Summary: Since a young age, twelve-year-old Jasmine Lockhart has been able to perceive the veil that divides reality, and has been able to see ghosts. Along with her spiritual guide Griseous, a demon from the plains of Niflhel, she has spent her life exorcising the malevolent spirits of her town. Her life, though not exactly quiet, is generally peaceful, with her scatterbrained mother, doting stepfather, and loving older brother. All that changes when she meets the mysterious Julian McCloud, a boy her age who seeks hidden truths in the stories he writes. He could hold the key to saving her, as strange memories from lives not her own begin to surface, and an entity calling herself "Necropolis Shell" emerges from the depths of her very soul. As she strains to maintain her sanity and keep some semblance of normality in her life, she is forced to question all that she has ever known about a world more vast than she could have imagined.
"maggie and millie and molly and may"
maggie and millie and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and
millie befriended a stranded star
who's rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea."
- E.E. Cummings
Shell: The Story of a Foregone Conclusion
By James Advodei (Metropolis Life)
The July air is filled with the scent of leaves and blossoms, the sounds of bees and the rustling of animals in the trees and bushes. Barely a hundred metres away I can hear the squeals of laughter of children enjoying the heat of the summer. I spare not a glance for them as I tread up the dirt path I have walked so many times.
I wish, now, more than ever, that Julian were here. He would talk me out of it. Tell me I'm being crazy. Then he'd hold me tight, and tell me that he'd never let go. He did that before, but where are you now, Julian? Across the ocean with a family you have no connection with! Well, my friend, you can give me this final gift.
To my side, Griseous walks, his little feet leaving prints in the dirt that only I can see. A warm wind blows through the trees and ruffles his silvery hair.
"Jasmine. You don't need to do this," Griseous says, looking up at me with pleading eyes. "There must be another way."
"Griseous," I say seriously, "she came back again. Even after we got rid of her. How much longer is she going to mess up my life? No, this way, I'm calling the shots."
"It's hardly calling the shots," Griseous says angrily. "You're giving in to her!"
"Then you've got to make sure that, once I'm gone, she's gone too. Please, you need to do this for me."
We reach the wooded area that I've visited almost every day, the forest that I know better than I know myself. Following the path, I would reach the top of the hill I'd long ago christened Death Mountain. Whether it be because of the ghosts, or what I'm about to do… it seems fitting. Strangely enough, though, I feel no desire to have one last look at the town I grew up in. That I have no attachments to the place I spent all my life in serves to reinforce that what I'm about to do is right.
Most kids my age don't believe in ghosts. By the time you're twelve, you've basically given up any notion that supernatural things exist. Even if you're very religious, like some of the people I know, you still don't believe in ghosts, or spirits of any kind. Most kids stop believing in ghosts when they're about ten. Most kids stop believing in magic around the time they find their parents, awake at one in the morning, wrapping gifts and placing them under the Christmas tree. The sound of hoof beats on your rooftop is an elaborate hoax, just like Santa Claus, just like the Easter Bunny, just like every ghost story ever told.
Most kids, even though they don't believe in ghosts, would still be scared of one if they found themselves face to face with it, whether it be a friendly Casper or a horrifying phantom. Myself? I don't believe in ghosts. Or magic. Or God, for that matter. Not the kind of God that Father John preaches about every Sunday, anyway.
I don't believe in magic. I don't believe in ghosts. Belief implies that I have a choice. I don't believe in the supernatural, but I know that it exists. There's a difference, a fine line. A believer praises God; I ask why. I try to toe the line between surreal and firm, between fact and fantasy.
I don't believe in ghosts, but I know that they exist. They pervade my entire life, filling me with horror, pity, and very rarely amusement. Mostly they just depress me. You'll never find a happy ghost. Any ghost you'll ever meet will either be dejected and melancholy, unable to pass on to the next life that I don't believe in, or evil, staying in the mortal realms because they want to hurt you. Mostly they hurt me instead of you. Like I say, you won't find a happy ghost. You might find a friendly one, one who is good natured about their lot, once in a blue moon, but never one who does not yearn for emptiness and eternal rest, the one thing above all that they have been denied.
