About Spirits of Oz
- 2014 Community Novel Project of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library
- Written and illustrated for a younger audience
- Just joining us? Please start reading with Chapter 1
- A new chapter is serialized each week
- A different Topeka author and illustrator featured in each chapter
- Read online or download to your ereader!
Downloading Spirits of Oz Chapter 1 by Marian Rakestraw
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Read Online: Spirits of Oz Chapter 1 by Marian Rakestraw
Nico and Lola Espiritu crouched behind a headstone for the fourth night in a row when any reasonable person might have expected that they would be home in bed, where properly brought up children belong. The headstone was in Section Four of the Rochester Cemetery and had a view downhill past some of the older graves, across the dark slash of Soldier Creek, and off to downtown where the dome of the capital glowed like a giant bottle of pop in the streetlights of Topeka. The headstone was large and grey and served as the anchor for a solemn row of smaller markers, also grey. It was carved with grey letters announcing that here lay John Maitland (Died in Chicago Ill., Feb. 24, 1894) and his wife Lydia. The smaller stones, presumably the Maitland children, bore only initials, the parents apparently having decided not to spend the coin to spring for their children’s entire names.
The Espiritu twins huddled against this monument partly to block the wind, which had picked up with the setting of the sun, but also because the director thought they made a nice shot he might want to use. The Maitland’s monument was both imposing and cozied up against an ancient tree with gnarled limbs that bent down arthritic fingers toward the graves and cracked ominously in the wind. This contrasted nicely with the smooth cheeks and wide brown eyes of the children. With appropriate music added the whole scene would have a pleasant feeling of imminent zombie attack. It was a pity that the next grave over was engulfed in a vibrant collection of plastic flowers, but you couldn’t have everything.
Despite setting up this shot the director had not made any move toward actually filming the children and over the last couple of nights their carefully studied expressions of interested alarm had faded. Nico slouched, picking at bits of lichen on the monument. Lola curled into a ball thinking about cute cat posters. If she rearranged things on her bedroom wall, scooting things over just a bit, she thought she could fit in one or two more. Or she could start in on the ceiling. There was always the chance that one would fall in the night and flutter down on to her face but it might be worth taking the chance.
“Lola,” whispered her brother, “what are you thinking about?”
“Spelling words. We have a test tomorrow, remember?”
Nico flashed a grin for just a moment. “Liar. I’ll bet you were thinking about glitter gel pens or cat posters.” Lola scowled. “If you were really thinking about spelling all this time then you should be perfect. How do you spell ‘confess’?”
“N-I-N-C-O-M-P-O-O-P. Mom is the only psychic in this family.” Lola uncurled and leaned against the headstone facing Nico.
His gaze went right past her to where their mother wandered the cemetery, pausing to touch stones and gazing hopefully at an EMF reader. A cameraman followed. The low light from the camera highlighted her tumble of red hair and lime green Spirits of Oz t-shirt.
“If she is then she better make contact with something otherworldly pretty soon.”
“What do you mean ‘if’? We’ve found plenty of ghosts, like that pair over in Lecompton last season. And she knows things. It’s a waste of time to lie to her. She always knows the truth.”
“I’m not saying she can’t talk to ghosts just that things haven’t exactly been going well lately. How many nights have we been out here with nothing to show? This place is supposed to be pretty heavily haunted and so far the weirdest thing we’ve seen has been that painted cherub gravestone. Nobody needs to look at a pink painted baby butt. Even if you add wings. If things keep going like this the network is going to cancel us. Plus, a banana is smart enough to tell when you’re lying. You get this look on your face. Kind of like a startled squirrel.”
“Why do I even like you?” Lola laid her cheek against the stone. It was cool and slightly rough. “Sometimes I think it would be better if we were cancelled. It was good when it was just us with no cameras or marketing people. I suppose you’ve been thinking about how to solve our problems all night?”
“No. Mostly I’ve been thinking about food. I could really go for some cheese fries. That and the project we’re supposed to be researching on inventors. I think I’m going to do Thomas Edison.”
“Thomas Edison is boring. You should go for someone interesting. I’m doing George de Mestral.”
“Who invented what?”
“Velcro. Totally cooler than the light bulb.”
“I’m not doing the light bulb.” Nico leaned closer, almost nose to nose. “When he died Edison was working on a machine that would have let ghosts talk to the living whenever they wanted to.”
“A ghost telephone? If you believe that then whoever told you must be a way better liar than I am.”
“Dad told me. We were talking about ghost boxes and he thought Edison’s machine would have been better. If you want to make paranormal investigations scientific then it makes sense to give spirits the power to start the conversation.”
“Well, I think it sounds about as scientific as those creepy bells they used to put on coffins in case you got buried but weren’t really dead. But at least it’s more interesting than the light bulb.” Lola pulled back and looked down at the road where Victor Espiritu sat in a folding chair, having his eyebrows tweezed by a makeup artist. The director was standing in front of him, arms gesturing wildly.
