When I received notice on August 1 that my middle-grade novel Ghost Girl is a semifinalist in the 2021 Royal Palm Literary Awards competition, I immediately added the honor to my resume and the badge to my digital accounts. Sponsored by the Florida Writers Association, the annual awards recognize “extraordinary writing” in about 30 genres.
Acting on FWA’s motto of “Writers Helping Writers,” multiple anonymous judges use rubrics to score and provide feedback on each entry. Having volunteered this year as a judge and knowing how rigorous the assessment process is, I am delighted with the news.
Before submitting Ghost Girl to the RPLA competition, I had queried about a hundred literary agents and publishers. Although I had a few nibbles of interest, there were no offers of representation. So when I entered the competition, I hit pause, pending the outcome. If my entry flopped—which I didn’t think it would—then I would start all over again, using the judges’ critiques as guidance.
I will still use the critiques when I receive them, but the news reaffirmed my commitment to publish this contemporary novel infused with magical realism and Celtic mythology.
In it, a spunky biracial 12-year-old girl is haunted by questions about her identity and her mother’s death. With the help of a dog, bats, ghosts, and a magic shillelagh, she overcomes obstacles and assumes her rightful role in the family.
Far from resting on my laurels, I shared the news with friends and colleagues, then dusted off the manuscript to begin another round of submissions.
Nina, on the other hand, decided that my badge of recognition was worth resting upon.
Here’s the first chapter of Ghost Girl, which I’m proud and humbled to share with you.
Puffs of forced air exploded in my face with each exhaled breath. I wanted everyone to think I was cold, not anxious, so I spewed a few more. Fingering the wristband that identified me as an unaccompanied minor, I waited and waited and waited in the bleak misery of a blustery train station. After nearly an hour of signing papers and answering questions, it was finally time to leave on my first solo trip anywhere. I blew again and shook off my hoodie. Dad replaced it.
“We don’t need to send you off with a cold, Bonnie.” He pecked me on the forehead, knocking my glasses askew.
Scrunching my face to match my insides, I huffed a deliberately huge vapor cloud, as if it could erase my stepmother and half-brother behind my father. The effort shook free my hoodie yet again. And yet again, he replaced it with a Hollywood smile that could seal deals and steal hearts. That’s my Dad, marketing magnet and social superstar. Tickling the tip of my nose, he squeezed my shoulders. Despite myself, I yielded to a lopsided grin.
“Atta girl,” he declared, his resonant voice muffled by a stiff northerly wind. Closing my eyes, I imagined it was just the two of us. And Mom, of course. She belonged at Dad’s side. And I belonged with them. On the beach, I fancied, squinting into the sun, not squinching vapor clouds into a bleak January morning, or tracking the steel rails that prowled their way upstate.
Mom. Stuffing tears deep inside, where no one or nothing could reach them, I tried to conjure up her image. I didn’t remember much, except her laugh, her eyes, and her hair. Thick auburn hair. It was the last thing I saw when a truck hit our car, killing her instantly. I was five. That was seven long years ago.
“You’ll have to live with your father,” everyone said. That wasn’t a problem—I had seesawed between my parents since their divorce two years before the accident. Besides, Dad’s condo was only a few blocks away from our little house, so I still had my school and friends. But the new arrangement wasn’t for a weekend or holiday. It was forever, and I first became a speed bump and then a roadblock in Dad’s methodical life. So he found a nanny, which turned into a series of nannies. No one was good enough for me, he said. Not until he met and married Deborrah.
She pronounced her name Deb-ORR-ah. I called her Deb-Horror. With her, everything had to be so, so perfect. And I sure wasn’t. Not only did she find fault with me from Day One, but she canceled my life and replaced it with If-ville. If Mom hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have to live with her. If she hadn’t insisted on a new house, I wouldn’t have had to go to a new school. And if I hadn’t had problems at the new school, I wouldn’t be pacing this platform, banished to live in the mountains with an aunt and uncle I hardly knew.