"I don't believe in anything. I believe only what I see with my eyes, hear with my ears, and recall from my ravaged memories." It was my best friend who said that. Julian McCloud, my brother in arms, and the love of my short, sorry life.
* * *
Chapter One: The Girl
"So what kind of ghost are we banishing today?" I asked Griseous lightly, as we walked up the path to Death Mountain. It had been a childhood friend who had named the hill, which was used for dirt bikes in the summer, and sledding in the winter. To get there, you had to cross "Crystal Creek," a small stream that ran through two enormous steel pipes, named for the quartz crystals embedded in the stones that supported the pipes. It had been almost three years since I had thought of that friend, and that childhood argument.
"I'm not sure," Griseous said, looking up at me. His eyes glowed pale yellow, even in the daytime. He was about four feet tall, with shaggy silver hair and pointed ears, six inches long, which stuck out from his head almost at right angles. He had small horns that poked through his grey mane and curled around to his temple. Griseous was straight out of Norse mythology, a demon from the plains of Niflhel. Whenever I asked him where that is, he would always say that it's below the world. Ever since I was a baby he has been my guardian, but whenever I ask why, he shrugs and says he took a liking to me.
"Well you got the call, didn't you?" I said, frowning a little. "You should know what it is we're going to exorcise."
"Not what, who," Griseous corrected me, as we sat down at the base of a tree. This was my favourite tree, a huge old oak with branches jutting out into the sky, weaving a filigree of wood and leaves above me. I got up from my seat, and began to climb the tree, grabbing onto the many knots in the trunk until I reached my favourite branch. From my perch, I could see the forest stretching out before me, before it stopped just a hundred or so feet from my house.
I took off my ripped and beaten up backpack and dug out an apple, a worn leather book, and a small hand mirror. My worried gaze looked back at me as I glanced into the mirror's silvery surface. Hazel eyes peered out from under long, light-brown hair that framed my pale face and then went down to the small of my back. I bit into the apple and stared at my reflection thoughtfully. Not that I really cared, but I wasn't what you could call pretty. I was too pale, and too skinny, for modern beauty.
"How much longer?" I asked Griseous, staring up at the early September sky. Summer would be over in just a few days, and I didn't really want to spend the last days of freedom exorcising a ghost. Then again, most of my life was dominated by the purportedly unseen, the supernatural, and the just plain weird. Ghosts and spirits followed me everywhere. Not just Griseous, who was one of the few friendly ghosts I'd met, but creatures that only belong in horror movies. Once when I was seven, the local graveyard was overrun by zombies. Not the fast ones that infect you, or the zombies that hunger for brains (what would they need to eat them for, anyway?) but corpses, half eaten by worms and maggots, animated with some kind of dark magic that made them shamble around aimlessly. They were blamed on a bunch of teenagers, once Griseous took care of them and left them strewn around the graveyard, and people said they were just a Halloween prank, but it was one of the most traumatic events of my childhood. To this day, I'm probably the only person in the world with an actual, rational, justified phobia of zombies. It's not that the dead frighten me, although a lot of spirits are downright disturbing. It's when the dead start walking again that I have a problem.
"It's time," Griseous said, standing up. I leapt nimbly from the tree, or at least I thought I did, until I tripped on my landing and fell flat on my face. I wiped the dirt off with a leaf and grinned sheepishly. I stowed the mirror back into my bag; Griseous made me bring it, in case he needed to scry ahead (he won't tell me how to use the mirror as a spying device, even though he's done it countless times) but I didn't think we would need it. I opened the leather book quickly, and took a look inside. It was filled with pages and pages of strange symbols in different coloured inks, each page divided into small squares. It was, as Griseous called it, a book of castings. Essentially they were magic spells, which I used sometimes when a ghost became violent. I didn't like to use them very often, however; it was generally Griseous who used them since they didn't exact quite as much of a toll on him as they did on me. I would become tired for days on end if I used just one, and they were incredibly difficult to control. There were supposedly other side effects to using the papers as well, some things too disturbing to think about.
We began the short walk to the top of the hill where most spirits in this area convened. There was something about Death Mountain that attracted the supernatural. Maybe it was cursed. Maybe there had been a string of murders here. And maybe the ghosts just liked the view of my hometown that you had from the top of the hill.
