Conor O’Neill, 36A Crumlin Street . . .
A chair scraped in the kitchen. “Pixie? What are you doing? Are you all right?” The stairs creaked.
Conor leaped to crack open the door. “I’m fine, Mom,” he said in a loud whisper—Glennie was most likely to wake up exactly when you didn’t want her to. “I dropped my pre-algebra book. I was killing a spider.”Why don’t I tell her we have a banshee?
Because there’s no such thing as banshees. He imagined the expression on his dad’s face. Good enough reason to keep this to himself.
His mom’s blond head appeared at the top of the stairs, her brow furrowed. “Go to bed, Pixie. It’s late.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Don’t call me Pixie.
“Moira,” his dad said from downstairs. “The kid’s fine. And stop calling him Pixie.”
“Good night, Pixie.”
Conor sighed. “Good night, Mom.”
When he turned around, he half expected the room to be empty. But Ashling was still there, still brandishing the hockey stick like an ax. She grinned, showing off her one brown tooth. “‘Pixie’?”
Conor was embarrassed. “My name’s Conor, but they started calling me ‘Pixie’ when I was little. Because I was so scrawny”—like I’m not still—“and sometimes my eyebrows peaked up so high Grump said I looked like . . . well, a pixie.”
“Your eyebrows peak up when you’re unnerved.” Her grin broadened. “Like now, Conor-boy.”
“I’m not unnerved.” But then he saw himself in the mirror. The eyebrows never lie.Cripes. They’re practically in my hair.
He got his eyebrows under control and tried to deepen his voice. “So, these Dahl Fyet’ugh. They killed you.”
“And my brother before me, demons that they be. Maybe the rest of my family, too, but I was too dead to know.”
“How . . . ?”
“A raiding party as we drove our cattle home from afar, an ax in my head as I defended the little ones.”
She didn’t look much older than he was. Conor rubbed the back of his head, which felt like it had an ax in it. “Holy macaroni. I bet that didn’t tickle.”
“Didn’t tickle? It was an ax in the head!”
Conor felt his eyebrows peaking up. “It probably hurt a lot.”
His visitor dropped the hockey stick on the rug and replunked herself down on the beanbag. “But then I appeared before the Lady to be praised for my bravery, which bested any in the history of . . . What isholy macaroni?”
“Something my grump says.” But there were bigger questions, weren’t there? “Does . . . does everybody get reborn after they die?”
“Not everybody.” Ashling kicked at the hockey stick, peevish. “Not me, for example.”
“Most. They go through a gateway and we see them no more.”
“Do people know that they lived before?”
“No. You know it now, of course.”
Conor’s eyebrows shot up toward his scalp. “How . . . how many times have I . . . ?”
“How should I know that? I am Ee Nay-ill, I don’t hang about keeping records. That’s Nergal’s task.”
“He’s Babylonian.” She said that as if it explained everything.
“But . . . I don’t remember any other lives.”
“Of course not. Look at you, you’re white as a new bone knowing what you know now. Imagine if you kneweverything. You would be holy macaroni.”
It was time for bed. The world was more out of control than he’d ever suspected.
“You want to sleep,” Ashling said. “I shall sleep, too.”
“It seems we do. I’m tired, in any event.” She pondered for a second, then said, “I don’t seem to be hungry. That’s good, because I’m not supposed to eat anything.”
“You don’t know much about being a banshee.”
“It all happened in such a rush. The Lady said I’d learn as I went along. Considering how new I am, I am doing the best of anyone in the world’s memory.” She peered at him. “Don’t you agree?”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re doing great.” You’re a total screwup.
“We usually stay in our family’s home. Have you a small space, a bit confined? I’m used to being underground, see.”
Conor opened the door to the game cupboard under the eaves. “Is this okay?”
She peered in at the shelves of games and retired toys, Glennie’s threadbare Mother Goose rug on the floor to sit on while deciding between Mario Kart and Pokémon. A shelf in the back had a bunch of old board games: newish Clue, oldish Monopoly, ancient Trivial Pursuit.
“This is very fine,” she said. “Have you any straw?”
Conor felt around under his bed—momentarily concerned that the spider might be under there, but not wanting to be a wimp in front of the banshee. He located his regulation Adventure Boys sleeping bag and pad and spread them out on the Mother Goose rug. He even gave her his extra pillow.
“One thing everyone says about the Ee Nay-ill.” Ashling flung herself down on the sleeping bag. “Since the world began, no one has seen the match of our courtesy to guests.”
Conor shut her into the cupboard, knowing she could get out easily enough—ever since his mom studied childhood suffocation, house rules decreed that all closet doors have inside latches.
Something skittered across the ceiling—the spider, once again over his bed. Conor watched it dully, willing it to go someplace else. He wasn’t about to try killing it again, with a banshee in the cupboard waiting to wail. Maybe he’d get a glass from the kitchen, try to trap it and release it out the window. Maybe . . .
But the spider solved the problem all by itself.
It fell off the ceiling onto his pillow.