Nico continued talking, warming to his theme. “We could use some shots of us discussing it with Dad on the show. They always like to include educational stuff.”
“Uh-huh.” She wasn’t really listening any more. “Why are they pulling Dad’s eyebrows out?”
Nico didn’t even turn to look. “Apparently those marketing people you don’t like decided he needed a little help with his manscaping. If he has to go around looking like a vampire they want him to look less Nosferatu and more Edward Cullen.”
“Look out then. You look just like him.” Lola meant to punch her brother on the shoulder but by the time she connected her arm was as limp as school spaghetti.
Under the tree that shaded the Maitland’s grave sat a woman. Lola shut her eyes very tightly but when she opened them again the woman was still there, where she definitely hadn’t been a few moments before. She sat cross-legged in the scuffed dirt under the tree, her long crinkly hair spreading out in a tangled halo. She was petting a large German Shepherd. Both of them were dazzlingly, plainly, clearly, and impossibly white. White hair. White clothes. The whitest of skin. The dog had white fur with, weirdly, darker white patches. A thin line of white drool hung from his white mouth full of very white teeth. The only non-white things about them were their eyes. Those were red.
Lola breathed her brother’s name, less a word than a muted alarm. Her wilted hand gripped his chin and turned his head. Maybe he would not see the woman and she could blame the whole vision on too many late nights in cemeteries. But he did.
“Who,” the woman asked in a voice like dried leaves, “is Edward Cullen? Nosferatu, I know.”
Nico and Lola goggled. In years of hunting they had encountered more than a few ghostly presences. Spiking EMF readings were nothing to get worked up about. Glowing orbs in photographs were as common as dandelions. Unexplained temperature shifts were normal. This was not.
“Perhaps I should have introduced myself properly,” the ghost continued. “I am commonly called the Albino Lady. This is Klink.” The dog snapped at a stick on the ground and his teeth passed straight through. He gazed at it mournfully. “There’s no need to freak out. Neither one of us bites children.” She smiled in a way that could not even remotely be termed charming.
Nico recovered first. He stood and moved just a little between his sister and the spirit. “Albino Lady isn’t your actual name though.”
“No, it isn’t. I think I’ll keep that to myself for now. I’ve been watching. You’re filming a television show?” She pointed one long finger at Nico’s shirt, printed with the same logo as his mother’s. “Is it in black and white or color?”
“Um, yeah. We shoot digitally so I’m going to go with color. It’s a paranormal investigation reality show so it’s actually really good luck that you came along.” He shoved Lola in the direction of their mother and the camera crew. “Lola can just run over and get our mom and she can talk to you.”
“I think you’ll find that I won’t be talking to your mother. In fact I don’t plan to be seen by anyone else here. I was sent specifically to talk to you children.”
“And who sent you?” Lola asked, annoyed to hear just the slightest quiver in her voice, “Or don’t we get to know that either?”
The lady laughed at this, with a total lack of musicality, “Maitland was right. You two will do just fine. I never know whether to believe him. Between us, he’s a bit of a ding-a-ling. I think he left little bits of his soul at every train depot between Chicago and Kansas so what arrived here was a smidgen less than he really needs to get along. He was, however, obviously correct this time.” She patted her dog, who continued to stare morosely at the stick. “Would you mind throwing a twig for Klink? He gets a kick out of it and I haven’t been able to play a game of fetch since I died.”
The stick was covered in a fairly solid coating of white drool but felt perfectly dry in Nico’s hand. He threw it as hard as he could in the direction of his father and the director but neither of them turned to look. The shepherd dashed off in pursuit and lunged at the stick, totally failing to fetch it, and finally returned empty mouthed but happier.
The Lady had been watching her dog with a sort of quiet pleasure but now she turned to the children. “Back to business. The answer is yes, you do get to know who sent me. Those of us who inhabit this place try to stay in touch, I like to think of it as a commune but some would say it is more of a neighborhood watch committee. And we get reports from other groups like our own about things that are going on in their areas.”
“You’re saying the ghosts of the world are organized?” Lola didn’t think this sounded at all likely.
“Organized isn’t a word I would use,” said the Lady. “Apparitions are a messy bunch. But we do try to stop small problems before they become big ones. This time we have, apparently, failed. That is where you come in. We’d like you to join us for a meeting. Hear what we need. If you can help us we have agreed that we will help you.”
“Help us how?” Nico asked. He couldn’t think of anything that this ghost could do for him, short of going away and not ever coming back.
“Your show depends on the ability of your parents to produce ghostly encounters. Help us and we’ll make sure that happens regularly.”
“And if we don’t help you?”
“I would say that I could guarantee a frustrating lack of success for your parents, but that would sound too much like blackmail. Not groovy. Really, what harm could it do to step over to the meeting and hear our proposal? I promise we’ll never be out of sight of your parents and, like I said, Klink and I don’t bite.” She smiled unreassuringly.