We waited for a few minutes before it appeared. It was difficult to see in the bright sunshine, but it was definitely there. The figure, that of a man around fifty, looked essentially human, but was very… fuzzy around the edges, like an image on an old TV. When it spoke, it sounded like it was very far away, with a voice full of static.
"Please… Please, guardian. Bring me salvation… Bring me peace." It—no, his—voice was full of sorrow. I didn't know what his circumstances in life were, but he was clearly full of regret. It didn't matter whether he had been rich or poor, weak or strong, in life; he was equal to all the dead now. And it was my job to ease his suffering.
"I'll do my best," I said. I turned to Griseous, taking out a casting paper from the book as I did so. It was pure white, and inscribed with symbols in black ink. This was the one casting that I actually knew how to make; I kept a supply of them with me most of the time. I myself didn't know how it worked, but Griseous did. He placed a long, bone-white finger on the paper and blew on it. The black ink glowed and then faded, the symbols spiralling in a cascade of white light off of the paper and around my wrists and lower arms. I looked the ghost right in the eye and, as if I were throwing a baseball, threw the light at him. "Be at peace," I said, as the light swirled around him. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, even though he didn't actually have lungs. The sky seemed to become darker, at least to my eyes, and there was an enormous rushing sound, like a high wind. The light began to lift him up, high into the air, and out of sight.
That was an easy one. Most ghosts usually put up a fight. Sometimes they would try to kill me. Sometimes they think that where they're headed is worse than being trapped on Earth forever, and do their best to stop me. This one probably had a wife to return to. Or at least he probably thought he did. Despite everything that I've seen of the supernatural, I don't think there's an afterlife. I don't know where I'm sending the freed spirits; all I know is that it's probably better than being stuck here.
* * *
"Time to head home, eh?" I said to Griseous, slipping the book back into my bag and slinging it over my shoulder. I glanced at my watch; it was nearing four o'clock. That meant that Mom would be home soon, and probably Robert as well. Mom had gotten remarried seven years ago now, and I was basically used to having Robert around. My stepfather was nice enough, but there was just something about him that I didn't like. Maybe it was just that he couldn't fill Dad's shoes. He was sometimes distant, and generally a little awkward, and not nearly as affectionate as Dad. After the divorce, Dad got visitation rights, as well as custody of my younger sister, so I saw them every other weekend. As for Jason, he had left home as soon as was possible. He downright detested Robert, but I couldn't fathom why. He had paid for him to go to college, and was nothing but generous to him. Maybe Jason felt that bribery wasn't the same as affection.
Instead of heading straight home, I decided to spend a little more time in the woods. There was something about being in nature that just set me at peace with the world. Sure, there were terrible things like vengeful ghosts and dark entities from behind the stars, but such things couldn't touch me in my happy place. I wasn't very athletic, but I made a point of going hiking as often as I could, sometimes spending nights on end in the woods with just a blanket.
"Hey Griseous," I said, as I leaned against a tree. I took another apple from my bag and began munching on it. "What's your home like?" I had asked him this a million times. Mostly I just got an answer like "It's very different from this place," or "you wouldn't like it," but sometimes I got gems like this one:
"Picture the darkest, coldest winter night. The ground is covered with small pellets called seid which are like ice, only darker. Some people say that they're the discarded souls of the dead, while others say that they're fallen angels, or the remains of used spell components. The world is completely empty. We come into being there, and promptly leave, because it is so dismal there. Niflhel is an endless plain of ice, snow, and death."
"Hmm," I said thoughtfully. "How do you get here from there?"
"That's for me to know, and you to find out," Griseous said, smiling.
"Oh, come on, that's not fair!"
"An old friend helped me out. He owed me a favour, and he got me out of there."
"Which old friend?" I asked. "What sort of person is he?"
"Some people say that old man Aeon is a god," Griseous said.
"I don't believe in gods," I said immediately, and maybe a bit obstinately.
"Don't be so sure," Griseous said. "Old man Aeon is a powerful person. He might as well be a god." He was quiet for a moment. I noticed that when the sunlight filtering through the trees struck his hair, it sparkled slightly. "It was Aeon who asked me to watch over you."