With cold resolve and even colder hands crammed into pockets, I glared at my stepmother, stabbing icicles into her soul as she snuggled my half-brother into a warmth that eluded me. It was as obvious as the skinny little nose on her copper-skinned face that she wouldn’t miss me any more than I would miss her.
“Train 233 to Albany, Saratoga Springs, New Grange, and Montreal arriving on Track One.” An invisible voice screeched my destiny like fingernails on a blackboard. New Grange. Anam and Nog would meet me there and bring me to their place in Tory Island. The boonies. For nine months. More jitters, more clouds.
As the train rounded the curve from the south and whistled its approach, Dad yanked Deb-Horror forward. Wigwagging her hand, she stretched the word byeee into three syllables as thin as her personality. “You be good now. Mind your aunt and uncle,” she chided, as if I had already done something wrong. I slipped a thumbnail to my mouth, a habit that she swatted away.
“You mind your aunt and uncle,” I mumbled, jerking aside. With my back turned, I mimicked her tepid farewell and stuck out my tongue with a defiant head shake. The jiggling teased a corkscrew from the ponytail tucked inside my hoodie. Jeez. I whooshed it away as the train crept to a stop.
“Call me when you get there,” Dad commanded. He glanced at the train, his watch, and me—his speed bump—in that order. The train was two minutes late, and Dad did not tolerate late. “We’ll be up, hopefully for your birthday.” He pulled me into a quick but firm hug. “Depends on my schedule.” Of course it did. Everything did.
“Yup.” Short answers magnified my practiced apathy. Besides, it was easier to agree with my father than challenge him. We’d been over this a hundred times. I was sure they wouldn’t come.
“All aboard,” a trainman bellowed, hopping onto the platform. He talked to Dad, scanned my wristband, and grabbed my backpack. I slung the matching tote over my shoulder, noting that the rest of the ensemble was being hauled toward the rear of the train as freight. Climbing onto a sleek car, I turned into the spotlight of a weak sunbeam. I felt like I was on stage, so I took a bow and bid my so-called family good riddance.
“Love you, Missy Mope.” Dad winked at me. That’s what he called me when I was stuck doing what I didn’t want to do.. Like now. Make me, my long face would dare. Beyond the reach of one final hug, I broke character and winked back. He blew a kiss.
“She’s in good hands, sir,” the conductor called over his shoulder, nudging me into the car and hefting my backpack onto the overhead rack. “Name’s Porter,” he nodded to me and scanned my ticket. His body looked muscular beneath his uniform, probably from lifting all that luggage. With a thrust of his jaw, he directed me to an open seat on the left by the window. “I like that side. Nice views. And you can see your folks as we pull out.” Yanking off my parka, I threw myself into the plush seat he suggested. “New Grange’s the ninth stop, a little over four hours. I’ll be by to see if you need anything.”
Heaving a long crrreeeeaaakkk, the train pulsed away. My stomach flinched and my throat seized. I had already lost Mom. Now I was leaving Dad. But, I gasped, I was also leaving Deb-Horror and Benjy, the crybaby from hell. I shook off my hoodie, freed my wild hair, and giggled. Four hours. On my own! A broad smile accompanied my final wave as the train curved into a tunnel, instantly erasing both my family and my bravado, for in that moment of immediate darkness, the window morphed into a mirror, reflecting a girl whose smile puckered into a scowl.
“Who are you?” I asked the twelve-year-old girl who looked back at me. We simultaneously removed our glasses. With locked eyes and grimaced face, the girl in the mirror bit her lip, which told me that she was scared. She gnawed on her thumb, which told me she was anxious. She blinked away tears that told me she was alone—and nothing like the people who had just disappeared on the platform. For starters, they all had similar skin colors. Dad liked to joke about that, saying, “I ordered café au lait, with extra cream and brown sugar sprinkles.” That was how he described my lighter and freckled version of his rich caramel skin. “And I got Bonnie.” I wasn’t as dark as Dad, and not as light as Mom. She was pinkish, with freckles that marched across her button nose. I touched my own, which matched hers, freckles and all. Calling them fairy dust and me Bonnie Baby, she would tickle me with kisses. I would give anything for one last fleck of a fairy kiss.