Nico squared his shoulders. This sounded exactly like blackmail, whatever the Albino Lady chose to call it. “Step over how far?”
One white arm waved negligently over to a corner of the graveyard, “Just over there. It’s a little more open so people aren’t treading on each other’s graves. It’s a common courtesy.”
“I don’t like that corner,” Lola felt a frisson of fear run through her body. “There are way too many babies buried over there.”
“Don’t worry about that. They don’t bite either. No teeth.” The Lady laughed again at her own joke and drifted off toward the meeting without waiting to see if the children would follow.
Chapter 2 will be published next week at https://www.tscpl.org/novel
About Marian Rakestraw
Marian Rakestraw was born in South Dakota, but has spent the vast majority of her life living everywhere else. She joined NaNoWriMo and took up the isolating, nerve-fraying, confidence-rattling task of writing fiction as a fun way to meet new people. It worked wonderfully. Since then she has churned out a couple of 50,000 word novels and Chapter 9 of last year’s community novel. She compulsively seeks education and holds multiple degrees. Her husband is notably spectacular and together they have two charming children, who helped write her chapter for this year’s community novel, and two pets, who did not.
An Interview with Marian Rakestraw
What is your writing background? What sort of work do you usually write?
Most of my writing has been academic or business related. I started writing fiction just a couple of years ago when I decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month. I hate losing at things and really wanted a “Winner” t-shirt so I churned out 50,000 words in 30 days. I was surprised at how much fun I had making up a story out of thin air. Even though that first novel was awe-inspiringly bad (even I can’t read it) I met some great people and have been writing ever since.
Why did you want to participate in the Community Novel Project?
I wrote Chapter 9 for SpeakEasy last year and had fun trying to figure out how to advance that story for other writers. When the juvenile novel was announced for this year I jumped in.
Do you usually write in a burst of inspiration, or is your work carefully outlined? Did writing for the community novel differ from the norm?
I’ve traditionally been a “pantser,” which means I think planning is for sissys. As I get more experience I’ve been trying to plan ahead and figure out how the story is going to arc and when I need to write in the highs and lows of plot. I’m still routinely surprised at what my characters get up to.
This project was very different for me for a couple of reasons. The first is that I had to make sure I accomplished the things a first chapter has to do (introducing characters, showing how their lives are before things start to happen, creating an incident that will drive the plot) while leaving plenty of room for all of the other authors to take the story in whatever directions they choose. The second reason is that I wrote the chapter with the help of my children, James and Sophia. We had a wonderful time taking a field trip to the Rochester Cemetery, brainstorming all the things they wanted to include, and discussing what they thought Nico and Lola would think and say. Without their help this would be a very different chapter.
What do you like about the premise and characters of this year’s Community Novel Project? What challenges you about them?
The premise was written by Aimee Gross and I liked it right away. It is strong, a lot of fun, and I think it will appeal to a wide audience. The most challenging part of it was that I have never written a ghost story before and was nervous that I’d get the basics of paranormal investigation all wrong. Of the characters, I’m most interested in the Albino Lady. Apparently she’s a bona fide Topeka ghost. I am really interested to find out whether she is friendly or not so nice.
What do you hope happens or doesn’t happen in the chapters that come after yours?
I spent a very long time turning this story over in my head, thinking about the possibilities. Given that, you’d think I’d be nervous about turning it over to other people to finish. I am not. This is going to be a great ride. Wherever it takes us.
Especially for Our Younger Readers
What was your favorite book as a kid and why?
I read a LOT as a child, partly because I grew up overseas and couldn’t run around free like kids do in Kansas, and also because Reading Rules! The first book that sprang to mind when I read this question was The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It is a very old, very old fashioned, book but I still love it. Adventure, a quest, hidden identities, kidnapping, royalty, mountain climbing, and Very Noble Children. It has it all. I also loved the Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander. I read them to my own kids and was surprised that the one I liked the least as a child is now my favorite. When I was a little older I read Beryl Markham’s West with the Night a gazillion times.
What are some of your favorite foods?
I love hot buttered toast. It has to be golden, not carbonized, and the butter has to go on straight away so that it melts. I eat the crusts first and usually sneak a piece to my dog because she sits at my feet making awful moaning noises until I do. Chocolate is also one of my major food groups.
What is your favorite animal? Do you have any pets?
Lately I’ve been really enamored of owls. They seem smart and fun. I have a dog and a cat. My dog is a mini schnauzer named Silke and I like to describe her as zaftig. This is a great word and if you don’t know it you should look it up. Do not use it to describe your mother. The cat is a newcomer to our house and is named Calpurnia. She is named after a wonderful book you should read. Ask any librarian – I’ll bet it’s the only book with Calpurnia in the title.
Why did you want to write for kids?
Kid’s books are more fun. Anything can happen and, more often than not, it does.