I stared at my oldest friend for a full minute. "What do you mean?"
"My friend Aeon was the one who asked me to stay with you all these years. Not that I haven't enjoyed your company," he said quickly. "Gods, Jasmine, I have. But I suppose he saw something in you. I mean, look at your talent with banishing ghosts."
"Mom'll be back," I said, tossing my apple core into some bushes. We started walking back, Griseous looking around at him, wide eyed, and me deep in thought. Griseous had told me the story of how we had met. A ghost had been haunting our old house, the one that Dad still lived in. I had been just a few months old when it tried to take over my body. Griseous, wandering by one day, had seen the malevolent spirit and stopped it from hurting me. From that day on he stayed by my side. Most kids had an imaginary friend that stayed invisible and then disappeared when they were old enough to tell fact from fantasy. But Griseous was the invisible friend that never went away, and that made him my best friend in the world.
As the forest thinned, I saw my street come into view. A few kids were playing street hockey, but I didn't feel like joining them. I reached my house, a two storey building that was nearly identical to the one next to it. My street was filled with these cookie-cutter houses, with only a few differences in their designs. It irritated me sometimes; couldn't people be more original?
I opened the white front door and walked into the foyer. I smiled immediately. There was a faint smell of cologne in the air, which could only mean one thing. Jason was visiting!
I ran into the living room to find my mother, my stepfather, and best of all, my older brother, sitting around the TV. My brother didn't look anything like my mother, who was blond and slightly buxom. He had inherited Dad's dark hair and broad shoulders. The only memento from our mother was his eyes, which were jet black and full of warmth.
"Jasmine!" Jason's face lit up when he saw me. He got up from his seat in the armchair and pulled me into a massive bear hug. I hugged him back, hard, then stepped back. "How've you been?" he asked me.
Jason was nineteen, and was just about to start his second year at university in Ottawa. Even though there were seven years separating our ages, we were incredibly close. We phoned each other every few days, and told each other everything. There were no secrets between me and Jason. My supernatural activities were no exception. He was the only one in my family, no, the only person in the world, who knew that I lay awake worrying about regretful spirits or vandal poltergeists.
"Good," I said, grabbing a seat next to my mother on the sofa. I hadn't spoken with Jason face to face for two weeks, and we had a lot of catching up to do. "I went hiking today."
"I noticed," he said, with a wry smile. He pulled a few twigs and leaves out of my hair. "Your hair's a real bird's nest, Jazz."
I grinned, more at Jason's presence than at his sad attempt at humour. "I'll go get cleaned up." I slipped upstairs and went into my room. My bed, pushed against the white wall, was covered with a nondescript blue bedspread. A wooden writing desk, inherited from Jason when he moved out, took up the right side of the room. A bookshelf, packed with books from Jason's teenage years, stood next to the desk.
I surveyed myself in the full-length mirror that hung next to my bed. My jeans were grass stained, my hair was full of leaves from when I had been climbing the trees, and my shirt's sleeves were torn, probably on the pointy branches.
I took the book of casting from my backpack and slipped it between two heavy textbooks on my shelf. I kept my room impeccably clean so that no one would come in to tidy and accidently find evidence of my occult exploits.
Suddenly I heard raised voices from downstairs. I dropped my bag on my bed and went to find out why people were shouting. I came down just in time to see Jason storm from the living room towards the front door.
"I'll see you later, Jazz," he said, giving me a fleeting glance, before he ran out of the house.
I ran after him, out the front door. He was waiting on the porch.
"I'm sorry you had to see that, Jasmine," he said.
"Who were you fighting with?" I asked.
"Both Mom and Robert. But it'll probably blow over. We just had a difference of opinion, that's all." He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I've got to go now, or I'll miss the bus back to the city."
"Call me tonight, okay?" I asked.
"Of course." He kissed the top of my head. "Say hi to Griseous for me, okay? And listen; if you need any help at all, just call me."
I nodded glumly. Jason had only just arrived, why did he have to leave so soon? I watched him jog away, all the peace I had felt in the forest gone.