My parents were a striking couple—tall and athletic. Yet the girl in the mirror was short and skinny. Then there was the hair. Mine was a longer, tangled version of Dad’s close-cropped cinnamon nap. Mom’s was silky auburn. Dad’s face was chiseled with a square jaw, tight mouth, and dimpled chin. Mom’s was oval with a full mouth and soft chin. Mine was round and buckled with braces. But I had Mom’s eyes. Green eyes that blinked back tears. I resembled both parents, but looked like neither.
“You don’t belong,” I told my perplexed self, covering my eyes with long elegant fingers—Mom’s fingers—as if they could erase the last seven years as gently as they had wiped away tears before that. Shielding my eyes from myself, I thought about the avalanche of events that got me here.
When Dad married Deb-Horror, he said I needed a mother. I didn’t need a mother—he did. Before long, she needed a house—the condo wasn’t big enough and the neighborhood wasn’t good enough. Then she needed a baby. “I got me a built-in babysitter,” Deb-Horror boasted to her friends, emphasizing each word with a shoulder thrust. Nobody bothered to ask what I needed.
As if I could erase those disasters, I closed my eyes and circled my fingertips from them to my brow and across to my temples. Resting my palms together below my chin and fanning my fingers across my cheeks, I opened my eyes. In that instant, the train cleared the tunnel. Watching my reflection dissolve into a rolling countryside, my hands sprung outward.
“I’m free,” I announced aloud. I liked the way that sounded. Bobbling my curls, I repeated it. I bit my lip. Until I got to New Grange. Then what? Before I could kick that scenario around, the train slackened its pace across an intersection. A pack of teenagers in a pick-up truck waved, and I waved back. To them, I was an adventurer. They didn’t know I was a loser.
I wasn’t always one, I sighed, remembering the world where I had had a real family and real friends, like Jenny, Sara, and Erin. Erin and I grew up next door to each other and stayed close even after Mom died. Even though we didn’t look anything alike—she had straight blonde hair, brown eyes, and a big toothy grin—we called ourselves twins. We’d wear matching t-shirts and hair ribbons. We even dressed our dolls alike. When we met Jenny and Sara on the first day of kindergarten, we instantly became the Fab Four—inseparable superheroes on escapades, or princesses on quests. Over the next five years, we traded Curious George for Harry Potter, Muppets for boy bands, and dolls for nail polish, pretending ourselves into the real-life women we might someday become. We were cool. We were Girls Who Code and budding filmmakers with the videography club. But Deb-Horror shredded that life like cheese. My new school didn’t have those clubs and I didn’t have any friends.
I pulled out my phone to text Erin, my BFF. Humph. Used to be. What happened to the forever part? I stared at my phone as if it were a crystal ball. It told me that I couldn’t remember the last time we’d been in touch. After I moved away, Erin and I talked, texted, had a few sleepovers, played some games online, but that all got old. Or maybe we did. Did she ghost me? Did I ghost her? If she wasn’t my best friend, was she still my friend? Friends were people who understood you, or at least tried. As each day, month, and year went by, no one seemed to understand me. While everything was the same for Erin, Jenny, and Sara, all I had was replacement feelings, a replacement family, and a replacement life.
I hated my new school. The only kids who acknowledged me were the other misfits. For them, breaking rules was chill, like skipping school to hang out at the mall. Of course, the one day I went along, we got caught. Dad gave me a pass, saying that he played hooky as a kid. He told me not to do it again. But not Deb-Horror. Although she kept repeating that she was “disappointed,” she was forced to go along with Dad since she wasn’t my real parent.
But she sure acted like she was, especially when it came to clothes. She didn’t let me dress like the other girls. They wore rad clothes, henna tattoos, even goth makeup. In my attempt to imitate them I came off as a wannabe. Deb-Horror pitched a fit one morning when I tried to sneak out wearing a borrowed lace-up vest and short skirt. I responded by kicking a hole in my bedroom wall with my platform boots. I didn’t understand why that was such a big deal—I didn’t hurt anyone. Besides, she and Dad had knocked a hole in my life. A counselor suggested that I had something called an “antisocial personality disorder.” That was harsh. I didn’t have a disorder, it was my life that was disordered.
Next, there was the Juul incident. I didn’t like vaping, but I liked hanging around with kids who did. When I got home one afternoon, Dad questioned the mango smell, made me empty my backpack, and threw away my pod. After a lame “father-daughter talk,” we coasted for a few weeks. Then it was Game Over, big time, when nosy Deb-Horror checked my Instagram. She discovered the picture I had posted of a slap game we played on a new girl. It was just a prank—I didn’t even take the picture—but Dad called it bullying.
So besides taking away my phone and tablet, he grounded me, which I hate to admit was a good thing because I wasn’t with my homies when they got caught shoplifting a few days later. Looking back, some of those kids may have had that disorder thing. Even though they weren’t real friends, they were somebodies. Looking at my phone again, I realized I missed having somebodies, anybodies.
That’s how I ended up on this train, deported to a place I’d never been, to do who knew what, with people who were little more than strangers. Sure, Anam and Nog were my aunt and uncle, but I hadn’t seen them in over three years. That’s when they moved to Tory Island, where they were opening a bed and breakfast.
Nog called me every few weeks. He was Mom’s big brother, which is funny because he was way shorter. He would go on and on about his old house and his old dog. I never liked old stuff. Or old dogs. I did perk up, though, when he mentioned horses. I laughed at the thought of Anam with horses. The only ones I could imagine her with were statues at the museum where she used to work. With her hair in a bun and her body swathed in too many clothes, she was as prim as Nog was gabby. Round and smiley, his hands and mouth moved constantly as he spewed his Nogisms. That’s what everyone called his silly stories and daft expressions. Except Dad, who didn’t abide silly and didn’t like Nog. The feeling was mutual. I think Nog blamed Dad for my parents’ divorce. But they pretended to get along for my sake.
When I told Nog about my troubles at school, he and Anam hatched a scheme. “Get her away from that crowd,” he suggested to Dad. “Keep her too busy to get in trouble. She can take the train here—she’ll love that. You can all come up this summer and we’ll spend a week together.” Deb-Horror frowned at that. So did I. But Nog persisted, referring to the inn as the family homestead where he and Mom—her name was Maura—spent their summers as kids. Finally, he sealed the deal. “She can even finish the school year with me. I am a teacher, you know.” Dad and Deb-Horror agreed—maybe too quickly. Again, no one bothered to ask me. Sure, I thought, just rent me out like a servant.
I thought again about Erin. I wanted to tell her everything. But where would I start? Admitting that I became a loser? Maybe I could invite her to visit, but I didn’t know if I wanted to visit If-ville. What if I didn’t like my aunt and uncle. What if they didn’t like me. I didn’t like me. Maybe this was all a big mistake. I realized I was still staring at my phone. At least Dad returned my screens as a condition of this arrangement.
I shook my head. With nothing to share, I shoved the phone back into my tote. It was part of a totally awesome ensemble that Deb-Horror bought for this trip. Of course, I faked not liking it. That made me smile. Instantly, my mood changed.
Burrowing into my seat, I dug out the snack that she had made—something else she got right—a peanut butter sandwich and a box of chocolate milk. Placing the sandwich aside for later, I slugged some milk and pulled out my tablet. But I didn’t feel like reading, playing a game, listening to music, or watching a movie. Maybe I could post a picture to my Facebook page, or do a video blog on this trip. No, that only reminded me of how things had changed.
Bored, I put the tablet down and watched the misty scenery. I picked the tablet up again to take a few pictures. But all I saw was blurred factories and trees. Ugly warehouses and trucks. Disjointed people and cars. Again I put it down. I was tired from not having slept much the night before. I had been too nervous.
The train’s rocking lulled me into a half sleep. I tried to picture Mom, but I only recognized her absence. Sometimes whole days went by when I didn’t think of her. I felt guilty about that, like I didn’t love her anymore, which wasn’t true. After seven years, though, I was still wracked by the unfairness of it all. If she were here, none of this would have happened. Why did she have to die? She was smiling and happy one minute, gone the next. I didn’t understand it then, and I certainly did not understand it now. I never told anyone this, but I wanted to kill the truck driver who killed her.
Tears scraped my heart, burning it like a skinned knee. I stared out the window until the train stopped at a dingy station, where a handful of people got on. As we pulled away, Porter appeared at my side and startled me out of my funk.
“How’s it going, young lady?” He looked like somebody’s grandfather with his graying hair and ample smile. “There’s a dining car toward the back. Want me to take you there?”
“No, I’m fine, thank you.” I put on my glasses and my grownup face. “I have snacks with me,” I held up my uneaten sandwich. “I just, well, you see, I just never went anywhere all by myself before.” Now why did I go and tell him that?
“Ah, I see. I remember my first trip alone. Out West. First day on the job. Left my family behind. I was older than you are now, but it don’t make no difference. Whenever I got homesick, I pulled out a pocket watch my grandfather—my Pops—gave me just before he died.” With that, he fished in his pocket and pulled out a gold timepiece. “Still works. Reminds me that the past is history, the future’s a mystery, and the present is, well, a present. Do you have something like that?”
I glanced at the bag that Porter had placed on the luggage rack. As if I had x-ray vision, I could see Mom’s emerald ring tucked in my treasure box. I deliberately put it in my daypack and not my luggage, so that I could keep it close. Dad gave it to me the night before he married Deb-Horror.
“This was your Mom’s engagement ring,” he had said. “Now it’s yours. Because I love you.” Of course he had to spoil the moment by adding, “Don’t lose it.” So I never wore it, except to try it on from time to time, pretending to be a beautiful woman. In that instant I longed to unpack it, slip it on, and press it to my heart. Maybe it would soothe the ache. I closed my eyes and pictured the green stone set within a gold Celtic knot. It did remind me of the past, the present, and the future. I found Porter’s eyes.
“Yes I do. Thank you.”
“That’s good, young lady. Always good to know who you are and where you’re coming from, especially when you’re going someplace new.”
“It’s my mother’s ring. She died.” I couldn’t believe I told him that, too. But his kind eyes didn’t even blink.
“Well, I’m sorry for your loss.” He bowed his head momentarily before stepping uninvited into my soul. “But my Pops also told me that in order to understand life, you gotta first understand death. See, where there is no death—where past, present, and future are one—you have freedom to live. That’s a big lesson, but you’ll figure it out.” With that, he edged away and paced through the car checking tickets and answering questions.
Instead of pulling out the ring, I pulled up pictures on my tablet. Mom, Dad, and me, back when Dad lived with us, when we were a real family. Pictures of Mom and Nog when they were kids, and another of them laughing in a restaurant shortly before she died. Mom and Anam as young girls wearing funny hats and another as grown women on vacation. There was one of Anam holding me as a newborn. I studied her picture. She always looked like an old painting. We had nothing in common. I scrutinized those images for a sense of my family—past and future. And the present, well, the present was very confusing.
Outside, patches of scenery appeared and disappeared dreamlike in the mist and fog. Small towns and regal estates flickered by. Perhaps the inn would be like one of them. We zipped by railroad crossings. We stopped. We moved. People got off. People got on. Scenery appeared. Towns disappeared. We stopped. We moved. Stations loomed and tracks retreated. People got off. People got on. I lost track of the world as the train pulsed through the mist. Dad and Deb-Horror blended into Nog and Anam. Mom combed her long auburn hair, her ring visible with each stroke. “Young lady,” she called me. “Young lady.” Not Bonnie Baby. I reached out to hold her.
But it wasn’t her voice. It was a man’s. Where was Mom? Jolted awake, I blinked. Where was I? I blinked again. Porter was leaning into my seat. I blinked yet again. It took a few seconds to realize where I was.
“Wake up, young lady,” he repeated quietly. “This is your stop.” To the entire car he boomed, “New Grange. Next station.” Next station? How long had I been asleep?
I stuffed my tablet into my tote and wiggled into my coat as the train creaked to a stop.